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

July 29, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

In Money Heist, feelings, fraternity and love are as important as the plots. A perfect heist, rational and cool, becomes something else when spiced up with Latin emotions.

—Álex Pina

In this season of death and discontent, why do I find myself compulsively whistling, humming, thinking, and feeling the old anti-fascist protest anthem, “Bella Ciao”? Even the cardinals in our backyard are getting into the act; instead of sweet sweet sweet, I’m hearing ciao ciao ciao! The pure and piercing clarity of the sound conveys another message, not goodbye beautiful, but hello hello hello.

The source of my “Bella Ciao” euphoria is the Netflix sensation Money Heist [Casa del Papel], whose recently released fourth season drew 65 million viewers around the world. By early 2018, when Álex Pina’s creation was already the most-watched non-English language series in Netflix history, and one of the most watched overall, the singing of “Bella Ciao” at key moments in the action inspired an international onslaught of cover versions.

“A Cultural Juggernaut”

The most informative account of Money Heist I’ve been able to find is in the April 2, 2020 Guardian (“It’s pure rock’n’roll”), where after hailing “a world-changing, cultural juggernaut of a TV show,” Ellen Jones writes, “The first season of the full-throttle thriller saw its gang – all code-named after major cities and memorably clad in revolutionary-red overalls and Salvador Dalí masks – break into the Royal Mint of Spain taking 67 people hostage and literally printing money: 2.4 billion euros, to be exact.”    

Referring to the series’ “anti-system” philosophy, invoked whenever gang members sing “Bella Ciao,” Jones quotes Álex Pina: “First and foremost, the series is meant to entertain, but an idea runs underneath. Skepticism towards governments, central banks, the system.” After pointing out the series’ roots in Don Quixote (“To rise up against the system is reckless and idealistic”), Pina claims the latest season has the power to “infuse some oxygen into this disturbing climate,” comparing it to “a brutal journey to the limit” while promising that “the audience will not think of Covid-19 while watching it.” more

July 22, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I have seldom, very seldom, crossed this borderland between loneliness and fellowship. I have even been settled there longer than in loneliness itself. What a fine bustling place was Robinson Crusoe’s island in comparison!

—Franz Kafka, October 29, 1921

My bedside copy of Kafka’s Diaries 1914-1923 opened to that passage as I was adjusting to the idea of baseball being played before a virtual crowd in an empty stadium. I kept thinking of the recent New York Times photograph of a stylishly masked player batting in front of a “crowd” of cardboard cutouts at Citi Field. Why was that jumbled arrangement of forms and faces so hauntingly familiar? Why was I smiling at the thought of something so creepy, so unreal, so — Kafkaesque?

The answer came by way of the reference to “loneliness and fellowship” in the passage just quoted. Given all the precautionary no-nos the pandemic has inflicted on baseball — no spitting, no high-fives, no hugs, no fist bumps, no intimate catcher-pitcher sessions on the mound, no round-the-horn-and-back-to-the-pitcher routine after an out — who’d have thought that the no-fans challenge would lead to the invention of  ballpark variations on the cover design of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?

Never mind the financial upside already being explored by the owners, like having fans pay to reserve a seat in the stands for cutouts of their choosing. Never mind the distraction potential, like putting an image of the opposing pitcher’s estranged wife in a key position behind home plate. What’s making me smile is the back story wherein Jann Haworth and Peter Blake, the co-creators of the Sgt. Pepper cover, left the choice of cutouts to the Beatles. Told to think of themselves posing for a photograph with a crowd of fans behind them — “the fans could be anybody, dead or alive, real or fictitious” — each Beatle was asked to make a list.  more

July 15, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m on my way to Lambertville after half a year staying close to home, and nothing looks quite right. The road ahead is unwinding like a film that’s been subtly altered by forces beyond my control. The problem may be the music on the stereo. If this is a movie, I’ve picked the wrong soundtrack. The CD of Schubert lieder sounds too confined and wintry for a sunny early Sunday morning in July.

Maybe what I need is a nice rousing jolt from Ennio Morricone. Ever since he died last week, I’ve been revisiting the films he scored for Sergio Leone and reading about his relationship with his old fifth grade schoolmate in Christopher Frayling’s biography, Something To Do With Death. The title, taken from a line of dialogue in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, has something to do with my own state of mind after discovering that two old friends of mine have died, one last month in Indiana, the other two years ago in Zurich.

