July 31, 2013

BookReview1Everything good about Detroit is available on iTunes.

—post on New York Times blog

“When the nation catches a cold, Detroit gets pneumonia,” people would say during the Depression, with auto sales dropping so drastically that by 1933 almost half the city’s autoworkers were unemployed. That infectious epigram, from Lars Bjorn’s Before Motown: A History of Jazz in Detroit 1920-1960 (Univ. of Michigan Press 2001), has been in my thoughts the past week, or ever since I read the story in the July 18 New York Times (“Billions in Debt, Detroit Tumbles Into Insolvency”).

Being the worst sort of cockeyed optimist, I responded to the news by immediately flashing on positive personal associations with Detroit, at one time my favorite city outside New York and home of the most glorious skyscraper this side of the Chrysler Building. The iTunes remark posted on the Times blog contains a large grain of truth, however. The first singer I turn to when I’m feeling Melville’s “damp drizzly November in my soul” is Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops belting out “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)” or “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” which Detroit’s emergency manager should put on PA systems all over the city every day at dawn and dusk, a Motown muezzin calling the faithful and unfaithful to aim high, not low. Stubbs was born in Detroit in 1936 and died there in 2008. He’s buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, as is Rosa Parks — and as are Edsel Ford and his son, although there have been reports that some of the monied dead have been transplanted to cemeteries in the suburbs. The tombstone for Levi Stubbs is shaped like a shiny black valentine with the legend Two Hearts Beat As One, waiting for the day his wife joins him.

BookReview2Another soul-saver buried at Woodlawn is the legendary jazz tenor Wardell Gray, who grew up in the Detroit area and attended one of the great American schools, Cass Tech, among a multitude of others including Donald Byrd, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers, Lucky Thompson, Alice Coltrane, Ellen Burstyn, Lily Tomlin, Kenny Burrell, and Diana Ross. Now that I think of it, they should put that Motown mantra, ”Where Did Our Love Go,” on the city-wide PA, let it play and play and play, it’s a song that never ends, the beat says so, it just goes and goes past death and time and taxes, you can’t stop it by turning it off. It’s the beat that never gives up and riding it is a voice you hear once in a lifetime, somewhere between Billie Holiday and Lata Mangeshkar. I’ll never forget the first time I heard that sound on the car radio driving into the depths of Brooklyn, thinking “Detroit!”

While the Supremes were seducing the world in the late 1960s, another Detroit-born singer whose father had come to the city in the 1920s from Mexico wasn’t faring so well. His two albums had gone nowhere, so he went to college, got a degree from Wayne State, worked in demolition, and one day Sixto Rodriquez woke up to find himself famous and beloved in another land, the fairy tale told in the Academy-Award-winning documentary, Searching for Sugar Man. Detroit needs another fairy tale. It was looking for one in May, not long after the emergency manager took over, when Rodriguez played to a capacity crowd at the Masonic Temple theatre. Tickets for the event had sold out within minutes and were fetching $200 on Craig’s List.

The Anti-Hero

A key figure in my boyhood vision of Detroit was Ty Cobb, the ultimate anti-hero, a racist scoundrel who carved out his career in the Motor City, tearing up the base paths, spiking infielders and pitchers covering first, and making himself a pariah while building a reputation as the greatest hitter and most exciting player ever. Though Cobb had long since retired when I was a 12-year-old St. Louis Cardinals fan, it was because of the Georgia Peach that I favored the Tigers over the other teams in the American League. Since I tended to identify cities with players, it was Good Guy St. Louis (Stan Musial) and Bad Guy Detroit (Ty Cobb). The bad guy ended his career in 1928, the same year a 47-story-high Art Deco skyscraper branded with the name of an Indian tribe in Maine was erected in the financial heart of downtown Detroit.

Detroit Noir

In a postcard of the Detroit skyline at night that I’ve had ever since a summer visit with my father when I was in seventh grade, the Penobscot Building looms in the center dominating everything, like some fantastic hall-of-the-mountain-king eminence with a red beacon blazing on top. For the past 85 years, with a headdressed Deco-style caricature of a stoic Indian chief carved above the arched entry, the mighty Penobscot has been looking down on the city. The year it went up it was the tallest building in the U.S. outside New York and the eighth tallest in the world. The Penobscot was also the star attraction of our trip to Detroit. At night we went for a walk, took in a Penny Arcade, and saw a sinister B movie that left me feeling uneasy and vulnerable as we walked around afterward. There was a hint of menace in the shadows between the street lamps on “the Main Street of Detroit,” Woodward Avenue.

What was there to fear from a street with a name as dull and ordinary as Woodward? All these years later I’ve figured it out. One day when I was maybe 10 looking through bound volumes of back issues of Life in the school library, I was startled by photos of the 1943 race riot, images of blacks being beaten and of a black kid my age being chased across Woodward Avenue by a mob of whites; another picture showed a streetcar on Woodward burning. Thirty-four people were killed in the three days of violence, 25 of them African Americans. During the riots, according to Before Motown, “whites claimed Woodward Avenue as theirs by attacking black moviegoers at the all-night Roxy and Colonial theaters, just a few blocks from the Near East Side ghetto.” Also on Woodward was the Paradise, Detroit’s “most important venue for black musical entertainment” through the 1940s. A number of jazz and rhythm and blues clubs were nearby in a neighborhood known as Paradise Valley, where buildings and shops were burned and looted during the riot.

Levi Stubbs would have been seven at the time. Less than a year later Diana Ross was born. Rodriguez was a year old. At 22, Wardell Gray had his first break in June 1943 and was touring with the Earl Hines big band, which played at the Paradise.

Crazy Numbers

The 1943 riots happened when Detroit was booming. Attracted by the humming defense industries, as many as 50,000 blacks and 300,000 whites, most from the south, converged on the city. Earlier that same month, when Packard promoted three blacks to work with whites on the assembly line, 25,000 whites walked off the job.

In 2013 the payroll for the Detroit Tigers — who play before an average crowd of 37,000 fans in a bankrupt city — is the fourth highest in the major leagues at $148,414,000. The highest paid member of the team, Prince Fielder (an African American), is making $23 million a year. Meanwhile, the city is planning to spend more than $400 million on a new hockey rena for the Red Wings.

Pequot and Penobscot

Tomorrow, August 1, is Herman Melville’s 194th birthday, and while it would be a stretch to find a Detroit connection for the author of Moby Dick, readers will remember that Melville named Ahab’s doomed ship the Pequod, which, with its craggy masthead, shared certain obvious generic Indian design elements with the Penobscot Building.

But who named it the Penobscot and why? According to historicdetroit.org, the lumber baron Simon J. Murphy, who made his fortune before settling in Detroit, spent his youth working the logging camps along the Penobscot River in Maine. So it was nostalgia for the river that gave the great tower its name. Penobscot, which means “the place where the rocks open out,” was Murphy’s version of Citizen Kane’s Rosebud. Another odd twist worth pointing out is that Melville chose to name Ahab’s ship after the Pequot because, as was thought in 1850, the tribe had been annihilated during the Pequot War and, writes Melville, “now are as extinct as the ancient Medes.” Truth once again outdoes fiction and the shapings of history as the Pequots reappear in the tribal casino culture of New England where online sources report that the Penobscot tribe in Maine taught the Pequots in Connecticut how to make big money from high-stakes bingo.

Then and now, ever and again, that’s what the deal comes down to.

The Right To Be

Detroit has no homegrown Melville, nor even a Saul Bellow or Philip Roth. Louis Ferdinand Celine worked in the Ford plant and wrote about it in Journey to the End of the Night (1932). In The Air-Conditioned Nightmare (1945), Henry Miller called Detroit “the capital of the new planet — the one, I mean, which will kill itself off.”

Detroit does have a homegrown poet, Phillip Levine, who was born in 1928, the year Ty Cobb hung up his spikes and the Penobscot Building made its debut. Levine’s father sold used auto parts, his mother sold books. By age 14 he was working in automobile plants. After earning his BA at Wayne State (then Wayne University), he worked nights in the forge room at Chevrolet gear and axle before going to the University of Iowa, where he studied with Robert Lowell and John Berryman. In 2011, he became America’s poet laureate. In a Paris Review interview, he talks about going back to Detroit in 1987: “Much of what’s in the city was absent; there were no stores around, very few houses, no large buildings. Lots of empty spaces, vacant lots, almost like the Detroit I knew during the war …. [The poem, “A Walk With Tom Jefferson”] came out of the hope that the city might be reborn inside itself, out of its own ruins, phoenix-like, rising out of its own ashes. Except I don’t see it in heroic terms. The triumphs are small, personal, daily. Nothing grandly heroic is taking place; just animals and men and flowers and plants asserting their right to be, even in this most devastated of American cities.”

July 24, 2013

dvd revI knew, the first time I saw Before Sunrise, that here was a film for which I felt not only interest or admiration but love; a film I would want to revisit repeatedly over the years; one that would join the short list of films that remain constant favourites.

Robin Wood in Cine-Action (1996)

I have a low tolerance for uninformed superlatives like the one casually inflicted on readers by David Brooks in a recent column to wit, “As every discerning person knows, The Searchers is the greatest movie ever made.” I still ask myself, “Is he kidding?” It’s not even the greatest western, let alone John Ford’s greatest western. So just please stop it with the greatest this and the greatest that, okay?

But here I am writing about something truly great. What to do? I decided to let the late Robin Wood (1931-2009), one of the few film critics I respect, say it for me, though I’m not sure that I agree with him that Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise belongs all by itself with “the dozen or so films that exemplify ‘cinema’ at its finest.” But put it together with Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight, which was all too briefly at the Garden not long ago, and I’m on board. I’ll even go him one better and say that the saga of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is a historic accomplishment, a classic that will still be shown and loved long after the blockbusters and Academy faves of today and yesterday and tomorrow are forgotten.

Sadly, Robin Wood died without seeing Before Midnight. Writing in 2005, he could only wonder, as did everyone, whether the story of Celine and Jesse would continue: “Linklater’s artistic integrity as a filmmaker is really on the line.” What will he do next? Maybe the story was “too fragile to pursue any further into the wilds of time and history.”

In fact, Linklater, Hawke, and Delpy pursued the story all the way to the sunny wilds of Greece and have brought back Before Midnight, a triumphant affirmation of “artistic integrity” on all fronts. When the new film comes out on DVD, viewers will be able to watch the whole epic romance from sunrise to sunset to midnight, and wonder “How did they do it?”

Chemistry 

Any film worth seeing benefits from the chemistry between the actors or between actors and director, actors and screenplay. But Linklater’s films are about chemistry, which is what Ethan Hawke seems to be getting at in a 2007 Guardian interview when he says that Chekhov would like Before Sunset “because it’s all about nuance … it’s completely fluid, just chasing the nuance of life, and kind of believing whatever God is lives in this kind of energy that flows between all of us.”

Hawke is close to echoing what Delpy’s Celine says to his Jesse in Before Sunrise: “I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn’t be in any of us, not you or me but just this little space in between.”

If you read enough interviews with Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater, you’ll notice a definite overlap between things said in “real life” and things said in character. What Celine says next speaks to the interface between imagination and reality that these three films live in so productively: “If there’s any kind of magic in this world it must be in the attempt of understanding someone sharing something.”

Which could also mean the filmic magic of connecting and sharing, character to character, actor to character, actor to actor, actor to director.

Connecting

When Hawke and Delpy were making Before Sunrise, they were concerned about all the dialogue, asking Linklater “Shouldn’t it at least be funny? Is this boring?” In a recent conversation on reddit.com, Hawke remembers Linklater telling them that “he’d never been in a helicopter crash, he’d never been involved in any espionage, he’d never been to Outer Space, and yet his life felt full of drama. And the most dramatic thing that ever happened to him was the experience of truly connecting with another person. And he really wanted to try to make a movie about that, about that connection, about that exchange of energy, ideas.”

Before Sunrise opens on a train between Budapest and Vienna as the noise made by a squabbling married couple (definitely some negative chemistry) drives Celine to move to a seat where she can read in peace. Jesse is sitting reading across the aisle. Given the battle coming 18 years later between the 40-something Jesse and Celine in Before Midnight, there’s an ironic resonance in knowing that the first thing these two strangers talk about is a fighting middle-aged couple. After a conversation in the dining car that moves like music (the more they play, the more they connect), they get off together in Vienna and fall in love during a night walking around the city, where they encounter a couple of actors, a palm reader, a trusting bartender, and a panhandler who composes poems to order. Before going their separate ways, they agree to meet in Vienna in six month’s time; he shows up, she doesn’t. In the nine years that follow, Jesse gets married, has a child, and writes a novel based on that night in Vienna, and as Before Sunset begins, he’s answering questions after a reading at a bookshop in Paris (Shakespeare and Company, itself an enduring symbol of the literary connection between the U.S. and France). When he’s asked what made him write the novel, he repeats almost verbatim what Linklater said about the genesis of the film (another example of real-life/film-life overlap), the helicopter crash, Outer Space, “connecting with another person.” A minute later he looks to the side and there’s Celine.

A Night in Philadelphia

The connection Linklater had in mind when he was explaining the dynamic of Before Sunrise to his actors happened by chance in October 1989. Jesse and Celine’s night in Vienna is based on a night in Philadelphia. Although Linklater has spoken about his American Celine in interviews after the release of Before Midnight, he first mentioned her in 1997 to a freelance reporter for the Allentown Pa. Morning Call: “The whole plot for Before Sunrise was inspired by a woman I met in Philadelphia. I was just hanging out with my sister, who used to live near Rittenhouse Square, and I met this woman at a toy store. I just got to talking to her and then we went out later and hung out the whole night.” Linklater recently described her to The Times of London as “crazy, cute, wonderful energy.” According to a Q&A podcast with Jeff Goldsmith, Linklater admitted that “even as that experience was going on … I was like, ‘I’m gonna make a film about this.’ And she was like, ‘What ‘this’? What’re you talking about?’ And I was like, ‘Just this. This feeling. This thing that’s going on between us.’”

Just as Jesse wrote a novel about their night together, hoping that it might bring Celine back into his life, Linklater thought Before Sunrise might bring Celine’s inspiration back into his. But there was no sequel to Linklater’s story. Around the time Before Sunrise opened, the woman, Amy Lehrhaupt, was killed in a motorcycle accident; she was 24. Linklater found out about it only three years ago. Before Midnight is dedicated to her memory.

Another woman key to the realization of Linklater’s vision is Kim Krizan, with whom he collaborated on the screenplay. Once Hawke and Delpy were cast, they began contributing to the dialogue, though they were not credited until Before Sunset, for which they shared a Best Screenplay Academy Award nomination with Linklater and Krizan. In recent interviews, Delpy and Hawke stress the fact that a key factor in Linklater’s decision to cast them was that both were also writers. (Hawke, who grew up in Princeton, will have a new novel out, his third, within a year.)

Making Music

I’ll say it again: as blockbusters come and go, Celine and Jesse will be remembered and revered, for there’s really nothing in cinema quite like the inspired counterpoint played out between Delpy and Hawke. One of the greatest movies ever made about a couple, F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, was subtitled A Song of Two Humans, which would not be a bad fit for the word-music of Celine and Jessie, as they riff, spar, solo, and jam, two players so intricately attuned, their timing so uncanny, never stiff, forced, stylized or confined: even when one speaks over the other, they’re in tune, harmonics and dissonance in a deceptively effortless interplay that feels improvised and truly lived even though every line is scripted, thought out, debated, and thoroughly rehearsed.

You could compare these three films to any number of brilliantly played and directed conversation-centered projects, like Ma Nuit Chez Maud and other works by Erich Rohmer, or, most obviously, Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, but Hawke and Delphy perform on another level, possessed of an identification with their characters that is downright eerie. Acting is acting in Rohmer and Bergman: people playing parts. Delpy and Hawke are so deeply invested in Celine and Jesse that even as they’re acting their hearts out it doesn’t show. Though they work closely with Linklater, almost as if he were an invisible third actor, their alter egos Celine and Julie have transcended them; as both have observed, the characters inhabit a parallel universe spanning two decades, waiting to be inhabited and brought back to life on film by their writer actors.

When Jesse and Celine finally begin to say what needs to be said in the back of the chauffeur-driven car toward the end of Before Sunset you can already hear the music of the last movement. As Celine puts her arms around Jesse before they go up to her flat, saying “I want to see if you stay together or if you dissolve into molecules,” she’s picking up on something he said minutes before (“I feel like if someone touched me I’d dissolve into molecules”). This is how it works. Maybe Delpy came up with that line or maybe the actress knew, with the character, that the hug had to happen, if only to reprise and resolve, like a motif in music, the moment in the car when her feeling for Jesse as he lamented his lot was so strong that she kept reaching to touch him and drawing back.

The scene in the hotel room in Before Midnight explodes like a climactic demonstration of the positive/negative energy of connection flowing between them. While these two no-longer-young lovers may be struggling and despairing in middle age, it’s clear that Hawke and Delpy are enjoying each other in the fire of the moment as much as they did when they were talking about reincarnation in Vienna or astrology and fate or Nina Simone in Paris. Even when they’re fighting they’re making music.

Let’s end it in Greece, as Celine and Jesse watch the sun disappear below the horizon. “Still there,” says Celine. “Still there. Still there. Gone.”

Multiple copies of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are available at the Princeton Public Library.

 

July 17, 2013

book revShe was at last looking upon those curious beings who rode down from the North — those men of legend and colossal tale — they who were possessed of such marvellous hallucinations.

—Stephen Crane, from “Three Mysterious Soldiers”

During a July 4 NPR broadcast live from Gettysburg, Pa. on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the battle that turned the tide of the Civil War, people were talking about how the historic site should be preserved and remembered. On the street that runs between the battle lines, there are restaurants, souvenir shops, and motels. One Gettysburg historian named Jerry Bennett said it was “a great place to put a motel, right in the middle of it, because you’re sleeping on hallowed ground that night, if you’re a tourist.”

Although there has been a great deal of storm and strife over the Institute for Advanced Study’s plan to build faculty housing on property proximate to our own Battlefield, at least Princeton has been spared the presence of a Travelodge on hallowed ground, not to mention the paranormal buzz that has made Gettysburg a “Mecca for ghost hunters.” A story in the York Daily Record begins, “In a town where even the land beneath McDonald’s is believed by more than one ghost tour guide to be tinged with spiritual energy, Gettysburg has managed to build a booming paranormal industry.” You have to wonder when some pulp novelist or Hollywood idea guru will figure out how to bring zombies to Gettysburg. Think of the feast for the living dead as all those thousands of soldiers congregate on the battlefield for a grisly reenactment before fanning out to dine on the locals, including the faculty and student body of Gettysburg College, not to mention the folks at the Lutheran Seminary.

Southern Fried Chicken

It would take the man who gave us the post-war roadside America of Lolita to do justice to the sight my wife and I beheld on our first and only visit to Gettysburg more than three decades ago. Leering above the spot where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address was the enormous disembodied head of Charlie Weaver, the resident dirty old man on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show. Next to the outsized mug of the man known in real life as Cliff Arquette, father of movie stars Rosanna and Patricia, was the equally immense head of a Confederate soldier preparing to devour a piece of southern fried chicken as big as the Liberty Bell. Online sources confirm that what we saw that day was for real. The Charlie Weaver Museum of the Civil War was then housed in a building that had served as headquarters for General O. O. Howard, now known as the Soldiers National Museum. And today, some four decades later, a recent tour on Google Earth suggests that General Pickett’s Buffet and KFC currently occupy the site of the fried chicken restaurant, the Confederate colossus having given way to the ubiquitous Col. Sanders.

Cousin Jubal

At the time we visited Gettysburg, I was unaware of the part my ancestor, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early, had played in the events of June 26-July 5, 1863. Described in Richard Wheeler’s Witness to Gettysburg as “misshapenly arthritic, religious but profane, snappish with his orders, and impatient of failure,” Early was “a commander who inspired little enthusiasm but had won a full measure of trust.” Apparently old Jube was there before anyone else, having occupied Gettysburg on June 26, on his way to seizing and occupying York, the largest town in the North to fall to the Rebels. Upon capturing Gettysburg, Early demanded a ransom of 1,200 pounds of sugar, 600 pounds of coffee, 60 barrels of flour, 1,000 pounds of salt, 7,000 pounds of bacon, 10 barrels of whiskey, 10 barrels of onions, 1,000 pairs of shoes, and 500 hats, or, “in lieu thereof,” $5,000 in cash. The town council turned him down and while no attempt was made to enforce the requisition, “a few houses were robbed.” Two days later, according to Wheeler, Early’s division reached the Susquehanna River (the farthest east any organized Confederate force would penetrate during the course of the war), collected a $28,000 ransom from York, and was recalled when Lee “concentrated his army to meet the oncoming Federals.” On July 1 Early was approaching Gettysburg from the northeast on the leftmost flank of the Confederate line. After defeating a Yankee division and driving the troops back through the streets of the town, he led the July 2 assault on East Cemetery Hill but was repelled by Union reinforcements, and ended his role at Gettysburg by covering the rear of Lee’s army during its retreat on July 4 and 5.

Reading and Writing

While my maternal ancestors fought for the South, the soldiers on my father’s side of the family, with the glaring exception of Jubal Early, fought for the North. If you grew up in the south, you probably read the novels of the war by southern authors, notably William Faulkner, who expressed in Intruder in the Dust the impact of Gettysburg on “every Southern boy 14 years old,” for whom “there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance, it hasn’t happened yet, it hasn’t even begun yet, it not only hasn’t begun yet but there is still time for it not to begin against that position and those circumstances.”

For a writer who grew up in the North, the Civil War is an excuse to read the poems in Melville’s Battle Pieces and the war entries in Whitman’s Specimen Days, where he writes from Washington on July 4 1863 of the weather (“warm … after last night’s smart rain … and no dust, which is a great relief for this city”) and of a parade on Pennsylvania Avenue that included three regiments of infantry, “two or three societies of Oddfellows, a lot of children in barouches, and a squad of policemen.” Then: “As I went down the Avenue, saw a big flaring placard on the billboard of a newspaper office, announcing ‘Glorious Victory for the Union Army!’” Walt is on his way to visit wounded soldiers in the Armory hospital with several bottles of blackberry and cherry syrup, “good and strong, but innocent.” Going through several wards, he brings the news from Gettysburg and gives them all “a good drink of the syrups with ice-water, quite refreshing — prepar’d it myself, and serv’d it around.” Meanwhile the city is ringing its bells, “sundown peals for Fourth of July, and the usual fusilades of boys’ pistols, crackers, and guns.”

