February 4, 2015

rec rev2Listeners can journey back and forth between Dylan at 73 and Dylan at 25, in Shadows in the Night (Columbia), the new album being released this week, and The Basement Tapes Raw, the shorter 2-CD edition of 2014’s 6-CD set, Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete (Columbia).

Dylan sings 10 standards in Shadows in the Night, including “Autumn Leaves,” “Some Enchanted Evening,” and “Lucky Old Sun.” Asked “Why make this record now?” in an exclusive interview in AARP The Magazine, he says, “Now is the right time …. I love these songs.” As for the fact that all ten were originally recorded by Frank Sinatra: “That’s the mountain you have to climb, even if you get only part of the way there …. He’d be the guy you got to check with.”

There’s a striking if fleeting indication of Dylan’s feeling for standards and Sinatra in his memoir, Chronicles Volume One (Simon and Schuster 2004), where he mentions playing Sinatra’s version of “Ebb Tide,” which “never failed to fill me with awe. The lyrics were so mystifying and stupendous.” When Sinatra sang that “phenomenal” song, “I could hear everything in his voice — death, God and the universe.”

But forget the superlatives, enough about Sinatra, Dylan trucks right ahead in the offhand devil-may-care style typical of that likably bumpy ride of a book, calling back over his shoulder, “I had other things to do, though, and I couldn’t be listening to that stuff much.”

The “other things” included a series of historic recordings that peaked 50 years ago with Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde On Blonde, after which came the game-changing July 1966 motorcycle accident that set the stage for the basement tapes.

“At” or “To”?

Be advised, The Basement Tapes Raw is not to be played while cleaning up in the kitchen unless you can endure the moans of protest from otherwise-Dylan-friendly family members. No doubt about it, there’s a definite let-it-all-hang-out, howling-at-the-moon aspect to some of the sounds coming from the Ulster County bunker where Dylan and his band betook themselves as if to escape the fall-out from Sgt. Pepper, psychedelia, and the summer of love.

In the AARP interview, Dylan singles out Sinatra’s “ability to get inside of the song in a sort of a conversational way. Frank sang to you — not at you. I never wanted to be a singer that sings at somebody. I’ve always wanted to sing to somebody.” This would be an interesting distinction to follow through the Works as a way of sorting things out. The guy howling “Subterreanean Homesick Blues” is not singing to anyone. It’s more a matter of for — for our attention, the world’s notice, or for the gods of word-drunk glory, who may be moved to grace his arrogant genius with a smile or a clapping of spectral hands. Nor is he necessarily singing to or at anyone on the basement tapes while hanging out with the Hawks aka Crackers soon to be The Band. What he’s doing is harvesting a new crop of songs he knows will become a cult commodity as long as he keeps them a mystery. Thus, curious, needy fans had to make do with the cover versions from the various performers for whom he made a 14-track demo tape. In that sense, if he was singing to anyone it was to Manfred Mann (“Quinn the Eskimo”), the Byrds (“You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”), Fairport Convention (“Million-Dollar Bash”), Peter, Paul and Mary (“Too Much of Nothing”), and The Band themselves (“Tears of Rage,” “I Shall Be Released,” “This Wheel’s On Fire”).

Best Heard on the Road

For the sake of family harmony, I tried playing the songs from the basement with the volume down. Not a good idea. What’s the point of muting something that brands itself Raw? Always the best place for music, the true test, is on the stereo in the Honda CRV called Moby (after Melville’s whale). In fact, the first of the two Basement Tape CDs was in the player a few days ago when the battery died. A short wait for AAA later, Moby was running, but the audio system was not. It needed a code I couldn’t find. After a day in silent limbo, I found the code and we were back in business, on our way to a doctor’s appointment in Plainsboro with Dylan turned way up. No problem, the heavy traffic, the long wait at the light on Harrison and U.S. 1, and the 40-minute rush-hour slog driving back. This is road music strong enough to survive the stop and go, start and stop, all the better because it means more time to listen to everything from “Open the Door, Homer” to “Please, Mrs. Henry,” with its impossible-not-to-sing-along-with chorus (“I’m down on my knees/and I ain’t got a dime”). Whatever’s happening here, to us or at us or for us or with us, it’s all working, it’s all good, Moby’s clearing pot-holes in a single bound, zipping through yellow-light intersections with the grace and force of a speeding bullet as we cut a neat right into the parking lot at McCaffrey’s and some quality time, engine idling, with “I Shall Be Released.”

As the dust of the drive clears, it’s the lyrics that reveal how close these songs are to the previous year’s Blonde On Blonde, with couplets like “Well, I looked at my watch/I looked at my wrist/Punched myself in the face/With my fist/I took my potatoes/Down to be mashed/Then I made it over/To that million dollar bash.”

Or “Lo and Behold,” which provoked an answering surge from the CRV: “I come into Pittsburgh/At six-thirty flat/I found myself a vacant seat/An’ I put down my hat/What’s the matter, Molly, dear/What’s the matter with your mound?/What’s it to ya, Moby Dick?/This is chicken town!”

rec rev1He’s There Now

“I’m Not There,” a five-minute wonder I’d never heard before, at least not by Dylan, was sung by Sonic Youth and provided a fitting title for Todd Haynes’s 2007 “many lives of Dylan” film. The beauty of discovering a great song, or having it discover you, better yet, is like the feeling of being submerged in magic and mystery when all the time you thought you were buried in traffic on U.S. 1. If the song passed me by when I saw the film, it was because someone else was singing it. In his notes to The Basement Tapes Raw, Ben Rollins speculates about “what this might have sounded like with a finished lyric.” Never mind, finished or unfinished, Dylan’s there, the singer’s inside the song singing to someone, pushing and pleading, as if striving to be heard, to find a way through, to make himself felt, with lines like, “She’s my prize forsaken angel, but she don’t hear me cry/She’s a long hearted mystic and she can’t carry on” and “She’s a long haunting beauty/But she’s gone like the spark.” As with his best songs, Dylan is singing about what William Faulkner called “the human heart in conflict with itself.” For this song, it’s like Faulkner’s phrase for novelists who try to say all there is to say, it’s like putting “the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin.”

“Stay With Me” 

At this writing, on Schubert’s birthday, January 31, only two songs from Shadows In the Night can be heard online. Both are best listened to during the “Visions of Johanna” time of night when the “heat pipes just cough and the country music station plays soft.” Dylan’s rendition of “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a ballad sung by Sinatra in 1945, was the first I ever heard of this song. You’d think that something with so divinely dippy a title and a melody line lifted from Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto would have come my way by now. Dylan keeps his promise, made in the AARP interview, not to “disrespect” these songs. He’s singing in clear measured thoughtful tones, caressingly complemented by Donnie Herron’s pedal steel guitar, a great improvement on the overbearingly lush orchestration on the Sinatra version.

“Stay With Me” is a wonder much like “I’m Not There.” Dylan does more than respect it; as in the other song, he makes it a mission, he’s striving like a pilgrim on a quest, undaunted though his “feet sometimes stumble on the way” and “the road buckles” under him. It’s like an inspirational alternative to his dark masterpiece, “Ain’t Talkin,” from Modern Times (2006). Schubert comes to mind again, given his devotion to the metaphor of the walking figure on the path, be it a pilgrim, a rejected lover, or an old musician playing for alms, wandering from town to town.

———

The new Dylan went on sale Tuesday of this week at the Princeton Record Exchange, which also has The Basement Tapes Raw, and Bob Dylan and the Band: The Basement Tapes Complete.

January 28, 2015

book revThis being a week after the national holiday devoted to the man who gave his heart, soul, and life to the cause of racial justice, I’ve been reading The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, edited by Clayborne Carson and published in 1998 by IPM Warner. With the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X coming up next month, I’m also reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written with Alex Haley and published in 1968 by Grove Press. In addition, thanks to TCM’s special MLK birthday programming, and Comcast On Demand, I’ve been able to see One Potato, Two Potato (1964), an unforgettable yet sadly all but forgotten film about racism in the midwest.

Getting Physical

For me, the most striking photograph in King’s autobiography is the full-page medium-close-up of him taken staring through the bars of his cell the Birmingham jail in October 1967, half a year before his death. He’s seen from the side, his chin propped in the “V” formed by his thumb and index finger, the other hand holding one of the bars. He appears to be in casual attire, workingman’s shirtsleeves and trousers, a notable departure for a man most often seen in suit and tie, arm in arm with colleagues or supporters at an event or declaiming at the pulpit. The preacher and public speaker, perennial leader of Civil Rights gatherings, usually looks a bit buttoned-up, which makes it that much more dramatic the moment that voice comes thrillingly forth. When he belts out his stirring “I have a dream” mantra, it’s hard to believe such oratorical ecstasy is coming from the man in the well-tailored suit. The grainy, close-to-soft-focus quality of the prison photograph gives an aura of mystery to the pose, as if the index finger of his left hand might be sending a subtle signal to his followers, a calming “Ssh, hush now,” that contrasts with the presence of latent, virile force and great physical strength, like that of a star player about to charge onto the field or the court or the diamond or the stage.

No wonder, then, that the first chapter of his book presents him as a newborn exemplar of physical and mental health: “From the very beginning I was an extraordinarily healthy child. It is said that at my birth the doctors pronounced me a one hundred percent perfect child, from a physical point of view. I hardly know how an ill moment feels.” The same thing would apply, he says, to his “mental life,” that he has “always been somewhat precocious, both physically and mentally. So it seems that from a hereditary point of view, nature was very kind to me.”

As for his homelife, it was also “very congenial. I have a marvelous mother and father. I can hardly remember a time that they ever argued … or had any great falling out. … It is quite easy for me to think of a God of love mainly because I grew up in a family where love was central and where lovely relationships were ever present. It is quite easy for me to think of the universe as basically friendly mainly because of my uplifting hereditary and environmental circumstances. It is quite easy for me to lean more toward optimism than pessimism about human nature mainly because of my childhood experiences.”

In Contrast

King’s emphasis on a happy, healthy, loving “quite easy” upbringing shines a light on the world of difference between the lot he was born into and the one that was Malcolm Little’s. The first chapter of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, titled “Nightmare,” begins with his pregnant mother watching as torch-bearing, shotgun-brandishing Klansmen surround the house on horseback shouting for her husband to come out before proceeding to smash all the windows with their gun butts. That was in Omaha, Nebraska. Three years later in Lansing, Michigan, six-year-old Malcolm’s activist father was beaten to death and “laid across some tracks for a streetcar to run over him.” From that horror forward it’s one blow after another, the insurance company refusing to pay (claiming the murder was a suicide), the forces of welfare applying pressure rather than helping, the mother finding and losing another man, then going mad, the family shattered, Malcolm taken in by caring foster parents, doing well in school, only to be told by one of his teachers that he has no future as a lawyer or a teacher in that community even though he has shown himself to be academically superior to white students.

Right now I’m 100 pages into the Autobiography and can’t put it down. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to get around to what is clearly one of the major books of the sixties. I hope to write more about it next month.

Brave and Brilliant

One Potato, Two Potato is a deceptively “small” film about an interracial couple living in what seems to be a relatively enlightened, reasonably tolerant northern Ohio town. Next to 1967’s overblown, Oscar-sweeping, hamhandedly politically correct Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Larry Peerce’s picture is both brave and brilliant, a landmark work, as human and powerful as Stanley Kramer’s blockbuster is hollow and belabored. Although One Potato, Two Potato received only one Oscar nomination (for Orville Hampton and Raphael Hayes’s’ original screenplay), it caused a stir at Cannes, winning the Best Actress award for Barbara Barrie and leaving those in the audience in stunned silence before they erupted with what Time magazine called “the longest, loudest ovation in nine years.”

To make a tasteful film on a taboo subject in a year where racial intermarriage was still illegal in 14 states would already be a noteworthy accomplishment, but there are scenes of such searing truth in One Potato, Two Potato that it’s hard to imagine them ever being surpassed or even equalled. The film works from the outset because the couple is believable, both as individuals and as partners in the relationship. Bernie Hamilton’s Frank is a long way, thankfully, from the handsome, accomplished, too-good-to-be-true character played by Sidney Poitier in Dinner. He’s not handsome, not ugly, just what you’d call a “regular guy” and is treated as such by his white co-workers. He’s introduced to Julie by his friends, a white couple. If you’ve seen Barbara Barrie as Dennis Christopher’s mother in the feel-good favorite Breaking Away (1979), you know how well-cast she is as a shy, pretty, thoughtful divorcee raising a little girl by herself in the four years since her husband (Richard Mulligan) walked out. What begins as a friendship never quite becomes a fullblown romance. Julie and Frank share a playful sense of humor, taking part in a spontaneous game of hop scotch in the town park at night (a reflection of the child’s game for which the film is titled) and a foot race that leads to their first and only kiss, an astonishing moment to imagine appearing on American movie screens in 1964 (no surprise, the film ran into serious distribution difficulties).

One of the most telling sequences comes when the ex-husband shows up at the house where the couple and the child have moved in with Frank’s parents. When he sees his five-year-old daughter playing in the front yard he’s instantly smitten. In a lesser film he would be the stereotypical mean-spirited, irresponsible father who abandoned her and is scheming to lure her away. While it’s true that he’s brought her a gift, a huge stuffed animal, the games he plays with her (she has a toy gun, he lets her shoot him dead, they face off in a show-down) seem spontaneous, without any ulterior motive other than the perfectly human one of wanting her to like him. It’s the opposite of what you’d expect in a flashback narrative framed by a grim court hearing over custody of the child. Thanks to Robert Mulligan’s performance, you feel for him, he’s so clearly taken with the little girl he hasn’t seen since she was an infant. When Julie comes out of the house to speak with him, he still apparently has no intention of taking the child away from her. But the instant he sees the black husband and his black parents everything changes. It’s a shocking, deeply ugly moment of truth, he’s truly horrified, and the audience finds itself facing, head-on, naked racism. It’s chillingly real, purely animal, not hatred, but an absolute of fear and disgust revealing a level of twisted, soul-sickness it’s disturbing to witness. He can’t speak. He has to turn away, sickened and afraid, really as if he were confronted with monsters who have his blond wife and his lovely little blond daughter in their clutches.

Several scenes that follow are no less powerful — Julie physically attacking Frank when the judge rules against them, the child hitting her mother in rage and confusion when she realizes this stranger she played with one afternoon is taking her away from her home, her mother and adoptive father, her baby brother, her grandparents. Why is she being punished, she asks. What did she do wrong?

The grim truth of the judge’s verdict in favor of the white father, which he realizes is morally skewed, allows that the child has a better chance in life with a single white parent than in a mixed-race family. However pained by it Dr. King himself might have been, he would understand all too well the judge’s terrible rationale.

His Link to Life

There is no mercy, no hope, no bright light in the ending of One Potato, Two Potato, only that devastating last image of a screaming sobbing heartbroken child who thinks that she’s being driven away from her happy home life because she did something wrong.

Again, think of Martin Luther King’s words about his birth and loving upbringing, his “marveous” parents and his mother Alberta Williams King, who “has been behind the scene setting forth those motherly cares, the lack of which leaves a missing link in life.” It’s interesting that the one time in the book when King takes off the coat and tie and lets his hair down is in a letter to his mother written in October 1948 when he was 19 going on 20. There, after telling her how he boasts to the boys at Crozier Seminary that he has “the best mother in the world,” he refers to a girl he “used to date” and has “been to see twice,” and then tells his mother, “I met a fine chick in Phila who has gone wild over the old boy.” At a point in his life when he’s reading Thoreau on civil disobedience, Marx on capitalism, Nietzche on the power of the will, and discovering Gandhi on passive resistance, King is writing to his mother about a “fine chick” and boasting of how “the girls are running me down” (as in chasing him). What’s particularly revealing about the letter is how open and easygoing his relationship with his mother seems. He can talk to her comfortably, as to a close friend, because, as he puts it earlier, she instilled in him “a sense of ‘somebodiness’ “ and then said “the words that almost every Negro hears before he can yet understand the injustice that makes them necessary: ‘You are as good as anyone.’ “

January 21, 2015

book rev2

“Paris is always showing its teeth; when it is not scolding it is laughing.” – Victor Hugo

Read in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on a satirical journal in Paris earlier this month, that declaration by Victor Hugo in Book Three of Les Misérables gets your attention. The passage continues in the same vein. When Paris allows itself the luxury of being stupid, “then the universe is stupid in company with it.” Having admitted as much, Paris “bursts out laughing in the face of the human race.” A century and a half before Charlie Hebdo, Hugo is telling us “What a marvel is such a city! it is a strange thing that this grandioseness and this burlesque should be amicable neighbors, that all this majesty should not be thrown into disorder by all this parody, and that the same mouth can to-day blow into the trump of the Judgment Day, and to-morrow into the reed-flute! Paris has a sovereign joviality. Its gayety is of the thunder and its farce holds a sceptre.”

“The Ideas of the Universe”

Amazing enough, to read that passage in mid-January 2015, but two paragraphs later, after Hugo pictures the city of Jean Valjean, Cosette, Marius, Gavroche, and Javert “showing its teeth,” he writes, “Such is Paris. The smoke of its roofs forms the ideas of the universe.”

Given the cloud of images and thoughts and sounds that has been spreading over the online universe since January 7, you have to think Hugo’s mind was tuned to some prophetic strain in the music of the spheres as he sat at his desk, writing in exile on the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey.

The passages quoted are from the Collins edition of the novel (the Hapgood translation) that I found in a Bristol U.K. charity shop in April of 2000. It had taken me a shamefully long time to pick up and actually read Les Misérables. I knew the story well, not by virtue of the film or the musical, but, I have to confess, the comicbook.

Two Tomes

As I write, I’m sitting between two tomes. One contains the first 20 issues of Classic Comics, which my father had bound into a single volume for my eighth birthday. The other, weighing in at 1070 closely printed pages, is Walter Benjamin’s The Arcades Project (Harvard 2002), the compendium Benjamin mined from the printed depths of 19th century Paris in the years between 1927 and death by his own hand in 1940; the book has been at my bedside or desk side for the past decade. That my earliest impressions of Paris were as turbulent as recent events was thanks to the crudely drawn caricatures of literature performed in Classic Comics, which I read compulsively as a child. No. 1 in the series is Dumas’s The Three Musketeers, which has D’Artagnan arriving at the gates of Paris on foot and ends with the beheading of the blonde “tigress” Milady, pretty heavy stuff for a first-grader. Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, No. 6, begins as casks of wine are spilled on the cobblestones and Mme. Defarge, watching in “death-like silence,” thinks, “The wine is red — like blood! Someday, there will be blood in the streets.” The most powerful and lasting impression of any comicbook I ever read, however, was made by No. 9, Les Misérables, its cover showing Jean Valjean in flight through the rat-infested sewers of Paris, the wounded Marius draped over his shoulder; when you open the comic, there’s the shock of the enormous nightmare apparition of Inspector Javert rising over an array of factory smokestacks. Further food for nightmares is No. 18, another capricious adaptation of Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, whose cover depicts a vast cartoon Quasimodo rearing up larger than the cathedral itself, his huge hand clutching at a sword-waving soldier. Soon to come in the series were Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue and Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris. Is it any wonder that I have a history with the dark side of the City of Light?

Into the Unpresent Present

A half-century of lost time later I’ve progressed to the serial Fantômas, as filmed by Louis Feuillade in 1913, the year Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way was published. The cover of the Kino DVD and the first of the novels the serials were based on shows the giant masked avatar of evil standing over Paris looking curiously contemplative, chin propped on closed fist, the other hand holding a long bloody dagger. The actions of the fanatics who attacked Charlie Hebdo are dwarfed by the all-encompassing murderous ruthlessness of Fantômas, who, among other feats, wipes out the Simplon Orient express in an attempt to destroy his arch-enemy Fandor, a reporter, of all things, on the newspaper La Capitale. The pleasures of the Simplon episode, however, are not in the chaos and carnage of the crash but in the location footage of Paris streets, buildings, shops, cafes, and people, real-life citizens of the metropolis gaping at the camera as they approach it and move aside. It would be thrilling enough to see Proust and Debussy’s city coming to life before your eyes even if you didn’t already have Paris on the brain after Charlie Hebdo.

book rev1Passages

What first attracted me to The Arcades Project — described in the translators’ foreword as the “blue-print for an unimaginably massive and labyrinthine architecture, a dream city, in effect” — was the Hunt translation of Balzac’s Lost Illusions. Benjamin’s prose arcades or passages recalled Balzac’s elaborate descriptions of the Palais Royale and the “disreputable bazaar” of the Wooden Galleries, “the homeground of publishers, poets, pedlars of prose, politicians, milliners, and lastly the prostitutes who roamed about it in the evenings.” Reading Balzac in the aftermath of Hebdo, your eye is caught by the “witty news-sheet” that enjoyed “the right of ridiculing kings and the gravest events of the day, in short of using a bon mot to call everything into question.” There are also references to “witty caricatures sketched on grey paper by people who no doubt had sought to kill time by killing something else to keep their hand in.” The novel’s poet-journalist hero Lucien is told that he’s coming “into the thick of a fierce battle,” where ink is spilt “in torrents” of “cutting epigrams, stinging calumnies, unrestrained abuse.”

Baudelaire on Caricature

If The Arcades Project has a hero other than the man who imagined and compiled it, it’s Charles Baudelaire, whose essay “The Essence of Laughter” coins a phrase that could also serve for Benjamin’s “immense gallery of anecdote.” In the context of a journal like Charlie Hebdo, whose mocking images of Muhammad provoked the murderous attack, the other Charlie’s argument has an eerie resonance, as when he speaks of “the comic as a damnable element, and one of diabolic origin” and as “one of the clearest tokens of the Satanic in man.” A few paragraphs later he brings the matter even closer to the Hebdo/terrorist dynamic, noting that objects of veneration were taken with “deep seriousness” until “men began to laugh at them,” and so “Indian and Chinese idols are unaware that they are ridiculous; it is in us, Christians, that their comicality resides.”

Concerning the assassination of caricaturists in 2015 for laughing at objects of veneration, it’s likely that Baudelaire would take the long view of Charlie Hebdo, as “flysheets of journalism” that are “swept out of sight with the same tireless breeze which supplies us with fresh ones.” The most notable exception to this generalization is Daumier, who has a place in the Arcades, where Baudelaire celebrates the “foundation of decency and bonhomie” in his work and his refusal to handle “themes that exceeded the limits of the comic and could wound the feelings of his fellow men.” Nevertheless, Daumier spent months in jail for his anti-royalist work in the journal Le Caricature, a publication Baudelaire described as “a hurly-burly, a farrago, a prodigious satanic comedy, now farcical, now gory.”

While the Classic Comics version of Les Misérables offers, in its own crude way, the novel’s mixture of romance, heroism, injustice, evil, endurance, bravery, the flags and barricades, passion and beauty, it doesn’t have Hugo’s prose, for instance these sentences that appear in Walter Benjamin’s “Immense Gallery of Anecdote”: “All that can be found anywhere can be found in Paris” and “There is no limit to Paris.”

The more I think about it, in fact, the rallying cry that went up two weeks ago needs a broader subject. It should be Paris, not Charlie. That’s it — Nous sommes tous Paris! We are all Paris!

———

As the news of the attack broke, I was reading Canadian author and critic Murray Pomerance’s The Economist, a novel featuring Arnand de Flore the Prophet, who lives in Paris and publishes L’économie géo-globale or EGG, a highly influential journal “which had become, in Paris as everywhere, the talk of the town. Beacon, icon, fortification.” EGG was “absolutely everybody’s prayerbook,” including the “American State Department” and “Al Queda’s inner table.” You can find out more about Pomerance’s unique, richly woven tour de force centered on another terrorist event (7/7, the 2005 London bombings) at www.chapters.indigo.ca, or by contacting the publisher: oberon@sympatico.ca or on the Oberon Press web site.

January 14, 2015

book revEven if you work for a small, essentially well-meaning weekly, you don’t have to wear a Je Suis Charlie pin to connect with the fellow journalists who died in last week’s terrorist attack in Paris. Whatever the content, circulation, or point of view, the staff of a regularly published magazine or newspaper consists of editors, writers, designers, compositors, advertising and business staff, working together for a common cause, in our case, to ensure that Town Topics makes an appearance every Wednesday, which, as it happens, coincided with the day of the January 7 massacre.

