January 20, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s transcendent, you feel it. It’s there, the vanished transcendence and insistence of chance, action and fortuity. It’s there and you can’t unfeel it.

—Walker Evans (1903-1975)

Walker Evans is talking about the impact of the moment he encountered “a visual object” he knew he had to photograph. If you read those words after wading through the tide of raw imagery unleashed by the January 6 storming of the Capitol, you know what it means to feel a force so insistent that “you can’t unfeel it.”

In the opening chapter of Walker Evans: Starting from Scratch (Princeton Univ. Press $39.95), Svetlana Alpers refers to poet William Carlos Williams’s review of Evans’s groundbreaking 1938 book, American Photography (“the pictures talk to us and they say plenty”). Focusing on the poet and photographer’s shared “passionate belief in American art as they made it,” Alpers quotes from a poem by Williams: “It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there.”

The idea that poetry and photography have the power to enhance or sustain or even save a life resonates on January 20, 2021, whether in relation to the Capitol riots or the inauguration of the 46th president, who found therapy for a childhood disability by reciting the poetry of William Butler Yeats. The “news from poems” in this tumultuous month ranges from the “terrible beauty is born” of Yeats to President Biden’s campaign mantra by way of Seamus Haney: “Make hope and history rhyme.” more

January 13, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.

—Sinclair Lewis (1885-1951)

When I skimmed It Can’t Happen Here (1935) at the time of the 2016 election, I thought it might make an interesting column. But since the dystopian fantasy by Sinclair Lewis, who died 70 years ago this week, had already been reprinted to high sales and serious notice with Trump’s ascension to the nation’s highest office, I put the piece on hold.

The problem now is not just that I’m distracted by last week’s real-life invasion of the Capitol, but that I’m finding it hard to believe in a despotic president and former U.S. senator from Vermont named Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, who, the day after being inaugurated, demands the instant passage of a bill giving him complete control of “legislation and execution.” When Congress rejects the bill a day later, he declares martial law and orders the arrest of over a hundred “irresponsible and seditious” congressmen for “inciting to riot.” During the ensuing nationwide riots that the president has, in effect, incited himself, protestors are attacked by the bayonet-wielding troops of his vast private army, the Minute Men (a term with a certain ring in the era of the Tea Party).

Lewis portrays Windrip as grotesque, “almost a dwarf, yet with an enormous head, a bloodhound head, of huge ears, pendulous cheeks, mournful eyes,” and “a luminous, ungrudging smile” that “he turned on and off deliberately, like an electric light, but which could make his ugliness more attractive than the simpers of any pretty man.” His hair was “so coarse and black and straight, and worn so long in the back, that it hinted of Indian blood.” During his years in the Senate, Windrip “preferred clothes that suggested the competent insurance salesman, but when farmer constituents were in Washington,” he “appeared in a ten-gallon hat.” Comparing him to “a sawed-off museum model of a medicine-show ‘doctor,’” who had “played the banjo and done card tricks and handed down medicine bottles and managed the shell game,” Lewis details the offerings of “Old Dr. Alagash’s Traveling Laboratory, which specialized in the Choctaw Cancer Cure, the Chinook Consumption Soother, and the Oriental Remedy for Piles and Rheumatism Prepared from a … Secret Formula by the Gipsy Princess, Queen Peshawara.” Windrip had eventually ascended “from the vulgar fraud of selling bogus medicine, standing in front of a megaphone, to the dignity of selling bogus economics, standing on an indoor platform under mercury-vapor lights in front of a microphone.”

If you find it hard to take such a character seriously, you’re in agreement with the novel’s hero, a small-town newspaper editor named Doremus Jessup, who at first considers Windrip little more than a bad joke and plays down criticism of the government in his paper, the Informer. “The hysteria can’t last; be patient, and wait and see,” he tells his readers, so hard is it for him to believe “that this comic tyranny could endure.” What most perplexes him is “that there could be a dictator seemingly so different from the fervent Hitlers and gesticulating Fascists …. a dictator with something of the earthy American sense of humor of a Mark Twain, a George Ade, a Will Rogers, an Artemus Ward.” Did that, Doremus wonders, “make him less or more dangerous?”

As someone who, among many others, failed to take the current president seriously when he announced his candidacy, I should mention, as I did at the time, the front page of the June 17, 2015 New York Daily News (“CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ”) showing the candidate with a red clown nose and mouth under the line: “Trump throws rubber nose in GOP ring.” While the star of The Apprentice has nothing in common with the likes of Twain and Ade (not to mention Will Rogers), it’s fair to say that he’s shared the metaphorical stage with a road show con man of vulgar frauds, shell games, and bogus medicine. more

January 6, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

The blind was down and a strong light was burning in the room. The shadow of a man who was seated in a chair within was thrown in hard black outline upon the luminous screen of the window.

—from “The Adventure of the Empty House”

“What are you doing here?” Sherlock Holmes wanted to know.

Two hours into the new year, after online searches linked to combinations of the numbers 2-0-2-1, I encountered a brightly inviting onscreen image of the cover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes, which I’ve been reading. When I clicked on the small red arrow flashing above the title, I was livestreamed into 221B Baker Street, where I found myself facing a facsimile of Holmes like the window-framed silhouette on the front of the book, a replica of the wax bust devised to entrap Dr. Moriarty in “The Adventure of the Empty House.”