Stephen Hero

For me, one of the great saving graces of the Civil War is the work of Stephen Crane (1871-1900), who at the age of 24 simply picked up that piece of American history, put it in his pocket, and walked away with it. So nonchalant, so New Jersey somehow, the way the Newark-born 20-something son of a preacher took possession of the subject and wrote stories, novels, poems, and essays about the War, the West and the World in the four years of life left to him.

I’ve been reading The Little Regiment and Other Episodes of the American Civil War, which came out in 1896 on the heels of The Red Badge of Courage. Crane’s literary supremacy in this field profits from his very absence from the experience of the events that began 10 years before he was born. If he’d actually been a soldier or a war correspondent, as he was in the Spanish-American and Greco-Turkish wars, he might have produced fine work but it wouldn’t have glowed with the quality of exalted visitation that makes his fiction so haunting and suggestive. He conjured the war and it appeared before him like a phantom in blue and gray. Hemingway, whose debt to Crane is enormous, called The Red Badge “a boy’s long dream of war.”

There’s a dreamlike quality to “Three Miraculous Soldiers,” which is told from the point of view of a girl who happens to live in the South. Crane makes us know and care about her as if she were our sister, or as if we’d grown up and gone to school with her. She’s no flamboyant storybook spitfire of a Scarlett O’Hara, though in her own shy, sweet, quiet, dazed way she becomes involved in the rescue of three Rebel soldiers hiding in the barn behind her family’s house. A Yankee regiment is camped in a nearby orchard and a captured Rebel is sitting in front of the barn under the watchful eye of a Union sentry with whom he’s been making small talk. At the girl’s urging, and with her help, the three soldiers had been concealed inside a huge feed box at the back of the barn — an object that Crane endows with supernatural splendor, especially when Union soldiers enter the barn and open the box. Afraid for the three men for whom by now she feels responsible, the girl watches as a Union officer reaches in; when he brings forth only a handful of feed, she is “astonished out of her senses at this spectacle of three large men metamorphosed into a handful of feed.” Now the interior of the barn is “uncanny. It contained that extraordinary feed box,” which has become “a mystic and terrible machine, like some dark magician’s trap.”

Crane doesn’t simply believe in literary magic, he practices it, and however much he may commune with his lofty, moody muse, he always keeps human truth at the core of his work, as he does so memorably at the end of “Three Mysterious Soldiers” when the girl who has been vicariously living and dying with the three embattled Rebels kneels in tears over the Union soldier who was wounded when they make their escape. After being assured that he’s all right, “She turned her face with its curving lips and shining eyes once more toward the unconscious soldier upon the floor.” The Union soldiers marvel at how a girl who seems to be “the worst kind of rebel … falls to weeping over one of her enemies.” The Union lieutenant has the last word: “War changes many things; but it doesn’t change everything, thank God!”

Crane’s Vision

I keep coming back to the idea of sleeping on hallowed ground voiced by the man on NPR. I also keep remembering those two grotesque effigies at Gettysburg looming over land that was littered with the bodies of American soldiers 150 years ago. Then I imagine souvenir shops and motels lining the Princeton Pike alongside our own serene battlefield where when we have picnics or walks, we don’t think of scenes of unthinkable carnage but the relatively picturesque death of General Mercer under the late and much lamented Mercer Oak. The wonder of Stephen Crane, who died at 28 in the first spring of the 20th century, is that he had the style and courage and vision and sense of irony and capacity for outrage to have comprehended and encompassed all of it, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

 

July 10, 2013

book rev proustI can be visited in bed by the brook and the birds of the Pastoral Symphony, which poor Beethoven enjoyed no more directly than I do since he was completely deaf. He consoled himself by trying to reproduce the song of the birds he no longer heard …. I, too, compose symphonies in my own way, when I portray what I can no longer see.

—Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

Proust was able to hear the Pastoral Symphony in bed with the help of a device called a theatrophone, the 1913 equivalent of streaming music. For 60 francs a month, a system using telephone wires connected the subscriber to live performances at eight Paris theaters and concert halls, including the Opéra. According to William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life (Yale 2000), “no matter how sick he was,” the novelist could place his ear “next to the black trumpet” and enjoy concerts, operas, and even plays.

One drawback to the theatrophone was the erratic quality of the transmission. Three years later Proust solved this problem by inviting a string quartet into his bedroom to play César Franck’s Quartet in D. During a performance “lighted solely by candles,” Proust lay on a divan covered in green velvet “with his eyes closed, without making the slightest movement,” and when the 45-minute-long piece had been played, he thanked the musicians and asked them to play it again. By then it was two in the morning. Proust sealed the deal by giving each man three 50 franc notes that were redeemable for gold. After they finished the second performance, Proust’s housekeeper Celeste Albaret served them champagne and fried potatoes and sent them home in four taxis shortly before dawn. A month later they returned to perform Beethoven’s 13th Quartet.

book rev beethovenMagnificent Monologue 

For more than a week now I’ve been reading Proust and listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas. After a steady diet of various performances on CDs borrowed from the library, I bought Wilhelm Kempff’s The Late Piano Sonatas on Deutsche Grammophone. Until Kempff (1895-1991), the listening experience had been uneventful, except for reminding me how out of touch I’ve been, not just with the piano music but with Beethoven in general. What finally, dramatically, caught my attention was Kempff’s performance of Sonata number 29 in B flat major (Opus 106), known as the Hammerklavier. I was in the car when the third movement stopped the world and demanded to be heard again and then again. I had to pull over. It’s always exciting when music surprises you, comes at you, conquers you. Seven minutes and twenty seconds into the prodigious Adagio Sostenuto there’s a series of variations so stirring that all you can think is how thankful you are that you heard it before you died. At this point you’re only halfway through the movement Kempf’s liner notes call “the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote,” an adagio “unequalled in the entire piano literature.” To Andreas Schiff, it’s the “greatest slow movement” ever composed.

While I can find no references to the Hammerklavier in Proust’s work, he must have appreciated what the Adagio Sostenuto does with time, or rather what it allows the pianist to do. At the end of the final volume of Terence Kilmartin’s translation of Remembrance of Things Past, time is “a very considerable place compared to the restricted one which is allotted to [men] in space, a place … prolonged past measure.” How far is the Hammerklavier’s third movement prolonged past measure? The same territory that Kempff traverses in 16½ minutes takes Christoph Eschenbach 25. The wikipedia listing for Sonata number 29 suggests a duration of 16 to 30 minutes. In his attempt to describe “the wonders of this movement,” Kempff refers to “the immense area in which the imagination is free to roam untrammeled” following a “principal subject, whose nocturnal sigh extends over 26 bars.” Spreading his rhetorical wings, Kempff pictures the theme shining through “like a distant star piercing luminous clouds.” At his most inspired (“I, too, compose symphonies … when I portray what I can no longer see”), Proust accomplishes comparable wonders within the prose equivalent of “such an immense area” by filling a single paragraph or even a single sentence with a variety of tones, turns, colors, reversals, metaphors, and associations like the subjects, themes, variations, intervals, inversions, transformations, themes, and recapitulations in Beethoven’s “unequalled” adagio.

Beethoven and the Baron

Almost all of Proust’s references to Beethoven in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past relate to his most complex and ambiguous character, Baron de Charlus. Like Proust, the Baron brings musicians into his home. In the drawing room, “one could hear the first chords of the Pastoral Symphony, ‘Joy after the Storm,’ performed somewhere not far away, on the first floor no doubt” by an orchestra. Asked the musicians’ names, M. de Charlus, who refers to Beethoven as “the Deaf One,” says he doesn’t know. “One never does know. It’s invisible music.” Earlier in the same scene from The Guermantes Way, the Baron’s mood-swings are compared to “those symphonies which are played without a break between the different movements, in which a graceful scherzo, amiable and idyllic, follows the thunder-peals of the opening pages.” In The Captive, when a musician named Charles Morel is being scolded for keeping company with Charlus, “a tainted person no one will have in their house,” he is described “sweating more abundantly than if he had played all Beethoven’s sonatas in succession.”

Charlus inspires a movement in the opening pages of Cities of the Plain, where, much as Beethoven does in the monumental adagio, Proust sounds a theme, recapitulates it, and brings it to fruition, all in the space of six pages and two immense paragraphs (the first being four pages long). The gist of what happens is that Marcel, or the Narrator, after peering like “a botanist” at the “offered and neglected pistil” of a “precious plant” in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Guermantes, watches M. de Charlus eyeing and then approaching and in effect picking up an ex-tailor named Jupien, who “strikes poses with the coquetry that the orchid might have adopted on the providential arrival of the bee.” What makes Proust’s orchestration of the moment particularly fascinating is the part Beethoven’s music plays in the development of his motif, a dumbed down version of which would be “the birds and the bees” or in this case, the bee and the “offered pistil” of an orchid in the Guermantes garden.

Five pages into the passage, Proust devotes the greater part of the second paragraph to the way the Baron is looking at Jupien. In the the great adagio, the equivalent would be a series of variations on the theme of the look, detached, attentive, “infinitely unlike the glances we usually direct at a person we scarcely know,” with a “peculiar fixity” as of someone about to tell you “you have a long white thread hanging down your back” or about to employ the pretense that you both come from Zurich and must have seen each other there. At this point, the ways in which the same question seems “to be put to Jupien” through M. de Charlus’s “ogling” are compared to “those questioning phrases of Beethoven’s, indefinitely repeated at regular intervals and intended — with an exaggerated lavishness of preparation — to introduce a new theme, a change of key, a ‘re-entry.’”

Here you might want to catch your breath but the music of the paragraph continues with “the beauty of the reciprocal glances of M. de Charlus and Jupien,” an echo of the Zurich look: “In the eyes of both of them, it was the sky not of Zurich but of some Oriental city, the name of which I had not divined, that I saw reflected.” Aware by now that he has your head spinning, Proust admits the “multiplicity of these analogies.” Speaking of man in general, “if we examine him for a few minutes,” he “appears in turn a man, a man-bird, a man-fish, a man-insect” and before you know it Charlus and Jupien have become “a pair of birds, the male and female,” the female “preening her feathers” as Jupien goes out “through the carriage gate.” The Baron, “trembling lest he should lose the trail,” hurries “to catch up with him,” disappearing “through the gate humming like a great bumble-bee” while “a real one this time” flies “into the courtyard.”

When the Baron made his exit as a bumble-bee, I had to put the book down in order to reflect on Proust’s audacity, much as I had to put the CD player on pause after Beethoven pushed “past measure,” taking me up and up and up the stairway of wonders with those spinechilling variations halfway through the Hammerklavier’s Adagio Sostenuto.

———

The beauty of virtual technology is that you can hear the music for yourself on YouTube (such an ungainly word for so fabulous a resource) and you can zero in on the equivalent word music in Proust through any number of online venues. Finally, it’s a shame that one of the best films ever made about a writer, Percy Adlon’s Celeste, where the scene with the string quartet is enacted, has yet to be released on DVD.

The quote at the top is from a letter to Madame Geneviève Bizet-Straus written around March 1913 from the Letters of Marcel Proust edited by Mina Curtiss (Random House 1949). Barry Cooper’s The Beethoven Compendium (Thames and Hudson 1991) provided a helpful overview of Beethoven. Stewart Goodyear’s June 25 one-day marathon at McCarter (all 32 sonatas in 11 hours) helped spark my interest in exploring Beethoven’s piano music.

 

July 3, 2013

book revWhile today, July 3, is Franz Kafka’s 130th birthday, the shadow of his name continues to spread, stretching on either side of his birth and death dates, 1883 and 1924. As Frederick Karl, one of his numerous biographers, once observed, the word “Kafkaesque” has “entered the language in a way no other writer’s has.” Joycean, Proustian, Hitchcockian, even Chaplinesque — nothing else approaches the sheer adaptibility of the ominously nuanced dynamite packed into the K-word. The definitions are all over the place. Wiktionary suggests “marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity,” or “marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger.” Wikipedia’s Kafka entry mentions “surreal situations like those in his writing.” Merriam-Webster comes at the word as “having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality.” Ask someone on the street to free associate and you’ll find them running roughly the same changes, as in bizarre, weird, paranoid, existential, far out, sick, perverse, dreamlike, nightmarish, phantasmagoric, absurd, funny, grotesque, scary, dark, ad infinitum.

According to Jack Greenberg’s piece “From Kafka to Kafkaesque” in Franz Kafka: The Office Writings (Princeton University Press 2009), edited by Princeton professor emeritus Stanley Corngold, with Greenberg and Benno Wagner, a Lexis search of state and federal courts found 245 opinions in which “Kafkaesque” was used, five of them in the Supreme Court. Between 2002 and 2006, Westlaw’s All News reported between 455 and 669 uses of the word outside the courtroom in “encounters of everyday life with the law, and the bureaucracies of state and society.”

Kafka Reads the Times

Consume a steady diet of Kafka for the better part of a week and you can’t get through the Sunday New York Times without the feeling that he’s reading over your shoulder. Take the story about the last words of Death Row inmates in Texas that concludes by quoting a killer with the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction name of James Lee Beathard, who begins his final “rambling statement” by pointing out that “this is one of the few times people will listen to what I have to say.”

Kafka might also do a double take at the wording of another quote in the same article (“From America’s Busiest Death Chamber, a Catalogue of Last Rants, Pleas, and Apologies”). As Stanley Corngold observes in an email message, a Human Rights spokesman’s statement that “The death penalty is a process, not an act” might have been taken verbatim from The Trial (Der Process), which “describes just that, a trial as a process, where ‘the verdict is not suddenly arrived at, the proceedings only gradually merge into the verdict.’”

Still reading the Times, I come to an update on the  factory collapse that killed 1,129 people in Bangladesh in April (“Justice Still Elusive in Factory Disasters in Bangladesh”) and Kafka’s at my back again, and no wonder, since between 1908 and 1922 he was writing reports on accidents in the workplace as Senior Legal Secretary at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia. But what a feast of Kafkology is online. Like the story headlined “Kafkaesque reality and Bangladesh” in Dhaka’s Financial Express, where the K-word is used four times and the “absurd reality” of the country’s “metaphorical change” is compared to the metamorphosis of Kafka’s Gregor Samsa into a giant beetle.

In July of last year, the Secretary-General of Amnesty International Canada spoke of the “Kafkaesque injustice of the U.S. “war on terror.” The Irish Times leads with “Kafkaesque scenes” in a story about the 9/11 court hearings; the word is also used to describe Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, budget cuts to courts in California, the arrest of an innocent Canadian, the banning of a life-saving drug, a customer’s bill dispute with AT&T, and not least the ten safety-deposit boxes of Kafka’s unpublished writings being “trapped in courts and bureaucracy” in Tel Aviv. No less Kafkaesque is a situation taking shape around the unpublished work J.D. Salinger left behind when he died in January 2010. At the top of Salinger’s list of favorite writers, Kafka shares with Kierkegaard the honor of prefacing Seymour an Introduction, the skeleton key to the Glass family saga 50-years-in-the-making that remains unreleased and unaccounted for by Salinger’s heirs. For the millions of readers waiting for the book or books, the K-word hovers over the disheartening possibility that Salinger may have decided to follow the example set by Kafka when he instructed his executor Max Brod to destroy all his unpublished work, including The Trial and The Castle.

An Embarrassment

By now, thanks in part to Max Brod’s refusal to follow his dear friend’s instructions, there is ample evidence to make a case for Franz Kafka as the most representative writer of his time and our time, the 20th and early 21st century. And if that’s even a little bit true, consider what it suggests about naysayers like Joseph Epstein in his piece in the July-August Atlantic (“Is Franz Kafka Overrated?”) on naysayer Saul Friedländer’s Franz Kafka: The Poet of Shame and Guilt. The review is an embarrassment right from the outset when Epstein chattily informs us that he has a difficult time reading Kafka with his “morning tea and toast” (all that disorientation and those nasty rodents and beetles). The reviewer subsequently outdoes himself by observing that “In the unending critical Easter-egg hunt for the secret meaning in Franz Kafka’s fiction, Friedländer has retrieved the gay egg.” At the end, after claiming that none of Kafka’s greatest proponents can say why he is “truly a major writer,” meaning of course that he must not be one, Epstein concludes with just the sort of patronize-your-betters stuff that gives litchat a bad name: “Great writers are impressed by the mysteries of life; poor Franz Kafka was crushed by them.”

In fact, it was Salinger’s aversion to this sort of pernicious blather that helped dissuade him from publishing Hapworth 16, 1924 in 1997 when Orchises Press was ready to rescue it from the pages of the June 19, 1965 New Yorker.

Funny Ha-Ha 

Kafka doesn’t just travel back and forth over the border between funny ha-ha and funny-peculiar, he has it both ways, as do, to name a few, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker, Beethoven and Berlioz, Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon, Alfred Hitchcock and F.W. Murnau, Rimbaud and Gogol, Chagall and Picasso, Pound and Eliot, Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the Marx Brothers. Spend enough time on Planet Kafka and you begin to think he was peering over DaVinci’s shoulder as Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa (“how about a little more mystery in that smile”) or whispering in Shakespeare’s ear as he wrote the cliff scene in King Lear (“Make old Gloucester think he’s fallen off and then bring in Lear with a mouse and a piece of toasted cheese”) or on the set of The Gold Rush with Chaplin (“Try turning the Tramp into a giant chicken”).

As observed by W.G. Sebald in Campo Santo (Modern Library paper 2011) and Hanns Zischler in Kafka Goes to the Movies, (Univ. of Chicago Press 2002), Kafka was infatuated with cinema. One diary entry from 1913 read simply: “Went to the movies. Cried.” Another: “Boundless entertainment.” Since I haven’t had time to find a copy of Zischler’s book (except for the online sample), I have no way of knowing whether or not any Chaplin shorts were among the films that Kafka saw at Prague’s Landestheater. Given Charlie Chaplin’s immense popularity in Europe, however, it’s possible Kafka could have seen his 1916 two-reeler One A.M., where a grandfather clock’s giant swinging pendulum keeps knocking Chaplin’s cosmically drunken man-about-town assover-backwards down either wing of a double flight of stairs. Or maybe Kafka found the man’s struggles with the big clock and the malignant beast of a wall-bed terrifying, or at least uncomfortably on the funny-peculiar side. Zischler has researched the exact bill at the Landestheater that Kafka would have seen on Sept. 23-24 1912, when, according to the diary, “I tore myself away from writing” (he was at work on the novel published posthumously as Amerika.) The first thing on the program was Strange Insects, a documentary short; perhaps it’s only a Kafkaesque coincidence, but Kafka was also writing his most famous work at the time, in which an office worker wakes up one morning to find he’s been transformed into, according to Kafka admirer Vladimir Nabokov’s reading, “a monstrous insect.”

Early Kafka

Going through Kafka in less than a week is far worse than seeing Rome in a day. I was able to at least read in the various commentaries, diaries, letters, The Metamorphosis and “In the Penal Colony,” but the highlight was reading Description of a Struggle for the first time. One of Kafka’s first efforts, written when he was 20, the novella is included in The Complete Stories, but with a disclaimer from John Updike (another example of patronizing one’s betters) to the effect that it’s “not merely opaque but repellent.” How then was it that this particular piece of work convinced Max Brod that Kafka was a genius? All I can say is that reading it felt like being a child again falling under the spell of pure invention, moving through the invented woods and over the invented hills that are being sketched into view even as you are getting high reading a writer drunk with his own imaginings, evoking with every sentence a delirium of associations, Gogol, Rimbaud, deNerval, Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr., Groucho Marx, Alice in Wonderland (“… my arms were as huge as the clouds … my head no larger than an ant’s egg, my legs lay over the wooded mountains”), Chagall (“the ladies and gentlemen who should be walking on the pavement are floating … when the wind rises again they are helpless, and all their feet leave the ground at the same time”). According to Updike, Kafka read Description of a Struggle “aloud to friends, sometimes laughing so hard he could not continue reading.”

It’s good to keep that in mind, poor Kafka, “crushed by the mysteries of life,” reading his work to friends, and not just his early work, and laughing out loud.

Princeton’s resident authority on all things Kafka, translator of the million-selling Bantam edition of The Metamorphosis, author and editor of numerous ventures into Kafkology, Stanley Corngold provided various email guides for this too-brief journey. I should also mention that another longtime Princeton resident, the Southern Way’s own Charles Neider, was there before almost anyone in America with his 1947 study, The Frozen Sea.

—Stuart Mitchner

 
June 26, 2013

dvd revThe magnitude of the response to James Gandolfini’s death in Rome last Wednesday is clearly also a tribute to a fictional character and a television series created by David Chase and his writers. If Chase had picked someone else to play Tony Soprano back in 1998 (as almost happened), Gandolfini (1961-2013) would be remembered as a good actor with a knack for playing heavies. But it works both ways and the part of a lifetime miraculously found perhaps the only actor in the world worthy of it, as Chase implied when he called Gandolfini “one of the greatest actors of this or any time.” Then Chase raised the stakes: “A great deal of that genius resided in those sad eyes. I remember telling him many times, ‘You don’t get it. You’re like Mozart.’ There would be silence at the other end of the phone.”

The outpouring of grief and adulation for this New Jersey native, a Rutgers graduate of the Class of 1983 for whom the state’s flags were flown at half-mast Monday, has been extraordinary. I can’t recall another instance where the actor and the role were so closely associated in the process of mourning. Friends and fellow actors knew him on another level, needless to say. Yet even they could not help but speak of Tony Soprano, a work of art in human form conceived by David Chase and embodied and brought to life by James Gandolfini. People clearly loved something beyond the racist, sexist brute who could and did kill with his bare hands. They loved his heart, his humanity, his anger, his misery, his wife, his children, the way he went out to the driveway in robe and slippers to get the Star Ledger like thousands of other New Jerseyans, his doomed efforts to deal with a nightmare mother, and a dangerous, highly profitable, but crushingly burdensome business.

The Mozart Factor

Or, taking the hint from Chase, you could say we loved his music. The reference to Mozart in connection with the mobster who towered like a stormy, despairing god over HBO’s monumental 86-episode series with its 60-plus murders and countless acts of violence apparently left some journalists scratching their heads. In the AP and ABC obituaries, among others, the Mozart remark was edited out. As if David Chase, of all people, should be corrected for thinking such a thing. This is someone who made music the sonic lifeblood of his series; he knew what he was talking about. And he knew enough to mention the “silence at the other end of the phone” — in case anyone doubted that Gandolfini himself still didn’t “get it.” The actor wasn’t being modest; he was behaving in character. For instance Tony’s reaction the time his lovely shrink Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) ventured into the lofty regions of “pain and truth” — “Pain and truth! C’mon! I’m a fat f-ing crook from New Jersey!”

