"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Henry Grunwald has lived his life as a news hound. Today, he is a dignified 76-year-old Manhattanite. But just after World War II, he was a copy boy at Time magazine and, decades later, editor in chief of all Time Inc. publications. In 1988, Grunwald left publishing to become ambassador to Austria, where he was born.
In 1997 Grunwald wrote an autobiography, “One Man’s America.” Now, two years later, he’s added a slim addendum to that first memoir. It’s a poetic testament to the state Charles de Gaulle once slammed as the “shipwreck of age.” The book is about Henry Grunwald going blind.
Grunwald has macular degeneration, a disease of the retina that affects 15 million Americans. Grunwald’s book describes how, back in 1992, he experienced the onset of macular degeneration — he poured water into a nonexistent glass he believed he “saw” on the table. As the years passed, his vision degenerated into a soft blur. Now, he often sees only indistinguishable shapes of light and color. Eye surgery has postponed the loss of his sight, but there is no cure for the disease.
As for the computer chip that Stevie Wonder is reportedly considering having implanted in his eyes, the “intraocular retinal prosthesis” is not advanced enough to give anything but partial sight. If Wonder has the operation, he probably will not be able to see any more clearly than Grunwald.
Blindness is grim stuff, but “Twilight” is much more than a sickbed memoir. Grunwald reports on the tensions between groups representing the totally blind and the partially blind. He also goes into the history of blindness — from the eyes painted inside Greek coffins to the various ancient practices of cutting off the noses of bungling eye surgeons. Grunwald also writes of his vision’s exile to memory and his struggles to view art and motion pictures. There are many lovely meditations on the concept of sight itself.
There is a great comic scene in a Paris boutique during the time Grunwald is losing his sight. He wanders, Mr. Magoo-like, into an occupied dressing room where a woman is undressing. He apologizes. Hurries out. Later, Grunwald learns that the blurry female shape was Catherine Deneuve.
The following interview was scheduled to take place in Grunwald’s New York office, but instead was rescheduled to take place over the phone.
After I read your book, I didn’t want to interview you in person because I didn’t want the advantage of being able to see you clearer than you could see me. Does that make sense?
[Grunwald speaks in a slight Viennese accent.] That’s sensitive, but I wouldn’t worry about it.
Do you still make associates uncomfortable with your partial sight? [He writes about this experience in his book.]
I hope not. A hell of a lot of people I meet socially don’t even know that I have any problem. We have a reasonably normal conversation. When it gets to the point where one would normally make eye contact, then they realize and I tell them about it. Does that make them uncomfortable? I don’t think so.
Because I appreciate irony so much, the best part of your book for me was when you walked in on Catherine Deneuve.
Yes. That certainly was ironic.
The one time God grants you this vision —
Damn right. Yes.
There’s very little anger about your situation in your writing. Did you decide to take anger out as a literary device?
This is not a literary device, I assure you. I am not in general an angry person. I dislike getting angry. I think getting angry hurts the person getting angry. Sure I get angry and frustrated, but basically I do not have an angry nature. As a mater of fact if I wanted to write a literary book more anger might have been more effective as a piece of writing, but I was trying to be truthful to how I actually feel.
Not to digress with my personal story, but after an automobile accident, I was laid up in the hospital with partial amnesia. I couldn’t remember the house where I lived. One day I asked a nurse, “Can this loss be permanent?” She was just this flighty kid and she chirped, “It sure could!” I was so pissed at her cheerfulness that I instantly remembered the house where I lived.
That’s a wonderful story. I hope you’ve written it down.
I read “Twilight” as a literary book. Who were your intended readers?
Two kinds. Obviously I was first hoping for readers who are themselves suffering from macular degeneration, but can still read or have it read to them. Also people who are related to others with the disease. There are tremendous numbers of them. Constantly people come up to me and say, “I have an aunt …” “I have an uncle …” “I have a grandfather who suffers.” So the book is written for those people. But I was hoping that the book would also be written for people not directly connected with this disease, but to whom I could say something about the experience of suddenly facing a handicap. Almost everyone comes up against some sort of limits sooner or later, and the need to make adjustment.
Where does medicine stand with the disease?