After the charged silence that followed my rushed account of how I got there, the shadow spoke: “I see you have your own copy of the 1905 McClure Phillips edition previously owned by a Louise K. Ribsam of Trenton, New Jersey.” Indeed, the selfsame volume lay open on my desk, its front and back covers hanging for dear life from the tattered cliff-edge of the spine. “At the moment,” the elegantly mannered voice continued, “you are feeling the effects of a vile combination of Prosecco, hard cider, and Celestial Seasonings iced tea (the Bengal Spice flavor). You have just commenced work on your weekly column for a newspaper that will appear in print and online Wednesday, January 6, the date that some well-meaning if misguided obsessives have settled on as my birthday. In addition to rereading The Return and watching reruns of the BBC series that bears my name, you’ve been reading Shakespeare’s comedy of sociopathic madness, Twelfth Night, in which everyone except the clown Feste is insane without knowing it, thus the subtitle, Or What You Will.”

Right on all counts except the Bengal Spice. In the spirit of “what you will” and anything goes, I tell myself to go  with the flow and stop worrying about how this cyber sleuth could know so much about me — this is Sherlock Holmes. This is what he does.  more

December 30, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Since Christmas Day I’ve been in search of a fitting subject for the last column of 2020, a year blighted by a death toll of third-world-war magnitude and the “long cold lonely” lockdown winter-of-the-mind that began in March. But listen! — the sound of thundering hoofbeats, a fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust, can it be, is it a mirage, no, here come the Four Horsemen of Melodious Apocalypse riding to our rescue from those thrilling days of yesteryear led by the unmasked Lone Ranger, Paul McCartney! 

Yes, like it or not, the Beatles are a pop culture absolute and 2020 is the 50th anniversary of the year they sang their scattered swan song, as McCartney preempted the debacle of Let It Be with his first solo shot in April, and George Harrison launched his November 29 triple-LP blockbuster All Things Must Pass all but on top of John Lennon’s December 11 solo outing.

Now here’s Sir Paul with McCartney III, his first number one record in decades, also scheduled for a December 11 release until it was postponed for a week due to “unforeseeable production delays.” Was the shared release date purely coincidental, or a subtle gesture of auld lang syne to the Lennon-McCartney partnership? Another Beatles connection is put in play when “the long cold lonely winter” of “Here Comes the Sun” is echoed by the new album’s closing words, “We’ll fly away and find the sun when winter comes.”  more

December 23, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The country music station plays soft, but there’s nothing, really nothing, to turn off.

—Bob Dylan, from “Visions of Johanna”

The volume is down as low as it can go, softer than soft, the station is Radio Beethoven, 250 on the dial of the ages, and the visions are of Ukrainian-American pianist Valentina Lisitsa communing with the adagio sostenato of Sonata number 29 in B flat major (Opus 106), known as the Hammerklavier.

The sound’s turned low because the house is asleep, it’s between 2 and 3 a.m., and I’m listening to the movement Wilhelm Kempff called “the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote,” an adagio “unequalled in the entire piano literature.” Writing about Kempff’s performance in 2013, I described “a series of ascending, probing, striving, needful, joy-seeking variations” leading to a “heaven of feeling so rich and strange that all you can think is how thankful you are that you heard it before you died.”

Watching Lisitsa play the same set of variations on YouTube in the year of the virus, I feel still closer to the music and even more at a loss to put my feelings into words; admitted, there’s a big difference between listening to Kempff on a car stereo and seeing Lisitsa lean so close to the keys that she’s nearly kissing them. She’s a Rapunzel at the keyboard with those long blond tresses, offset by a dark jacket, white cuffs protruding from the sleeves. Viewed almost entirely from the side, she presents a handsome profile, nothing self-consciously performative, no soulful swooning ah-sweet-mystery-of-life sublimity; she appears both down to earth and exalted, and wholly dedicated to her mission, everything else ruled out.  more

December 16, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Jane Austen is 245 years old today; she was a month short of 190 long ago when I found Northanger Abbey in a New Delhi railway station bookstall. The Indian paperback had a lurid cover (woman screaming) and a memorable blurb (“Cunning! Compassioned! Strangely Touchy!”). And although the paper was cheap and the print faded and irregular, Jane was there in the form of her heroine Catherine Morland, who grew up with “neither a bad heart nor a bad temper, was seldom stubborn, scarcely ever quarrelsome,” was “noisy and wild, hated confinement and cleanliness, and loved nothing so well in the world as rolling down the green slope at the back of the house.” At 14, she was happier playing “cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country” than reading books.

Baseball? If you’re reading Northanger Abbey while waiting for the 2 a.m. train to Benares, the thought of the game you love, the National Pastime, seems as far from reality as the image of Jane Austen swinging a bat, running the bases, and sliding home in a pinafore. With smartphones decades in the future, however, I had no way to check the Net for information about baseball in Regency England. At the time I figured it might be a freak of typography, another malappropriate misadventure like the blurb on the front cover. Not so. The same reference shows up in subsequent editions, as well as the Project Gutenberg ebook, and now there are blogs headed “Jane Austen Invented Baseball,” where fans match hometown players with characters in her novels. I get it. We want Jane to be cosmically applicable to all things both great and small, mundane, modern, or marvelous, and the wilder, more unconfined and unladylike the better. more

December 9, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.

—Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

John Lennon’s first solo album was released 50 years ago this week. No name appears on the cover image of a man and a woman stretched out under a massive tree, his head in her lap. The entire back cover consists of an enlarged photograph of a little boy’s face. The absence of information creates an impression of timelessness: the tree could be any tree anywhere, the couple any couple, and this most personal of recordings by one of the most famous people in the world could be by, for, or about anyone and everyone.

A few days ago when I played the half-century-old record for the first time in decades, the first sound I heard after the crackle and hiss and pop of the surface was of a bell tolling, four deeply resonant strokes. Big Ben, history, London, the Blitz, wartime, no narrator needed, the sound speaks for itself. As the fourth stroke fades, John Lennon belts out the primal word, “Mother,” and goes on to deliver a performance that does to this listener what poetry does to Emily Dickinson.