If the Mozart quote seems over the top, how about Shakespeare? The Guardian obituary said “Shakespeare would have been proud to write for Tony Soprano” and the New York Post notice hailed “the Shakespearean grandeur” of his performance. In fact, what else but aesthetic hyperbole can explain the dimensions of Gandolfini’s appeal as Tony Soprano, and the seismic impact of his death on the media? Try to imagine anything comparable greeting the untimely passing of the brilliant actors who play Walt White of Breaking Bad, Don Draper of Mad Men, Jack Bauer of 24, Al Swearengen of Deadwood, or any other series figures who, as various obituaries have suggested, might never have happened without the example of Tony Soprano?

Music Hath Charms

From January 10 1999, to the sudden fade to silent black on June 10, 2007, the scene that marked The Sopranos and its unlikely hero for greatness, the scene essential to the dynamic that captivated audiences here and around the world, occurred in the opening episode when a family of ducks abandon Tony Soprano’s swimming pool. For the Mozart-minded creator of a series where the titular family’s last name has operatic associations, what better way to accompany such a transformative moment than with an aria for a soprano booming from the sound system during a family gathering? In the world’s first up-close and personal encounter with Tony Soprano, the big man is beaming like a proud parent at the beauty of the family of ducks splashing in his pool while Luba Orgonosova sings “Chi il Bel Sogno Di Doretta” (“Doretta’s Beautiful Dream”) from Puccini’s La Rondine. Here he is, the king in his domain, a big cigar in his mouth, a can of lighter fluid for the Bar-B-Q in his hand, friends and family gathered in his spacious backyard. Then, as first one duck, then another, then all go flying off, the light goes out of his eyes, his hand clutches his heart, his head drops, the cigar falls from his mouth, and down he goes, face first, the can of lighter fluid hitting the grill, which bursts into flame as his frightened wife and children run to help him. It’s the visual equivalent of a psychic explosion. “Panic attack” doesn’t do it justice, but that’s the clinical term that leads him to therapy with Dr. Melfi and that helped first-time audiences all over the world bond with the series.

Some of Tony’s most memorable and revealing lines are spoken in Dr. Melfi’s office (“what kind of a human being am I if my own mother wants me dead?”). The therapy sessions, as David Chase has pointed out, allow the writers to sound and develop their own themes and plot elements through the medium of an educated white-collar listener who also happens to represent a significant slice of the show’s viewership. It’s partly through his sessions with Melfi that Tony can be perceived as the “richly complex” mob boss mentioned in the original headline of the New York Times obituary (wouldn’t you know, someone edited out the “richly” in the online edition).

Family Above All

When Dr.Melfi hears about the flyaway ducks and Tony’s collapse, she tells him, “You’re afraid of losing your family.” As the reaction to James Gandolfini’s death indicates, the Sopranos family dynamic works brilliantly. Just give the brute a house in a monied North Jersey neighborhood, his castle to protect from FBI surveillance teams and the occasional black bear. At the Bada-Bing and Satriale’s, it’s essentially power and business. In bed or on the floor or up against the desk with various women, it’s power and pleasure. At home, he hangs out, stuffs his face, watches TV, sustains an alliance of sorts with Carmela (Edie Falco), the complicated woman he’s married to, and does his best to be an old-school father to his teenage kids, A.J. and Meadow (Robert Iler and Jamie-Lynn Sigler). He can be oafish, foolish, sometimes pathetic, sometimes surprisingly charming (he has a smile to die for, sly and seductive). Mozart, he’s not, but when he’s in the family element he’s “one of us” more believably than, say, Archie Bunker ever was.

There are plenty of laughs in The Sopranos, but not the canned sitcom variety. It’s the human comedy that prevails in Chase’s world, and while Tony’s casual racism is never funny, only ugly and benighted, it’s also perfectly true to life, as is his clueless way of dealing with the attitudes his kids bring home from school. Like the time A.J., in the midst of being scolded, calmly tells his parents, “Death just shows the ultimate absurdity of life,” upon which his father (“Are you trying to make me angry?”) threatens to throw him through the window. Unintimidated, A.J. nails it: “See. That’s what I mean, life is absurd.” When Carmella shouts “God forgive you!” A.J. doesn’t miss a beat: “There is no god.” Which raises a shocked “HEY!” from both parents. Where is this coming from, they wonder? Could it be that new English teacher Mr. So-and-so from Oberlin? At this point Meadow, now a student at Columbia, lays it on the line: “You want him to read something other than Hustler? You want him to be an educated person? What do you think education is? You just make more money? This is education.” During the stunned parental hiatus, A.J. continues waxing philosophical, “Do you ever think why you were born?” while Meadow quotes Madame de Staël (“In life one must choose between boredom and suffering”). Stick a fork in the parents, they’re done, nothing more to say, until Tony tells Meadow, lamely, “Go to your room.”

It’s called putting Tony in his place, and no one does it like his family. Meadow does it. Carmela does it. Not so much A.J., he just breaks his father’s heart, over and over. Whenever Tony’s in the hospital fighting for his life, his family’s there pulling for him. If you love Carmela and who cannot love Carmela (when she tells off the freeloading young priest, you feel like cheering), it reflects on Tony. And what a work of art is that battered and bewildered marriage, and how real it became to the actors, witness Edie Falco’s comment on Gandolfini’s death, “The love between Tony and Carmela was one of the greatest I’ve ever known.” When Jamie-Lynn Sigler heard the news, she referred to her “father” for eight years and his ability “to make you feel like everything would be alright if he was around.” On his Facebook page, Robert Iler wrote: “I haven’t cried in years and now I can’t stop …. Please tell me this is all a bad dream … I love you so much james and always will.”

4:32

The movie never ends/It goes on and on and on and on.

—Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’

During the last four minutes and 32 seconds of Tony Soprano’s television life, each time someone walks into Holsten’s Ice Cream Parlor on Bloomfield Avenue, a bell rings and he looks up. His looks are neutral, watchful, but not excessively so. He’s expecting his wife, son, and daughter, who will enter the place, one by one, in that order. When Carmela comes in and sits down across from him, the look that passes between them is at once comfortable, affectionate, and knowing. The song Tony has chosen to play on the tabletop jukebox selector, “Don’t Stop Believin,’” is likely one they shared when they were dating back in the early eighties. A few seconds later A.J. comes in on the heels of the man in the Members Only jacket some inventive viewers have deduced is there for the express purpose of killing Tony (Chase picked for this key role of “phantom killer” a non-actor who owns a pizza parlor in Bucks County; go figure). When the bell rings for the last time as Meadow rushes in (we never actually see her enter), Tony looks up (shown above), the music stops and the screen goes black.

Does what happened or didn’t happen at Holsten’s six years ago this month matter now? When the owners heard the news from Rome, they put a Reserved marker on Tony’s table.

June 21, 2013

book revHe reached the Capital as the poor, hunted fugitive slave reaches the North, in disguise, seeking concealment, evading pursuers … crawling and dodging under the sable wing of night. He changed his programme, took another route, started at another hour, travelled in other company, and arrived at another time in Washington. We have no censure for the President at this point. He only did what braver men have done.

—Frederick Douglass,

Life and Times (1881)

There are many reasons to think well of Baltimore, in spite of its being the place where the plot to assassinate President-elect Abraham Lincoln was hatched and might have been carried out but for the counter machinations described in Daniel Stashower’s The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War (Minotaur Books $26.99).

Let’s start with the fact that the Baltimore Ravens are the only professional sports team in the world named for a poem. When the owner of the Cleveland Browns decided to move his NFL franchise to Baltimore, a telephone survey and a fan contest came up with a list of 17 names that was trimmed to three by focus groups of 200 Baltimore area residents and a phone survey of 1000 people. A fan contest drawing 33, 288 voters picked Edgar Allan Poe’s immortal bird over the Marauders and the Americans.

It’s hard not to like a city that chooses for its team’s mascot and emblem a bird of ill-omen from a poem dreamed up by a dissolute genius who died under suspect circumstances on that same city’s mean streets. And how have these Ravens fared under the curse of Poe’s “grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore”? A year after taking the field in 1999, they won the Super Bowl. Last year Edgar’s team did it again. All told, since they moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, they have made the play-offs nine times.

Other reasons to hang four big stars on Baltimore: the Florentine tower once crowned by a giant bottle of Bromo Seltzer; the red neon of the Domino sugar sign reflected in the harbor; the Fells Point diner immortalized in Barry Levinson’s Diner, and, of course, Camden Yards, a throwback to baseball’s glory years built on a site associated with the proposed assassination of the man who saved the Union. Meanwhile let’s add a fifth star for David Simon’s peerless five-part portrait of “Bulletmore Murderland” in The Wire, and Randy Newman’s “Baltimore,” arguably the best song ever written about an American city. Whether or not it’s true that Newman composed it without ever having actually experienced the place, the way he sings the bluesy lament over an edgy, atmospheric piano vamp (“It’s hard just to live”), you know he owns Baltimore the way Ray Davies owns Waterloo Station and Wordsworth owns Westminster Bridge and Keats owns the Grecian Urn.

Travel back to February 1861 in The Hour of Peril and the city’s not something you want to write a song about, it’s the “mob-town” of secessionist riot, bristling with weaponry, like a malevolent juggernaut set in motion to crush the new president before he can reach the nation’s capitol. In Stashower’s book, Baltimore is the epicenter of villainy, a haven for radicals such as Poe’s eerie double, the assassin-in-waiting John Wilkes Booth, who, like Poe, is buried in Baltimore. Stashower’s compulsive page-turner becomes a litany of threats until the sheer magnitude of the communal death-wish expressed in vows to shoot, stab, bludgeon, or bomb the despised “tyrant” makes The Hour of Peril seem nothing less than a prologue to the moment Booth fired the shot heard round the land on April 14, 1865.

And in case you think everyone in Baltimore has come round to agreeing with the rest of the country that Lincoln was our greatest president (per Nate Silver’s composite FiveThirtyEight poll on nytimes.com), you need only look up the assassin on welcometobaltimorehon.com, to find, from March of this year, “a gaint [sic] who killed a midget god bless john wilkes booth,” and from September 2012, “God Bless the Great Maryland Hero.”

“All Was Confusion”

Apparently there are people who still contend that Baltimore posed no serious threat to Lincoln’s life, that he could have moved from Calvert Street Station to Camden Depot as scheduled. At the time, security constraints precluded disclosure of the evidence that might have silenced those who were lambasting him for not riding proudly into town to make a speech like the ones he’d been delivering to cheering crowds on his triumphant post-election whistlestop tour from Springfield, Illinois through Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

Besides being a compelling narrative, The Hour of Peril makes a strong, thoroughly researched case for the life-saving necessity of presidential subterfuge on February 22-23, 1861. No one but the most blindly biased reader will finish the book believing that Lincoln could have passed through Baltimore unscathed. The Pratt Street riot that occurred two months later and cost the lives of four Union soldiers and 12 civilians (historians consider it the first bloodshed of the Civil War) offers a hint of the calamity prevented by Alan Pinkerton’s detective work, among numerous other factors that convinced the president-elect to let discretion be the better part of valor. And, as Lincoln feared, the decision to sneak through Baltimore incognito in a different train hours ahead of schedule (arriving in Washington, as he put it himself, “like a thief in the night”) exposed him to ridicule from newspapers both north and south.

In fact, even friendly crowds proved to be dangerous. There were crushes at every station, near-riots, injuries, drunken brawls, squads of police “swept aside,” soldiers called in to maintain order. In Albany, “all was confusion, hurry, disorder, mud, riot, and discomfort.” In New York City, where the security and crowd control were impressively managed, there was still “much anxiety,” according to the poet Walt Whitman, who “had no doubt” that “many an assassin’s knife and pistol lurk’d in hip or breast pocket.” It was worse in New Jersey, which Lincoln had failed to carry in the election and “where signs of ambivalence, if not outright hostility, were plainly visible along the route.” In Newark, Lincoln’s carriage “passed a black-bearded effigy swinging by the neck from a lamp post.”

Lincoln’s Character

Stashower’s account of Lincoln’s words and actions during the 13-day tour provides some unusual glimpses of the man, some less than flattering, but all in the arc of his character as history and legend have shaped it — unaffected, down to earth, fond of a quip or a good story, cool under fire. But then his virtues were also seen as defects. Old Abe the country wit was no more than a bumptious fool with delusions of grandeur to his enemies, and even his friends thought some of the speeches he made along the way weak and foolishly out of touch with the plight of the nation.

The Movie 

The Baltimore Plot inspired Anthony Mann’s 1951 film, The Tall Target, as exciting a train movie as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. Dick Powell stars as John Kennedy, a New York City police detective named after the real-life New York police commissioner who vied with Pinkerton for the credit in warning Lincoln away from Baltimore. While the narrative excitement in The Hour of Peril develops out of the struggle to ensure Lincoln’s safe passage to Washington, The Tall Target takes the term “action-packed” to another level. Along with Paul Vogel’s richly film-noirish cinematography, the fun of the movie is in the way the life-and-death struggle meshes with details of the mid-19th-century train, the curtained berths, the engineers and firemen, the horse-drawn passage of the carriages through the streets of Baltimore, the interplay of passengers unaware of the high-stakes battle going on around them (one such scene takes place at the New Brunswick station).  Powell/Kennedy’s life is inadvertently saved by one of his enemies, a conspirator (played by the ever-effervescent Adolphe Menjou), and then by a conflicted black servant (a sweetly sympathetic Ruby Dee) who has a warm quasi sibling relationship with her mistress (Paula Raymond). Judging from the number of times Powell is either hanging by one hand from the moving train or crawling along on top of it or chasing after it, his performance must have been the most exhausting of his Hollywood career.

The Captivating Widow

At the end of The Tall Target the female Pinkerton agent who discreetly boards the train in Baltimore with the disguised president-elect is played by an actress with a name (Katherine Warren) almost identical with that of her real-life counterpart Kate Warne. Quoted in The Hour of Peril, Pinkerton depicts the first female detective in America as a “slender, graceful … perfectly self-possessed” young widow with “captivating blue eyes — sharp, decisive, and filled with fire.”  Half a century ahead of her time (the NYPD’s first female investigator was hired in 1903), she proved to be “a versatile and utterly fearless operator,” as when she forged “a useful intimacy” with the wife of a suspected murderer and posed as a fortune teller (“the only living descendant of Hermes”) in the investigation of a superstitious suspect. Her role in the uncovering of the Baltimore plot was essential. She infiltrated Baltimore society as a “Mrs. Barley of Alabama” with “an ease of manner that was,” in Pinkerton’s words, again, “quite captivating” as she cultivated “the acquaintance of the wives and daughters of the conspirators.” While standing up to male operatives and others trying to bully classified information out of her, Mrs. Warne successfully delivered the messages that helped convince Lincoln to go along with Pinkerton’s plan and board an earlier train in the guise of her invalid brother for the last perilous stretch of the journey to Washington; it was also up to her to make sure they had berths in the rearmost part of the car. Mrs. Warne recalled that the president was “so very tall that he could not lay straight in his berth” and that he “talked very friendly for some time …. The excitement seemed to keep us all awake.”

Pinkerton’s habit of using the word “captivating” in regard to Kate Warne has tempted some to wonder if they had a relationship outside the profession (at 42, he was almost 20 years her senior). Perhaps someone will remake The Tall Target with a romantic subplot in which the Dick Powell character’s accomplice is a mysterious female who appears at crucial moments and by the end has everyone, including Abraham Lincoln, under her spell. Randy Newman could compose a soundtrack worthy of her -— and Baltimore.

June 12, 2013

book Thomas Wolfebooks henry millerThe largest and most unknown continent of all is Brooklyn. You can say that I’ve gone out into the wilderness five hundred times armed with a trusty map, now worn to tatters, and have prowled about, exploring the place in the dark hours of the night as not even Stanley explored Africa in his search for Dr Livingstone.

—Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

It can also be said that the man with the map — a writer of immense, notoriously verbose novels — summed up the story of his writing life in a six-page monologue about someone attempting to do the impossible. The situation described in Thomas Wolfe’s letter of December 11, 1933, from 5 Montague Terrace in Brooklyn Heights, is the subject of “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn” (1935), a story told in a Brooklynese dialect in which the 6’6 Wolfe is the “big guy” with the map asking a Brooklynite how to get to Eighteenth Avenue and Sixty-second Street. In the letter, the prosaic statement, “The Brooklyn people boast that you can live here a lifetime and never get to know their town,” becomes the story’s punchline, “It’d take a guy a lifetime to know Brooklyn t’roo an’ t’roo. An’ even den, yuh wouldn’t know it all.”

Williamsburg Surprise

Brooklyn’s on my mind after three hours wandering around Williamsburg while my son attacked acres of used LPs in the Academy Records warehouse on North 6th Street. I’ve never looked forward to these Brooklyn visits, thanks to past misadventures driving across the Williamsburg Bridge. Not even the knowledge that the saxophone colossus Sonny Rollins used the bridge’s walkway as a practice space during his sabbatical in 1959-61 could soften the blow of being shunted onto the vehicular Russian Roulette of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway or airhorn-blasted into a near-fatal panic by a tailgating truck.

What a difference a book makes. Take my copy of the 1938 Obelisk Press/Paris edition of Henry Miller’s Black Spring, the pages yellowed and brittle and drenched with atmosphere, as much a place as a book, the opening chapter, “The 14th Ward,” bearing an in-your-face epigraph, “What is not in the open street is false, derived, that is to say, literature.” It’s Henry Miller all the way, still feeling the creative headwind that produced the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, he’s asking no questions, he’s got no map in his hand, he’s grabbing your arm, you can almost hear his Brooklyn accent, “I am a patriot — of the 14th Ward, where I was raised. The rest of the country doesn’t exist for me, except as an idea, or history, or literature.”

So why am I excited? Why has Williamsburg suddenly become a desirable destination in spite of the dreaded crossing? Because just around the corner from Academy Records is the house Henry Miller grew up in. I’m in the 14th Ward. Whatever they may call it these days, it’s his ward. No longer do I have to kill three hours in a place without a single inspirational association. I knew Miller had lived in Brooklyn, I’ve heard recordings, he may not be as extreme with his “t’roo and t’roos” as the character in Wolfe’s story, but you know where he’s coming from. I’d always assumed he grew up in one of those far-flung spots on Wolfe’s tattered map, like Bushwick, Myrtle Avenue, or the street where 13-year-old Henry’s life was changed one day when a book peddler sold him what he thought was a cops-and-robbers penny dreadful called Crime and Punishment by some Russian writer with an unpronounceable last name. In Black Spring, “It was exactly five minutes past seven, at the corner of Broadway and Kosciusko Street, when Dostoievski first flashed across my horizon.”

As soon as I dropped my son off at Academy, I walked a few short blocks and found myself face to face with Henry Miller’s boyhood home, which is still standing at 662 Driggs Avenue, a modest three-story red-brick building with a whole block to itself. My guess is Miller would be glad to know that no historical marker has been hammered in place next to the painted-over shop windows on the ground floor. Here it is, as he writes in Black Spring, “The house wherein I passed the most important years of my life.”

Miller’s house made my day. Out of the labyrinth of streets that fascinated and challenged and submerged Thomas Wolfe, here’s the place where Miller, “born and raised in the street,” began living the book of his life: “To be born in the street means to wander all your life, to be free. It means accident and incident, drama and movement. It means above all dream.” And across the way, still there, is the “ideal street,” Filmore Place, described in Tropic of Capricorn: “Ideal for a boy, a lover, a maniac, a drunkard, a crook, a lecher, a thug, an astronomer, a musician, a poet, a tailor, a shoemaker, a politician.”

Perhaps it all comes down to attitude. In his own way, Miller, like Wolfe, attempted the impossible, but he never asked for directions. He found his voice in an attitude of joyous rhetorical arrogance of which Brooklyn native/resident Norman Mailer writes, “one has to take English back to Marlowe and Shakespeare before encountering a wealth of imagery equal in intensity.” Though Wolfe was a gifted mimic, as in “Only the Dead Know Brooklyn,” he didn’t live long enough to throw the map away and stand outside himself. William Faulkner’s oft-quoted rationale for ranking Wolfe at the top of his list of writers (he isn’t even on most lists in 2013) concerned the magnitude of the attempt — “his was the most splendid failure. He had tried hardest to take all the experience that he was capable of observing and imagining and put it down in one book, on the head of a pin.”

Working in Brooklyn

Thomas Wolfe was my heroic, word-drunk alter ego the summer I was writing my first novel and riding the 4th Avenue Local from 8th and Broadway in Manhattan into darkest Bay Ridge to work in the office of a hiring hall on the Bush Terminal docks. The best thing about the job was getting to say, at age 18, “Waterfront, Mitchner” every time I picked up the phone. On my way back to the subway each afternoon I had to run the gauntlet of stares and occasional taunts from tough-looking teenagers, male and female, hanging out on stoops (picture the ones in Bruce Davidson’s Brooklyn Gang: Summer 1959). I must have looked like an alien species, a hick from the sticks; at work I was greeted with friendly obscenities (here comes that “blankety-blank Hoo-sher so-and-so”) and kidded mercilessly about the fat love letters from my “little Hoo-sher sweetheart” that I arrived with every morning and read on coffee breaks. Among my co-workers was a sadistic, foul-mouthed ex-cop who delighted in tormenting the other non-Brooklynite, a timid Danish-American in his fifties who lived in a cheap hotel in lower Manhattan and rode the subway home with me every day miserably bemoaning his lot because of the way the ex-cop and the other people in the office harrassed him.

Crane’s Bridge

Two summers later when my first novel was published, complete with Wolfian cliches (“The rivers flowed”), I was staying on the top floor of a friend’s State Street brownstone in “dah Heights.” On hot summer evenings we would walk to the Promenade to admire the view of the towers of lower Manhattan, passing on the way Wolfe’s Montague Terrace residence (W.H. Auden lived in the same block five years later). Another Heights resident, poet Hart Crane, described the effect of the view soon after moving into the “quiet and charming” neighborhood in 1924: “It is particularly fine to feel the greatest city in the world from enough distance, as I do here, to see its larger proportions.” In another letter, he speaks of living “in the shadow” of the subject of his most famous poem, “The Bridge” (“It was in the evening darkness of its shadow that I started the last part of that poem”). Crane called the Brooklyn Bridge not only “the most beautiful in the world” but “the most superb piece of construction.” He didn’t know at the time that he was writing his poem in the room once inhabited by the bridge’s designer, Washington Roebling.

Whitman Opens His Arms

In the summer of 1878, some 50 years before Crane moved into the house on Columbia Heights, Brooklyn’s single most compelling literary figure was gazing beyond “the grand obelisk-like towers” of the then-unfinished bridge to “the grandest physical habitat and surroundings of land and water the globe affords — namely, Manhattan island and Brooklyn, which the future shall join in one city.”

