August 14, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.
—The Rolling Stones

After last week’s news of Toni Morrison’s death, I put aside plans for a column on Woodstock and went to the Princeton Public Library looking for one of her novels, preferably Beloved, which I’d never read. My better-late-than-never mission was delusional because there was no way I could do right by a novel of that magnitude in a matter of days, and in any case, the shelves had been cleared of her fiction, no surprise given the PU Professor Emerita’s literary stature and the town’s pride in a former resident. Aside from audio books, the only work of hers available was The Origin of Others (Harvard Univ. Press 2017), which draws on the six Norton Lectures the Nobel laureate delivered at Harvard in spring 2016. That this little book was still there reinforces my semi-superstitious belief that I can always count on the library to give me what I need even when it’s not what I think I want.

What I needed, among other things, was a way to make sense of my inability to literally get into Morrison’s best-known and most acclaimed novel. My problem was that the opening of Beloved seemed to be a contradiction in terms. The first paragraph simply didn’t open for me. I couldn’t get in the door. I know I should have made more of an effort, but all I saw was an enigmatic number: “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” What follows — about a grandmother named Baby Suggs suspended “between the nastiness of life and the meanness of the dead, who couldn’t get interested in leaving life or living it” — left me in the dark. If I’d read farther, I’d have learned that 124 was the street number for what was, in effect, a haunted house. But I didn’t read farther.

I was reminded of my experience with the opening of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury when I first ran headlong into it as a college sophomore: “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower tree.” What flag? Who was hitting what? Who was Luster? Of course once I learned that I was seeing with the eyes of a deaf mute at a golf course, I was at least through the door and into a world so many-leveled and many-voiced that for the first time in my life I started rereading a novel the same day I finished it.  more

August 7, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s so fine, it’s sunshine, it’s the word love….
—John Lennon, from “The Word”

When I began writing this column on Thursday, August 1, an hour into Herman Melville’s 200th birthday, I’d been reading Philip Hoare’s celebration of Moby-Dick in the online July 30 Guardian, where he says he “fell in love with Melville” as much as “he had fallen in love with whales.” With the combination of love and Melville in mind, I had my subject. Two days later, the mass shooting in El Paso followed by Sunday’s in Dayton put hate in the headlines. The news cycle’s massive dissemination of love’s opposite only underscores the enduring power and significance of one of the most casually abused, glorified and degraded verbs in the language. Even so, it remains remarkably durable. John Lennon and the Beatles made an anthem of it in “All You Need Is Love” after paying tribute to it in “The Word.” When Lennon sings, “Everywhere I go I hear it said, in the good and the bad books, that I have read,” I’m thinking of what Melville said after finishing Moby-Dick: “I have written a wicked book and feel as spotless as the lamb.” more

July 31, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Before I put my moviegoer cards on the table, I should say upfront how much I enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. I found more to like and even love in it than in anything I’ve ever seen by the director of that iconic cinematic sugar rush, Pulp Fiction (1994). If you asked me my favorite moments in the films of Wim Wenders or Jim Jarmusch (not to mention, not yet, Sergio Leone), I could go on for an hour and still have more to say. With Tarantino, it usually comes down to the moment when John Travolta and a barefoot Uma Thurman do the Twist in a nightclub dance contest, Thurman’s character having just told Travolta’s character that his gangster boss, her boyfriend, killed a man for massaging her feet. After that, the sugar began losing its kick and I had second thoughts about every single blood-bright bravura scene. But there was no denying the excitement of a new thing under the Hollywood sun. The mere fact that there was so much to talk and argue and bitch about was an accomplishment in itself.

With Tarantino’s latest still fresh in mind, I have no second thoughts worth mentioning about the interplay between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton, a fading TV cowboy, and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, his charismatic stuntman double, driver, man Friday, and drinking buddy. I enjoyed watching the two speeding around LA in Dalton’s white Caddy, and the way Tarantino caught the nighttime, neon-branded, Sunset Strip spirit of the time and place. While DiCaprio gives an Oscar-worthy performance, Pitt supplies old-fashioned star power with his warmly earthy, good-humored alternative to the dour heroes played by Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen. He’s a joy to watch at all times, whether he’s smilingly destroying an insufferably arrogant Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), going through the elaborate routine of feeding his pit bull Brandy, or fixing the television aerial on the roof of Rick’s Cielo Drive home, which just happens to be located in the immediate vicinity of the crime-scene-to-be inhabited “in real life” by Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski. more

July 24, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

During the first season of Netflix’s Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers, Ross and Matt, waved a magic wand and gave us a once-in-a-lifetime character in Eleven, the fugitive child with telekinetic powers played by Millie Bobby Brown.