As the story unfolded, I was already well into a column about Paul Muldoon’s new collection One Thousand Things Worth Knowing (Farrar Straus & Giroux $24), and my point of view was strictly apolitical. It was the music, wit, scope, playfulness, and sometimes challenging allusiveness of the poetry that engaged and intrigued me. I was glad to feel no obligation to contend with the moral and political complexities of a terrorist atrocity. My original focus was on the contrast between Muldoon’s sheer shoot-from-the-hip inventiveness and the nightly bloodbaths of cable television my wife and I have been watching for the past months, up to our vicarious necks in Homeland (a jihadist massacre at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad) and The Americans (Cold War sex, married KGB spies living a double life of family values, and cut-throat espionage). In fact it was BBC America’s Orphan Black and its delirious pleasure in its own improbabilities (sex, urban violence, and kinky domesticity involving embattled clones in Toronto) that helped get me into the mood for Muldoon’s new work. I was playing around with the show’s impact on our mutual suspension of disbelief and how that related to what used to be quaintly termed “poetic license,” as in the free flow of fancy and other serious, sometimes strenuous fun and games going forward in Muldoon’s aptly titled volume, which was formally published yesterday, January 13.

Look at the Cover!

All this time, the cover of One Thousand Things Worth Knowing has been staring me in the face, and even so, I was ready to wrap up this week’s column without a word about it or about Muldoon’s poem, “Rita Duffy: Watchtower 2,” which originally appeared in Privacy Policy: The Anthology of Surveillance Poetics (Black Ocean 2014). Rita Duffy is the Irish artist whose painting gives the poem its title and the book its cover image, which is repeated something like 60 times front and back, no doubt to complement the “thousand things” concept.

A look at the painting as it should be seen, 180 x 120 cm, oil on linen, has an impact that can’t be fully appreciated in postage-stamp-sized multiples. Instead of a small, distant, vaguely odd-looking contraption overlooking green hills, what you see resembles a prison guard tower crowned by a surveillance camera aimed like an immense weapon at the countryside beyond a corrugated metal wall. The only human you can imagine walking up the iron stairway to look through the thing on top would be armed and uniformed, not someone there to admire the view that Muldoon presents “as if the whole country is spread under a camouflage tarp/rolled out by successive British garrisons/stationed in Crossmaglen.”

Explaining what gave her the idea, Rita Duffy mentions how she was on the way home after attending a lecture by Muldoon’s mentor Seamus Heaney (1939-2013) about his mentor Paddy Kavanagh (1904-1967) when she noticed the watchtowers and came up with the idea that she might transform one of them “into a work of art.” Upon writing to the Northern Ireland Office, she got a call from a colonel who asked her which tower she wanted. She “managed to get inside” the one that “looked down on the main Belfast-Dublin road, which sat on the hills that Cú Chulainn defended Ulster on,” but just when it was looking as if the tower project might happen, it stopped (“it is very hard to get anything done in Northern Ireland”). She is “still hopeful that some day the project will re-emerge.”

Never Too Late

If you agree that “It’s Never Too Late for Rock’n’Roll,” the title of Muldoon’s lyric for the lead track on Wayside Shrine’s album, The Word On the Street, your immediate association with Duffy’s image will almost certainly be with Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, who share a stake in Dylan’s composition, “All Along the Watchtower.” Nothing on the page or the canvas can match the excitement of either version when “the wind began to howl,” Dylan singing raw and true, Hendrix wailing into eternity. But Muldoon’s poem actually, quietly covers more ground, with the camouflage imagery and the memory of teenagers whose “vision of Four Green Fields shrinks to the olive drab/the Brits throw over everything.” The second part of the poem begins with reference to how a neighbor’s internment alerted the teenagers to the fact that “we’re not the first tribe/to have been put down or the first to have risen/against our oppressors. That’s why we’ve always sided with the Redskin/and the Palestinian.”

So here it is, staring me in the face again, not only one of the most openly political sentiments in a book that begins with a tour de force of eloquent denial dedicated to Heaney and ends with a 19-page-long bravura performance called “Dirty Data” starring Ben Hur, Ben Hourihane, and Billy the Kid, but one that offers additional insight into the poet’s lifelong fascination with the American west. Asked once about how he came to write his Wayside Shrines lyric “The Youngers (Bob and John and Jim and Cole),” Muldoon mentioned growing up immersed in The Golden Book of California, movies about Jesse James and the Great Northfield Minnesota raid, and an illustrated history of the James/Younger gang. Look at the lyric itself, however, and you’re hard put to find a word about the Troubles or “our oppressors.” Listening, you hear a clever, charming, hard-rocking song about a relationship gone south. You’ll find elaborate variations on similarly evocative material in fast and loose interplay with profundities all through One Thousand Things. If you keep your wits about you, you may detect occasional traces of the Princeton faculty member, New Yorker poetry editor, now an inhabitant of the metropolis after two decades as a local resident. The verse will be light and larky and downright silly one minute, only to dazzle and daze you with in-flight references requiring visits to the archives of Google, from which you emerge with enough esoteric information to fill ten pages of footnotes.

Catch Phrases

I love clichés,” Muldoon admits in a 2004 Paris Review interview. If you’re at all familiar with his lyrics for the “3-car garage band” Rackett and the still active musical collective Wayside Shrines, you’ll see common cause between the poetry on the printed page and the lyrics ringing changes on familiar pieces of the present like Pathmark, Jiffy Lube (which also turns up in One Thousand Things) and “Employee of the Week” parking spots. Muldoon has a hunger for everyday words, standbys of the culture, catch phrases, slogans, brand names, not to be patronized or mocked but put in play, sometimes as titles of Wayside songs like “Cleaning Up My Act,” “Feet of Clay,” “Dream Team,” “It Won’t Ring True,” and “Julius Caesar Was a People Person,” and now in the new poetry: “a little meet and greet,” “the elephant in the room,” “at daggers drawn,” “hell for leather,” “a smear campaign,” along with references to a McDonald’s Triple and a Port-a-John, and couplets like “We’ll swear this is the last time as we swore the rain/would never darken our doors again.”

It Really Happened

In the opening poem, “Cuthbert and the Otters,” you’re taken all over the place, from Durham to Desertmartin to Delphi, while “An altar cloth carried into battle/by the 82nd Airborne” shares a stanza with “A carton/of Lucky Strikes clutched by a G.I. on the bridge/at Toome.” It’s all swirling around Muldoon’s stint as a pall bearer at the funeral of the man whose death he finds intolerable, but rather than say so in plain terms, he twice distances himself and the reader from the reality by using an archaic verb: “I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead,” end-stopping the line to close the third stanza and sounding and end-stopping it again to close the 22nd. If you check the facts all through One Thousand Things, you’ll more likely than not find that the things you thought he might be making up really happened, if not in quite such far-fetched combinations. In “Pip and Magwitch,” for one, it turns out that what sounds improbable, Anwar al-Awlaki leaving a paperback of Great Expectations “all bundled up with a printer-cartridge bomb,” is well documented, unlike Magwitch’s attempts to mask his breath with a Polo Mint, “his cigar twirling in its unopened sarcophagus/like an Egyptian mummy.”

Cheering Stuff

While Muldoon keeps company at length with Lew Wallace and Ben Hur, he finds Keats “for sure” in a short Civil War poem by Whitman; all he needs is the one word “loitering” (an echo of “alone and palely loitering in ‘La Belle Dame Sans Mercy’”). As it happens, the same day the television set in a doctor’s waiting room was covering the scene in Paris as the net closed round the Charlie Hebdo terrorists, I was reading at random in a pocket-sized volume of Keats’s letters. Call it imagination, or fancy, depending on the depth of thought or feeling, it was cheering stuff. Even when writing of his brother’s death a mere two years before his own, Keats is unstoppable, irrepressible. On his joy in drinking a glass of claret, he appears to have sketched out notes for “Ode to a Nightingale”: “It fills one’s mouth with a gushing freshness, then goes down cool and feverless” — whereupon his fancy takes flight as “the more ethereal part mounts into the brain, not assaulting the cerebral apartments, like a bully looking for a trull, and hurrying from door to door, bouncing against the wainscot, but rather walks like Aladdin about his enchanted palace, so gently that you do not feel his step.”

Reading, smiling, you wonder “Where’s it coming from?” Never mind. What matters is it’s coming and it keeps coming. The same thing happens reading Muldoon at his best, whether in, above, or beyond politics. Never mind, it’s cheering stuff, like Keats’s claret bullying its way through the cerebral apartments to Aladdin’s palace. That’s how it is in One Thousand Things Worth Knowing.

Speaking of Keats, Paul Muldoon will be reading at the Keats House in London next week, January 20, and will be back in Princeton March 4 at Labyrinth Books. And next week I’ll be writing about Paris before, way way before, Charlie Hebdo.

January 7, 2015

DVD rev

On the last afternoon of 2014 I drove to Doylestown, our sister city in cinema now that the Garden and the County share the same management. As we crossed the Delaware to New Hope, I fed the stereo a CD of Fairport Convention’s What We Did On Our Holidays, produced in 1969 by Princeton’s own Joe Boyd. It took us five songs or about 20 minutes to reach a metered parking place on State Street across from the County. As I put the CRV in park, Sandy Denny was finishing her for-the-ages rendering of “I’ll Keep It With Mine,” arguably the best cover of a Bob Dylan song ever recorded.

One of the many things to like about living in Princeton (if you can forget the property taxes) is knowing that an easy drive away there’s a bridge across a river into another state and then half a Fairport album’s distance to a hilly old market town with a gem of a movie theatre, three bookstores, a record store, an ice cream parlor, and a museum with exhibits ranging from intelligent design to the imagery of a Princeton-born watercolorist to woodcuts of river towns to astrophotography.

Lakeside

On the first day of 2015 my wife and I hiked along the upper path of the thickly wooded lakeside hill between Harrison and Washington Street bridges. Through the trees the blueness of the water had a cold Canadian clarity, gulls were performing amazing maneuvers overhead, fishing on the fly, splash-dancing on the water, and out in the middle of the lake a raucous congregation of geese had settled down and were engaged in an orgy of honking that prompted thoughts of the new Congress. Mainly, I was thinking about wishes and resolutions and how J.D. Salinger (1919-2010) had been born on New Year’s Day. Speaking of Salinger, my wish for 2015 is that the rumored publication of the work a world of readers has been waiting for since 1965 will finally happen.

Echoes of Luise Rainer

In a 2010 column about Fay Wray and Luise Rainer, who died December 30 at 104, I quoted Graham Greene on Rainer’s Oscar-winning performance in The Good Earth, which not only “carries the movie” but makes him think of Shakespeare, for “in acting like Miss Rainer’s we become aware of the greatest of all echoes.”

Coming to Hollywood in 1935 from Vienna, where she was part of Max Reinhardt’s company and played Joan of Arc at the Josefstadt Theatre, Rainer was billed as “the Viennese Teardrop.” Most obits portray the back-to-back Academy Award winner (her first was for The Great Ziegfield) as a victim of the Curse of the Oscar whose career tanked after she alienated studio boss Louis B. Mayer by marrying leftist playwright Clifford Odets. That her Hollywood work was essentially confined to the years 1936-1938 can be blamed on, among other things, the death of M-G-M’s head of production Irving Thalberg; Mayer’s vindictiveness in denying her roles that lived up to the Oscar-winners; the break-up of her marriage; and her impatience with the studio system and the way its money-is-everything ethos pervaded Tinseltown society.

Working with Borzage

While the obituary storyline suggests that Rainer’s other M-G-M assignments were no match for the Oscar-winning roles, she must have been looking forward to being directed by Frank Borzage in Big City (1937). Quoted shortly after her arrival in Hollywood, she said that she’d had no interest in pictures until she saw Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms (1932), “and right away I wanted to film. It was so beautiful.” Her remark decades later that “working with Borzage was a perpetual joy” is borne out by the energetic, uninhibited interaction between Rainer’s Anna and her cab driver husband Joe, played by another Oscar winner Spencer Tracy.

Though Rainer scorned Big City as “idiotic” in a 2009 interview with the Telegraph, she has at least one moment equal to the jilted-wife’s-smiling-through-her-tears telephone call in Ziegfield that clinched her first Oscar. The sequence occurs during a surprise birthday party where Anna is encircled by friends, husband and brother, her face illumined in the glow of the candles on the cake as she reveals that she’s going to have a baby. The true-to-life quality of the moment is complemented by the music coming from a new radio, her birthday present from Joe and her brother. Rainer’s delicately felt response, touched with warmth and wonder, as if the music had come by magic out of nowhere, lives and breathes in the subdued spell Borzage has created around the glow of the candles. Like the scene it’s haunting, the music is simply, quietly, softly low-key. After the luminous birthday moment, the darker, more simplistic (if not quite “idiotic”) forces of the plot take over when Anna’s brother is killed by thugs working for a rival taxi company and she’s framed for the staged explosion that accompanied the shooting. Forced into hiding in the homes of various friends, she eventually calls the mayor and nobly turns herself in, having learned that the people harboring her could go to prison as accessories after the fact. She’s about to be deported when a star-studded assortment of athletes led by Jack Dempsey and Jim Thorpe comes to the rescue.

Beyond Hollywood

Luise Rainer’s life before and after Hollywood has levels of interest the obituaries could only begin to suggest. In addition to the doomed marriage with Odets and her later happier union with a British publisher, Rainer was for a time friends with Anais Nin, who refers to the difficulties with Odets in her Diaries and in her novella Stella, which opens with the title character, inspired by Rainer, sitting in “a small dark room” watching and unable to recognize “her own figure acting on the screen.” The image is “imponderably light, and moved always with such a flowering of gestures that it was like the bloom and flowering of nature.”

The passage echoes an entry from Diaries Volume 2 (1934-1939), where Nin is sitting in a cafe with Henry Miller after seeing Rainer in an unnamed film: “Henry, who likes her so much, began to talk about her. ‘She has wonderful gestures and bearing, such a gracious way of carrying her head, such delicacy. She is very much like you. Her gestures are so light, like wind almost, and she moves so gracefully.’”

Luise Rainer Was Here 

Although Scott Fitzgerald had left Princeton a few years before the Garden Theatre opened in September 1920, with Civilian Clothes, a comedy starring Thomas Meighan and accompanied by a live orchestra on a stage decorated with ferns and palms, it’s likely he saw some films there, and more than likely that Jimmy Stewart did during his student years between 1928 and 1932. As for the clientele at the Doylestown’s County, which opened on September 1938 with Shirley Temple in Little Miss Broadway, you can figure Oscar Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, and James Michener, not to mention stars doing summer stock through the years at the Bucks County Playhouse, as did Luise Rainer when she starred in the title role of Maxwell Anderson’s Joan of Lorraine for a week in August 1947. She reprised the role a year later in a different production by Harold J. Kennedy and Herbert Kenwith at the McCarter Theatre as part of the Princeton Drama Festival.

Apparently the only way to see Rainer as Joan of Arc, a signature role rarely mentioned in the obituaries, is to Google “The Brilliance of Luise Rainer,” which offers clips from her last M-G-M film, Dramatic School (1938), where, after a struggle against odds, she wins the part and gives a wildly applauded performance. She first played Joan in her teens in Friedrich Schiller’s The Maid of Orleans, and during the twenties and thirties she’s said to have played the part over 400 times. Probably her most unusual public appearance as Joan was in costume riding a white horse at the head of a march to the White House to open the American Youth Congress Citizenship Institute.

Luise and Einstein

The story goes that the failure of Rainer’s marriage to Odets can be partly blamed on his jealous tantrums about her relationship with another man. Would you believe Albert Einstein? Though Luise and Einstein were “only good friends,” Odets was “so consumed with jealousy that he savaged a photograph of Einstein with a pair of scissors.” In the 2009 article in the Telegraph, Rainer tells the interviewer, “I mustn’t talk of Einstein, too much is made of it. I was very young, full of life, full of nonsense, and he liked my vivaciousness.” At this point, she has her maid bring out a framed photograph taken with Einstein in Princeton in 1939. You can see the photo online. Under his cloud-mass of white hair Einstein is wearing a tee-shirt, his pants are rolled up to his knees, and his feet are in sandals. All in white, Luise is giving him a look — you could fairly call it the Gaze — that might well have fueled Odets’s suspicions. According to Rainer, Einstein “was probably smitten with a lot of females. He was a very simple man. When I say simple, I mean he had humility.”

So it seems at least within the bounds of reason to imagine Rainer and Einstein going to the Garden on a movie date in the summer of 1939. There’s another photo of Einstein rowing with Luise smiling impishly behind him. Online sources say the scene took place on Lower Saranac Lake. I prefer to think it’s another lake, the one right here in Princeton that Einstein famously loved rowing on.

Though Big City is available on DVD as part of Warner Archive’s 3-disc Luise Rainer collection, my wife and I watched it on a tape I made from a showing on Turner Classic Movies. For information about Starstruck and other exhibits currently at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, visit MitchnerArtMuseum.org.

 

December 31, 2014

book revthe brain of this foolish-compounded clay, man, is not able to invent anything that tends to laughter, more than I invent or is invented on me: I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men.

—Sir John Falstaff

Shakespeare did not become real to me until I was out of college and reading the plays on my own. The breakthrough came when I read Falstaff’s words aloud and felt for the first time that I was not merely in touch with a character but with the author himself. Here he was coming to life for me in the form of a hugely fat, scheming, whoring, lying, wine-guzzling rogue whose boozing makes his brain “full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.” It also “warms the blood” and makes it “course from the inwards to the parts extreme” and “illumineth the face, which as a beacon gives warning to all the rest of this little kingdom, man, to arm; and then the vital commoners and inland petty spirits muster me all to their captain, the heart.”

Reading and rereading passages like the above excerpt from a lengthy exhortation in Part 2 of Henry IV or the speech from Part 1 that ends with Falstaff saying “I am not only witty in myself, but the cause that wit is in other men,” I had no doubt that what might sound like the drunken ravings of a tavern degenerate to the critics and scholars who think Falstaff is overrated was nothing less than the sublime arrogance of the author himself speaking from the heart of his excitement in the act of writing.

Bloom’s Falstaff

In the third month of the Bard’s 450th anniversary year — which this column’s new year’s resolution for 2014 defined as “the year of reading Shakespeare” — I found Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale. Writing in the  New York Times (“Soul of the Age,” Nov. 1, 1998), James Shapiro suggests that “While few readers will disagree with Bloom’s choice of Hamlet as one of Shakespeare’s two greatest creations, many may be puzzled by the other: Falstaff, ‘the mortal god’ of Bloom’s imaginings,” a choice in which Shapiro finds “more than a little projection going on” since both character and critic “are aging, charismatic, brilliant teachers, masters of language.”

Needless to say, I’m not in the least puzzled by Bloom’s choice of Falstaff, whose claim about inventing and being invented is echoed in the title of his book. Once you’ve found your access to Shakespeare through Falstaff, you know whose side you’re on in the battle outlined in a Nov. 9, 2003 New York Times article by Ron Rosenbaum (“Corrupt Buffoon or Joyous Inspiration?”). The so-called Falstaff Wars of that period centered on Jack O’Brien’s Lincoln Center production of both parts of Henry IV in which Kevin Kline played the character at the center of the controversy. To O’Brien’s complaint that Bloom’s reading of Falstaff was “over the top” (“You can’t have him, Harold!”), Bloom stood firm: “You can do a hell of a lot worse than go over the top over Falstaff. I am very over the top over Falstaff.”

When you read The Invention of the Human, you find that “over the top” doesn’t begin to describe the dimensions of Bloom’s awe (as if the title itself didn’t already express it) in the “pervasive presence” of Shakespeare “here, there, and everywhere at once,” as of “a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go.” The plays “abide beyond the end of the mind’s reach; we cannot catch up to them. Shakespeare will go on explaining us, in part because he invented us.” These claims sound less and less extreme the more you read of “an art so infinite that it contains us, and will go on enclosing those likely to come after us.”

A Christmas Walk

Driving down Bridgepoint Road through the sunny clarity of Christmas Day, a pleasant shock after Christmas Eve’s rain and gloom, I find “the pervasive presence” in the vastness and blueness of the sky ahead of us and all around us, masses of storybook clouds, each a world in itself. What can I say? It’s a Shakespearean sky.

During our walk along the path that begins near Pike Bridge, I’m thinking of Bloom’s reference to the ways Shakespeare’s characters connect with or affect our reality (a word that has become a genre in itself in the years since the millennium) and his seemingly out-there notion that the plays read us better than we read them. At one point near the end of the introduction, Bloom reminds himself and the reader that he once claimed “Falstaff would not accept being bored by us” if he deigned “to represent us.”

What a thought, that our behavior as readers may be subject to the watchful eye of he who is not only witty in himself, “but the cause that wit is in other men.” Instead of God judging us according to the merit of our actions, we’re being judged according to how interesting and amusing we are. It made me think of Keats’s letter in which he imagines “superior beings amused with any graceful, though instinctive attitude” his mind “may fall into,” as he is “entertained with the alertness of a Stoat or the anxiety of a Deer.”

Two Horses

Not long after the paved trail gives way to a boardwalk, my wife and I find ourselves looking over a fence into a field where a mother and her teenage daughter are coaxing two horses to pay some playful attention to their Christmas presents (a pair of glorified beach balls). Instead, the horses come over to the fence, hoping we might have something edible to offer them. I like to think Falstaff would not be bored by us at this moment, eye to eye with the immense animal reality of a horse 18 hands high, and then to touch the solid, sturdy, burr-rough brow, to flinch from a sudden prodigious snort. The moment feels even worthier if you’ve been reading that same morning of Sir John’s reaction to the theft of his horse (“Eight yards of uneven ground is threescore and ten miles afoot with me”) or the night before watching Hotspur’s steed rearing under him as he bids goodbye to his comely Kate before riding brashly, boldly off to die on the point of Prince Hal’s sword in Orson Welles’s celebration of Falstaff and life in Chimes at Midnight (1966).

Welles’s Falstaff

One way to appreciate Falstaff is through the process of elimination. After imagining the Works without certain major characters, a Mercutio here, a Cleopatra there, it soon becomes clear that Hamlet and Falstaff are ultimately and equally indispensable, though losing the inventive energy and street-wise wit of Falstaff might be even a greater loss than Hamlet. In an online interview, Orson Welles, whose centenary looms in 2015, calls Falstaff a “gloriously life-affirming good man … defending a force — the old England — which is going down. What is difficult about Falstaff … is that he is the greatest conception of a good man, the most completely good man, in all drama. His faults are so small and he makes tremendous jokes out of little faults. But his goodness is like bread, like wine.”

The review of Falstaff/Chimes of Midnight by Pauline Kael reprinted in James Shapiro’s excellent anthology, Shakespeare in America (Library of America 2014) is characteristically well-written and wilfully misguided: Welles has an “inexpressive” voice,” she claims of one of the 20th century’s most compelling voices; “there was no warmth in it, no sense of a life lived,” and Falstaff is “the braggart with the heart of a child who expects to be forgiven everything, even what he knows to be unforgivable — his taking the credit away from Hal for the combat with Hotspur.” It’s true, this would seem to be a moral low point for the play’s dominant life- and word-force, to take boastful possession of the body of a slain hero as if he and not Prince Hal had done the deed. In the strict bounds of the plot, Falstaff pays for his sin through the royal banishment he and Hal have already comically rehearsed in one of the play’s most memorable scenes. But if you’ve heard the voice of Shakespeare speaking through Falstaff, again and again whenever he holds forth, never mind the exact nature of whatever knavery the character is performing, you know that the true slayer of Hotspur is in fact the playwright, and that no one is closer to Shakespeare than Falstaff.

Keats as Falstaff

One of the joys of reading Keats’s letters is the way the young poet’s diction and playful allusiveness signals how deeply and happily he, as Bloom might put it, has read and been read by Shakespeare, and by Falstaff, in particular. Keats takes the identification to the limit, writing on his death bed, “How astonishingly does the chance of leaving the natural world impress its beauties on us. Like poor Falstaff, though I do not babble, I think of green fields.” As R.S. White notes in Keats as a Reader of Shakespeare, “there is a comic twist in the diminutive Keats’s semi-identification with the corpulent Falstaff.” Surely this is the ultimate instance of being one with the reality of the character, which “was so immediate for Keats that he feels on the pulses experiences Shakespeare depicts Falstaff going through.” In other words, Falstaff is as “real” to Keats as a friend, or an alter ego, or as his very self, the way an actor feels the reality of a role.

As Big Ben tolled midnight last New Year’s Eve, London launched a fireworks display that transcended all superlatives. Almost all, anyway. What else could you call all that glorious imagery exploding in the skies above the Thames but Shakespearean? Though it’s true that those partial to another supreme source of creative energy might as easily call it Homeric or Miltonic, there’s simply nothing else with the overarching magnitude of Shakespeare.

