An Uncommon Life

Pure Act: The Uncommon Life of Robert Lax, by Michael N. McGregor (Fordham University Press, 2015)

My blog book reviews are few and far between, but I like to give attention to work that intrigues me and relates to my own intellectual journey. This is not so much a review, as an unapologetic accolade. Pure Act is one of those superb books that could easily be overlooked or forgotten due to its subject: It is a biography of the poet Robert Lax, a man well known to some lovers of literature,  but probably nine people out of ten—and nine educated people out of ten—will never have heard of him. Trust me, this is the story of a man who would be well worth knowing.

I was drawn to this book as part of the research for my Merton articles, since Bob Lax was not only a native of Olean, NY (the city just outside Saint Bonaventure University) but perhaps Tom Merton’s closest friend and soulmate. It was fascinating to get a kind of sideways portrait of Merton as I was reading about Lax. It is also the story of McGregor’s own friendship with Lax over a few decades, cultivated by trips to the Greek islands where Lax resided in the latter half of his life. So often the biographer never really knows or truly understands his or her subject, but McGregor paints a vivid portrait of Lax the man: Quiet, ruminating, shy yet gracious with both friends and strangers, certainly eccentric, but full of unexpected passions—for the circus, for example. And cats! He illuminates for us, too, the intellectual world of New York City in the 1930s and ‘40s, as Lax and Merton were coming of age in a true literary sense. I’m also thrilled to be introduced to the strange dark art of Ad Reinhardt, a classmate and companion of both Merton and Lax, and plan to scour the NYC museums soon looking for some of his canvases.

Reading about Lax also churns up the whole debate I have with myself on the wisdom and need for solitude when creating; he is clearly the kind of soul who thrives on alone-ness and complete peace to do his writing; he was a kind of monk in the world, intensely spiritual. I had just written about the paradox of seeking both solitude and community, fellowship, and it seems to me that Lax’s life was that kind of tightrope walk. But it illustrates to me that it’s essential to have the right connections, and Lax and Merton seem to have found that with each other. It makes me mourn, too, the end of deep personal correspondence, of confiding and comforting letters, in an age before email and Twitter.

No spoilers here, but there is a fascinating revelation, near the end of the book concerning both Merton and Lax that left me utterly astonished.  All fascinating stuff.  Even a non-Merton fan would enjoy this book, which is written in a novelistic narrative style. It’s a man’s life, beautifully written, moving and deeply touching in parts (Lax’s simple poem upon Merton’s death reduced me to tears), and the research is impeccable. It is the story of highly intelligent man of letters, but also a wanderer, a seeker, a traveler, and above all, someone who truly loved his fellow man, in his own unique and idiosyncratic way.

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