June 3, 2015

book rev

Responding to the deaths of John and Alicia Nash in a May 23 accident on the New Jersey Turnpike, Jennifer Connelly, the actress who won an Oscar playing Alicia in the Academy-Award-winning film version of Sylvia Nasar’s A Beautiful Mind (Simon & Schuster 1998), calls the couple “an inspiration” and refers to “all that they accomplished in their lives.” Russell Crowe, who played John Nash in the film, refers to their “amazing partnership. Beautiful minds, beautiful hearts.” Both statements go straight to the spirit of the extraordinary six-decades-long relationship with a force lacking in obituaries that focused on the trials and triumphs of the husband. Having lived the roles, Connelly and Crowe were able to do justice to the couple by stressing words like inspiration, partnership, minds, and hearts.

A Hothouse Orchid

According to Nasar, the couple’s story began at MIT where the mathematics faculty included Nash, who had earned his doctorate at Princeton in 1950 with a 27-page thesis on game theory that would lead to a Nobel Prize in 1994. Alicia was a physics major hoping to become a nuclear scientist at a time when coeds at MIT “wore cocktail dresses and high heels while dissecting rats in the lab.” In that environment Alicia “glowed like a hothouse orchid …. Delicate and feminine, with pale skin and dark eyes, she exuded both innocence and glamour, a fetching shyness as well as a definite sense of self-possession, polish, and elegance” She carried herself like “an El Salvadoran princess with a sense of noblesse oblige.” It would seem that Nash never had a chance. Nor did she, as she admitted in the PBS documentary A Brilliant Madness (2002): “At the time, he was a little bit like the fair-haired boy of the math department …. And he was very nice looking.”

Princeton Junction

They were married in 1957 in Washington, D.C. By the time a son was born in 1959, Nash was undergoing the first of a series of involuntary commitments to psychiatric hospitals that would include Carrier and Trenton State, where he was hospitalized after the couple moved to Princeton in 1960. The strain of dealing with Nash’s psychosis eventually led Alicia to divorce him in 1963. Seven years later when she was living “literally across the road from the railroad station” in Princeton Junction, she offered to let Nash live with her, “moved by pity, loyalty, and the realization that no one else on earth would take him in.” Quoted by Nasar in a chapter epigraph, Nash admitted as much, “I have been sheltered here and thus avoided homelessness.” Besides contributing what he could to expenses, Nash helped his 12-year-old son Johnny with his homework, played chess, and rode the Dinky into Princeton, where he became known as “the phantom of Fine Hall” and “the mad genius of Firestone.”

Bartleby at Firestone

The man I saw day and night at the Firestone Library in the late 1970s seemed to be everywhere I looked. It would be hard to imagine a more unprepossessing person, always wearing the same yellow-brown plaid shirt, always with an almost surreal air of passive obstinacy, like a library-born version of Herman Melville’s live-in Wall Street clerk Bartleby whose answer to everything is “I would prefer not to.” Whether haunting the reference room or the card catalogue or the third floor stacks, he was somehow eternally in residence.

I had no idea who he was until I saw the photographs of Nash in A Beautiful Mind. There was the same plaid shirt, the same air of having wandered to the far side of reality, as if he were an inanimate object waiting to be moved to a position of conclusive significance on the cosmic chess board. In the womb-like recesses of Firestone’s third-floor, those cramped quarters teeming with “quaint and curious volumes,” it’s not easy to ignore the other inhabitants, and while I never exchanged greetings with the man in the plaid shirt, there were nods and looks of vague acknowledgment. The office where I worked during the day and had all to myself at night was located next to that of historian Charles Gillespie, who is quoted in Beautiful Mind to the effect that Nash “almost always headed for the third floor stacks, in a section of the library devoted to religion and philosophy,” where Gillespie “always said good morning” and “Nash was always silent.”

Last Words

In A Brilliant Madness, when Nash faces the camera, up close, he appears to have moved well away from the spookily intransigent Bartleby; he’s older, greyer, sadder and wiser, less guarded, more willing to appear vulnerable, and though he might “prefer not to,” he offers brief comments about the lost years and the years to come, admitting, that “in madness,” he saw himself “as some sort of messenger, or having a special function. Like the Muslim concept with Muhammad, the messenger of Allah.” Referring to his protracted remission, he says “I don’t really remember the chronology very well, exactly when I moved from one type of thinking to another. I began arguing with the concept of the voices. And ultimately I began rejecting them and deciding not to listen.” In other words, he preferred not to.

I can still hear an echo of Bartleby’s mantra at the end of A Brilliant Madness when Nash seems to startle himself with his thoughts about the future. “I don’t know what the future holds exactly,” he says; then, with a scarily revealing gesture, somewhere between a grimace, a shudder, and a graveyard laugh, he adds, “even if it’s not such a long future — for me.” As he goes on, putting some distance between himself and the subtle convulsion of the moment when he acknowledged in spite of himself that his might not be “a long future,” his words seem to trail off into a void, “Of course, the future in general is presumably long — unless things really go bad — or unless some miracle happens.”

Shortly before that last halting, one-on-one moment with Nash, A Brilliant Madness offers an alternate farewell in a video of the Nobel Prize ceremony when, after the presentation of the medal, he bows three times, to the front, the left and the right, holding the prize, a gesture at once formally precise and gently graceful, after which we hear the voice of fellow mathematician Princeton professor Erhan Çinlar on the soundtrack: “He shined very brightly as a young man. Then he had his illness. And he is now a very pleasant, accomplished gentleman. It feels right somehow.”


They began as teacher and student, became husband and wife, then housemates, and in 2001 husband and wife again. In her last chapter, Nasar celebrates a marriage, “the most mysterious of human relationships,” summing it up (circa the late 1990s): Alicia is “strong-minded, pragmatic, and independent,” yet her “girlish infatuation has survived the disillusionments, hardships, and disappointments.” She takes her husband shopping for clothes, “frets when he travels,” spends four hours in the ER with him “when his ankle swells from a sprain.” Meanwhile he “sets his clock by her. Stubborn, reserved, self-centered, and jealous of his time (and money) as he is, Nash does nothing without consulting Alicia first, defers to her wishes, and tries to help her, whether it is by washing the dishes, straightening out a problem at the bank, or going with her to family therapy.”

At the time Nasar was writing and apparently right up to May 23, 2015, the Nashes found themselves sharing a familiar burden in the plight of their mathematically gifted schizophrenic son John Charles “Johnny” Nash, now 56, who would grow up to be treated with “the newest generation of drugs” that enabled him, “for the most part, to stay out of the hospital,” but “have not given him a life.” For his parents, it was “a constant disruption,” the way he both “drew them together and tore them apart,” generating “deep conflicts” that caused them to blame each other for his misbehavior — “when he destroys things in the house, attacks them, acts inappropriately in public.” There is the inevitable good cop/bad cop syndrome, but “they rely on each other. They agree every day on what one or the other should do. They also agree when it is time to hospitalize him,” and when it’s time to go to a pharmacy for his meds, they go together.

A House on Aiken

Watching the DVD of Ron Howard’s film version of A Beautiful Mind, I recognized the house the production staff used for the exterior of the home occupied by the Nashes when they moved to Princeton. Located on Aiken Street next to Harrison Street Park, it’s the same house my wife and I once considered renting. We’d been living around the corner on Patton Avenue with our infant son who spent many happy hours playing in the sandbox and on the swings at the park. You can see the park gate in the film and the sidewalk my son would run along, never in a straight line, always zigging and zagging, and of course now and then tripping and falling on the uneven pavement no matter how alert we were to his giddy, happy, random movements. There was no containing him, really. He was determined to pick things up, eat every berry in sight, smell every flower, pet every dog. All very normal, though looking back it’s easy to imagine that his fearless heedless way of going at the world might suggest early signs of the illness that makes us familiar with phrases like “drew them together and tore them apart,” and “good cop bad cop.”

In the end, no matter how watchful a parent or person you are, no matter how many hazards you anticipate, no matter how often you’re tempted to think the world makes sense, there’s not much you can do when things spin out of control, whether it’s a child’s mind or a taxi on the turnpike. Though she was writing some 20 years ago, Sylvia Nasar found a fitting epigraph for the Nashes and the rest of us in the lines from Wordworth’s “Intimations of Immortality,” which accompanies her dedication of A Beautiful Mind to Alicia Nash: “Another race hath been, and other palms are won./Thanks to the human heart by which we live,/Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,/To me the meanest flower that blows can give/Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.”

May 27, 2015
Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Mad Man begins and ends with Don Draper, formerly Dick Whitman, alone, and yet not alone. In the opening scene of the pilot, it’s the dawn of the sixties, he’s in a crowded, lively New York bar, people are drinking, smoking, laughing, talking, and at first all we see is the back of his head. We’re curious right away because he’s making notes on some cocktail napkins, and although he’s not actually sitting apart from the others, he’s a thoughtful island unto himself until he asks an elderly black waiter what brand of cigarettes he smokes and why. When the waiter admits how much he loves smoking, even though his wife has read somewhere that it “will kill you,” it’s obvious from Draper’s expression that this is an advertising issue he’s been seriously pondering. We know enough about the show at this point to intuit that his job is to sell people on a product that may be deadly. He looks around. Everyone’s smoking.

A decade later, the sixties is history and the same man is one of a group chanting Om at an Esalen-style retreat on Big Sur. The last words we hear from the group leader are “A new day … new ideas … a new you.” The camera moves in and this time we’re seeing Don Draper/Dick Whitman face to face, close up, though in reality we’re seeing a third person, the actor Jon Hamm, whose classic Hollywood charisma has anchored Mad Man from the beginning; he is the face of the series. During his on-the-American-road escape from Mad Avenue in the previous episodes, which the show’s creator Matthew Weiner says were inspired by the seminal TV series The Fugitive, Hamm conveys the rugged, hungover ambience of a taller, handsomer Humphrey Bogart.

The Real Thing?

So why end a seven season series about a Madison Avenue ad firm in the sixties with a Big Sur meditation session? As we stare into an immense close-up of the face that launched the show that saved AMC, we seem to be living out Dylan’s line, “Something’s happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Matthew Weiner has left it up to his audience to figure out what’s going on with this deeply conflicted artist who discovered his genius in the most absurd and demeaning of professional endeavors. Is he happy? Has he achieved the big E? Or is enlightenment beneath him? A joke? Like the old one about the quest for the wise man of the mountain who tells you “Life is just a bowl of cherries, my son.” Or maybe, “life is just an ice-cold bottle of Coke.”

But what’s going on with his mouth? Is that a smile, a half-smile, or is it, as some have suggested, a smirk? This isn’t the Mona Lisa we’re talking about, it’s our last look at one of the most complex and memorable characters to emerge from post-millennial television, along with Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, and Walter White. The last word comes from the realm of the absurd (“the best ad ever made,” says Weiner) as the angelic face of a young girl fills the screen singing “I’d like to buy the world a home and furnish it with love,” which segues into “I’d like to buy the world a Coke” while a we-are-the-world chorus of youths join in, each with the iconic bottle in hand, closing out the final season of Mad Men with three words dear to the heart of Henry James: “It’s the real thing.”

Thus, what for most mortals would signify the achievement of inner-peace is for Don Draper simply the return of his wayward muse. So much for the smirk. If anything, the half-smile is a work in progress, conveying a sense of pent-up inspiration, thoughtful urgency, if not impatience, to start putting the vision in play.

Bowing Out Early

For all its effectiveness (as Weiner notes, “it’s nice to have your cake and eat it too”), the ending didn’t make me regret bowing out of Mad Men two seasons earlier. Why did my wife and I give up when we did? Besides losing interest in the characters, the milieu, and the storylines, what put us off as much as anything was Don Draper’s second marriage (his first wife Betty’s second was no less yawn-inspiring). In an amusing bit of Esalen hilltop stream of consciousness on the New Yorker website (“What Don Draper Was Thinking in the Final Minutes of ‘Mad Men’”), John Kenney says it well, “Megan spoke French. Megan was annoying. God, she was annoying. Everything about her was annoying, even when she spoke French, which is rare, as French is so melodic. I don’t miss her. Why did I give her a million dollars?”

The Nuisance of Ads

The Sopranos ended brilliantly and controversially as Journey sang “Don’t Stop Believin’,” a choice made with a push of the button by Tony Soprano, who is looking up watchfully when the screen goes black. Whether the abrupt cut-off suggests sudden death or a metaphor for the ways of the world (sadly played out by the untimely death of James Gandolfini), it was a great ending to a greater if no less flawed work of television art (and one in which Weiner was creatively involved). In another great series, Breaking Bad, Walter White also died accompanied by irresistibly upbeat rock and roll, Badfinger’s “Baby Blue.” However true to itself, Mad Men’s Coke commercial ending inevitably trivializes the moment and reminds us that all these hours of generally superior television have been about a phenomenon so unappealing that the audience numbers lifting the last episode above all others depend on TiVo estimates of people who prefer to watch a show about advertising without enduring the nuisance of ads. Don’s fate is to be a poet in an essentially crass and unpoetical profession. Imagine Keats or Shelley brainstorming ads or writing jingles.

The Show’s Finest Hour

On the other hand, anyone who has a problem with the idea of ending one of television’s most celebrated creations with a Coke ad must have missed the Season One finale when Draper unveils his sales concept for the Kodak slide projector the company is calling The Wheel. Like a film director in a screening room, Draper turns down the lights and presents a slide show featuring images from happier days with his estranged family. As the images come and go, he defines nostalgia in terms that reflect his ambiguous personal history (“the pain from an old wound”), telling his clients that what they’re selling isn’t technology but memory. “This device isn’t a spaceship; it’s a time machine,” he says. “It goes backwards and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the wheel. It’s called the carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels, around and back home again to a place where we know we are loved.”

If for nothing more than that moment, Matthew Weiner and everyone involved in the series has earned the acclaim and awards. As for describing Don Draper as an embattled poet, who else would notice someone in a bar reading Frank O’Hara’s “Meditations in an Emergency” and be curious enough to read it? You knew Mad Men was something special when Jon Hamm read from O’Hara in voiceover, “Now I am quietly waiting for/the catastrophe of my personality/to seem beautiful again,/and interesting, and modern.”


A review of Mad Men following the second season (“Jon Hamm Unforgettable as Mad Men’s Don Draper, the Soul of a Great Series”), echoed here, appeared in Town Topics, July 29, 2009.

May 20, 2015

record revThe other night I found John Lennon alive and well online singing “There’s a little yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu” from “Nobody Told Me,” a song brimming over with the Lennon spirit, funny, straight-ahead, full of life, kick up your heels and let it roll. That slightly altered quote (“little” instead of “one-eyed”) from the old sidewalks-of-London busker’s delight, “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” was a happy surprise.

In the aftermath of the earthquakes, I’d been searching for material for a column about Kathmandu, and the Google genies had given me one of Lennon’s most engaging post-Beatles songs, with the subtle negativity of lines like “Everyone’s a winner and nothing left to lose” harking back to the passionate positivity of “nothing you can do that can’t be done, no one you can save that can’t be saved” from “All You Need is Love,” the song he sang to the world in the summer of 1967. While the other Beatles were performing at that worldwide television event, with a host of rock luminaries joining the chorus, it was John’s song, his words, his voice sending the message. In the best and most impossible of all worlds he would be at Abbey Road right now with his three mates recording a special song to raise much-needed money for Nepal Earthquake Relief.

The Himalaya Hotel

In his account of a journey to India and Nepal, poet Gary Snyder describes coming into Kathmandu at night and stopping at the Himalaya Hotel, which was “so filthy and rat-infested” that he moved next day to a hotel “a cut better.” Some years later, on Christmas Day, delirious with fever, I found refuge in the same hotel. In the almost three weeks I was laid up there, alone, I never saw any rats, but I could hear them in the wall.