While Wolfe made a subject of the impossibility of fathoming Brooklyn, Walt Whitman simply opened his arms and took it all in and all America with it, writing in the preamble to his first self-published song of himself, “Without effort and without exposing in the least how it is done the greatest poet brings the spirit of any or all events and passions and scenes and persons some more and some less to bear on your individual character as you hear or read. To do this well is to compete with the laws that pursue and follow time.”

Turn back to the title page and all you see is Leaves of Grass in massive letters and under it no publisher, no author, only this boldly printed evidence of time and place:

Brooklyn, New York: 1855.

On the facing page there he is, the sparsely bearded poet, sketched in an attitude of no-nonsense intensity, eyeing you, daring you to take the plunge, one hand in the pocket of his corduroy trousers, other arm bent, shirt open at the throat, dark undershirt showing at the top, hat at an angle, worn by a man who contains multitudes.

June 5, 2013

dvd revThe first real summer vacation I ever had was two and a half months in Europe with a student tour called the Golden Bear. I picked that particular tour because it was the only one that went to Vienna and Berlin, two cities that had aroused my interest because of the rich post-war atmosphere of Carol Reed and Graham Greene’s classic European thriller The Third Man starring Orson Welles in the title role.

When the Golden Bear powers-that-be cancelled the Berlin visit and feebly attempted to make up for it with a few extra days in Switzerland, I thought of the moment in The Third Man when after cynically justifying his immoral doings on the black market, Welles’s Harry Lime says: “In Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Flying

The first leg of the tour was from Amsterdam to Hamburg to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Oslo, where our bipolar tour conductor — a South African anti-apartheid exile with a DPhil from Oxford in political philosophy — was hauled off screaming to a hospital by the Oslo police. We made it back to Hamburg and a new guide on our own, don’t ask me how. After stops in Heidelberg and Rothenberg, we arrived in Munich, which is where we first heard “Volare,” joy set to music, the song of the summer.

“Volare” offered a subliminal release to those of us who were still feeling the aftershock of the tour leader’s breakdown. You couldn’t just hear it, you had to sing it, as we did at a night club in Schwabing, the student quarter, where a red-jacketed band had been playing exotic items like “See You Later Alligator.” I didn’t even know what I was singing at first. I thought it was a girl’s name, “Oh Lolly.” The meaning didn’t matter. Everyone was singing this song, whether or not they knew the Italian lyrics. Soon enough we knew all you needed to know, the chorus, “Vo-lare,” sung as if your heart was soaring, followed by joy-sounds, oh-ho, then “Can-tare,” Italian for singing, drawn out to the last measure of musical devotion, then more happy, happy Oh-oh-oh-oh-ho’s, then, “Nel blue di pinto di blu” (the formal title), which I never bothered to translate, figuring, as most people did, that it refers to the blue sky you’re flying into on the wings of the song we were still singing as we walked back to the hotel from the club. It seemed to come out of nowhere, an infusion of pure melody, musical nitrous oxide, for you’re already almost laughing with the sheer exhilaration of singing it. The following night “Volare” was being sung in the beer halls, we were dancing to it, making up our own words in pidgin Italian. Every summer should have such a song. A summer anthem.

“Volare” was an international sensation, a preview of what the Beatles would accomplish on the grand scale in the sixties and ABBA in the seventies. Not until now, all these years later, do I find that a song that seemed little more than love-drunk hyperbole is about the singer painting his hands and face blue before being swept up by the wind and flying off in the infinite sky (“cielo infinito”). Like Coleridge waking from an opium dream to compose “Kubla Khan,” Franco Migliacci is said to have awakened from a wine-drunk nightmare to find his lyric in two Chagall prints on the wall of his room, one in which a yellow man is suspended in midair, another where half the painter’s face is blue. Putting the lyrics together with Dominic Modugno’s tune took several days. According to Modugno’s wife, the key word “volare” was inspired by a storm suddenly blowing open a window.

Tour in Free Fall

As the incident in Oslo suggests, my first European summer was not all about “Volare.” For some of my companions on the tour, there was Mitch Miller’s catchy, impossible-not-to-whistle-along-with “River Kwai March (Colonel Bogey)” from the then-recent film, The Bridge on the River Kwai. The first time our tall, shambling, twitchy, hyper, bird-like tour leader took his position in the front of an Amsterdam tour bus, a summer-camp-sing-along epidemic spread among us, set off when someone began singing the “River Kwai March” using his first name, “Rob-in, he makes the tour go round, Rob-in, dum-da-dum-dum-dum,” and so forth. What followed was only a spontaneous, good-natured, playful, typically American serenade that any normal, reasonably sound-of-mind-and-body person in the tour guide role would find amusing and harmless, a sign of friendly acceptance from his charges. But the summer campers of the Golden Bear sang or chanted the chorus incessantly even as it became clear, at least to those of us who had begun to know him, that Robin was an accident waiting to happen.

By the time of the overnight train from Copenhagen to Stockholm, those of us Robin had taken into his confidence were aware that he was in psychic free fall and that the jaunty ditty sung in his name had become the mocking theme song of his madness. We tried to alert the others to tone down the he’s-a-jolly-good fellow stuff. By then the situation should have been obvious if only from the way he periodically stamped his feet and shouted in his South African BBC accent, “I am NOT a tour leader! I am a courier!” This was around the time, perhaps due to the incessant singing, that he began outlining his plan for us to become traveling entertainers, a troupe to be known, what else, as The Golden Bears (“We shall sing for our supper!”). He wrote a song of his own for us that began, “We are ze Europins of ze Golden Bear, Ve haf Stars und Strawdust in R hair.”

On the night train to Oslo, using an umbrella that he called a bumbershoot, he began attacking some of the more insistent chanters of the “River Kwai March.” At the student hostel in Oslo no one was singing as we stood watching from the doorways of our rooms while the police led him down the corridor howling his “I am a courier” mantra. Fifteen years later someone in Bristol who had read Robin’s book Drop Out! told me that he had died “in a doss-house fire.”

“The Third Man Theme”

Online it’s claimed that Dominic Modugno’s recording of “Volare” spent five weeks in first place on the Billboard Top 100 chart in the summer of 1958. Nine years earlier, between April and July of 1949, the zither player Anton Karras’s Decca recording of “The Third Man Theme” spent 11 weeks atop the Billboard chart. It’s amusing to find that the mysterious, atmospheric music from the movie that led me to choose the tour for its Vienna-Berlin feature actually outsold the feel-good anthem that lifted the spirits of the shellshocked Golden Bears in the aftermath of our leader’s breakdown.

Karras’s haunting music and Third Man cinematographer Robert Krasker’s dramatically lit, mood-drenched visions of nocturnal Vienna streetscapes created the European post-war-noir excitement I found in long walks through the streets of Hamburg and Munich and above all Vienna, where our hotel, the Urania, was only 15 minutes from the Prater and the giant ferris wheel that provides the setting for the film’s most famous scene. Except for the chase through the sewers at the end, and the electric moment when we first see the mysterious back-from-the-dead “third man” discovered in a dark doorway by a brief flash of light, Orson Welles’s unforgettable performance as a charming scoundrel named Harry Lime is played out in his meeting at the Prater with his old college pal and writer of pulp westerns, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton). I was about to say the scene is among Welles’s finest hours, except that barely six minutes pass from the moment Holly spots a small dark figure approaching from the distance to the goodbye moment of the “cuckoo clock” speech, which Welles wrote himself.

Once the two men are in the closed carriage of the moving ferris wheel, Carol Reed and Graham Greene play second fiddle to the aura and ambience of Welles, actor and director and personality. While the idea that he had a hand in the direction of the picture has been laid to rest, anyone who knows his work will recognize the way the voices jar and jostle one another in a void; the play of expression on Lime’s face from sly to sinister to dyspeptic to a hollow heartiness, the breezy cynicism with which he justifies his villainy when he tells Cotton to look at the people down below, asking, “Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”

That question and the notion that evil could be charming or fascinating in itself caught me up when I first saw the film as a child and again after a recent viewing of the brilliantly remastered Criterion DVD. For all the pleasures of that long-ago summer, there’s no forgetting the screaming man in Oslo or the reality behind the aesthetic excitement of the ruined buildings, bombed out vistas, and haunted faces of the Third Man’s Vienna

Summer Romance

As the tour unfolded, Italy outshone everything else. The essence of a summer dream vacation was a mixture of the mindless joy of “Volare” with the poetry of Fellini’s La Strada, a film that eventually meant even more to me than The Third Man (for one thing, I became hopelessly infatuated with a girl on the tour who resembled Giuletta Messina’s mystic gamin, Gelsomina). The Third Man evoked wartime and intrigue, while the emotional fanfare of LaStrada complemented the sheer joy of “Volare.” But then who could imagine that Harry Lime himself would show up later that summer at a production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Baths of Carcacalla? There he was sitting five rows in front of us, no way you could miss him, Orson Welles ten years down the road from his death in the sewers of Vienna, big and bearded and surrounded by beautiful women.

Finally, any dissertation on the subject of dream summer holidays has to include at least a mention of the ultimate summer holiday romance, Before Sunrise. There’s a dream to savor, to meet Julie Delpy on a train to Vienna, to fall in love, and to have your first kiss on the ferris wheel at the Prater. And now after Before Sunset in Paris, here comes Before Midnight in Greece.

In the image from The Third Man shown above, Holly Martins (Joseph Cotton) is waiting at the Prater for his old friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles).

May 29, 2013

book rev1Minor miracles are literature’s stock in trade. Thus an English poet who died at 47 in 1599 can change the lives of a stableman’s son in London in 1813, a graduate student at Indiana University in 1944, and a sophomore at the University of California-Berkeley in 1963. The poet whose work enforced the change is Edmund Spenser. The intermediaries include John Keats’s friend and tutor Charles Cowden Clarke, followed some 130 years later by Rudolph Gottfried, editor of the Prose Works for the Variorium Edition of Spenser overseen by A.H. Judson, who wrote the Variorium biography (1945). The last and personally most significant intermediary, and the inspiration for this column, is Renaissance scholar Paul J. Alpers, who died at 80 on Sunday, May 19.

If there were a Mount Rushmore of pre-1700 English literature, Edmund Spenser would have a place up there along with Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton. The sculptor would be working in the dark, however, since the elegant Elizabethan face on the cover of Andrew Hadfield’s Edmund Spenser: A Life (2012) is a portrait of “A gentleman said to be Edmund Spenser.” As the biographer himself admits, there is “no reliable image” of the poet, although he clearly has a soft spot in his heart for the “charming print” from English Literature for Boys and Girls that shows Spenser reading something of his to a suavely attentive Sir Walter Raleigh.

Clarke and Keats

According to Robert Gittings’s biography John Keats (1968), it was the 26-year-old C.C. Clarke’s reading of Spenser’s “Epithalamion” to the 18-year-old Keats that struck the “spark” which, in Clarke’s words, “fired the train of Keats’s poetic tendencies.” Keats was “so enchanted” that he took away the first volume of The Faerie Queen that night, and, as Clarke says, “ramped through” it “like a young horse turned into a Spring meadow.” Merely reading “Spring-headed Hydras and sea-shouldering Whales” wasn’t enough for him; according to Clarke, Keats “hoisted himself up, and looked burly and dominant as he repeated the last words.”

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1819 lecture on The Faerie Queen, the element outside “all particular space or time” that moves short, pugnacious, impressionable young men to mimic horses and whales is viewed in “the domains neither of history or geography” but “truly in land of Faery, that is, of mental space. The poet has placed you in a dream, a charmed sleep, and you neither wish, nor have the power, to inquire where you are, or how you got there.”

Although Keats’s first recorded poem, no surprise, was “Imitation of Spenser,” the Spenserian fancy flows most freely in his early letters along with citings from Shakespeare and other literary forebearers. Keats is still exulting in Spenser’s “Spring meadow,” as when a borrowing of “sun-shine in a shady place” from the first book of the Faerie Queen inspires his “Close to the source, bright, pure, and undefil’d/Whence gush the streams of song.”

The author of The Faerie Queen is all over a verse letter from 1816 to Clarke, with references to “Mulla’s stream” which flows near Spenser’s home in Kilcolman, and allusions to the Faerie Queen’s Belphoebe, Una, Archimago, and, in case you doubt where he’s coming from, “Spenserian vowels that elope with ease,/And float along like birds o’er summer seas.”

By the time he writes to Benjamin Bailey on 13 March 1818, Keats has abandoned “faery land” for an earthier element as he imagines ways to discourage his ailing brother Tom from coming to join him in Devonshire’s “splashy, rainy, misty snowy, foggy, haily floody, muddy slipshod County.” When he does fall back on Spenser, referring to the flowers that “have an Acrasian spell about them,” it’s only to launch another flight of fancy wherein he’s “able to beat off the devonshire waves like soap froth,” which, after references to Julius Caesar, England’s strong Men, and Edmond Ironside’s descendants,” brings him to one of those details his art and character are grounded on: “Scenery is fine — but human nature is finer — The Sward is richer for the tread of a real, nervous english foot.”

book rev2Spenser in Indiana

The Indiana University graduate student whose life was changed by Spenser enjoys reading to his six-year-old son from handsomely decorated and illustrated little books like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Stories from the Faerie Queen Told to the Children by Jeanie Lang, whose preface claims Edmund Spenser could see Fairyland “more clearly” than other men. In fact, the Indiana campus. made a perfect Fairyland for children living near the lofty limestone castle of the Union Building with its terraces and battlements and balconies for sentries and bowmen, and down below a moat we called the Jordan River, with a “draw bridge” across all two yards of it. A spacious greensward called Dunn Meadow fronted the castle, enriched by the tread of sneaker-footed female students firing arrows at red-blue-yellow bull’s eye targets on sunny afternoons while we staged our own Robin Hood-style tournaments with sticks for swords, riding the same imaginary horses on which we galloped downtown for cowboy-movie Saturday matinees. The campus woods on the other side of the castle were dark and deep with sunny Spenserian glades and “gloomy glens” like the one where Sir Guyon meets Mammon on his way to Merlin’s cave.

In the midst of these woods was the humble single-story building housing the offices and classrooms of the English Department where resident Spenserians Judson and Gottfried taught the courses that helped make a scholar of my father. What specifically lured him into the enchanted forests of academia, however, was Spenser’s The Shepheardes Calender and its mysterious presenter, a personage known only by the initials “E.K.” My father’s mission to determine the identity of E.K., something no one had been able to do in just under 400 years (and to this day, it seems), led to an article for Studies in Philology taking issue with the theory that Spenser himself was E.K. The larger result was the plunge into Medieval studies that made Bloomington our home for the next 30 years. A decade and a half later I was reading The Faerie Queen in Rudolph Gottfried’s senior survey

Spenser at Berkeley

Of the UC Berkeley campus, which was once upon a time even more deeply wooded than Indiana’s, all I remember is the little bridge where my future wife and I sat talking for hours the night we met. Next year her life would be changed, not so much by Spenser as by the teaching of Paul Alpers. Berkeley in the mid-sixties was an exciting place to be. You could cut your political teeth at demonstrations led by Mario Savio; dance to the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead at the Fillmore in San Francisco; hang out with filmmakers like Ben Van Meter who did the light shows at the Avalon Ballroom; have your math homework done by Phil Lesh of the Dead; and take classes from poets like Thom Gunn, critics like Stanley Fish, Stephen Orgel, Fred Crews of the Pooh Perplex, and celebrity teachers like Edward Teller.

Above and beyond all the political, cultural, and musical excitement was the experience of reading The Faerie Queen for a teacher who made the poem matter so much that you were up all night writing papers (often handed in late) meant to more than meet his expectations. The other teachers went about their business with varying degrees of professionalism. Although Alpers was a tall, imposing presence “from another world,” a graduate of Reuben Brower’s famous Hum 6 course at Harvard, he read and taught and lived Spenser earnestly, wholeheartedly, and unaffectedly. His essay on King Lear had just appeared in Brower and Poirier’s landmark anthology, In Defense of Reading (1963). Four years later Princeton University Press brought out Alpers’s magnum opus, The Poetry of the Faerie Queene. 

That undergraduate course in Spenser was the beginning of a 50 year friendship sharing books and films and MLA conventions. Jeanie Lang’s note at the beginning of Stories from the Faerie Queen says of Edmund Spenser the simple essence of what could be said of Paul Alpers: “He was brave and true and gentle, and loved so dearly all things that are beautiful and all things that are good, that his eyes could see Fairyland more clearly than the eyes of other men ever could.”

Andrew Hadfield’s biography is available at the Princeton Public Library.

May 22, 2013

RecordReviewI’m looking at a photograph of my father when he was a graduate student at Indiana University. He’s wearing a sleeveless sweater and in his lap is a princely male Siamese cat named Kiloo. He had purchased Kiloo for a nominal sum from an opera singer everyone called Madame Manski, who, I have just discovered, sang at the Met, as Brünnhilde in Wagner’s Die Walküre, Elsa in Lohengrin, Venus in Tannhäuser, and Gutrune in Twilight of the Gods before moving on to sing Isolde in Tristan und Isolde under the direction of Bruno Walter at the Vienna State Opera. Being only six at the time, I would not have been as impressed by this information as I am now, faced with the daunting prospect of delivering a column on Wagner’s 200th birthday (1813-1883). I own no LPs or CDs of Wagner’s music and have never been to a concert, unless you count the production of Parsifal I was coerced into attending at a time when my interest in “serious music” had peaked with the Gerry Mulligan Quartet.

One of the handful of Wagnerians I know is a London research consultant who recently told me of the time he somewhat nervously introduced his 15-year-old daughter to “her first real experience of Wagner,” a performance of Siegfried at Covent Garden. Booking the tickets, he’d been worried she might not “take to it.” At the end of the first act he turned to her to see how she liked it, and she said, “Daddy, you’ve changed my life!” They’ve been sharing Wagner ever since, including memorable productions of the Ring at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998 and Covent Garden in 2007.

When my father turned to see how I felt after the first half of Parsifal, I didn’t need to say anything. My bleary eyes and stifled yawns told the story. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t want to get it.

Wagner, the Film

In my five-day crash course I’ve tried to catch up with Wagner by listening to a stack of CDs from the library and watching Tony Palmer’s magnificent nine-hour-long 1983 made-for-television Wagner with Richard Burton (1925-1984) in the title role. The film took me and my wife four nights to get through, and though our eyes may have been a little bleary, we weren’t yawning. In fact, Wagner may be the most visually arresting, splendidly staged film biography ever made. The version cut in half and shown on Channel 13 in 1986 was deemed a “colossal disaster” by John J. O’Connor in the New York Times (a gross misjudgment that can be half-excused because he was watching only half a film and you can be pretty sure that the missing parts were unmissable).

As O’Connor rightly points out, the film doesn’t ignore or soft-pedal Wagner’s anti-semitism (though it’s not “rabid,” as O’Connor terms it, but casual, constant, and matter of fact). Nor is his arrogance, or nationalistic fervor glossed over or excused. He’s an insufferable egomaniac who assumes that as the great genius of the age he has the right to take full advantage of his friends’ time, money, devotion, and wives, and when someone points this out, he says, keeping a straight face (we laughed out loud), “But that’s what friends are for.” It’s hard to imagine Burton’s Wagner as the storm-bearing, sword-brandishing godfather of the Third Reich because he’s being played by a Welshman with Shakespeare in his DNA and less than two years to live who may sense that this is his last great part, probably the most challenging since his Hamlet 20 years before. And there’s a Shakespearean force and wit in his Wagner; you suspect he’s thinking of Hamlet’s advice to the players (“Speak the speech, I pray you”) every time he tells his singers and musicians how to perform his music. True to Hamlet’s lesson, Burton never “tears a passion to tatters to split the ears of the groundlings.” In particular, the conversations with Ronald Pickup’s Nietzsche are brilliantly and subtly played by both actors and Nietzsche’s extraordinary dinner table soliloquy must be one of the many brilliant moments dropped from the version of the film seen by O’Connor.

Chaplin and Levine

My Open Sesame to Wagner was the Prelude to Lohengrin. Not only did the unearthly beauty of this nine-and-a half-minute-long piece of music hold me, it followed me around. I knew I’d heard it somewhere before. Then a reference to the music haunting me appeared on the front page of Monday’s New York Times with a picture of James Levine on his return to the Met, conducting from his wheel chair “a serene, poised and glowing” account of “the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin.” A week ago I would have drawn a blank on that sentence. Having lived in and been stalked by that music long enough by now, all I can say is “What?” Poised? Serene? This is soul-stealing music by the composer James Huneker calls “The greatest poet of passion the world has yet encountered.”

If you want to see poetry and poise and passion, look at Charlie Chaplin’s travesty of Hitler in The Great Dictator. The scene where he does a pas de deux with a helium globe of the world may be the most stylized solo turn in his repertoire. Think of it — in September 1940 an entertainer beloved around the world disappears into a Nazi uniform, with mock swastikas and gleaming jackboots, taking advantage of that little dab of mustache that the Dictator and the Tramp have in common. A lesser performer with the same mission would go heavy, making something demented and demonic of the globe ballet while prescribing more of the same for the soundtrack. Chaplin becomes an almost maidenly Hitler, the world is his poem, until his lust gets the better of him, prompting a subdued fit of mad-genius cackling. Then the lover embracing, nuzzling, and noodling the globe becomes a child with a toy, bumping it with his bum, Chaplinesquely jackbooting it up to the ceiling. It should be uproarious. But it isn’t, not really. Somehow the whole performance has become something you feel, it’s coming up behind you, unsettling you, undermining you, which is when the balloon bursts and the music stops.

Yes, the music! It’s been there throughout the bizarre ballet, music of subtle, insidious splendor, so piercingly, uncannily beautiful, that you could close your eyes and simply submit to it, cry with it, die with it, if you weren’t already so thoroughly transfixed by Chaplin’s art; the music isn’t there to accompany the caperings of a giddy madman, it’s there for Chaplin, it’s the melodic manifestation of his genius. And though I must have seen that sequence many times before this week — a standard item in any anthology of Chaplin’s greatest moments — I never paid much attention to the inappropriate delicacy of the music, never gave the source of it a thought,  assuming Chaplin had composed it himself, as he did the music for his other full-length films. It’s only thanks to this past week’s crash course in Wagner that I can finally appreciate Chaplin’s crowning touch, to score his devastating caricature of Der Führer with Wagner’s Prelude to Lohengrin. Did he also comprehend that the beautiful music he was using contained elements of the same emotional dynamite that made Wagner the Reich’s inspirational maestro? In his autobiography Chaplin says that he would never have dared to make that film had he known what was going on in the concentration camps.