In Stranger Things 3, the Duffers have conjured up a white rabbit surprise in the form of a romantic comedy that blends screwball fun and creature feature clout. No need to worry about spoiler alerts and such because when the dust clears what makes the ride worth taking has less to do with why or how or who gets slimed, who dies and who doesn’t, than with the old boy-girl, man-woman, person-person scenario that’s been delighting audiences ever since Shakespeare dreamed up the star-crossed lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Hollywood paired Katherine Hepburn’s scatterbrained Susan with Cary Grant’s hapless paleontologist in Bringing Up Baby, where romance turns on the search for a lost dinosaur bone, a dog named George, and a leopard named Baby. The best thing about the spectacular doings of the Mindflayer in Stranger Things 3 is the challenge it offers the various amusingly human couples fighting, arguing, laughing and loving their way through life-and-death situations. When it comes down to choosing between human beings and special effects, it’s the human moments you hold close. Twenty-two years this side of Titanic, what stays with you, the sinking of a luxury liner or the romance between Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack and Kate Winslet’s Rose?  more

July 17, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
—William Wordsworth

The younger you are, the closer you are to the moon, whether it’s dangling in a mobile above the crib, or the funny-faced thing the cow jumped over, or the serene presence just outside the bedroom window you’re saying goodnight to as you serenade your drowsy two-year-old with the little book by Margaret Wise Brown. In the story made at once wondrous and intimate by Clement Hurd’s images, the moon is there with you, in the “great green room,” as close and as real as the teddy bears and the kittens and the telephone. I’m also thinking of the moonlight immediacy captured some 220 years ago by Samuel Taylor Coleridge when the author of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner grabbed his notebook to jot down this entry about his first-born child: “Hartley fell down & hurt himself — I caught him up crying & screaming — & ran out of doors with him. — The Moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately; — & his eyes & the tears in them, how they glittered in the Moonlight!”  more

July 10, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The performers in Friday morning’s backyard circus are identified in the Audubon guide as Common Grackles, “a very familiar species on suburban lawns, striding about with deliberate steps,” searching for insects, nesting “in small colonies,” and perching “in adjacent treetops to sing their creaking, grating songs.” What held me and had me smiling, however, was the visual music they were making as they gathered, one by one, on the long limb of a hemlock tree until six of them were sitting in a row, the limb rocking under them, as if they were sharing the fun. It may be a common sight for this common species, but I never saw it before and I doubt that I ever will again.

To go from watching birds riding a limb to reading Proust, who was born on July 10, 1871, is easier said than done, considering that each of the three volumes of the 1981 Random House edition of Remembrance of Things Past tops a thousand pages. With five days to deadline, all I can do is pack my knapsack with possibilities (birds, summertime, the seaside, the moon landing, the primal joy of victorious athletes) and prepare for the voyage by reading around in the edition of Proust’s Letters edited and translated by Minna Curtis. My guide is the 20-year-old English girl I encountered there. Proust’s biographer George D. Painter says it was “the beautiful Marie Nordlinger” who led Proust “near to the heart of the labyrinth.” Short and slender, “with delicate Pre-Raphaelite hands, dark eyes, full lips, and a look of warm sincerity and intelligence,” the talented young painter/sculptor from Manchester was “a godsend” in Proust’s struggle to translate John Ruskin into French. A note in my 1949 edition of the Letters says that she “not only initiated him into the English texts but supplied him with endless information and assistance” and was “the only woman younger than himself, highly intellectual and of his own social background with whom he ever seems to have carried on a friendship.”  more

July 3, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

If you summon it by the right word, by its right name, it will come. This is the essence of magic, which does not create but summons.
—Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

The term “Kafkaesque” has been loosely applied to a wide range of human situations, as often as not by people who have never read a word of Kafka and know nothing about the doings and undoings of K. in The Castle or Joseph K. in The Trial. The word came to mind again when I read about the “strange,” “off-the-wall,” “dysfunctional” history of the New York Mets in Friday’s New York Times (“Just Embrace It: Mets’ Eccentricity Is Worthy of Veneration”). But once I got past the instinctive associations prompted by those adjectives, I found nothing convincingly Kafkaesque in the incidents Victor Mather  cites. As he admits, the Mets don’t own the rights to eccentricity; after all, quirky, odd-ball behavior is one of the the National Pastime’s enduring charms.

As a St. Louis Cardinal fan, I paid special notice to the fact that “trouble started early” when the newborn 1962 Mets suffered the first of their 120 losses in St. Louis. There’s something closer to Kafkaesque, however, in the no-man’s-land of extra inning games that seem to go on forever. In a previous article, I quoted Cardinal catcher Yadier Molina’s father telling Yadi’s brother and fellow catcher Bengie that it was possible for a baseball game to last “forever” if no team scored. The idea that baseball could defy space and time sounded to Bengie “more like God than anything I heard in church.” As it happens, the game between the Mets and the Cardinals on September 11, 1974, lasted 7 hours and 45 minutes; it was 3:13 a.m. and only a thousand fans were still at Shea Stadium when the Cardinals won it 4-3 in the 25th inning. These days baseball’s infinitely fluid rules permit such marathons to be suspended, never to be made up, which leaves a confusion of possibilities both Kafka and Yogi Berra would have appreciated: apparently “it’s never over until it’s never over.”  more

June 26, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Reviewers are upset with Martin Scorsese for violating documentary integrity in his just-released film Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, which is streaming on Netflix and on view in “select theaters.” Some notices even bill themselves as guides to “all the fake stuff Scorsese put in his new Bob Dylan movie.”