The night Gary Snyder arrived, Kathmandu “was very quiet, and most shops were closed, because everyone was inside awaiting the end of the world,” since “at 3 p.m. that afternoon … all the visible planets plus the moon and sun went into conjunction and the whole Indian nation was convinced the world would be destroyed.”

On May 20, 2015, it’s impossible to read that passage without recalling images of the devastation inflicted on Nepal on April 25 and again on May 12. Maybe the astrologers Snyder refers to were weighing cosmic conjunctions with the geophysical odds, given that the magnitude 8.0 earthquake of 1934 had caused more than 10,000 deaths and that, according to Geohazards International, the Kathmandu Valley was the most dangerous place in the world in terms of per capita earthquake casualty risk.

If you could measure events in the timeline of a life according to seismic numbers, the three weeks in Kathmandu would measure around 7.8 to 8.0 magnitude on my personal Richter scale. For a start, I was coming down with a bad cold when I landed in the center of the city, still reeling from a skidding-and-sliding-on-the-edge-of-the-abyss journey from the Indian border in the back of a truck, an experience Snyder describes as “a 12-hour ride up to 9,000 feet and back down again on the wildest, twistiest road” he’d ever been on. Having eaten nothing since the previous morning at Raxaul on the Indian border, I didn’t hesitate when a welcoming party of stoned-out fellow hitchhikers urged me to sample a concoction they called Djibouti Roo from amid an array of fat chocolate goodies displayed on an elaborately embellished silver tray. Only after I’d wolfed down one of the biggest pieces did I learn that Djibouti Roo’s street name was Mad Dog Pie, and that in addition to several melted Cadbury fruit and nut bars, it contained a super group of mind-benders, including ganja, hash, morphine, opium, cocaine, and LSD.

Falling Down

The place we were sitting in as the Mad Dog began biting me had a wildly overblown reputation in the hitchhiker interzone. Time and again on the way east we heard that the Globe Cafe was the place to head if your goal was Christmas in Kathmandu. With Shakespeare’s playhouse in mind, I fantasized a Globe-like structure surrounded by streets as narrow, winding, and funky as those of Elizabethan London. While the streets lived up to my fantasy, the Globe itself was little more than a dingy, smoky, low-ceilinged room full of westerners Getting High and Being Cool. Upstairs was a sort of flophouse dormitory where I spent the next 12 hours, “hanging on for dear life,” as the saying goes, while everything fell to pieces around me.

Getting upstairs had been an epic undertaking. As soon as I tried to stand I fell down. Stood up, took two steps, fell down again. A grim-faced Nepalese woman was showing me to the staircase, which was outside the building. Every time I toppled she glared over her shoulder, waiting for me to get back on my feet. It was beyond “if looks could kill.” Such was the depth of dismissal in her stare, this dark lady of the Globe, that hers became the face plaguing long nights and days of fever in my freezing cave of a room at the Himalaya Hotel.

Loud Mouth Lime

Among the jumble of things on the bulletin board above my desk at home is a clipping of a grinning green face with a big blue mouth and above the silly creature the words Loud Mouth Lime in purple letters. On my desk as I write is a pile of ancient Indian aerogrammes postmarked Calcutta, Benares, Allahabad and New Delhi filled to the brim with leaky ballpoint messages from me intermingling with a number of neatly written-with-fountain-pen letters on pale blue crinkly stationary with matching envelopes postmarked Berkeley, Beverly Hills, and Los Angeles from a girl I’d met three years before at a party in a Haste Street apartment house (since destroyed) in Berkeley.

Loud Mouth Lime appeared in one of the two California letters that found me in Kathmandu sweating out the nightly fevers in a U.S. Army sleeping bag laid on a charpoi in the Himalaya Hotel. My only medicine was a bottle of Aspro aspirin I bought at a nearby shop along with a packet of British arrowroot biscuits, which was all I had to eat in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. I had nothing to drink but the cold jars of water — “Kathmandu water is full of mica and gives everyone the runs” says Gary Snyder, though luckily for me it had just the opposite effect — and glasses of hot milky tea brought to me several times a day by a Nepalese boy no more than 10 who was only slightly less coldly indifferent to my humanity than the dark lady of the Globe had been. The way this lad scrutinized me you’d have thought that a giant green sleeping-bag caterpillar (Gregor Samsa comes to Kathmandu) had crawled into view from the rat-infested shadows. It wasn’t until around January 2 that I managed to make it half a block down New Road to the Indira Cafe to put some scrambled eggs in my stomach and to ask people who knew my friends to tell them where I was.

The low point came in the first week of January when I began to doubt that I’d ever get well. I was weak, exhausted from the strain of holding back a coughing fit I was sure would be the end of me. To this day I have no memory of picking up mail at the U.S. Embassy. All I know is that two letters from California dated December 10 and 21 showed up when my morale was in free fall. The first letter is bright, cheerful, playful, with some local color: “Buddhism is all the rage as are all mystic cults. Berkeley looks like Trafalgar Square all the time — the English beat look is in.” After apologizing for complaining about “non-thinking conformists” and “the nuts on Telegraph Avenue,” she stops writing to “go put on a Beatles record,” which makes her feel “cheery and crazy” while apparently inspiring her to clip the funny face off a packet of Kool Aid, tape it to the page, and end the letter thus, “Below is my most recent photograph which accompanied an interview which the editor of the New York Review of Books had printed last month. The interview pointed out the long winded but smiling-sardonic quality of my prose works, of which you have an example in your hand. Hoping my picture will encourage you to write, I am, as I have always been, Loud Mouth Lime.”

Strange and wonderful (“Strange days indeed,” as John sings in “Nobody Told Me”) that this grinning green face should have the power to lift me out of the endgame doldrums, even becoming a kind of comic keepsake, a joy-making version of the Green Eye of the Little Yellow God pinned on the bulletin board above my desk. Little did I know I was hooked, caught, my future foreshadowed in that silly smiling face, and in case I doubted my fate the letter from December 21 suggests that if I didn’t “freeze in the Himalayas, or get eaten by the abominable snowman, and if we get on well would I mind if we were together for most of the summer?”

Five months later in Venice we were together, and we’ve been together four decades and counting, for better or worse, ever since.

Sidewalks of London

Wondering what inspired John Lennon’s quote from “The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God,” my guess is that while watching The Late Late Show with Yoko one New York night, he had seen Charles Laughton reciting the J. Milton Hayes poem about Mad Carew and the yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu in St. Martin’s Lane (or Sidewalks of London), a film celebrating buskers and the beauty of Vivien Leigh that my wife L.M. Lime and I saw on a rented TV in Bristol in the early 1970s.

I read Gary Snyder’s “Now, India” in the October 1972 number of the journal, Caterpillar, which can be found in Snyder’s book Passage Through India (Counterpoint paperback 2009). “Nobody Told Me” is on the posthumous album, Milk and Honey (1984). As a single, it was Lennon’s last to reach the Top Ten in both the U.K. and U.S.

May 13, 2015

100 best novels murphyExcept for the lack of a parking spot on Charlie Parker Place, the transition from Princeton to Manhattan has never been smoother, turnpike to tunnel, uptown, crosstown to a bench in Tompkins Square Park and a sunny spring day of chirping sparrows and grumbling pigeons. While dogs are romping nearby in their own playground, I’m reading about dachsunds “of such length and lowness” that “it makes very little difference to their appearance whether they stand, sit or lie.”

Until I bought the Grove Press paperback of Murphy (1938) last week in Doylestown, I’d never found a way to read Samuel Beckett. In all the English courses I took in college and graduate school, he’d never been on the reading list, no friend had ever chanted his name in my ear, “you must read this,” and I’d never seen a performance of Waiting for Godot. But when I read in Chapter 5 of Murphy that the title character was one of those “who require everything to remind them of something else,” I caught a glimpse of myself in Beckett’s mirror. Of course everything reminds everyone of something, but to require it is another matter and not unlike what I do when I compose a column. Beckett is requiring it in a room where the “lemon of the walls whined like Vermeer’s,” “the unupholstered armchairs” resembled “those killed under him by Balzac,” and the linoleum’s “dim geometry of blue, grey and brown delighted Murphy because it called Braque to his mind.”

Having it Both Ways

After a mere 109 pages of Murphy, Beckett has become a state of mind, a place, a way of life. It’s very Beckett, in fact, that my motive for finally reading and writing about him is based on misinformation about his birth. According to wwnndb.com, he was born on this date, May 13, in 1906. Look elsewhere and the date is April 13. The New York Times obituary of December 27, 1989, has it both ways: “Samuel Barclay Beckett was born in Foxrock, a suburb of Dublin, on Good Friday, April 13, 1906 (that date is sometimes disputed; it is said that on his birth certificate the date is May 13).”

You don’t need to read far in Beckett to appreciate the April/May conundrum. If you have it both ways, or all ways, right or wrong or neither, whether you’re looking for a subject for a column or a New York moment, it becomes possible not only to penetrate what had seemed impenetrable but to see Beckett spilling off the page into the “real life” ambience of dogs and sparrows and people on a spring day in an East Village park.

Enter Nelly and Shelley

As the reader on the park bench in New York resumes reading, Murphy’s title character is in London’s Hyde Park placing five biscuits “face upward on the grass, in order as he felt of edibility … a Ginger, an Osborne, a Digestive, a Petit Beurre and one anonymous.” While he contemplates those items “of which it could be said as truly as of the stars, that one differed from another,” a “corpulent middle-aged woman” asks him if he would mind holding “her little doggy.” Miss Rosie Dew has come all the way from Paddington to feed greens from her garden to “the poor dear sheep” grazing nearby (such was the case in those days). The doggy, a dachsund called Nelly, is, her owner admits, in heat, and Miss Dew is afraid that if Nelly is not held she will “be off and away,” to “plunge the fever of her blood in the Serpentine or in the Long Water for that matter, like Shelley’s first wife you know, her name was Harriet was it not, not Nelly, Shelley, Nelly, oh Nelly how I ADORE you.”

At this moment the reader on the park bench, who has come all the way from Princeton, is grinning as he rereads the passage, with its abrupt, absurd, delightfully rhymingly remindfully blending of Shelley and Nelly. It’s really as if Beckett’s doggy mind has gone for a romp in the park of the page, and Murphy, who “requires everything to remind him of something else,” has found another Romantic poet in the “dingy, close-cropped, undersized and misshapen” sheep that want nothing to do with Miss Dew’s offerings. It’s right about now that the reader is reminded that the author served as James Joyce’s secretary when he was writing Finnegan’s Wake, so is it any wonder that he imagines “a compositor’s error” transforming Wordsworth’s “lovely ‘fields of sleep’” into “‘fields of sheep.’”

Time for a breather after all this chasing after Beckett, who has been cavorting unleashed all over Tompkins Square Park, and we haven’t even come to the first of several denouements, or punch-lines. It seems that while Murphy was engaged by the spectacle of Miss Dew’s “tendering of lettuce” to the dejected, disinterested sheep, the dachsund was eating all the biscuits “with the exception of the Ginger, which cannot have remained in her mouth for more than a couple of seconds.” Murphy thereupon points out to Miss Dew that while “the sheep may not fancy your cabbage … your hot dog has eaten my lunch … or as much of it as she could stomach.” The matter is settled when Miss Dew gives Murphy threepence for “his loss.”

Much more could be said about Miss Dew’s talents as a medium “who could make the dead softsoap the quick in seven languages,” but once you start quoting Beckett you’re lost. As Leslie Fielder notes in a 1997 New York Times appraisal of Murphy, Beckett’s “eerie deadpan humor” involves “the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation,” for it’s as a “vaudevillian of the avant-garde” that he “especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.” Fiedler finds Murphy the “funniest, perhaps, of his novels,” one that “evokes a ferocity of terror and humor that shames most well-made novels of our time.”

Beckett in Manhattan

In Norman Mailer’s 1958 collection Advertisements for Myself, the excitement generated among New York theatregoers and intellectuals in the spring of 1956 by the Broadway production of Waiting for Godot inspires Mailer to, in effect, jump all over Godot in his column for the Village Voice before, as he admits, either seeing or reading the play. After facetiously congratulating the critics for revealing that the title “has something to do with God,” Mailer points out that Godot “also means ‘ot Dog, or the dog who is hot,” thus “To Dog The Coming, and God Hot for Waiting,” or “Go, Dough! (Go, Life!)” (among “a hundred subsidiary themes”), though in the end he likes “To Dog the Coming” best.

This romp in the dog park of Mailer’s undaunted and ever expanding ego precedes his announcement that a quarrel with the editors of the Voice has made the outburst on Godot his “last column” for the paper “at least under its present policy.”

How rare, how sweet, how very Beckett, that after finally seeing and reading the play and realizing “it was, at the least, very good,” Mailer returns to the Voice long enough to write a mea culpa (“It is never particularly pleasant for me to apologize, and in the present circumstances, I loathe doing so”), which he ceremoniously titles “A Public Notice on Waiting for Godot.” It’s six pages of Mailer throwing everything he’s got at Beckett’s “sad little story, but told purely” — until the character Lucky enters and delivers “the one strangled cry of active meaning in the whole play, a desperate retching pellmell of broken thoughts and intuitive lurches into the nature of man, sex, God, and time” that “comes from a slave, a wretch, who is closer to the divine than any of the other characters.”

Thirteen years later, when the Nobel Committee gave the prize in literature to Beckett, an Irishman who had lived in France most of his life, his French wife said, “This is a catastrophe” while the author of Godot left them waiting in Stockholm and gave away the prize money.

Earth Opera

I’m sitting on the same bench in Tompkins Square Park with my son watching the dogs at play and talking about Earth Opera, one of the great lost groups of the sixties. The words and music from the self-titled debut album had been haunting me for days because the lead singer and lyricist, Peter Rowan, was the first and only person to point me in the direction of Beckett. True to Murphy’s law about requiring everything to remind him of something else, Beckett reminds me of Rowan, who reminds me of watching Earth Opera perform free summer Sunday concerts on the Cambridge Common.

Back from three hours browsing the stock at Academy Records, my son had been hoping to find the first Earth Opera album, which had seen him through some hard times in his late teens. The same record had meant so much to me in my late twenties that I looked up Peter Rowan’s number in the Boston phone book and called him to talk about it. Here was someone whose roots were in bluegrass, who had played with Bill Monroe, and now he was writing Brechtian songs like “Home of the Brave” (“and the war was grand, a glorious parade”), “Death by Fire,” which ends “no willow will weep for her silence of ashes, will sleep in the new fallen snow,” and “Time and Again,” which begins “Every day is the same growing gently insane/it’s the wind or the rain/but I don’t feel anything.” Then there were lines like “and it is being only being, it is as it was before” and “I can see you combing sleep from your hair as you choose what to wear and you whisper who’s there to the mirror on the wall.”

So here I was, a total stranger calling Rowan up like Holden Caulfield calling Fitzgerald after reading Gatsby, asking, in effect, who’s your favorite writer, where did all this come from?

Said Peter Rowan without hesitation, “Beckett. Samuel Beckett.”

May 6, 2015

book revIt was like playing in a ghost town. — Baltimore pitcher Zach Britton

You’ve heard of the Ship without a Crew. Last Wednesday it was the Game without a Crowd, Camden Yards entering the Twilight Zone as the man who wrote “The Raven” put his stamp on the Field of Dreams. For the first time in history, a Major League game was played with the fans locked out. Of those nine innings in a vacuum, what should have been a dramatic high point, the moment Chris Davis of the Orioles hit a long home run, produced only a small, quick, brittle sound instantly buried in silence (“But the silence was unbroken, and the stillness gave no token”) as the white speck disappeared from view, landing on Eutaw Street a few blocks from the spot where in the early fall of 1849 Edgar Allan Poe was found lying on the pavement, delirious, in mortal distress, outside Gunner’s Hall tavern.

