It was around this time half a century ago that people began to suspect the Beatles of being the creation of supernatural forces. Had they signed a pact with Lucifer? The “more popular than Jesus” frenzy that led to the burning of their records in crazy America demonstrated that, yes, they were unthinkably, absurdly big. The “Paul McCartney is dead” madness caught fire for the same reason. Nothing less than mysterious death or divinity could explain the phenomenon; the resulting paranoia of disbelief had reached the “who really wrote Shakespeare?” level. All this cosmic commotion and they had yet to astonish the world with albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper and singles like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “I am the Walrus,” and “Hey Jude.”
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
Fifty years ago today, April 6, 1966, when the Beatles began recording Revolver in EMI’s Studio Three at Abbey Road, a tall, elegantly handsome gentleman with no evident resemblance to Mephistopheles, and no pact signed in blood in his pocket, guided John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr to the top of Mt. Revolver. more
Head of MI-5 Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) with his most trusted asset Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker)
“Hold the right thought,” my father used to tell me. That dated variation of “Look on the bright side” didn’t count for much on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we’re better off turning to Shakespeare. more
Ultimately we read in order to strengthen the self. — Harold Bloom
Like it or not, there will always be a market for self-help books. While readers whose lives have been enhanced by poetry and literature tend to patronize that seemingly inexhaustible genre, anything worth reading could be studied and enjoyed under the same heading. Taking the idea to the most enlightened extreme, it’s fair to say that that a wealth of “self-help” books will be on the tables at Princeton Day School between Friday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 29 at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale.
In an interview on bookbrowse.com about his book How to Read and Why (Scribner Touchstone 2001), Harold Bloom mentions being deluged with mail from people saying how pleased they are that he’s “writing about literature for the common reader.” As a result, he became aware of a need that he felt “highly qualified and highly driven to meet” for “a self-help book, indeed, an inspiration book, which would not only encourage solitary readers of all kinds all over the world to go on reading for themselves, but also support them in their voyages of self-discovery through reading.”
When asked how reading great literature can provide an alternative to the sort of self-help books that top the best-seller lists, Bloom singles out the stories of Chekhov because they have “the uncanny faculty, rather like Shakespeare in that regard, to persuade the reader that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real are being demonstrated for the very first time.” It’s not that either author “created those truths,” but that “without the assistance of Shakespeare and Chekhov, we might never be able to see what is really there.” more
Here’s a trivia question from left field: what do Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, C.K. Williams, Stephen Crane, Paul Simon, Sarah Vaughan, Chris Christie, Jerry Lewis, and Percy Shelley’s grandfather have in common?
Answer: they were all born in Newark.
So was Leslie Fiedler, author of the landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel. In his essay, “Whatever Happened to Jerry Lewis?” from Murray Pomerance’s anthology Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (NYU Press), Fielder recalls once working in a shoe store side by side with “a crew of losers,” one of whom was Danny Levitch, who happened to be Jerry (Levitch) Lewis’s father. Fiedler recalls that although Levitch was constantly boasting about his “rosy prospects in the theater,” he always seemed to end up working as an extra salesman. Fiedler thinks that the father’s habitual failure “must have haunted Jerry and fueled in him a relentless desire to succeed.”
In 1945, Jerry Lewis, who turns 90 today, was 19, living in Newark with “a very pregnant wife” and earning $135 on “a good week” in various Manhattan night clubs; his act was to make funny faces while lip-synching along with photograph records. more
From a gang land point of view, it makes more sense to put a body in the Pine Barrens than in the Hudson River. — John McPhee
I’m beginning a column about Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) with a quote from John McPhee to note the fact that yesterday, March 8, the author of The Pine Barrens celebrated his 85th birthday. While it may be difficult to imagine two writers with less in common, I have no doubt that McPhee could sit down tomorrow, do a month of research, and produce an essay or even a book that would stand as the go-to work about pulp fiction, the mass market paperback revolution, the McCarthy Era, and the author of Kiss Me, Deadly, who once admitted he’s not sure which side of midnight 1918 he was born on (he went with March 9).