Figuring out “what’s true and what’s staged” seems beside the point when the main reason to see the film is the music, the ambiance, and above all the chance to witness Dylan unleashed. You’re right there in the line of fire, recoiling from the force of the words violinist Scarlet Rivera sees as “staccato bullets” even as she’s creating a conflagration of her own, never taking her eyes off him, zoning in on every line he shoots, every move, fiddling while Dylan burns. He’s too close for comfort, daubed in reverse-Minstrel-show white-face; you feel shaken, thrilled, chilled, with code words for American aggression coming crazily to mind, “Shock and Awe” for the bombing of Baghdad, and, yes, “Rolling Thunder” for the bombing of Vietnam.

Seeing the rapport between the violinist and the singer, the way Rivera reads Dylan as she plays, you understand why she’d say “I was with a living genius, on the level of a Shakespeare of our time” in an earlier film (Rolling Thunder and The Gospel Years, 2006). That was a decade before Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. more

June 19, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

While the St. Louis Blues were on the way to their first Stanley Cup with Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” as their victory anthem, I was celebrating the centenary of Nat King Cole (1919-1965) with submersive listenings to the 4-CD set, Cool Cole: The King Cole Trio Story. My message for the Blues’ crosstown brothers the St. Louis Cardinals was delivered by repeated playings of Cole’s hit from 75 years ago, “Straighten Up and Fly Right.” I’d convinced myself that the song deserved some credit for the April surge that lifted the Redbirds from the depths to the best record in baseball. Alas, true to the song’s built-in warning, “Cool down, papa, don’t you blow your top,” the Cards cooled way down and blew it, losing every series they played in the unmerry month of May. Nat gave me a message for that, too, in “Lost April,” which played in my mind with a slight change in the lyric, “I thought a single win could lead to heaven, but the month had numbered days, and winning couldn’t last.” In the actual lyric, it’s “kiss” for “win” and “love” that couldn’t last, but the way Nat sings it, there’s more to life than winning and losing, the healing has begun, and life goes sadly smiling on.

As a devoted follower of the National Pastime who once lost his voice cheering for his team, Cole knew the bumpy road from high to low, the symbiotic relationship of baseball and the blues. He loved all sports, and having played W.C. Handy in the 1958 biopic The St. Louis Blues, he’d have undoubtedly been delighted when the NHL expansion team from St. Louis was named for Handy’s most famous composition. more

June 12, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Anne Frank was born 90 years ago today. When she turned 13 on June 12, 1942, she was given a diary. A week later, after a long entry about her birthday and her friends and before she and her family began life in the “secret annex,” she imagines “that later on neither I nor anyone else will be interested in the musings of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl.”

Writing about the schoolgirl’s musings in Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife (2009), Francine Prose meditates on the fact that “the most widely read and enduring masterpiece about that brutal era [1942-1945] was written by a girl between the ages of 13 and 15.”

In The Ghost Writer (1976), Philip Roth calls Anne Frank “a marvelous young writer,” comparing her to “some impassioned little sister of Kafka’s.” C.K. Williams says “I thought of you at that age, Little Sister” in his poem “A Day for Anne Frank,” which begins with children running back and forth in a filthy alley, “the girls’ screams suspended behind them with their hair … their feet pounding wildly on the pavement.”

 more

May 29, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Meantime, in Washington, among the great persons and their entourage, a mixture of awful consternation, uncertainty, rage, shame, helplessness, and stupefying disappointment,” with “the worst not only imminent, but already here.”

When he wrote those words, Walt Whitman, born 200 years ago Friday, was not casting a prophetic glance toward Memorial Day 2019, he was responding to the calamitous aftermath of the Battle of Bull Run on July 22, 1861, Union forces having “exploded in a panic and fled from the field.” Writing in Specimen Days in America (1881), Whitman describes defeated troops pouring into the city over the Long Bridge — ”a horrible march of twenty miles, returning to Washington baffled, humiliated, panic-struck.” The sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue are jammed with “lookers-on” as “swarms of dirt-cover’d return’d soldiers (will they never end?) move by; but nothing said, no comments.” Half the lookers-on are confederate sympathizers “of the most venomous kind—they say nothing; but the devil snickers in their faces.” There is “loud and undisguised” talk around Washington “for yielding out and out, and substituting the southern rule, and Lincoln promptly abdicating and departing.” If the Rebel officers and forces “had immediately follow’d, and by a bold Napoleonic movement had enter’d Washington the first day (or even the second), they could have had things their own way, and a powerful faction north to back them.” It was a “bitter, bitter hour — perhaps proud America will never again know such an hour. She must pack and fly — no time to spare. Those white palaces — the dome-crown’d capitol there on the hill, so stately over the trees — shall they be left — or destroy’d first?”

