January 18, 2017

If at first an idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it. — Albert Einstein

I’m thinking of two Lears. Edward is the author of “The Owl and the Pussy-Cat,” one of the happiest poems ever written. The other Lear is 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. It’s our good fortune that Shakespeare makes great literature out of all that madness and misery. It’s our absurd fortune that someone with the failings of the mad king is about to take the throne. more

January 11, 2017

Every now and then certain cliches become not only useful but indispensable. That’s what makes them cliches, after all. In the period since November 8, and to a lesser extent during the presidential campaign itself, “skating on thin ice” has said it best for me. The idea also describes how it is to look for Shakespeare in his play Pericles, the first two acts of which are thought to be the work of a hack named George Wilkins. Then there’s Jacques Rivette (1928-2016) and his first full-length film Paris Belongs to Us (Paris nous appartient), which puts thin ice under your feet even before it begins with an epigraph from Charles Péguy that says “Paris belongs to no one.”

As it happens, the “thin ice” sensation in both works gives them a disturbing relevance to any real-life crisis or turn of events, regardless of time, place, or context.

The greatness of Shakespeare is that he’s always with us, forever pertinent, there to be shaped or tempered or all too often twisted to flow with the currents of the time, even when the work in question is as damaged as Pericles. How “topical” is Pericles? An article by Cynthia Zarin from the New Yorker’s online Culture Desk mentions “the Middle East, refugees, perilous sea crossings, and sex trafficking.”  more

January 4, 2017

Medicine is my lawful wife and writing is my mistress. — Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

In Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Chekhovian police procedural, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, the daughter of a village mayor is serving tea to some detectives, a prosecutor, a doctor inspired by Chekhov, and an accused killer who has been leading them on a haphazard search for the body of the man he murdered. Heavy winds having knocked out the power, the room is dark, and the men are in awe of the beauty of the girl’s face cameoed in the light of the candle on the tray she’s carrying as she moves among them. Someone remarks on the sudden apparition of “such an angel.” Gazing up at her when she bends to serve him his glass of tea, the killer begins to weep.

Given Ceylan’s frequent references to the influence of Chekhov’s fiction on his work, the hushed wonder of the girl’s entrance may owe something to his story, “The Beauties,” which is told by a man looking into the cinema of his memory to a moment in his late teens. A 16-year-old girl at some miserable outpost swarming with flies in the middle of nowhere is serving tea. She has her back to the narrator at first, all he can see is that she’s slender, barefoot, in a simple white cotton dress and kerchief. When she turns around to hand him his tea, he feels “all at once as though a wind were blowing away all the impressions of the day, all the dust and dreariness.”  more

December 28, 2016

I should like to be a free artist and nothing more …. — Anton Chekhov (1860-1904)

Time for a premature New Year’s Eve toast by way of Chekhov’s “Champagne,” a story from the 1880s narrated by a “young, strong, hot-headed, giddy, and foolish” man in charge of a small railway station in the vast desolate remoteness of the steppe. His only diversions are getting wasted on vodka and watching the windows of the passenger trains for a glimpse of a pretty woman, for which he “would stand like a statue without breathing and stare … until the train turned into an almost invisible speck.” He and his wife are getting ready to see in the New Year. The fact that she adores him only magnifies his boredom. He has two bottles of champagne, “the real thing,” Veuve Clicquot, and as the hands of the clock point to five minutes to twelve he begins uncorking a bottle, which slips from his grasp and hits the floor, but he manages to grab it, fills two glasses, and delivers a toast, “May the New Year bring you happiness,” oh-oh, his wife’s upset, a dropped bottle is unlucky, “a bad omen,” she says. “It means some misfortune will happen to us this year.” more

December 21, 2016

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Let me not mar that perfect dream…. — Emily Dickinson

The four-line poem ends with the Belle of Amherst planning to “so adjust my daily night” that the perfect dream “will come again.” The far from perfect dream that follows has been adjusted to permit me a dreamer’s freedom of movement regarding time, space, life, death, and documentary authenticity. The main thing to know is that many of the celebrated somebodies and occasional nobodies who come my way happen to have been born in the year 1916.  more