Reading McPhee, who grew up in Princeton, you are in the company of a renowned master of non-fiction prose. Reading Spillane, who grew up in Elizabeth and made his fortune writing about the world of buried bodies, you are partaking of an experience that has been compared to eating take-out fried chicken. He himself once used a beloved American snack to tease “those big-shot writers” who “could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” Besides creating Mike Hammer, the last word in brutal, sex-crazed private eyes, Spillane sold the equivalent of 200 million packs of “salted peanuts” worldwide, and as of 1980, seven of the top 10 all-time fiction best-sellers in America were written by him. more
“London, Waterloo Bridge” by Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)
To D.H. Lawrence, who died on March 2,1930 at 45, a “painted landscape is the background with the real subject left out.” It’s also where “the English exist and hold their own.”
Clearly, this is a novelist speaking, as well as a poet, philosopher, essayist in many realms, revolutionary, and a painter for whom landscape is the “background to an intenser vision of life.”
Some Serious Fun
As I make my way to the Princeton University Art Museum, I imagine Lawrence by my side looking the way he did to the doctor he hosted for tea and toast only weeks before he died, “a colorful figure with bright blue coat, red hair and beard and lively blue eyes” who “made the toast himself treating the operation as though it were a serious matter and at the same time great fun” — which is how I’d like to treat the subject of this column and the current exhibit, “Pastures Green & Dark Satanic Mills: The British Passion for Landscape.” more
“She’s a gutsy girl,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh. “A little bit of an animal.” Leigh’s talking about Daisy Domergue, the character she plays in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a supporting role that has brought her an Oscar nomination, the first of her long career. Even if she wins, it won’t excuse the Academy’s failure 20 years ago to recognize her once-in-a-lifetime performance as Sadie Flood in Georgia (1995), a film written by Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner and directed by Ulu Grosbard.
In a featurette about The Hateful Eight, producer Stacy Sher says of Daisy, “She’ll try anything, she’ll push it all the way, she’s crazy like a fox: you don’t know if you should feel sorry for her, you don’t know if you should despise her.” According to co-star Walton Goggins, “Jennifer just takes it to a place where we’re all looking at each other, did you see that? did you see what she did with that?” more
I fell in love with Shakespeare watching Richard Burton play Hamlet. If there was a specific moment when I “lost my heart” (you could as easily say “found my heart”), it came in the scene where Hamlet tells the players to “speak the speech” the way he pronounces it, and “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”
In an essay about his youthful love of the plays, William Dean Howells recalls feeling that “in his great heart” Shakespeare “had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.” I was in my early 20s when Hamlet’s rousing speech to the players brought me into Shakespeare’s “great heart” and made me feel that the man who wrote the play was in the room speaking directly to his creations. more
Thoughts of Valentine’s Day bring back a song I knew by heart when I was growing up. No wonder, the way my parents kept playing Nat King Cole’s recording of “Nature Boy.” They were addicted to it; so was everyone; the whole country was enthralled by the “strange enchanted boy who wandered very far, very far over land and sea.” The voice was already a pleasant part of our family’s life because of Cole’s “Christmas Song.” Now the same warm smooth deeply familiar voice that sang of chestnuts and yuletide carols and mistletoe was making me feel things I’d never felt before, exciting my imagination with dreams of distant lands and magic days, with a message about loving and being loved that was more appealing than the lessons I learned in school. more
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again.” That’s James Joyce’s snow, falling outside a Dublin hotel room, the first notes of the sublime last movement of his long story “The Dead.” Snow is also falling on the nameless lovesick wanderer in Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey).