The official explanation for the bizarre state of affairs in Baltimore is that the gates to Oriole Field had been closed to protect fans from the “civil unrest” set off when Freddie Gray died in police custody. Or perhaps, as I prefer to think, Poe’s perturbed spirit whispered the idea in the ears of the mayor, the owners of the Orioles, and the commissioner of Major League Baseball. That might help explain grotesqueries such as the recorded singing of the National Anthem into the “quaint and curious” void and the organist playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for the benefit of 46,000 empty seats during the seventh inning stretch.

Locked Out of the Hall

The idea of organized baseball denying entrance to its fans has ironic resonance if you’ve been reading Princeton resident Mort Zachter’s Gil Hodges: A Hall of Fame Life (University of Nebraska Press $34.95), about a great player and manager who has been denied entrance to Cooperstown. Eminently qualified players like Pete Rose and Mark Maguire have been excluded because they did not live “Hall of Fame” lives while Gil Hodges did just that. As Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci says of Zachter’s book, “In these pages you understand how Hodges defined what it meant to be a role model in a golden age.”

It’s reported that the foul balls retrieved from the empty seats at last week’s fanless affair were collected for the Hall along with other relics. Thus do the gatekeepers of a domain built for the fans enshrine a surreal event that could serve for a painting illustrating the ignominious effects of the 1994 strike. So it goes: baseball trivia finds a place in Cooperstown but not the man who hit 370 home runs and managed the Miracle Mets.

Ebbets Field

The empty stadium in Baltimore also has elements in common with the fate inflicted on the Dodgers faithful following the 1957 season a mere two years after Brooklyn’s first and only world championship. The forces that shut down Ebbets Field violated a neighborhood gathering place where some of baseball nation’s  most colorful crowds convened every summer for the better part of a half century, until the owners absconded to the West Coast with the beloved Bums.

The Boys of Summer, Roger Kahn’s classic memoir of Brooklyn and baseball, put the depth of the loss into words: “Ebbets Field was a narrow cockpit, built of brick and iron and concrete, alongside a steep cobblestone slope of Bedford Avenue. Two tiers of grandstand pressed the playing area from three sides, and in thousands of seats fans could hear a ball player’s chatter, notice details of a ball player’s gait and … see the actual expression on the actual face of an actual major leaguer as he played. You could know what he was like!”

Hodges Was Here!

Mort Zachter grew up haunted by the ghost of a field without a game, a city without a team. The first sentence of his preface states the specifics: “I was born in Brooklyn four months, twelve days, and six hours after the Brooklyn Dodgers played their last game at Ebbets Field.” Clearly he was also born to write the life of the only Dodger star who “still called Brooklyn home after the team moved to Los Angeles” and “lived a few blocks away from where I grew up. Every morning as I walked to my elementary school, PS 197, I crossed Bedford Avenue and looked north in the direction of Hodges’s home, proud that he had stayed.”

Hodges was “a visible figure in the neighborhood” and “could be seen walking his dog, a German Shepherd named Lady Gina, down Bedford Avenue or stopping by Gil Hodges Field on McDonald Avenue to watch the kids play, or buying Marlboros at Benny’s Candy store on Avenue M.” The reference to Marlboros stings a bit once you learn that Hodges was a heavy smoker who would die of a heart attack in 1972, at age 47. Zachter ends the preface recalling how “if you walked into Benny’s candy store shortly after Hodges had left, you could hear the owner…in a voice so filled with excitement you would have thought the Dodgers had just moved back to Brooklyn, saying over and over again, ‘Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here, Hodges was just here.’ “

The Face

The cover of Zachter’s book features a close-up of Hodges, the rough, grizzled, middle-aged manager of the Mets, frowning, intense, eyes narrowed, chin propped in his clasped hands. Tom Clavin and Danny Peary’s 2012 biography, on the other hand, shows Hodges the Brooklyn Dodger slugger in his prime, blue-eyed and young, bat poised, face free of lines except for the furrowed brow, his gaze fixed on the pitcher. The pose reminds me of the color portraits of players I used to paste in scrapbooks. My devotion to the Dodgers’s arch rivals, the St. Louis Cardinals, didn’t rule out a 10-year-old fan’s fondness for other stars. While my feeling for Hodges centered on his resemblance to the ultimate Cardinal Stan Musial (two role-model-worthy coal miner’s sons with lopsided grins), what clinched it was knowing he’d grown up in southern Indiana, like me. The fact that his birthplace was a town called Princeton meant nothing at the time, of course, but now that I’ve spent most of my adult life in another Princeton, I can’t help smiling when Zachter refers to young Gil “on the playing fields of Princeton,” or when I read that as Hodges’s casket was being carried out of a Brooklyn church the organist played “Back Home in Indiana,” just as the Ebbets Field organist did every time he hit a home run.

The Manager

A further absurdity concerning Hodges’s exclusion from the Hall of Fame is that by all rights his career as a star on one of baseball’s most storied teams should have been enough, all by itself, to save him a place there with his teammates Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, and Roy Campanella. Yet on top of that, he led the hitherto cosmically hapless New York Mets to their miracle, the winning of the 1969 National League pennant the vanquishing in five games of the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. Though few Brooklyn fans accepted the notion that the Mets could ever in any way take the place of their Bums, what Hodges had accomplished in his brief term as manager was like a microcosm of a half-century of Dodger history, a team that went from being the joke of the National League, a perennial loser, to a dominant force.

Hodges the manager is shown in action in Zachter’s prologue, “His Reputation Preceded Him.” As the title suggests, it was the big man’s stature, along with his “reputation for integrity” and the fact that he’d always treated umpires with respect (one of the rare players who had never been thrown out of a game) that enabled him to convince Lou DiMuro to reverse a crucial call in what proved to be the turning point of the fifth and deciding game of 1969 World Series against the Orioles. As Zachter describes it, “Hodges didn’t yell or scream. He didn’t have to. It was all measured and calculated—even the modulation in his deep voice.”

The Voice

There are references to the persuasive power of Hodges’s voice all through A Hall of Fame Life, one of the most powerful examples being the night in Washington D.C. when he talked a player out of suicide. This was when Hodges was managing the lowly Washington Senators and one of his best pitchers, Ryne Duren, drunk and despondent, had climbed to the top of a bridge over the gorge on Connecticut Avenue and was threatening to kill himself. Zachter quotes from Duren’s autobiography describing how Hodges came to the bridge with the police and told him, in that voice, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.” As Zachter relates in the epilogue, Ryne Duren “overcame his demons, stopped drinking, and worked to help other athletes with their addictions” before he died in 2011.

I wonder what Gil Hodges, the “role model in a golden age,” would make of last week’s strange doings in Camden Yards. Most likely he would join the city, the owners, and the commissioner in opting for caution over tradition. Still, it’s possible to imagine him seeing the empty stadium as a symbolic defeat, a surrender to death in life over what might have been a validation of baseball’s right to be called the National Pastime. Perhaps he would have told the powers that be, in that voice of his, “You’re too good to do this to yourself.”

April 29, 2015

record revSomeone should write a blues for the lonely offline souls suddenly bereft of all access, thwarted by codes, passwords, various unknowns. One minute you have the lyrics to Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” at your fingertips, next thing you know all the song’s “very gay places, those come what may places” have been denied you, and if you can’t get on “the wheel of life,” how can you get “the feel of life” when the lines are down? If you want to bounce some ideas off a friend in the U.K. at 3 in the morning — he’s not there. If you want to find when “Lush Life” was first recorded and by whom, you can’t. Above all, if you want to get your train of thought moving toward the subject of Duke Ellington, whose birthday is today, and Billy Strayhorn, whose centenary is 2015, the wheels are locked, you’re grounded, shut down, the column grinds to a halt — until the light-bulb of a simple truth goes on in some cobwebbed corner of the brain and a little voice says, “Try unplugging it, stupid.” And so you do, and when you plug it back in, your train is moving and the world is yours again.

Sinatra Gave Up

Back online you can choose to enjoy any one of a dozen renditions of “Lush Life.” If you want someone here and now, like Lady Gaga, she’s yours, instantly, or you can have Linda Ronstadt or Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie or maybe you prefer Billy Eckstein or John Coltrane with or without Johnny Hartman, or, at last, Strayhorn’s own naked voicing of a composition that has been said to contain “the entire jazz project.”

Songfacts.com says that while there are over 500 covers of “Lush Life,” there’s nothing from the man born to sing it, Frank Sinatra.

Which brings into play an example of the resources abounding online — should you want to make sure that Sinatra never actually did put the song on final vinyl, all it takes is a little looking and you can hear what happened in the studio the day he threw in the towel (go to bigozine2./Sinatra studio outtakes). Says Sinatra’s arranger Nelson Riddle of the 1958 session, “It’s a rather complicated song, and I think Frank would have been momentarily put off by all the changes that had to go on. Not that he couldn’t have sung it with ease and beautifully had he tried a couple of more times.” It’s too bad, for sure, because there’s enough bold and beautiful singing in these three and a half minutes to suggest that this was exactly the sort of material made for the classic “wee small hours, set ‘em up Joe” incarnation of Sinatra. You can hear him finding it, making love to it, almost living it, only to lose faith when he gets to the heart of the matter, the long-delayed descent to the melody, where he falters, loses patience (“it’s tough enough the way it is”), makes fun of his failure, then kisses it off, shouting “Put it aside for about a year!” as if the song and not the singer had somehow come up short. Stranger still, of all the music Strayhorn brought to Ellington over the years, from “Take the ‘A’ Train” on, “Lush Life” never found a place in the repertoire.


My next online adventure, courtesy of YouTube, is “The Mystery Song,” recorded by Duke Ellington and his Cotton Club Orchestra in Camden, N.J., June 17, 1931. As soon as I keyboard the title, I’m head down in a vintage Orthophonic Victrola, close enough to kiss the ornate black Victor label on the original 78 with the image of the dog bending an ear to the gramophone. Meanwhile a disembodied hand appears on the right side of the iMac screen, hits a switch to set the platter spinning and down I go again, deep in a delirium of spinning shellac on the cloudy-shiny lustrous blackness wherein lies every crackling, clicking, hissing, imperfectly perfect second of otherwordly Ellingtonian rapture. You could say the sounds are dated, as in a dream of Harlem played by a ghostly orchestra, yet the strains of the main theme could serve as well as Nino Rota’s Via-Veneto night music for the world weary crowd caught on the “axis of the wheel of life “in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

Who else on or offline can create word-pictures to compare with the Duke’s? Who else would Samuel Taylor Coleridge turn to were he looking to set “Kubla Khan” or the “Ancient Mariner” to music? An absurd idea, of course, as though something as unimaginable as the internet were available to S.T.C. in his Nether Stowey lime-tree bower in 1798, but say it had been, he’d have called up Ellington’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo” from 1927, where the medium for the Mariner’s halting, hypnotic tale is Bubber Miley and his growling prowling curses and cadenzas, while swirling all around “the greybeard loon” is the sound of swooning seamen and seasick listeners, as in a drugged-out Harlem seance. And for “woman wailing for her demon lover” S.T.C. would have conjured Johnny Hodges and Strayhorn to score the opium backstory of the greatest poem never written.

Channeling M.H. Abrams

All these allusions to the Romantic-period are a way of paying homage to the Norton Anthology of English Literature and its scholar editor M.H. Abrams, who died last week at 102. If this column were worthy, it would be dedicated to his memory.

I still have my road-worn, lived-in copy of the great book, and turning to the Coleridge pages at random, I see immediate intimations of Strayhorn in “A little child, a limber elf,/Singing, dancing to itself,/A fairy thing with red round cheeks,/That always finds and never seeks.” And then I come to the “numberless goings-on of life,/Inaudible as dreams” in “Frost at Midnight” where “the thin blue flame/Lies on my low-burnt fire, and quivers not …/the sole unquiet thing” whose “motion in this hush of nature/Gives it dim sympathies …/Making it a companionable form.” My intention, by the way, is not to coyly reference Strayhorn’s homosexuality but to see him as Ellington did in naming him Sweet Pea after Popeye’s infant, and to get the sense of dim companionable sympathies projected by moody ballads like “Lush Life,” “Chelsea Bridge,” and “Prelude to a Kiss.”

Now turn two Norton pages farther to “Dejection: An Ode” before or after listening to Ellington numbers like “Black and Tan Fantasy,” “Harlem Air-Shaft” and “Memlick: The Lion of Judah,” and you find “viper thoughts, that coil round my mind,/Reality’s dark dream” and “the wind/Which long has raved unnoticed./What a scream/Of agony by torture lengthened out/That lute sent forth” and “Mad lutanist! …/Thou actor, perfect in all tragic sounds!/Thou mighty poet, e’en to frenzy bold!/… But hush! there is a pause of deepest silence!/And all that noise, as of a rushing crowd/With groans and tremulous shudderings — all is over ….”

“Dejection” evolved from a letter to the love of Coleridge’s life, Sara Hutchinson, written from the ruins of his marriage, where the quarrels were surely the equal of the domestic brawls being played out in “Harlem Air-Shaft,” and of course the down-to-the dives descent of Lush Life”: “Ah yes! I was wrong/Again,/I was wrong” and “Life is lonely again/… I’ll forget you, I will/While yet you are still burning inside my brain.”

Strayhorn and Shakespeare

If the association of Ellington and English literature seems a stretch, it should be remembered that Shakespeare was the subject of one of the most ambitious of the Ellington-Strayhorn collaborations, Such Sweet Thunder, the title taken from Puck in Midsummer Night’s Dream: “I never heard so musical a discord, such sweet thunder.” After pointing out a discord in one of his compositions, Ellington said, “That’s the Negro’s life …. Dissonance is our way of life in America.”

In an NPR interview about Such Sweet Thunder, jazz critic A.B. Spellman described the 12-part suite based on the plays and sonnets as “one of the most remarkable orchestral pieces in all of American music,” in which Ellington and Strayhorn “gave great attention to the material of Shakespeare and tried to make pictures that would take you into the mood.” As for Strayhorn’s acquaintance with the Bard, Spellman says he “was deep into Shakespeare” and “could quote whole sections of plays” and “vast numbers of sonnets from memory, at the drop of a hat” while understanding it all “very, very well.”

Strays as Ariel

There are some choice insights about Ellington and Strayhorn in Clark, the 2011 memoir by the late Clark Terry, that most Puckish of players, who, no surprise, was Ellington’s choice to “play” Puck in Such Sweet Thunder. “Talked through my horn,” as Terry puts it. “A way of speaking and playing at the same time.” Duke, he recalls, “was also a great poet” who “used a lot of unusually creative language.” One tune Terry “loved” to hear Ellington announce was Strayhorn’s “Passion Flower,” the way Duke said, “A passion flower is one that is more enjoyed than discussed.”

The free flights of Strayhorn cited in Terry’s book suggest that if anyone was the Puck to Ellington’s Oberon, or the Ariel to his Prospero, it was Strayhorn: “Strays was a man who lived the most unique life style …. He had no bills: no hotel bills, no apartment bills, no food bills, no clothes or tax bills. No nothing. He didn’t have a salary either. He just signed a tab. Duke paid for everything.”

If Strays “decided that he wanted to go to Paris and have breakfast, he’d just get on a plane — fly to Paris and have breakfast and come back …. And Duke paid for it all. It was as though their partnership was made in heaven. Although they rarely communicated directly on the bandstand or in the studio, they understood each other. Like they could read each other’s minds.”

So assuming you’re online, or within reach of the magic, as I thankfully am, you can see Ellington and Strayhorn in person, when Duke presents his alter ego for the evening’s encore, surrendering the piano and the spotlight to the bespectacled, studious-looking, casually attired man (in contrast to members of the band), who plays a strong, studious solo on “Take the A-Train,” the song that was his first and greatest gift to his Prospero.

At the end, Ellington coaxes applause with a waving motion as he declaims Strayhorn’s name one, two, three times and after it the names of some of his gifts, “Take the A Train!  Passion Flower!  Chelsea Bridge!”