December 14, 2016

We’re just in time for a 100th birthday toast to Jack D. Ripper, and while we’re at it, let’s not forget Bat Guano. In real life, the clinically paranoid general who precipitates the nuclear apocalypse in Dr. Strangelove was played by Sterling Hayden and the paranoid colonel with a thing about “preversion” was done to a dead-eyed turn by Keenan Wynn. Both actors entered the world in 1916 and left it in 1986, and while both had 40-year-long Hollywood careers, their place in cinema history will be forever linked with Stanley Kubrick’s black-comedy masterpiece and its we’re-just-kidding-folks subtitle, Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. As for George C. Scott (1927-1999), who was unforgettable as Gen. Buck Turgidson, and Peter Sellers (1925-1980), whose chameleon comic genius infused Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, president Merkin Muffley, and the title character, both Scott and Sellers had roles (i.e. General Patton, Inspector Clouseau) that transcended their association with Strangelove.  more

December 7, 2016

There’s a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in. — Leonard Cohen (1934-2016)

A famous singer songwriter dies, someone you never found time to appreciate, so you go back and start listening and recognize the distant music you heard long ago walking through the fairgrounds of rock, a snatch of song coming from over there, not far, just a whisper away if you’d taken another turn somewhere between Van Morrison and David Bowie. more

November 30, 2016

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Oscar Wilde died in Paris on this day, November 30, in the first year of the 20th century. He was 46.

“They could attack him, but they could not take their eyes off him. Derision was a form of tribute and, if it went on long enough, could not fail to be so interpreted. He could, moreover, appeal over the head of the journalists, to the people. This he did.”  more

November 23, 2016

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In the foreword to his best-selling autobiography Born to Run (Simon & Schuster $32.50), Bruce Springsteen pictures himself on a hypothetical stage “face to face with eighty thousand (or eighty) screaming rock’n’roll fans” waiting for him to do his “magic trick,” which is “to provide proof of life to that ever elusive, never completely believable ‘us.’” The writing of his life, then, will be his big show, his spectacle, and at 508 pages, the intention is clear: he’s going to give us our money’s worth.  more

November 16, 2016

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“What will become of us?” — PJ Harvey

In PJ Harvey’s The Hope Six Demolition Project, the music lifts you up even as the words bring you down. To paraphrase Michelle Obama, when the lyrics “go low, the music goes high.”

During the weeks leading up to the election, I was listening day in day out to Hope Six without fully registering the words. In the election aftermath, Harvey’s dark vision of devastated war zones and the mean streets of Washington D.C. makes timely sense. more

November 9, 2016

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The portrait of Turgenev was painted in 1872 by Vasily Perov

I’ve been looking at a photograph of the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who was born on this day, November 9, in 1818. What interests me about the photo, which isn’t clear enough to be reproduced here, is the unorthodox pose. He’s seated with one leg tucked under the other with a book propped on the thigh of the tucked-under leg. There’s a suggestion of amusement in his expression that seems to say, “Hello, whoever you are, let’s agree about the absurdity of humans striking poses and be comfortable together in the moment. We’re all in this together.” more

November 2, 2016

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The portrait of Emily is by her brother Branwell, as restored by Michael Armitage.  It was originally painted around 1833-34 when she would have been 15 or 16. It is on view in The National Portrait Gallery, London.

Imagine a neighborhood dominated by bookish types who costume their children in the garb of their dark favorites every Halloween. Not for them the everyday Draculas, Darth Vaders, Freddy Krugers, and Norman Bateses. No, this is the domain of wee Lady Macbeths and Crookback Richards. more

October 26, 2016

book-revThere again was my lost city, wrapped cool in its mystery and promise. — F. Scott Fitzgerald

The singer songwriter Rosanne Cash was 14 when she recognized New York City in her own image. The moment of truth came at a leather goods store in Greenwich Village where she’d been taken by her father, “who had a lifelong love affair with the city and kept an apartment on Central Park South.” She was standing in front of a mirror trying on the green suede jacket he’d had made to order for her, “light pouring in the windows from busy Bleecker Street” when everything clicked. “That was my real self there in the mirror …. I belonged here. It was more than an idea; it was a sharp ache and a calling that tugged at me … until I pulled my entire life apart to come home.”

She made the move 23 years later, in 1991. She’d been living in Nashville for most of the 1980s, frustrated because she wasn’t writing the songs or making the records she really wanted to make; then she recorded Interiors, which she thought was “the best work” of her life, and the record label “utterly rejected it.” At the same time, her marriage was falling apart, she was despondent: “Only one thing made sense: New York.”  more

October 19, 2016

book-revSure was glad to get out of there alive. — Bob Dylan, “Day of the Locusts”

The “there” Dylan’s referring to is Princeton on the sweltering June day in 1970 when he received an Honorary Doctorate, a month after the shootings of students at Kent State. Hearing himself described as “the authentic expression of the disturbed and concerned conscience of Young America,” he “shuddered and trembled but remained expressionless.” In the words of his memoir, Chronicles Volume One (2004), “It was like a jolt …. There it was again. I couldn’t believe it!” He’s thinking “this kind of thing” could set “the public perception” of him back “a thousand years.” Yet he’s glad he came to get the degree. He “could use it. Every look and touch and scent of it spelled respectability and had something of the spirit of the universe in it.”