December 24, 2014

book rev

Oh, now all common things become uncommon and enchanted to me. All lamps are wonderful; all rings are talismans.

—Charles Dickens, from A Christmas Tree

Through four decades of marriage, we’ve always had a Christmas tree. The year we lived in Bristol, U.K., we bought a small one and covered it with ornaments made out of tinfoil. Our first Christmas in Princeton the tree lights malfunctioned, necessitating a last-minute visit to the lone store open in the shopping center on Christmas Eve where all we could find was a set of tiny Japanese lanterns that looked nice once you got used to it. But then almost anything looks nice on a Christmas tree.

By Sunday it seemed this might be our first treeless Christmas. After a series of domestic crises, no one had energy to go through the process of picking a tree, getting it into the stand, and trimming it. The motivating force may have been the sight of Nick and Nora, our two Tuxedo cats, sniffing and mewing around the empty place in the living room where the trees of Christmas past have stood. This housebound brother and sister, who like nothing better than hanging out under the tree and drinking their fill from the water in the stand, seem to consider it their due for being denied access to the great outdoors.

Now there it is, the smallest tree on the lot with half as many lights as last year (one strand gave up the ghost), but no less amply decorated and the cats have their make-believe habitat of woodland and stream.

By the Window

First thing every morning Nora comes into my study looking for some company on the book-littered chaise by the window. So we settle down, she curls up between the books and me, and I open, more or less at random, a novel about Shakespeare called Gentleman of Stratford. Published in 1939, its cover labels it A Harper Find and bears a blurb by novelist Hugh Walpole (“The best novel written about Shakespeare”). The novel’s presence in the pile of volumes by the window concerns my wish to bring Shakespeare into a Christmas Eve column as his 450th birthday year, which began with Shakespeare-worthy fireworks lighting up the skies over London, draws to a close.

The problem is there seems at first to be no clear Christmas connection, in contrast to Dickens, the obvious choice to build a Christmas Eve column around. Dickens and Christmas are, needless to say, synonymous. There’s even a book titled The Man Who Invented Christmas. “Invented” is a stretch, but there’s no doubt that Dickens staked his claim with A Christmas Carol in December of 1843, and the spell cast by that story is as potent as ever 171 years later. Search online with the tag “Shakespeare and Christmas” and you find that there are only three explicit mentions of Christmas in the Works, two of them in Love’s Labor’s Lost, which was performed before Elizabeth’s court on Christmas Day 1597.

Shakespearean Serendipity 

Close your eyes and open Gentleman of Stratford and what do you know, the magic word leaps up at you from page 203: “Christmas was a season of hard frost, of winds that nipped inside the sleeves and set the flesh shivering.” After a nicely rendered account of London weather in late December 1598, Brophy sets about describing the process of deconstructing The Theatre in Shoreditch and using the remains toward the constructing of The Globe in Southwark. Thus it’s fair to say that the Christmas season in the penultimate year of the 16th century coincided with the building of the theatre most intimately associated with Will Shakespeare, whose presence, above and beyond all holidays and festivals, is far more prevalent in the culture than that of Dickens.

Christmas in Elsinore

However, most of us, whether we’re 7 or 70, have been with Scrooge when he follows Marley’s ghost to the window and looks out at the night “filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste.” And we’re with him when he looks out on the brightness of Christmas morning in an ecstasy of light and warmth and hope and good cheer after the spirits of Christmas past, present, and future have transported and transformed him.

But with Shakespeare at the top of my list I’m reminded of the most memorable and well-spoken ghost in all literature and it occurs to me that the fearful apparition in the first act of Hamlet might have been lurking somewhere in Dickens’s subconscious when he conceived of the ghosts of Marley and Christmas past, present, and future. It’s a notable coincidence, surely, that Scrooge and Hamlet both undertake adventures at the urging of nocturnal spirits, with the ghost of Hamlet’s father’s line “Doom’d for a certain term to walk the night” echoed by the ghost of Marley’s “doomed to wander through the world.” No less notable are the lines of the sentry named Marcellus musing on the ramparts of Elsinore: “Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes/Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,/The bird of dawning singeth all night long,” for then “no spirit dares stir abroad,/The nights are wholesome …/So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.”

What inspires Marcellus to put the soul of Christmas into seven lines in the first scene of the play after twice witnessing “the dreaded sight” of Hamlet’s father’s ghost? Looking for sanity and sanctity in this uncelebrated, unwholesome, unhallowed, and ungracious situation, Marcellus turns his thoughts to the season of “our Saviour’s birth.”

Exuberant Fireworks”

You won’t find solemn references to Christmas in the blizzard of banter and virtuoso word-play called Love’s Labor’s Lost. The word-drunk Biron’s “At Christmas I no more desire a rose/Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled mirth in the first act and his citing of “a Christmas comedy” in the last scene of the last act are tame compared to the verbal excitements and madcap energies driving Shakespeare’s most playful play, which has in it forces comparable to those of the season, the sense of abundance, the same flow of fancy that gave us A Christmas Carol and St. Nick’s airborne sleigh in “The Night Before Christmas.” Writing about the play in The Invention of the Human, Harold Bloom suggests that Shakespeare “may have enjoyed a particular and unique zest” in the composition. Bloom also admits taking “more unmixed pleasure” from Love’s Labor’s Lost “than from any other Shakespeare play,” hailing it “a festival of language, an exuberant fireworks display.”

Shakespeare’s bounty is everywhere. Close your eyes and pick a passage. Here’s the page named Moth expanding on the ways to win love: “to jig off a tune at the tongue’s end, canary to it with your feet, humour it with turning up your eyelids, sigh a note and sing a note, sometime through the throat, as if you swallowed love with singing love, sometime through the nose, as if you snuffed up love by smelling love; with your hat penthouse-like o’er the shop of your eyes; with your arms crossed on your thin-belly doublet like a rabbit on a spit; or your hands in your pocket like a man after the old painting; and keep not too long in one tune, but a snip and away.”

Back to the Tree

Show Dickens a Christmas tree and he’ll give you the world. Less energetic writers might be content to retire to their corners after the opening round of “A Christmas Tree” (1850) with its “multitude of little tapers” illuminating the towering tree that “everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects,” such as “rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves,” real watches “dangling from innumerable twigs,” “French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks and various other articles of domestic furniture … perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping.”

But Dickens has only just begun. After the “jolly, broad-faced little men … full of sugar-plums,” there were “fiddles and drums … tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes,” and “trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises.” Dickens sums it up as “a lively realisation of the fancies of childhood” that sets him thinking of “all the trees that grow and all the things that come into existence on the earth.”

Including, give or take 166 years, those two black and white creatures nestled under our Christmas tree.

December 17, 2014
The five faces of Tatiana: From left, Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel and Helena.

The five faces of Tatiana: From left, Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel and Helena.

Friday afternoon I’m sitting in a parked car in south Philadelphia reading about the Spanish Civil War. It’s easy to imagine dark deeds brewing on a cold grey December afternoon on the corner of Reed and Ninth in David Goodis’s city. Every time I look up from George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (all hell just broke loose in Barcelona), I imagine the piano player and the bouncer from Goodis’s Down There (filmed as Shoot the Piano Player) fighting to the death in the corner of the lot.

A day later, my wife and I are walking along the D&R canal from Kingston toward Rocky Hill when we come to a wooden marker saying Path to Rockingham. So we climb up the hill along a leaf-packed trail to the house on top. According to the sign beside the door, we’re just in time for the three o’clock tour; all we have to do is wait there and the door will open, but it stays closed. Someone’s in there. A single car is parked nearby. Suddenly a red pick-up truck goes skidding off in the distance. Did something terrible just happen? This could be the Jersey farmhouse in the shootout ending of Down There or the house of horrors in the woods at the end of HBO’s True Detective. Washington’s temporary headquarters in the fall of 1783 is beginning to take on a Gothic aura. When we peer in the windows, we’re able to see some shadowy furnishings, a Mrs. Havisham table set for George and Martha. But it’s like the Ship Without a Crew. Either someone’s dead in there or hiding in a dark corner, gone white-haired-crazy after viewing some unspeakable event. We walk around to the other side. Peering in again. No thought of knocking on a door we’re afraid to open. Anyway, who wants to know? Let the mystery steep.

Such are the moves your imagination makes after reading David Goodis, binging on film noir, and addictively watching cable series like The Americans, Homeland, True Detective, The Leftovers, Penny Dreadful, Breaking Bad, and Boardwalk Empire.

Not to mention two major stand-outs: Netflix’s Orange is the New Black and BBC-America’s Orphan Black.

Tough Beyond Gender

At home I read perfunctory Best of the Year musings from New York Times television critics. Of the shows cited by Alessandra Stanley and Mike Hale the only ones I’ve seen are Homeland and The Americans.

Homeland’s Carrie Mathison, the bipolar CIA ace played by Claire Danes, and Elizabeth Jennings, Keri Russell’s KGB-agent-as-American-housewife in The Americans, are two tough, fearlessly inventive women. Either one is capable of doing serious damage to members of either sex with their bare hands, though from what I’ve seen, cold-war Elizabeth could deal with war-on-terror Carrie fairly handily should such a time-and-space-bending confrontation ever take place; Mike Hale is right to find Elizabeth “the most brutally uncompromising character in primetime.” Both women are devoted to their mentors, and Carrie risks a lot for Saul Berenson, but when the CIA assassinates Elizabeth’s beloved General Zhukov, she goes against orders, tracking down and seducing the official who ordered the strike (it takes her mere minutes: she’s irresistible when it serves her purpose), beats him senseless in an all-out fight, and then spares him for a death worse than fate from the KBG’s toxic “Granny” (Margo Martindale), whom viewers of Justified will remember as the equally lethal Mags Bennett.

The Comic Sense

One unenviable quality shared by Homeland and The Americans is an almost total lack of humor. Everyone and everything is dead serious. It’s as if too much is going on to allow more than a glimmer of humorous self-awareness. One of the pleasures of AMC’s Breaking Bad is its sustained sense of humor about itself in both dialogue and situations. The comic sense also elevates Orange is the New Black and Orphan Black. But to list Netflix’s compulsively viewable series about a women’s prison in upstate New York as a comedy, amid other Golden Globe nominations, is a bit bizarre, given that Season One, which has scenes as vile and vicious as anything this side of The Sopranos (another show with a sense of humor), ends with one inmate beating another half to death.

Other intimidating women are Gretchen Moll, who took her last bow as Gilian Darmody when Boardwalk Empire ended, and the electrifying Eva Green of Penny Dreadful, someone you should never invite to a seance unless you’re prepared for spectacular blowback from the Other Side.

The Amazing Maslany

Finally, there’s Orphan Black’s Tatiana Maslany, all six of her. Or is it seven? Or eight? Apparently more clones are coming to join Sarah, Alison, Cosima, Rachel, and Helena, the murderously delightful Ukrainian pork-rind gobbler (clones Beth and Katja are dead). Unless critics are blinded by the notion that playing multiple roles is somehow disqualifyingly gimmicky, it’s only a matter of time until Maslany wins a Best Actress Emmy. The Regina, Saskatchawan native has already copped the 2014 Critics Choice award over Claire Danes and Keri Russell. Far from a by-rote stunt, her performance in each role is masterly, complexly nuanced, and unforgettable, her two most most spectacular triumphs being the uptight soccer mom Alison and the terrifying, ultimately endearing, heavily accented bushy blonde enigma Helena (Maslany herself is of Ukrainian Polish, German, Austrian, and Romanian ancestry).

Orphan Black is set in a dark vision of Toronto encompassing a chillingly futuristic city of glass and a funky urban jungle. Clone protagonist Sarah Manning’s flaming gay foster brother Felix (Jordan Gavaris), a painter, lives in a loft that could have been fashioned from a habitable graffiti dream out of Banksy. The series opens in a subway station where a woman steps out of her high heeled shoes, lays down her purse, and flings herself in front of an incoming train. The scene is witnessed by Sarah, who registers the fact that the woman is her identical twin only seconds before the suicide. A resourceful petty thief, she wastes no time grabbing the purse and when she learns that the dead woman has a large sum of money in the bank, Sarah decides to impersonate her. This immediately complicates her life since Beth is a police detective who has been temporarily relieved from duty pending an investigation into the possibly unjustified killing of a suspect.

A Sort of Sisterhood

Maslany discusses her approach to the different characters in interviews with the Guardian and AV Club. Of Sarah, “I love playing her most; she’s my homegirl. There’s something primal about her …. What’s central to her is this inner conflict she has about motherhood: her daughter Kira is her entire life and yet she doesn’t feel like she’s fit to be a mother …. She has difficulty being intimate with people and she always feels like an outsider. When she meets the other clones she finally feels a sense of ‘being home’ — a sort of sisterhood.”

Of Sarah’s seeming opposite, Alison, the uptight soccer mom, Maslany tells AV Club: “She’s somebody who wants you to think they have everything together and is melting down inside …. As long as everybody thinks that she’s perfect, then it’s all good. As soon as people start to see the cracks, she starts to get really terrified.” By the second season, Alison also starts to spread her wings, becoming in her own ditzy, conflicted way wilder than Sarah.

Cosima, with her dark-framed spectacles and dreadlocks, is the only one of the clones with the technical intelligence and curiosity to explore the mystery of their origin. As Maslana puts it in the AV Club interview, “Cosima sees the world full of opportunity and potential and positivity and life, and Sarah sees it as something to defend herself against and something to be guarded against and something that she can’t trust.” The show’s science consultant, who is also named Cosima, “took us on this sort of two-hour clone seminar,” says Maslany, “and talked about cloning and … the very present nature of the science.” To the Guardian. she describes gay Cosima as “a sort of a hippy stoner …. She’s fine with how finding out the truth about the clones involves a lot of theorising and that there aren’t necessarily any answers. Intellectually, she’s on another plane.”

As for scary Helena, Maslana tells the Guardian, “We called her ‘the little monster’ on set. She’s part-child, part-trained killer; a saint and a demon at the same time. She’s not socialised. Like, she wouldn’t know that it’s not OK just to burp in someone’s face at the dinner table, which allowed me to play her with a measure of black comedy. The wig I wear to play her is amazing.”

Warmth and Depth

Black comedy is a defining term for both Orphan Black and Orange Is the New Black, which features one of the most impressively diverse ensembles ever seen on television (imagine packing a female version of The Wire into a “correctional facility”). Ultimately, what sets both shows apart is their devotion to the human comedy that gives warmth and depth to the high-risk, violently eventful narratives driving them.

One way you can appreciate the uniqueness of these two shows is in knowing it’s pointless to imagine real-life equivalents in city streets or around deserted houses. The lively, complex society in the prison is a world unto itself, and it’s impossible to watch the extraordinary goings-on in Orphan Black — like the dance of the clones that ends the second season — without channeling Shakespeare’s Miranda: “What brave new world is this that has such creatures in it?”

December 10, 2014

rev BachOnce you reach a certain age, your catalogue of associations is so extensive and so many-sided that it’s possible to discover a personal connection to virtually any worthy subject that comes your way. Sometimes the connection is too tenuous or too far-fetched to pursue. Concerning medieval manuscripts, pipe organs, Bach, and William Sheide, who died November 14 and was recently remembered in a memorial service at Nassau Presbyterian Church, the connection with my father, an organist who studied Medieval manuscripts and requested that Bach be played at his funeral, is right there. So, in particular, is the reference to the acquiring of the Bartholomaeus Anglicus (1472) in Fifty Years of Collecting (2004), the Princeton University Library’s 90th birthday tribute to Scheide, the renowned bibliophile, benefactor, musician, founder of the Bach Society, and Princeton University graduate (Class of 1936). For some 20 years, until his eyes gave out, my father studied, edited, and for all purposes lived in Bartholomaeus Anglicus, De Proprietatibus Rerum, which dates from the same period.

In one of the essays in Fifty Years of Collecting, Louise Scheide Marshall recalls growing up “surrounded by books of all sorts, sizes, and ages.” She remembers how eager her father was to show her “a special book or two,” one of her favorites being a calligraphic manuscript of Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott bound in “lush blue morocco with inset opals.” She also admits to having “a special love for illuminated manuscripts,” and a love for “the sound and touch of the vellum.” Me, I grew up to the sound of my mother heroically typing my father’s 240-page heavily footnoted and annotated doctoral dissertation on the aforesaid De Proprietatibus Rerum.

In the Presence

Three years ago I found myself in the presence of William Scheide’s Bach. Painted in 1748, the Haussmann portrait is one of only two that the composer sat for in his lifetime; it hangs near the entrance to the living room of the Scheide home on Library Place. The day I was there on a magazine assignment, Mr. Scheide was seated with his wife Judith by his side. A massive Holtkamp pipe organ loomed at the far end of the room; perched within reaching distance of the keyboard, was a stuffed animal I recognized from a decade of bedtime-story-reading as Curious George. His owner’s impish smile left no doubt that this was a man who had room in his life for both the mischievous monkey and the intimidating presence in the portrait — not to mention Dennis the Menace, judging from what his children said during the memorial service. And although his fondness for word play was noted, it seems that he was, like my father, “a strict grammarian.”

After some conversation, most of it about the logistics of installing and maintaining the Holtkamp, Bill Scheide was induced by our photographer to “play something” on the magnificent object. Although I had a notebook and pencil in hand during the brief demonstration, I wrote nothing down and have no idea what he played — but it had to have been Bach. The magnitude of the sound prompted a memory of my father’s prize possession, a pipe organ a third the size of the mighty Holtkamp but no less capable of raising the roof. And of course the roof-raiser of choice was Bach.

Schubert’s Adagio

While Bach also dominates the memorial service planned two decades ago by Scheide himself, the program is structured around Schubert’s Quintet in C Major, which was created a few months before the composer’s death at 31 in November 1828. As soon as I saw the Town Topics reference to Scheide’s son John’s thanking the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players after the performance of “a movement from a string quintet by Schubert,” I knew it had to be the adagio that Arthur Rubinstein called the “entrance to Heaven.” In a biographical film, The Love of Life, the world-famous pianist struggles to express the depth of his feeling for Schubert’s adagio. “This is something that I love more than anything …. It might be the soul of humanity,” he says, making a slow sweeping gesture with one hand, “the soul of all of us together.”

Rubinstein is referring in particular to the opening measures where Schubert seems to have ventured into some region between worlds known and unknown, life and death. At this moment, about halfway through the movement, the music intensifies, suggesting a struggle, desperate, passionate, and abruptly resolved before returning to the mood of mystery and longing and wonder with which it began.

That day in 2011, at the house on Library Place, Judith Scheide said the first thing her husband asks for in the morning is music. “We usually begin with Schubert,” she said. “Bill loves Schubert. It centers him for the day.”

The Organist’s Dance

When Judith Scheide said the day began with Schubert, not Bach, I was pleasantly surprised. The depth of Scheide’s devotion to Bach is evident in the choices he made for the memorial service. If the “day” of the service began and ended with Schubert, the eventful essence of it was Bach.

During my amateur listener’s tour of great composers, I’ve steered clear of Bach, perhaps because I’m waiting for an excuse — some anniversary coincidence — to take the plunge. If there’s any one obvious explanation for why I may have shied away from the subject, it’s that Bach’s music is associated with my father’s death. The organist at St. Paul’s in Key West for whom he sometimes covered knew exactly what to play for the funeral service and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor was at the top of the list.

Taking advantage of an excuse to finally explore Bach, I looked online for performances of the numerous pieces listed in the Scheide memorial service program. Out of the lot the one that held me was “Alle Menschen müssen sterben,” BWV 643 (“All Mortals Must Die”), as performed on a Fratelli Ruffati pipe organ by T. Ernest Nichols, a student of Virgil Fox. The video was filmed in a chapel at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais, Illinois. What kept me going back to it again and again was the feeling that I was discovering how it would have been to stand behind my father as he played during the years when he was the regular church organist. Never a willing churchgoer, I always took his playing for granted, instead of proudly thinking how great that my austere father was producing the thunder that made the building shake. Perhaps it was because I was too far away. I couldn’t see his hands, only his face. Now and then he would look down at something, as if distracted.

Like my father, Nichols is slightly built, greyhaired, bespectacled, so here I am looking over his shoulder, in effect, for the first time, and now I know why he kept peering down. I always assumed the organ had only a few pedals, like the piano, not this array of wooden shafts, the equivalent of another keyboard to be played with the feet. It’s embarrassing to realize that I was as clueless and benighted about his music as I was about his scholarship. Funny, while his hands know right where to go, his feet are all over the place, he’s walking here, there, stepping this way, that way, his feet sometimes well apart only to slide side by side until they seem to be riding the same pedal; it’s like a slow thoughtful dance with comical overtones, the way the right foot suddenly shoots up to hit one of the higher pedals, a Charlie Chaplin move, like when he skates going around a corner, one leg out, a touch of slapstick for sure, but all the while the music being made is simple, lovely, consoling, perfect, and knows exactly where it needs to go.

And then at the end comes a sweet surprise, that playful little rolling repeat of the sad figure that’s been like a gentle chant all through, it feels improvised, as if the stern man in the portrait was smiling in spite of himself.

Note: In my Feb. 7, 2007, column on Schubert (“A Little Book Leads the Way: Celebrating Schubert’s Birthday”), I suggested that Toscanini once said that the music he wanted to hear as he died was the adagio of the String Quintet in C major. Apparently, that was not Toscanini’s request but Rubinstein’s, as he admits in the film “The Love of Life.” That was my error, though I would not be surprised if Toscanini had to pick a specific piece of music to hear on the way out, the adagio would be high on the list, if not at the top.

December 3, 2014
Mike Nichols on the set of "The Graduate" discussing a scene with his alter ego, Dustin Hoffman, while Anne Bancroft looks on.

Mike Nichols on the set of “The Graduate” discussing a scene with his alter ego, Dustin Hoffman, while Anne Bancroft looks on.

An audience is a ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster, and if it doesn’t sense purpose then get out of its way, because it’s going to be difficult …. But when your purpose is high and strong and an audience can sense it, they’ll go pretty far with you.

—Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

When I heard about the death of Mike Nichols two weeks ago the image that came immediately to mind was of the title character played by Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate (1967). It’s rare this side of Charlie Chaplin for a director and a character to merge the way Nichols and Hoffman do in that film.

Told during a 1999 Film Comment interview that he didn’t “seem to identify” with the title character and appeared to “view him from a distance,” Nichols had to point out that in fact his identification with Benjamin was “predominate” in what he “did with the movie,” adding, “By that I mean, I didn’t cast [Robert] Redford …. I kept looking and looking for an actor until I found Dustin, who is the opposite, who’s a dark, Jewish, anomalous presence, which is how I experience myself. So I stuck this dark presence into Beverly Hills, and there he felt that he was drowning in things, and that was very much my take on that story. When I think of Benjamin, there are many things that come from my personal experience.”

That piece of casting and the self-styled way Nichols shaped Hoffman’s performance created the offbeat dynamic that, wonder of wonders, launched the film on its historic course as a classic of American cinema and a box office sensation, number one in the year(s) of its release, 1967-68, and number 21 all time, based on a figure adjusted for the inflationary cost of tickets.

Nichols’s “ruthless, heartless, and unruly monster” of an audience came out of The Graduate smiling and happy. As Stanley Kauffmann puts it in his Dec. 22 1967 New Republic review, “For once a happy ending makes us feel happy.” The last film that did that to an audience featured a British rock group with a funny name, cost relatively little to make (as did The Graduate) and came in at number 8 in 1964 behind three Elvis Presleys, a James Bond, a Sergio Leone, My Fair Lady, and Mary Poppins. Jump ahead four years from the Beatles and A Hard Day’s Night to Vietnam, and you’re already up to your hips in troubled waters: LBJ’s resignation, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the murders in Mississippi, and the disaster of the Democratic convention that helped put Nixon and Agnew in command as the battle lines formed for what Richard Poirier was writing about in his essay “The War Against the Young.” Two years up the road you have the feel-good pinnacle of Woodstock, followed by Hell’s Angels Altamont, Manson, Cambodia and the killing of 13 students at Kent and Jackson State. Among other things.

Even as the divisions deepened, people of all backgrounds and ages were cheering The Graduate, with its unknown and unhandsome hero and its unsavory plot line about a predatory married woman (Anne Bancroft, as Mrs. Robinson) seducing Hoffman’s borderline comatose youth who then falls in love with her daughter (Katherine Ross as Elaine) and finds something in life worth fighting for. Pauline Kael faulted The Graduate for making Benjamin “a romantic hero for the audience to project onto,” one who stood for “truth” while “older people stood for sham,” which perpetuated “a ‘generation gap’ view of youth and age” that “entered the national bloodstream.”