Though I make a point of listening to Schubert and reading Joyce every year at this time, I’ve never brought them together in the same column — under the same roof of the same imaginary inn, as it were, the short plump bespectacled composer at the piano accompanying the tall, thin, bespectacled Irish tenor whose singing voice was “clarion clear” according to Oliver St. John Gogarty, otherwise known as “stately plump Buck Mulligan” in the opening sentence of Joyce’s Ulysses. Given the preoccupation with songs and singers in Joyce’s life and work, it’s not all that unlikely a pairing, allowing for a little poetic license in the matter of time and space. True, Schubert was born in Vienna on January 31, 1797, Joyce 85 years and 1300 miles away in Dublin on February 2, 1882, but online the distances and years disappear in “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” their “wayward and flickering existence” sensed but not apprehended by Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy seconds before he turns to the window and sees the snow “falling obliquely against the lamplight.” more
Stirred from sleep by the sound of something large and loud moving in the night, I thought at first that someone was moaning. Really. It was like the sound of a giant enduring a massively bad dream. We were three hours into the Sunday morning after Saturday’s snowfall but our block-long cul de sac was not under attack; we were being rescued, liberated. Seen from the bedroom window, the larger of the two machines had an unreal immensity that made our little street resemble a road in the Caucasus. No wonder, I’d been reading Chekhov at bedtime after a long afternoon watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Chekhovian epic, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. more
If someone in the strange sad days since January 10 were to ask what David Bowie means to me, I’d say two words, Hunky Dory. From all that I’ve read online since the ongoing event of his death, I’m not alone in thinking Bowie’s fourth LP is his best, not an album so much as the creation of a mood, a state of mind my wife and I associate with the best, brightest moments of the 1970s. We lived in the music much as we lived in our consciousness of England and our two years in Bristol, the city we came to know and love. The songs from that haunting, stirring, and most companionable of records evoke the country of Shakespeare and Chaplin, of Hampstead Heath and Kate Bush’s “old river poet” the Thames. Much more than a none-too-sturdy piece of black vinyl, Hunky Dory was a very special, pleasant place to be for a father, mother, and the child who was born five years after its 1971 release and who, on hearing the news of the death of his “biggest hero” four decades later, said “It’s like losing a member of the family.”
While the tracks we found most fascinating and challenging were “Life on Mars,” “Oh You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” and “The Bewley Brothers,” the song that we felt closest to as a family (we and no doubt thousands if not millions of other families) was “Kooks,” which may be the most charming thing Bowie ever wrote. more
Let’s say I’m sitting on a bench in Central Park thinking about long-ago weekend afternoons playing catch with Florence Victor, a tall, lean, motor-mouth poet with long black hair tied back in a pony tail, who stopped talking only when she was throwing the ball and did she throw it, crack! every time it hit my mitt. Being truly, proudly, deeply neurotic, she was usually talking about her various ailments and anxieties, which tended to be interchangeable with her poetry.
So as I’m sitting there smiling, remembering how Florence and I sometimes kept the ball flying between us until twilight and beyond, along comes this tall guy in a hoodie with a camera in his hand, asking if he can take my picture. Ordinarily I’d say “no thanks” and find another bench, but since this is an imaginary encounter I know right away that this guy is Brandon Stanton whose book Humans of New York: Stories has been my constant companion, along with the fiction of Chekhov, ever since the new year began. In fact, the more I read the two together, the more I realize how many subtle unexpected things the humans of New York have in common with the humans of late 19th-century Russia. Before he can get started, I explain that his book was a party gift from a friend at work. “It’s addictive,” I tell him. “It lights me up every time I look inside.” more
His fearless inventions … quest after the entirety of life: he will include every emotion, every bit of evidence that has a natural claim on our attention. Contemporary life is so rich and vivid in his poetry that by contrast many of the movies and poems we are used to seem pale, spaced-out and insipid. – Robert Pinsky on C.K. Williams
In the special December 27 poetry issue of the N.Y. Times Book Review (NYTBR), after admitting that the Times “has not always treated poets well,” John Williams quotes an unsigned review from 1860 faulting Walt Whitman for seeing “nothing vulgar in that which is commonly regarded as the grossest obscenity.” Whitman is also upbraided for rejecting “the laws of conventionality so completely as to become repulsive,” although it’s noted that on occasion “a gleam of the true poetic fire shines out of the mass of his rubbish.”
Reviewing C.K. Williams’s Selected Later Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux $30) in the same issue, Katy Lederer finds “visceral discomfort … — a sense a human boundary has been knowingly traversed, an intimacy exploited” through “intrusions into others’ private lives” that “feel less acquisitive than desperate.” Williams, who died September 20, is also cited for “subject matter” that “could be pedestrian and at times vulgar,” giving “the impression of a writer” who is “spiritually off-balance.” more
My wife and I celebrated Christmas Day in Simla, the former summer capital of British India. The only catch is it’s not really Simla, it’s the Masterpiece Theatre series Indian Summers, filmed on location — in Malaysia.