That said, the top of my head was never at risk the first time I heard John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band in mid-December 1970. As impressed I was by the power of Lennon’s long-awaited, much-hyped solo album, it wasn’t easy to hear it through the chaotic static of the Paul-and-Linda, John-and-Yoko Primal Therapy fall-out of the Great Beatles Break-Up. By the time I was listening to “God,” the track everyone was talking about, with its off-puttingly prosy opening line (“God is a concept by which we measure our pain”) and the statement it was leading up to (“I don’t believe in Beatles”), I’d begun to back out of it, especially after the line “I just believe in Yoko and me.”

But then came the message of the tender, beautifully sung farewell coda: “I was the dream weaver … but now I’m John … and so, dear friends, you just have to carry on …” because “the dream is over,” — except that something deeper than a dream was in play when he sang “but now I’m John,” sealing a personal first-name connection that was still alive ten years later in the grieving crowds that gathered worldwide after his death.  more

December 2, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

On December 2, 1867, Charles Dickens gave the first of 80 public readings in America, a grueling tour undertaken in spite of pleas from friends and colleagues concerned about his health. Arriving in Boston, he was welcomed by adoring crowds and the mid-19th-century equivalent of paparazzi; in New York City people began lining up at three in the morning for tickets, waiting in two lines, each almost a mile long.

In Charles Dickens, A Critical Study, novelist George Gissing refers to the “disastrous later years” that show Dickens as a “public entertainer … shortening his life that he might be able to live without pecuniary anxiety.” The American readings ended in late April 1868, earning him $250,000. He died of a stroke in early June 1870. He was only 58.

“A Dreadful Locomotive”

After attending one of the Boston readings, Ralph Waldo Emerson told the wife of Dickens’s American publisher, James T. Fields: “He has too much talent for his genius; it is a dreadful locomotive to which he is bound and can never be free from nor set at rest. You would persuade me that he is a genial creature, full of sweetness and amenities and superior to his talents, but I fear he is harnessed to them. He is too consummate an artist to have a thread of nature left. He daunts me! I have not the key.”  more

November 25, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

In his landmark celebration of translation, John Keats not only heard Chapman’s Homer speak out “loud and bold,” he put a new planet into orbit, with its kingdoms, states, islands, realms of gold, and bards.

It was Richard Burton’s “loud and bold” translation of Hamlet’s speech to the players that finally put Shakespeare on the map for me. Burton didn’t change the words, he just re-energized them, brought them to life, up close and in person on the stage of the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Striding briskly back and forth, he commanded the house, still in fame’s floodlight after playing Antony on the screen with Elizabeth Taylor, the movie queen Cleopatra who came to pick him up after every performance, setting off a nightly fan-crazed mob scene on 46th Street.

Antony and Hamlet

Translation has been the theme of the moment ever since an English friend sent me his rendering of C.P. Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony.” Although I have no knowledge of Greek beyond what I picked up on the island of Mykonos, where Roger and I first met more than half a century ago, all it took to get into the game was a fondness for the poem and access to standard translations like the one by Princeton professor emeritus Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. I was playing at translation, an unsupervised amateur enjoying the ebb and flow of poetry in motion, a fluid text “writ in water,” as Keats worded it in his death bed epitaph. more

November 18, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Here’s something about your old friend Ronnie,” says my wife as she hands me the Arts section of Thursday’s New York Times. In the photograph above Adam Nagourney’s article on the new Showtime docu-series The Reagans (“Parsing the Seeds Reagan Sowed”), my “old friend” is looking almost as villainous as he does playing a crime boss who arranges murders and abuses his mistress in Don Siegel’s The Killers.

How did the Gipper and I get to be friendly? And if we’re such pals, why did I vote for Carter in 1980 and work the phones for Mondale in ‘84? More to the point, why did I spend the last half of the 1980s following the highs and lows of his film career and his presidency? The simple answer: we had a fictional relationship. I was working on a novel about the owner of a rundown New Jersey “movie palace” who was writing a series of letters to a newly elected president.

My fictional alter ego was Lucas St. Clair, an ex-minor league ballplayer who’d inherited a movie house and planned to run all 53 of Reagan’s films beginning with an election week showing of Knute Rockne All-American. Thanks to Ted Turner’s purchase of the Warner archive, scores of old Reagan movies had been turning up on TNT and TCM. I taped them all, the good, the bad, and the merely mediocre, including comedies like She’s Working Her Way Through College where Ronnie performs a dynamite drunken professor scene and Bedtime for Bonzo in which he plays straight man to a monkey. I took a special interest in problematic roles like the epileptic biochemist in Night Unto Night, the well-meaning alcoholic playboy in Dark Victory, and the double amputee in King’s Row who wakes up to the reality crying, “Where’s the rest of me?”  That cry of horror from a small town ladies’ man would become the signature line of his movie life (along with “Win one for the Gipper”), as well as the title of his 1965 autobiography. That a future president would tag his life story with such an out-of-left-field title intrigued me, especially given that the author was running for governor of California the year the book was published. Reagan’s fixation on that surreal moment of existential mutilation is among the quirks of character that make him so devious a subject (“as strange a fellow as any of us had ever met,” according to his son Ron’s memoir, My Father at 100). Think of it: this is the role and the film he considered a career highlight, even to the point of showing King’s Row at the White House, to friends, staff members, and visiting heads of state. more

November 11, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

No book or essay dealing with the precarious situation of modern man would be complete without some allusion to Dostoevsky’s explosive figure.

—Joseph Frank (1918-2013)

In March the cheering was for health care workers saving lives on the front lines of the pandemic. Saturday it was crowds of happy people all over post-election America cheering postal workers for delivering the votes that rescued the nation. By Sunday I was beginning to think that a birthday column celebrating Dostoevsky (1821-1881) and his novella Notes from Underground (1864) made an awkward fit with the national mood of joyous deliverance.