Baudelaire Floating

Eighty years before Chaplin released The Great Dictator, the same music opened a program of Wagner at the Theatre des Italiens in Paris, with Wagner conducting. According to Enid Starkie’s biography of Baudelaire, the author of Les fleurs du mal was in the audience experiencing Wagner for the first time as “one long revelation.” In his landmark essay on Wagner, said to be the only piece he ever wrote about a musical event, Baudelaire describes listening with eyes closed to the Prelude to Lohengrin and feeling as if “lifted from the earth,” “released from the bonds of gravity,” aware of “the extraordinary thrill of pleasure which dwells in high places,” imagining himself “in the grip of a profound reverie, in an absolute solitude … with an immense horizon and a wide diffusion of light; an immensity with no other decor but itself” until he comes to a “full conception of a soul moving about in a luminous medium, of an ecstasy composed of knowledge and joy, hovering high above the natural world” [Baudelaire’s italics].

Proust’s Telephone

Another of Wagner’s French admirers, Marcel Proust didn’t need to go to a concert to fall under his spell. He describes hearing the music in everyday sounds, like the opening and closing of a door that renders “those broken, voluptuous, plaintive phrases that overlap the chant of the pilgrims towards the end of the Overture to Tannhäuser,” or in the sound of the telephone while Marcel waits in lonely anguish for a call from Albertine that resembles, when it finally comes, “the shepherd’s pipe in Tristan.” Wagner is present all through Remembrance of Things Past, as when, among many instances, the fictitious composer Vinteuil’s “little phrase” is compared to a theme in Tristan, or when Swann’s Odette expresses a passion for Wagner and thinks of visiting Bayreuth, and when during the First War the sirens are “Wagnerian,” evoking the “Ride of the Valkyries” and what other music could hail “the arrival of the Germans?”

Wagner’s Reach

After citing “a host of circumstances, not the least Wagner’s own writings” that “drove his music into the proximity of the most evil political system in the history of Western Europe,” Nicholas Spice’s recent London Review of Books essay, “Is Wagner Bad for Us” explicitly “skirts … the fraught question of the association of Wagner’s works with National Socialism” because “the subject of Wagner and the Nazis is too big to be fitted meaningfully into a set of general reflections on the composer.”

Filming Wagner in the early 1980s, Richard Burton’s instincts brought him into contact with “the fraught question.” At the end of his life as an actor, surely knowing it’s his last hurrah, he’s summoning the power he found playing Hamlet, where the ecstasy of acting, the overflow of spirit and language, made theatrical sense of acts of violence like the killing of Polonius that in turn drives Ophelia to drown herself; he must have recognized a comparable force in his Wagner. It’s the art of excess that James Huneker was writing about at the turn of the previous century, with his reference to a fascinating “poet of passion” whose “demoniac art … enchants, thrills, and makes mock of all spiritual theories about the divine in music.”

In the preludes to Lohengrin and Tristan, Wagner becomes something else altogether, something perhaps best described by his great counterpart Verdi, whose bicentennial is also this year. After experiencing Tristan and Isolde, Verdi said “that he could never quite grasp the fact that it had been created by a mere human being.”

The Verdi quote is from Bryan Magee’s The Tristan Chord: Wagner and Philosophy (Holt 2000), which I read around in, particularly the chapter on “Wagner’s Misleading Reputation.” For an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the 2010 Robert Lepage production of the Ring, see Wagner’s Dream (2012), which the New York Times called “the rare backstage film that maintains a level head even in moments of crisis.” The DVD is available at the library, which also has the complete version of Tony Palmer’s Wagner that by all rights should be out in Blu-Ray for the bicentennial. WKCR 89.9FM New York, the radio station of Columbia University, will commemorate Wagner’s 200th birthday with a 48-hour broadcast of the operas, from Rienzi to Parsifal. It begins today, May 22, and runs through May 23. The Princeton Festival will present Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre on Saturday, June 22 at 8 p.m. and Sunday June 29 at 3 p.m. It will be the Festival’s first Wagnerian production.

May 15, 2013

GatsbyBookThe Garden Theatre was filled to overflowing for the Friday evening showing of Baz Luhrman’s big, jazzy, flamboyantly picturesque improvisation on The Great Gatsby (see review in this issue). People were seated on the steps of the aisle between the stadium seats. You got the feeling half the Princeton student body was there, along with a goodly number of teenagers from the area schools. Most nights at the Garden or Montgomery, particularly when the film is a literary classic as was recently the case with Anna Karenina, you see very few people under 30 or even 40. Or 50. Or, well, you get the idea.

According to the “Arts, Briefly” column in Monday’s New York Times, Gatsby took in $51.1 million over the weekend, second to Iron Man’s $72.5 — “an astounding result for a period drama” that received, at best, mixed reviews. Only 33 percent of ticket sales were for the 3-D version. Apparently the word of mouth about Gatsby’s flying shirts was less than enthusiastic. If you’re interested, those “beautiful shirts” can all be had at Brooks Brothers, along with the regatta blazers and boater hats, bow-ties, and shawl-collar sweaters. According to Adweek, the film’s 500-piece wardrobe was modeled on Brooks’ early 1920s catalogue. It’s also reminiscent of the faux sixties marketing boom created when Mad Men was the rage, with cool, elegant Don Draper at the center, a self-created mystery man who has more than a little in common with Fitzgerald’s “elegant roughneck,” Jay Gatsby.

Anyway, with a score as ecstatic and multi-dimensional as Luhrman’s, who needs 3-D? Depending on your stamina, the film’s pounding over-the-top blend of rap and Gershwin, Lana Del Ray and Bryan Ferry, can either kill you or cure you. My advice is to forget what’s being done to Fitzgerald’s original and go along with the sights and sounds, ride the music, get drunk on the spectacle, and don’t worry about little things like the absurdity of Nick Carraway in a sanitorium writing Fitzgerald’s book as a form of therapeutic rehab. If anyone is Fitzgerald. it’s the man with all the beautiful shirts.

The spectacular score alone is more than enough to put the 2013 Gatsby on a level above the previous versions — which isn’t saying much when you consider the quality of the competition.

Herbert Brenon’s 1926 silent Gatsby with Warner Baxter is presumed lost, probably just as well. If you look online, you can see the preview, which features the novel’s signature vision, the immense billboard eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg. All the films are faithful to it in their fashion but fall short of Fitzgerald’s “blue and gigantic” eyes with retinas “one yard high” looking out of “no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a non-existent nose.”

The first sound version of Gatsby didn’t hit the screens until 1949, some 20 years after the talkies were born. For some unfathomable reason, Paramount gave the project to Elliott Nugent, a director of comedies who had just finished filming Mr. Belvedere Goes to College. The best thing about this version, which can be seen in full on YouTube, is Alan Ladd. The only Gatsby of the lot who can say “old sport” as if it came naturally, Ladd makes his first appearance in a moving car tommygunning a rival in case you doubt where he’s coming from, and if you think he’s going to be vanquished by Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s brute of a husband at the end, as are all the other Gatsbys including the real one, you don’t know Alan Ladd. When Tom threatens to break his neck, this Gatsby stands his ground (“I wouldn’t do that if I were you. I’m pretty good with or without gloves”) and leaves the scene with Daisy even more devoted to him than she already was. But he gets all noble, Hollywood style, at the end as Paramount pays contemptible obeisance to the Code by making him apologize for his evil ways.

The Gatsbys from 1974 and 2000 (a television movie) are both uninspired ventures, Jack Clayton’s Robert Redford/Mia Farrow debacle having been famously compared to a dead body by Vincent Canby.

The Face of the Book

Now that we know the film had a strong opening weekend, what has been the financial fate of a novel about a man spending a fortune to win a girl whose voice is “full of money?” In 1925, given the popularity of Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise, sales and reviews were disappointing. In 2013, however, the Gatsby gold mine is working overtime. The paperback sells 500,000 copies a year, twice that many this year thanks to the film. Worldwide, the numbers approach 25 million in 42 languages, according to USA Today. In the rare book market, where literary stature makes all the difference, a copy of the first edition of The Great Gatsby sold at auction in 2009 for $182,000. Like all modern first editions, it attracts serious money only if it’s wrapped in its original dust jacket. The most you can get for a fine copy of an unjacketed Gatsby is a mere $8,000. With this novel, however, you have a double dose of value, for the Gatsby dust jacket is the Hope Diamond of cover art, the rarest and most celebrated in all literature.

When Fitzgerald had his first look at the cover image the summer before the novel’s April 1925 publication date, his excitement was such that he fired off an urgent command to his editor Max Perkins not to “give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.” He’s referring, of course, to the novel’s single most famous image, those giant billboard eyes that, “dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.”

Having seen the fascinating face that his work-in-progress would reveal to the world when published, Fitzgerald lets himself go and declares in the letter’s next sentence, “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written.” It’s the sort of famous-last-words boast that even a writer less superstitious than Fitzgerald might want to take back. But the brilliant image has reinforced his enthusiasm for the brilliance of his conception. He knows he’s struck gold.

Scribners paid Francis Cugat $100 for the visionary cover art that captivated Fitzgerald. Not much is known about the artist except that he was the older brother of bandleader Xavier Cugat and that he worked in Hollywood as a technicolor consultant on number of films, including John Ford’s The Quiet Man. The eyes in Cugat’s image evoke Gatsby’s inspiration, his love and his doom, Daisy Fay Buchanan, “whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs … sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth.” It isn’t just that Cugat has shone a light on one of the visions haunting the heart of the novel, he’s found a way to visualize Daisy as Gatsby imagines her — the “colossal vitality of his illusion” that “had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way.”

Again, the character capable of Fitzgerald’s conception isn’t Nick Carraway, it’s the man with the beautiful shirts. And if you have any doubt about where Gatsby’s “creative passion” is actually coming from consider the needless urgency of Fitzgerald’s message about the cover art, as if his editor really might let some other Scribner novelist snap it up. Fitzgerald is claiming possession of the treasure, it’s his, all his; and he’s already put it to use.

Gatsby C’est Moi

In the media frenzy generated by Baz Luhrman’s film, you hear a lot about Gatsby but not so much about Fitzgerald. He’s the forgotten man, overshadowed by his own creation. Gatsby lives, while his creator, the poet laureate of Old Nassau, is a tragic phantom. Online, on network and cable television, even on political talk shows like Chris Mathews’s Hardball, the charismatic Gatsby is front and center along with the Great Baz and a lot of chatter about poor boys, rich girls, and the American dream. Meanwhile Fitzgerald seems to be hanging on to his creation’s coattails. It’s almost as if Gatsby wrote Gatsby, and actually, that’s what I’ve been talking about: Fitzgerald and Gatsby are one; in Fitzgerald’s variation on Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary c’est moi,” the dreamer becomes his dream. Fitzgerald says as much in a letter to a friend written a few months after the novel appeared: “you are right about Gatsby being blurred and patchy. I never at any one time saw him clear … for he started out as one man I knew and then changed into myself.” Edith Wharton picks up on the connection when she says “how much I like Gatsby, or rather His Book” in a letter thanking Fitzgerald for sending her a copy.

A Radiant World

The first time Fitzgerald gives Maxwell Perkins a hint of what he’s up to with the book that became The Great Gatsby, he draws a line between it and his two previous novels and the “trashy imaginings” in his stories: this is “purely creative work … the sustained imagination of a sincere yet radiant world.” For that reason, it will be “a consciously artistic achievement and must depend on that as the first books did not.” In a brief letter to a magazine editor in April 1924, he describes his work in progress as [italics added] “a new thinking out of the idea of illusion (an idea which I suppose will dominate my more serious stuff) …. The business of creating illusion is much more to my taste and talent.” Gatsby could have been thinking along the same lines when he began amassing the fortune that would enable him to imagine he could create an illusion fascinating enough to capture Daisy. In August of the same year, in a letter to a rich friend, Fitzgerald is using similar language as he contemplates the story’s inevitable confrontation with the death of the dream: “the whole burden of this novel” is “the loss of those illusions that give such color to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”

It’s finally pointless to say, as has been said of Baz Luhrman’s attempt, that Gatsby is “unfilmable” when it’s been filmed five times and will go on being filmed indefinitely. It seems clear by now, however, that no filmmaker can truly, in the Jamesian sense, do Gatsby.

———

Francis Cugat’s cover painting, Celestial Eyes, is owned by the Princeton University Library. With all the attention that’s being lavished on this latest and most lavish Gatsby, now might be a good time to display the work that inspired one of the novel’s most significant images.

 

May 8, 2013

dvdrevIt’s already old news now, as dated as its subject — the obituary notices announcing the death at 91 of Deanna Durbin, the “plucky child movie star” who saved Universal Studios from financial ruin; “the best-loved and most fondly remembered singing star of Hollywood’s golden age” who cut short her career at 28; “the perfect girl next door” who left the fans-next-door to live the rest of her long life in a suburb of Paris.

Was the Canadian-born Durbin truly the “superstar” claimed by the headline of the Associated Press obituary? Indeed she was, and then some. If anything, the Hollywood hype falls short because her impact on a world at war transcended stardom. Stay with the metaphor and you could say she outshone all the stars in Hollywood, whether her light was shining on the battlefield or the homefront, soldiers or civilians, regardless of nationality. The April 30 New York Times obit’s “wholesome, radiant, can-do girl who in a series of wildly popular films was always fixing the problems of unhappy adults” became the “can-do” embodiment of beauty and music and youth symbolically opposed to the problems of a disastrously unhappy world.

Wartime 

When the Japanese wanted to crush the morale of the American families imprisoned at the Santo Tomas internment camp in Manila at the outset of World War II, they released the news that Deanna Durbin had died in childbirth, a sham presented so convincingly that it prompted a memorial service. Since the Japanese banned the use of radios, the prisoners continued to think the “can-do girl” was dead for almost three years, until a makeshift radio pulled in a broadcast from San Francisco and they heard her voice dedicating an evening of music “to the women of the Philippine Islands.”

On the other side of the world in Amsterdam, Anne Frank was taping two photos of Deanna Durbin on the wall of the secret annex, both from First Love (1939), a variation on the Cinderella story in which Durbin receives her first screen kiss from Robert Stack. Although there are no explicit mentions of the film in Anne’s diary, her frequent references to the developing relationship with Peter and their first kiss suggest that she must have given those images more than a few significant glances in the spring and summer of 1944. The photos remain on the wall, just as they were, at the Anne Frank House museum.

Another Durbin fan, British prime minister Winston Churchill, had no need of photographs; he made sure to see the films before they were released to the general public in the U.K., where she was even more beloved than she was in the U.S.A. Churchill’s special favorite was One Hundred Men and a Girl, in which Deanna helps bring together Leopold Stokowski with an orchestra of out-of-work musicians that includes her trombone-playing father (Adolphe Menjou). Churchill reportedly screened the film on celebratory wartime occasions while enjoying brandy and a cigar. The same movie was also “a great prewar favorite in Japan,” as were all of Durbin’s pictures, according to various sources, including Donald Richie, who says that Akira Kurosawa’s early film, One Wonderful Sunday “takes its concert finale straight from One Hundred Men and a Girl,” while paying homage to Durbin through the “jazzy optimism” of the fresh-faced heroine “pulling for her young man just as Deanna Durbin pulled for Stokowski — same polished cheeks, same tear-filled eyes.” Another example of her following among the Japanese: a Deanna Durbin film, His Butler’s Sister, was the first American movie that General MacArthur’s Occupation Committee permitted to be shown in Japan.

The fact that Durbin’s films were banned in Germany suggests that she was equally popular there; apparently the same was true in Italy, where in 1941 Mussolini published an open letter to “Dearest Deanna” in his official newspaper asking her to intercede with President Roosevelt “on behalf of American youth” to convince FDR not to become involved. The letter spoke of how “we always had a soft place in our heart for you” but that “today we fear that you, like the remainder of American youth, are controlled by the President and perhaps tomorrow will see fine American youth marching into battle in defence of Britain.”

Around the time Mussolini was calling on Deanna to intercede with Roosevelt (she sang Schubert’s “Ave Maria” at the memorial concert for FDR), her “hair, makeup, and on-screen outfits set fashion trends worldwide and were emulated by millions,” according to the AP obituary. In the 1941 hit Nice Girl?, the “spangled white organdy dress, ruffled and modestly cut” worn by 20-year-old Deanna “became the rage at proms and country club dances across the United States.” The teen-age soldiers-to-be who went to those dances with the girls in white organdy might lust for pin-up cheesecake like Rita Hayworth and Betty Grable, but Deanna was the girl of their lovesick dreams and deepest hopes. A soldier from England told her that she epitomized “Sincerity, tenderness, music, and laughter … it is just a little piece of Heaven to be able to visit the garrison cinema, see you and feel the sweetness and peace which surrounds you.”

Durbin also had admirers in the arts. Cellist and composer Mstislav Rostropovich cites her as one of his most important musical influences in an interview from the mid-1980s: “She helped me in my discovery of myself. You have no idea of the smelly old movie houses I patronized to see Deanna Durbin. I tried to create the very best in my music, to try and recreate, to approach her purity.” And when Indian director Satyajit Ray accepted a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992, he mentioned Deanna Durbin as the only cinema personality of the few he wrote to who had acknowledged his boyhood fan letter with a personal reply.

Headlong and Heartfelt

During the opening moments of her feature film debut, Three Smart Girls (1937), Deanna is coming right at you in mid-coloratura-flight while steering a boat on a Swiss lake, and you may find yourself wondering how much of this girlish virtuosity you can put up with. Graham Greene speaks of becoming “only too intimately acquainted with the hideous cavern of the human mouth” in his New Statesman review, which begins with a quote from Henry James, in mid-flight himself on the subject of divorce in What Maisie Knew (“To live with all the intensity and perplexity and felicity in its terribly mixed little world would thus be part of my interesting small mortal”). By the end of a film that was no chore to watch thanks to Henry Koster’s direction of a lively ensemble and lots of comic relief (oh rare Mischa Auer), you’ve been humbled by the sheer uninhibited power emanating from “the interesting small mortal” played with such seismic energy by Deanna Durbin. She’s a force of nature, nothing less, and no father (Charles Winninger) in the clutches of a gold-digging blond (Binnie Barnes) could resist her. Durbin’s headlong unstoppable emotional energy shows up Hollywood’s frequently cringe-inspiring attempts to believably duplicate “real feeling” between parents and children (or couples, for that matter), and when Deanna submits herself to the muse of song again, this time in a police station, her coloratura outburst seems as spontaneous as the joyous, loving laughter she shares with her father when they bond for the first time.

A Bizarre Noir

When I first read the news of Deanna Durbin’s death in the Times, one detail that caught my attention was the claim that she’d played a “prostitute in love with a killer” in Robert Siodmak’s Christmas Holiday (1944). That bizarre noir, with its deceptively festive title, must be the most uncharacteristic, and, now that I’ve seen it, all-around best film she was ever in, along with It Started With Eve (1941) wherein Deanna and Robert Cummings hit, kick, pinch, and chase one another about and she and Charles Laughton enjoy an unforgettable night on the town. Until I found Universal’s 2-DVD Sweetheart Pack, all I knew of her work beyond One Hundred Men and a Girl was His Butler’s Sister, which I’d made a point of seeing only because it was made by a great director, Frank Borzage. Although it’s minor Borzage, the musical and romantic moments glow with the master’s touch and, as with just about every female star he directed, you’re seeing the 22-year-old actress at her most luminous.

Finding it hard to believe that Durbin had ever played a prostitute, I located Christmas Holiday on YouTube, and let it be known — Deanna does not play a prostitute. She’s only a singer going by the name of Jackie Lamont (her real name is Abigail Martin) in a high class New Orleans bordello called Maison Lafitte. True enough, she’s married to a convicted murderer, played with great verve and sleazy, sinister charm by Gene Kelly, whom she meets at a concert. Watching her intimate moments with Kelly — one where he awakens her late the night of the murder, another where she sings “Always” leaning close, her arms around his neck, as he accompanies her on the piano — it’s hard to fathom that a mere five years before she was an unbridled adolescent life force sweeping all before her. There’s much to admire in Christmas Holiday, including the uneasy noir mood, the cinematography, the New Orleans flavor, the extraordinary midnight mass scene during the subtly directed and acted night she chastely spends with a disoriented soldier probably not unlike the ones who adored her in real life. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way she manages to suggest both the wounded, worldly wise Jackie and the wholesome, loving, concert-going Abigail as she delivers a torch singer’s sultry, low-key rendition of “Spring Will Be A Little Late This Year” to the house band’s easy-swinging, Dixie flavored accompaniment while looking at once sweet and sexy in a daring if not quite risque black evening gown.

Some of the Durbin fans on YouTube busy assembling montages in tribute to her may choose to close out her career with the last Wagnerian moment of Christmas Holiday: a close-up of the bereft Abigail staring upward as the Liebestod plays and storm clouds part on a magnificently brilliant night sky. A still better ending to any tribute, including this one, would be the close-up of Deanna singing her heart out at the end of His Butler’s Sister. Her “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot is a long way from Pavarotti’s but it makes a passionate and radiant farewell.

 

The most useful source of information I found online was www.deannadurbindevotees.com.

May 1, 2013

book revIn the loose living of my early years

the impulses of my poetry were shaped,

the boundaries of my art were plotted.

—C.F. Cavafy, from “Understanding” (1915)

Monday was a two-sided anniversary for the Greek poet C.F. Cavafy, born 150 years ago on April 29, 1863, to Greek parents in Alexandria, where he died 70 years later on April 29, 1933. UNESCO is commemorating his 150th birthday with Cavafy festivals around the world this summer, and one of his foremost translators, Princeton Professor Emeritus Edmund Keeley, will be reading from his renderings of Cavafy and other Greek poets at the PEN World Voices Festival May 5 in New York and on May 7 at a dinner for the Princeton University Society of Fellows at Palmer House.

The lines above, from a poem translated by Keeley in his book, Cavafy’s Alexandria (Princeton University Press 1976, rev. 1996), are listed under the heading “The Sensual City” in a handy appendix of chronological tables of composition and publication (other categories are “The Metaphoric City,” Mythical Alexandria,” and “The World of Hellenism”). Daniel Mendelsohn’s introduction to his handsomely designed edition of the Collected Poems (Knopf 2009), with his translations and commentaries, is titled “The Poet-Historian.” In his opening paragraph, Mendelsohn contrasts Cavafy’s “flesh-and-blood existence” as a government bureaucrat and “private life” as a homosexual with the poetry, its “haunted memories of passionate encounters in the present and its astoundingly rich imagination of the Greek past.”

Cavafy’s Presence

Like numerous other readers, my own first encounter with Cavafy was as “the old poet of the city” in Justine, the volume that begins Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. At roughly the same time Cavafy’s presence in Durrell’s Alexandria was bringing a somewhat ghostly form of him to the attention of a new generation of readers, Rae Dalven’s edition of The Complete Poems appeared (Harcourt, Brace & World 1961) with an introduction by W.H. Auden, in which Auden notes Cavafy’s influence on his own work.