April 22, 2015

record revDriving into Philadelphia Friday, we’ve got music on the stereo, as always. The day began with rain, it’s still overcast as we cross the Delaware on I-95, and the CD we’re listening to is powerfully upbeat and melodic with strong singing. The songs have titles like “Sky High,” “Lonely Lonely Love,” and “High and Dry,” with typical love-song lyrics and shameless rhymes like “fishes” and “this is.” It’s a British group, Jigsaw, from the 1970s, and my son, who rescued them from rock’n’roll oblivion, will tell you they “should have made it big.” Anyway, about five miles into Pennsylvania one of the songs backs into beauty, bringing tears to my eyes and changing the course of the day and the subject of this column.

Whether it’s Jigsaw or Gershwin, Bach or the Beatles, or Rodgers and Hammerstein, music can take you out of an ordinary moment (traffic intensifying as we near the outskirts of the city) and force you face to face with an event you thought you’d moved beyond. What’s come out of nowhere and caught me by the throat is the death of a neighbor we’d known for almost 30 years. I’ve had plenty of time to absorb the news, I thought I had, but all I’d done was walk around it. I hadn’t seen Marion face to face for months, and most of our contacts over the years had been the routine next-door-neighbor variety, as when one or the other is out of town, you take in the mail and the paper, water plants, turn on and off lights, feed the cats. It was different with my wife because she and Marion had had long, more than casual talks.

A Burial Ground

After I drop my son off at the Philadelphia Record Exchange (no relation to its renowned Princeton namesake), I find a parking spot on Frankford Avenue and prowl around the strange neighborhood thinking about the woman who lived next door. By now the sun is out and it’s feeling more like summer than spring. After passing through a small, pretty park where tulip trees are blooming, I come to the sprawling gloomy chaos of an urban cemetery of crooked gravestones where the winter is still bleakly and grimly in evidence. It’s a devastated spot, the bare trees looming pale and twisted, worthy of a place of creepy honor on the grounds of the House of Usher. That Poe comes to mind is to be expected since he once lived in the same general area, down on Sixth and Spring Garden.

As I was to learn at Saturday’s memorial service, even as I was peering through the iron bars of Palmer Cemetery (also known as the Kensington Burial Ground), Marion was being buried next to her husband Demos in a plot at Princeton Cemetery. They had been married at the Princeton University chapel in 1957. He died in 2002. The last time I’d seen Demos was to witness the signing of his will. The first and last time I gave Marion a real hug (as opposed to a hello/goodbye one) was in the hallway just outside the room where Demos was already clearly sinking into the terminal mindset, unaware of the slideshow of family scenes repeating themselves on a computer screen that no doubt included images of the three Bakoulis daughters at play with their friends on our street, Laurel Circle.

“Our House”

It seems that some form of music is always playing in my head, usually without being consciously tuned in, no devices, no headset, and half the time I don’t know what the song is until I find myself whistling or humming it. Back in the epicenter of winter, around the time Marion slipped and fell on the icy driveway as she was going to the mail box, the song that wouldn’t leave me alone was “Our House,” off the 1970 Crosby Stills Nash & Young album, Deja Vu. I never owned the LP, never thought much of the song except that close friends of ours in the U.K. seemed always to be playing it when we were over there. One reason it may have been on my mind this past February was that we’d been asking ourselves how much longer we could afford to live in our “very very very fine house,” with Princeton’s very very very over-the-top property taxes.

This is why our neighbors and our neighborhood were on my mind as CSNY’s “Our House” was following me around, with its rare-for-rock vision of domestic tranquility, “I’ll light the fire, you place the flowers in the vase that you bought today.” And there we all are “staring at the fire for hours and hours” listening to “love songs all night long” or in the cozy room with windows lit by sunshine, and here comes the irresistible chorus, “Our house is a very very very fine house with two cats in the yard, life used to be so hard, now everything is easy ‘cause of you.” It’s sung by Graham Nash somewhere on the human side of ethereal. The back story is it was written when he was living with Joni Mitchell in a place they were sharing in Laurel Canyon, which could lessen its universal appeal, but come to think of it, we live on Laurel Circle, so there we are.

An Everyday Situation

What makes Marion’s death hard to accept let alone think about is the ordinary everyday situation of a neighbor doing what we all do six days a week when we go to the mailbox to get the mail. But Marion slipped on the ice, fell, hit her head, and no one saw it happen. And no one, it appears, could have saved her. After a seemingly successful six week rehabilitation at the Medical Center, she was home and I saw her walking with an aide up and down our street. Only a day or two later her eldest daughter called with the news.

The chorus of “Our House” won’t leave me alone. Asked about the song, Graham Nash said it came “out of an incredibly ordinary moment that many, many people have experienced.” An interesting contradiction in terms “incredibly ordinary” — the song became meaningful to “so many people,” as Nash knows, by making an ordinary moment extraordinary.

rec rev2“All Who Live in Love”

Marion’s life was remembered by the rector at All Saints as “a work of art,” which applies as well to a service that began with the singing of Alexa Cottrell, who could hardly be seen from where I was sitting, creating the effect of music coming from a virtually invisible source. Since the composer of the music was not identified in the program, the mystery seemed as much a part of the service as the Bach Prelude and Postlude and the eulogies from family members, among them Marion’s brother Stanley Bergen, who remembered his younger sister as a little girl living and playing on Princeton Avenue, near Aiken; he also recalled her fondness in later years for the music from Camelot, which she saw when it opened on Broadway starring Julie Andrews and Richard Burton.

The Mystery Solved

The last hymn Saturday was sung to Beethoven, the Hymn to Joy, with words written by Princeton resident Henry VanDyke (1852-1933): “all who live in love are thine; teach us how to love each other, lift us to the joy divine.”

After contacting the All Saints Church, I learned that the music sung by Alexa Cottrell was Die Jesu or “Prayer to the Good Jesus for Everlasting Rest” from Fauré’s Requiem.


One of my first stories for Town Topics (“A Hard Day’s Night Gone Right: Laurel Circle Makes History,” May 5, 2004) was about a gas leak that gave Laurel Circle the distinction of being the first and only neighborhood in the history of Princeton Township to have been evacuated. Given the late hour and the fact that no one had time to get dressed, the scene in the main Meeting Room at Township Hall (as it was known in those days) turned into “a pajama party,” according to Sgt. Sean Reed. The only exiles from the meeting room were three dogs and their three male owners, who had to wait out the hours in a less comfortable area. It’s fitting that the only cat who made the trip came with Marion, whose extended feline family included Samantha and Tom, Albert, Fleetie, and daughter Julie’s 13-year-old tortoise shell Jade, who clung to a fireman while Julie’s 4-year-old daughter Leah was clinging to Julie. Jade eventually allowed herself to be disengaged from her protector and put into a carrier.

This neighborhood event happened between 1:30 and 4 a.m. on Communiversity eve 2004.

April 15, 2015

Book Rev LincolnWriting in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, which occurred 150 years ago Tuesday, Walt Whitman refers to the fallen president as “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality.”

Henry James had just turned 22 on April 15, 1865. According to his biographer Leon Edel, he received the news as “the shrill cry … of an outraged and grieving America standing at the bier of the assassinated president.”

Three months later, in one of his first reviews for the newly founded journal, the Nation, James denounced Whitman’s book of war poems, Drum-Taps, as “an offense against art.” How dare Whitman presume to be the “national poet” only to “discharge the contents” of his “blotting book into the lap of the public?” Although James goes on at length, chiding “the great pretensions” of the stanzas beginning “Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries” and “From Paumanok starting, I fly like a bird,” he ends his review by citing, almost as if in spite of himself, the qualities most famously associated with a poet he would come to appreciate years later — “the vigor of your temperament, the manly independence of your nature, the tenderness of your heart.” As he concludes, James seems to be speaking as much to himself as to Whitman: “You must be possessed, and you must strive to possess your possession. If in your striving you break into divine eloquence, then you are a poet. If the idea which possesses you is the idea of your country’s greatness, then you are a national poet.”

In April 2015, few will dispute Whitman’s claim to be “a national poet,” but who thinks of the expatriate Henry James in those terms? How could that most regal of American writers, who, as Leon Edel puts it, “wielded his pen as if it were a scepter,” be possessed by the idea of the great, sprawling, vulgar country’s “greatness?” Yet when James returns to the U.S. for the first time in 20 years and writes The American Scene (1907), he “possesses his possession” every bit as passionately, expansively, and poetically as Whitman, doing so all the while in a supremely Jamesian manner.

James Asks Directions

In the vaudeville of American history, Lincoln struts his stuff, cracking jokes and quoting Shakespeare, while Whitman gathers the audience to his bosom and does everything but dive into the 19th-century equivalent of the mosh pit. James meanwhile is caricatured in the press during the ten-month visit to the States (1904-1905) recounted in The American Scene. As Edel points out, “Jokes became current in cultured circles about the lady who knew ‘several languages — French, New Thought, and Henry James.’” Then there was “the lady who boasted she could read Henry James ‘in the original.’” Like bloggers today, letter writers to the New York Times sniped about a convoluted style that would “drive a grammarian mad.”

James’s friend, novelist Edith Wharton, recalls his attempt to ask directions upon their arrival late at night in the town of Windsor in her 1904 Pope-Hartford motor-car. As Wharton tells it, James called over an elderly passer-by and proceeded, thus, “My friend, to put it to you in two words, this lady and I have just arrived here from Slough; that is to say, to be more strictly accurate, we have recently passed through Slough on our way here, having actually motored to Windsor from Rye, which was our point of departure; and the darkness having overtaken us, we should be much obliged if you would tell us where we now are in relation, say, to the High Street, which, as you of course know, leads to the Castle, after leaving on the left hand the turn down to the railway station …. In short, my good man, what I want to put to you in a word is this: supposing we have already (as I have reason to think we have) driven past the turn down to the railway station (which in that case, by the way, would probably not have been on our left hand, but on our right), where are we now in relation to — ”

At this point, seeing the confusion on the old man’s face, Wharton loses patience: “Oh, please, do ask him where the King’s Road is.”

“Ah —? The King’s Road? Just so! Quite right! Can you, as a matter of fact, my good man, tell us where, in relation to our present position, the King’s Road exactly is?”

“Ye’re in it.”

Henry James Book RevLiving in Style

James lived his style, whether the situation was formal or casual. Even when felled by a stroke a hundred years ago this December, he told a friend that his first thought was, “So it has come at last — the Distinguished Thing.” He died three months later.

Probably the most frequently cited critic of James’s late prose was his brother William, author of The Varieties of Religious Experience, who in 1907 urged him to “sit down and write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action …. Say it out, for God’s sake and have done with it! For gleams and innuendoes and felicitous verbal insinuations you are unapproachable, but the core of literature is solid. Give it to us once again!” He contrasted his own manner (“to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made”) to his younger brother’s determination to “avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader … the illusion of a solid object, made wholly out of impalpable materials, air and the prismatic interferences of light, ingeniously focused by mirrors upon empty space.”

Bringing It Off

When William wrote to Henry expressing doubts about his plan to return to America in 1903, advising him of “the sort of physical loathing with which many features of our national life will inspire you,” he provoked a long letter that becomes a manifesto outlining the rationale for the Master’s visit to the land of his birth: “If I shouldn’t, in other words, bring off going to the U.S., it would simply mean giving up, for the remainder of my days, all chance of such experience as is represented by interesting ‘travel’.”

James took eloquent advantage of that experience in The American Scene, where the depth and richness of the prose he lavishes on the “loathed” subject can leave the word-drunk reader reeling. In more than a century of writing about New York City, there is nothing to equal what happens when James takes on the metropolis. As W.H. Auden makes clear in his introduction to the 1946 edition, The American Scene is best read “as a prose poem of the first order,” to be relished “sentence by sentence, for it is no more a guide book than the ‘Ode to a Nightengale’ is an ornithological essay.”

Walt Whitman Book RevMoral Personality

In the end, James and Whitman, each in his own way, lived lives worthy of the “the best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” that Whitman ascribed to Lincoln on April 16, 1865.

The same term surfaces in Edel’s reference to the “deep affection” James was to develop in later years “for the personality of Whitman,” whose poetry he knew “by heart and on occasion liked to declaim.”

As Whitman writes in his entry on the assassination, “the soldier drops, sinks like a wave — but the ranks of the ocean eternally press on,” so it happens that the 22-year-old reviewer who told Whitman in the Nation that to “sing aright our battles and our glories” it wasn’t enough “to have served in a hospital” finds himself at 70 on the fringes of the Great War visiting wounded Belgian and English soldiers in hospitals, while, according to Edel, likening himself to Walt Whitman during the Civil War. “Friends of the Master wondered how the soldiers reacted to his subtle, leisurely talk,” but what came through was “his kindness, his warmth.” All during 1914 and into 1915 “when illness slowed him up, James surrendered himself to the British soldier.”

Seeing Lincoln Plain

Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., the site of the assassination, is marking the 150th anniversary with a series of programs centered on around-the-clock events, April 14-15. On the street outside, throughout the day and night, living historians will provide first-person accounts about the end of the Civil War, the experience of being inside the theatre at the moment of the assassination, medical reports from the Petersen House, and the impact of Lincoln’s life and death. Starting the evening of April 14, the public will be able to visit the Ford’s Theatre campus throughout the night. The morning of April 15, Ford’s will mark Abraham Lincoln’s death at 7:22 a.m. with a wreath-laying ceremony; church bells will toll across the city, just as they did in 1865.

Also in the news recently is Yale’s acquisition of a major photographic collection featuring “a definitive assemblage of portraits of Abraham Lincoln.” Although Walt Whitman doubted there could be a satisfactory portrait, he tried his hand at a word-picture in summer of 1863: he is “dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty, wears a black stiff hat, and looks about as ordinary in attire, &c., as the commonest man …. I see very plainly [his] dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression …. None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect expression of this man’s face. There is something else there. One of the great portrait painters of two or three centuries ago is needed.”

April 9, 2015

record rev

The other day a high school friend wrote to say that in the course of selling off his record collection he’d found an old Stan Kenton LP of mine and wondered if I wanted it back. I’d have told him no thanks, except that Stan Kenton had autographed it to me, so of course I wanted it and here it is on the desk as I write, with the legendary band leader, mid-century modernism incarnate, gazing out at me from the cover. On another occasion, the same friend and I had our Count Basie Dance Session LPs signed by everyone in the band, including the Count and Henry Snodgrass, the old guy in charge of the equipment.

This siege of jazz nostalgia was inspired by the fact that 2015 is the centenary year for Billie Holiday, who was born April 7, 1915, and Frank Sinatra, born eight months later on December 12. Around the time I was in thrall to Kenton and Basie and singing along with Sinatra, Billie Holiday was somewhere else far far away, terra incognita, no man’s land. Scary. Creepy. After all, this was someone whose rendition of “Gloomy Sunday” had supposedly driven people to suicide, and then there was “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynching. I couldn’t listen to her. It wasn’t just that she sang songs with depressing subjects, it was the way she sang: dreary and dismal, our lady of misery. So I thought.

Sinatra was something else again. Like his character Maggio in From Here to Eternity, he came off as an in-your-face life-force, pugnacious, hip (so I thought), totally upbeat, and what a singer. I lived in albums like Nice and Easy, Swing Easy, and Songs for Young Lovers. I knew every smooth and sly and sliding Sinatra nuance from hours and hours of singing along with him, songs like  “A Foggy Day,” “The Girl Next Door,” and “How Little We Know,” with that joy-to-enunciate couplet, “How little we understand what touches off that tingle/That sudden explosion when two tingles intermingle.” Definitely a lot more fun than than a song that rhymes “sweet and fresh” with “burnin’ flesh.”