Making the Move

Politics and polarization aside, it was the high-energy denouement that had everyone rooting for Hoffman’s unlikely knight errant as he drove his college-graduation-present Alfa Romeo from L.A. to Berkeley and back until it ran out of gas in Santa Barbara, which left the college track star running to the church to rescue fair Elaine from the prison of a forced marriage, except that, contrary to the usual Hollywood snatched-from-the-jaws-of-wedlock script, he gets there too late, the vows have been exchanged, the nuptial kiss kissed. Ah, but it’s the shock of realizing the deed is done that inspires him to start shouting her name until she looks up and there he is high above the scene in a glass-partitioned balcony, arms outspread as if he were about to take flight and swoop like a superhero to the rescue.

What follows may be the most exhilarating three minutes in cinema since the Beatles descended on an open field to leap about to the full-speed-ahead euphoria of “Can’t Buy Me Love.” With the hand-held camera working its magic, the chaotic escape is so brilliantly enacted, you’d think some mad genius had choreographed the whole sequence (the genius being a combination of Mike Nichols, cinematographer Robert Surtees, and “the magic hand of chance”). Down comes Benjamin, drunk with adrenaline, pushing past the howling, infuriated father of the bride (“you crazy punk, I’ll kill you!”), leaping over the stairway with the ease of Douglas Fairbanks vaulting parapets as the thief of Bagdad, elbowing the murderous Mr. Robinson in the gut while grabbing the nearest cross and flailing away with both hands like a hammer-thrower with a scimitar as the enraged wedding party tumbles backward, parents, relatives, the blond blue-eyed groom (“the makeout king”) and his blond, walking-surfboard frat brothers. Who’d have thought that the dorky character first seen being moved along the moving sidewalk at LAX like an object on an assembly line could pull off the coup of the last movement, spiriting himself and the bride safely through the glass doors he then locks against the mob by using the cross as a wedge. The effect is of staving off a shouting cursing microcosm of straight America, all the outrage muted, buried in silence, as the lovers break into a run.

Feeling It

Compared to the prolonged dance of death that ends Bonnie and Clyde, 1967’s other cinema landmark, the escape from the church and the world of loathing locked behind the glass doors has an even more violent undercurrent, something deeper, uglier, more menacing. Elaine saw it in her parents and the groom as Benjamin shouted her name; that was her moment of truth: to see the hatred twisting and distorting the faces of the people who thought they had her future locked up, and here was this creep in a parka ruining everything. Nichols makes you feel it. He puts you at the emotional epicenter — you feel it all, you feel with the girl, her face uplifted, eyes wide, taking in the reality of her lot, and you feel the joyous rightness of it when she knows what she has to do, screams his name, and makes her move. And you feel it with them as they take off, running hand in hand, literally running for their lives, she in her wedding dress, smiling, laughing with the giddy joy of release, and then the seemingly perfect meshing of the possibilities as they catch the bus that appears at just the right moment and hurry down the aisle in their glory to one of the most memorable moments in cinema, the couple in the back of the bus, winded, triumphant, at first all smiles as Hoffman gives a shout we can’t hear, like an athlete in the ecstasy of winning; after exchanging one loving look, they face forward, stunned by what they’ve done and sobered by the awareness that they are on their way to the unknown as the music that has haunted the film from the beginning brings it to its conclusion, Simon and Garfunkel singing of sounds of silence, darkness, restless dreams, narrow streets, and the cold and damp.

Nichols and May

The other image I saw the moment I heard the news about Mike Nichols was the way he looked at the dawn of the sixties when he and Elaine May were in their prime, making records and appearing on Broadway. As Nichols notes in the commentary included with M-G-M’s 40th anniversary DVD, he learned a great deal about directing while developing and perfecting his routines with May. The experience also enabled him to remake the character of Benjamin in his own image. If you revisit Nichols and May on film or online, you’ll find him employing intonations and inflections predating Hoffman’s performance, his constricted speech patterns and occasional broken whimpers of confusion and distress. All through the film, there are instances where Hoffman is doing Nichols in modified Nichols and May routines, not just with Bancroft but with various other characters, including Mr.Robinson and Benjamin’s parents. Watching himself in one such scene during the DVD commentary he shares with co-star Katherine Ross, Hoffman exclaims, “I can see Mike so much now! That was Mike!”

November 26, 2014

book revA nondescript sign hanging above an uninviting door on a street in Philadelphia says ART, BOOKS. The door opens easily and what you see on the other side makes it feel like you’ve walked into a movie.

There are all kinds of interiors, some dull, some posh, and then there are vistas like the one extending into the far distance. Books and art are here, as promised. Piled on top of floor-to-ceiling shelves teeming with volumes from the era before ISBN numbers are paintings, jumbled, tumbled, balanced, constructively haphazard, as if arranged by a Hollywood set designer on a roll, canvases framed and unframed, original artworks, some of it shrill and chaotic, like hieroglyphics gone wild, graffiti that couldn’t find the right wall. As you venture farther back, past immense, picturesquely faded 19th-century French posters advertising livraisons partout gratis by Paul de Kock, you find boxes of old records, sheet music, postcards, vintage magazines and newspapers, auction catalogues, and, filling the last long stretch of the vista, antiques with enough charisma to suggest that a Maltese Falcon or Brasher Doubloon might be found on the premises.

So if this is a movie, what’s it about, where’s it coming from, and where’s it going? The genre that makes the most sense for such a murky, intriguingly disordered setting is film noir. Except that doesn’t fit with my idea of Philadelphia, even though literary historians say Poe invented the detective story here, writing “Murders in the Rue Morgue” a few years before George Lippard produced The Quaker City … A Romance of Philadelphia Life, Mystery, and Crime (1845), one of the wildest, weirdest Gothic mind-benders ever written. It’s also true that the City of Brotherly Love is where two bop piano geniuses suffered brain-damaging beatings in the 1940s, Bud Powell at the hands of the police, Dodo Marmarosa attacked by a gang of sailors who dumped him headfirst on the dockside railroad tracks. You could fashion a tragic noir around either man, both of whom never fully recovered.

The idea of a movie about an embattled pianist brings to mind François Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player (1960), which was based on a novel by what’s-his-name, the writer of the book behind one of my favorite noirs, Dark Passage. I’m thinking of the scene where Bogart goes out in the middle of the San Francisco night to find a plastic surgeon because he needs a new face. The doctor who does the job is philosophical, telling Bogart “There’s no such thing as courage, only the fear of getting hurt and the fear of dying.” For some reason that line gives me the name I was looking for, David Goodis. Because Dark Passage was set in San Francisco, I always thought Goodis lived out there. In fact, he’s right here, right where he belongs, with these thoughts of beatings and piano players in this vast curiosity shop in the City of Brotherly Love.

Finding David Goodis

Looking him up online that night, I learn that David Goodis was born and grew up in Philadelphia, studied for a year at my alma mater Indiana University before transferring to Temple, where he graduated in 1938 with a journalism degree, moved to New York City, worked in advertising, wrote for pulps like Horror Stories, Terror Tales, and Dime Mystery, published Dark Passage in the Saturday Evening Post, sold it to Hollywood, knew the stars (there are photos of him with Bogart and Bacall). Then back to his hometown for good to become the poet laureate of Philadelphia noir, turning out Gold Medal paperbacks like The Moon in the Gutter, Nightfall, Cassidy’s Girl, Of Tender Sin, Street of the Lost, and Down There, the book that went to Paris and became Truffaut’s Tirez sur le pianiste.

The only thing by Goodis I could find locally is a paperback of Shoot the Piano Player. Here’s the first paragraph:

There were no street lamps, no lights at all. It was a narrow street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia. From the nearby Delaware a cold wind came lancing in, telling all alley cats they’d better find a heated cellar. The late November gusts rattled against midnight-darkened windows, and stabbed at the eyes of the fallen man in the street.

That’s an irresistible opening, word-music and articulated atmosphere as mood-making as Charles Asnavour’s beyond worldweary face glooming above the piano in Truffaut’s film, which brings the melody of feeling to life much as Goodis describes it: “a soft, easygoing rhythm, somewhat plaintive and dreamy, a stream of pleasant sound that seemed to be saying, Nothing matters.” As for the piano player, he’s “slightly bent over, aiming a dim and faraway smile at nothing in particular.”

Where fiction most impressively surpasses film and makes you understand why Henry Miller said the novel was “even better” than the movie is in the love story between the piano player and the waitress. In the film Lena is played by Marie Dubois, whose charming wholesome beauty and lovely smile make it a foregone conclusion that Aznavour’s Eddie would be instantly infatuated. Gaddis’s depiction of the awkward evolution of a deeply felt relationship is so tensely and determinedly understated that it takes on a force greater than all the violence in a violent book. Dubois’s youthful charm is no match for the presence and power of Gaddis’s waitress. This is why the end of Down There has an emotional impact beyond anything in the film. After seeing the woman he was afraid to fall in love with shot dead in the snow, the piano player goes back to the refuge he found after his fall from concert hall glory, a dockside dive called Harriet’s Hut, where Lena worked. One way he tries to resist loving her is to think of her not by name but as “the waitress” right up to the moment of her death — “down there” in South Jersey.

“Less is more” is the line Gaddis follows from the cold wind of the opening paragraph to the deliverance of the conclusion, with Goodis, like a pianist himself, at his own keyboard. People in the bar are urging him to play, they all but lift him onto the stool, but he’s “got nothing to give them,” until a whisper comes “from somewhere” telling him he can try. When, with eyes closed, he hears the sound, “warm and sweet,” coming from a piano, he thinks, “That’s a fine piano …. Who’s playing that?” And as the story ends: “He opened his eyes. He saw his fingers caressing the keyboard.”

Earlier, when he heard jazz coming over a car radio, the piano player said something similar to himself, “That’s very fine piano … I think that’s Bud Powell.”

It’s said that during his year and a half confinement at Creedmore after the Philadelphia attack, Bud Powell drew a keyboard on the wall of his cell, so he could open his eyes and see it there and imagine his fingers moving on the keys.

The Writer as the Player

The cover of La vie en noir et blanc, the biography of David Goodis by Philippe Garnier (Editions de Seuil 1984), has a photograph of Goodis at the piano, a cigarette in his mouth. After reading his way through Goodis’s dark world, Garnier commented, “I find it very difficult to imagine springtime in Philadelphia.”

Julian Rackow, Goodis’s lawyer in the suit he brought against the hit TV series The Fugitive for allegedly stealing ideas from Dark Passage, found it no less difficult to put his impression of Goodis into words, at least until he saw Shoot the Piano Player: “Upon leaving the theater, my wife said that I looked as pale as a ghost. I was shaken because it was as if I had seen David Goodis.” Besides observing that the Aznavour character had “many of the personality and physical traits of David Goodis,” Rackow felt that both men were versions of “the quintessential loner.” The piano player was the writer, “all wrapped up tightly within himself … far more comfortable within his own shell.”

Streets Given Meaning

On the same day that began at the emporium behind the ART/BOOKS sign, my son and I drove to a used record store called Sit & Spin on South Ninth in the Italian market, a part of the city I’m not very familiar with and at the time had no desire to know better. On our way, we covered a lot of ground, crossing innumerable four-way-stop intersections of streets that had no particular significance for me.

At home, after discovering a fantastically informative web site called “Shooting Pool with David Goodis,” I learned just how wide a swath of urban territory his novels encompass. Those insignificant street names I’d passed earlier that day were now charged with meaning, fiction and real-life merging in an area the web site calls Goodisville: “The majority of the novels were set in Skid Row, the Delaware River docks, Kensington, Southwark, and Port Richmond. Three of these areas are truly lost to contemporary Philadelphians. Working class Southwark is now Queens Village, most of which is increasingly upscale. Dock Street, overlooking the waterfront and once the center of a sprawling and cacophonous produce market, is now the location of independent film theaters, and of the Society Hill Towers apartments. Skid Row fell to redevelopment plans over 30 years ago; the derelicts, the fleabag hotels, and the Sunday Breakfast Association have long been unlamented.”

The circumstances of David Goodis’s death at 49 in March 1967 have a noirish aspect. While the official cause is given as a “cerebral vascular accident,” the consensus seems to be that it resulted from the beating Goodis suffered while resisting a hold-up attempt.

Down There can be found in the Library of America’s anthology American Noir of the 1950s. Gaddis has a volume all to himself in Five Noir Novels.The 2nd Street emporium is Jules Goldman Books and Antiques.

 
November 19, 2014

DVD revI suggest that Hitchcock belongs —and why classify him at all? — among such artists of anxiety as Kafka, Dostoevsky, and Poe. —François Truffaut

According to a 2012 critics poll in the British film journal, Sight and Sound, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is “the greatest film ever made.” You can be sure that enlightened movie watchers around the world dispute that declaration, and with good reason. Even if I believed in the legitimacy of film rankings by “authorities” in the field, Vertigo would be nowhere near the top of my list. But when the late Robin Wood, whose writings on Hitchcock are classics of film criticism, demonstrates in eloquent and convincing detail why Vertigo is “one of the four or five most profound and beautiful films the cinema has given us,” I’m moved to reexamine my feelings about it, especially when a remastered print is available on DVD.

Having now seen the film twice in a three day period, I’m less appalled by the idea that people new to the medium or with limited knowledge of it will take the poll seriously enough to assume that Vertigo somehow sets the standard for  film greatness. In the context of its era, it stands alone, a fascinating creation, ahead of its time, daring, inventive, and uncompromising. What sets it apart in addition to Hitchcock’s predictably masterful direction is Robert Burks’s cinematography, Bernard Herrmann’s score, and Jimmy Stewart’s performance as a man doomed to fall in love. Only Hitchcock could film a love story that takes the romantic metaphor to a morbid extreme. At the same time, as is frequently the case with Hitchcock, the picture suffers from the same lapses and  excesses associated with the pop culture legend he crafted for himself as cinema’s rotund “Imp of the Perverse” — excesses he shares with the “Imp’s” author, that other morbid genius and master of the macabre, of whom Hitchcock has written: “… it’s because I liked Edgar Allan Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.”

Mad Love

Freely adapted from D’entre les morts, a lame thriller concocted by Thomas Narcejac and Pierre Boileau to catch Hitchcock’s attention, Vertigo is about a police detective named Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) who has retired from the force due to acrophobia brought on when he nearly falls to his death while pursuing a suspect. A college friend hires Ferguson to shadow his elegant, allegedly suicidal wife, Madeline (Kim Novak), who has been behaving strangely, brooding in cemeteries and communing with a museum portrait of her ghostly alter ego, Carlotta Valdes (a name that Poe would love). After saving her life when she jumps into San Francisco Bay, Ferguson falls in love with her and she with him, but when she jumped off the top of a Spanish mission bell tower to her death, he was unable to save her because of his fear of heights. The shock and the nightmares it engenders precipitate a nervous breakdown, from which he recovers with help from Midge, his former girlfriend who still loves him (a bespectacled Barbara Bel Geddes). When he meets Judy, a sales clerk without an elegant bone in her body (Kim Novak again) but with a haunting resemblance to Madeline, he’s compelled to make her over in the image of his dead beloved. This he accomplishes, only to discover that Judy had pretended to be Madeline as part of a plot involving the murder of the old friend’s rich wife. Twice deceived, taking Judy-as-Madeline back to the tower, he forces her to the top while chastising her for her duplicity and at the same time proving to himself that he can overcome his acrophobia. At the top, startled by the appearance of a nun, the girl falls to her death. Staring down at her body, Scottie Ferguson is “cured.” We know better. For Hollywood in 1958, this is a remarkably downbeat ending.

Jimmy Stewart

Of all the epigraphs that could be applied to Vertigo, the most apropos might be from Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale”: “I have been half in love with easeful Death/Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,” except that for Jimmy Stewart’s love-dazed Scottie, Death is beautiful and her name is Madeline. What Hitchcock ghoulishly classifies as a “necrophiliac” romance reaches its psycho-sexual pinnacle when the shopgirl Scottie has transformed into Madeline stands before him, “as if she were naked,” says Hitchcock, who consecrates the moment with a dizzying, full-circle 360-degree-angle shot of an embrace of Wagnerian proportions (to the  Liebestod yet) between a madman and the corpse he’s created to satisfy his morbid lust (the level of discourse, again, typical of the master of the macabre). No one but an actor of Stewart’s stature, a star the moviegoing public absolutely believes in, could have preserved his integrity in so neurotic a role.

In the early scenes with Midge, in her apartment/studio (she’s an artist reduced  to designing bra/lingerie ads), you have glimpses of the familiar “waal, shucks ma’am” Jimmy Stewart whom comedians and certain schoolboys in the 1950s loved to impersonate. The actor remains at a bland remove from the character until the moment he drags Kim Novak out of San Francisco Bay. It’s surprising that for all his attention to the virtues of the film, Robin Wood neglects to mention the extraordinary medium close-up two shot of Stewart and Novak after he’s pulled her out of the cold water. The image is on the screen only a matter of seconds, but in it you see the man coming face to face  with his gorgeous fate for the first time. He’s shaking, out of breath, as he beholds, dazed, in a dream, the timeless beauty of the creature whose life he’s saved. An actor unsurpassed in believably and wrenchingly expressing extremes of anguish, Stewart makes you feel the man’s helpless plunge to the depths of his love for the unconscious woman in his arms; at this point his emotions are so exposed,  it’s as if he thinks she’s about to die at the very moment he’s discovering and adoring her. All he can say is her name. It’s his first declaration of love. It also may be Novak’s most beautiful moment, for she’s seen in profile, drenched, damply radiant, like Hitchcock’s version of the Birth of Venus. We still haven’t heard her say a word, which is just as well since she never seems comfortable speaking the language of the wealthy woman she’s impersonating. While that serves the director’s purpose well enough, you still can’t help wishing a more accomplished actress were playing the part.

Wrong Move

Probably the most famous instance of Hitchcock’s fetish for women in spectacles is in Strangers On a Train, when the strangling of Farley Granger’s bespectacled wife is reflected in the lenses of her fallen glasses. Hitchcock makes Midge’s glasses her essential feature, a way of at once defining and deglamorizing her role as the sane, sensible, loving alternative to Scottie’s fatal fascination with Madeline and the portrait of Carlotta Valdes. Aware of the power of that image over the man she still loves, Midge uses a copy of the painting to compose what Robin Wood calls “a parody portrait of herself” as Carlotta, complete with her own dark-framed glasses, which look ridiculous in the elegant period trappings of the original portrait. Wood sees nothing to complain about in the cringe-inducing scene where Midge shows Scottie the portrait; he treats  the embarrassment as if it makes filmic sense, as if she thinks she can render the obsession “ridiculous by satirizing it.” In fact, she humiliates herself, alienates Scottie by violating the image of his passion (he stalks out of the apartment), and worse yet, she violates the film’s credibility, having been forced by the Imp of the Perverse to make exactly the wrong move. When she tears her hair and berates herself (“Stupid! Stupid!”) she’s also voicing the sentiments of a large portion of the audience watching the irrepressible Hitchcock inflict a direct hit on his own creation.

Vertigo in the Perverse 

All quibbling aside, I find the presence of Poe in Hitchcock appealing because it agrees with my sense of Hitch as a 20th century phenomenon in American culture comparable to Poe in the 19th century. Like Hitchcock, Poe inflicted perverse distortions on his own work, playing games, jesting, defying the logic of his creation with ornate, bombastic, melodramatic gambits of the sort that made T.S. Eliot observe that “The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights,” and that inspired Henry James to call an enthusiasm for Poe “the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.” Comparing Poe to Baudelaire, his champion in France, James found him to be “much the greater charlatan of the two, as well as the greater genius.”

Finally, it’s worth noting the employment of vertigo as a metaphor in “The Imp of the Perverse” where Poe writes, “We stand upon the brink of a precipice. We peer into the abyss — we grow sick and dizzy. Our first impulse is to shrink from the danger. Unaccountably we remain.” The notion of the perverse, of knowingly surrendering to the fatal impulse, is developed at length in the same long paragraph as Poe elaborates on this moment on the brink, as if one were tempted by curiosity  to experience “the sweeping precipitancy of a fall from such a height … for the very reason that it involves … the most ghastly and loathsome images of death and suffering which have ever presented themselves to our imagination — for this very cause do we now the most vividly desire it. And because our reason violently deters us from the brink, therefore do we the most impetuously approach it. There is no passion in nature so demoniacally impatient, as that of him who, shuddering upon the edge of a precipice, thus meditates a Plunge.”

In a 1960 article called “Why I Am Afraid of the Dark”, Hitchcock recounts his discovery of Poe. “When I came home from the office where I worked I went straight to my room, took the cheap edition of his Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque, and began to read. I still remember my feelings when I finished ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue.’ I was afraid, but this fear made me discover something I’ve never forgotten since: fear, you see, is an emotion people like to feel when they know they’re safe.”

As always, I found Hitchcock’s most interesting remarks in François Truffaut’s collection of interviews, from which several quotes are taken, including the one at the top.

November 12, 2014

book revAs Princeton resident and professor emeritus Samuel Hynes demonstrates in The Unsubstantial Air: American Fliers in the First World War (Farrar Straus and Giroux $26), the romance of being a fighter pilot in the Great War was viewed by young men, many of them from Ivy League schools, as “wonderful sport,” “a glorious sport,” “the best game over here,” “the sporty side of war.” Hynes, who flew 68 combat missions as a Marine pilot in World War II, goes along with the notion before grounding it in reality: “They’re right …. Only in the air will small groups of players acting together oppose other small groups — like two football teams. But to make the big game analogy really work, you’d have to imagine a Harvard-Yale game in which both teams are armed with lethal weapons. In that game the players would not simply be athletes; they’d be gamblers, taking risks with their own lives.”

Princeton in the Air

The big game idea is extended in Hynes’s account of the day flying came to Princeton, November 18, 1916, as the Tiger football team took on Yale, with a fleet of 12 planes flying in from Long Island, the lead aircraft piloted by Old Nassau’s star athlete Hobey Baker (Class of 1914). When America entered the war in 1918, Princeton organized its own flying corps, financed by well-heeled alums, with a pasture south of town on the Princeton Pike leased as an air field. Hynes nails the Princeton connection by quoting an exchange from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise in which Fitzgerald’s fictional alter ego Amory Blaine says “aviation’s the thing for me.”

Fitzgerald’s own feelings on the subject are presented with characteristic flair in a November 14, 1917 letter to his mother from the Cottage Club informing her that upon getting his commission he went to Brooks Brothers to order some of his “equipment” (“my uniforms are going to cost quite a bit”); he goes on to say that he “went into this perfectly cold-bloodedly” and doesn’t sympathize with the “hero stuff,” having made the move “purely for social reasons” [his italics].

Had Fitzgerald actually become a pilot, he’d have had his shot at society, for, as Hynes points out, “Wherever they trained, in England or in Scotland or in France, the young Americans found the local gentry hospitable and eager to invite them to their country houses for dinner or weekends. The pilots were impressed by the style of the lives these people lived” (think Downton Abbey) “and wrote home about the country-house life.” One pilot tells “a Princeton friend” about attending a dance at “a large estate” in Scotland “with a history dating way back somewhere,” being invited there again “for an afternoon of tennis and tea,” and concluding that he has “quite broken into the high society of Ayr.”

Personal Effects

Early chapters of Hynes’s book like “Driving the Machine” reminded me of being taken up in a Piper Cub by one of my maternal uncles, a career soldier in the Army Air Force who performed, much to my delight, certain aerial maneuvers. Such antics with an eight-year-old aboard must have appalled my mother, and for good reason, since her other brother, a B-47 bombardier, had been killed in a mid-air collision. Brother and sister had been very close and the wound left by the senseless crash (a training mission in Nevada) never healed. After her death, I found a small box containing a dog tag, a dented cigarette lighter, and a mangled, half-full pack of Camels. She received these things and other “personal effects” along with a letter from an Army chaplain telling her that her “loved one’s body” had been found at a distance from the wreckage “remarkably intact.”

The chaplain’s comment came to mind in Hynes’s account of the death of Raoul Lufbery, “the most revered American aviator in France,” according to Eddie Rickenbacker, who called him an “Ace of Aces.” It was Rickenbacker who described the scene after driving to the village where Lufbery “had struck the earth … the body had fallen on a white picket fence surrounding a peasant’s garden.”

In addition to various suppositions about the loss of a pilot immune to the bravado that brought down inexperienced fliers who saw combat as a sport, there was the question of whether Lufbery had jumped or fallen, this being before pilots had parachutes. In one eyewitness account “from the village shoemaker,” Lufbery “had flown so close to the enemy plane that they seemed to touch and had fired four or five shots. The German did not reply. Again he approached and fired, and this time the German replied with a few rounds. The American plane pulled away and rolled over, and what looked like a sack full of something fell out.”