With America facing “a bitter, bitter hour” amid presidential stonewalling and the targeting of the free press, it’s worth recalling  Whitman’s tribute to “the great New York papers” whose headlines “rang out over the land with the loudest, most reverberating ring of clearest bugles, full of encouragement, hope, inspiration, unfaltering defiance,” especially “those magnificent editorials! they never flagg’d for a fortnight…. They came in good time, for they were needed.” more

May 22, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,”  said Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) in Sunday’s finale of Game of Thrones. You could say the same thing about a good song. Consider how media coverage of last week’s passing of singer Doris Day (1922-2009) coincided with the online frenzy provoked by the ending of the popular HBO series based on George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. The answer to all the arguments about what should and should not have happened in episode six can be found in Day’s biggest hit, “Qué Será, Sera” (“Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” the song that drives the fate of The Man Who Knew Too Much, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller about an assassination plot and a kidnapping. Meanwhile, a hit song from the 1970s, 10cc’s “The Things We Do for Love,” shadows the fate of Game of Thrones, both in the pilot episode and the controversial denouement. 

The title of another Doris Day hit, “Secret Love,” describes what’s revealed to Bran Stark after he climbs the castle tower at King’s Landing and sees Jaime Lannister and his twin sister Cersei having sex. Caught in the act, Jaime pushes the boy off the ledge, treating the move lightly, even giving it a punchline, “The things I do for love.” For viewers who remember the 10cc song, it’s as good as a wink and a nudge across the centuries, like Hamlet quoting “A Hard Day’s Night” on the walls of Elsinore, or Milton’s Satan singing a line from “Satisfaction.” Besides crippling Bran and paving the way for the three-eyed raven who alone knows “what will be, will be” in Westeros, Jaime has pronounced his own fate, the sentence he hears again as he stands before the prophet in the final season. “The things I do for love” sends him back to his sister and his doom. As for everyone fighting over the ending of Game of Thrones, remember Bran warned you, “it is written,” a foregone conclusion, so let’s listen to the song and “Agree to disagree but disagree to part/When after all it’s just a compromise of/The things we do for love.” more

May 15, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The massive crossbow that felled a dragon in the final season of Game of Thrones was meant as “an homage to Leonardo da Vinci,” the show’s weapon designer told IndieWire. The “outer shape” of the scorpion has the “exact same look” as Leonardo’s drawings.

After watching the vengeful Mother of Dragons lay waste to King’s Landing on Mother’s Day, I knew it would be a challenge to launch a column about the man who died 500 years ago this month, May 2, 1519, without at least mentioning that apocalyptic spectacle, however absurdly out of proportion it is next to the pop song based on Leonardo’s most famous creation. Surely the fire and fury of HBO’s sensational series is a better fit with the 21st century than the legend that Nat King Cole’s manager strenuously advised him not to record “this off-beat thing about an old painting.”

When “Mona Lisa” was released in May of 1950, it went to the top of the charts, was number one for eight straight weeks, and dominated the hit parade for the rest of the year. The plaintive hymn to “the lady with the mystic smile” was heard over radios and on jukeboxes in bars and diners around the country.

While the banal fate of Leonardo’s masterpiece may conjure up the old “turning over in his grave” trope, evidence that he accepted art’s susceptibility to the lesser realities can be found in Walter Isaacson’s Leonardo da Vinci (Simon & Schuster 2017). The final words in Leonardo’s hand appear on “what may be the last page of his notebooks,” where after drawing four right triangles and fitting rectangles into each and making note of what he’s trying to accomplish, he abruptly “breaks off” to explain why he’s putting down his pen: “Perché la minestra si fredda.” 

Isaacson reimagines the event, “our last scene of him working”: Leonardo’s cook is in the kitchen, other members of the household are already at the table while “he is still stabbing away at geometry problems that have not yet yielded the world very much but have given him a profound appreciation of the patterns of nature. Now, however, the soup is getting cold.” more

May 8, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

“No two persons ever read the same book.”
—Edmund Wilson (1895-1972)

This observation by the eminent American man of letters and Princeton graduate (Class of 1916) Edmund Wilson, born May 8, 1895, in Red Bank, N.J., also applies to my recent return at an advanced age to a Hardy Boys adventure I first read as a ten-year-old. While the fourth grader who devoured a ghostwritten mystery may or may not be the same person who comes to it after a lifetime of “serious reading,” I like to think the adult reader’s DNA was already there, hidden in the consciousness of the ten-year-old with nothing under his belt but five years of Classic Comics, Freddy the Pig, Captain Marvel, Donald Duck, and Little Lulu.