So it goes in the pilgrim’s progress of a lifetime of listening, where Sinatra falls by the wayside, marred by his smug Rat Pack image and those gaudy Nelson Riddle arrangements, while Billie Holiday looms among the absolutes, like Charlie Parker or Lester Young or Wardell Gray, all of whom were either unknown to me or unfathomable in the days when Kenton and Sinatra reigned supreme. It hurts to think that as an underage youth at Birdland I once saw a sad old man named Lester Young playing as if he might not live to see the end of the next solo (he was actually only 48 at the time), standing so close to my clueless teenage self that I could see the bloodshot whites of his eyes and sense only the faintest possibility that the music he was dying for might be something special.

How She Happened

A mid-April night of rain and mist on Christopher Street in the Village, the window open, fresh wet air blowing in, a blue transistor radio perched near the edge of the sill. Someone is singing. The song seems to come in with the wet breeze, it’s a ghostly voice, wayward, out of line, beyond borders, extraordinary. I’m hearing, finally really hearing, Billie Holiday. Misery had nothing to do with this siren song in the New York night leading the way to a brave new world of music.

Three years later I’m leaning on another window sill in a brownstone at 33 West 87th Street listening to Billie Holiday on my portable Columbia stereo, unaware that she’d once lived in the building across the street, number 26, her last home. The next stop after that was Metropolitan Hospital, where she died at 44 on July 17, 1959.

“This Heart of Mine”

I can’t remember the name of the Billie Holiday song I heard that first misty night but the ones that feel closest to the mood of the revelation are “Yesterdays” and “I’ll Be Seeing You,” both recorded in 1944 for Commodore, a jazz label that evolved from a midtown record store. She might not have the copyright but she owns those words, those titles, not to mention that she was born 100 years ago yesterday, as Eleanora Fagan, to Sadie Fagan and Clarence Holiday. While the name “Billie” was reportedly inspired by the silent film star Billie Dove, the singer would tell more than one interviewer that because her father had wanted a boy he called her Bill (this was before he left her and her mother behind to become a jazz guitarist).

Listening to Holiday sing “Yesterdays,” there’s the sense at first that she’s whispering the words in your ear with her dying breath, but next thing you know she’s rhyming and romancing the choice phrase “sweet sequestered days,” she whose personal university offered a course in English taught by lyricists, most of them white males. In this song, her teacher is a Danish-American named Otto Harbach who came from Salt Lake City to New York looking for a graduate degree at Columbia until Tin Pan Alley gathered him in. One of Holiday’s loveliest moments is when she and Harbach and Jerome Kern join forces for the rushed ascent, as smoothly sinuous as a phrasing by Lester Young translated into “gay youth was mine, truth was mine/Joyous free in flame and life/Then sooth was mine.”

In “I’ll Be Seeing You,” the muted, musing accompaniment casts a subtle spell behind Billie, who turns each distinctly felt word of the lyric to her emotional advantage. Critics and publicists talk about singers selling a song, or putting one over, but this is a transformation performed by a born poet on the material of everyday life: ordinary words for old familiar places, small cafes, parks across the way, children’s carousels, wishing wells, sun and moon, and above all “this heart of mine,” wounded, devoutly bitter, and true to the end of life.

Lady in Satin

Of the early/middle/late periods of a career Gary Giddins has compared to “the three works-in-one” of Don Quixote (only Giddins could find a way to connect Billie to “the equally inscrutable Edgar A. Poe”), the more stately, measured, middle-period Commodore sides are in clear contrast to the jubilant, sassy, free-swinging Holiday of early Columbia recordings like “Me, Myself, and I,” which is distinguished by the extrasensory rapport between Lady Day and her soulmate Lester Young.

Bathed in Ray Ellis’s grandiose arrangements for her penultimate album, Lady in Satin, Holiday lingers over the challenge of every song as if she knows that a little more than a year later she will be lying for hours on a gurney in a hospital corridor, unidentified, unclaimed, and uncared for. Left off the original album but included as a bonus track on the remastered 1997 CD is a forgettable composition called “The End of a Love Affair.” Her struggle to learn, to like, or to at least endure the piece is at once fascinating and painful, the crisis coming when she sings, rasps, lives, and dies the mundane words a cappella. The process resembles an eccentric form of critical thinking: as if she were weighing and measuring the ridiculous material, dissecting the song as she sings it.

Quoted in the liner notes to the reissue, Ray Ellis says “After we finished the album I went into the control room and listened to all the takes. I must admit I was unhappy with her performance, but I was just listening musically instead of emotionally. It wasn’t until I heard the final mix a few weeks later that I realized how great her performance really was.”

Fine and Mellow

Google “Billie Holiday Fine and Mellow” and there she is, as close as you’ll ever get to her, radiant, singing, smiling, making beautiful music even when she’s simply listening, being herself, seated on a stool at the center of a circle of legendary musicians in New York City, CBS Studio 58 on 10th Avenue, where The Sound of Jazz was filmed, December 8 1957.

The first thing you hear is Billie saying “The blues to me is like being very sad, very sick, going to church, being very happy. There’s two kinds of blues, happy blues and there’s sad blues.” One of the few songs Billie wrote, “Fine and Mellow” is both.

Nat Hentoff, who along with Whitney Balliett, helped produce the session and enlist the musicians, suggests that what made “Fine and Mellow” the climax of the show was what went on between Billie Holiday and Lester Young: “she had given him his nickname, Prez, and he was the guy who called her Lady Day, which other people came to call her. They had been very close for a long time, but then they stopped being close. They paid very little attention to each other while we were rehearsing the show… When it came to his solo, Lester stood up and he blew the purest blues I have ever heard. Watching Billie and Lester interact, she was watching him with her eyes with a slight smile, and it looked as if she and Lester were remembering other times, better times. And this is true — it sounds corny — in the control room, the producer had tears in his eyes. So did the engineer. So did I. It was just extraordinarily moving.”

Billie’s appreciative reactions to each musician’s solo may be the best thing in the number. As she listens, the beauty of her face, seen in profile, is uncanny. Those close-up side views are as luminously here and now as they are otherworldly. It’s as Giddins says, “the greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.”


Out just in time for the centenary is John Szwed’s new book, Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking), which Richard Brody’s review on newyorker.com, terms a meta-biography, about the creation of Holiday’s public image in media of all sorts: print, television, movies, and, of course, her recordings, but with special attention to the composition of her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues.

The Gary Giddins quotes are from Visions of Jazz and Weather Bird: Jazz at the Dawn of its Second Century.

April 2, 2015

book wallaceOne of my favorite moments in Mad Men, maybe my all time favorite, is when the craven Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) thinks he has the goods on Don Draper (Jon Hamm). He’s got proof that the genius who landed the Lucky Strike account for Sterling Cooper is a fraud, a man with a sleazy past and a stolen identity, so the two of them, the self-righteous loser and the handsome mystery man, march into the shoeless boss’s office where Pete smugly delivers the awful truth to little Bert Cooper. In a moment Robert Morse was born to play, Bert stares at Pete with the mother of all withering looks and says, “Whoooo cares?” Twice. And he doesn’t just say it, he leans forward and croons it, packing his total disregard of conventional small-minded morality into those two words.

My wife and I will go back to Mad Men next Sunday for the first time since we gave up after losing patience and moving on to the more compellingly plotted pleasures of Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

You may wonder why a column planned for the first day of April begins with a recollection of that moment of sublime dismissal. Simply put, when I handed the first draft of this piece to my wife, with its opening paragraph celebrating National Poetry Month, she gave me the Bert Cooper look. Whooooo cares? “Most people,” says she, “think of April as Tax Month.”

Stevens Unbuttoned

Granted the pomposity of a national month, but it does offer a chance to at least acknowledge the Valentine’s Day death of the former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, and the news last week of the passing of Nobel laureate Tomas Tranströmer, plus my belated discovery of Wallace Stevens’s “Adagia,” which I found by doing a search pairing poetry and austerity, the Orwellian buzz word that you will know even if all you ever read is Paul Krugman. A few clicks of the mouse and up pops “Money is a kind of poetry.” Intrigued by that message out of cyberspace from the austere author of “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction,” I looked further and found a  proverbs-gone-wild one-man jam session he calls “Adagia.” This is Stevens as I’ve never seen him, unbuttoned, unplugged, unbowed, and unapologetic: we’re in his workshop, the rag and bone shop of his heart, his suit coat is off, his sleeves are rolled up, his tie is loose and flying in the wind though he’s sitting still, unburdening himself in the spirit of Whitman’s “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

This is the same Wallace Stevens who came to Princeton in the summer of 1941 to deliver a lecture titled “The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” for a collection of essays edited by Allen Tate and eventually published by Princeton University Press as The Language of Poetry. In a letter written after the event, Stevens says the lecture was “worth doing (for me), although the visit to Princeton gave me a glimpse of a life which I am profoundly glad that I don’t share. The people I met were the nicest people in the world, but how they keep alive is more than I can imagine.”

“The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words” would work as well as “Adagia” for the elemental questions Stevens is asking, such as what’s poetry? What’s a poem or a poet? A sample of the answers: “Poetry is a purging of the world’s poverty and change and evil and death,” a poem is “a meteor,” “a pheasant,” “a cafe,” “the disengaging of (a) reality,” “a health,” “the body,” “a cure of the mind,” “a renovation of experience,” “a pheasant disappearing into the brush,” “a search for the inexplicable,” “a revelation of the elements of appearance,” “the scholar’s art,” “a nature created by the poet.” My favorite at the moment is “The poet looks at the world as a man looks at a woman.” This is someone who when people would tell him they found his poetry hard to understand would say, “I understand it; that’s all that’s necessary.” Yet here he’s somewhere on the far side of austerity: “In poetry you must love the words, the ideas and the images and rhythms with all your capacity to love anything at all.”

There’s a hint of this Stevens in a letter to Allen Tate written the October following the Princeton visit. After a politeness (“I should not trouble you again”), he goes on, noting that “when a man is interested, as you are, in honesty at the center and also at the periphery (as both of us are, I should say) you might like to know of a remark that Gounod made concerning Charpentier. He said … ‘At last a true musician! He composes in C-natural and no one else but the Almighty could do that.’”

book heavenTomas Tranströmer

The reference to “a true musician” fits Tomas Tranströmer, who died March 26. Like all too many people who should know better, I had never read a word of him until I did some catching up online and found a copy of The Half-Finished Heaven (Graywolf $15), a selection made and translated by Robert Bly, which includes what may be the best poem about Schubert ever written, and by a poet pianist who loves the “stout young gentleman from Vienna known to his friends as ‘The Mushroom,’ who slept with his glasses on/and stood at his writing desk punctually of a morning./And then the wonderful centipedes of his manuscript were set in motion.”

In “Schubertiana” Tranströmer brings Schubert into Manhattan (“giant city … a long shimmering drift, a spiral galaxy”), where he knows “that right now Schubert is being played/in some room over there and that for someone the notes are/more real than anything else.” Listening to the great string quintet, the poet suddenly feels “that the plants have thoughts.” The fifth and final stanza concerns the Fantasia in f minor for two pianists: “We squeeze together at the piano and play with four hands …, two coachmen on the same coach; it looks a little ridiculous./The hands seem to be moving resonant weights to and fro, as if we were/tampering with the counterweights/in an effort to disturb the great scale arm’s terrible balance: joy and/suffering weighing exactly the same.” A reference to the “heroic” music launches a sequence that has a certain ring on April 1, 2015: “But those whose eyes enviously follow men of action, who secretly/despise themselves for not being murderers,/don’t recognize themselves here,/and the many who buy and sell people and believe that everyone can be/bought, don’t recognize themselves here.”

March 25, 2015

book revI have a large tumor and if they don’t make haste and get rid of it, they will have to remove me and leave it.

—Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964)

The characteristic quip about the tumor is from a letter Flannery O’Connor wrote months before her death on August 3, 1964. I was hoping to find a copy of her first novel, Wise Blood, at the Bryn Mawr Wellesley Book Sale. I’d have gladly settled for the Ace paperback with a blonde in a black negligee on a cover promising “A brutal passionate novel of sin and redemption in a southern town.” One online bookseller is asking $5,000 for a copy of the rare first edition, which comes with “a custom clamshell slipcase” to “protect” it. If she were around today, the author would no doubt be amused, and appalled, to know that a novel that blindsided reviewers and scandalized her hometown washed up on the shores of bookland 2015 housed in a clamshell slipcase.

Intimations of Flannery O’Connor’s unsparing sense of humor can be seen in the photo of the 27-year-old author seated, demure and smiling, at a May 1952 autograph party for Wise Blood held in the library of her alma mater, the Georgia State College for Women in Milledgeville. The story behind the smile (“Cocktails were not served but I lived through it anyway”) is related in Brad Gooch’s excellent biography Flannery (Little Brown 2009), where the “quandary that had befallen so many of the dressed up visitors” is described by an eyewitness: “What to do? Everybody liked the child. Everybody was glad that she’d got something published, but one did wish that it had been something ladylike. What to say to her? What to do with your book once you bought it and she had signed it?” The observer also mentions noticing from time to time that day “the quick light of laughter in Flannery’s eyes.”

There she sits, only recently recovered from the first searing onslaught of lupus, the disease that would kill her at 39. In the little over a decade that she has left, the child who “got something published” will produce a body of work that places her among the greatest American writers. Her level, unbending gaze hints at where she’s headed. Her first novel is in her lap, and however proud she may be to have it close, she seems to be holding it down, both hands clenched in fists, as if the book’s crazy energies are about to explode and wholly destroy the already compromised decorum of the occasion. After all, this is a novel that puzzled, disturbed, shocked, and unhinged its readers, including critics who even while admiring it made misguided comparisons (“I’m no Georgia Kafka,” she insisted); some reviewers found it “terrifying,” and in one instance, “insane.” Years later when a Chicago newspaper claimed that O’Connor had created a Lolita years before Nabokov, she saw no reason to reject the association, having once told a friend, “All these moralists who condemn Lolita give me the creeps …. I go by the notion that a comic novel has its own criteria.” She says as much in her brief preface to a later edition of Wise Blood, “a comic novel” that was written “with zest” and “should be read that way.”

No amount of “zest” in the reading could have eased the consternation Wise Blood created in Milledgeville. According to Gooch’s biography, reactions from family, schoolmates, and locals were picturesque in the extreme. Her writing instructor at the College for Women “threw the novel across the room” and later claimed “that character who dies in the last chapter could have done the world a great favor by dying in the first chapter instead.” Some folks apparently passed Wise Blood among themselves “in brown paper bags,” and one lady claimed to have “burned a copy in her backyard.” A high-minded cousin in Savannah “went to bed for a week” after her encounter with the book and wrote notes of apology to all the priests who had received a copy. Asked by the publisher for a quote, Evelyn Waugh replied, “If this is really the unaided work of a young lady, it is a remarkable product,” adding, off the record, “Why are so many characters in recent American fiction sub-human?” Flannery’s mother resented “this Evalin Wow” for daring to suggest that her daughter might not be a lady.

In Iowa

In a long letter about what she has read “and been influenced by,” O’Connor admits that she didn’t really start reading and writing fiction until she entered the State University of Iowa writing program in 1945. At her first meeting with her teacher, Paul Engle, her Georgia accent was so thick that he was unable to understand a word she said. He soon found that “on the page her prose was imaginative, tough, alive: just like Flannery herself.” Engle pictures her in his class sitting “at the back of the room, silent … more of a presence than the exuberant talkers who serenade every writing-class with their loudness. The only communicating gesture she would make was an occasional amused and shy smile at something absurd. The dreary chair she sat in glowed.”

Religion Without Religion

“The short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me” is how Bruce Springsteen responded when asked in a recent New York Times interview to name one book that made him who he is today. After mentioning “the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters,” Springsteen echoed O’Connor’s visionary language to say that her work made him “feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us.”