After paraphrasing the village shoemaker, Hynes quotes Billy Mitchell, “the great cheerleader for war in the air,” who describes “the terrible thing” that is the “burning of a pilot in the air as his ship catches fire from the hostile flaming bullets …. He is there suspended in space, with no companion to share his misery, no man at his elbow to support him, as in the infantry on the ground. When he is wounded and falls, it is for thousands of feet instead of two or three, as a man on the ground does.”

Touching and Terrible

Another association roused by Hynes’s book that has some additional bearing on the chaplain’s letter to my mother can be found in a scene from William Wellman’s silent film Wings, which won the 1929 Academy Award for Best Picture. “Wild Willy” Wellman was the first American to join the Lafayette Flying Corps and is said to have achieved three recorded “kills,” along with five probables. Though Wings includes some spectacular flying scenes (not to mention the unwholesomely wholesome charms of Clara Bow), the scene that has stayed with me is illuminated by Gary Cooper, then on the brink of stardom. Playing an air cadet named White, Cooper is on the screen a mere matter of minutes, just long enough to greet the two rookie pilots (Buddy Rogers and Richard Arlen) before leaving “to do a flock of figure eights before chow.” Telling the boys (one minute in the Cooper Presence and the two male leads have become puppies) that he doesn’t believe in good luck charms (“Luck or no luck, when your time comes, you’re going to get it”), he gives them a look that says everything there is to say about such things as life and death and fate. It’s the epitome of Last Looks and Last Words, in medium close-up, effortlessly expressed by one of the great faces of cinema. Almost before you have time to recover from that moment, the fate alluded to is delivered, as an officer tells the stunned rookies to gather White’s belongings for sending home. While they are predictably moved by the photograph of White’s mother, the object that commands their attention is the half-eaten chocolate bar he’d shared with them, a token of camaraderie. Suddenly that mundane object has become touching and terrible in its very ordinariness — like such things as white picket fences and gardens, village shoemakers, “a sack full of something,” and, for me, my uncle’s dog tag, dented lighter, and the package of Camels, with a dozen cigarettes inside, still intact. Usually I keep the dog tag hanging from a push-pin on the bulletin board above my desk; at this moment, an hour after midnight, November 11, I’m wearing it.

A Puff of Smoke

In Hynes’s penultimate chapter, not all the pilots at the front are “rejoicing” at the rumors that the war might be ending; the possibility of an armistice is passed off as “the peace scare.” As Hynes explains, “peace will mean the end of the game they entered when they enlisted, the game that would change them from college boys into older, different people.” In one letter written within a month of November 11, a 23-year-old flying ace with eight confirmed “kills” says he’s “done a lot of figuring” on what he’s “worth or good for.” He’d thought he had his life “all fixed” and had pictured himself “as a spectacled City Manager. That has gone like a puff of smoke.” The flying life has given him “a terrible wanderlust.” As Hynes phrases it, the young man’s future seemed “wide open and full of options,” including “careers in engineering, geology, forestry, aviation, automobiles.” On October 27, 1918, two weeks short of the Armistice, Hamilton Coolidge, the great-great-great grandson of Thomas Jefferson, was killed in action by a German anti-aircraft shell near Grandpré in the Ardennes.

Art and Armistice

And so comes the Armistice, but “after the cheering and the flags and the bright city lights, the new peacetime seems,” in Hynes’s words, “a vacancy: the sky is empty now and so are their lives.”

Like nature, however, art “abhors a vacuum.” Thus Shakespeare swallows a storm and creates King Lear, which gives Samuel Hynes a title for his own contribution to the cause: “Welcome, then,/Thou unsubstantial air that I embrace:/The wretch that thou hast blown unto the worst/Owes nothing to thy blasts.”

Finally, who better to articulate and redeem the vacancy than William Faulkner, who could fly, in reality and rhetorically. In mid-June of 1918 he was accepted by the Royal Air Force and though he never got off the ground (“the war quit on us before we could do anything about it”), in the next decade he would write masterworks like The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying and “Ad Astra,” a story that takes place on November 11, 1918, as does “All the Dead Pilots,” where the narrator’s task, not unlike Hynes’s in The Unsubstantial Air, is going through the mail “of all the squadrons in the Wing.”

Although Hynes does more than justice to the subject, it takes a flier like Faulkner to set it soaring in “All the Dead Pilots,” with “a flash, a glare … preserved and prolonged only on paper: a picture, a few written words that any match … can obliterate in an instant,” and in “Ad Astra,” where, like Hynes, he channels Lear: “Out of nothing we howled, unwitting the storm which we had escaped and the foreign strand which we could not escape; that in the interval between two surges of the swell we died who had been too young to have ever lived.”

The quote from Fitzgerald comes from Andrew Turnbull’s collection of the letters.

 

November 5, 2014

People are so in love with Richard, but he’s killed like 89 people!

—Terence Winter on Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow

What’s haunting me this Halloween season is the singing of Jack Bruce (1943-2014), who died October 25, and the acting of Jack Huston as Richard Harrow in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-14), which ended its five-season run on October 26.

My first thought on hearing of Bruce’s death wasn’t for his bass playing and songwriting with the power trio Cream but the uniqueness of his voice and the mood he creates as he moves from raw, bluesy passion to a subtle, tensely hushed, almost ethereal place in the same song, his singing both soft and searing above Eric Clapton’s virtuoso guitar and Ginger Baker’s rolling and tumbling drums.

Once I got beyond the high-profile obits stressing Bruce’s skills as a bassist, I found responses that came closer to my Halloween-based impression of his singing: “the uniquely haunting falsetto,” the “ghostly falsetto,” “Jack’s haunting high voice,” his “haunting operatic style,” his “voice that we all remember, soaring hauntingly,” the voice that adds “a haunting element” (my italics).

DVD rev2Having long ago traded my original copy of Disraeli Gears (1967) to the Princeton Record Exchange, I had to go to YouTube for immediate access to the album that put Cream on the American map. Their debut, Fresh Cream was clearly a product of the British blues scene. Beginning with “Strange Brew,” and its “kill what’s inside of you” refrain, Disraeli Gears took the blues into a strange new neighborhood. On YouTube there it was in all its gaudy glory: one of the psychedelic era’s most evocative album covers. At the time, even if you didn’t know the music, you had to own that record, that fabulous image, and you soon found that not only did the music live up to the imagery, it delivered a fiery equivalent of the complex aesthetic excitement of the cover montage, the newness of it, the design of the time, like the work of some genius of graffiti before Banksy was a gleam in England’s eye. So much of the musical chemistry depended on the way Jack Bruce put those quirky, edgy, blues-haunted songs across. Later singers like Jon Anderson of Yes and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin might approach or exceed his intensity, but few could equal his nuanced command of a voice that was as formidable an instrument as his bandmates’ guitar and drums. No surprise when you learn that Bruce was classically trained, studying cello and composition at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music, and so talented a singer that as a six-year-old he once sang for Paul Robeson.

Listen to songs like “Strange Brew,” “World of Pain,” “Dance the Night Away,” “We’re Going Wrong,” or “Tales of Brave Ulysses” and you hear Bruce exploring, discovering, and sustaining a fine emotional line that in his composition, “We’re Going Wrong,” actually seems to be entering some brave new world of rock between the art song and the blues.

Ghosts of the Boardwalk

“We’re Going Wrong” is one of several numbers from Disraeli Gears that could be played as a commentary on Boardwalk Empire’s fifth and final season. While the show’s most obvious claim to fame may be the visual brilliance of its depiction of the Prohibition era, every episode except the last one begins with a hard-rocking blues-inflected blast of sixties energy by a group that takes its name from a fallen rock star of the period Jack Bruce and Cream helped define. The music accompanying the opening credit sequence, which shows Atlantic City crime boss Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) lighting a cigarette as the froth of the incoming tide oozes over his elegantly photogenic shoes, is performed by the Brianjonestown Massacre; in fact, the title of the wordless track “Straight Up and Down,” prefigures Nucky’s fate.

Harrow’s Blues

You could say that Jack Huston’s scarred ex-army sharpshooter Richard Harrow sings a darkly poignant blues of his own in Boardwalk Empire, though his lament is effectively muted because of the mask molded to replicate the disfgured half of his face. In a skyatlantic interview, Huston describes how his speeches were typed in the script, the sentences “broken up with periods in very strange places” to show that the character “obviously didn’t speak in the right way.” That Huston calls the ellipses “full stops” lends a hint of musical notation to the mix (you can also hear it in the way Jack Bruce spaces the words of the title in “We’re Going Wrong”). Huston says he created the effect by putting cotton gauze in his mouth and speaking in low, halting, throaty tones, as if his voice-box had also been damaged. “It’s quite difficult and painful to speak with the mask,” he says, “but when I put that mask on I’m him.”

In almost every scene he shares with another person (not counting the ones he kills), Harrow has a special aura, an element of hushed, hesitant, emotionally charged poetry that haunts the moment. It’s there in his first scene with his eventual soulmate Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt). The two combat-scarred soldiers (Darmody has shrapnel in his leg) exchange questions and answers about the books they’re reading as they wait in a Chicago hospital to be interviewed about their post-combat mental state. Richard’s book is one from the Tom Swift series, but what he says about it and the halting way he expresses the words goes deeper; it’s his theme, Richard’s blues: “It occurs to me … that the basis of fiction … is that people have some sort of … connection with each other … but they don’t.”

From Season Two of "Boardwalk Empire," that's Jack Huston as Richard Harrow on the right, with Nucky Thompson's brother Eli (Shea Whigham).

From Season Two of “Boardwalk Empire,” that’s Jack Huston as Richard Harrow on the right, with Nucky Thompson’s brother Eli (Shea Whigham).

Originally slated for only a handful of episodes, Harrow went straight to the heart of the audience — as Terence Winter says, viewers fell in love with this gentle, civilized  killing machine, until a few episodes became four seasons. There’s a fair chance that my wife and I are not the only ones who might have given up on  Boardwalk Empire if Terence Winter hadn’t dealt the wild card of Richard Harrow. What ultimately sets Boardwalk Empire apart and makes it not only worth watching but as much a credit to HBO as The Sopranos is the sense that the whole show is an elaborate high-stakes gamble taken by a daringly imaginative team led by Sopranos veterans Winter and Tim Van Patten, along with Howard Korder and Martin Scorsese.

Omar and Richard

In spite of the fact that the fifth and final season of Boardwalk Empire looked to be its weakest (Harrow was gone, for one thing), series creator Winter and his crew pulled it together in the closing episodes. In addition to the seasons with Harrow, what continued to hold us was the casting-against-type tour de force of Steve Buscemi’s performance as Nucky Thompson; the appeal of Kelly Macdonald as his second wife; the fascination of the Dostoevskian extremes encompassed by Gretchen Mol’s anti-heroine Gillian Darmody and of Michael Shannon’s no less morally twisted epic portrayal of fallen FBI agent Nelson VanAlden. Then there was Michael K. Williams as the stoic African American crime boss Chalky White. It was Williams’s name in the cast list that made us curious about the series in the first place. Like many other viewers, we’d been captivated by his portrayal of Omar in HBO’s The Wire, where his murderous actions, like Harrow’s, were somehow tempered if not redeemed by the heart and humanity Williams gave to the performance. Omar’s blues was only a tougher version of Richard’s.

Still, Richard Harrow had more to lament. With Omar, menace was always present. With Richard, humanity and the yearning for love and family and connection always underscored the menace. There he sits in more than one scene clipping images of families from magazines and newspapers and pasting them in a scrapbook that he puts together as quietly and methodically as he arranges his weaponry, a veritable showcase of artillery, before his biggest kill, the massacre of a brothel full of gangsters in the last episode of the third season.

Buscemi’s Coup

Surely Boardwalk Empire’s biggest gamble was choosing to center the series on Steve Buscemi, a character actor known and loved for playing losers in iconic films, like Shut-up-Donny to John Goodman’s Walter in The Big Lebowski; the thorny, nerdy Seymour in Ghost World; the hapless director in Living in Oblivion, the hapless hood in Fargo, and Charlie the hapless barber in Mystery Train. This is a funny-looking guy with a funny-sounding voice, his affect and accent just this side of Bugs Bunny, and he’s my favorite actor because he brings something special to every movie he’s in. Judging from some reviews and blogs, this piece of casting was perceived as so perverse, so flawed, that some people unfortunately either bowed out of the show or never gave it a chance. It’s the mother of all makeovers to turn the lovable loser into a crime boss up to his ears in money and women, mayhem and murder.

What a challenge for Buscemi. Five seasons with never a chance to revert to type (the closest he comes is when Nucky hits bottom in Season Five and gets silly drunk with and rolled by a couple of hookers). Not only does Buscemi nail the part of a lifetime, his triumph is ultimately equal to and symbolic of a triumphant series, in spite of moments early on when the final season seemed to be searching for itself, exposition in reverse. But the day was saved with the appearance of young Nucky (Marc Pickering) and young Gillian (Madeline Rose Yen), both played with eerie accuracy in speech and manner and movement in a ghostly evocation of the Original Sin that set everything in motion. As young and old appeared and disappeared, moving past into present and present into past, it brings up the word of the season for a show haunted by its past.

Meanwhile all it takes is a YouTube seance and you can conjure up Jack Huston and Boardwalk Empire and Jack Bruce and Cream.

Listen to Bruce singing “there’s a world of pain in the falling rain,” and “no time for pity,” and look at Richard wistfully gazing down at the images in his scrapbook. There’s a blues beyond singing, to be full of love for some abstract of humanity and know that your vocation is to kill people.

 

October 29, 2014

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

—Dylan Thomas

I was in the corridor, ten feet away.

—John Berryman, when asked about the death of Dylan Thomas

John Berryman and Dylan Thomas were born two days apart, 100 years ago this month, Berryman on October 25, Thomas on October 27.

In Dylan Thomas in America, after a harrowing account of the poet’s last days at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, John Malcolm Brinnin, who had brought Thomas to the U.S. for a series of readings from 1950 through 1953, describes the moment he received the news he’d been dreading: “As I stepped from the waiting room into the corridor, I saw John Berryman rushing toward me. ‘He’s dead! He’s dead! Where were you?’”

Berryman’s biographer John Haffenden excused the accusatory “Where were you?” as “a manifestation of shock,” but it must have galled Brinnin, who had been faithfully in attendance for four days while Berryman was out of town. There’s a melancholy “poetic justice” in the notion that Berryman, Thomas’s birth-week brother poet, would be there at the end, the first among those who knew him to witness and report the fact of his death. When he had word that Thomas might be dying, Berryman was at Bard College giving a lecture on Shakespeare. According to Haffenden’s 1982 biography, his reaction to the news was “notably dramatic and drunken.” After announcing “Poetry is dead with Dylan Thomas,” he continued “melodramatizing his concern” during a “country walk,” saying, “as he took long gulps of air, ‘I’m breathing for Dylan, if I breathe for him perhaps he will remain alive.’” Another biography, Paul Mariani’s Dream Song (1990) has Berryman drunkenly reciting Thomas’s most quoted poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Paul Muldoon cites “Do not go gentle” in his introduction to the 2010 reissue of the original edition of Collected Poems (New Directions $14.95), observing that it is “not only vital in itself but also of some value to us in our day-to-day lives” as a poem read “at two out of every three funerals.”

The notion of battling death, so forcefully sounded in the line, “Rage rage against the dying of the light,” is reflected in the move Thomas made at 2 a.m. at the Chelsea Hotel when, after telling the woman he was with that he wanted to die, he came out of a fitful sleep, “suddenly reared up with a fierce look in his eyes,” said he had to have a drink, and hurled himself into the New York night and the White Horse Tavern where he claimed to have downed 18 straight shots of whiskey; as legend has it, that’s what precipitated the fatal coma.

Berryman’s Passagebook rev1

Some 20 years later, Berryman made his own ungentle move, following the scenario he’d half-seriously outlined in a letter to his wife Eileen in fall 1953, days before Thomas’s death. As related in Dream Song, he imagined himself planning to jump off the George Washington Bridge “by climbing over the rail and staring down into the Hudson River until he became so dizzy he would finally let go.” If his body was recovered, he wanted it planted “as cheaply as possible in Princeton.” The facetious reference at the end gives an idea of his complicated attitude toward the town and university where he’d been living and teaching ever since R.P. Blackmur’s offer of a job in 1946 saved him from teaching Latin and English at a prep school in New Rochelle.

Berryman finally performed his vision of suicide on January 7, 1972, when, as related in Dream Song, he walked along the upper level of the Washington Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis, climbed “onto the chest-high metal railing and balanced himself,” and while several students watched, “made a gesture as if waving …. Then he tilted out and let go.”

Princeton Hospital

My thoughts on these two October poets might have taken me somewhere more cheerful than St. Vincent’s had I not been preoccupied with the large building on Witherspoon Street currently being relieved of its outer layer prior to death by demolition. The process is hard to ignore, particularly when it’s taking place within view of my work place parking lot. For days now I’ve been watching the facade of the hospital being stripped of its “skin,” as it’s called, a suggestive term for a building so intimately associated with the human body. It’s likely that someone as familiar with hospitalization as Berryman (for exhaustion, epilepsy, and detoxification) had first-hand knowledge of that building during his turbulent, adulterous, hard-drinking, productive years in Princeton. The man who brought him here, the great poet-critic Blackmur, died in that building in 1965, one among numerous celebrated residents (like Albert Einstein in 1955 and 50 years later George Kennan) who breathed their last in the original structure that has been expanded vertically and horizontally over the years with the help of many fund-raising Fêtes.

Reading at Lake Carnegie

Princeton is where Berryman got to know Saul Bellow, a friendship that began with a walk around Lake Carnegie. After reading the manuscript of Bellow’s breakthrough novel, The Adventures of Augie March (1953), Berryman was inspired to write his own breakthrough work, Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1956), which Edmund Wilson called “the most distinguished long poem by an American since The Waste Land.” Berryman lived only a few blocks away from the lake and viewed it as an inspirational focal point, going there to recite Mistress Bradstreet to a woman friend he associated with his poem’s heroine. In time Berryman’s struggles with the work led to troubles at home. “As he began to ‘kill off’ his mistress,” Mariani writes, “Berryman seemed to die himself.” From his wife’s perspective, he appeared “at last to be forcing an end to their marriage.”

Dylan Rides the Dinky book rev2

It goes without saying that all Princeton’s writers and their wives, friends, lovers, and editors, Bellow, Berryman, Wilson, Blackmur, not to mention William Faulkner, Allen Tate and Caroline Gordon, and John O’Hara, among many others, were familiar with the Dinky and its station. According to Dylan Thomas in America, the bard of Swansea rode to town on the little-train-that-could on two occasions in the early 1950s, first for a reading that led to “a night-long bull session with a congenial crowd of undergraduates,” and most memorably on March 5, 1952, when “a cavalcade of motor-cycled policemen … sirened Dylan to the lecture hall from his late train.”

A Vagrant Vision

Dylan Thomas came to Bloomington, Indiana, in May of 1950, and I have a vivid yet vagrant image of the sweating, red-faced poet declaiming from the balcony of a building near the Indiana University Union, the moated, battlemented castle of my childhood fantasies. My father’s closest friend on the English Department faculty had met Thomas at the Indianapolis airport and driven him the 52 miles to Bloomington, stopping at every bar or tavern along the way.

Listening to Thomas on YouTube reading “A Poem in October” on the birthday we share, it’s easy to believe that I did indeed see him that day intoning the words of a man in his “thirtieth year to heaven,” seeing “so clearly a child’s/Forgotten mornings,” walking through “the twice-told fields of infancy” to “the woods the river and sea/Where a boy/In the listening/Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy.” Listening, eyes closed, there again remembering how his sweating discomfort seemed at such a stark remove from the flow of his reading, “Oh may my heart’s truth/Still be sung/On this high hill in a year’s turning.”

Movies and Events

John Berryman’s centenary is barely on the map (you’d need to go to Minneapolis), although Farrar, Straus and Giroux has published The Heart Is Strange, a new selection of poems edited and introduced by Daniel Swift, along with reissues of Sonnets, 77 Dream Songs and the complete Dream Songs. On the other hand, Thomas, who helped ensure his claim to be the Poet of the Age by dint of those exhausting American tours, is the subject of two films, the BBC’s A Poet in New York and Set Fire to the Stars, which premiered earlier this year at the Edinburgh film festival. John Malcolm Brinnin is a character in both films; not so John Berryman. Perhaps someday someone will bring those two poets together to give the world a glimpse of the “heart’s truth” lived out by two “Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight.”

Dylan Thomas festivals abound, in Swansea, London, and New York, where the Poetry Center has organized “Dylan Thomas in America: A Centennial Exhibition,” and a new production of his radio play Under Milk Wood directed by Michael Sheen. Known best for Frost/Nixon and Masters of Sex, Sheen and five other actors will take the stage in the Kaufmann Concert Hall, where Under Milk Wood had its debut in May 1953, half a year before Dylan Thomas was rushed from the Chelsea Hotel to St. Vincent’s “good night.”

October 22, 2014

Book Oct 1964In spite of Thursday night’s season-ending loss to the Giants in San Francisco, St. Louis Cardinal fans enjoyed their share of baseball ecstasy in the 2014 post-season. With the glorious exception of Game One’s comeback win against Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers, the manifestations of maximum ecstatic intensity happened at home, in Busch Stadium. At such times there’s nothing between you and almost 50,000 deliriously happy strangers but the television, and thanks to the HD flat screen, the sensation of being there is overwhelming — it’s you and your vastly extended Cardinal family, singles and couples, siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles and kids, all shapes and sizes. If you were really there, side by side cheering Redbird heroics, you’d be submerged in a delirious love-in, all high fives and hugs. But deep down you know that such cozy, familial thoughts are delusional, Missouri’s a red state and Busch a sea of red with the hometown crowd garbed in Cardinal colors. How many of these folks you’re jumping up and down with would stay friendly should the subject turn to something other than baseball, like for instance the shooting of a black youth by a white cop in a St. Louis suburb?

At first I had no reason to think the shooting of Michael Brown had anything to do with the team I’ve been following since I was a ten-year-old. The Cardinal heroes memorialized with images and statues in Busch Stadium include black players like Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, and Ozzie Smith. Interracial chemistry has been a key component of the Cardinals from the 1964 World Champions on through the championship teams of the 1980s. By the time the Redbirds surged into first place on their way to winning the Central Division, the Michael Brown story was all over the news, the shadow of Ferguson spreading in the direction of Cardinal Nation until a group of protestors, most of them African Americans, actually showed up outside Busch during the National League Division Series with the Dodgers. A chaotic scene developed when Cardinal supporters began yelling at the demonstrators. While some fans simply resented the inopportune intrusion, like how dare they rain on the Cardinal parade, others shouted racist cliches that were tame by Tea Party standards while one man sported a Cardinal jersey with the policeman’s name, Darren Wilson, taped on the back. At times it sounded like little more than opposing crowds at a high-school football game trading chants, “Let’s go Mike Brown!” vs “Let’s Go Cardinals!”

The Cap on the Casket

I wonder how many Cardinal fans affronted by the intrusion of racial conflict on the hallowed ground of playoff baseball knew that Michael Brown’s family had placed a St. Louis Cardinal hat on top of his coffin. Clearly the team had some personal significance for the Browns. Michael was shown wearing the hat in one of the photographs displayed next to the coffin and his father was wearing one during an interview. Various news stories also pictured people in the Ferguson crowds casually attired in Cardinal regalia, and there are fans among the Ferguson cops who show up at Busch wearing Cardinal jackets and hats, as viscerally devoted to the emblem of the redbirds on the slanted bat as the citizens of Ferguson rallying for justice in the name of Michael Brown.

Team logos are not to be taken lightly. Emerson suggests as much when he celebrates “the power of national emblems” in “The Poet,” where “the schools of poets and philosophers are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs.” He mentions “stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle,” and, why not, a pair of cardinals. In the ideal best-of-all-possible baseball worlds, the National Pastime prevails in a realm of its own, remote from the chaos outside the stadium. Of course there are skirmishes like the one in the first inning of the first game of the Division Series when Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright unintentionally hit Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers, the benches cleared, players roared and pushed at one another, and Wainwright escorted Puig to first base in friendly fashion, the two men briefly arm in arm, as if in respect of that pastoral world of highs and lows, wins and losses, where people who on the outside might blunder into deadly conflict cheer and cry together, are wounded and healed, brought down and uplifted, know joy and know sorrow, all within the precincts of the game.