The view down the long stretch of empty track at the railroad crossing outside Hopewell reminds me of the opening sequence of Once Upon a Time in the West, but more than that, it flashes me back to the hours my friend Bob and I spent playing catch in a lot next to the Illinois Central tracks. When he moved to a town upstate, we signed our letters “your everlasting friend,” no doubt using the same leaky ballpoint pens with which we copied down stats in baseball scrapbooks on long winter afternoons. The last time I saw him in person was — 1960.

Sharing Music

While waiting for the light to change at the junction of 518 and NJ 31, I take the Schubert Lieder out of the CD player and replace it with the Beach Boys’ Sunflower. Why Schubert on a pandemic-haunted morning in July? Because the other old friend I’m mourning is Irwin Gage, the pianist accompanying Gundula Janowitz on this Deutsche Grammophon recording from 1977. I’ve had closer friends over the years, but the friendship with Irwin developed on a summer student tour of Europe, giving it an kind of shipboard romance unreality. Bob and I bonded over books and baseball in Bloomington, Indiana. Irwin and I shared great music in Vienna, Salzburg, Venice, and Rome. If he hadn’t urged me to go, I’d have missed a stirring outdoor concert of Respighi’s Pines of Rome in Venice, the trumpet-glorious March of the Roman legions on the Appian Way like a preview of Morricone’s great showdown fanfare in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was thanks to Irwin that I saw a performance of Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla, five rows behind Orson Welles. We also shared a Mozart program in Salzburg and visits to Beethoven’s house and Schubert’s birthplace in Vienna.  more

July 8, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

What greater gift than the love of a cat.

—Charles Dickens

For the first time since Saddam invaded Kuwait there are no cats in the house. I’ve been adjusting to that enormous absence with the help of In the Company of Cats (British Library 2014), featuring “illustrations through the ages” and choice quotations from poets, writers, and philosophers celebrating feline “mystery and magnificence.”

I’m thinking about two generations of tuxedo cats dating back to Dizzy (1990-2003), the runt of the litter brought into the world against all odds by the ill-fated, small but mighty tabby Tess (1989-1999), followed after Dizzy’s demise by the adopted twins Nick (2003-2018), and Nora (2003-2020), who died June 25.

Like her namesake in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, tawny Tess had seen a novel’s worth of adversity when she first showed up at the back door. Because my wife was severely allergic at the time, we fed and housed the little vagabond in a make-shift shelter on the deck. After disappearing for more than a week (we feared we’d seen the last of her), she showed up pregnant and fiercely determined; now there was no keeping her outside. Our household version of Saddam’s “mother of all battles” was an invasion by the feline force of nature storming from the deck into the kitchen, through two strongbox barricades and up the stairs to this room, where she accomplished her mission on the evening of August 2, 1990, in the same roomy tartan plaid canvas suitcase I’d used on my first summer in Europe.

Tess still haunts this space. A few feet to my left is the spot where she delivered Dizzy and his four siblings, all of whom eventually found homes in the community, except for the jaunty male tuxedo whose place in our family had never really been in doubt. It was for love of Dizzy that my wife finally overcame the allergy that had doomed every previous attempt. Since none of the statements in Company of Cats applies to Tess and her plight, I’m borrowing a line from Mark Twain: “If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” more

July 1, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

The last time I road-tested a song was for a column celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ White Album, released in the U.S. on November 22, 1968. Driving from Kingston to Princeton with “Revolution 9” on the stereo, I covered the distance in 8:15, the exact length of the surreal sound collage created by John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Twice as long, “Murder Most Foul,” Bob Dylan’s Kennedy assassination tour de force, took me and my 20-year-old-and-counting Honda CRV to Kingston and back and then halfway to Rocky Hill so I could hear it again. The ride was as rich, as dense, and as sweepingly provocative as a novel compared to the churning, driving soundscape of “Revolution 9,” yet both in-motion listening experiences reverberated with the chaotic, fateful aftershocks of the same day in Dallas.                        

Twilight Time in Tulsa

Given the enormity of the audiences their records reached, Dylan and the Beatles had the power to sound and shape the culture of the period, underground as well as mainstream. The Beatles knew what they were doing by releasing the White Album on the fifth anniversary of the assassination, as Dylan knew when he sent Tempest into the world on September 11, 2012 and timed the June 19 release of his new album Rough and Rowdy Ways to coincide with Juneteenth, the date officially marking the end of slavery.  more

June 24, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Finally a dream worth remembering. If only I can remember it. For far too long, with rare exceptions, my dreams have been about trivial tasks and futile deliberations, like asking directions to places you don’t even want to go, and looming in the background always the same monumental obstacle that can’t be moved or toppled or made to vanish. Last night I woke up worn out but smiling, aware that I’d been toiling, climbing, slipping and almost falling, but not afraid, never for a minute. All I knew was the dream had something to do with statues.