A Title to Reckon With

My excuse for going back to A Figure in Hiding (1937) is Friday’s Friends of the Library Book Sale, which features rare first editions of two later volumes in the Hardy Boys series, The Short Wave Mystery (1945) and The Secret of Skull Mountain (1949). Compared to those standard boy’s mystery titles, the one I found instantly mesmerizing the day I saw it on the shelves of a gloomy Fourth Avenue bookshop sounds more like Henry James (think “The Figure in the Carpet”) than Franklin W. Dixon. A Figure in Hiding lends itself to any medium. It could refer to the title figure in the 1949 film The Third Man, which will be shown at New York’s Film Forum next week, or it could caption the moment Harry Lime, the man of mystery played by Orson Welles, is seen hiding in a dark Viennese doorway; it’s no less expressive of the presence of the unseen and unseeable in the work of painters from DaVinci to Picasso and of the veiled meanings tricked out by poets dating back to and beyond the ambiguous figure conspiracy theorists suspect of lurking behind Shakespeare. Or how about the undiscovered second assassin in Dallas, or Watergate’s figure in hiding, Deep Throat? And don’t forget special counsel Robert Mueller, the figure the enemies of justice hope to keep in hiding as they attempt to bury evidence of Russian interference and presidential obstruction.  more

May 1, 2019

When a friend, reading his manuscript, asked what a certain word meant, Fitzgerald said, “Damn if I know, but doesn’t it fit in there just beautifully?”
—Andrew Turnbull, from Scott Fitzgerald (1962)

By Stuart Mitchner

The most notorious of the May Day uprisings that shocked New York and other American cities 100 years ago today erupted in Cleveland Ohio, where a march by the Socialist Party sparked riots resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. In the chronicles of 20th century American literature, however, the dateline May 1, 1919 belongs to “May Day,” a long story by Scott Fitzgerald that first appeared in The Smart Set in July 1920 and was reprinted in Tales of the Jazz Age (1922).

In Paradise Lost (Belknap Press 2017), the most recent of numerous biographies, historian David S. Brown suggests that although Fitzgerald “always considered himself politically on the left and self-identified as a ‘Socialist’ in Who’s Who in America,” his “critque of capitalism” grew out of “a primarily conservative impulse.” For an example, Brown cites an observation by one of Fitzgerald’s first biographers, Andrew Turnbull: “Fitzgerald’s political thought, like all his thought, was emotional and impulsive, general ideas being for him little more than a backdrop to his fiction.”

An All-Night Binge

Turnbull’s biography locates the impetus behind “May Day” not so much in the attack on a Socialist newspaper as in Fitzgerald’s all-night binge with a fellow Princetonian following a Yale fraternity dance at Delmonico’s. Fitzgerald’s wild night began in Child’s Restaurant on 59th and Broadway, where “the dance crowd was sobering up,” but not Fitzgerald, who sat off by himself  “mixing hash, poached eggs, and catsup” in his companion’s derby before approaching various Yale men with hostile designs on their fried eggs or shredded wheat. “Soon food was being thrown and Fitzgerald was kicked out,” though he tried to “sneak back in on hands and knees each time the restaurant door opened.” more

April 24, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Let’s say you’re a publicist crafting a blurb for a book that scored a million dollar advance only to be greeted with negative reviews, including one that gives you a workable sentence: “Although this is an overwritten, derivative, deeply flawed travesty of reality, the deluded author seems to think it’s the great political novel the world has been waiting for.” Cut the first part, capitalize the “t” and you’ve got “[T]he great political novel the world has been waiting for.” You can get away with this trick as long as you cover your tracks with that handy little bracket around the “T,” thus transforming a total trashing into a cause for celebration. And in the unlikely event of a lawsuit, one small, well-placed punctuation mark has given the publisher legal cover.

Last month the attorney general of the United States employed an almost identical act of typographical subterfuge to sabotage a crucial sentence in the Executive Summary of Volume 1 of the Mueller report. All he had to do was cut the first part: “Athough the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” By deep-sixing the incriminating reference to Russia’s perceptions and the Campaign’s expectations with that sly “[T]” for a “t” sleight of hand, Willliam Barr gave the hungry media a bogus, anodyne headline: “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in election interference activities.” Having found no punctuation mark with which to mask the damning “no exoneration” conclusion, the AG simply dismissed the obstruction of justice issue, setting the stage for a “total exoneration” celebration. Break out the champagne!  more

April 17, 2019

…the consensus today is that the universe is speckled with black holes furiously consuming everything around them.
—Dennis Overbye, New York Times, April 11, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

The black hole has become Dennis Overbye’s muse. He holds it to the light like a diamond flashing metaphors and analogies. Thanks to Overbye, the grim morning ritual of the New York Times became a joyous reading experience last Thursday. For a glorious half hour, his word-drunk response to the phenomenon consumed the gloom of the Trump-driven news cycle and put the universe back in balance.

