Norbert Blei: a Grandson Remembers
It has been said before that the highest form of art is life itself—the art of life. The idea being that a life well-lived, a human being who has sculpted not simply clay or marble, but their world view and inner essence, shines forth more brilliantly than any ordinary work of art. Walking paintings, breathing sculptures, symphonies that write and rewrite themselves each second; these are the highest strivings of the artist—to become what Henry Miller would call a “living book:” a man or woman who has shaped him or herself into a verifiable work of art.
Norbert Blei was one of these living books. For my grandfather, it was not enough that the books be written. The books are, of course, wonderful and immensely important, but I have always felt that they were part of the bigger work: the life, the man himself. Norbert Blei embodied every book he had ever written, every book he had ever read. And at the same time, he realized that helping other artists along the way, laughing, giving gifts, and any other single action was worth just as much as a book or painting, especially when added up over the course of a lifetime. More simply put, it is both the big and the small things that count.
I don’t think I need to talk about the big things—the books. This is certainly not to undermine them, or what my grandfather achieved in their pages. Rather, it is simply that the books need no one to speak for them. They are there, waiting, and—all deities willing—always will be. And I do highly recommend you read them, if you haven’t already. But although my grandfather’s epitaph does in fact read “find me in my books,” I thought I might try to provide another way of finding Norbert Blei, particularly for anyone reading this who did not have the pleasure of meeting or interacting with him beyond the books. I think a portrait of my grandfather can be glimpsed through his actions; in this case the ones that stand out in my memory.
I mentioned earlier the idea of helping others, artists or not, along the way. I can personally testify that few calls for guidance that came Norbert Blei’s way were left unanswered. Indeed, I still have email after email of his, all written with patience, full of advice for the stuff I myself was writing in my preteen years. No work, however bad or unpolished, was deemed underserving of his attention—even my bizarre, amorphous hybrid poems, which at that point were some strange fusion of Robert Frost’s verse and the lyrics of the Grateful Dead. (I was later informed, somewhat to my chagrin, that he printed out and saved these now embarrassing experiments of my past… That’s how much they meant to him)
I believe I mentioned gifts earlier as well, and anyone who had a good relationship with Norbert Blei knows that he had a gift for giving gifts. For each Christmas and birthday, us grandchildren were given books, and, thanks to my grandfather, they always suited the reader perfectly. Although Norbert was obviously a “literary” writer/reader, he did not force his preferences on you. I suppose the idea was that if one fell in love with reading, they would be led to the “great books” soon enough on their own. I’m currently trying to read my way through the entirety of Kenneth Rexroth’s written work, but one does not start with such stuff. It would hardly interest a 10, 11, 12, 13-year-old, and my grandfather was aware of this. Science-fiction/fantasy books like Eragon or The Rangers Apprentice (gifts of Grandpa’s) are the reason I fell in love with reading as a younger kid. “Love is easy,” as they say, and now reading anything (well—almost anything) is an easy and joyful experience. I owe that to my grandfather.
There were smaller gifts, too, like the gift of food. One of his favorite meals, both to make and to take others out for, was cheeseburgers and milkshakes. Being very chubby when I was younger, I can hardly say I disagreed with his taste. One of the saddest things I remember from my grandfather’s later years was seeing him lose his appetite. This was somewhat odd, as he never lost the love for cooking. My mother always joked that when she was growing up, Norbert used to make 10x more breakfast than anyone could eat, and things were no different when he visited us grandchildren. One of my favorite memories is of him working very hard at night on these Czech dumplings, which we ended up having for dinner. He saw that I liked them so much that he got up with me at 5:30 a.m. the next day and scrambled them into this massive hodgepodge of eggs, dumplings, and bacon. All before I had to leave for school.
One year we went to California to visit our aunt and uncle and grandmother for Christmas. Grandpa was there too. On the kitchen table of my aunt/uncle’s house was an elegant display of nuts and other snacks, where I would return constantly to consume every last cashew that had been put out, thinking that no one ever saw. Later though, when we got home to Pennsylvania, there was a box waiting in the mail for me from Norbert Blei. Weird, I thought. I had already received my customary birthday gift of books. What could it be? The box was opened to reveal a large can of salted cashews and a note: “Happy Birthday, Corb. Love, Grandpa Blei.”
I could go on and on with stories like this, but you hopefully get the idea. I just think it’s very important we all remember Norbert Blei the man, the father, the grandfather, the gift-giver, the cook and the food-lover, as much as we remember Norbert Blei the writer. I was fortunate to be close enough to him to witness all these multitudes, and thus consider myself lucky and blessed to be influenced by my grandfather not just in the sphere of writing and literature, but in my entire way of life. I hope the anecdotes I shared bring forth memories of your own time with Norbert, and shine light on who he was as a person for those of you not fortunate enough to have met him. — Corbin Buff