1964

Fifty years ago, on the last day of the 1964 season, the Cardinals completed one of the wildest runs in baseball history to win the pennant and the chance to face Mickey Mantle’s Yankees in the World Series. That feat seems all the more special and unlikely after my rereading of David Halberstam’s October 1964 (Villard 1994), which offers a fascinating back story for both teams. One of the elements that attracted Halberstam was the importance of the interracial makeup of the Cardinals in a year that had been charged with events more cathartic than the shooting of Michael Brown. In fact, the people in the New York office of W.W. Norton, the publisher I was working for, gave serious thought to the potential risk of driving a company car with New York plates in the Deep South only months after the murder of the three Civil Rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. There was even some discussion about whether or not they could get me Mississippi plates. Halberstam, however, had no need to dwell on the climate of the times. Most readers, including baseball fans, knew what had been going on in the country during those explosive years.

“Where Are Our Black Players?”

In the course of showing how “more than most teams, the Cardinal players came to deal with race with a degree of maturity and honesty rarely seen in baseball at that time,” Halberstam writes about the onetime owner, beer baron August “Gussie” Busch, who was acutely aware that Budweiser sold more beer to blacks than any other brewery in the country. One day in the 1950s he asked his manager and coaches, “Where are our black players?” The all-too-obvious answer was, “We don’t have any,” to which Busch said, “How can it be the great American game if blacks can’t play?” And then: “Hell, we sell beer to everyone.” This burst of interracial enthusiasm roused the Cardinal scouts to action and by spring training 1964, a racially balanced championship team had been put together and harmoniously integrated. In the face of segregated living facilities, and Florida law, a wealthy friend of Busch’s bought a motel and rented space in an adjoining one, so that the entire team and their families could stay together. According to Halberstam, “a major highway ran right by the motel, and there, in an otherwise segregated Florida, locals and tourists alike could see the rarest of sights: white and black children swimming in the motel pool together, and white and black players, with their wives, at desegregated cookouts.”

Cardinal Serendipity

In the late summer of 1964 when I was in Norton’s New York office working out the itinerary for my tour of colleges from the Deep South to the Upper Midwest, I scheduled an October 15 visit to Creighton University in Omaha. I didn’t know at the time that Creighton was Bob Gibson’s alma mater. Nor did I have any reason to believe the Cardinals were going to catch up to and pass the fading Phillies in the pennant race. As long as I’d been rooting for the Cardinals, they’d never made it to the main event. I followed the Series as best I could, on motel TVs or on the car radio driving down through the Dakotas. On October 15 I landed on the Creighton campus where all anyone could talk about was Bob Gibson, Class of 1957, pitching the seventh game of the World Series (that’s him in action on the cover of October 1964). It had to be some kind of Cardinal serendipity, that on the day Gibson turned in one of gutsiest pitching performances in World Series history to win the deciding game of the 1964 Series, I was watching it on TV, cheering along with a crowd of cheering Creighton students. Somehow I found myself in the right place at the right time, a white guy in a suit feeling at home in baseball, sharing the ecstasy.

 

October 15, 2014

book FrannyzooeyHere are two thoughts about the power outage that occurred around 11 p.m. Monday night as I was writing about Princeton’s role in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, a first edition of which is among the featured volumes in the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale.

First, it gave me an excuse to get out my little booklight and dive at random into Shakespeare, the same refuge I found when Sandy hit. As the power came on I was reading aloud, with requisite angst, the last lines of Shylock’s Act III rant in The Merchant of Venice: “… loss upon loss! the thief gone with so much, and so much to find the thief; and no satisfaction, no revenge: nor no ill luck stirring but what lights on my shoulders; no sighs but of my breathing; no tears but of my shedding.”

Second thought: it could have been worse, if, say, the television had gone dark during the previous night’s NLCS Game 2 after the Giants came back to tie the Cardinals on a wild pitch in the top of the ninth. The outage would have deprived Cardinal fans like myself of the brief stunned transition between dejection and joy as the uncanny Kolten Wong lofts a mighty walk-off home run on the second pitch thrown by Sergio Romo, who looks like he could have been a captain of the guard in Shylock’s Venice.

Baseball, beautiful baseball — it’s October and once again the Cardinals find some magic. What a sight, music to the eyes, the way the crowd in the right field stands seems to rise en masse with the arc of the ball soaring toward them, as if Busch Stadium had turned into a giant concertina being squeezed by a blind street singer with his head in the stars. Then the sight of Kolten Wong hopping and skipping in lunatic glee around the bases to be mobbed by his teammates, who tear off the top of his uniform as if he were a rock star thrown on the mercy of the mosh pit.

Day-to-day following a team with which you feel a lifelong visceral connection, every win gives your spirits a lift and every loss leaves you shaking your head and telling yourself “life goes on.”

Ted Williams in Princeton?

Speaking of baseball, another featured volume at this year’s Book Sale is a first edition of My Turn At Bat, the autobiography of the great Ted Williams, who only played in one World Series. On the unlikely chance that the Splendid Splinter might have found some reason to visit our town with the other celebrities who rode the Dinky to the terminus on University Place, I took a look online and found “Ted Williams connected to Princeton forever …. Called by some the best hitter ever in baseball, he visited Princeton on a regular basis and ended up marrying a Princeton woman.”

I thought the genies of the Net were kidding. Could it be? No, it’s the Princeton in Minnesota, where if you happened to drop in at the Kallas Cafe on the corner of Rum River Drive and First Street in the 1940s, your chances of seeing The Kid were pretty good. Just don’t ask for his autograph.

The Dinky Connection

Writing about Franny and Zooey on the front page of the Sept. 17, 1961 New York Times Book Review, John Updike begins his recap of “Franny” like this: “In the first story, she arrives by train from a Smith-like college to spend the week-end of the Yale game at what must be Princeton.”

There’s no “must be” about it. Though the evidence may be circumstantial, it can be shown beyond the shadow of a dinky doubt that Salinger had Princeton’s station and its platform in mind when he wrote the opening paragraphs of “Franny,” which first appeared in the Jan. 29, 1955 New Yorker and created a sensation, attracting more mail than any work of fiction in the magazine’s history.

Dinky lovers still smarting from the violation of the terminus have good reason to feel a wistful fondness for the opening pages of Franny and Zooey. Salinger prevails and endures among American writers of the last half of the 20th century because of his ability to make everything he touches matter, illuminating a scene or a moment so that it stands for all such scenes and moments. It’s the same way with Salinger in Central Park. He owns it for the ages. It’s his as soon as Holden Caulfield asks the cab driver about the ducks or watches kids ride the carousel, and when Salinger’s readers go there, they’re in his and Holden’s world, just as they’re in his and Franny’s when they get off the Dinky and alight on the platform — except the platform’s not there any more. Never mind, it will always be there in literature because Salinger will always be read.

His readers are, as they say, legion. Like The Catcher in the Rye (1951) ten years before it, Franny and Zooey went right to the top of the New York Times Best-Seller list and held on for 25 weeks. Readers smitten with Holden Caulfield gravitated to anything new by his creator, and whether you read of her in The New Yorker or in the book, Franny was a charmingly vulnerable, perceptive, and wary-of-phonies incarnation of Holden.

The Princeton Connection

Salinger’s stated admiration for Scott Fitzgerald underscores the Princeton connection in “Franny.” Besides more than once acknowledging Fitzgerald as an influence and an inspiration, Salinger suggests as much in his work when Holden admits he was “crazy about The Great Gatsby. Old Gatsby. Old sport. That killed me.”

There’s a prototype for Salinger’s Dinky opening in the episode in Fitzgerald’s Princeton novel This Side of Paradise, where a precursor to Franny, the “blithesome Phyllis,” steps “gayly from the train” only to see her boyfriend and a fellow Princeton student on the platform “arrayed to the last dot like the lurid figures on college posters. They had bought flaring suits with huge peg-top trousers and gigantic padded shoulders. On their heads were rakish college hats, pinned up in front and sporting bright orange-and-black bands, while from their celluloid collars blossomed flaming orange ties. They wore black arm-bands with orange ‘P’s,’ and carried canes flying Princeton pennants, the effect completed by socks and peeping handkerchiefs in the same color motifs.”

In Salinger’s version, the platform is the setting for a no less collegiate opening as Princeton students await the arrival of girlfriends or dates. Franny’s English major boyfriend, Lane, is outside the waiting room rereading her latest letter, after which he endures a brief exchange with a classmate who wants to know “what this bastard Rilke was all about,” a reminder that you’re in the domain of the author of one of the most famous first sentences in American literature, with its reference to “all that David Copperfield kind of crap.”

The style takes a clear turn in Fitzgerald’s direction when the boys, who have been keeping warm in the waiting room, come out to meet the train, “most of them giving the impression of having at least three lighted cigarettes in each hand.” You don’t have to read far in Gatsby or in Fitzgerald’s best stories or the notebook entries in The Crack-Up to find similarly clever word-pictures. A touch that evokes Fitzgerald’s way of expressing the poetry of Gatsby’s devotion to Daisy Buchanan is in Lane’s intimate relationship with Franny’s “sheared raccoon coat,” the sight of which rouses the thought that he’s the only one on the platform “who really knew Franny’s coat” and could remember “that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person herself.”

A Station-Platform Kiss

Then there’s the moment when Franny and Lane embrace: “She threw her arms around him and kissed him. It was a station-platform kiss — spontaneous enough to begin with, but rather uninhibited in the follow-through, and with somewhat of a forehead-bumping aspect.”

I have no idea how many station-platform kisses have been described in stories and novels through the ages, but this is the one, the exemplar, the common denominator, the ultimate station-platform kiss that puts the Dinky on the literary map, there for all time as part of the Complete Chronicle of the Glass Family that will reportedly see the light between 2015 and 2020.

The Cool Lima Bean

Three decades ago, in the days when libraries still attached cards with the borrowers’ names to the inside back pages of books, I was looking at a book in the stacks of Firestone Library and did a double take: the name written on the card was Matthew Salinger. Like numerous other readers of Franny and Zooey I’d first seen that name on the dedication page with its reference to “Matthew Salinger, age one, urging a luncheon companion to accept a cool lima bean.” It was Salinger’s characteristically playful way of dedicating “this pretty skimpy-looking book” to that “lover of the long shot,” his editor at The New Yorker, William Shawn. Twenty years later Matthew Salinger was a Princeton student. I suppose it could be mere coincidence that his son would end up at the school in the story. Though Matthew didn’t graduate (he transferred to Columbia, earning a degree in art history and drama), you don’t have to be “a lover of the long shot” to figure that he spent plenty of time departing and arriving at the station his father captured for posterity, and isn’t it possible that he’d have been there to meet him on the Dinky at least once?

Finally, in the context of posterity and Salinger and Princeton, the Salinger Mecca for biographers and fans is the archive of manuscripts in the Rare Book and Special Collection department of Firestone Library.

 

October 8, 2014

rec rev albumThey were rather war-weary during Beatles for Sale. One must remember that they’d been battered like mad throughout ’64, and much of ’63. Success is a wonderful thing, but it is very, very tiring.”

—George Martin

You can see the fatigue on the cover of Beatles for Sale. They look older and wiser. Instead of the Fab Four sitting on top of the world, these guys seem to be feeling the weight of it, as if global adulation were a burden. Put those four somber faces together with that title and the message is more cynical than playful. As the hottest property in the universe, with rigid recording deadlines to meet and exhausting tours to endure, the group is being packaged and sold to the nth degree. Still, they look great. There’s a Bohemian charisma about the cover image. You can imagine they have it in them to surprise the world, but surely not to amaze and even change it, which is what they would accomplish before the decade was over.

Fifty years ago they were in the EMI’s Abbey Road studios recording the album featuring the cover image of four “war-weary” musicians. Perhaps that’s one reason Beatles for Sale was never released in America, at least not until a 1987 CD. A butchered version (minus six songs) was packaged as Beatles ‘65, with a more conventional cover showing the group in various meant-to-be-cute-and-amusing poses. It didn’t matter to me one way or the other since I had them at my fingertips on the radio of the company car I was driving as a college traveler for W.W. Norton. I loved the music, singing along with it as I drove from campus to campus showing off the new Norton Anthologies in a ten-state swath from Alabama to North Dakota. I first heard “Eight Days a Week,” in downtown Memphis, “I Feel Fine,” on the car radio outside Little Rock, “She’s a Woman,” on a jukebox in Kansas City, and “Ticket to Ride” driving through the Badlands, windows down, spring blowing through.

I’d thought that traveling for a publisher would be a profitable way to satisfy my yen for the road, like commissioned vagabondage, but by the end of the first semester I was grinding through a miasma of motels and roadkill, nothing eventful happening until the day I arrived at the Chattanooga Tennessee Holiday Inn. Waiting for me, forwarded by the New York office, was a diseased-looking Indian airletter postmarked Udaipur that seemed to pulse and hum in my hand as I read the message inside, written on a leaky ballpoint by a British friend with a vivid prose style. He was describing a fascinatingly chaotic night journey on Indian Railways and urging me to join him. He concluded with this advisory: “Go with 10 pounds of luggage, 15,000 pounds peace of mind and the balance (say at least 100,000 tons) pure and indifferent love of humanity (a half ounce of tolerance will do here). Otherwise India will bring nothing but misery to you.”

Up to that moment I hadn’t been serious about going to India. I only knew that thanks to an expense account and the fact that each installment of my salary was being directly deposited, come summer I’d have saved enough to live for a year or more on the road. Due in great part to that letter, I turned down a job in the front office and got a ticket on the Queen Elizabeth, where I bunked with a guy from Liverpool who looked like John Lennon and had been exploiting the cult of the British invasion. One word from him in his Liverpool accent and American girls were swooning at his feet.

In Istanbul, after watching A Hard Day’s Night for the sixth time in a moviehouse near Taksim Square, I took an evening ferry across the Bosporus to Asia, caught a ride in a big truck and was on my way.

India Everywhere

There are times when memory blends so fluidly with experience that it becomes possible to imagine India beginning with the Beatles and continuing across Turkey to Tehran, to Kabul, to New Delhi with the Beatles singing “Every Little Thing” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” in a record store listening booth on the great Wheel of the Available called Connaught Circus.

Those two songs from Beatles for Sale rarely show up on lists of favorite Beatles tracks, but they’re in my top 20, if only because they blossomed in India. Paul was 16 when he wrote “I’ll Follow the Sun,” a perfect road song (“One day you’ll look to see I’ve gone, but tomorrow may rain, so I’ll follow the sun”) with as sweet a middle eight as anyone this side of Schubert could have composed. McCartney also wrote “Every Little Thing,” which may seem like just another “silly love song,” until you’re hearing John Lennon sing it in India.

Out of Reach

The other day I was thinking how different that year and a half on the other side of the world would have been if today’s communication devices had been available. At the heart of the whole experience was knowing that I was out of reach of my parents and everything to do with the routine reality of home or work life in the States. Looking back, I know a cell phone or iPad would have been good to have during the nine days I spent in a Katmandu fleabag reading The Sound and the Fury and experiencing Dostoevskian fevers as I fought off a mysterious virus. I could have texted my parents, thereby putting them in a panic with phone calls to the embassy for the immediate assistance of a trustworthy, preferably American doctor.

Fate Finds Me

Since my schedule was all over the place, the only way I could get mail was at Poste Restante in one city or another among the rough outline of my route I’d given my parents and friends (and agent). It was in Goa that the long arm of the homeland reached out and, most fatefully, found me. I was about to board an overnight train to Madras when a frantic postal clerk came running after me with a letter from my father in Indiana. I’d just checked for mail at Poste Restante in Panjim one last time and had been informed by this same clerk that nothing was there for Mr Stuart, no letters, it was impossible that anything had come. One of the unreal realities of the Indian experience lived in the gulf between the Possible and the Impossible. Now here was the postal clerk defying the impossible as he chased me down to personally deliver a message he assumed must be of supreme importance.

And he was right. Inside the envelope instead of the expected letter from my father was one to me at my home address from a girl I’d met in California some years before. My father’s note said “I enclose a letter from What’s-her-name in San Francisco.” That forwarded letter began the lively correspondence that led to a meeting the following summer in Venice, which led to an October 8 marriage to Miss “What’s-her-name.”

rec rev bookNarayan Meets the Beatles

This past week, besides listening numerous times to “Every Little Thing,” “I’ll Follow the Sun,” and the other Lennon-McCartney songs on Beatles for Sale, I’ve been reading stories by the Indian writer R.K. Narayan, who creates characters not unlike the noble postal clerk in Goa who went out of his way for me that day. Reading Narayan and listening to the Beatles is like drinking good strong Indian chai in earthenware cups and eating scones with jam and clotted cream. Which is to say they are not mutually exclusive activities. Like the music of the Beatles, Narayan’s stories make you smile, lift your spirits, engage your sense of wonder, enrich your life, and infect you with a touch of the wanderlust.

The love-is-tough and life-is-hard songs on Beatles for Sale — such as “I’m a Loser,” “No Reply,” “Baby’s In Black,” “I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party,” “What You’re Doing” — have equivalents in the stories of Narayan. One way or the other, every one of those songs is about thwarted love and embattled relationships, whether you’re a loser (“Of all the love I have won or have lost/There is one love I should never have crossed”) or your girl friend is cheating on you in “No Reply” (“I saw the lie, I saw the lie”), or if she’s left the party with someone else (“I wonder what went wrong, I’ve waited far too long, I think I’ll take a walk and look for her”).

Versions of these possibilities are in play in Narayan’s “The Shelter,” which begins with a man taking cover from a sudden heavy rain by ducking under a banyan tree. Soon he becomes aware of another person, oops, it’s his estranged wife. There they are, stuck together while the rain pours as only rain can in south India. The man tries to make conversation. He’s feeling awkward and she’s giving him nothing. As he natters on about rain and umbrellas and the coincidence of their meeting, she ignores him.

Married couples, especially those celebrating four decades or more together, will nod knowingly to read that Narayan’s couple “had had several crises in their years of married life. Every other hour they expressed differing views on everything under the sun …. Anything led to a breach between the partners for a number of days, to be followed by a reconciliation and an excessive friendliness.” Now that “the good rain” has “brought them together,” the man makes courtly overtures, and expects her to “be touched by his solicitude,” but she’s having none of it. He says he’s sorry, claims to be a changed man, tries to find out where she’s living, and finally says of the rain, “We have got to face it together,” to which she says “Not necessarily” and dashes off, disappearing into the downpour. Narayan’s hapless husband calls out to her, but it’s no use. Will he chase after her? Probably not. Of course if you’re sufficiently lucky or resilient or devoted, you’ll stay under the banyan tree, facing the rain together.

 

October 1, 2014

book stevensI thought on the train how utterly we have forsaken the Earth, in the sense of excluding it from our thoughts. There are but few who consider its physical hugeness, its rough enormity. It is still a disparate monstrosity, full of solitudes & barrens & wilds. It still dwarfs & terrifies & crushes. The rivers still roar, the mountains still crash, the winds still shatter. Man is an affair of cities. His gardens & orchards & fields are mere scrapings. Somehow, however, he has managed to shut out the face of the giant from his windows. But the giant is there, nevertheless.

Wallace Stevens, April 18, 1904

The poet, who turned 25 on October 2 of the same year, had these thoughts on his way back to New York City after a 42-mile walk from Manhattan to Fort Montgomery, “just failing of West Point.” He walked from seven in the morning until half-past six at night “without stopping longer than a minute or two at a time,” noting “How clean & precise the lines of the world are early in the morning! The light is perfect — absolute — one sees the bark of the trees high up on the hills, the seams of rocks, the color & compass of things.” After observing that “seven is the hour for birds, as well as for dogs and the sun,” he writes, “God! What a thing blue is! It is one of the few things left that bring tears to my eyes (or almost). It pulls at the heart with an irresistible sadness.”

That Stevens’s birthday is this Thursday coincides well with a column written in the wake of the Climate March and the Climate Summit at the U.N. One way to set the crowd cheering at a rally about global warming would be for a charismatic reader to celebrate “the color & compass of things” expressed in the poetry of Wallace Stevens.

Given his fascinating, perverse, and outré world of verse, where “man is the intelligence of his soil,/The sovereign ghost … the Socrates/Of snails, musician of pears,” Stevens never seemed the companionable sort of poet you could put in your pocket and wander in the country with the way you might with, say, Keats and Coleridge. You could see him as E.M. Forster did C.P. Cavafy, standing “at a slight angle to the universe,” but if you read the notebook entries recording epic treks over the Palisades and the Poconos in his mid-20s, you find yourself following someone who strides through the universe in seven-league boots and is still going strong at 63, “like a man/In the body of a violent beast.” The poem, “Poetry Is a Destructive Force,” from Parts of a World (1942), ends as “The lion sleeps in the sun./Its nose is on its paws./It can kill a man.” In “A Weak Mind in the Mountains,” the poet imagines: “Yet there was a man within me/Could have risen to the clouds,/Could have touched these winds,/Bent and broken them down,/Could have stood up sharply in the sky.”

The Old Clothes Man

The hulking 24-year-old who wrote of the earth that “dwarfs & terrifies & crushes” is someone you’d definitely make way for if you were in his path. Here he is February 1906, on his way “to Morristown and back” (meaning he walked from Manhattan and back, about 26 miles): “Yesterday I was in my element — alone on an up-and-downish road, in old clothes, quick with the wind and the cold …. Old clothes men are indescribable impostors and boors — yet I am one of them! … My brain was like so much cold pudding. First, I loathed every man that I met, and wanted to get away, as if I were some wild beast.” What does he find to admire? “A bird on a telephone wire that seemed to enjoy the raking. Good old fellow! … What I did enjoy was the tear on my body — the beat of the blood all over me.”

Later in the same entry, he admits, “I can’t make head or tail of Life. Love is a fine thing. Art is a fine thing. Nature is a fine thing, but the average human mind and spirit are confusing beyond measure …. What a bore to have to think all these things over, like a German student, or a French poet, or an English socialist! It would be much nicer to have things definite — both human and divine. One wants to be decent and to know the reason why. I think I’d enjoy being an executioner, or a Russian policeman.”

He closes that dizzying soliloquy by wondering: “May it be that I am only a New Jersey Epicurean?”

Out of the old clothes man’s mind — Stevens in a nut-shell, like Hamlet: “O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself king of infinite space” — come works like “The Poems of Our Climate,” “The Comedian as the Letter C,” “Of Hartford in a Purple Light,” “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and “A Rabbit as King of the Ghosts,” where “The trees around are for you,/The whole of the wideness of night is for you,/A self that touches all edges,” a “self that fills the four corners of night.”

Stevens in the Barracks

A case for a companionable Stevens is made by Anatole Broyard in the Sunday, September 12, 1982, New York Times, where he recalls being “a rookie soldier” in an Army camp, “a barren and featureless place filled with strangers.” At times when “the world was too little with me …. I would go to my footlocker for the poems of Stevens.” While other men in the barracks had brought with them something from civilian life to prove “to the others, or to themselves, who they were or had been,” Broyard brought four volumes of Stevens’s poems: “He had a line for everything that was happening to me. When I looked at the sky, it ‘cried out a literate despair.’ The life I led in the Army was ‘a revolution of things colliding.’ I had no doubt that ‘these days of disinheritance, we feast on human heads.’ I saw myself caught ‘in the glares of this present, this science, this unrecognized, this outpost, this douce, this dumb, this dead.’ We were not allowed off the post during basic training, and Stevens was my favorite means of escape.”

Quoting Frank Kermode on “The Comedian as the Letter C’’ (“a sustained nightmare of unexpected diction”), Broyard says “Nothing could have suited me better, because the talk in my barracks was a sustained nightmare of expected diction.”

Boxing With Hemingway 

One odd example of “unexpected diction” in the Holly Stevens’s edition of her father’s letters (Knopf 1966) is his reply in July 1941 to a friend on the Princeton faculty who was looking for someone to lead a lecture series on “actuality.” After discussing several more conventional possibilities, Stevens recommends Ernest Hemingway. “Most people don’t think of Hemingway as a poet,” he explains, “but obviously he is a poet and I should say, offhand, the most significant of living poets so far as the subject of EXTRAORDINARY ACTUALITY is concerned.” Stevens, who more than once puts the words in capital letters, goes on to speculate on the fee Hemingway might require. “My guess is that … if he understood that Princeton was merely a place to speak on the subject and that his audience was to be merely a group of young men exactly like himself, interested in the same thing, he would come for, say, $500.”