There it is again — there he is again. At this writing, almost a week after the news from Stockholm was announced, Bob Dylan has yet to make public how he feels about receiving the 2016 Nobel Prize in literature “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

Forty-six years on the other side of “Day of the Locusts,” it’s possible that Dylan’s mind is still attuning itself to such things as “public perception,” “respectability,” and “the spirit of the universe.” As glad as he was to get out of Princeton alive, he made the most of it. Not only did the occasion inspire one of the characteristically ambiguous tropes that make his memoir itself a prize-worthy literary work, it gave him the seed of a song: the locusts that were singing for him are still singing for us. more

October 12, 2016

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The portrait of Charlotte Brontë by George Richmond (1809-1896), chalk, 1850. © National Portrait Gallery, London. Image courtesy of the Morgan Museum and Library.

As opening sentences of great novels go, “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day” doesn’t make much of an impression, certainly not compared to the upfront immediacy of “Call Me Ishmael” from Moby Dick or the expansive vision of society suggested by “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife” from Pride and Prejudice. Herman Melville and Jane Austen head the American Book Review’s 100 Best First Lines from Novels. Charlotte Brontë’s no-walk-that-day opener doesn’t make the list. more

October 5, 2016

book-rev1By the time the Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale begins a week from Friday, the second presidential debate will be history. Most post-debate book-sale browsers looking for something to focus their frazzled minds on will find what they’re looking for, if not their heart’s desire. The book of my dreams won’t be there because it hasn’t been published yet and for all I know may never be put between covers, even though J.D. Salinger devoted the last 50 years of his life to writing it.

Pearl Diving

Among the 2016 sale’s stellar offerings is Léonard Rosenthal’s The Kingdom of the Pearl with Persian-miniature-immaculate plates by Edmund Dulac that have to be seen to be believed. Its only defect is a gouge on one edge of the front cover where a bibliophile in a frenzy of desire appears to have taken a bite out of it. Except for that minor, perfectly hygienic blemish, the volume is in a condition comparable to that of copies going for $750 online.

For this semi-retired browser, Dulac’s Pearl evokes the Golden Age of the Book Quest in Princeton when rare finds would turn up at garage and estate sales or on the shelves of Micawber Books or in the bank vault that housed Witherspoon Books and Art. It was around this time of year circa 1981 that I found an unflawed Pearl in the Dickensian clutter of a secondhand/antique store in East Millstone.  more

September 28, 2016

book-revHerman Melville died 125 years ago today in a three-story brick townhouse at 104 E. 26th Street in Manhattan. The makeshift bomb that shook the same neighborhood a week and a half ago exploded a short walk away at 23rd and Sixth Avenue. Virtually unread and unremembered on September 28, 1891, Melville’s most famous work ends, in effect, with an explosion: “then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” The actual last words of Moby Dick, however, are less epic than domestic as a ship named Rachel searching for “her missing children” only finds “another orphan.”

The orphan, of course, is Melville, the metaphorical survivor of his most ambitious work, a castaway on the desert island of his obscurity sending the civilized world messages carried like “notes in a bottle” across two centuries and the ocean of the internet.

In Andrew Delbanco’s Melville: His World and Work (2005), the author is seen as “a living presence in the larger culture,” not only “good for thinking about” but one of the “select company” of writers who “continue to be good for thinking with.” Since his literary revival in the mid-20th century, there have been, according to Delbanco, “a steady stream of new Melvilles, all of whom seem somehow to keep up with the preoccupations of the moment: myth-and-symbol Melville, countercultural Melville, anti-war Melville, environmentalist Melville, gay or bisexual Melville, muticultural Melville, global Melville.” more

September 21, 2016

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We were sort of talking a new language. — Slim Gaillard (1916-1991) 

Asked by the editors of TIME to define the last word of his catchy line of word jazz, “the flat foot floosie with the floy-floy,” guitarist, pianist, and Johnny Appleseed of jive Slim Gaillard made the comment about “a new language,” suggesting that the “floy-floy” was just “extra business” — “you got the whole dance right there; you’re swinging. See what I mean?”  more

September 14, 2016

 

book-revGene Wilder’s recent death has revived Young Frankenstein — not that Mel Brooks’s classic 1974 travesty of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) by way of the James Whale/Boris Karloff film (1931) needed reviving. You could stop strangers on the street in Princeton or any university town anywhere and soon find someone who could quote you a favorite line or describe a favorite scene. Even so, for all those who have not already revisited the 1974 film, it will be shown again on October 5 in a special one-night-only presentation in more than 500 theaters nationwide, with a “live introduction” by Mel Brooks.