However, in view of the president’s refusal to concede, and the vengeful damage he could inflict on the nation between now and January 20, I’ve decided to go ahead and share some thoughts from Dostoevsky’s Underground Man that seem pertinent to the current “precarious situation.”

I came to Notes after searching Franz Kafka’s Diaries for references to the writer he considered “a blood relative.” In the December 20, 1914 entry, after citing his closest friend Max Brod’s claim that Dostoevsky “allows too many mentally ill persons” into his work, Kafka writes: “Completely wrong. They aren’t ill. Their illness is merely a way to characterize them, and moreover a very delicate and fruitful one. One need only stubbornly keep repeating of a person that he is simple-minded and idiotic, and he will, if he has the Dostoevskian core inside him, be spurred on, as it were, to do his very best. His characterizations have in this respect about the same significance as insults among friends.”  more

November 4, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat.

The Republican platform promises to do better. I don’t think they have done so bad. Everybody’s broke but them.

Be a Republican and sooner or later you will be a postmaster.

I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report facts.

Rather than yield to an inclination to fill the entire column with quotes by and about Will Rogers, who was born on November 4, 1879, I’m putting four of his timeliest, most politically resonant quips up front. You could say Will was born to the occasion, prime time Americana: World Series, Halloween, Election Day. In recent history, November 4 marked the election of three two-term presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Bill Clinton, another two-term POTUS, was elected on November 3.

In the foreword to his biography of Rogers (Univ. of Oklahoma Press paperback 2000), Ben Yagoda writes, “America surprised itself when Will Rogers died, surprised itself by the size and force of its grief.” On August 16, 1935, the Associated Press sent out the news that Rogers and aviator Wiley Post had died in an airplane crash near Point Barrow, Alaska, “the northerrnmost point in U.S. Territory.” Democratic Majority Leader Joe Robinson made the announcement on the floor of the Senate: “Will Rogers, probably the most widely known private citizen and certainly the best beloved, met his death some hours ago in a lonely, far-away place.”

The poignance of “a lonely, far-away place” sounds the personal depth of Will’s relationship with the nation: he’s a loved one, a member of the family. At the same time, Yagoda compares “the magnitude of the reaction” to what might be expected after “the passing of a beloved president.” 

The tone sharpens as Yagoda quotes legendary journalist/essayist H.L. Mencken talking about Rogers in the press room at the 1928 Republican convention: “He alters foreign policies. He makes and unmakes candidates. He destroys public figures. Millions of Americans read his words daily, and those unable to read listen to him over the radio.” Summing up, Mencken says, “I consider him the most dangerous writer alive today.”

Still another side of Rogers is shown in Bing Crosby: Swinging On a Star (Little Brown 2018), when Gary Giddins paraphrases a Metronome article that envisions Crosby stepping “far beyond the limited sphere of a singer of popular songs” to become “as Will Rogers before him, a part of American life, an astonishingly successful symbol of the good man.” The suggested lineage includes Mark Twain, George M. Cohan, and others “who didn’t need a Gallup Poll to tell them what the people wanted because none of them ever forgot that he was one of the people.”

Then of course there’s the best-known statement Will ever made, prescribing his own epitaph (“or whatever you call those signs on gravestones”): “I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn’t like. I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved.”

And when he flies to the Arctic edge of civilization, he finds a fate more in line with the blunt “philosophy of life” Yagoda says Rogers once expressed to historian Will Durant: “What all of us know put together don’t mean anything. Nothing don’t mean anything. We are just here for a spell and pass on. . . . Live your life so that whatever you lose, you are ahead.” more

October 28, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Is there really a composer who paints the infernal, the macabre, better than Liszt?

—James Huneker (1857-1921)

I’ve been listening to Horowitz Plays Liszt (Red Seal RCA) ever since the composer’s October 22 birthday. I hadn’t planned on doing Liszt for Halloween, at least not until I read the liner notes describing his fascination with the Faust legend, and how sometimes “one wonders whether it was Faust who attracted him or the Devil himself.” And how when Liszt embraced the church, he was dubbed “The Devil in Monk’s clothing,” alias “the diaboliszt,” who “feared God, but loved the devil.”

When I wrote celebrating Liszt’s 2011 bicentenary, the music that most impressed me was a recording by André Watts of “Fountains of the Villa d’Este.” I played the same piece in my personal concert hall (the front seat of a 2000 Honda CRV) on my way to the dentist the other day, saving Horowitz and “The Mephisto Waltz” for the drive back. While the “Mephisto” sounded much as I described it nine years ago — exhilarating, vehement, audacious — I was more aware of the “charlatan” Charles Rosen refers to in a chapter titled “Disreputable Greatness,” from The Romantic Generation. According to Rosen, “The early works are vulgar and great; the late works are admirable and minor.” For Rosen, it was “useless to try to separate the great musician from the charlatan: each one needed the other in order to exist.”

While “The Mephisto Waltz” seemed a good fit for Halloween, along with Poe and the usual suspects, I hadn’t counted on Horowitz’s rendition of “Funérailles,” which the liner notes describe as “one of the most persuasive funeral pieces ever composed.” Because Liszt dated it October 1849, “popular belief has singled it out as having been written in memory of Chopin,” who had died at the age of 40 on October 17. However, several Liszt biographers “prefer to believe” it was written to honor “other friends who had lost their lives in that year of political revolution.” more

October 21, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I could get to where the massacre happened in 15 minutes on the bus when I was a kid.

—Director Mike Leigh, discussing Peterloo

I spent last Wednesday morning finishing The Plague and rereading The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. With Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s birthday a week away, it made sense to go from Albert Camus and his apparent conclusion that the plague “opens men’s eyes and forces them to take thought” to Coleridge’s concluding reference to the Mariner’s captive audience, the Wedding Guest, as a “sadder and wiser man.” Both narratives appear to end on a positive note. For Camus, it’s “to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” For Coleridge, it’s “He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.”