It feels like entering a Stevens poem simply to imagine Hemingway, who as far as I know never gave a lecture in his life, presenting one on the subject of “extraordinary actuality” to a Princeton University audience, never mind the fee. The elephant in the room of the Hemingway-Stevens story, such as it is, concerns the incident five years earlier when the two men fought it out on a street in Key West. Stevens broke his hand on Hemingway’s jaw after which Hemingway knocked him down, more than once. The insurance executive was 20 years older, and, one would assume, less fit than the sportsman/novelist. Hemingway boasted about it, even giving his opponent’s dimensions, 6’2, 220 pounds, as if Stevens were a lion he’d brought down in the wild. The way Hemingway tells it in a letter, Stevens had said unpleasant things about him to his sister and had come looking for a fight at the same moment Hemingway was on his way to start one. The most curious detail is that Hemingway was wearing glasses and Stevens did not make his move until Hemingway took them off. Perhaps Stevens, like his younger, “old-clothes-man” self, was in a “loathing every man” mind-set when Hemingway walked into his path.

Walking

It seems likely that Stevens’s inclination for the unexpected was nurtured during those compulsive perambulations of his youth. In a New York Times interview with Lewis Nichols the year before he died, Stevens says, “I just write poetry when I feel like it. I write best when I can concentrate, and do that best while walking. Any number of poems have been written on the way from the house to the office.” But with a force as stately and surreal as Stevens, a mere house and office are not worthy. “Setting out on Stevens for the first time,” Randall Jarrell wrote, “would be like setting out to be an explorer of Earth.”

In his essay, “Imagination as Value,” Stevens observes that while the world may be “lost to the poet … it is not lost to the imagination … because, for one thing, the great poems of heaven and hell have been written and the great poem of the earth remains to be written.”

I found the notebook accounts of Stevens’s rambles in Souvenirs and Prophecies, The Young Wallace Stevens, edited, again, by Holly, whose nature-rooted name will come as no surprise if you read in and about her father.

September 24, 2014

Book revAmong American writers, my mother favored Scott Fitzgerald, who was born on September 24, 1896, and died December 21, 1940. A hundred years ago this month he was starting his sophomore year at Princeton.

My mother had a small study adjoining my father’s big study, with just room enough for a desk, a chair, and some bookshelves. There were always books around, mostly paperbacks, but the only novel of Fitzgerald’s I remember seeing there was Tender Is the Night, which Scribners first published 80 years ago this spring. The cover of the Bantam paperback caught my adolescent attention because of the woman with the towel draped around everything but her back and legs; the sentence under the title said: “The famous novel of a strong, strange love — and a man who risked destruction.” The man on the cover was looking sideways at the woman, as if he were bored. Outside the window was a painted view meant to be the French Riviera.

“Some day you’ll be old enough to read this,” my mother told me. I figured she meant old enough to comprehend what “strong, strange love” was all about and how a man in such intimate proximity to a half-naked woman could look so bored.

In the Shadow of “Gatsby”

I’ve never really liked Tender Is the Night. Both before and after I was “old enough to read it” I found it scattered, wordy, and full of expendable dialogue, its characters off-putting, as if after all that work, the author himself finally couldn’t find it in his heart to care about them. Reading The Great Gatsby, you know Fitzgerald loves his characters and his creation. My reaction to the later, much longer, more ambitious novel has been somewhat complicated by the fact that there are two versions. In the original 1934 edition, which I first read in the paperback with the sexy cover, the narrative begins on the Riviera in 1925 with a young movie starlet named Rosemary Hoyt. A great deal happens before the novel flashes back to Zurich in 1917 and its true protagonist, Dr. Richard Diver. Pondering the book’s disappointing reception, Fitzgerald began to think that the true beginning was with “the young psychiatrist in Switzerland,” and in 1951, a decade after his death, Scribners published the chronological version of Tender Is the Night “with the author’s revisions” in a single volume with The Great Gatsby and the unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. The critic Malcolm Cowley, who introduced and edited the revision, ends by making a case for the superiority of the chronological version.

All this month I’ve been rereading Tender Is the Night and comparing the chronological revision with the original. I also revisited Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” which provided the title, and read around in The Crack-Up, a posthumous collection of Fitzgerald’s essays, correspondence, and notebooks put together by his friend and Princeton classmate Edmund Wilson. Either way, I find a brave, driven, sprawling, fascinatingly flawed work that anyone who loves Fitzgerald and Gatsby should value the same way readers who love Melville and Moby Dick cherish Pierre, both books written in the shadow of their great predecessors. To begin to fathom what Fitzgerald was up against in the nine years it took him to pull together Tender Is the Night, imagine sitting down to write another novel after producing one that T.S. Eliot called “the first step American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

Then there was the timing. The Great Gatsby arrived at the heart of the era it evoked. Tender Is the Night, with its wealthy, neurotic characters partying and sunning themselves in European settings, was not a good fit for 1934. Fitzgerald had become so much the dated emblem of the roaring twenties, the Depression had no place for him. Not that any of it mattered to mainstream reviewers who had been no less clueless about Gatsby, or to a reading public whose response to that “first step” since Henry James was registered in hugely disappointing sales compared to those of Fitzgerald’s Princeton novel, This Side of Paradise (1920).

Clinical vs. Lyrical

In his appendix to the 1951 revision, after describing the various drafts of Tender Is the Night “kept in six big blue cartons” in the Princeton University Library’s Manuscript Room, Malcolm Cowley finds that they “reveal how an author who was not a born novelist, but rather a romantic poet with a gift for social observation, a highly developed critical sense, and a capacity for taking infinite pains, went about the long task of putting his world into a book.”

Chances are that had the novel achieved acclaim and sales worthy of his expectations, Fitzgerald would have resisted tampering with a narrative form resembling the one he employed in Gatsby, where the romantic poet and socially aware novelist sustain a brilliant balance. The opening paragraph of the revision, with “Doctor Richard Diver arriving in Zurich at 26 (“a fine age for a man, indeed the very acme of bachelorhood”), is flatly expository. In the original version, the misbegotten poet is there from the beginning, with the first paragraph’s image of “the cupolas of a dozen old villas rotted like water lilies among the massed pines.” In the second paragraph, poetry and prose coalesce in a sentence worthy of Gatsby: “The hotel and its bright tan prayer rug of a beach were one.” The poet and novelist connect less smoothly in the description of Rosemary, “who had magic in her pink palms and her cheeks lit to a lovely flame, like the thrilling flush of children after their cold baths in the evening. Her fine forehead sloped gently up to where her hair, bordering it like an armorial shield, burst into lovelocks and waves and curlicues of ash blonde and gold. Her eyes were bright, big, clear, wet, and shining, the color of her cheeks was real, breaking close to the surface from the strong young pump of her heart. Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood — she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.”

Though the poet is clearly present in that passage, the stress on “children after their cold baths” and the “strong young pump of her heart” seems more clinical than lyrical. While it could be interpreted as a suggestion of the doctor’s point of view, the description feels like a formal offering, as if the author were a chef spreading a full course of imagery before the reader.

It gets more complicated if you look at Fitzgerald’s presentation of Dick’s beautiful schizophrenic wife Nicole, who is modeled on Scott’s Zelda. In the original version, you see her first from Rosemary’s point of view, “Her face was hard and lovely and pitiful,” a sentence that reads less like the observation of an 18-year-old starlet than a salute to Hemingway. A few chapters later, a touch of Keats enters the cadence of Rosemary’s impression of Nicole’s beauty: “Her face, the face of a saint, a viking Madonna, shone through the faint motes that snowed across the candlelight, drew down its flush from the wine-colored lanterns in the pine. She was still as still.”

“Verduous Glooms”

One of the few reasons to prefer the revised, chronological beginning is that the moment in the novel where poet and novelist seem truly in harmony comes in the fifth chapter of Book I, rather than many pages later in the fifth chapter of Book 2. Given the almost total absence of poetry in the narrative detailing Dick Diver’s descent into ruin and obscurity, however, it might have been more powerful and poignant for the reader to see Nicole at that point not through the eyes of Rosemary but as Dick does in the ecstasy of falling in love, when her “moving childish smile … was like all the lost youth in the world.”

In view of the novel’s long, ugly, aggressively anti-lyrical denouement, where the “strong, strange love” does indeed destroy the man who “risked destruction,” the lyrical summit of Tender Is the Night, its “Ode to a Nightingale” moment where aura and atmosphere take on the glow of Keat’s “high romance,” is in the scene where Dick and Nicole listen to songs together, “as if this were the exact moment when she was coming from a wood into clear moonlight. The unknown yielded her up; Dick wished she had no background, that she was just a girl lost with no address save the night from which she had come.”

When Nicole sings to Dick, “The thin tunes, holding lost times and future hopes in liaison, twisted upon the Valais night. In the lulls of the phonograph a cricket held the scene together with a single note.” After her song, she smiles at him, “making sure that the smile gathered up everything inside her and directed it toward him, making him a profound promise of herself for so little, for the beat of a response, the assurance of a complimentary vibration in him. Minute by minute the sweetness drained down into her out of the willow trees, out of the dark world.”

Fitzgerald’s shading of the scene evokes the mood of the lines from “Ode to a Nightingale” he uses for an epigraph, “Already with thee! tender is the night …. But here there is no light,/Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown/Through verduous glooms and winding mossy ways.”

Fitzgerald Reading

There’s a posting on YouTube of Fitzgerald reading a portion of “Ode to a Nightingale,” which must have been from memory because there are errors and omissions in nearly every line. So deeply felt is the recitation, however, no one hearing it would quibble. From all accounts, Keats’s poetry was already one of Fitzgerald’s guiding lights when he came to Princeton as a freshman in 1913.

Long ago, around the time I was gawking at the lady on the cover of the paperback, my parents and I drove through nighttime Princeton on the last leg of a two-day drive to New York. As we passed the campus gates, my mother said, “This is where Scott Fitzgerald went to school.” When we walked by the Plaza Hotel a few days later, she told me about Scott and Zelda’s notorious drunken swim in the fountain. A serious drinker herself, she thought of Fitzgerald as a compadre, but it wasn’t the darling of the Jazz Age she felt true kinship with, it was the handsome, greying “has been” who died at 44 in Hollywood making notes on next year’s Princeton football team in his copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

 

The quote about Fitzgerald’s death is based on the account in Andrew Turnbull’s biography.

September 10, 2014

book revOur tuxedo cat, Nora, was not named for James Joyce’s wife. She and her brother Nick got their names from Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) of The Thin Man movies. That said, it wasn’t until I was curled up with her early one morning reading Joyce’s Dubliners, which was published 100 years ago this June, that I made the Joycean connection. In addition to her name, Nora the cat shares Nora Joyce’s no-nonsense disposition. Just when she’s nuzzling and purring most blissfully, she’ll abandon me without so much as a farewell meow, and though she doesn’t expect breakfast in bed like Nora Joyce’s fictional alter ego Molly Bloom, she wakes me at 6 a.m. with a poke of the paw and down I go sleepwalking to the kitchen to open the cat food for her and her big brother.

Fighting for His Art

My Nora stayed within cuddling range right through to the end of “Two Gallants,” a slice of Dublin street life that evokes the moment when Joyce approached Nora Barnacle of Galway (“a tall young woman, auburn-haired, walking with a proud stride”) on Nassau Street in Dublin, spoke to her, and set things in motion for a meeting that took place on June 16, 1904, the day Joyce singled out for Ulysses, thereafter known and celebrated as Bloomsday. My reason for reading “Two Gallants,” however, is that it was the story “destined to precipitate disaster” for Dubliners, according to Richard Ellman’s James Joyce (1959). An English publisher, Grant Richards, had accepted the book early in 1906, a contract had been drawn up and signed, and all was well until the printer had issues with “Two Gallants” and then went on to mark passages in other stories he deemed objectionable. The result was a domino effect, with Richards taking a closer look and finding more to object to, including the use of the adjective “bloody” in various stories and numerous suggestive sexual nuances, not to mention unflattering references to Edward VII. Joyce argued that these details were crucial to the stories, that cutting them would leave Dubliners “like an egg without salt.” Richards not only stood his ground, he asked that “Two Gallants” be dropped altogether, and eventually decided against publishing the book, putting Joyce off with a vague promise “to do the stories later.”

In 1912 Joyce fought the good fight even more doggedly than before, this time with an Irish publisher, who came to the conclusion that the book was “anti-Irish” and whose demands for cuts and changes were even more excessive and peremptory than Grant Richard’s (a key problem was Joyce’s persistent use of real names for various pubs and places of business). In the end, though the book had been typeset, the publisher refused to publish it. Fortunately Joyce managed to obtain a complete set of the proofs before the printer destroyed the lot. Thanks to the proofs Joyce rescued, thus bypassing another fretful printer, the first edition of Dubliners was published in June 1914 — by Grant Richards.

Heroic Joyce

As can happen with geniuses as witty, eloquent, and indomitable as Joyce, the flap occasioned by Dubliners was almost worth the long delay, given the colorful blowback it inspired. In one letter on the first go-round with Richards, Joyce makes a Cyclops of his nemesis: “O one-eyed printer! Why has he descended with his blue pencil, full of the Holy Ghost, upon these passages?” He then urges Richards to join him in elevating English taste, reflecting on whether English literature “deserves or not the eminence which it occupies as the laughing-stock of Europe.” In another letter, the self-exiled author becomes a moral and spiritual patriot in the cause of salvaging the threatened passages: “If I eliminate them what becomes of the chapter of the moral history of my country? … I have taken the first step towards the spiritual liberation of my country.”

Richards chides Joyce, telling him he “could not afford to be so heroic about his art.” Of course one of Joyce’s most characteristic qualities is his heroic vision of himself, his struggle, his art, and the sordid poetry with which he makes his case: “It is not my fault that the odour of ashpits and old weeds and offal hangs round my stories. I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilization in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass.”

Joyce’s Range

Joyce shaped the order of the stories to reflect the movement from childhood to youth to adulthood and old age, from solitude to society to death. In the opening paragraph of the first story, “The Sisters,” a boy inhabited by the author gazes up at the lighted window of the room where the old priest who had been his “great friend” lies dying, and says softly to himself the word “paralysis,” which sounded “like the name of some maleficent and sinful being. It filled me with fear, and yet I longed to be nearer to it and to look upon its deadly work.”

After the Joyce who can expand on the word “paralysis” in the style of Walter Pater describing the Mona Lisa, there’s the Joyce with an ear for the street talk of Lenehan and Corley in “Two Gallants,” which I read aloud with Nora the cat throatily ruminating at my side. Who could resist giving voice to Lenehan’s reaction to Corley’s tale of conquest: “Well …. That takes the biscuit! …. That takes the solitary, unique, and, if I may so call it, recherché biscuit!” And when Lenehan asks about a second pick-up, Corley says, “One night, man …. I was going along Dame Street and I spotted a fine tart under Waterhouse’s clock, and said good-night, you know. So we went for a walk round by the canal, and she told me she was a slavey in a house in Baggot Street. I put my arm round her and squeezed her a bit that night. Then next Sunday, man, I met her by appointment. We went out to Donnybrook and I brought her into a field there …. It was fine, man.”

It was poetry, man. Especially when you recall how James Joyce picked up a girl from Galway on Nassau Street and later “met her by appointment,” an everyday Dublin liaison that changed the course of 20th-century literature. When Joyce spoke to Nora Barnacle, she was not “a slavey,” just a chambermaid at a “slightly exalted rooming house” then called Finn’s Hotel. Had there been no Nora in Joyce’s life, Ulysses would be without the Molly Bloom who performs the long and lusty night song that brings the book home to the essence of its humanity, a sexually active woman saying “Yes.” When Nora claimed not to have read a word of “that book,” and said that “nothing would induce her to open it,” Princeton native Sylvia Beach, the owner of Shakespeare and Company and publisher/savior of Ulysses, knew Nora had no need to read it since she herself was “the source of the book’s inspiration” and one of the luckiest things that “ever befell” its author.

Michael’s Song

Nora Barnacle was no less vital to “The Dead,” the masterpiece that brings Dubliners to its moving conclusion. For the first 40 pages of the 57-page story the scene is a holiday party hosted by two elderly sisters, Kate and Julia Morkan, where numerous characters, themes and motifs are kept in play, interacting with and accompanied by a subtle recognition in the prose of a “death in life” undercurrent of disembodied sounds and voices,

At the center of the story, which Joyce conceived in Rome in 1907, is Kate and Julia’s nephew, Gabriel Conroy, whose wife Gretta is from the provinces like Nora (“country cute” says Gabriel’s mother). Though there are some distinct differences, it’s clear that Gretta and Gabriel are modeled on Nora and Joyce, who had only been together three years and thus were still in close proximity to the incident that inspired the story’s justly renowned conclusion. As Ellman recounts, Nora had been courted by a tubercular boy named Michael in Galway the year before she met Joyce. Michael “stole out of his sick room in spite of the rainy weather, to sing to her under an apple tree and bid her goodbye.” Shortly after this happened, Nora went to Dublin, where she learned that the boy had died.

If you read Ellman’s biography, you know how sensitive Joyce would have been to the idea of a wife haunted by the thought of a boy who might have died for love of her. He himself was so haunted by the notion that he wove it into the fabric of “The Dead.”

As the party ends, Gabriel is in the entry hall making conversation with the departing guests when he sees Gretta at the top of the stairs, “listening to something.” All he can hear is “a few chords struck on the piano and a few notes of a man’s voice singing.” When Gretta comes down she’s so deep in the plaintive mood of the music, she seems unaware of the talk going on around her. Back in their room at the hotel, she’s still abstracted, still in the music. He asks what she’s thinking about. She mentions the name of the song and bursts into tears. Asked why the song makes her cry, she says, “I am thinking about a person long ago who used to sing that song.” Almost in spite of himself, he wants to know more, and every word she says harrows his heart — “I think he died for me …,” “I was great with him at that time …,” “Poor fellow … he was very fond of me and he was such a gentle boy …,” “O, the day I heard that, that he was dead!”

The rest of the story defies paraphrasing. There’s no way to do justice to the extended coda that begins with a single sentence — ”She was fast asleep” — followed by five paragraphs resembling movements or themes in a sonata with the title, “One by one, they were all becoming shades.” As Gabriel’s soul approaches “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” James Joyce enters “that region where dwell the vast hosts” of English language and literature, which he will in time meditate upon, explore and exploit, unmake and remake, but never again quite so simply and beautifully as he does here with “the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

———

Nora’s looking up at me as I write, not unlike Leopold Bloom’s “pussens” as she stalks (“Prr. Scratch my head. Prr … Mkgnao!”) over his writing table.

“Mr. Bloom watched curiously, kindly, the lithe black form. Clean to see: the gloss of her sleek hide, the white button under the butt of her tail, the green flashing eyes.”

What do you know, “the pussens” is a tuxedo.

 

September 3, 2014

book revWhen I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer — say, traveling in a carriage, or walking after a good meal, … it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.

—Mozart, from a letter

My ideas flow best when I’m driving a Honda CRV named Moby, preferably with music on the stereo. For more than a month now it’s been all Mozart, the piano concertos, with a loving emphasis on the slow second movements generally referred to as andantes. I try to keep the volume at a reasonable level, but Mozart will have none of it, and if you’ve been walking on Patton Avenue, or Ewing, or Mount Lucas Road, or Harrison Street, north or south, in recent days, you may have heard your friendly Mozart Mobile driving by, scattering fragments of Amadeus on the ambient air, all from the concertos I’ve been listening to, namely numbers 9 (“one of the wonders of the world,” says Alfred Brendel), 20 (Stalin’s favorite), 21 (remember Elvira Madigan?), and 27 (the last one). Imagine a Good Humor truck without the ice cream, that’s me.

Another recent event that has improved the flow of my ideas, such as they are, is that after coming from behind to win three games in a row, the St. Louis Cardinals have taken sole possession of first place in the Central Division of the National League for the first time this year. What has this got to do with Mozart, you may ask? Not a thing, except that I think were he given the opportunity, he would have liked watching baseball almost as much as he liked playing billiards.

There’s even a hint of the notion of “coming from behind” in the dynamic of the andantes. What would you rather have, an easy win, as clear cut as a 10-0 shut-out, or a hard-fought victory against odds? True, baseball, unlike billiards, is a team sport. But then so is the concerto, where one person sits at the piano surrounded and supported by a community of musicians. Keeping in mind that andante is the present participle of andare, to walk, meaning that the music should be played “at a walking pace,” this puts the pianist in the role of a single lonely thoughtful figure not unlike a pitcher working his way through a tough inning, his job being to allow no further scoring. Keep in mind as well what Mozart said in the letter, that the ideas “flow best” when he is “entirely alone.” Of course when the crisis comes, the lonely pitcher needs his teammates, and nothing, not even a walk-off home run in the bottom of the ninth, can equal Mozart when the orchestra swoops down and takes full possession of the melody. Then it’s as if the lonely, onward-striding human bravely sustaining the melodic line, seeing it through to the end, looks up to behold a sky that is to all the skies ever seen as Mozart is to all the music ever heard and Shakespeare to all the words ever read.

Stalin’s Olga

Driving past our former residence on Patton Avenue with Stalin’s favorite piano concerto on the stereo, I thought of the spring morning when I was invited over by our musician neighbors Bill and Janis to meet little Olga, who was having a piano lesson with Janis. This was no ordinary kid, this was Svetlana’s Olga, Joseph Stalin’s granddaughter. At the time of my visit many Aprils ago, I didn’t know how strongly Olga’s grandfather’s felt about K. 466, Mozart’s no. 20. So this drive-by was my way of celebrating a memorable Princeton moment. While Svetlana seemed shy, quiet, and pleasant, her Olga was a six-year-old life force. I thought again of all the energy bouncing off the living room walls of that little house while watching Valentina Lisitsa play K. 466 on YouTube. As she attacked the keyboard, swaying her head, all but singing the andante to herself, did this Ukrainian pianist know how close Joseph Stalin was to the music she was giving herself to so passionately? Did she know that the man responsible for the deadly Ukrainian famine had a recording of the same concerto on a record player in his room the day he died?

A Mount Lucas Moment

Driving toward town on Mount Lucas Road one recent sunny summer day with another Mozart andante on the car stereo, I pass two people walking in the same direction, first a woman in her thirties, in untucked blouse, jeans, and sandals, her brown-gold hair tied back, and in the next block a teen-age girl in shorts, halter, and sandals, her blond hair in a ponytail. The woman walks thoughtfully, the girl lightly, carefree; both are smiling to themselves. Neither looks up as the Mozart Mobile passes, releasing the chillingly beautiful slow movement from Piano Concerto No. 21 into the morning air, the music merging with the moment, the day, the light, the woman and the girl, each walking in her own way, no longer visible, gone with the coda, the piano ending its own promenade, note by simple note.

Some Passing Impressions

After listening to Mozart’s String Quintet in G-minor, in June 1816, 19-year-old Franz Schubert tells his journal “The magic notes of Mozart’s music still gently haunt me …. Thus does our soul retain these fair impressions, which no time, no circumstances can efface, and they lighten our existence. They show us in the darkness of this life a bright, clear, lovely distance, for which we hope with confidence.”

In February 1903, 41-year-old Claude Debussy observes that Mozart’s E-flat symphony is “full of a luminous lightness, like a group of lovely children laughing joyfully in the sunshine!”

Michael Kelly (1762-1826), an Irish tenor who knew Mozart well when both men were in their twenties, says that though Wolfgang could be touchy, “like gunpowder,” he was “lovable,” and when his face was “lighted up with the glowing rays of genius,” it was as impossible to describe “as it would be to paint sunbeams.”

Billiards and Dancing

Of all the biographies, critical studies, and books of letters I’ve consulted in this spell of mid-to-late-summer Mozart madness, the most rewarding has been Paul Johnson’s short but densely informative Mozart: A Life (Viking 2013). It was thanks to Johnson that I found Michael Kelly and his first-hand account of playing billiards with Mozart, who spoke fluent English, picked up during 15 months spent in London when he was a boy. “Again and again I played with him at billiards,” Kelly recalls, “and I always came off second best.” As Johnson tells it, when Mozart entered a public billiards room, he had music paper in his pocket “and composed while waiting his turn. He calculated a long break as twenty or thirty bars. ‘Right! Three pots in a row! Now what key was I in?’ ‘Oh, come on, Wolfgang, it’s your turn!’”  Once he moved to Vienna for good in 1781, he had a billiard table of his own in his apartment. According to Johnson, “He had a fetish about smooth, rolling objects. He liked to handle them while thinking and creating. Billiard balls were perfect for this purpose.”