Well, I don’t know anything about the computer chip that will be put in Stevie Wonder’s eyes. The very latest development that I know about is a thing called photo-dynamic therapy. It involves injecting fluid into the veins and activating that fluid with a laser. The laser that they use for this is not the conventional laser which can destroy more than it heals. This new laser activates the fluid inside the eye with the belief that it closes the leaking cells that cause the disease. I believe this system is about to be approved, and will be tried on patients. They’re quite excited about it. They’ve also tried many different chemicals including interferon and even thalidomide to stop the disease. There’s also a theory that the right kind of vegetables are good preventive –
Mom saying, “Eat your carrots!”
Right! But again there is no proof that this really works.
Macular degeneration can strike at any age, right?
It can strike at any age. I believe there are a few cases of relatively young people that have it, but mostly it strikes older people, which is why it’s formally known as age-related macular degeneration. It usually strikes people over 50 and 60 and beyond.
I don’t quite know how to say this. I’m 41 —
Aging is hell, isn’t it?
Ha! It’s no fun. That’s absolutely right. As someone once said, “Old age is not for sissies.” I don’t know who said that, but Charles de Gaulle said, “Old age is a shipwreck.” I must say I don’t like getting old, but so far I’m not quite a wreck.
How acute is the conflict between low-vision people and the blind?
I have not run into it personally, but I’ve talked to a lot of people in and around the Lighthouse [for the Blind] for instance who have told me about it, so what I say about the conflict is more reporting than personal. I have not run into a blind person who said, “How dare you make such a fuss!” Frankly, I expect to meet someone like that. But have not done so.
This is a cynical question: Who makes money from blindness? Who loses money if blindness is cured?
I don’t really see anybody who would have anything to gain from keeping the sightless blind. If you really wanted to be cynical, you’d say institutions like the Lighthouse or other charity institutions that help the blind would go out of business if you suddenly had a cure. I don’t think this is a real factor. Most people that I’ve run across in this work are generally dedicated to trying to help or alleviate blindness.
Is there a guru of sight-related diseases?
I don’t think there is a single guru, but there are many institutions that are working on this. Johns Hopkins is doing excellent work. The Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary as well.
Have you had any insurance problems dealing with macular degeneration?
Since I’m over 65, I’m on Medicare and I’ve had excellent health care. Personally I think Medicare should be changed so those who can afford to pay more, do. That’s a whole different philosophic answer to your question. Occasionally when I came across a practice that wasn’t covered by insurance, I’ve fortunately been able to cover it.
Do you still use an electronic text reader?
I have two of those. They work reasonably well. But they do try one’s patience. You have to feed them page by page and it’s slightly complicated to scan material. Also the synthetic voice that comes back simply misses several words.
There’s a lot of room for the technology to improve.
There certainly is. There’s voice-recognition software even now where you can dictate to a machine and it comes back out in print.
In your book you talk about not being able to skim audio books on cassette like you can text on the page. The tape recorder that I use to transcribe interviews allows me to speed up the tape while it’s still playing so I have a sense of what I’m skipping.
I have one of those too, but I haven’t learned the trick of listening to very fast speed. When you skim a printed book you can tell what you’re missing, but when you fast forward a tape you have to listen to a very distorted voice. I know there are those who can listen to what sounds like gibberish to most people and understand it. I have not been able to master that.
So what’s your next book?
My next book is gong to be a historical novel which is based on an episode in 16th century France about two women, one who is a fake saint.
The tradition of the blind storyteller goes back to Homer.
And extends to Aldous Huxley and Borges. [Pause.] Not that I’m comparing myself!
I love the passages in your book about the beauty in women’s faces or when you talk about painting. This question may be in bad taste, but do you think blindness has made you a better writer?
That’s certainly not a bad-taste question. That’s a good question. I think not. I don’t know that I’m a better writer today than I was 10 years ago. Obviously through this disease I’ve had experience and certain reflections which by definition I did not have before. Maybe there is a difference — a very old friend of mine commented on this book by saying that she thought it was much more personal and revealing of myself than the autobiography I published several years ago. So in that sense perhaps my writing has changed.
David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."More David Bowman.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)