In the fall of 1977, Lawrence Durrell sent Henry Miller a “lucky charm” in the form of a postcard from Alexandria. The card’s occult power was, he said, due to its having been written “on the very desk” where Cavafy wrote two of his best known poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “The City.” The gist of the message is that “Alexandria is still full of luciferian charm and magic.”

Recalling a visit earlier in the same decade in Cavafy’s Alexandria, Keeley observes that it was difficult to move through the streets of the city “without feeling the presence of Cavafy’s ghost.” Durrell says that when he first arrived in Alexandria in 1941, eight years after Cavafy’s death, the poet “was so very present” and “extremely alive in a sense” that he had no difficulty in “transporting him into the city which really belonged to him.” In the same 1975 interview, Durrell admits, “I used him, you know, like you use a character in a novel.” As for his role in the Quartet, the old poet was “the expresser of the essence of the city.”

In fact, Cavafy does not merely haunt the city, its brothels and cafes, he illuminates and evokes it in passages throughout Justine. In one, Durrell’s alter ego Darley recalls visiting “the worm-eaten room” on the Rue Lepsius (the street Cavafy lived on most of his life) “where once the old poet of the city had recited ‘The Barbarians.’” On another occasion, Darley/Durrell describes hearing “with an emotion so deep it was almost horror” a gramophone recording of the old poet reading lines clearly based on an actual poem of Cavafy’s. But then this is the case all through the novel, where you have, in effect, Durrell improvising on existing translations. In another scene, Justine recites “those marvelous lines of the old Greek poet about a love-affair long since past.” For Darley/Durrell, “hearing her speak his lines, touching every syllable of the thoughtful ironic Greek with tenderness, I felt once more the strange equivocal power of the city … and knew her for a true child of Alexandria.”

Cavafy’s Charm

In my five-day tour of Cavafy and Alexandria, I’ve been struck by his use of the second person as a way to bring the reader into the charmed element of the poem. In Durrell’s admitted “transplanting” of an existing translation of “The City,” Cavafy directly approaches you (“You tell yourself”) and later no less directly, intimately addresses you (“Ah, don’t you see”). Durrell may be taking liberties, but being a poet himself, he knows what Cavafy’s doing, as well he should, given his stress on the word “charm” (as in lucky and luciferian) in the postcard he sent Miller. Whether you speak of it in terms of charming or seducing, or simply bringing the reader in, that’s what’s happening; however you describe  the effect — personal, magical/poetical or luciferian — you’ve been charmed.

Cavafy does it again in “Waiting for the Barbarians,” the other piece of the “lucky charm” Durrell sent to Miller. From the first line, “What are we waiting for,” to the closing stanza’s “And now what shall become of us,” you’re in the poem; the question isn’t coming to you from some nameless persona in an unspecified past, it’s coming from Cavafy, as if he were sitting across the table from you in one of the cafes he frequents. The effect is also movingly evident in “The God Abandons Antony,” which Durrell pairs with “The City” on the last page of Justine. As Mendelsohn points out in his commentary, Cavafy is improvising on a passage from Plutarch’s Life of Antony, when his troops had deserted him and “all Alexandria knew that his cause was totally lost.” In Cavafy’s second-person, you the reader are Antony and the city has been set in motion like the dream of a ship departing without you “at darkest midnight.” As the poem ends, the city having become something to “be worthy of” if you can shed misleading dreams and “useless hopes,” Cavafy’s right there with you again in the cafe of his charm, telling you how to endure it, how to say “with courage … your last good-byes/To Alexandria as she is leaving.”

Cruised by Cavafy

So there you are at the cafe table feeling emotional after saying your last goodbyes in “The God Abandons Antony” (the poem also inspired a song by Leonard Cohen), when you realize that the old poet wants to take you home with him, he’s speaking English now, having gone to school in Liverpool from the ages 7 to 14 (his family was in the import-export business). Before you can explain your boringly hetero inclinations, he understands. As W.H. Auden observes, Cavafy is an “exceptionally honest” witness who “neither bowdlerizes nor glamorizes nor giggles,” one who “refuses to pretend that his memories of moments of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.” Auden quotes as an example a poem from 1921 (“Their Beginning”) where Cavafy makes the connection between sex and poetry explicit. After the lovers fulfill “their deviate, sensual delight,” they rise and dress and go their separate ways (“furtively … somewhat uneasily”), “as if they suspect that something about them betrays/into what kind of bed they fell a little while back.” But for the “life of the poet” nothing’s lost; its all gain: “Tomorrow, the next day, the vigorous verses/will be composed that had their beginning here.”

Cavafy’s Ghost?

My well-marked Dell paperback of Justine was in my jacket pocket the night I went walking in Cavafy and Durrell’s Alexandria. I’d been rereading the novel on the boat from Beirut. I was 25. I never considered that I might be at risk, having ignored Durrell’s warning in Justine, that Alexandria “was not really a safe place for Christians.” The problem was that the locales in Justine I’d hoped to see could not be found because the streets had been renamed since Durrell’s time. There was no Rue Lepsius, no Cafe Al Aktar. Ah, but there was Lake Mareotis, and that was all I needed. One line I’d practically marked to extinction began “The first wet blank lamps had begun to stiffen the wet paper background of Alexandria,” which ended with “Mareotis crouched among her reeds, stiff as a crouching sphinx.” The lake also served as the setting for one of the most haunting scenes in Justine, where in the pre-dawn darkness of a duck hunt, the one-eyed Capodistria is killed, “a death that hangs in the still air like bad smell, like a bad joke.”

I had no map. Someone at the fleabag hotel where I was staying had given me sign-language directions, so off I went, throwing myself on the mercy of the “thousand dust-tormented streets” described on the first page of the novel. I soon found myself in the company of a self-appointed guide. I didn’t want company, but I hesitated to tell him so. He was promising me Lake Mareotis. Yes, this way, this way, he’d insist, taking me in precisely the opposite direction to the one I’d been shown. I took out my copy of Justine and pointed to the underlined sentence about the crouching sphinx, explaining to him, idiotically, why the fact that the lake could be found in a novel made it worth searching for: “A lake that is like a sphinx — you know the Sphinx? In Cairo? Near the pyramids?”

Suddenly something happens that changes everything, when he says: “I know that place, the lake like a sphinx. It’s not safe for you.” Nothing is, it seems. I’ve given up ever finding Durrell’s lake, but whenever I see a street I want to start down, he says, “No, no, that’s a bad street. No good for you there.”

It occurs to me as I try to make sense of the memory of that long-ago night, that I’ve consumed too much Cavafy in too short a span of time. It’s his birthday, April 29, as I write. Three competing translations are piled on my desk. I can’t be sure where one leaves off and the other begins, or where Durrell’s old poet becomes the real Cavafy, or if I’m in the company of someone who decided not to cut my throat when I showed him that line about the lake. He’s taken me in, that’s all. Alexandria’s “luciferian charm” is all around us.

There’s no ending, no farewell, as he goes his way and I go mine, it’s like that poem, “Their Beginning,” only nothing happened. Nothing.

I’m looking at the copy of Justine I read at 20, not the paperback, but the hard cover, in which, not knowing any better, I wrote in ballpoint “Noon, April 19,” under the last line on the last page, Durrell’s translation with his italics,

And say farewell, farewell, to Alexandria leaving.”

 

The 1975 interview I mentioned is from Anthony Hirst’s essay in Lawrence Durell and the Greek World, edited by Anna Lillios.

April 24, 2013

davisI had just never heard music like that. I never heard melodies that wafted away and came back to earth a long way off.

—Colin Davis on first hearing Berlioz

I move around a lot because things tend to get bad when I stay.

—Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

It’s just not done. You don’t drive to New Hope with the Berlioz Requiem. It’s too much to ask of Moby, my sturdy 12-year-old Honda CRV, who has just been treated to a new timing belt. But this is a special occasion. Colin Davis, the conductor in charge of the sonic juggernaut rocking the car, died last week, April 14, at 85.

As we speed down down down one hill, gathering momentum for the steeper hill looming dead ahead ten minutes this side of Lambertville, I’m holding on for dear life with my left hand, conducting with my right. We’re into the last of the massive orchestral movements surging toward the Day of Wrath as we hit the upgrade, and here comes grief and glory from the four corners of the earth, four brass choirs playing the fatal fanfare, the Tuba Mirum that, as Davis liked to say, “blows your brains out.” Now Moby’s pushing past horsepower to whalepower like his great white namesake and we’re over the top as the chorus lays a wave of pure sound on the hilltop horizon, 400 voices above a score of thundering drums, it’s as if everyone who ever lived is singing “as all creation rises again.” Then we’re over the top into the sun and wind and the hushed, humbled calm of the Quid sum miser. On to New Hope!

Five Easy Pieces

The idea that “serious music” has to exist apart from the rough and tumble of real life is violated with a vengeance in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces. Until serendipity brought the film my way in the aftermath of Sir Colin Davis’s death, I’d had doubts about doing a column on a British conductor who seemed too far from the American mainstream — too, well, serious. But not if he’s sharing the column with Bobby Eroica Dupea, the blue-collar black sheep of a family of classical musicians played by Jack Nicholson, who turned 76 on April 22.

If you can soar with Berlioz in a Honda, you can get down with Chopin in a pick-up truck. According to Edward Douglas’s biography of Nicholson, the whole film evolved from Rafelson’s vision of Jack “out in the middle of a highway, the wind blowing through his hair, sitting on a truck and playing the piano.” What makes the moment exhilarating is the way it blows through the cliches of class and cinema shaping our expectations. All we know of Bobby when he piles out of his car in the middle of a nightmare of gridlocked, horn-blaring road rage is that he’s a hard-working, hard-living, hard-drinking, hard-bowling handful with a short fuse. Now that he’s out there shouting at the honking drivers (“Ants!”) and barking back at a barking dog, we’re anticipating some vintage American violence, maybe a tire-iron duel to the death, a shoot out, or a kerosene-laced free-for-all that ends with at least one car going up in flames. Instead, Robert Eroica Dupea has spotted a familiar object in the back of an open truck, a piece of furniture he knows all too well; the canvas sheet loosely pulled over it can’t hide the story of his early life. Climbing abroad the truck, he flings the canvas off the piano, sits down, and liberates his demons, pounding out Chopin’s Fantasy in F-minor while back in the car his bellylaughing buddy claps and whoops and cheers him on. And he’s still playing when the traffic begins to move and still at it even as the truck heads off down a side road, he doesn’t care, he’s free, and for all purposes already on his way back to the other half of his life.

Sure enough, next thing you know he’s on the coast highway heading north to the family home on an island in the environs of Seattle. The apparent motive for the visit is to see his dying father, though it’s also clear that he’s fed up with his trailer camp oil-rigger life and feeling burdened by his Rayette, a sweet, sexy, gauche, super-needy, and apparently pregnant Tammy Wynette-wanna-be played to the hilt by Karen Black. On the drive north, there are some moments memorable enough to help secure Five Easy Pieces a place with the best films of its era (see the YouTube clips “Side Order of Toast” and “Palm Apodaca”). It’s also the only American film that German director Wim Wenders “felt close to” at the time of a 1976 interview. Wenders found it “a very European film in a way,” because of the family living in the big “English house” where “everybody is playing an instrument” — ”all that cultural background … it’s not American.”

After leaving Rayette at a nearby motel, Bobby revisits the music-haunted house he grew up in and proceeds to seduce his concert violinist brother’s elegant fiance, Catherine, herself a pianist (as is his sister Partita). The seduction begins when he plays, at her request, Chopin’s prelude No. 4. As a subdued Bobby plays, the camera tours the big room, which is steeped in family history, violins lying about, music manuscripts, framed photographs of family members in performance, Bobby as a youngster, and, of course, framed portraits of Chopin and Mendelssohn. In less than three minutes you understand where he’s coming from and why when he finishes and is complimented for playing with feeling, he insists that he felt “nothing.” The merging of music, imagery, and movement in this sequence is surely among the moments Wenders had in mind when he spoke of European films and English houses.

Smashing It All Up

There’s a definite rough and tumble side to Sir Colin Davis’s story, and a touch of Jack Nicholson’s volatility in a conductor known in his middle years for “schoolboy tantrums” and talking back to the audience. In fact, when the movie-star-handsome Davis was doing his first stint as conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra at around the same age as Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, he was, by his own admission, “a raw young man” battling with “a pretty ferocious bunch of pirates.” In a 2007 interview, he remembers “There were no women in the orchestra except for a harpist who smoked a pipe. And we had lots of battles.” By the time he took over from Georg Solti at the Royal Opera, he was in his mid-forties and had yet to mellow. When members of the audience, unhappy at losing Solti, booed him, he booed back and stuck his tongue out, and the Covent Garden seas remained stormy until he left in 1986.

Like Bobby Dupea, Davis had two families, three, if you count the one he was born into, a struggling bank clerk’s son with six siblings and no electricity housed above a shop in Weybridge, Surrey. In the online Daily Mail article I’ve been quoting from, which is accompanied by the best Colin Davis photos available (in one he’s shown hugging an immense pet iguana, in another he’s on fire conducting, rearing back, one fist clenched, roaring like a lion), he remembers, “We had a zinc bath in front of the coal fire with all these slippery kids jumping in and out. There wasn’t any light except for the fire. It was all rather humble.”

Of the conductor’s other two families, the first was predictably musical, given his marriage at 22 to April Cantelo, a soprano, with whom he had two children, Suzanne and Christopher; while his wife’s career was taking off, he was scuffling for work, reduced at times to babysitting, and in the mid-sixties, when personal and professional revolt were the order of the day, Davis made his move. Sounding like a British variation on Bobby Dupea, he put it this way, as quoted in Norman Lebrecht’s The Maestro Myth: “I decided I didn’t like anything in my life. So I stood back and smashed it all up.”

Unlike Bobby, who abandons his pregnant partner and heads for Alaska, Davis picked up the pieces and put his life back together again. With his marriage dissolving and his career going nowhere, he righted himself by reading Hermann Hesse, Herman Broch, and Nikos Kazantzakis, and falling in love with his family’s former au pair, an Iranian diplomat’s daughter. He married Ashraf Naini (Shamsi) multiple times in order to satisfy both the Iranian and British authorities, once in Tehran, once in the Iranian Embassy in London as well as in a civil ceremony. The marriage produced five children, Kurosh, Kavas, Farhad, Sheida, and Yalda, and lasted 46 years, until Lady Davis, as she was known after Davis was knighted in 1980, died in June 2010. When he was asked how he could go on conducting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House only days after her death, he replied that his strength “comes from the music,” and said of Mozart, “he’s life itself.” In one of his last interviews, he admitted that “not a day passes” that he isn’t “thinking about his own death.” In a Times of London article on the occasion of his 80th birthday in September 2007, he said, “Every piece of music is a rehearsal of one’s own life. It comes out of nothing and disappears into nothing.”

Davis in Action

Go looking for the combative tantrum-thrower online and you’re more likely to find a sage whose gifts as a conductor include humanity and humility, a sense of humor, a poet’s grasp of language, and a willingness to be consumed in the fire of the score when, for example, the object is to set the Berlioz Requiem ablaze in all its tumultuous glory. On YouTube you can see him rehearsing for a millennium concert of that “stupendous” work, telling the violinists among his vast corps of student musicians to think of the tremolos in the Dies Irae as “the fire that’s going to consume you when you’ve been condemned.” These are more than words to Davis; he’s in there physically and emotionally as he demonstrates by clutching an invisible violin and sawing it in a mad frenzy, mouthing the savage sounds, as if he were single handedly conjuring the fire. It’s a frenzy even Jack Nicholson might envy.

I’d rather remember the conductor who said of his art, “The difference between something alive and something dead is that the living thing breathes,” and who could express not only the frenzy and the fire of Berlioz but the “melodies that wafted away and came back to earth,” like the Shepherd’s Chorus from L’Enfance du Christ, of which Davis says in a YouTube interview, “If you’re not moved, I’m sorry for you. You’ll have to move on.”

 

April 17, 2013

DVD revShakespeare, he’s in the alley with his pointed shoes and his bells ….

—Bob Dylan

You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames, that old river poet who never, ever ends …. —Kate Bush

Whatever, whoever he may be, Shakespeare is everywhere. Locally, he was just the subject of an early birthday celebration at the library. Universally, besides being caricatured in Shakespeare in Love (1998) and deified in Berlioz’s Memoirs (1865), he’s in Dylan’s alley “stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again,” whispering poetry in Kate Bush’s elegant ear in “Oh England My Lionheart,” and now and forever, or so I like to think, he’s moving “with sweet majesty” among us like King Henry among his troops the night before the battle of Agincourt in Laurence Olivier’s film, Henry V.

If I were asked this week’s Town Talk question about a favorite work by Shakespeare, I’d give the lazy, easy, obvious answer. But Hamlet was more than a favorite, it was the great insurmountable mist-shrouded summit of graduate school, and by the time I bowed out of the program, I felt like the pilgrim in the old joke about the quest for the meaning of life who finally finds the master’s cave and throws himself at the enlightened one’s feet only to be told “Life is just a bowl of cherries, my son,” except instead of cherries the answer is Shakespeare. Just Shakespeare.

Berlioz knew. The great French composer’s avowed master was not a man of music but a man of words, of whom he wrote after the death of Harriet Smithson, the Irish actress he fell in love with watching her play Juliet and Ophelia: “Shakespeare! Shakespeare! I feel as if he alone of all men who ever lived can understand me, must have understood us both; he alone could have pitied us, poor unhappy artists, loving yet wounding each other. Shakespeare! You were a man. You, if you still exist, must be a refuge for the wretched. It is you who are our father, our father in heaven, if there is a heaven.”

Besides being the subject of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, the actress inspired the love scene from his choral symphony Roméo et Juliette that Toscanini once said was “the most beautiful music in the world.”

In Love

When I was lost in graduate school Elsinore, prowling in and out of the nooks and crannies of Hamlet’s castle, I had a fantasy where, very very late at night, I would zone in on one small glowing window, creeping close enough to peer over Shakespeare’s shoulder as he writes, watching the words being shaped on foolscap in ink as fresh as the moment. My fantasy came to life in Shakespeare in Love, at the end where the young poet is shown scribing two words in Shakespearean script at the top of a fresh white page, “Twelfth Night,” the play he’s writing for and about Viola, as Berlioz wrote for and about Harriet Smithson. Viola’s his muse, the love of his life, who smites him, as Smithson did Berlioz, when she’s playing Juliet. Sure, it’s only a high-tech Hollywood facsimile of the moment of creation, but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling to see on screen, the perfect ending for an unashamedly imperfect film, a brash, broad, wildly romantic, never uncolorful journey. After the words, “Scene One: A sea coast,” are formed, there’s a closeup of the playwright’s hand, thumbnail black with ink, scribing “Viola,” the image fading but still visible as his Viola appears striding along a distant shore, seemingly given life and motion by the movement of his pen.

A great many people, old and young, left Shakespeare in Love feeling good about life and Shakespeare and half in love with Gwyneth Paltrow. Although I had doubts about Joseph Fiennes in the title role, he played it with passion and panache, and who could complain about Geoffrey Rush’s vivid comic turn as Henslowe except maybe Henslowe? Paltrow’s lovely, spirited Viola won the Best Actress Oscar as much for sheer presence as for her performance; it’s her energy, charm, and beauty that gives the film its glow. And on top of that, this piece of commercial bardolatry scored at the box office and won seven Academy Awards, also including Best Picture. “Best” was a poor choice for Paltrow. It should have been “Most Radiant.”

However, having just seen Shakespeare in Love for the first time in 15 years, I find that the glow has faded somewhat, and the film now and then seems forced, sloppy, bogus, and too amused with itself (as in the nasty-kid-who-grew-up-to-be-John-Webster gag). But then I came to it the day after seeing a vastly superior work with a similar subject and setting. Resplendently remastered in the Criterion DVD, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V makes the newer film’s charm, color, warmth, and Shakespearean ambience look one-dimensional.

Higher Ground

When Olivier was advised to film Henry V in “battledress,” — this being wartime, with D-Day looming — he said, “No, it’s got to beautiful.” Given the prevailing conditions — the need to shoot it in Ireland where sufficient numbers of men (650) and horses (150) were available and the sky was free of Luftwaffe planes on their way to the bombing of London — Olivier was too busy to know that his film would develop into one of the most beautiful ever made. Henry V also provided the Shakespeare of film reviewers, James Agee, with one of the great assignments of his life when it opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1946, a year and a half after its inspirational 1944-45 run in wartime England.

In his April 8, 1946 TIME review, which included a cover profile of Olivier, Agee was not as circumspect as he would be months later in his two-part article in The Nation. Under the one-word heading, “Masterpiece,” the review begins, “The movies have produced one of their rare great works of art.” No one distrusted freely dispensed superlatives more than Agee, but he must have known he was making journalistic history. The purpose of the first part of his Nation review was “getting off his chest” all he “could possibly find to object to.” In the TIME review, Agee pulls out the stops: “At last” there has been “brought to the screen, with such sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday, a play by the greatest dramatic poet who ever lived,” “a magnificent screen production,” “one of the great experiences in the history of motion pictures … a perfect marriage of great dramatic poetry with the greatest contemporary medium for expressing it.”

It’s worth noting that Henry V arrived in America at a time when Shakespeare was considered box office poison after the financial debacles of elaborate major-studio productions like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, As You Like It, and Romeo and Juliet. Between the complaints of censors worried about suspect references to God and exhibitors concerned with the film’s excessive length, the powers that be in the States seemed to be conspiring to tarnish Olivier’s triumph, but to no avail, thanks in great part to Agee’s send off in TIME, the most widely read magazine in America.

Agee is still the only writer I know of whose weekly film reportage endures as literature. Surely no one but he would make the effort to envision a future moment when “after many more seeings,” the setting and the casting, “which now seem as nearly perfect as I have ever seen in a film,” might seem “perhaps … a little predictable,” and where “Renée Asherson’s performance as the French princess, which now seems to me pure enchantment, will … look a little coarsely coy.” In fact, Agee is only cleverly covering all the bases, as the next sentence makes clear: “But if this time ever comes I fear also that I will have lost a certain warmth of spirit, and capacity for delight, which the film requires of those who will enjoy it, and which it asks for, and inspires, with a kind of uninsistent geniality and grace which is practically unknown in twentieth century art, though it was part of the essence of Shakespeare’s.”

In addition to indicating why Olivier’s Henry V will never cease to delight him while subtly prescribing the perceptual virtues that make an audience worthy of it, Agee is describing qualities in Shakespeare like those that Berlioz is responding to in his prayerful cry from the heart to the one who “alone of all the men who ever lived” could understand him.