A Bizarre Course

What takes Young Frankenstein to a level beyond the gags is Gene Wilder’s kindly, horny, out-of-it Dr. Frankensteen. While a stranger on the street may not be able to name the actor who played the monster (Peter Boyle), no one is likely to forget his loving, fatherly creator. In the new Rutgers University Press book, Monstrous Progeny: A History of the Frankenstein Narratives, there’s an image of a blissed-out Wilder cuddling his “emotionally needy creation”; his expression is the other side of rhapsodic, he might be Chopin caressing the score of a nocturne or listening to the music of the spheres. Co-authored by Lester D. Friedman and Allison B. Kavey, Monstrous Progeny may be the most thorough exploration of the bizarre course the Frankenstein myth has taken since Mary Shelley conceived it 200 years ago this summer. Besides tracing the stagings and filmings through the years, the book looks at “laff riots” like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, biological mutation movies like The Fly, reanimation films (Re-Animator and sequels), cyborg films (RoboCop), robot movies (Blade Runner and A.I.), and more. more

September 7, 2016

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I’m an actor, not a clown.

— Gene Wilder (1933-2016)

Gene Wilder made his acting debut at 15 with a small role in a high-school staging of Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare was his teacher again at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in 1955, and his first professional performance was as the Second Officer in a Cambridge, Mass. production of Twelfth Night. After studying method acting with Lee Strasberg, he changed his birth name to Gene Wilder because, according to a 2005 interview in the Daily Telegraph, “Jerry Silberman in Macbeth did not have the right ring to it.” more

August 31, 2016

DVD rev

Responses to Stranger Things, the Netflix summer sensation from Matt and Ross Duffer, have placed the eight-part series in the context of 1980s pop culture, sci-fi/horror flicks, and the novels of Stephen King. There’s more of the same in Monday’s New York Times under a head that refers to how Stranger Things and another show “feed nostalgia with a historical remix.” If that’s so, then the remix goes centuries beyond the 1980s, which means that anyone patronizing the show should heed the message from Hamlet obliquely echoed in its title: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,”

In addition to Shakespeare circa 1603, Stranger Things evokes the 1970s by way of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and the early 1990s through David Lynch’s network television landmark Twin Peaksmore

August 24, 2016

“Negro American style” is defined by novelist Ralph Ellison as “the sudden turns, shocks, and swift changes of pace (all jazz-shaped) that serve to remind us that the world is ever unexplored and that while a complete mastery of life is mere illusion, the real secret of the game is to make life swing.”

For anyone looking to make life swing in this hot, heavy summer I recommend the elixir of Christian and Gray. While the joy and energy may be coming from long ago and far away, the message delivered by the electric guitar of Charlie Christian and the tenor sax of Wardell Gray is that the music of life plays on in spite of deranged demagogues, poverty and misery, mass shootings, and terrorist attacks. more

August 17, 2016

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“HERAT AFTER TEN YEARS OF BOMBING,” Afghanistan, 1992. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of Steve McCurry.

When I wandered out of Friday’s heavy heat into the Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, there she was, Afghan Girl, the banner image of “Unguarded, Untold, Iconic Afghanistan: Through the Lens of Steve McCurry.” Taken in 1984 at a tent school in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp in Pakistan, the National Geographic cover photo won world renown as a symbol of the plight of refugees everywhere. more

August 10, 2016

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Do your thing and I shall know you.

—Emerson, “Self-Reliance”

When Gertrude Stein arrived in New York in October of 1934 after 30 years abroad, “her eminence on the American scene,” according to her biographer John Malcolm Brinnin, “was shared only by gangsters, baseball players, and movie stars.”  more

August 3, 2016

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Just as hate knows love’s the cure

—Stevie Wonder

For psychiatrists treating patients fearful that Donald Trump might win, the most potent remedy for Trump Anxiety Disorder is absolutely natural, over the counter, no synthetics, no suspect chemicals, just stature and beauty, strength and charm, sweetness and light in the form of Michelle Obama. When she walked onstage in that bold blue dress smiling and waving, it was possible to believe that whichever side this woman was on had nothing to fear from T.A.D. more