The stories “landed hard” on me at the American Library in New Delhi. Lightheaded after reading my way through Everything That Rises Must Converge and the title story in A Good Man Is Hard to Find, I knew something like the “swirling” and the “reeling” and “the earth barely beneath us” as I walked into the blindingly bright Indian afternoon. O’Connor’s fiction and India had become one and the same; the spiritual intensity of her writing, like the life-and-death force of spirituality surrounding me in India, was so overwhelming and so vivid that it didn’t matter if I understood Catholicism or Original Sin any more than if I understood Hinduism or Buddhism. There’s a reference to this sense of secular religiosity in one of O’Connor’s letters, where she finds the Notebooks of Simone Weil an “example of the religious consciousness without a religion,” something “maybe sooner or later” she “will be able to write about.”

Rumbling Toward Heaven

The vision that followed me out of the American Library the day I discovered Flannery O’Connor occurs at the end of “Revelation,” a long story most of which takes place in a doctor’s waiting room where a smug, hugely fat woman named Mrs. Turpin, thankful to be who she is, with “a little of everything and a good disposition,” is physically and verbally attacked by a disturbed girl who called her “an old warthog” and told her to go to hell. At the end, standing in the “pig parlor” on her hog farm, the woman lifted her head to see “a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. She raised her hands from the side of the pen in a gesture hieratic and profound. A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven.” She saw “whole companies of white trash” and “battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs,” and at the end of the procession “a tribe of people” like herself and her husband “marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

As the story ends, “In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

Referring to “the vision” in a letter written on May 15, 1964, three months before her death, O’Connor says she likes Mrs. Turpin: “You got to be a very big woman to shout at the Lord across a hog pen.” The letter ends like the story. Having just had another blood transfusion (“I have declared a moratorium on making blood”), she recalls coming home from the hospital earlier that month “hearing the celestial chorus” singing “My Darling Clementine.”

In the Air

I didn’t get around to Wise Blood until years after my introduction to Flannery O’Connor. I read it straight through on a plane from Los Angeles to Newark, smiling most of the way, and now and then laughing out loud, for I was reading, true to the advice in her preface, “with zest.”  As she says in the preface, Wise Blood is a comic novel, “and, as such, very serious, for all comic novels that are any good must be about matters of life and death.”

The Springsteen quote is from “By the Book,” NY Times, Nov. 2, 2014. All quotes by Flannery O’Connor are from the indispensable Library of America volume of her collected novels, stories, essays, and letters.

March 18, 2015

book revAll in all the most useful volume I ever found at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, which begins with a $25 preview Friday, March 20, at 10 a.m., is “a compendiun of literary lore” called A Book of Days for the Literary Year (Thames and Hudson 1984), edited by Neal T. Jones. According to the title page, it includes “Notable Quotations, Scores of Birthdays, Myriad Marriages, Some Romances (& Quite a Few Deaths) — All Relating to the Literary Life — Profusely Illustrated with Photographs, Paintings, & Drawings.” It’s a source I keep within reach as I look ahead to each coming Wednesday. Even when I have a clear-cut subject in mind, I like to see what gems the little book has to offer for the date in question, and this week it’s March 18. For instance, this day in 1728 John Gay wrote to Jonathan Swift that because of his play The Beggar’s Opera he is “lookt upon at present as the most obnoxious person in England.” That remark seems appealingly in character for the author of Trivia or The Art of Walking the Streets of London, a poetical survival guide concerning pickpockets, wig thieves, overflowing gutters, falling masonry and emptied chamber pots, with advisory couplets like “Let firm, well hammer’d Soles protect thy Feet/Thro’ freezing Snows, and Rains, and soaking Sleet.”

On the same page, here’s The Reverend Laurence Sterne, who died at 54 on March 18, 1768, a reminder that I’m way overdue for a rereading of Tristram Shandy, which got me through the winter of my first year on my own in New York. I still have the deceptively damaged copy of Sterne’s masterpiece that turned up at Bryn Mawr a decade or so before the millennium. There it was, or I should say, there they were, two battered volumes from 1832, torn asunder, like siblings forced apart by the welfare fates, one at either end of a table that had been plundered by dealers and collectors who wanted nothing to do with such shabby specimens. If the crazed table-sweepers had had time for a closer look, they’d have seen that each volume was immaculate within, good as gold, complete with Cruikshank illustrations that are curiously out of tune with the text of a work that was centuries ahead of its time. Of the three copies of Tristram Shandy I own, the most precious, however, is the relatively recent one that kept me company on West 87th in Manhattan, a well-underlined and asterisked volume edited by James A. Work, chairman of the English Department at Indiana University when I was a student there.

But the The Book of Days has more to say about the Rev. Sterne, who, on the Sunday following his 1741 marriage to Elizabeth Lumley, “shocked his parishoners by discoursing upon the fifth chapter of Luke: ‘we have toiled all night and taken nothing.’”

Princeton’s Coleridge

It had to happen that the writer of this column, who has from his late teens claimed Samuel Taylor Coleridge as a literary fairy godfather, would end up living in the same town as Princeton University Press, publisher of the Bollingen Edition of the Works, a treasure of mind, spirit, and heart, most of it available for purchase in Collectors Corner at Bryn Mawr. This last vein of gold mined from the library of the late Peter Oppenheimer, who shared my interest in S.T.C., offers access to the critical, theological, and philosophical writings and intimate notebook musings and marginalia of one of the most fascinating performers to strut and fret his hour on the literary stage. The first time I opened Volume 1 of the Notebooks at random I came to this unintended haiku about his first-born child: “Hartley fell down and hurt himself. I caught him up angry and screaming, and ran out of doors with him. The moon caught his eye — he ceased crying immediately; and his eyes and the tears in them, how they glittered in the moonlight!”

What I felt as a father when chancing upon this passage was a more intimate version of the excitement I knew at a highly impressionable age when chancing upon “Kubla Khan.” What gave the fragment of verse its in-the-moment immediacy was the story behind it, the poet waking from a dream, writing down the lines, only to be interrupted by a knock at the door. And is it mere “magical thinking” to suggest that something of this poetry of happenstance evokes the possibilities in force when a vast congregation of books from who-knows-where is assembled under the same roof?

Barbara Freedman

“My mother tied a ribbon in my hair the day she took me to the public library for my first card. I wore my best dress and I was nervous.”

In respect of the subject of bookish congregations, this column about the area’s largest and longest-running book event is dedicated to the memory of longtime Princeton resident Barbara Freedman (1928-2015), who was for three decades the driving force behind the relatively small but ever-flourishing Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale.

The army of volunteers called upon to unload and arrange Bryn Mawr-Wellesley’s estimated 85,000 volumes came to mind when I was reading Barbara’s essay on volunteerism, wherein she rejects her mother’s advice (“If you’re going to do something, get paid for it!”) and finds that volunteers need not resemble the “earnest, hat-bedecked matrons” in Helen Hokinson’s New Yorker cartoons. As far as I know, BM-W’s volunteers are hatless, and include a fair number of men, as is true at the Friends of the Library sale.

It’s odd to think that after 25 years working together, always in the context of the library book sales, annual and ongoing, Barbara never spoke to me about her favorite authors. Clearly she was well read, having done some writing of her own, with op-ed and travel pieces in the New York Times, in addition to planning and working on several novels. When I asked her son Jonathan about his mother’s taste in reading, he mentioned a fondness for mysteries, especially those by Ross Macdonald, born Kenneth Millar, whom Jonathan and his parents got to meet during a family bird-watching vacation in California (the author and his mystery writer wife Margaret Millar being active in birding and conservation circles). Thinking to use Macdonald to link Barbara with Bryn Mawr, however obliquely, I searched the mystery table, one of the few that had been set up when I visited Princeton Day School Saturday. Surprised to find nothing by the prolific creator of the Lew Archer series, I asked one of the BM-W organizers about it and was assured that the boxes and boxes of mysteries still to come contained a stash of Macdonalds.

Meanwhile I decided to look a little deeper into the man’s life and guess who I found there? It seems that in 1951 Kenneth Millar earned a PhD at the University of Michigan. The mystery writer’s dissertation was titled The Inward Eye: A Revaluation of Coleridge’s Psychological Criticism.

Quaint and Curious

The subject of last year’s Bryn Mawr column was the outrageous market value of certain volumes by Edgar Allan Poe and here he is again, in The Literary Year, which gives March 18 1842 as the birth date of poet Stéphane Mallarmé, author of L’Apres-Midi d’une Faun, and yes, translator of the poetry of the ever-present Poe.

I like to think that when Poe was writing “The Raven” he was within arm’s reach of a library or at least a few shelves brimming with “quaint and curious volumes of forgotten lore.” Keeping that term in mind, I’ve scanned a list just sent to me by BM-W’s Fran Reichl, and here are some Q and C items spotted at random that will be for sale in Collectors Corner this year, beginning with a bound run of Graham’s Magazine, where some of Poe’s most famous work first appeared; Salvador Dali’s Les diners de Gala; Andy Warhol’s Wild Raspberries cookbook; Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues; Tiffany Million’s Guide to Meeting Exotic Dancers; the Villas of Pliney from Antiquity to Posterity by Pierre de la Ruffinière du Prey; The Best Sex I Ever Had by Steven Finz; The Trials of Eve by Pnina Granirer; Paris Shopkeepers and the Politics of Resentment by Philip Nord; Mrs. Tuthil’s I Will Be a Gentleman: A Book for Boys, and (we have to stop somewhere), The Springtide of Life by Algeron Swinburne, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham

A Little East of Kansas

One last entry for March 18 in The Literary Year concerns the birth of novelist John Updike on that day in 1932, in Shillington, Pa. I don’t know what Barbara Freedman thought of Updike’s work, but she’d surely approve of the way he imagines his intended audience, as quoted in A Book of Days: “When I write, I aim my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teen-aged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.”

Barbara Freedman’s library memory is from her NY Times article “Are Libraries Doomed to Dry Up and Blow Away?” A plaque in the Friends bookstore at the Princeton Public Library remembers Barbara as founder of the Friends Book Sale: “a True Champion and Friend of the Library.”


The image shown is the frontispiece for The Book of Days, from a poster created by N.C. Wyeth for the Children’s Book Council in 1927.

March 11, 2015

Just for fun, I’m going to do a number on Downton Abbey. Devoted fans may see no reason for tampering with that fabulously popular tour de force of an ensemble period piece, but after five seasons, even some of the faithful must be getting restless.

For me the key to making things more interesting is to reinvigorate Lady Mary, played to chilly perfection up to this point by Michelle Dockery, who is clearly giving the show’s creator Julian Fellowes exactly what he wants. In spite of attempts to add nuances and dimensions to her character (the dead Turk in her bed, star-crossed romance with Matthew Crawley, widow and motherhood, taking responsibility for the estate, primal birth-control devices, exploratory sex with creepy suitors, etc), she remains essentially bound by what Fellowes says of her in an interview on the Huffington Post: “The thing about people like Mary is that they just want to be in charge. They want to be at the top table.” When the interviewer presses him (“She’s difficult, even in love. And a cold mother?”), all he can say is “She wants more control. I think that whole generation were fairly cold!” More revealing is his non-answer when asked if he loves his characters: “I think what we got right is that we don’t give either side any more weight than the other.” That’s in case you ever doubted that the ensemble takes precedence over the individuals.

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A Cult Favorite 

There’s a 32-year-old British actress (a year younger than Dockery) who could make Mary scarily exciting and sexy simply by stepping into her shoes. Her name is Ruth Wilson and she just received a Golden Globe for her role in Showtime’s The Affair; at the moment she’s finishing an Off-Broadway run with Jake Gyllenhaal in Nick Payne’s two-person play, Constellations. She was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Jane Eyre in the 2006 BBC-TV production, and has won two Oliviers (for Stella in Streetcar Named Desire and as Anna in Anna Christie), but what made her, in the words of Mike Hale’s New York Times profile, “a cult favorite” was her role as “the murderous Alice Morgan” in the BBC series Luther. Hale offers a first-hand description of some of the physical force Wilson would bring to Mary, her “offhand intensity and overscale features — dramatically wide lips, piercing blue-gray eyes, architectural eyebrows.” But he doesn’t really do justice to her mouth, who could? There’s something seductively cunning and frankly feral in the beautiful deadly curl of her lower lip, as if she’s forever savoring some unimaginably sexy species of evil. She could do wonders for Mary given what she does for Alice, who enters Oxford at 13, earns a PhD in astrophysics at 18 for her study of dark matter distribution in disc galaxies, murders her parents, and then stalks the person investigating the crime, the troubled, ever-embattled black genius detective John Luther (Idris Elba of The Wire) on the way to becoming his ally, a demonic angel protector twice saving his life, and twice killing for him.

Far be it from me to suggest that Julian Fellowes release Lady Mary’s inner sociopath; still, Downton is only an Agatha Christie heartbeat away from a plot possibility that has Mary discreetly terminating her hated sister, Lady Edith. Now think how it would be if Mary were inhabited by an actress who, like Richard the Third, “smiles and murders as she smiles.” Mary’s darker possibilities are implicit in her fatal tryst with the Turk, but add a deadly measure of fierce Alice to her character, and Mary could be slowly destroying Edith simply through the toxic power of her presence. On the other hand, a Mary as fearless as Alice, who has access to supernatural forces, would have found a way to protect her maid and confidant Anna from Lord Gillingham’s rapist valet. Trust me, the loathed Green would not have got out of Downton alive if there’d been something of Alice in Mary. Of course that would have foiled the true perpetrator of the needlessly prolonged violation, Julian Fellowes, who inflicted it to continue the profitable exploitation of his favorite victims Bates and Anna.

Though she declares herself an enemy of love (as Mary appears to be during the epic mating dance with Matthew), Wilson’s Alice has a life-or-death crush on Luther. While Mary is chilly, Alice is beyond hot; well, she’s infernal and appealingly so. Lovely, sinister, and charming. It takes a very special talent to deliver a combination like that. Alice’s dangerous  flirtation with Luther may be rekindled when Luther goes into production again later this year after a two-year hiatus. As Wilson tells Mike Hale, she was already an admirer of Elba, and so not about to miss the chance of playing the deadly Alice, though she “wasn’t sure, necessarily,” until she realized she “could have a lot of fun with this character …. It was written like Hannibal Lecter, and I thought: ‘This is amazing. What woman gets to play Hannibal Lecter?’ ”

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The Turk in Mary’s Bed

One thing that sets violently compelling shows like Luther, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Orphan Black, and numerous others apart from Downton Abbey is that they have the courage of their outrageous convictions. That said, it was with an act of shameless outrage in the third episode of the first season, a single sensational violation of probability and Downton decorum, that Julian Fellowes fired his series like a comet over the pop culture landscape. No one but no one expected the Turkish diplomat to get into Lady Mary’s bed, let alone die in it. In the years since, I’ve been mistakenly visualizing Pamuk as a heavier, older type, when of course he was a ravishing, princely young blade, exactly the sort likely to have inspired and rebuffed a pass from Thomas, the gay valet, which in turn gives Pamuk the leverage to blackmail Thomas into showing him to Mary’s room. Most readings of the scene that follows see Mary as the victim. She’d flirted with Pamuk, to be sure, and then put him off when he kissed her earlier that evening. While it’s true that the Turk forces himself on Mary, she lets go at the moment of truth, submits, stifles a scream, and next thing we know a seemingly healthy, thriving young man is lying dead beside her. Whatever the cause, the impression is that Pamuk’s passion for the ice princess killed him. Put Ruth Wilson in that scene and the roles would be implicitly reversed: Mary no longer the ambiguously passive victim but the smiling instigator of his doom.

Making Nice

Another way to deal with the Mary issue — no need to go the dark route — would be to find an actress the viewer could easily admire, love, and pull for, someone so strong and centered and charming that you would still be on her side at the end of Season Five. From what I’ve seen of the Danish political series, Borgen, the most likely candidate (setting aside the language barrier) would be Sidse Babett Knudsen, who plays prime minister Birgitte Nyborg with great charm and integrity. Almost from the moment she appears, Nyborg makes you care about her. A wife and mother, she’s strong, smart, pretty, vulnerable, human; she has great warmth, can be playful, sexy, funny, and altogether lovable without straining. If Hillary Clinton had half her charm, she’d sweep through the primaries and the general election in 2016.