Among the numerous instances in the plays and sonnets where Shakespeare’s humanity has been cited and celebrated, Henry V contains a passage in which the author not only seems to be speaking to us but visiting us, moving among us, a monarch of art in the guise of a king passing anonymously among his troops, a presence at once human and divine. On the night before the Battle of Agincourt, the film delivers a storybook image showing the lights of the French and English camps burning opposite one another like two encampments in a world of night as the chorus — read by Leslie Banks as if Shakespeare were truly speaking through him — sets the scene: “Now entertain conjecture of a time/When creeping murmur and the poring dark/Fills the wide vessel of the universe.”

The image held onscreen for the time it takes to speak those richly resonant words lives and breathes with its own mysterious beauty and suffuses the scene that follows, as the soldiers “by their watchful fires/Sit patiently and inly ruminate/The morning’s danger.” Borrowing a cloak to disguise himself, “the royal captain of this ruin’d band” walks from “watch to watch, from tent to tent … with cheerful semblance and sweet majesty,” so that “every wretch, pining and pale before,/Beholding him, plucks comfort from his looks.” As Olivier’s disguised king brings to life the words of the chorus, he embodies the virtues Agee finds in Shakespeare, “geniality and grace” and “sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty.” He also has the benefit of one of the most endearing lines in literature, spoken like a father to all the children of the world as the chorus continues, with reference to “A largess universal, like the sun,/His liberal eye doth give to every one,/Thawing cold fear,” as “mean and gentle all/Behold, as may unworthiness define,/A little touch of Harry in the night.”

And a little touch of Shakespeare, still and forever moving among us.

 

April 10, 2013

book revIt’s the first day of March and I’m at the new hospital lying on a gurney, unsedated and edgy, nothing to do, no TV I can watch old movies on, as was possible at Robert Wood Johnson. Since I’m waiting to be wheeled in for minor surgery (a “procedure,” they call it), I think about the longest wait I’ve ever endured. Before I know it, I’ve disappeared into a prayer disguised as a daydream that begins with the sense of intense, even delirious anticipation I would feel if J.D. Salinger’s heirs finally announced the release of some of the Glass family stories so many of us know, believe, feel in our bones he was working on for four decades up in his Cornish N.H. bunker. My daydream prayer takes the form of a miles-long caravan of school busses heading toward the Salinger enclave. The drivers are all versions of the Chief of the Comanche Club, John Geduski, who drives the bus in “The Laughing Man,” one of my two favorite stories, along with “For Esmé — With Love and Squalor,” from his 1953 collection, Nine Stories. The kids on board are singing old show tunes; we’re all kids in this Salinger fantasy; it’s like the greatest school trip that never happened. Everyone’s punchy because the feeling is that this demonstration may finally do the trick. We’re 20,000 versions of the amateur reader to whom Salinger dedicated the last work he allowed to appear between covers. That was 50 years ago.

Though we’re waving banners and signs, Free Seymour and What Happened After Hapworth? and The Time Is Now, we’re a pretty respectful group, with people from the stories and books on hand to make sure we behave ourselves, like the two nuns from The Catcher in the Rye, the bride’s uncle with the cigar from “Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters,” the brother with the bleeding thumb and the sandwich from “Just Before the War with the Eskimos,” Mr. and Mrs. Happy from Camp Hapworth, and even Ramona and her imaginary friend Jimmy Jimmereeno from “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” who came with Phoebe Caulfield and her pal Esmé in her tartan jumper and Esmé’s brother Charles in his brown Shetland shorts and navy blue jersey and maybe (this is a daydream) the dead father whose watch helped Staff Sgt X get through the war with his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s intact.

I’m closing my eyes tight enough now that I can clearly see the sprawling multitude the schoolbuses have released and the hopeful hush aglow above them, yes, it’s a radiant hush, a hush you can actually see, like a happy-kid cloud in a William Steig cartoon hovering over the house on the hill as the door opens and the widow and the son and, yes, the daughter (a good sign) step shyly into view, and they’re smiling (an even better sign) and waving. Matthew, he of the cool lima bean, steps forward. He’s holding a copy of The New Yorker, an issue as yet unpublished. He raises it with both hands above his head while his godfather, the recipient of the lima bean, smiles down on him, a benign William Shawn Sun. This is it! A great swooning sigh passes like a wave over the delirious crowd ….

Oops, the gurney’s moving, voices are asking me inane questions as I try to keep the bubble of the fantasy from breaking; the doctor appears, sticks the plastic mouthpiece in my mouth, as if I were a prize fighter, the sedative kicks in along with a blow smack between the eyes like De Daumier-Smith’s “Experience” when the sun came up and sped toward the bridge of his nose “at the rate of ninety-three million miles a second.” Then, as they say in the movies, “everything went black.”

Hope Embattled

Yes, three years after Salinger’s death in January 2010 we’re still waiting for the remainder of his life’s work. By now, it seems only fair that we be given at least some definitive statement one way or the other from his heirs. Surely this is something Salinger himself would want them to do. How could this man, praised in Eudora Welty’s review of Nine Stories, for his “loving heart,” approve the punishing of legions of faithful readers with three years of stony silence? Even if the answer that finally comes is the “Nevermore” we all dread, that would be less cruel than this limbo of not-knowing; worse yet, it would lead to exactly the sort of thing Salinger despised, only in this case, instead of noxious reviews, noxious bookchat speculation about the reasons why. What could be worse? Was it madness, all those years of work, Salinger’s version of The Shining, 45 years of writer’s block, all work and no play? Or was it that the work produced was an embarrassment, so far below the standard that it simply wasn’t fit to show? And what editorial authority on earth is qualified to presume to make that judgment? Perhaps the lesser of all these ugly evils is that Salinger decided that it was his fate to sacrifice the work of his long late period in order to live out the greatest Henry James story never written?

Double Anniversary

This is a double anniversary year for Salinger. April 1953 saw the publication of Nine Stories, the best known and best-selling book of stories by anyone this side of Ernest Hemingway — at least unless you count the last two books, each containing two long Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey (1961) and the one published half a century ago this January, Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction, which on this date in 1963 was sitting atop the New York Times best-seller list, where it stayed throughout the month of April. Is there anything else in American literature comparable to this level of popularity for a so-called “serious” author?

The Glass Mystique

Somewhere in the early sixties, at a table in the Indiana University campus hangout the Gables, an extremely intense guy I hardly knew — I’ve long since forgotten his name if I ever knew it — is expounding at great length on the Glass family history. He’s so excited he’s sweating, his hands are trembling. He’s wearing glasses and the lenses are fogging up from the back draft of the wordstream. He’s giving me the complete genealogy, about Walker and Waker, Boo Boo, and the show biz parents, the apartment on West End Avenue, all of it mixed up with Holden’s family, and Salinger’s. Here’s this virtual stranger baring his soul on a subject that simply wouldn’t give him peace. When I can get a word in, I try out my own theory about Seymour Glass, which is that the man who puts a gun to his temple and pulls the trigger at the end of “Perfect Day for Banana Fish,” the piece that opens Nine Stories, doesn’t match up with the Seymour who becomes the abiding subject and central presence in the later Glass stories. He disagrees, insisting that Salinger had the whole Glass concept in his head from day one.

Having just finished rereading “Bananafish” in the copy of the first edition of Nine Stories I found at the recent Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale, I still think, and I’m surely not alone in thinking, that the Seymour of the story first published in the January 31, 1948 New Yorker is not even a rough draft of the later Seymour but a finite creation, an actor enlisted to perform that one role, there and only there, and is at best a onetime fact of fictional life Salinger would develop into the much more ambitious, various, and delightful character essential to the infrastructure of “Franny” and “Zooey” and all the subsequent Glass stories, presumably including the ones we’re waiting for and dying to see before we die.

It still hurts to read Salinger’s final message to his readers, on the jacket copy he wrote for his last book, when he says he wants to get the two stories collected in “something of a hurry” if he means them “to avoid unduly or undesirably close contact with new material in the series.” [The italics are mine] “There is only my word for it, granted,” he continues, “but I have several new Glass stories coming along — waxing, dilating — each in its own way.” He closes out by admitting that “the joys and satisfactions of working on the Glass family peculiarly increase and deepen for me with the years.” Two years later the New Yorker brings out “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which offers joyful and satisfying evidence that Salinger means to keep his word (see “J.D. Salinger’s Letter from Camp Returned to Sender,” Town Topics, Sept. 13, 2006). On top of that, Buddy Glass’s preface to this installment in the series meant to shed some light on “the short, reticulate life and times” of Seymour Glass, “who died, committed suicide, opted to discontinue living, back in 1948,” actually refers to “a long short story about a particular party, a very consequential party,” that he’s been working on “for several months.”

Compare that elaborately worded citing of Seymour’s suicide to the stark reference to the “Ortiges calibre 7.65 automatic” with which he “fired a bullet through his right temple,” thereupon ending “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” with a shocker that left readers buzzing and helped launch  an extraordinary literary career.

Salinger and Vedanta

Waking up on the gurney feeling nicely woozy, my prayerful fantasy was long gone, as distant as the memory of morning on the day of long, very long, journey, like the one between Amritsar and Srinagar I recalled a month later, on Easter Sunday, reading my way through the journey of Nine Stories to the passage from “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period” that first nailed me, smack between the eyes, in a houseboat called the Little Mona Lisa on Dal Lake in the Vale of Kashmir. The “Experience” with the sun described by the title character was many times more shocking and exciting and real to me than Seymour’s gunshot to the temple after half a year in India, where we’d seen sadhus at Kumbha Mela who could blind you with a look if you got close enough and where our everyday mantra was “Nothing is impossible.” On that note, let’s get those schoolbuses in motion. Time is running out.

News flash: Twenty-eight letters written by Salinger have been given to the Morgan Library & Museum by the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center of New York, a gift commemorating the 150th birthday of Swami Vivekenanda. Salinger’s biographer, Kenneth Slawenski, who, like all of us on those schoolbuses, is waiting for rest of the story, will give a lecture “J.D. Salinger & Vedanta” at the Morgan on Friday, April 12, at 7:30 p.m.

April 3, 2013

AlgonquinWe went to the Algonquin for lunch …. We sat in a big round booth built into the wall that felt cozy like a clubhouse.

—Margaret Salinger

 

I can’t prove it, but I’m pretty sure I was the only person on the packed-to-the-gills Manhattan-bound Jersey Transit train who was reading a 57-year-old paperback edition of J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Aside from the fact that I still spend time rereading Salinger’s fiction while still foolishly looking forward to that legendary trove of unpublished work (hey, it’s only been, what, 47 years?), my choice made perfect sense. We were on our way to a night at the Algonquin, the crown jewel of New York’s literary hotels, where Salinger and his then-editor at the New Yorker, Gus Lobrano, often met to talk about these selfsame stories, all but one of which first appeared in the pages of that magazine. And when the reclusive author made forays into the city from his New Hampshire sanctuary, he would revisit the hotel for lunch with his New Yorker pals William Shawn and Lillian Ross. If you have any doubt about the symbiotic relationship between the magazine and the hotel, take a look at the decor on the hall outside your room and you’ll see framed New Yorker covers from the golden years and framed vintage New Yorker cartoons.

In the time-honored tradition of hotel guests everywhere, I came home with some souvenirs, but you can be sure that this is the only hotel that provides a blue cocktail napkin bearing a quote from playwright George S. Kaufman (“When I was born I owed twelve dollars”); a note pad illustrated with an Al Hirschfeld caricature of the Round Table crowd; a postcard of Natalie Ascendios’s painting of Dorothy Parker and “The Vicious Circle”; and a handsome postcard portrait of Matilda, the hotel’s resident feline. And if you are someone who writes every single day of your life, how can you resist bringing home a card for maid service that says Quiet, Please. Writing the Great American Novel on one side and Service Please. Went Out to Find Some New Ideas on the other.

I almost forgot to mention the Algonquin stationery I made off with. As if anyone could forget the item that at the moment most famously represents this hotel’s intimate connection with literary greatness. You read about it just the other day in the March 27 New York Times article, “Faulkner’s Past Isn’t Dead Yet: You Can Buy It at Auction,” which reports that the sheet of Algonquin stationery on which William Faulkner wrote the first draft of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech is among the pieces of his undead past expected to fetch between $500,000 and $1 million in a June auction at Sotheby’s.

Room 512

We’d always heard that the rooms at the Algonquin were, uh, well, you know, small, and Room 512 was no exception. The fact is, however, that small, cleverly set-up rooms are preferable to big impersonal spaces if you’ve come to the Algonquin hoping to spend quality time in the proximity of the luminaries who have stayed, are staying, and will always stay there. Speaking of Faulkner, you’re also that much closer to the author of Light in August, particularly if you’ve read of his lifelong devotion to the hotel and of the binges he slept off in one or another of its 170-plus rooms. According to various biographies, including Faulkner at 100: Retrospect and Prospect, the novelist was in New York during the fall of 1937 trying to finish The Wild Palms when the woman he’d been having an affair with abandoned him to marry a concert pianist. As a result, he went on “an enormous bender” and “passed out in his hotel room at the Algonquin, with his bare back against a radiator steam pipe, and suffered third degree burns.” The wound was slow to heal, had to be skin-grafted, and made it impossible for him to sit and type for more than an hour at a time. On his next visit to New York, Faulkner resumed seeing the woman for liasions at the Algonquin, where they apparently resumed the affair.

You don’t need a plaque on the wall saying Faulkner made love or suffered or wrote in Room 512. What matters is knowing that by reading, sleeping, passing time in his favorite hotel you’re entering into a literary continuum housed by the Algonquin, and should you doubt it, the image of Matilda, the most recent incarnation of the resident Algonquin cat, is posted on the door to your room with a quote from a typically scathing Dorothy Parker review: “This is not a novel that should be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” The room service breakfast menu contains this choice tidbit from the inimitable Mrs. Parker: “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” Walk into the corridor to take the elevator, and you see that every door has its quote from this or that Round Table wit, along with the aforementioned framed reproductions of New Yorker covers and cartoons.

Remembering

Until last Saturday the only time I’d visited the Algonquin was many years ago for an interview with veteran newspaperman Harry Hansen. All I have to jog my memory of that occasion is a Chicago Tribune article (“A Young Hoosier Author Looks at Writing Game”) that begins, “A studious young man of 20 was talking quietly about the way books get written, in a room where, 36 years before, F. Scott Fitzgerald had aired similar views.” Hansen sets the stage (“It was the cocktail hour at the Algonquin”), noting that “a member of the junior class at Indiana University” was getting “his first glimpse of the red carpet and stained walls that had seen hundred of authors lift a drink in times past.” That was it. I remember neither the carpet nor the walls nor anything else, but my wife does, having met with authors there a number of times over the years in her capacity as an editor at Rutgers University Press. This was her first visit since the recent refurbishment, and though the infrastructure is the same (dark oak woodwork, grandfather clock, black cast-iron stairs), she misses the overstuffed chairs and sofas and other pieces of atmosphere-saturated furniture that made it possible to at least imagine being in touch with authors and editors from the hotel’s Round Table prime. She also misses the miniature four-poster bed near the front of the lobby occupied by the resident Matilda, as all female cats since the 1930s were named; it was Hamlet for the males, thanks to John Barrymore, who named the first stray to cross the threshold.

Regardless of the updated furnishings, the Algonquin aura was all around us when we had breakfast in the lobby with the Ascendios painting of Dorothy Parker and the gang at the Round Table for company (including an upside-down Matilda), not to mention thoughtful service from the Algonquin staff. The legend continued in the Blue Bar with its framed Hirschfeld caricatures of show biz and literary stars, among them Princeton’s Bebe Neuwirth in Chicago.

Lost Time on 35th

That time and memory would figure so prominently during our day in the city was inevitable, and not merely because the first place we went after arriving at Penn Station was to the Morgan exhibit celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way, the first volume of In Search of Lost Time. The Morgan also happens to be in close proximity to the church where we were married a longlost time ago, with a statue of St. Francis looking on, and one of the running jokes of our marriage is that neither of us is ever quite sure which street it’s located on. I said I was sure it was 32nd Street, my wife doubted it, and as we came to within a block of the Morgan, she pointed toward a nondescript structure halfway down 35th Street. Can’t be, said I. Is, said she. We checked, and what do you know, she was right; she usually is.

Proust and Degas

Like our room at the Algonquin, the Swann’s Way exhibit, on view through April 28, was small but striking, a Parisian extension of the continuum marked by a quote from Abbé Mugnier: “Proust? No one is less dead than he is.” We followed the course of his writing life, from ideas scribbled in the tall, slender, elegant cahiers, then the larger student exercise tablets, then the school exam book where he jotted down subjects for Swann’s Way and sketched a bird at the top of one page and at the bottom a slender female presumed to be Albertine. By the time we got to the actual correction-ravaged typescripts, we could see the Abbé’s meaning in the work’s labyrinthine additions and vehement deletions.

On the Morgan’s second floor there’s a fascinating exhibit on view through May 13, focused on a single work by Degas, Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando (1879), his only painting with a circus setting.

A Salinger Moment

In the Jersey Transit waiting room at Penn Station and on the train home, I started reading J.D. Salinger’s For Esmé with Love and Squalor” in my Signet paperback of Nine Stories. The pages are yellowed, faded, and fragrant with the cozy scent of the same cheap paper comicbooks were made of, and it’s pleasant to think back on our night at the Algonquin and to imagine that Salinger and Gus Lobrano met there to talk about this story that never fails to charm and move me and that apparently had the same effect on the many readers who wrote him letters about it after its appearance in the April 8, 1950 New Yorker. We were on the train home when I finished “For Esmé.” As I looked up from the book, I saw a little girl effortlessly forming words on the fluid surface of the iPad being held by her mother, who smiled to see me admiring the beauty of a child seemingly writing on air, and when the mother saw my book, she smiled again, a little sadly, as if she knew the story I’d just read, with its flawless, subtly felt picture of two children, a brother and sister, in  a dark time. Or maybe she was only smiling at the oddity of anyone in 2013 reading a 47-year-old paperback. Any way you looked at it, it was a Salinger moment.

March 27, 2013

book revWith apologies to Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra,” but at the Bryn Mawr–Wellesley book event, “The best is yet to be, the last of the sale, for which the first was made.”

It’s true. The bargain glories of half-price Thursday and box day Friday are yet to be this week at Princeton Day School on the Great Road.

Okay, the first was not made for the last. In fact, the vast stock is routinely ransacked during Monday’s paid preview, but the beauty of Bryn Mawr now, as always, is that the table-sweeping dealers of day one always leave gems in their wake. Almost without exception, some of the sweetest surprises surface on the last day.

 A Sunset Surprise

Once upon a time a long time ago, I was passing through Trieste on my way to India. It was the middle of September and I was watching the sun set from the little bridge called Ponterosso, which spans the Canale Grande. I’d been strolling through the streets of the city thinking of James Joyce, who had lived there on and off in the years between 1904 and 1920. Much of Ulysses was written in Trieste, not to mention Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man and the play Exiles. Thinking the sunset was over, I went off to find a place to have dinner. I hadn’t gone far when something made me walk back to the bridge, one of those mysterious, slightly paranoid cover-your-back feelings. The sky was black and the street lights were coming on as I gazed the length of the canal toward the harbor and the Gulf of Trieste, watching, wide-eyed, as the night was savaged by one of the darkest, deepest, reddest, most passionate skies I’ve ever seen. It was as if the sunset had been dead and buried and had come flaming back to life, lifting the whole mass of settled night on its back. And there it stayed, burning like a fire on the horizon while I stood staring at the vision for what felt like a full ten minutes. If it hadn’t been so beautiful, it would have been terrifying.

When I first made the connection bet-ween that surprise sunset and “the best is yet to be notion” of the last days at Bryn Mawr, I considered building a column around the analogy, but, as may be obvious, the event, still so vivid in my memory, seemed too grand for a mere book sale—at least until I thought about Joyce and the grandeur of Ulysses. My next thought was that this was, after all, no mere book sale but one that was distinguished by the late Peter Oppenheimer’s donation, discussed here on March 20 (“Remembering My First Bryn Mawr Book Sale and a Man Who Was Interested in Everything”). I’d stopped by last weekend to see his books before they were scattered to the wind during Monday’s chaotic preview. As I scanned the Oppenheimer tables fresh from my Trieste sunset reverie, it was hard not to take special notice of his copies of The Exile of James Joyce and Ulysses Annotated with its cover image of Dublin and the Liffey. It was clear that Peter had spent a lot of time with Ulysses Annotated. 

That night I searched online for Trieste and the Ponterosso and found that in 2004 the city and the James Joyce Society had erected a statue of Joyce shambling across the little bridge and installed him right about where I’d been standing when I witnessed that once-in-a-lifetime sunset. It’s one of those appealingly human sculptures, like Princeton’s own true to life J. Seward Johnson depictions of the man reading a newspaper and the boy eating a hamburger. The plaque next to the statue says it was installed on June 16, the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. Above Joyce’s name and dates (1882-1941) is a quote from his letter to Nora dated October 27, 1909; “la mia anima è a Trieste” (my soul is in Trieste).

There was no need for a plaque with Peter Oppenheimer’s name and dates at Bryn Mawr. His anima was very much there in his love for the books filling the six tables on the main floor and the tables and bookcases in Collectors’ Corner.

A letter from a Princeton friend and neighbor of Peter’s offers amusing evidence of his passion. Apparently he kept recent additions to his collection stacked waist high in his kitchen or scattered about on his stove top or even in his oven, which had long ago been made obsolete by a micro-wave. Eventually, the kitchen library would have to give way to an influx of new arrivals. As for great finds, Peter had discovered his “coffee table-sized,” leather-bound, two-volume version of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary at a flea market propping up the broken leg of a fold-up card table.

A Darconville Coincidence

Ever since I learned of Peter Oppenheimer’s death, I’ve been trying to recall the subject of our last conversation, which took place at the Princeton Record Exchange sometime late last spring, not long, it seems, before he died. What particularly bothers me is that he’d asked me for some information about a particular book or film I’d mentioned in a recent column. Then something or someone interrupted the conversation, Peter was gone, the issue unresolved, a chance encounter with no denouement, unless these two Town Topics columns could count—and perhaps the one just before, about Alexander Theroux’s fantastic novel, Darconville’s Cat.

In that March 13 column I referred to my quest for Darconville through five years of bookstores and book sales. The search was focused on nothing else. I had no list. It was Darconville, Darconville, and nothing but Darconville, at bookstores, always the same question, always the same answer. At Bryn Mawr and Friends of the Library sales between 2007 and 2012, I kept on the lookout for a copy amid the ebbing, flowing tides of recent fiction, hardcover or paper. People still questing during Bryn Mawr’s closing days will understand that not finding the treasure is essential to the fun of searching. I finally gave up last fall, ordered the book online, read it, and wrote about it.