As it happens, Rudyard Kipling’s 150th birthday is today, December 30, 2015, and the lively, elegant nightmare of a doomed society that is the Simla Club in Indian Summers (“No Dogs or Indians”) evokes, for better or worse, the writer who put Simla on the map in 1888 in his first and most famous story collection, Plain Tales from the Hills. Half a century later in the PBS series being billed as “Downton Abbey Goes to India,” it’s 1932, Gandhi is on a hunger strike and Kipling’s “imperialist claptrap” is being mocked by two of the most likeable characters in the series, a politically passionate Parsi girl and a haplessly heroic Scotsman. They’re talking about the man George Orwell nonetheless credited for “the only literary picture that we possess of nineteenth-century Anglo-India,” something Orwell claims could be accomplished because Kipling “was just coarse enough to be able to exist and keep his mouth shut in clubs and regimental messes.” more
A good way to go in this life is to find something you really enjoy doing and then learn to do it better than anybody. — Chet Baker
Tis the season to be jolly and celebrate Chet Baker, who was born on this date, a day short of Christmas Eve, December 23, 1929. What does the man whose trumpet and voice put West Coast jazz on the map have to do with Christmas? You could ask the same of the weather, with 72 degrees predicted for Christmas Eve, or of Bob Dylan, whose album, Christmas in the Heart, was reviewed here on the same day of the month six years ago.
Online you can join the patrons of an Amsterdam jazz club watching Chet Baker play “Auld Lang Syne” on the last New Year’s Eve of his life, December 31, 1987. He begins in a tentative, almost desultory way before the momentum of the moment moves him and he makes a gesture to the rhythm section, as if to say really play it, take it to the limit, give it the full measure of your devotion, and with that he dives into the second chorus, bending the notes just so, as only he can do, each one as bright and simple as the lights on a Christmas tree. more
He sat back, checking only to see if the tape was still running, lit his pied piper, and gave ear. — John Lennon, from Skywriting by Word of Mouth
On one of this December’s rare rainy afternoons a dark green 2000 Honda CRV pulls into a deserted parking lot and sits idling while the male occupant talks urgently into his cell phone. Ten minutes later a silver-gray 2011 CRV pulls up alongside. Rolling his window part way down, the man in the green car calls out “Yo Linden!” and the woman in the silver car laughs and shouts back “Holder!”
The couples’ playful nod to Linden and Holder was inspired by their total immersion in the rain-drenched world of The Killing, where two Seattle detectives are trying to capture the Pied Piper, a serial killer so named because his victims are teenage girls, street kids selling sex to make ends meet. more
Photograph of Ernest Hemingway at the Finca Vigia in 1952 posing in front of Waldo Peirce’s oil portrait of the author in 1929. (The Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
The best news I’ve heard lately is that Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast has become a bestseller in France in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. With sales surging, copies of his bittersweet celebration of life and art in the City of Light are appearing among the flowers and candles in makeshift memorials honoring the victims. The title in French, Paris est une fête, has become a trending hashtag on Twitter. more
When Bogart tells Bergman “We’ll always have Paris” as they say their farewells in Casablanca, he’s responding to her plaintive question “What about us?” For Rick and Ilsa, Paris is another word for love. “We lost it until you came to Casablanca,” he tells her. “We got it back last night.”
While the city of the title is a Moorish fantasy fabricated on a back lot at Warners with stock footage of an overview, Paris is the absolute that will always be the City of Light as Humphrey Bogart will always be the epitome of cool, Ingrid Bergman the epitome of beauty, and “As Time Goes By” the theme song of their romance.
When the two lovers were reunited in Rick’s night club, they talked of the last time they were together, in a Montmartre cafe called the Belle Aurore on the day the Germans marched into Paris. “Not an easy day to forget,” said Rick. “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” more
Once upon a time a long time ago Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) came to Bloomington, Indiana, in the form of a Classic Comic of Gulliver’s Travels being read by an eight-year-old boy and an impish, bespectacled, congenitally effusive young man of 25-going-on-15 who will eventually be proclaimed Swift’s “best and fullest biographer” by Christopher Ricks in the London Review of Books.