It’s not clear how Johnson knows that Mozart actually rolled the balls in his hand while thinking, but if you don’t push it too hard, the compositional connection makes sense. What better discipline for a musician than playing a game that puts the harmonic dynamic in action as the chiming collision of one rolling object with another sends it spinning toward its sublime, shining alter ego?

At this point, after declaring that “God, music, and billiards were the main components of Mozart’s life,” Johnson adds a fourth — “dancing” — which “probably explained why he was so eager to make his home in Vienna,” at that time “the dance capital of the world.”

Johnson’s next line deserves a spot by itself:

“Mozart danced all his life, virtually to his deathbed.”

Phrases like that one are what make Johnson’s life of Mozart so engaging, You sense that rather than laboring, he’s enjoying his subject, even if it means spinning that sentence about a man who once called death “the best and truest friend of mankind, the key that unlocks the door to our true happiness.”

A man who can dance to his death bed can surely appreciate the emotional significance of coming from behind. A great composer with a fondness for handling smooth, rolling objects like billiard balls while thinking and creating, might also appreciate the brilliantly executed things players on a dusty diamond can do with a small shiny white ball.

The letter quoted at the top is from the introduction to Hans Mersmann’s edition of the letters (Dover). The letter was to “a certain baron” who had made him a present of wine. There is a more detailed account of my encounter with Stalin’s daughter and granddaughter in Town Topics, July 19, 2006.

 

August 27, 2014
The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

The light at the end of Dark Passage— Bacall sees Bogart

Look at that face of hers. There you’ve got the map of Middle Europe slung across those high cheekbones and wide green eyes …. As a woman she holds all the cards. She’s beautiful, a good mother, a good wife, and knows how to run a home.

—Bogart on Bacall

It may not make a lot of sense if you look at it closely, but Bogart’s description of Lauren Bacall (1924-2014), which I found in Stephen Bogart’s book about his father, puts the geography of attraction nicely into words, along with hints of her style and his.

Bacall’s debut in Howard Hawks’s To Have and Have Not (1944) was one of the most spectacular in Hollywood history. But the screen time that made her a star amounts to less than half an hour at most, and it helped to have the medium’s most charismatic antihero as the witness to her allure. The homemade Bacall montages on YouTube come mainly from scenes with Bogie: The Look, which accompanies her opening line (“Anybody got a match?”); the endlessly quoted “all you have to do is whistle” line; the first speech, the second kiss (“It’s even better when you help”); and the third and most serious kiss (“I like that … except for the beard”), evidence that a real-life romance is underway.

Agee Spreads the Word

Writing about To Have and Have Not in Time, James Agee neatly nails the star (“one of Bogart’s most edged portrayals of Nietzsche in dungarees”) on his way to putting Bacall into orbit in a stop-the-presses-worthy notice, hailing her as a “sensational newcomer” with “cinema personality to burn.” After comparing her to Garbo and Dietrich, he concludes that, even so, she’s “completely new to the screen.” He singles out her “born dancer’s eloquence in movement,” “fierce female shrewdness and a special sweet-sourness,” and a “stone-crushing self-confidence” that helps make her “the toughest girl a piously regenerate Hollywood has dreamed of in a long, long while.” Even in mandated Time-speech, Agee can swing a line like that, along with the one describing the film as “a loosely painted background for a kind of romance which the movies have all but forgotten about — the kind in which the derelict sweethearts are superficially aloof but essentially hot as blazes, and seem to do even their kissing out of the corners of their mouths.”

Agee’s review turns into a mini-profile of Bacall. Born in the Bronx in September 1924, she’s “part Rumanian, part French, part Russian (she thinks),” an only child, her idol was Bette Davis; she worked as an usherette and did some modeling for Harpers Bazaar, where a photo of her caught the eyes of Mrs. Howard Hawks, who showed it to her husband, the director; he signed her to a contract and, as Agee puts it, began a “shrewdly contrived campaign of artificialized naturalness” that produced the voice Agee compares to a trombone in Time and “a chorus by Kid Ory” in The Nation. For the better part of a year, Hawks “worked her out mainly in a vacant lot, bellowing anything from Shakespeare to odd copies of shopping news,” his purpose to turn something “high and nasal” into something “low and guttural.”

Agee includes an anecdote to show that Bacall was sometimes allowed to do things her way: “After a highly charged few minutes with Bogart, late at night in a cheap hotel room,” she “reluctantly retires to her own quarters. At this point in the shooting, she complained: ‘God, I’m dumb.’ ‘Why?’ asked Hawks. ‘Well, if I had any sense, I’d go back in after that guy.’ She did.”

To Whistle or To Smile

For the readers of The Nation, Agee offers a shorter, more cynical response, calling To Have and Have Not “a leisurely series of mating duels” between Bogart and “and the very entertaining, nervy, adolescent new blonde,” suggesting that whether or not you like the film will depend on what you think of Lauren Bacall. “I am no judge,” he writes. “I can hardly look at her, much less listen to her … without getting caught in a dilemma between a low whistle and a bellylaugh.”

I don’t have any sort of dilemma with Bacall. She leaves me smiling. So does the whole picture. Hawks has a genius for community; his ensembles are dreams of sweet disorder, like impromptu parties where everything falls into place. The story behind this film is that it was born from a bet between Hawks and Hemingway about whether Hawks could make a good picture from Hemingway’s worst novel. Out of that bet came romance and marriage for Bogart and Bacall. And only in Hollywood could you have the convergence in one film of two major American writers, however benighted the merging, Hemingway in tatters (a solid 90 percent of his “worst” novel having been “jettisoned”), Faulkner hacking out a wartime screenplay with Casablanca overtones that transforms Havana (to placate FDR) into Vichy Martinique and puts Faulkneresque charm into Walter Brennan’s lovable lush Eddie (“Was you ever bit by a dead bee?”).

And don’t forget the pride of Bloomington, Indiana, Hoagy Carmichael as the hip, laconic piano man Cricket, who asks Bacall are you happy when she comes over to say goodbye before she and Bogart head into the Caribbean sunset; “What do you think?” she says: she’s beaming. So he sends her on her way with the song he composed in her presence, “How Little We Know,” the lyric by songwriting legend Johnny Mercer (a direct descendent of the General Mercer who died at the Battle of Princeton), and as she shimmies happily off, wiggling her scene-stealing hips, she joins arms with Bogart and gives him a smile that says their adventure has only begun.

Looking Back

In the coda to the updated portion of her memoir By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment), Bacall looks back from 2005 to 18-year-old Betty riding west alone on the Super Chief, too shy to leave her compartment, ordering ginger ale because she didn’t drink except for the rare Orange Blossom when she wanted “to feel grown up.” She finds an apartment in Beverly Hills, which she’s sharing with her mother when the affair begins and from which she will escape at odd hours of the night, like the time Bogart calls after midnight and asks her to meet him on a certain street corner. Writing in 2005, she remembers “running down Beverly Drive … arms held wide, green three-quarters coat flying, toward Bogie, waiting for me”); another time it’s four in the morning and he’s a little drunk, says he’s walking to town along highway 101 (“Come and get me”), it’s raining, her mother is “furious,” thinks she’s completely mad, “but I didn’t care, I was in love, I was on my way to meet my man,” and she drives for an hour in the wind and the rain on Highway 101, “hugging the right side of the road, looking frantically for Bogie. At last, as the sun rose, I caught sight of him — unshaven … and with a large sunflower in his lapel …. I don’t know how he got there. I slammed to a halt, rushed out of the car … and into each other’s arms we fell. It was the funniest, craziest thing I’d done so far.”

Heaven in Paita

In 2005, remembering, she calls it “the headiest romance imaginable,” seemingly beyond anything Hollywood could dream up for them. Until, perhaps, the closing scene in Dark Passage (1947), the third picture of their four films together and the first as a married couple. Without going into detail on the complex noir plot, suffice it to say that Bogart’s character is in hiding and on the run from the moment the film opens. Bacall takes him in, not as a lover but a sympathetic friend. Rather than the standard film noir femme fatale or the moll or the tramp, she’s a well-off young artist with a spacious apartment in San Francisco, and she appears strikingly close in style and manner to the real-life Bacall. During the time she’s hiding him out and taking care of him as he recovers from identity-disguising plastic surgery, they become chastely intimate, and the interlude of embattled domesticity they share leads to love; the song playing when they finally embrace is “Too Marvelous for Words.”

As the police close in, his only option is to get out of the country, she wants to go with him, he refuses to expose her to the risk. After he gets a ticket on a bus to the Mexican border, he phones her to tell her where he’s headed, Paita, in Peru, a little town on the coast, he makes her repeat the name, tells her “There’s a little cafe right on the bay, I’ll be there,” and in the last scene he’s sitting at a table with a drink, people are dancing, a live band is playing south-of-the-burder music, which suddenly gives way to a familiar melody. He looks past the dancing couples to the entrance, and there she is, smiling at him. It’s been three years since the smile she gave him as they walked off together in To Have and Have Not, two years since they were married. It’s a “Look at that face of hers” moment for Bogart. Lauren Bacall is smiling at her husband; no one else, no mere fictional character, would be worthy of such a smile. In the aftermath of Bacall’s death, more than one blogger sees this luminous moment as an image of a reunion in the afterlife, and why not, it makes a heavenly ending as Bogart, who has ten years to live, gets up from the table, and Bacall, who has 67, approaches. He takes her in his arms, and they begin to dance, moving among the other couples, as the orchestra plays “Too Marvelous for Words,” with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.


Bogart’s quote is from a 1953 interview in the London Daily Mirror, included in Stephen Bogart’s book
Bogart: In Search of My Father (Dutton 1995). Lauren Bacall’s By Myself and Then Some (HarperEntertainment 2005) is distinguished by a brave, unstinting account of the ordeal of Bogart’s illness and death, in January 1957. Both books are available at the Princeton Public Library.

 

August 20, 2014
Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Robin Williams giving Ethan Hawke hands-on instruction in the art of improvisation.

Poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.

—Robin Williams as John Keating

In Peter Weir’s Dead Poet’s Society (1989) a prep school English teacher played by Robin Williams crouches like a quarterback in a huddle with his students, only John Keating’s not calling plays, he’s quoting Walt Whitman after telling the boys, “We read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race, and the human race is filled with passion. And business, law, medicine, and engineering are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love — these are what we stay alive for.” Then he brings in “Uncle Walt,” whose portrait hangs above his desk: “‘… of the endless trains of the faithless … of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life? Answer: that you are here; that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.’” After repeating the last line with quiet passion, Mr. Keating looks around at the faces of his students and asks, “What will your verse be?”

Of all the parts Williams played, John Keating may be the most purely inspirational, and, in the aftermath of his death on August 11, one of the most poignant. In Dead Poets Society the plot turns on the suicide of a student whose “verse” had been his dream of becoming an actor. As the reaction to Williams’s death last week makes clear, he had already contributed more than his share of passion and poetry to “the powerful play” when he decided that he could give no more.

Over the Top

The death of Robin Williams at 63 was a media event of remarkable magnitude. According to several reports in the New York Times, the news led to a 370 percent spike in mobile traffic, and hit website readership harder than any breaking story anywhere last week. In the immediate aftermath, the number of tweets about Williams spiked to about 63,000 a minute, and Steve Carrel’s 10-word tweet “Robin Williams made the world a little bit better. RIP” had been “retweeted” 63,276 times, and “favorited” by 84,710 people.

With numbers like that, there’s no doubt that the online hits on Williams highlights reached or exceeded the same level, from live full-length performances in theaters or night clubs, to appearances on Johnny Carson, to excerpts from his film career. All this instant fragmented access is in keeping with the nature of things in a brave new world where services like Twitter and Instagram and YouTube favor the parts over the whole. I’ve adjusted to the Age of Moments, which comes with the territory when putting together a weekly column with all the resources of the Net at hand. If you don’t own or can’t find DVDs of favorites like Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, you can still zero in on special moments.

Stand-Up

Watching Robin Williams’s stand-up routine can be exhausting. There’s a life-or-death desperation in the way he goes at it, as though laughter were oxygen and if he doesn’t breathe in enough of it, he’ll be in need of immediate medical attention. You can almost hear the adrenaline. Charlie Rose or Johnny Carson are lucky to get a word in with Williams firing off one-liners like a man possessed. When the venue is live, in theaters and clubs, all bets are off. The drunken Scotsman-inventing-golf routine bellowed with obscene in-your-face gusto in live performance gets toned down for Parkinson, England’s most popular talk show, where all is civil and conversational and guests are expected to go through the usual motions (say your piece, get some laughs, be charming, plug your latest). Unfortunately, you can’t mention “Parkinson” now without reference to the part the disease with that name may have played in Williams’s suicide. The fact that he’s already been posthumously linked to Parkinson’s indicates the scope of what he’d have been up against; in addition to the patronizing display of sympathetic head-shakings, knowing glances, and sad smiles, there would be wisecracks, sick jokes, and worse, notably in the blogsophere where the venom already being spewed on his daughter Zelda’s Facebook page was so vile that she had to shut it down.

The Poetry of Improvisation

Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987) is the Robin Williams film I remember particularly enjoying, the one where his comic spirit could soar within the confines of a plot. It’s also a reminder of his USO visits to Iraq and Afghanistan, where he’d performed for 90,000 troops by the time of his final tour in 2010.

Williams talks frankly about keeping his improvisational genie at bay in a 1982 interview with Dallas talk show host Bobbie Wygant about his first film role as the title character in The World According to Garp. Asked if it’s true that director George Roy Hill discouraged him from improvising on the set, he admits as much, saying that it was good for him: “you settle into yourself and find things you wouldn’t have found when you’re going out.” One day Hill allowed him to let go, to make the point, “and then we had to get down to some serious work.”

Norman Lloyd, who plays the headmaster in Dead Poets Society, observed that Williams wasn’t his usual “manic” self during the filming: “He was very serious during this piece. There was no horsing around, none of the Robin one-man-show stuff. He was just an absolutely serious dramatic actor.” Even so, the subtext of the lesson John Keating is so passionately teaching celebrates the spirit of improvisation that’s at the heart of Williams’s comic genius, which is put into instructive action in the scene when Todd Anderson, the painfully shy student played by Ethan Hawke, is forced to free-associate a poem in front of the class, with Keating circling him, coaxing him, making him close his eyes, giving him no room to escape from a plunge deep into his subconscious for something spontaneous and striking (it’s free verse in action). The sequence is launched by a rapidfire interrogation about the picture of Walt Whitman above his desk. “What does he look like?” “A madman.” “What kind of madman? Don’t think about it.” “A crazy madman.” “You can do better than that. Free up your mind.” “A sweaty-toothed madman.” “Good God, boy, there’s a poet in you, after all.” And on it goes, teacher and student moving in a kind of dance with elements of incantation and hide and seek, until finally the overwhelmed student is improvising on a madman mumbling about truth and “a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.” Keating persists, “what about the blanket?” until actor and poet come to life in Todd (and, you would think, in Ethan Hawke): “you push it, stretch it, it’ll never be enough. You kick at it, beat it, it’ll never cover any of us. From the moment we enter crying to the moment we leave dying, it will just cover your face as you wail and cry and scream.”

At this, the class that had been laughing at Todd’s discomfort cheers and applauds him. What you’ve witnessed isn’t just the frenzied creation of a free-form poem but an exercise in acting, with Weir as teacher behind the scenes, Williams as coach, and Hawke as student.

The Princeton Connection

Dead Poets Society was a memorable debut for Ethan Hawke, who graduated from the Hun School in 1988, the year before the film was released. And Hawke isn’t the only Princeton connection in Robin Williams’s life; one of his closest friends was PDS graduate (class of 1970) and fellow Julliard student Christopher Reeve. According to last week’s memorial statement from Reeve’s children, “He and Dad made each other laugh, and they stood by each other to the end. The world knew Robin as a comedic titan, but to our family, he was simply one of our Dad’s dearest friends. From the moment they were classmates at Juilliard, their friendship transformed into a brotherhood that was built on a mutual admiration for the theater, the arts and, most importantly, laughter. After our father’s accident, Robin’s visit to his hospital room was the first time that Dad truly laughed.”

In Reeve’s memoir, Still Me, he recalls, “I already knew that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of surviving the surgery. … Then, at an especially bleak moment, the door flew open and in hurried a squat fellow with a blue scrub hat and a yellow surgical gown and glasses, speaking in a Russian accent. For the first time since the accident, I laughed. My old friend had helped me know that somehow I was going to be okay.”

At Heaven’s Gate

When James Lipton, host of the interview series, Inside the Actor’s Studio, asked the ritual question, “If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the pearly gates,” Robin Williams’s answer was, “There’s seating near the front. The concert begins at five, it’ll be Mozart, Elvis, and someone of your choosing …. Or just to know there was laughter. That would be a great thing.”

After Williams’s death, Lipton said, “Great comedians have to be great actors. And what does an actor do? He reaches deep inside his soul … and brings out something deeply mysterious, a total surprise …. One of the greatest gifts he gave us was to spare us his suffering and to give us his joy …. In the end the one person he would not spare was himself.”

 

August 13, 2014
Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

Walton Goggins as Shane Vendrell: It’s all downhill from here.

To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?

—Walton Goggins

You may think you’re delving into the past when you sort through old interviews and reviews online, but the “ever present present” is always there, as it was last night when the news of Robin Williams’s death kept popping up on the pages of otherwise ancient information. I didn’t have time to read the details until I saw David Itzkoff’s obituary in Tuesday’s New York Times. I was writing about a gifted actor named Walton Goggins (imagine the fun Robin Williams would have riffing on that moniker), and didn’t want to stray from the subject. Reading the quote from Williams reassessing himself as a performer — “how much more can you give? Other than, literally, open-heart surgery onstage?” — I realized there’s no disconnect when you’re talking about actors.

In an interview on collider.com about the conclusion of The Shield (2002-2008), the extraordinary FX series about rogue cops in the LAPD, Walton Goggins complimented the show’s creator, Shawn Ryan, for ending it “the way that he began it, from the heart and from a place of passion.” Speaking of the “many threads in this story,” Goggins refers to the complex relationship between his character, detective Shane Vendrell, and the strike team leader Vic Mackey, played by Emmy-winner Michael Chiklis. “It’s the disintegration of that friendship and what it has done to these two men that were inexorably tied to the original sin of this show …. To be in the center of that storm, what greater honor could a person have?” What Goggins goes on to say about his character tells you a lot about how much of himself he gave to that role: “I’ll never get to play Shane Vendrell again. For me, it almost broke my heart when that happened because I love him very much, not from a friend standpoint. I just want to hug him. I just want to go up to him and just kind of hug him and whisper in his ear, ‘Buddy, you’re okay. You’ll be okay. If you can start from here and try to live your life differently, you’ll be okay.’”

In the same collider interview, Goggins, who was born in Atlanta in 1971, recalls walking into the local casting director’s office at the age of 14, with no acting experience, saying, “‘I have a lot of emotions. I’m a young kid, and I want to get these emotions out in a constructive way, so I think I need to become an actor, and I need you to help me do that.’ That was kind of my trajectory. I don’t think there was another option for me, really.”

A Great Ending

In view of Shane’s devastating fate, his actor buddy’s advice about living “your life differently” is wishful thinking on the grand scale. Certainly no one who ever stayed with The Shield to the finale will ever forget a show that closed out its seven-season run with what television critic Alan Sepinwall, writing online, called “the most satisfying end to a great drama series that I’ve ever seen.” In his book The Revolution Was Televised: The Cops, Crooks, Slingers and Slayers Who Changed TV Drama Forever (2012), Sepinwall suggests that from a Shield fan’s point of view what ultimately made the show great “was that it ended great.”

In the beginning, Shane was merely the lone witness to the “original sin” moment when Vic Mackey shot dead a fellow detective who had been planted on his deeply corrupt strike team in the fictional Farmington Division of the LAPD. The FX brass wanted Ryan to fire Goggins after the pilot was filmed, according to the chapter on The Shield in Sepinwall’s book. Ryan refused, and by the time Season 5 ended, “Goggins had more than justified his boss’s faith.” Up until then, the show needed infusions of star power from name actors like Glenn Close in Season 4 and Forest Whitaker in Season 5. Once Shane became “the center of the storm,” the series no longer needed “a Very Special Guest Star” because Goggins, as Sepinwall puts it, was playing “at Michael Chiklis’s level, and there was no conflict the show could create that would be bigger, or hit harder, than Vic vs. Shane, mentor against protégé, brother against brother.”

Sepinwall’s title for the chapter was “The Shield takes antiheroism to the limit,” and it’s a tribute to Chiklis’s relentless performance that you’re pulling for Mackey, the ultimate antihero, even as you’re thinking what an obnoxious brute he is. Whether he’s taking his cut, setting up monumental heists, bullying or beating on everyone in sight, he’s also doing his job. Every time the powers that be are about to come down on him, he pulls off a major bust. As a viewer, you give him credit for loving his kids, two of whom are autistic, but you never see him engaged as a father the way you do Tony Soprano with A.J. and Meadow and Walter White with his disabled son in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad. 

Other Endings

This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

—T.S. Eliot, “The Hollow Men”

People are still arguing about the ending of The Sopranos. Thanks to series creator David Chase’s decision to leave the final episode unresolved, with Tony Soprano sitting for all eternity over a plate of fried onion rings, many diehard fans of the show insist that what should have ended with a bang ended with worse than a whimper. A cop-out. An insult to closure. A cheating of fans who had invested almost a decade of their lives in the HBO blockbuster.

In The Revolution Was Televised, Chase tells Sepinwall that he never intended to play “head games” with the audience. “It just seemed right …. So why did I do it that way? I thought everyone would feel it. That even if they couldn’t say what it meant, that they would feel it.”

As Sepinwall points out, the ending “almost feels bigger than the show it dropped a curtain on.”

The first I ever heard of The Shield was on Sepinwall’s blog, “What’s Alan Watching” in September 2013, amid the analytical back and forth following the finale of Breaking Bad. While fans furiously weighed in on the subject of Walter White’s fate, the program they cited as the standard when it came to superior endings was The Shield.

As endings go, to use T.S. Eliot parameters, Breaking Bad went out with more  bangs than any comparable endgame situation this side of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. At the time Sepinwall interviewed Vince Gilligan for his book, Breaking Bad had not yet finished its run, so the ending was up for discussion. In reviewing the possibilities, Sepinwall presciently wonders about the machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car, which became, in fact, the primary component in the ingeniously, if improbably, fashioned machinery of the denouement (Walt was a mad genius, after all). At that time Vince Gilligan’s thoughts about a finale didn’t go much beyond a wish “to do justice to the characters,” to “satisfy the audience,” to make sure everyone feels “that this trip was worth taking,” and to end “in the best, most interesting, most breathtaking and ultimately satisfying way possible.”

No surprise, many of the Breaking Bad bloggers were dissatisfied. Some felt the denouement was too neat, with too many loose ends left unresolved. Compared to the ambiguous finales of The Sopranos and The Shield, however, Walter White’s self-devised demise lived up to Gilligan’s promise. Lifted by the rock and roll euphoria of Badfinger’s song, “Baby Blue,” Breaking Bad ends on a high.

Losing Everything

The Shield ends in a darker place, one that moved Slate’s Mark Peters to term it “a Shakespearean tragedy in which the antihero’s sins, spinning out from a fatal decision he makes in the pilot, slowly destroy everyone around him. The main character insists he’s doing it all for his family — but he’s lying, especially to himself. There’s a lot of collateral damage, but this murderer’s worst crime might be the corruption of his vulnerable younger partner.”

As for Vic Mackey, rather than going down in a blaze of machinegun glory or landing a life term or Death Row, he sells his soul for immunity, which means a three-year sentence confined to desk duty in a cubicle, duties befitting exactly the sort of paper pusher he has for so long been the fire-breathing man-of-action antithesis of, and what would be a routine act for an ordinary employee — the displaying of photographs of his wife and children — carries a lead weight of irony for one who has lost his family, friends, coworkers, everything but his life.

Unguilty Pleasures 

Let’s face it, the stuff we’ve been watching since the millennium is gruesome fare. People do terrible things to one another on Game of Thrones, Justified, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, House of Cards, Luther, True Detective, and on and on, not to mention some recent horrors like Penny Dreadful and The Leftovers. While not all the abovementioned can be called works of art in a class with The Shield or The Sopranos, Deadwood or The Wire, they provide enough intensity and visual imagination to keep us from watching real-life atrocities like Congress, the Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and the other Usual Suspects. We can read about all that in the New York Times, along with the untimely death of the actor who asked “How much more can you give?”

This seems as good a place as any to quote Henry James from The Middle Years: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”