Except that The Plague’s Doctor Rieux realizes at the close of the novel, as he listens to “the cries of joy rising from the town, that such joy is always imperiled … that the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years … that it bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves, and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.”

And despite the freedom the bright-eyed Mariner feels after unloading the burden of his “ghastly tale” on the terrified Wedding Guest, he knows the “woeful agony” will return, when his heart within him “burns” and he must pass, “like night, from land to land,” with “strange power of speech” until he finds the man who must hear him (“To him my tale I teach”). more

October 14, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Is one, on the contrary, going to take up the heart-rending and marvelous wager of the absurd?

—Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Albert Camus presents this curious challenge in the “Absurd Freedom” section of The Myth of Sisyphus (1955). What interests me is the way he seems to be moving closer to the reader here, or maybe to himself, in contrast to the prosy, contradictory first half of the full proposition he offers (“Is one going to die, escape by the leap, rebuild a mansion of ideas and forms to one’s own scale?”). The key word for me is “heart-rending” (déchirant in French).

The word shows up again, a form of it, in The Plague (1948) in reference to “the long, heart-rendingly monotonous struggle put up by some obstinate people” during “the period when the plague was gathering all its forces to fling them at the town and lay it waste.” The setting is Oran, Algeria, on the Mediterranean coast, where restrictions had been put in place preventing anyone from leaving.

A Spirit of Lawlessness

Reading The Plague in the wild and whirling weeks before the election isn’t the same experience it would have been back in March. Then the references to “a spirit of lawlessness,” with “fighting at the gates” wouldn’t have had the same impact. If I’d read the book in the spring, before the number of American deaths passed 200,000, I wouldn’t have been marking passages noting how as the death toll rose to five hundred a week “an element of abstraction, of a divorce from reality, entered into such calamities.” For the central figure in the narrative, Doctor Rieux, who sees death on a daily basis in Oran, one “grows out of pity when it’s useless”; the “feeling that his heart had slowly closed in on itself” is “his only solace for the almost unendurable burden of his days.” He wants to think that evils like the plague help men “to rise above themselves.” That’s a wager you can make, assuming that some form of empathy or urgency is being communicated by the powers that be. Otherwise “when you see the misery it brings, you’d need to be a madman, or a coward, or stone blind, to give in tamely to the plague.”

The last time I wrote about Camus was in January 2017, a week before the Inauguration (“As D-Day Looms: Einstein, Kafka and Camus Sail to Sea In a Beautiful Pea-Green Boat”). I was doing my best to be upbeat, bringing in Edward Lear’s “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” one of the happiest poems ever written. But I couldn’t ignore the other Lear, Shakespeare’s mad king, who brings the world down on his head because he only hears what he wants to hear no matter how evil the source and when he hears something he doesn’t want to hear, even when it’s spoken by an angel, he banishes the angel, opens the door of his kingdom to evil, and is lost.  more

October 7, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I am as American as April in Arizona.

—Vladimir Nabokov, from a 1967 interview

After citing “the flora, the fauna, the air of the Western states” as his “links to Asiatic and Arctic Russia,” the author of Lolita speaks of the “warm, light-hearted pride” he feels whenever he shows his USA passport at European frontiers.

Nabokov’s “light-hearted pride” likely dates back to his first encounter with U.S. customs in 1940 after arriving on the last boat out of Nazi-occupied France with his wife and 4-year-old son. When a customs official inspecting the luggage noticed a pair of boxing gloves (boxing lessons being one of Nabokov’s income sources when he was living in Paris), he and another official “pulled on the gloves and began playfully sparring.” In Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years, Brian Boyd writes that, “as Nabokov retold the story decades later, still enchanted by America’s easygoing, good-natured atmosphere, he repeated with delight: ‘Where would that happen? Where would that happen?’”

And where would playful, good-natured customs encounters happen in today’s America? Given the one-two punch of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s death and the Covid superspreader White House event celebrating the rush to confirm her replacement, plus the careening mix of playoff baseball in plague time and the presidential debate from hell, it’s no wonder Nabokov has joined Kafka on my bedside table.

Laughter in the Dark

It’s thanks to researching RBG’S back story that I’m writing about a “man in love with the sound of words” as Justice Ginsburg (Cornell ‘54) put it after naming Nabokov among her most influential professors. Another student in Nabokov’s Masterpieces of European Fiction course, Alfred Appel Jr., was sitting behind the Nabokovs at an Ithaca, N.Y., movie theater the night the author of Laughter in the Dark lived memorably up to the title of his 1932 novel. The film was Beat the Devil (1953), a write-it-as-you-go-along jeu d’esprit concoted by Truman Capote and John Huston. In his eye/ear-witness account (TLS October 7, 1977), Appel, the eventual editor of The Annotated Lolita (McGraw Hill 1970; Vintage 1991), remembers Nabokov’s prolonged bouts of “loud laughter” becoming so “conspicuous” that his wife Véra had to nudge him, “Volodya!” Soon it became difficult to distinguish those laughing at the film from those laughing at Nabokov’s laughter, which reached its spectacular apogee after a non sequitur delivered by Peter Lorre, with “his famous nasal whine.” As Appel describes it, Nabokov “exploded — that is the only verb — with laughter. It seemed to lift him from his seat.”  more

September 30, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

“Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”

—Harry Lime, in The Third Man (1949)

When President Trump recently spoke about “the very low level of deaths” America could list without those “tremendous death rates in the blue states,” his smoothly offhand tone reminded me of the Ferris wheel scene in The Third Man (1949), a film that, as Roger Ebert put it, “most completely embodies the romance of going to movies.”