And why not, with statues being toppled here, there, and everywhere, all over the world. At the moment I’m  remembering the opening scene of Chaplin’s City Lights, where a crowd of dignitaries is gathered for the unveiling of a monument to “Peace and Prosperity” composed of three figures, a seated female flanked by two male warriors, one wielding a sword. The unveiling of the Olympian tableau reveals the tramp, “the Little Fellow,” curled up asleep in the female figure’s lap. The dignitaries are not amused and shout at him, he tries to scramble to his feet but his baggy trousers get caught on the sword, which seems to hoist him, wriggling, tipping his derby, as the band plays the National Anthem.

“The Statue Song”

I’d been up past three the previous night when I saw an online New York Times front page photograph showing two NYPD cars in front of the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt outside the Museum of Natural History. My first thought was of a New York night in the mid-sixties with an old friend that began with us throwing snowballs at the statue after sharing a pint of Old Crow. We had nothing against TR, no agenda, we were just “doing what comes naturally” because he was so monumentally there, not because he was “a symbol of colonialism and racism flanked by a Native American man and an African man.”  more

June 17, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Think of it as a double feature. Or better yet, one film, A Tale of Two Poets, with a week-long intermission.

Here are two driven, difficult artists who wrote difficult, celebrated verse. Each chose to “take his own life” or “end it all” on the grand scale. In last week’s column it was John Berryman leaping off a bridge over the Mississippi; this week it’s Hart Crane leaping off a ship into the Gulf of Mexico, his body never recovered, the headlines reading Poet Lost at Sea.

Fathers and Sons

Berryman’s father fatally shot himself outside his 11-year-old son’s ground-floor window at the Kipling Arms apartments, Mandalay Drive, Clearwater Beach, Florida. The shot echoed through four decades, the son reliving it in “Dream Song 145,” the last act of the father “so strong & so undone,” who “only, very early in the morning, / rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window / and did what was needed.”    

Crane’s father, a Cleveland, Ohio candy manufacturer “wholly loyal to the gods of Commerce” was “outraged by the jest of fortune which had given him a poet for a son.” Making it his mission to drive out the “poetry nonsense,” he put the boy to work selling candy and told the other employees to keep an eye on him in case he read “poetry books” during work hours.  more

June 10, 2020

By Stuart Mitchner

Nobody is ever missing.

—John Berryman, “Dream Song 29”

There’s a video online of John Berryman reading his poem “The Song of a Tortured Girl” in early October 1970, a year and three months before he jumped to his death from the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

It’s a short poem about a heroine of the French Resistance captured by the Gestapo and, as Berryman puts it, “tortured in various ways to death without giving up any names.” Watching the faded, grainy YouTube clip, I saw convulsive foreshadowings of Berryman’s last act. Although the video resembles a ghostly livestream preview of Zoom, there’s nothing merely “virtual” about the bearded, bespectacled poet’s spasmodic flailings; he’s not reciting the girl’s ordeal, he’s enduring it in an agony of compassion. You find yourself close to ducking, flinching, not sure whether he’s at the drunken mercy of — or in sly performative command of — his own lines. Everything’s at the last point-of-death remove, every pause feels like a fall into the abyss, and you’re there with the girl and the poet in “the strange room where the brightest light DOES NOT shine on the strange men: shines on me.” Nothing short of the capital letters I’ve added can suggest the way those two ordinary words wrench, attack, all but strangle him. It’s not emphasis for effect, it’s an emotional eruption.

No matter how much you read of Berryman’s work or John Haffenden’s 1983 biography or the Paris Review interview conducted at St. Mary’s Hospital later the same month, October 27 and 29, 1970, nothing really prepares you for the dimensions of Berryman’s presence alive and unwell, and rarely sober, in various online videos. Then you begin to understand his take-no-prisoners attitude to syntax; the poignant understatement of his third wife Kate’s reference to the “lovely confusion” of living with him (“you were part of the project”); and above all his lengthy closing response when the interviewer, his former student Peter Stitt, asks him, “Where do you go from here?”  more