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.

Lakeside

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

Echoes of Luise Rainer

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

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

Working with Borzage

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

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

Beyond Hollywood

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

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

Luise Rainer Was Here 

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

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

Luise and Einstein

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

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

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

 

December 31, 2014

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

—Sir John Falstaff

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

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

Bloom’s Falstaff

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

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

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

A Christmas Walk

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

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

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

Two Horses

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

Welles’s Falstaff

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

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

Keats as Falstaff

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

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

December 24, 2014

book rev

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

—Charles Dickens, from A Christmas Tree

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

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

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

By the Window

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

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

Shakespearean Serendipity 

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

Christmas in Elsinore

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

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

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

Exuberant Fireworks”

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

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

Back to the Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tough Beyond Gender

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

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

The Comic Sense

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

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

The Amazing Maslany

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

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

A Sort of Sisterhood

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

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

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

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

Warmth and Depth

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

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

December 10, 2014

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

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

In the Presence

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

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

Schubert’s Adagio

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

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

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

The Organist’s Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Mike Nichols (1931-2014)

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

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

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

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

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

Making the Move

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

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

Feeling It

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

Nichols and May

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

November 26, 2014

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

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

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

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

Finding David Goodis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Writer as the Player

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

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

Streets Given Meaning

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

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

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

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

 
November 19, 2014

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

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

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

Mad Love

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

Jimmy Stewart

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

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

Wrong Move

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

Vertigo in the Perverse 

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

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

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

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

November 12, 2014

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

Princeton in the Air

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

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

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

Personal Effects

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

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

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

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

Touching and Terrible

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

A Puff of Smoke

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

Art and Armistice

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

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

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

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

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

 

November 5, 2014

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

—Terence Winter on Boardwalk Empire’s Richard Harrow

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

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

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

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

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

Ghosts of the Boardwalk

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

Harrow’s Blues

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

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

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

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

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

Omar and Richard

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

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

Buscemi’s Coup

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

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

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

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