“Butter Side Down”

After speculating on who among the characters in Downton Abbey might actually be writing the story, my choice is Lord Grantham’s perennially embattled valet Bates. He’s the only person on the premises who seems capable of it. I like to imagine him doing a Frankenstein and turning on Fellowes, his sadistic creator. He has good reason to feel abused. It’s hard to think of two more ill-fated beings than Bates and Anna, and all Fellowes can say when asked about the sufferings he imposes on them is “I think in life there are people who are unlucky — the bread always falls with the butter side down.”

That Fellowes resorts to that dinner table phrase in defense of his plotting says something about what keeps Downton Abbey from true greatness. Imagine Charlotte Brontë descending to the Fellowes rationale to justify the plight of Jane Eyre and Rochester. Still, the faithful were most likely happy with the Christmas finale of Season Five wherein the series celebrates itself; if you love it, you’re right there caroling along with the richly diverse ensemble, upstairs and downstairs. Even if you’ve been feeling estranged after the loss of characters like Lady Sibyl and Matthew Crawley and Cora’s maid from hell O’Brien, you have to admire the way Julian Fellowes keeps the many human marionettes of his Vanity Fair in play.

March 4, 2015

book revWhenever I see the snow-covered ruins of the former medical center I’m reminded of the euphoria of the day I became a father and of the trauma of enduring an all-night ER vigil in July 1997 shortly after my son turned 21. It’s also impossible to drive by the site without thinking of two of Princeton’s most illustrious residents: Albert Einstein, who died in the hospital in April 1955, and George Kennan, who died ten years ago on the 17th of this month at home on Hodge Road. On both occasions, Princeton was datelined around the world.

Thoughts of George Kennan evoke memories of Princeton during the first six years of the 1980s when my wife, son, and I lived in a garage apartment on the “ample grounds” behind “the sturdy, spacious turn-of-the-century structure” described in Kennan’s Memoirs 1950-1963. When he returns to the house in August 1953 after the tumultuous period during which he served as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, he finds the place, as recounted in The Kennan Diaries (Norton 2014), “in dismal shape: empty, battered, barn-like, electricity and telephone shut off, the yard neglected and unkempt,” poison ivy growing all along the drive, and “a family of cats” living in the garage, above which my cat-loving family would live some 30 years later. In the necessarily more circumspect and polished Memoirs, 146 Hodge Road is the “comfortable, reliable and pleasant shelter” George Kennan and his wife Annelise would inhabit for five decades. While being “devoid of ghosts and sinister corners,” the house was “friendly and receptive in a relaxed way, but slightly detached, like a hostess to a casual guest, as though it did not expect us to stay forever.”

Kennan’s Tower

When the former Kennan home was on the market a few years ago, my wife and I returned to it for the first time since trick or treat visits with our son in the late 1980s. My objective was to see the tower study where GK (as I refer to him in my own journal) had done so much of his writing. I used to imagine him up there communing with Chekhov, warmed by the wood-burning stove he would feed with firewood he chopped himself. From Kennan’s tower I looked down at the windows of the garage apartment and the ground-floor room that had been my study, remembering how at night I would often gaze up at the lighted window when he was at work. Since I was busy writing a novel under contract, it was a way of keeping company.

In fact, there’s a passage in the Diaries that writers everywhere would do well to memorize. On September 4, 1951, George Kennan’s only message to himself after “a thoroughly wasted summer” is “Write, you bastard, write. Write desperately, frantically, under pressure from yourself, while God still gives you the time. Write until your eyes are glazed, until you have writer’s cramp, until you fall from your chair for weariness. Only by agitating your pen will you ever press out of your indifferent mind and ailing frame anything of any value to yourself or anyone else. Think neither of rest, nor relaxation, nor health, nor sympathy. These things are not for you.”

He held to his mission, writing just under 20 books, winning two Pulitzer prizes and two National Book awards.

On the Bench

While I’d never had the nerve to ask Kennan if I could see his tower study, my irrepressible six-year-old son wasted no time in charming a personal tour out of our landlord. My journal includes several encounters between the two, for instance, May 24, 1983, when GK came over for a chat before he and Annelise left for Europe. While we talked, my son, a first grader at the time, was sitting between us on the bench in front of the carriage house that was our home. Kennan had painted it rust-red with green trim (“Norwegian style,” he told us) to match the miniature replica opposite, a playhouse he’d built for his own children. The author of American Diplomacy was talking about his attempt to develop something better than the standard foreign service prose for the famous “X article” when the boy on the bench suddenly began discoursing on the subject of codes. According to my journal, “GK patted him nicely but firmly on the head and said ‘Let me finish, Benjy,’” while continuing to cheer me up by relating some of his own experiences with clueless editors (my novel was published that October, the first copy hand-delivered to me by a smiling Annelise, who had intercepted the UPS man).

Star Wars and Cookies

Two sides of life behind the Kennans are on view in my entry from Dec. 17, 1985: “Walked out to get the empty trash can and GK was sweeping the driveway where the bricks slope down to the street. We started talking about the Star Wars madness. He told me it was [Edward] Teller’s idea, that he had talked Reagan into it. ‘He’s been trying to start a war between the U.S. and the Soviets for years and now it looks as though he may succeed!’

“While I was writing this, the phone rang, and it was Annelise. She was coming over with some cookies she’d baked. I went out to meet her — the first snow of the winter was falling. I walk her back to our house. She has brought us wine, too. She comes in. Leslie is already ready for bed, Ben is watching a Christmas cartoon special, this journal is lying open on the floor of the living room. She is remarkably nice, this woman who at first view intimidated us (back in the summer of 1980). But now she has real fondness for us (especially Leslie whom she hugged and called “sweetie”) and we for them both.”

For a change in tone, there was the time during a heavy snow later that same winter when a taxi carrying Leslie home couldn’t find the driveway. After the driver dropped her off: “We look out the window and there’s the taxi — on the Kennan’s lawn! I mean all the way down by the patio! He’d driven right over the flower beds! About an hour later our distinguished landlord is on the phone booming, ‘Stuart! What happened to the lawn? Somebody’s been driving all over the lawn!’”

Facing 80

The winter of 1985-86, George Kennan was approaching his 82nd birthday. He’d been anticipating the big number in a September 3 1983 entry from the Diaries: “I shall soon be 80 years old. I am not in good health. My days are narrowly numbered …. In my personal life I see nothing but grievous problems and dangers on every hand …. At the same time, I am impressed and humbled by what, as I am constantly being reminded, my name, and the image they have of me, have come to mean for many thousands of people.” He goes on to observe that “if, in these final years, there is little I can achieve by doing, there is still something to be achieved by acting creditably the part in which fortune has cast me … to try to look, at least, like what people believe me to be … and, by doing this, to try to add just a little bit to their hope and strength and confidence in life.”

I realize now that he was “doing this” every time he spoke with us, whether he was identifying the skink “Benjy” had found and held out for his inspection, or talking with me about writers and agents. According to the Diaries, in August 1983 Kennan was suffering from a kidney stone that “gnaws and hurts” and will become life-threatening the following year. In my journal from November 1984, I note how worried we’d been (“feeling in these past weeks as if a close relative were in danger”): “Things did not go well and Annelise says he’d had pneumonia and that they might have to operate.” By Thanksgiving we were relieved to hear the laser surgery in New York had worked and he was home and healing: “Today he was outside and we talked. He is going to be at the house and ‘idle’ (for him) for some time, which means, he said, we would have time to talk.” Meanwhile my wife had baked a Russian coffee cake that she and Ben had taken over to the Kennans. In early December, I record this exchange: “GK: ‘When I got home from the hospital I was about ¼ myself. Now I’m feeling about ¾ myself.’ Me: ‘That’s about as much as most people ever feel isn’t it?’” Seeing how exhausted I was (about ½ myself) after a typical day keeping up with my son, he tells me, “You’ll make it.” We agree that Ben at 8 is “sometimes over 100 percent himself.”

Long Lone Walks

In the November 15 1989 entry of Diaries, after the Berlin Wall had been brought down (“by the power of an entourage that wants performers more than it wants scholars”), which led to a deluge of “requests for interviews, TV appearances, articles, statements,” he asks “Where, then, do we go from here?” Where he goes is for a “long lone walk through the empty nocturnal Princeton streets, trying to think out the answer to that question.” This image of Kennan walking at night moves me but at the same time makes me smile because a more familiar image has the sage of Hodge Road seated tall in the saddle of a bicycle pedaling on his way to and from his office at the Institute for Adanced Study.

One Last Thought

When the hospital was undergoing the grotesque process of deconstruction, it was hard to remember personal moments, like watching my wife give birth, holding my son seconds after he was delivered, and seeing him through a serious operation at nine months and life-saving surgery at 27, on either side of the ER crisis of July 1997, from which we continue to feel the aftershocks. But nothing will ever diminish that time of happiness, April 28, 1976, in a room in a building that is no more, sitting on the bed with wife and newborn baby, and, as George Kennan describes a perfect moment in his student days at Princeton, “all was complete.”

Previous backyard views of the Kennan’s are in the review of John Gaddis’s Life (Nov. 23, 2011), a column on two Princeton streets (July 19, 2006), and one on the occasion of Kennan’s 100th birthday (Feb. 18, 2004). These can be accessed at www.towntopics.com/backiss.html.

February 25, 2015

book revClark Terry (1920-2015), whose horn could charm the birds off the trees, was adept at translating the lyric of a song into what he called the language of jazz, “how to bend a note, slur it, ghost it, how to say ‘I love you’ to a lovely lady.” Terry had what critic Gary Giddins called “comic esprit” — “every note robust, beaming, and shadowed with impish resolve and irony.”

It’s fitting that news of the death of a great jazz musician has surfaced in the last week of Black History Month, which also happens to be, for obvious reasons, Jazz Appreciation Month. The music some call “the sound of surprise” also plays a part in The Autobiography of Malcolm X (as told to Alex Haley), most compellingly in the book’s vivid account of the dance hall scene in wartime Harlem. Black history and jazz history came together again when Clark Terry died on February 21, exactly 50 years to the day Malcolm X met a violent end in a Harlem ballroom.

Clark was There

“I was known to almost every popular Negro musician around New York in 1944-45,” says Malcolm X, who once hung out at the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo Theatre, most often with members of Lionel Hampton’s band. According to his biography Clark (2011), Terry was in the trumpet section of Hampton’s band around the same time and soon after played at the Apollo with Illinois Jacquet. His account of the time has the feel of similar passages in the Autobiography: “I felt the beat of Harlem, the soul of black, brown, and beige America …. We played a few hot swinging tunes that night …. The audience was on their feet!”

Anyone intrigued by the scene brewing in New York in the swing to bop era of the war years will find one of the richest accounts of the period in Malcolm X’s book. While it’s understood that he’s on his way to salvation (and betrayal and death) with Elijah Muhammad and the Church of Islam, he clearly enjoys recounting his years as a hustler and petty thief and provider of reefer highs to jazz musicians whose names he also clearly enjoys dropping. If the right person had been around when he was growing up in Lansing, Michigan — say a teacher as generous as Clark Terry was known to be — Malcolm’s mission in life might have been music.

The Film

Thanks in part to the media fallout around Sunday’s Academy Awards, I watched the DVD of Spike Lee’s 1992 film Malcolm X, for which Denzel Washington received a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Besides comparing film and book, I was curious to see if Lee did anything with the anecdote about 13-year-old Malcolm Little’s short-lived career as a boxer, which is where I connected with and committed to the narrative. That Lee would bypass Malcolm’s misadventures in the ring is understandable, but the exclusion is related to the fact that the film begins with young Malcolm already enjoying life as a zoot-suited free spirit in Boston. By going with that structure, Lee consigns Malcolm’s traumatic, pivotal years growing up in the midwest to a series of flashbacks, which inevitably lessens the impact of the teen-ager’s escape to urban excitement from a middle American past marked by Klansmen firebombing his house and murdering his father and the definitive realization that the only future possible for him was a life of menial labor.

The Boxer

My encounter with the Autobiography coincided with a reading of the letters and speeches of Lincoln for last week’s column. One quality the two leaders have in common is self-deprecating candor of the sort found in Malcolm X’s account of adolescent humiliation in the boxing ring, the scene that Spike Lee chose to ignore. While I’ve been unable to find any quotes from Lincoln on his time as a wrestler who reportedly lost only one match out of 300, it would be in character for “honest Abe” to offset his prowess, perhaps by talking about the one match he lost.

While the incident has been framed by Haley, who introduces it with reference to the jubilation “among Negroes everywhere” when Joe Louis became the heavyweight world champion by knocking out James J. Braddock, Malcolm X’s voice comes through loud and clear as he recalls his first fight, with a white boy named Bill Peterson: “Then the bell rang and we came out of our corners. I knew I was scared, but I didn’t know, as Bill Peterson told me later on, that he was scared of me, too. He was so scared I was going to hurt him that he knocked me down fifty times if he did once.”

The defeat took a toll on the 13-year-old’s reputation (“I practically went into hiding”): “A Negro just can’t be whipped by somebody white and return with his head up to the neighborhood …. When I did show my face again, the Negroes I knew rode me so badly I knew I had to do something …. I went back to the gym, and I trained — hard. I beat bags and skipped rope and grunted and sweated all over the place. And finally I signed up to fight Bill Peterson again.” In the standard Hollywood scenario the training would pay off, but “the moment the bell rang, I saw a fist, then the canvas coming up, and ten seconds later the referee was saying ‘Ten!’ over me …. That white boy was the beginning and the end of my fight career.”

Only at this point does the Muslim activist of the present intrude, declaring, “it was Allah’s work to stop me: I might have wound up punchy.”

Turning Point

One of the most devastating moments in the Autobiography (“the first major turning point of my life”) is delivered by a sympathetic teacher who tells a boy who was chosen class president that his superior academic performance will be of no use to him if he hopes to be a lawyer or a teacher. “One of life’s first needs,” the teacher tells him, “is to be realistic about being a nigger” and “a lawyer is no realistic goal for a nigger.” The white students whose grades were no match for his had been encouraged to become whatever they wanted while Malcolm, being “good with his hands,” was encouraged to be a carpenter.

“It was then,” Malcolm writes, “that I began to change — inside.”

The casual use of the n-word no longer “slipped off his back,” he stared at classmates who used it, “drew away from white people,” answered only when called upon, and found it “a physical strain simply to sit” in that teacher’s class. The “very week” he finished the eighth grade, he boarded the bus for Boston and his destiny.

Pure Breathtaking Cinema

There is, thankfully, nothing in the prose style of the Autobiography comparable to the bravura shot in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X that the director and his cinematographer Ernest Dickerson must have been proud of, and rightfully so; for pure breathtaking cinema, nothing else in the film comes close to it.

The equivalent moment is in the book’s opening chapter. After a team of mounted Klansmen terrify Malcolm’s family and his pregnant mother (she’s pregnant with him), they ride “into the night, their torches flaring, as suddenly as they had come.”

In the film they ride into an immense luminous storybook moon, each rider equidistant from the other, as if they had been posed in place for the shot. All the fearful immediacy of their galloping shouting torch-waving window-shattering presence has been redefined into “something rich and strange” with a flick of the directorial wand. In 2015 viewers might assume some form of digital enhancement has been put spectacularly into play, so perfect is the effect of the tiny figures silhouetted against a moon as big as Mt. Everest and as luminous as some mad genius’s fantasy of the godhead. There it is, you gape in wonder, then it’s gone and you’re thinking “what’s a piece of visual poetry like that doing in a place like this?” We’ve just witnessed Klan terrorism in a film about the black leader who became famous chastising the “white devils,” and the coda to that episode of racist viciousness is — a thing of beauty?