The day began with a cat, a sixteen-year-old black and white female who expects me to sit on the chaise by the window with her every morning and read to her from whatever book is handy, W.S. Merwin’s poetry, Green Eggs and Ham, King Lear, she doesn’t care, she’s not picky as long as I read quietly and her stomach gets rubbed, gently, gently, at the same time. On the morning in question, the book was Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and as fate would have it, I was reading the first paragraph under the heading “On the Afterworldly.” Which is how I went from Nietzsche’s view of the world as “the work of a suffering and tortured god” to the Times’ front page photograph of “a cosmic abyss so deep and dense that not even light can escape it”; from the Overman’s “colored smoke before the eyes of a dissatisfied deity” to the  Overbye’s “smoke ring framing a one-way portal to eternity.” Says Zarathustra: “Good and evil and joy and pain and I and you —  colored smoke this seemed to me before creative eyes …. Drunken joy it is for the sufferer to look away from his suffering and to lose himself.”

A few minutes later it’s drunken joy for the sufferer of the news of the day to read of “Monster runaway stars,” “the behemoth of nothingness,” “the doughnut of doom,” and “the unknown forces that reign at the center, where theoretically, the density approaches infinity and smoke pours from nature’s computer.”

Thus spoke Overbye, and on the facing page of the Times a feast of subheads: “A black hole is a hungry beast,” “Black holes can sing,” “Black holes are stellar tombstones,” “‘A black hole has no hair,’” “A black hole is not forever.” more

April 10, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

My life has a happy ending.
— Dexter Gordon (1923-1990)

It’s that time of year, Princeton’s in its glory, baseball’s here again, and I’m driving with the windows down listening to Dexter Gordon, a player for all seasons. I can choose from postwar wonders like “Dexter Rides Again,” where Long Tall Dexter comes charging, guns blazing, out of the box, or it might be the headlong post-penitentiary euphoria of “Daddy Plays the Horn” and “Stanley the Steamer,” or the sound of his early 1960s New York renaissance in Go, surely the only jazz album to make it into a Swedish novel in which a character who hears it feels “blessed, clear-headed and strong,” for when you’ve listened to Dexter “you tell nothing but the truth for a long while.”

That quote from Svante Foerster’s novel is among the riches in Maxine Gordon’s Sophisticated Giant: The Life and Legacy of Dexter Gordon (Univ. of California Press), which was the subject of a lively, jazz-ambient conversation late last month at Labyrinth Books between Maxine and Richard Lawn, the author of Experiencing Jazz, and All About Jazz’s Victor L. Schermer. The only thing  lacking was a set of speakers so that everyone present could hear samples of the tenor saxophonist’s massive sound; instead, people happily settled for the story of the fan who fainted when he heard the real thing in person.  more

April 3, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

With Town Topics set to print on Marlon Brando’s 95th birthday, I’ve been riding the wild west of cyberspace to Odessa, the birthplace of Charles Neider, who wrote the novel that inspired One-Eyed Jacks, possibly the most quotable western ever made and the only film Brando ever directed.

You might think the writer of such a book would hail from the Odessa in Texas where there’s an eight-foot-tall statue of a jackrabbit downtown. In fact, Charles Neider was born in January 1915 in the Russian city where Pushkin wrote part of Eugene Onegin and Eisenstein shot the cinematic landmark of the slaughter on the Odessa Steps for his 1925 film Battleship Potemkin.

When Neider died in Princeton in July 2001, the New York Times remembered him as a prolific essayist, novelist, nature writer and a devoted Twain scholar who edited, arranged, and introduced The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959). The first time Neider read The Innocents Abroad, which is included in his edition of The Complete Travel Books, he must have smiled to find that Twain had “not felt so much at home for a long time” as he had when he visited Odessa, which “looked just like an American city …. Look up the street or down the street, this way or that way, we saw only America!”

Mentioned in passing in the Times obit was Neider’s book The Authentic Death of Hendry Jones (1956), which novelist Wirt Williams suggests “may be the greatest ‘western’ ever written” in his introduction to the 1972 paperback edition. Almost 40 years later, a July 2010 article in The Independent claims that Hendry Jones is “better than any other book on the subject of men, horses, and death, except Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry.”  more

March 27, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Say you’re on a dream tour of literary capitals. Instead of London, you get off the train in the ramshackle world of Dickens. Instead of Paris, you disembark in the swarming, exciting metropolis of Balzac. Each time your expectations will be satsfied and exceeded by a variety of metropolitan possibilities. But if the train stops at Kafka, it’s another, darker story. The skies will be grey, if not drizzling, the wind will be stiff and harsh, the station will have a dreary, haunted look, and two men in overcoats will intercept you before you have a chance to get your bearings. They want your papers, only you have the wrong papers it seems. But who’s complaining? This is  the scene the guidebook promised. It’s only a dream, so enjoy your stay in Kafka, even if you don’t get out alive or in your right mind.