In a YouTube minute I’m in Vienna, in a closed car atop the Riesenrad (the Great Wheel) high above the Prater amusement park. The first thing I hear is the smooth, soothing voice of Orson Welles as the black market racketeer man-of-mystery Harry Lime. He’s telling his old friend Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) to “look down there.” Sliding open the door, he asks, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax — the only way you can save money nowadays.”

To look down from the top of the Great Wheel with the door open is like standing on the brink of certain death, and there’s a hint of menace in the quick downward glance Welles fires into the depths after Martins admits that he’s been in touch with police from the British Zone, who do not yet know that the accident that “killed” Harry Lime had been staged, a piece of subterfuge to flummox their investigation. They have proof that Lime has been making a fortune peddling watered down penicillin to local hospitals, where patients have been dying as a result, some of them children with meningitis. The question that prompted Harry’s philosophical disclaimer about the “dots” was “Have you ever seen one of your victims?”

I was around 11 the first time I saw that short, scary, unforgettable scene. As someone whose concept of good and evil hadn’t gotten much beyond Saturday matinee visions of cowboy heroes and villains, this was my “there are stranger things in heaven and earth” moment. I was dealing with the fact that the charming, fascinating rogue, the movie’s secret hero, had been not only blithely uncaringly making money from the deaths of kids my age but was boasting of the financial upside while hinting he might give his old pal a share of the profits.  more

September 23, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

A year ago I was writing about baseball and the Beatles on the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road and the St. Louis Cardinals’ four-game playoff-clinching sweep of their arch rivals, the Chicago Cubs. At the time I didn’t know about the photograph staged to publicize the ill-fated June 2020 London series between the Cubs and the Cardinals.   

However disappointed fans may have been when the event was canceled by the pandemic, the image of Cubs outfielder Kris Bryant and first baseman Anthony Rizzo and Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and catcher Yadier Molina crossing Abbey Road helps make up for it. Here are four ballplayers reenacting in full uniform the zebra crossing cover shot seen round the world, each player replicating the posture, style, and stride of a Beatle — Bryant subbing for George, Rizzo for barefoot Paul (his slightly uplifted lead foot similarly positioned at the exact edge of the identical zebra stripe), Goldschmidt for Ringo, and Molina for John, whose song “Come Together” provided the tagline for both teams’ Facebook postings.

Just imagining what went on behind the scenes brings a smile. Did Rizzo volunteer to go shoeless, or did the organizer of the shoot explain the situation by quoting McCartney, who lived around the corner at the time: “It was a really nice hot day and I didn’t feel like wearing shoes, so I went around to the photo session and showed me bare feet.” Or was there a squabble among the players about which Beatle each would be subbing for? Or perhaps some back and forth between the fiery Molina and the outspoken Bryant, who once defamed the city of St. Louis as “boring.” And maybe a debate about airbrushing the elaborate tattoo on Molina’s right arm, settled with a line from the theme song of the shoot: “One thing I tell you is you got to be free.”

Deals and Steals

It’s worth noting that the legendary Cardinals-Cubs rivalry, the second-most storied in baseball, made them the logical choice to follow 2019’s Red Sox-Yankees London match-up, which had been billed as “an intense and historic rivalry well over a century in the making.”

Both feuds were founded on infamously one-sided deals: the Red Sox “Curse of the Bambino” sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 and the trade that brought Lou Brock (1939-2020) from Chicago to St. Louis in 1964, a move that helped lift the Cardinals to a world championship the same year. When Brock died earlier this month, the New York Times obituary (“Baseball Hall of Famer Known for Stealing Bases”) quoted him on bravado: “You know before you steal a base that you’ve got nine guys out there in different uniforms. You’re alone in a sea of enemies. The only way you can hold your own is by arrogance, the ability to stand before the crowd.”

The reference to “the crowd” has unhappy resonance in this Covid-mangled season where fans have been replaced by cardboard cut-outs and canned cheering. Following the Cardinals this year has been a challenge, the excitement muted, distant, hard to grasp, with the team missing two weeks’ worth of games due to players testing positive for the virus. Even though chances for a playoff spot look promising, it feels a long way from this time last year when I compared the euphoria of winning vicariously on the field to listening to the second side of Abbey Road (“Fifty Years on Abbey Road: ‘The Love You Take Is Equal to the Love You Make’”).  more

September 16, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’ve been thinking about the time I saw Frank Capra in person. It was in the late 1970s, in a classroom at Princeton’s Center for the Visual Arts on Nassau Street. The meeting got off to a rocky start when one of the students asked a question that distinguished between art films and popular, commercial movies like It’s a Wonderful Life. Immediately on the defensive, Capra insisted that the artistic value of any work in any medium was ultimately determined by its popularity. Critics, scholars, reviewers be damned! The people had the last say. “All great art is popular!” he insisted, citing Michelangelo, Shakespeare, and da Vinci. “Look at all the people who come to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa!”

The students were a bit rattled. Why was the old guy so touchy? Clearly, he still believed that his populist, upbeat films had been misunderstood and devalued by elitists. I considered weighing in to say how often I’d argued with film-buff friends who scorned It’s a Wonderful Life and invariably cited Fellini’s La Dolce Vita as an example of “great art.” Instead, I said something about Jimmy Stewart’s performance as George Bailey, aware that the mere mention of the other film might only make things worse.

A British Bridge

My bridge from Capra’s Life to Fellini’s Vita is the British film critic David Thomson, who slammed both directors in his Biographical Dictionary of Film (1994). It’s only fair to note that Thomson may have updated his comments in later editions and that when he’s not righteously venting, he writes as well about film as anyone this side of James Agee. That’s why I quoted his thoughts on the “uneasy depths” of It’s a Wonderful Life to close out last week’s column. After giving the film his mixed blessing, however, he couldn’t resist another personal dig: “I think I like Capra less than ever, even if I have become interested in his emotional muddle.”  more

September 9, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Actually, the town I had in mind was Califon, N.J.