Writers are taught to “kill your darlings.” If a phrase or a metaphor makes you pat yourself on the back, chances are it’s something you want to look at very carefully the next morning. Graham Greene termed the tracking of suspect figures of speech “shooting tigers.” But really, why in the name of contextual decorum deprive the audience of an image so stunning? How to justify leaving a piece of perfect cinema on the cutting room floor? Still and all, it feels wrong — a bit like showing John Wilkes Booth galloping away from Ford Theatre into a moonlit dreamscape.

Clark Terry

Better to end with one of Clark Terry’s “darlings.” Describing the way Duke Ellington handled his musicians (“all these very different attitudes and egotudes”), Terry writes, “He knew exactly how to use each man’s sound to create the most amazing voicings. The sounds of trains, whistles, birds, footsteps, climaxes, cries. Rhythms that vibrated the floor. Harmonies with ebbs and flows that almost lifted me right out of my chair.” Terry imagines the eyes of the audience “glued to us like we were the fountain of life. The music was so powerful and electric, if I’d had a big plug I could have stuck it in the air and lit up the whole world.”


The passages from Clark’s lively memoir were also quoted in my review. “The Time of His Life: Reading Between Clark Terry’s Lines,” Town Topics, Feb. 15, 2012.

February 18, 2015

book revIn Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus calls history “a shout in the street.” Too bad the classroom windows were closed as I sleepwalked through high school, no shouts, no streets, only a miasma of mimeographed fact sheets and quizzes and essay questions, with a lone figure towering over it all. From fourth grade on, in spite of uninspired history teachers and deadly dull textbooks, Abraham Lincoln transcended the classroom tedium associated with the H-word. My first encounter with the Liberty Bell, at 12, was uneventful. A few weeks later when my father took me to the scene of the crime, Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C., I was on sacred ground.

I found Lincoln on my own in the book mobile that came to the country school I attended in roughly the same part of Indiana Lincoln grew up in reading by firelight in his homebound log-cabin classroom. In the post-election speech he gave before the New Jersey Senate February 21, 1861, after noting that “few of the States among the old Thirteen had more of the battle-fields of the country within their limits than old New-Jersey,” he recalls “the earliest days of being able to read” when he got hold of a small book called Weem’s Life of Washington with “all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country, and none fixed themselves” upon his “imagination so deeply” as the struggle at Trenton, the “crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time,” all remembered “more than any single revolutionary event” — “and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others.”

Ride on Fire

In The Library of America’s Selected Speeches and Writings of Lincoln (Paperback Classics $16.95, on sale at Labyrinth for $6.98), the first passage that caught my attention and gave evidence of the greatness of character I intuited from my own “earliest days of being able to read” is from a speech given on Washington’s 110th birthday. Lincoln was 33 at the time and what he had to say to the folks in the Springfield Temperance Society must have caused jaws to drop. While casting the light of his understanding, not to say fellow feeling, on habitual drunkards, he declares that the only reason most people have never fallen is due to absence of appetite rather than presence of moral superiority, for if we take drunkards as a class, “The demon of intemperance ever seems to have delighted in sucking the blood of genius and of generosity.” A few paragraphs later, to express “the price paid” for the “glorious results” of the ’76 revolution, he channels Blake: “It had its evils too. It breathed forth famine, swam in blood and rode on fire; and long long after, the orphan’s cry and the widow’s wail continued to break the sad silence that ensued.”

“Something of Ill-Omen”

Arriving in Springfield from the backwoods of Indiana five years earlier, Lincoln was already riding the rhetoric of fire and blood as he spoke to the Young Men’s Lyceum on January 27, 1838. The speech was inspired in part by a “horror-striking scene” in St. Louis where a “mulatto man” had been “seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death.” Like some wild young prophet from the wilderness, Lincoln is warning the American People about the “approach of danger.” Where will it come from? “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! — All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.” The answer to that burst of Whitmanesque hyperbole is that “it will spring up amongst us.” The terms are dire — “something of ill-omen,” “wild and furious passions,” “savage mobs” — as he cites the hanging of gamblers and negroes in Mississippi along with white strangers “from neighboring States” until “dead men were seen literally dangling from the boughs of trees upon every road side; and in numbers almost sufficient, to rival the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest.”

Although he’s talking about mob rule and mob violence, it’s hard not to read an involuntary prophecy into the passion with which he delivers the message, as if he senses that the “approach of danger” foreshadows the national calamity that will cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, including his own.

Think of it: he’s coming out of a rough pioneer village in Indiana, unschooled, self-taught, still in his 20s, and here he is launching the Lyceum speech like the defender of the nation’s faith testifying before the Supreme Court of posterity: “In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era. — We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth.”

And then to end with a eulogy to Washington, “that we revered his name to the last; that, during his long sleep, we permitted no hostile foot to pass over or desecrate his resting place …. Upon these let the proud fabric of freedom rest, as the rock of its basis; and as truly as has been said of the only greater institution, “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

Two decades before the outbreak of the Civil War, Lincoln’s vision of the Union is so large that only Christianity is greater.

Beware Bewitchment

Princeton University Professor of Politics Emeritus George Kateb’s challenging new book, Lincoln’s Political Thought (Harvard $24.95), suggests that in spite of the darkly prophetic innuendoes in the Lyceum speech, Lincoln misread or underestimated the “ferocities” of the South and was subject to a “minimization of the trouble that the country was in before secession.” Kateb sees the “unappeasable ambition” of the South as “the original American malignity” that was “often but not always race-based” and “is still operative today.” Conflicted from the outset, he admits that his “intense admiration” for Lincoln (“a great writer”) is “joined to some dismay.” He seems at times to be pleading his case in a courtroom under the purview of Lincoln or some powerful subordinate, asking “Are we not allowed, however, to have certain suspicions about Lincoln?” On the subject of Lincoln’s “opacity,” Kateb warns us not to give in “too quickly to the temptation of sheltering ourselves in the comfort of the notion of negative capability.” His quest to solve the “riddle” of Lincoln’s mind leads to some odd entanglements around a subject who “either was captivated by what he was saying or was afraid to look closely enough at it, or he did not want to insist on it. Or he wanted to leave it uncertain because he was uncertain, or certain but out of season.”

After pondering sentences like those you know that when Kateb advises us “to struggle against bewitchment” in the “task” of understanding Lincoln, he’s speaking from experience. Reading Kateb on Lincoln is like being in the company of an explorer just back from a journey so disorienting that he’s hard put to make sense of it. In the immediate vicinity of the bewitchment alert, Kateb tells us “You cannot pin Lincoln down; he did not want to be pinned down, especially about his aversions.” Thus while Lincoln’s style is “simple and averse to grandness and clutter” and he writes “to be understood without having to be re-read,” some of his work “must be reread often” and yet he writes “as carefully as if he would be reread but did not quite expect to be.”

A page later Kateb gets closer to Lincoln’s own account of his method: that in writing or speaking “one should not shoot too high; shoot low down and the common people will understand you …. The educated ones will understand you anyhow … if you shoot too high your bullets will go over the heads of the mass and only hit those who need no hitting.”

An example of how charmingly Lincoln “shoots low” comes in the speech to the Temperance Society when he spins an analogy to show what keeps non-drinkers from taking the pledge: “Let me ask the man who could maintain this position most stiffly, what compensation he will accept to go to church some Sunday and sit during the sermon with his wife’s bonnet upon his head? Not a trifle, I’ll venture. And why not? There would be nothing irreligious in it: nothing immoral, nothing uncomfortable. Then why not? Is it not because there would be something egregiously unfashionable in it?”

The Riddle

On the eve of Washington’s birthday, February 21, 1861, after addressing the New Jersey Senate, Lincoln spoke to “the other branch of this Legislature.” The contrast between the two speeches, both brief, interestingly reflects the president-elect’s range. To the Senate he speaks as “an humble instrument in the hands of the Almighty,” while to the House he refers to himself “piloting the ship of State through this voyage, surrounded by perils as it is; for, if it should suffer attack now, there will be no pilot ever needed for another voyage.”

George Kateb suggests that Lincoln’s mind “becomes a riddle to us” when “the antagonistic ideas of personal responsibility and overmastering providence coexist independenty, and neither one can defeat or banish the other.” While Kateb resolves the riddle by observing that “as a materialist” Lincoln found both ways “rhetorically expedient,” I prefer his rationale for the enigma of Lincoln’s faith, that we’ll never know for sure “what he really believed metaphysically,” for “He was always a free spirit.”

February 11, 2015

record rev2Have you heard the word is love — Lennon/McCartney, “The Word”

With Valentine’s Day almost upon us, and the Oscars not far behind, I’ve been thinking about love scenes in film, love as a force in classical music, and love in the abstract, as it is, for all purposes, in “The Word,” one of the strangest things the Beatles ever recorded, and one of the best.

In that eerie, relentless, evangelical incantation of a song, John Lennon and Paul McCartney reduce the most used and abused term in popular culture to its word-for-word’s-sake-Gertrude-Stein essence. In the chorus, “Say the word and you’ll be free/Say the word and be like me/Say the word I’m thinking of,” word isn’t sung so much as wailed, and not in any bluesey rock and roll revival sense, but dementedly, despairingly, like the cry of souls lost in a loveless wilderness, or like “woman wailing for her demon lover” in Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan.” The song is driven by a determination to possess that one word/note, a worthy challenge, as McCartney once suggested: “To write a good song with just one note is really very hard. It’s the kind of a thing we’ve wanted to do for some time. We get near it in ‘The Word.’” Lennon, whose go-to-the-marrow voice gives the performance its obsessive edge, says “it’s all about gettin’ smart.” Both admit they were smoking grass when they put it together (“We normally didn’t work while we were smoking,” says Paul), which helps explain the myopic, out-of-time focus on a single element.

Speaking Love

The word is spoken only once, and indirectly at that, in the love scene shared by the painter J.M.W. Turner (Timothy Spall) and his Margate landlady Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) in Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner, which just opened at the Garden. No need for music, nor any other accompanying emotional stimulants. Spall and Bailey deliver the sequence with the verbally nuanced true-to-life warmth Mike Leigh consistently draws from his actors. Admiring the outline of her profile against the parlor window, Mr. Turner compares the chirpy, not quite homely widow to a statue of Aphrodite, adding “the goddess of love” in case the embarrassed lady is unaware of the fact. After he compares his own face to that of a gargoyle, Mrs. Booth gently reminds him of the folly of those who “fish for compliments,” looks him directly in the eye and firmly, sweetly, tremulously tells him that he is “a man of great spirit and fine feeling,” which are qualities of Turner’s the audience definitely needs to be reminded of at this point in the film. His way of sealing his declaration of love is to tell her, after a long, equally direct look, that she is “a woman of profound beauty.” The landlady’s response, beautiful in itself, is the high point of the film’s most moving performance. When she says she’s “lost for words,” she sounds the last note of a love duet composed by a master — almost the last note, for the scene actually ends with a satisfied noise from Timothy Spall, possibly the most eloquent grunt in his repertoire.

record rev1Playing Love

It may be that the proximity of Valentine’s Day had something to do with the BBC’s decision to mark the February 1 death of the renowned pianist Aldo Ciccolini with a video in which he performs Salut d’Amour, the piece Edward Elgar composed in July 1888 as an engagement present to his fiancée. Born on August 15, 1925, a month and a half after the passing of Erik Satie, whose piano music he helped bring to life in the 1960s, Ciccolini presents “Salut d’Amour” as if he’d lived and written it himself. Delicately taking creative possession of Elgar’s piece, he seems very much the self-confessed “solitary man” who once said he “should have been born on a desert island” rather than Naples.

Asked in March 2013 why he chose to perform Liszt’s transcription of Wagner’s Liebestod after winning the ICMA (International Classical Music Awards) lifetime achievement award, Ciccolini called the aria “the most beautiful hymn to love ever written …. Many composers have given wonderful expression to love in their music but Isolde’s Liebestod is unique in its sublimity. She becomes reunited with the man she loves …. They are no longer two people, but one.”

Filmed at 87 in a concert performance, his death less than two years away, Ciccolini is seen from above, in mid-range, and close-up, his expression impassive as he channels Liszt and Wagner; his classic Italian profile prompts thoughts of the boy of ten who was “totally transfixed” hearing Tristan for the first time at Teatro San Carlo in Naples and who in his teens interrupted his budding career to play for American soldiers and in bars to help support his family.

Music Is His Love

I found it all but impossible to locate Ciccolini in relation to family or friends or lovers. He never married and, according to the obituaries, left no survivors. A Los Angeles Times interview in March 1986 when he was 61 depicts a devoted, caring teacher allowing a master class to run half an hour past its scheduled conclusion: “Fully absorbed, Ciccolini hovers over the keyboard and later makes a few simple yet profound observations on the interpretive matter at hand.” As for love: “I am more and more in love with music and playing. So I learned to sleep while crossing the Atlantic and to need only three hours a night.” Which gives him that much more time to spend with the love of his life. Move ahead to 2013 and the ICMA interview and he’s talking about “incurable insomnia” and his preference for working at night because “the silence at night is not the same as during the day.” Night is also more forgiving: “one is better disposed and more patient with oneself if everything doesn’t work out as one wishes.”

During the 1986 visit to L.A for an all-Liszt performance at Royce Hall on the 100th anniversary of the composer’s death, Ciccolini scoffed at the journalistic fondness for the idea that he “recorded all of Satie’s piano music and practiced Zen Buddhism and became a French citizen [in 1949].” He expresses no interest in “building popularity,” saying so “with the slightly husky, growling laugh of a Maurice Chevalier,” adding that he “should be a very foolish pianist” to think about “reinforcing” his renown every time he performed: “People will not speak of me in 100 years, but they will still be talking about Liszt. That’s the reality.”

It took a lot of determined searching online to find those few personal details, the Maurice Chevalier laugh, the Zen Buddhism, the philosophical view of his fame next to Liszt’s, and perhaps most interesting, the admission that he “always played what others avoided.”

Ciccolini and Chico

While the proximity of Satie’s exit and Ciccolini’s entrance in the summer of 1925 may not be worth mentioning except as a calendar coincidence, the fact is that Ciccolini’s name became “virtually synonymous with that of Satie,” according to the liner notes to Satie: Great Recordings of the Century (EMI Classics 1986). Listening to Ciccolini playing the first of Satie’s Gymnopédies, so simple and straightforward, you may be reminded, as I was, of the life-walks-on-and-on left hand of Bill Evans’s “Peace Piece.” Listen to the Sports et divertissements, however, and you hear the “intelligent mischievousness” Stravinsky saw in Satie, who composed send-ups of Mozart and Chopin (describing the Funeral March as a “famous mazurka” by Schubert, who never wrote a mazurka), and then in his Embryons desséchés (“Desiccated embryos”), created surrealist fantasies on fossils and crustaceans, including “a sea cucumber that purrs like a cat.”

Though I’ve been unable to find any reference to the other Ciccolini, meaning Harpo and Groucho’s brother, the ever-resourceful character with the same name played by Chico Marx in Duck Soup, you have to believe that the master interpreter of compositions as zany as Satie’s was well aware of Chico and the slapstick sleight of hand he uses to shoot music from the keys like gunfighter counting off shots.

A Day in the Life

Thanks to Ciccolini’s embrace of Satie, we’ve come through Elgar and Wagner and love back to the Beatles, whose groundbreaking recording “A Day in the Life” has some obvious points in common with Satie’s Sonatine bureaucratique, performed by Ciccolini on the Great Recordings album, and accompanied by Satie’s “commentary telling of a day in the life of an office worker.” The Beatles famously end their Day with an orchestral hurricane, a development in their music that may have been first signaled by the chilling, verging-on-atonal chorus of “The Word,” which was recorded in November 1965. Speaking of surrealist fantasies, the title of the album the song eventually appeared on was Rubber Soul, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this year.

“Everywhere I go I hear it said/In the good and the bad books that I have read,” John sings, then repeats that line in an interview quoted on the site, Beatles Bible — “whatever, wherever, the word is ‘love.’ It seems like the underlying theme to the universe.”

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.


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?”