The boy and the biographer are both seated on the living room floor, the Swiftian-to-be having politely refused the boy’s parents’ offer of a chair. “It’s exciting, but scary” the eight-year-old says when asked his thoughts on Gulliver’s Travels. To show what he means by “scary,” he points out the frames where the Lilliputians are swarming over Gulliver’s body, binding it with ropes, staking his long blond hair to the ground. After discussing the imagery, the biographer begins to make playful comments about the “Life of Swift” on the comic’s last page, which the boy has read and finds disturbing. At this point, the parents intervene and the biographer is coaxed into a chair.
Because my parents had the first 20 issues of Classic Comics bound as a present for my ninth birthday, I still have the copy of Gulliver’s Travels Irvin Ehrenpreis and I were perusing together all those years ago. Looking over the “Life” at the end, I’m struck by the vehemence of the language describing Gulliver’s “savage commentary on the European world” as “the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth.” Pretty heady stuff for an early reader; no wonder I found it disturbing, not to mention the concluding paragraph, in which “Swift’s satire became more and more violently bitter, possibly the result of a mental disease which, by 1736, caused him to become insane. He never recovered and died on October 19, 1745.” In the brief biographies at the end of every Classic Comic, each author dies in such and such a time and place, but Swift’s fate became one of the numerous shadowy elements of a childhood occasionally haunted by the sound of phantom footsteps and the sight of an abandoned playground where the empty swings were still in motion. more
In Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Paris is a “cradle” in which “each one slips back into his soil: one dreams back to Berlin, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Minsk. Vienna is never more Vienna than in Paris” — which could also be said of cities everywhere, including Cairo and Damascus, Istanbul, Aleppo, and Baghdad. In Paris, Miller adds, “Everything is raised to apotheosis. The cradle gives up its babes and new ones take their places … where Zola lived and Balzac and Dante and Strindberg and everybody who ever was anything. Everyone has lived here some time or other. Nobody dies here.” more
Near the end of her new memoir M Train (Knopf $25), Patti Smith returns from a trip to find the West Village café she considers a second home closed, for good. When she taps on the window, the owner lets her in and offers to make her a last cup of coffee. She sits there all morning in the closed café, the “picture of woebegone” shown on the cover with her camera and her coffee, head propped on one hand while she keeps the other hand palm down on the table, as if to hold it, claim it, keep it until she’s ready to give it up. The cover photo was taken by a bystander with a Polaroid camera like the one Smith uses to illustrate her travels with pictures of stations along the way, her aim being “to possess within a single image the straw hat of Robert Graves, typewriter of Hesse, spectacles of Beckett, sickbed of Keats.” After sitting at her corner table “a long time thinking of nothing,” she picks up her pen and begins to write.
When she says “good-bye to her corner,” the owner gives her the table and chair. It’s a Patti Smith moment.
In M Train, which has been on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list for several weeks now, Patti Smith withdraws into her own “atmosphere,” and wherever she goes, the atmosphere, like Mary’s little lamb, is sure to follow. The effect on chosen scenes, situations, places, objects, and dreams resembles Keats’s notion of the poetical character, which “has no self … is every thing and nothing … enjoys light and shade” and “lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” more
In the course of checking to see whether the 2015 World Series is the first to begin and end in extra innings, I found that the longest game ever played without being called a tie or suspended was between the New York Mets and the St. Louis Cardinals on September 11, 1974. The game lasted 7 hours and 45 minutes, and when the Cardinals won it 4-3 in the 25th inning, it was 3:13 a.m. and only a thousand fans were still at Shea Stadium. Writing a few weeks ago when post-season play had just begun, I quoted catcher Bengie Molina’s father telling Bengie that it was possible for a baseball game to last forever if no team scored. The idea that baseball could defy space and time sounded to Bengie “more like God than anything I heard in church.”
If I’m thinking of extra innings in cosmic terms — baseball’s version of the afterlife — it’s because I’ve been reading W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe (1982), the basis for the 1989 film Field of Dreams. Among the novel’s numerous challenges to the “suspension of disbelief” are two formidable fantasies: the return of baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson to a ball field laid out for him (“If you build it, he will come”) and the forced return of literary legend J.D. Salinger from self-imposed exile in New Hampshire. An even more improbable leap of the imagination for Kinsella than the resurrection of Jackson was the notion of a fictional baseball-loving Salinger ultimately going along with the field-of-dreams fantasy. Still more improbable was that the real-life Salinger would allow himself to be written into someone else’s novel. more