—Philip Van Doren Stern

The first sentence of the screenplay for Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life calls for a night sequence showing various streets and buildings in “the town of Bedford Falls, somewhere in New York State.”

Above the first sentence of the film’s primary source, Philip Van Doren Stern’s Christmas story, “The Greatest Gift,” there’s a drawing of a despondent looking man leaning on a bridge railing. The “little town” described, “bright with colored Christmas lights,” has no name. In a 1946 interview, the author, a Rutgers graduate who grew up in Jersey City, makes it clear that the place he had in mind was Califon, in Hunterdon County, 37 miles northwest of Princeton. As noted in Wikipedia, the center of town is “the historic iron bridge spanning the South Branch of the Raritan River, which divides the borough.” 

On the Bridge

I’m beginning in Califon because it’s the original setting of It’s a Wonderful Life, not Seneca Falls, New York, the town that has declared itself the model for Bedford Falls by holding an annual festival; it even named a hotel after Clarence, the whimsical angel who appears on the bridge in time to save George Bailey from ending his life. Clarence accomplishes his mission by jumping into the icy waters himself, knowing that George’s instinct to help others is so fundamental that he’ll take the plunge to save a life.

But look what just happened. Even as I’m trying to explain the motive for my online trip to Califon and its historic bridge, I’m still riding the emotional rollercoaster of the film’s final half hour as Clarence shows George the nightmare of Pottersville, a vision of the fate that would befall the community had he never been born and had the town been left to the mercy of Henry Potter, the unredeemed and unpunished banker from hell who makes Scrooge look like a sucker.

In fact, the actual town of Califon is located a mere six miles west of a town called Pottersville, which lies the same distance from the Trump National Golf Club at Bedminster, a domain known as Camp David North or the Summer White House. more

September 2, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The day after Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday, I’m driving to the lake listening to “the earliest authentic document we are ever likely to hear of the 20th century giant.” So say the liner notes accompanying Bird in Kansas City, 1940-42 on the Stash CD The Complete “Birth of the Bebop.” Privately recorded, “probably May 1940,” Parker’s variations on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul” seem to be following me as I walk toward the lake. Because of the unguarded intimacy of the sound I feel as if I’ve been eavesdropping on a 20-year-old’s first recording, in which, as the notes have it, “an overall lack of poise underscores the youthfulness of the performance.” Suddenly, strangely, the sense of “being there listening in” is replicated in the here and now by the sound of a saxophone. Someone on the other side of the lake is playing. For a few seconds it’s an eerie continuum, a phantom player exploring variations on “Body and Soul.” As I come to the water’s edge, peering across the lake for the source of the music, still unable to see the person playing, it begins to sink in (reality bites) that what I’ve imagined as some skilled sharer of Birdlore is more likely a clumsy learner, probably a kid in a school band, and that the tune I’ve been hearing as “Body and Soul” is actually “Happy Birthday.” Still, I’m smiling as I walk along the lakeside, listening. It’s nothing more than a birthday coincidence on the day after, a consolation prize, but I’ll take it.

Born Twice

Only a “20th-century giant” like Charlie Parker could encompass two cities with the same name in two different states, the Kansas City he was born in forever overshadowed by the musically renowned metropolis across the river that gave birth to his legend. The city in Missouri is where he found “a spiritual home in jazz,” as Gary Giddins suggests in Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Minnesota 2013), “which remains the best single examination of his art and life,” according to the “Charlie Parker at 100” link in Friday’s New York Times.

Curious to learn more about Bird’s actual birth city, I’ve been consulting my copy of the WPA Guide to Kansas, which sits on the book shelf next to the WPA Guide to New Jersey. The placement makes sense: I was born in Kansas and live in New Jersey, my life bookended by the Sunflower State and the Garden State.  more

August 26, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

My boys and I have to have four heavy beats to the bar and no cheating.

—Count Basie (1904-1984)

Friday, August 21, Count Basie’s birthday, I’m in the kitchen making pesto and listening to the Kid from Red Bank on the Bose Wave player. As the Count and the All-American Rhythm Section perform “How Long Blues,” everything’s in synch, Basie and basil, note by note, leaf by leaf, plucked one at a time, rinsed with a sprinkling of water, tapped dry to the chimes the Count’s right hand is ringing, each note shining and distinct. The way he and his four-heavy-beats-to-the-bar boys play it, it’s a happy blues, happening here and now, never mind how long. Basie’s touch seems no more dated than a drop of rain the day after Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s hope-rhymes-with-history acceptance speech.

Okay, no cheating. Strictly speaking, everything’s dated in the online universe. This music, the sound of life moving inventively, endearingly, unstoppably forward was recorded on July 24, 1942, the first day of “the systematic deportation of the Jewish people from the Warsaw ghetto,” according to www.history.com.