But imagine arriving in the sunlit splendor of another city with the same name, the station lined with smiling booksellers whose carts are stocked with volumes rich and strange. The station master not only shakes your hand, he gives you a hug. Everyone’s glad to see you. The girl driving the cab that takes you to your hotel is unthinkably charming, speaks English with an adorable accent, and offers to show you around town (by now the rain is gently falling), no strings attached, no design on your wallet. Would you be disappointed? Ask for your money back? Well, maybe.

Inspired by a Mistake

Just putting Kafka’s name at the top of this column is the equivalent of saying, “Close the curtains and prepare to be unnerved.” And it’s true that I’m returning to what might be called the scene of the crime, since a mistake is what set everything in motion. In my March 13 piece on Stanley Corngold’s new book Walter Kaufmann:Philosopher, Humanist, Heretic, I incorrectly attributed a quotation from Kafka to the “Letter to His Father” when in fact, the passage comes from Dearest Father (1953), a collection of writings centered on that famously unsent letter.

My atonement has been to read around in Kafka’s short fiction, sample some chapters from Amerika, his unfinished first novel (as are they all), and, in particular, plunge at random into The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1914-1923, edited by his close friend  and executor Max Brod. As with the diary entries, I found the quotation in question at random, as if by accident, in the notes at the back of Corngold’s book. Here it is again: “I feel too tightly constricted in everything that signifies Myself: even the eternity that I am is too tight for me. But if, for instance, I read a good book, say, an account of travels, it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me….From a certain stage of knowledge on, weariness, insufficiency, constriction, self-contempt must all vanish: namely at the point where I have the strength to recognize as my own nature what previously was something alien to myself that refreshed me, satisfied, liberated, and exalted me.” more

March 20, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Ten years ago, my column about the Bryn Mawr Wellesley book sale featured poet and Princeton graduate W.S. Merwin’s memoir, Summer Doorways (2005), with its recollection of student life in the 1940s. Those were the days when poets Merwin and Galway Kinnell were waiting tables (“the only two waiters who had been on the job for so long without being promoted”) and frequenting the Parnassus Bookshop “in a house along Nassau Street.” The shop was run by Keene and Anne Fleck, who told Merwin about the proposed Creative Writing Program just getting started under R.P. Blackmur. At her urging, he wrote to Blackmur and asked to be admitted to the course. Blackmur’s assistant was a poet named John Berryman. The rest, as they say, is history.

Climbing Mt. Princeton

Curious to learn more about that bookshop on Nassau Street, I did some cyberspace browsing and found, as if on a table at a virtual Bryn Mawr, a volume called Breaking Through Clouds by Richard F. Fleck, who grew up in Princeton. In his account of climbing Mount Princeton (14,204 feet) in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies, Fleck recalls sitting in “the warmth and comfort” of his parents’ bookshop listening to “young poets” like Merwin, Kinnell, and William Meredith.

After coming away empty-handed on my mainly reportorial visit to the preview morning of this year’s book sale, I returned Saturday with the news of Merwin’s death fresh in mind and found a copy of his 1999 collection The River Sound abandoned on the discard table. Opening the volume at random to “Testimony,” which takes up 58 of the collection’s 133 pages, I found myself once again in Princeton with Merwin and Kinnell in those days “when we were too young/for the war.” The line that jumped out at me, however, referred to Mike Keeley (“we have been friends since both of us/were beginning to shave”), a clear signal that it was time to contact poet, translator, novelist and Professor Emeritus of English Edmund Keeley for his thoughts about Merwin. more

March 13, 2019

But if, for instance, I read a good book … it rouses me, satisfies me, suffices me.
–Franz Kafka (1883-1924)

Beginning Friday morning Princeton Day School will become a vast encampment of the homeless, with some 80,000 supplicants looking to be adopted and appreciated, and perhaps passed on to a comfortable, fulfilled life in distinguished surroundings. The southern border is a trumpian tempest in a teapot compared to the numbers of refugees seeking asylum at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale.

Of course it’s nonsense, the idea that hard-nosed dealers, bibliophiles, and obsessive collectors will be paying $25 for the heartwarming satisfaction of giving homes to lifeless entities they actually intend to resell at a profit, or may never read, or may keep only to show off as collector’s ornaments. Still and all, “homeless” is the message spelled out when the doors close on the last day of the sale with multitudes ignored, abandoned, unwanted, scattered naked and alone on the tables, unclaimed after five hours at ten bucks a box.

Kafka’s Here

One author whose books usually find a home with patrons at the BMW sale is Franz Kafka. Most writers want to be read. For them there’s an element of truth in the homeless trope. Kafka, on the other hand, asked Max Brod to burn all his writings after his death, which would have consigned The Castle and The Trial to Borges’s “Library of Babel,” where “it is enough that a book be possible for it to exist.”    more

March 6, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Sometimes I think a novelist made this man up. If you were creating a fictional jazz genius, would you name him Parker or Davis or Rollins or Gillespie? Or would you name him Tristano?”

Lennie Tristano (1919-1978) is for real. He was born in Chicago 100 years ago this month, March 19, 1919, and is the subject of a long, in-depth, consummately readable chapter in Jazz Masters of the 40’s (Macmillan 1966) by jazz critic Ira Gitler, who died February 23.

The fictional possibilities jump out at you from Gitler’s opening paragraph, where Tristano is “mentor, teacher, nursemaid, and confidant of a small cell of young musicians.” Outsiders are “apt to name the hypnotist Svengali when describing Tristano, although he has been totally blind since the age of 10.” Picture a blind Svengali also known as “the witch doctor” and you begin to see the novelistic slant of the message on the cover of Gitler’s book: “the lean days and brave nights of Bebop and the Hipster; musical revolt and intellectual curiosity; the sardonic beauty and necessary self-pity which formed the basis of Modern Jazz.”

According to Gitler, Tristano’s first job, at 11, was in an Illinois whorehouse, “downstairs at the bar.” He’d begun listening to and “fooling around with” a player piano when he was two. Imitating it, he tells Gitler, “gave me the clue.” His eyesight was weak from birth and, depending on your source, either influenza or measles left him vulnerable to total blindness. At eight he was placed in a handicapped class at a public school, and a year later he was in a state institution for the blind, where he studied piano, saxophone, clarinet, and cello and formed a band that occasionally played gigs off the grounds. At Chicago’s Conservatory of Music he wrapped up a two-year harmony course in six weeks, got his bachelor’s degree in three years, and his master’s in a year. When the school insisted that he pay $500 for the time that a full course normally takes, he turned down the diploma and began teaching his own students, as he would do for the rest of his life.  more

February 27, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

Early in his monumental bicentennial biography Frederick Douglass:Prophet of Freedom (Simon and Schuster), David Blight pictures Douglass sitting in a small room in Lynn, Massachusetts in the winter of 1844-45 at work on his first book, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. Looking back on his time at the mercy of a “slave-breaker” (“I was broken in body, soul and spirit”), he writes of Sunday strolls to a nearby viewpoint from which he would peer out at the ships on Chesapeake Bay. “There,” in Blight’s words, “he would allow himself an occasional burst of imagination, a daydream he would ten years later capture in a beautiful and haunting metaphor of freedom.” Blight calls the brief excerpt that follows “a passage for the ages” that captures “slavery and freedom with artistry unparalleled in the genre of slave narrative.”

In another brief excerpt from the same page-long passage, Douglass “speaks directly to the ships, trying to reenter a teenager’s imagination” with “a psalmlike prayer of deliverance” that renders “in the music of words the meaning of slavery’s potential to destroy the human spirit.” According to Blight, the prayer ends in language “reminscent of slave spirituals” that makes it possible for “today’s readers” to “stand with Douglass in the dark night of his soul along their own Chesapeakes and sense the deepest of human yearnings in their own souls.” more

February 20, 2019

By Stuart Mitchner

And I’m conquered in a car seat,
Not a thing that I can do…
— Van Morrison, from “Cyprus Avenue.”

I’m driving down Nassau Street on a fine brisk late April afternoon in 1976 when something called “Bohemian Rhapsody” comes on the radio. Fresh from the birth of a son, I’m like a happy Ancient Mariner ready to stop people on the street to tell them my story, only instead of coming from the realm of the living dead I’ve been to the promised land of life and love. Now this piece of music erupting from the ancient Dodge Dart’s equally ancient radio, is giving me what I need, matching my emotional overload, speaking to and for me: “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?”

Somewhere between the stoplights on Nassau, I’m wrenched from “easy come, easy go, a little high, a little low” to “Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head, pulled my trigger, now he’s dead.” The words “life had just begun” rhyme with my first-time parental bliss, but not “I’ve gone and thrown it all away.” Looking back at the moment, I see the ultimate “little did he know” scenario. Go ahead, sing along, fool, blissfully ignorant of the highs and lows of the epic manic depressive opera of fatherhood awaiting you. Again, the song seems to know where I’m going. No sooner do the words “I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all” voice the lament I hear from my troubled son four decades later, here comes the zany, out-of-nowhere cry of “Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango,” a light opera Harpo Marx Bronx cheer for apocalypse (“thunder and lightning very very frightening”), and then, incredibly, absurdly, thrillingly, “Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro, magnifico!”  more