Keep Moving

Also recorded during the July 24 session, “Farewell Blues” moves at a faster, sprightlier pace. Then still unaware of the dark side of the date, I’m contentedly grating a hunk of parmesan stroke by stroke in 4/4 time with guitarist Freddie Greene’s steady strumming, and so antic, so bright and airy and impish are the sounds the Count’s conjuring from the keyboard, I’m having “what fools these mortals be” thoughts, with Basie as the pianist for Oberon’s pit band in the film version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, until the grinding of the blender brings me down to earth. I don’t need to know what happened on that date in history to hear war in the noise. The silence that follows is like one of those special Basie moments when the roar of the big band subsides and the rhythm section drives on through, the Count nimbly prancing from key to key, having his way with “Shine On Harvest Moon,” taking his time, here a note, there a note, a process resembling what John Hammond heard one night in Chicago as “perfectly timed punctuation … inspired economy, the right note at the right time.” Checking the date of this session, I see that it took place on May 21, 1947, the war was over, that war, anyway, and the music and the moon are still shining.  more

August 19, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Nabokov must be writing this script. Who else but the creator of Humbert Humbert, Dolores Haze, and Jonathan Shade could conceive of a president named Trump appointing a postmaster general named DeJoy to sabotage the U.S. postal system ahead of the 2020 election? The USPS subplot of my homemade conspiracy theory can be traced to Thomas Pynchon’s short novel, The Crying of Lot 49 (CL49). The Cornell connection, formed when Pynchon was a student taking one of Vladimir Nabokov’s courses (presumably “Masters of European Fiction”), is signaled in the opening paragraph’s reference to “a sunrise over the library slope of Cornell University.”

A Postmarked Bookmark

When I’m in need of something to mark my place in a book, I usually choose from a stash of photos, actual bookmarks, and old postcards like the one of Grand Central Terminal I’ve been using for CL49. Addressed to a Mrs. N. Adams in Franklin, Indiana, the card is postmarked 1 a.m. Nov. 22, 1922, and bears a canceled dollar-green U.S. Postage 1¢ stamp of George Washington (profile facing left). According to the Mystic Stamp Company, the earliest known use for this series was December 17, 1922. Readers familiar with Pynchon’s work will recognize one of his signature tropes in the note stating that due to “poor centering and other minor defects, a number of coil stamp sheets had been set aside as ‘waste’ to be destroyed.”

In CL49, the acronym WASTE (We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire) refers to an underground postal service created by fusing the poetry of paranoia with the thermodynamics of entropy; the system’s emblem, a muted post horn, can be seen on the cover of the first edition of The Crying of Lot 49 (shown here). Published in 1966, the novel presages not only the hauling away of post office drop boxes and sorting machines in August 2020, but the president’s obsession with voters in a specific constituency, namely the “suburban housewives” who are the subjects of an experiment on the effects of LSD-25 being conducted by   psychotherapist Dr. Hilarius. Refusing to take part in the experiment after being told “We want you,” CL49’s fantasy-prone protagonist Oedipa Maas hallucinates “the well-known portrait of Uncle that appears in all our post offices, his eyes gleaming unhealthily, his sunken yellow cheeks most violently rouged, his finger pointing between her eyes. I want you.”  more

August 12, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

When Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out our power last Tuesday morning, I already had Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Herman Melville’s Journal of a Visit to London and the Continent close at hand, along with flashlights, battery-operated lanterns, and a portable CD player. Besides the fact that both writers have sailed similarly stormy seas of thought, I knew we’d be printing on August 12, three days before De Quincey’s August 15th birthday and two weeks after the 201st birthday of Herman Melville, who discovered the Opium Eater on his way to writing Moby-Dick.

Painting in the Dark

When Confessions first appeared in the September 1821 issue of London Magazine, elegantly addressed to the “Courteous Reader,” Melville was 2 years old, a reader in the making who would bond with the book in London shortly before Christmas 1849. A hop, skip, and a virtual jump later, it’s August 2020 and De Quincey’s lighting this grateful reader’s way through the after-midnight darkness of a power outage. Taking occasional breaks from the book, I become an impromptu cinematographer, moving the flashlight beam around the living room, poking holes in the darkness and zooming in on details: the densely shadowed corner of a print from Goya’s Disasters of War; a fragment of winding road on a large Art Nouveau vase; flowered fireplace tiles; the bronze glimmer of the andirons; and above the mantle an oil painting of a night scene by an unknown artist, a firelit shoreline, a boat being unloaded by spectral figures, the scene becoming gloomier, more sinister as the flashlight sweeps over it.

Picking up where I left off in the book, it’s as if De Quincey’s been reading my mind, setting the scene, asking if “the reader is aware” that children have the power of painting phantoms “upon the darkness,” a power that in some is “simply a mechanical affection of the eye” while “others have a voluntary or semi-voluntary power to dismiss or to summon them” (my italics because we were told the power would be restored by now, c’mon PSE&G, give us back our power, power, power!), and after a child informs De Quincey that when he tells the phantoms to go, they go, but that sometimes they come when he doesn’t want them to come, the Opium Eater assures him that he has “as unlimited a command over apparitions as a Roman centurion over his soldiers.” Picturing the confused and by now perhaps terrified child, I’m reminded this is the same man who was found by one of his daughters one evening sitting at his desk with his hair on fire. more

August 5, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The screen test was shot over the shoulder of a bewigged man in period costume, presumably the title character in Danton, a film of the French Revolution that was never made. The young actress clearly has had experience, her voice and diction are excellent, she projects a spirited youthful appeal (“I want to see the king. I want to tell him how things really are”), but as soon she becomes emotional (“my mother is sick, we don’t have enough to eat”), you’re rolling your eyes, and when the man responds with loud laughter at the idea that the king would care, you think at first he might be mocking her performance. Danton cares enough to give her money for bread, a gesture that surprises and touches her and leaves her struggling for words, she’s choked up, virtually speechless, radiant with gratitude (“Oh you — you’re — wonderful!”) as she bolts from the room.

Put yourself in the place of whoever’s reviewing the test and you’ve gone from feeling judgmental (that bit about the sick mother) to wanting more of her, you’re sorry she left, you’re already missing her. Forget the low grade you’d give her reading of the hackneyed dialogue, forget the French Revolution, forget the test: she’s a delight, the camera loves her (as the saying goes), she matters, she’s there, and in spite of the mob cap and period dress, spirit and energy like hers don’t date, she’s “modern,” the surge of life that briefly filled that space some 80 years ago transcending decades of films, fads, and fashion, something fine and true shining through.  more