Almost the instant I began scanning the Oppenheimer tables, there it was—Darconville’s Cat staring me in the face. The photocopy of the hapless New York Times review from May 28, 1981 inserted inside it suggested that Peter had had more than a casual interest in the novel, and had at least read around in it. That the book I’d been obsessed with finding had meant something to him was obvious, if only because it was among a handful of novels by better known authors that were far outnumbered by works of non-fiction. It’s easy to imagine the conversation we might have had, my tale of the quest, his response to the column and the coincidence. Mention of Alexander Theroux would have given him the opportunity to tell me about his Peace Corps relationship with Theroux’s brother Paul and the reunion visits to his home on Cape Cod.

A Last Conversation

Now the only sort of “conversation” Peter and I can have is through the two books I found on Monday after the six tables holding the Oppenheimer collection had been swept during the morning rush. One of the survivors with Peter’s name in it was a curious little book I used to own called Reading Finnegan’s Wake, published in 1959 by an obscure press in Woodward, Pa. Given the surreal nature of the secondhand book market, there’s even a slight possibility that this is my old copy. The other Oppenheimer item I found was an edition of Yeats’s Collected Poems from the mid 1950s, which I bought in spite of the condition (the cover is a mess) because it was the only book I found that Peter had written more than his name in. I should mention that there was no rhyme or reason for the Irish turn this imaginary conversation had taken. The cover illustration on Reading Finnegan’s Wake (“The Ballad Singer”) is by Yeats’s painter brother Jack and on the back board W.B. Yeats himself is quoted quoting James Joyce to the effect that he and Jack “have the same method” and that he just purchased two of Jack’s paintings of the Liffey. What Peter wrote on the fly leaf of his copy of Yeats’s Collected Poems, in his crowded, tiny hand, was this: “Why should we honor those that die upon the field of battle, a man may show as reckless a courage in entering into the abyss of himself.” The quote comes from Yeats’s essay, “The Courage of the Artist.” wake

For detailed information on the Bryn-Mawr–Wellesley Book Sale, visit http://www.bmandwbooks.com. The sale is at Princeton Day School on the Great Road. Hours: Wednesday, March 27, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Half-Price Day, Thursday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Box day, Friday, March 29, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

March 20, 2013

book rev1My early and invincible love of reading I would not exchange for all the riches of India.

—Edward Gibbon

I bought no books at my first Bryn Mawr Book Sale, April 28, 1976. I was incapable of serious browsing, having witnessed earlier that same morning the birth of my first, and only, child. I was floating. I floated in and I floated out. I don’t mean to slight the community’s single largest book event, but much as the arrival of a life in the context of Bryn Mawr 1976 puts the occasion in philosophical perspective, so does the loss of a life in the context of Bryn Mawr-Wellesley 2013. The life lost — that of Princeton bibliophile/philosopher/scholar/enlightened enthusiast Peter Oppenheimer — has given the sale one of the most sizeable and categorically rich and diverse donations in its history. Fifteen thousand volumes of philosophy, mathematics, history, art, music, literary criticism, literature, and biography, among other subject areas from Oppenheimer’s library, will be divided between the 2013 and 2014 events. Next week’s five-day sale begins with a $20 preview at 10 a.m., Monday, March 25, at Princeton Day School on the Great Road.

I didn’t leave my first Bryn Mawr sale empty handed, by the way. I had the piece of sheet music shown above in my hand. The cover silhouette of “Hindustan” signified another blessed event, my newborn book, Indian Action: An American Journey to the East. The lyrics were pure Tin Pan Alley circa 1918, “Shades of night are falling, nightingales are calling, every heart enthralling,” but the cover image was all it took to seal a special day and it’s been on display near my desk ever since.

Meeting Peter

My Bryn Mawr-Hindustan child’s first 10 years coincided with a particularly rich period in the used-book life of Princeton, centered in those days on bookstores like Witherspoon, Micawber, and the Cranbury Book Worm, and the annual sales at the library and at Bryn Mawr venues that eventually included Baker Rink and the rink at PDS, where I could sometimes be found with my son in one arm and a pile of books in the other. The 1980s were also a kind of golden age of garage and estate sales where extraordinary books could be found practically every week from spring through fall. But it was when Logan Fox came to town in 1981 and opened Micawber Books that the golden age truly began, since his store, true to its name, had a way of turning up wondrous somethings from some of Princeton’s most interesting libraries. Every week he seemed to be putting out rarities I could afford only by trading the previous weekend’s garage/estate sale finds. And it was at Micawber one day that Peter Oppenheimer and I arrived at a friendly territorial impasse. The objects of mutual desire were a set of Thomas DeQuincey from the 1850s, and two enormous, beautifully bound and lavishly illustrated books about Paris from the early 1830s. Peter got DeQuincey. I got Paris. If you believe in book sale fates and sheer serendipity, both these bones of ancient contention could turn up at next week’s sale.

Google Is Peter

Peter rarely if ever showed up at the garage and estate sales. Nor did he have any desire to join the stampede that had been a feature of the Bryn Mawr preview mornings until the folks in charge book rev2found a way to create an orderly procession — one that at least stays that way until people reach the arena where most of the books are. Then the game is on. Books fly off the tables, and you see big boxes dwarfing pairs of human legs moving weirdly about like book creatures in a book nerd’s nightmare while massive piles of hooded spoils rise in all corners. Peter would appear only after the heavy hitters had gone, and could sometimes be found there in the post-storm quietus when it was possible to calmly prowl and muse and putter amid the neglected multitudes.

Fortuitously based in the air-tight vault occupied by the Witherspoon Art & Book Store in the old Princeton Bank and Trust building on the corner of Nassau and Bank Streets, Peter was able to make the most of his enthusiasm for and wide knowledge of scholarly books as a trusted aide to the store’s owner Pat McConahay. “Wide knowledge” is an understatement. Peter’s family was in awe of his range. According to an email from his sister Lucy, “He was interested in EVERYthing.” To his younger brother Daniel, “Before Google, there was Peter.”

He was born in New York City, his mother an assistant classics professor at Hunter College, a musician, and a “Renaissance woman,” his father a mechanical engineer with an interest in language. Peter began reading at age three, was collecting books by the time he got to high school and would make notes on every volume he read in tiny print on 4 x 6 cards, a practice he kept up for the rest of his life. Browsers at next week’s sale may find some of these note cards still tucked between the covers of his books, although the print is so small you may need a magnifying glass. When I first knew him, Peter had serious ocular issues and seemed able to read only by holding printed matter right up to his eyes. Lucy says it’s because he used only one eye and had learned to read whole paragraphs at a time, “which is why he read so fast.” If we were in an R. Crumb comic strip about book freaks, Peter would appear as Barney Google and I would be a bearded Dagwood Bumstead forever barely making it onto the back of the bookstore bus.

Slightly built and intense, seemingly always processing thoughts, never without something to say, Peter talked a blue streak — “all over the place,” Lucy fondly recalls, “the same way he read.” It would be wrong, however, to restrict his story to a purely bookish environment. After graduating from the University of Chicago, where he studied mathematics, philosophy, and symbolic logic, he served in Malawi, East Africa in the first generation of the Peace Corps, an experience his sister says had “a powerful impact on him,” such that in the last few years he would reconnect with the others in his group every summer on Cape Cod at the home of novelist Paul Theroux, visits Lucy says “Peter thoroughly enjoyed.”

After Witherspoon closed in June 2005, Peter and I continued to encounter one another on Nassau Street, at the library, and in the Princeton Record Exchange. He always had more than books to talk about. Sometimes he would be responding to some film or book or record I’d written about in that week’s Town Topics. Like me, Peter came of age in the 1960s and was touched for life with the sixties spirit, so it’s no surprise that the Portable Beat Reader is among the books of his in Bryn Mawr’s Collectors’ Corner, along with the first edition of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

The scope of Peter’s holdings in classics and philosophy is staggering. His sister estimates that he owned 15 complete or partial versions of Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Among the hundreds of his books in Bryn Mawrs’ Collectors’ Corner are Cross Cultural Encounters in Joseph Conrad’s Malay Fiction; Japan Through American Eyes; Between Geography and History; Age, Marriage and Politics in Fifteenth-Century Ragusa; Journey to the East: The Jesuit Mission to China, 1579-1724. You get the idea. The list sometimes has the aura of a Borges library: The Ghost Festival in Medieval China; Vitruvius: Ten Books on Architecture; Death in the Tiergarten; Shipwreck with Spectator; and The Merciless Laboratory of History.

Asked to name favorite writers or specific literary, historical, scientific, or philosophical fixations of Peter’s, Lucy could only say that many of his books related to Samuel Johnson, Boswell, and English literature and history. That makes sense, for Samuel Johnson was, like Peter, interested in EVERYthing and perhaps best known for once telling Boswell, “When a man tires of London, he tires of life.” A portion of Peter’s “London” will be at Princeton Day School next week. It’s sad to think that this is one Bryn Mawr-Wellesley sale Peter would have stood in line for on opening day, it’s his dream, his baby, the sum of his heart’s desire.

For detailed information on the Bryn-Mawr Wellesley Book Sale, visit www.bmandwbooks.com. Preview Day Monday, March 25, admission is $20 per person, with hours from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Preview sale admission tickets have been issued using a lottery system. Tickets may also be bought at the door. Preview sale customers will have a chance to sign up for Collectors’ Corner as they pick up the tickets. The sale is open to the public on Tuesday, March 26, and Wednesday, March 27, from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Half-Price Day, Thursday, the hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Box day, Friday, March 29, hours are 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

March 13, 2013

book rev 2In Beat Generation scripture Carl Solomon asks Allen Ginsberg, “Who are you?” to which Ginsberg instantly replies, “I’m Prince Myshkin,” asking the same of Solomon, who says, unhesitatingly, “I’m Kirilov.” The two poets identifying themselves as the holy fool and the nihilist from The Idiot aren’t delusional, they’re just living in Dostoevsky. So was Jack Kerouac, who called him Dusty, and so are generations of readers, who, like actor/writer Stephen Fry, put him foremost among those great writers who were “not to be bowed down before and worshipped, but embraced and befriended,” and who “put their arms around you and showed you things you always knew but never dared to believe.”

It Began in Princeton

Award-winning Dostoevsky biographer Joseph Frank (1918-2013), who died in Palo Alto on March 3, wrote the first volumes of his magnum opus in Princeton, where he lived at various times during the 1950s and from 1966 to 1985. Early in his preface to Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time (2010), the one-volume edition of the five-part work published by Princeton University Press, Frank pays his respects to “the much lamented and gifted novelist” David Foster Wallace, “the most perceptive reader of my first four volumes.” The only sentence quoted from Wallace’s essay, however, is the one in which he contrasts Frank’s approach to that of James Joyce biographer Richard Ellman, who “doesn’t go into anything like Frank’s detail on ideology or politics or social theory.”

Enter David Foster Wallace

Intrigued by the appearance of the Generation X author of Infinite Jest in the preface to what was for all purposes the swan song of Frank’s great work, I sought out the essay in question, “Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky,” which originally appeared in 1996 in the Village Voice Literary Supplement as “Feodor’s Guide” and can be found in Wallace’s 2005 collection, Consider the Lobster.

The first thing that caught my attention in Wallace’s quirky, refreshingly candid, and highly personal essay was the way his presentation of the genesis of Frank’s book clarified Princeton’s place in the story, something the New York Times’s notably skimpy obituary failed to do: “In 1957 one Joseph Frank, then thirty-eight, a Comparative Lit professor at Princeton, is preparing a lecture on existentialism.” The text Frank is “working his way through” is Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, “a powerful but extremely weird little novel” whose protagonist’s “disease” is “a blend of grandiosity and self-contempt, of rage and cowardice, of ideological fervor, and a self-conscious inability to act on his convictions.”

After describing how Frank comes to realize that Notes from the Underground and its Underground Man “are impossible really to understand without some knowledge of the intellectual climate of Russia in the 1860s,” Wallace caught my attention again by expressing concern for Joseph Frank’s physical health: “The amount of library time he must have put in would take the stuffing out of anybody, I’d imagine.” He’s responding to the photo of Frank on the back jacket of The Miraculous Years, 1865-1871, observing that “he’s not exactly hale, and probably all serious scholars of Dostoevsky are waiting to see whether Frank can hang on long enough to bring his encyclopedic study all the way up to the early 1880s.”

Of course Frank, who must have been amused by the younger writer’s solicitude, not only hung on until 2002 when he delivered the final volume, The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881, he was still around eight years later for the single-volume edition that gave him an opportunity to acknowledge “the much lamented and gifted novelist” who, a victim of chronic depression, had taken his own life in 2008.

What Wallace Needs

After getting marginally personal on the subject of Frank’s photograph, Wallace goes all the way to the other side of objectivity with the first of a series of intimate asides so much in the style of Notes from the Underground that if it were not for the double asterisks surrounding the paragraph, you might almost think he was quoting from Dostoevsky. By now Wallace definitely has my attention. What’s going on? Frank would surely have been asking the same question even as he recognized the obvious resemblance between Wallace’s manner and that of the Underground Man. Meanwhile, readers who think of Wallace as an ironist would be rolling their eyes or at least scratching their heads. In a 1996 interview with Laura Miller, Wallace mentions the conflict between “the part of us that can really wholeheartedly weep at stuff, and the part that has to live in a world of smart, jaded, sophisticated people, and wants very much to be taken seriously by those people.”

No doubt about it, the intimate questionings inspired by Dostoevsky’s Notes were not written for “those people.” Asking himself whether he’s “a good person,” Wallace wonders does he even “want to be a good person” or does he only want to “seem like one,” and does he ever actually know whether he’s morally deluding himself? Another aside on the meaning of faith is no less naked, for “Isn’t it basically crazy to believe in something there’s no proof of?” or “is needing to have faith sufficient reason for having faith? But then what kind of need are we talking about?” At this point, it begins to seem that Wallace is no longer writing for the general reader but is deliberately, “wholeheartedly” laying himself open for Frank’s benefit: “Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? Isn’t this a selfish way to live? Forget selfish — isn’t it awfully lonely?” Then: “But if I decide to decide there’s a different, less selfish, less lonely point to my life, won’t the reason for this decision be my desire to be less lonely, meaning to suffer less overall pain?”

What’s striking about these heartfelt soliloquies is the sense that Wallace feels the closest he can come to communicating with Dostoevsky is through Frank since it’s Frank who is most intimately committed to the life and the work, so it’s to Frank that Wallace bares his soul. A decade later, when the biographer picks up the essay again while working on a preface for the one volume edition in the all but immediate aftermath of the young writer’s suicide, how could he not help but see a foreshadowing of Wallace’s fate in the naked need expressed in those anguished asides?

Two Wives

Any writer who depends on a partner for editorial and moral support will have a special interest in the relationship between Dostoevsky and his second wife, Anna, who came to him as a stenographer and a sympathetic reader. At the age of 15, as Frank relates, Anna had “tearfully pored over installments of The Insulted and the Injured,” with special sympathy for “the tenderhearted but hapless” narrator, whose “deplorable fate” she identified with “that of the author.” Frank suggests that even before Anna became Dostoevsky’s wife, she was an invaluable aide to his life and work: “Encouraged by Anna’s cool determination, Dostoevsky settled down to a regular routine … was much calmer … and became more and more cheerful as the pages [of his short novel, The Gambler] piled up.”

After acknowledging the “arduous” two-year task accomplished by editor Mary Petrusewicz in compressing five volumes into Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank takes the customary conjugal statement of gratitude to another level. Previous volumes had acknowledged Marguerite Straus Frank’s “linguistic and literary sensitivity,” and a draft of the fifth volume was actually withdrawn and rewritten in the light of her suggestions. Ahead of the one-volume edition, Frank explains that because she was dissatisfied with his treatment of “perhaps the most complex of all the female characters in Dostoevsky’s novels, the beautiful and ill-fated Nastasya Filippovna of The Idiot,” his wife had “so much altered and enriched” his own initial views that he “asked her to express them herself,” thus the pages devoted to Nastasya Filippovna in Dostoevsky: A Writer in his Time, “come from her pen.”

Marguerite Frank explained the difference of opinion in a 2009 interview with Cynthia Haven in the Stanford Report. “Joe’s not interested in Nastasya — he’s interested in the ‘Idiot,’” meaning Prince Myshkin. While Dostoevsky, like other great writers of the period, was “fascinated by fallen women,” Natasya is no fallen woman: “She’s an absolutely pure victim.”

book rev 1

Photo courtesy of L.A. Cicero/Stanford News Service.

Joseph Frank’s first book, The Widening Gyre: Crisis and Mastery in Modern Literature, was published in 1963 by Rutgers University Press, whose then-director William Sloane encouraged him to edit the Selected Letters of Fyodor Dosteovsky, which was eventually published by Rutgers in 1986. Though Frank taught at Rutgers, the definitive appointment (not counting his 1953 marriage to Marguerite) came in 1954 when he arrived in Princeton to give the Christian Gauss Seminars in Criticism, a program he would later direct for 18 years. In 1976, Princeton University Press brought out the first volume of the biography, The Seeds of Revolt. 1821-1849 (1976), which won both the James Russell Lowell Prize of the Modern Language Association and Phi Beta Kappa’s Christian Gauss Award in criticism. Volume Two, The Years of Ordeal, 1850-1859, won the National Critics Circle Award, the first Princeton University Press book to receive that honor.

March 6, 2013

book revIf this column were a film, I’d begin with a close-up of Robert Mitchum’s hands in Night of the Hunter (1955), where he plays a psychopathic preacher who has LOVE tattooed on the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the knuckles of the other. Then I’d cut to the bizarre scene in Gilda (1946) between estranged lovers, Glenn Ford’s Johnny and Rita Hayworth’s Gilda, where they express their deep mutual detestation, Gilda saying, “I hate you, too, Johnny,” as they move closer to one another. “I hate you so much,” closer, closer, “I think I’m going to die from it.” As they kiss, passionately, she repeats in a voice that makes you feel that she means every word, “I think I’m going to die from it.”

The protagonist of Alexander Theroux’s vast, rich, diabolically labyrinthine enterprise, Darconville’s Cat (Doubleday 1981, 704 pages) dies from an overdose of both emotions. This Divine Comedy plumbing the circles of love and hate was included by Anthony Burgess in Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. Besides being nominated for a National Book Award, it also made the Good Reads list of the 100 Top Literary Novels of All Time.

For almost five years I scoured secondhand bookstores and book sales looking for Darconville’s Cat, my interest aroused by Theroux’s massive tour de force Laura Warholic: or the Sexual Intellectual (2007), which I wrote about here in February 2008. In spite of Darconville’s stature, not a single bookseller I asked in the U.S., Canada, or England had heard of it; the only Theroux they knew was Alexander’s brother Paul. Last October I gave up the quest, ordered the novel online, and began reading.

Five months later here I am still in one piece and thankful that in spite of some dicey moments amid the cliffs and crags along the way, I achieved the summit of Mt. Darconville last week. If I could give a pep talk to the exhausted, fainthearted readers I saw cowering and panting in shelters along the way, I’d urge them to struggle to their feet and soldier on, for it would be a great loss to miss out on the inspired last chapters of the doomed romance of Alaric Darconville and Isabel Rawsthrone, two names Poe would admire. In truth, you can feel the shadow of the divine Edgar hovering over Darconville’s conclusion, which takes place in the drafty ancestral palazzo in Venice where the dying author is writing his love-hate epic.

Is It Unreadable?

By now it goes without saying that reading Darconville is a challenge. It takes time, patience, and stamina. If you need encouragement, look at the reviews by people on the Good Reads blog suggesting a “best-book-ever” level of enthusiasm. Some recently posted comments: “seductive by nature and intellectual by design”; “there was not a moment when I wished it was over, not even when it really was over”: “haven’t read anything like this … a rarity of rarities, of which there is a huge dearth in the world of literature”; “a stupefying triumph of superhuman eloquence”; “my favorite book of all time”; “among my top ten all-time favorites.”

One reader speaks for many when mentioning the need to “pull out my dictionary on almost every page,” and an industrious individual on the Good Reads blog has searched for and defined, everything from “alloplasts” on page vii of the introductory Explicitur to “vulnerary” on page 698. However, my advice to climbers attempting to ascend this storm-wracked mountain is to hold tight to the rope-line of the Darconville-Isabel relationship, keep it firmly in hand against all unearthly, ungodly, sublunary distractions, and don’t stop to look up every single word along the way (you’ll never make it out of the base camp), just enjoy the blighters in the abstract, or else for the crazy poetry, the way you enjoy the names Theroux invents for his characters, like those of Darconville’s colleagues at Quinsy College for women, Miss Dessicquint, the assistant dean who looks like Nosferatu, or Miss Throwswitch, the drama teacher, not to mention the students in his class, including Scarlet Foxwell, LeHigh Hialeah, Hallowe’ena Rampling, and the ravishing Hypsipyle Poore, who at one point early on seems to be being groomed to be the object of Darconville’s passion.

Glorious Vengeance

Apparently there was a real-life Isabel who actually abandoned the real-life Alexander Theroux at the altar, which motivated him to take revenge by writing the novel that became Darconville’s Cat, or so he claims in a 1978 New York Times Magazine article. Theroux calls revenge the “single most informing element of great world literature,” transcending even “love and war.” As an example, he cites George Orwell’s claim that among a writer’s primary motivations is “to get your own back on grownups who snubbed you in childhood.” Darconville teems and pulses with the power and glory of vengeance writ fantastically large. No other novel from any time or place that I can think of comes close for sheer excess of payback accompanied by literary bonuses, sideshows, thrill rides, and special features. The compulsively satirical scope of the production suggests that Theroux was also settling some scores and righting some wrongs that related not just to the girl and her lover or lovers but to the entire community, the college, the town, the region, and the world. Of course he was also simply having a lot of writerly fun.

Come to think of it, how much fun would it be to imagine reading the novel over Isabel’s shoulder? Judging from the 1969-1973 span of his stint at Longwood College in Farmville, Virginia, Theroux would have been 29, the original Isabel 18, when they met. Which means that by the time she first held the published book in her hands she’d have been married eight years and would be pushing 30 and perhaps raising children. One thing Theroux counted on was that the dimensions of his revenge would be reflected in the magnitude of the vehicle. Merely opening the mighty volume, she’d be hard put not to feel some awe at the tangible enormity of the thing. Doubleday presented it in a form worthy of a work of lasting worth. The pages alone have an elegance relative to the norm, the edges evenly uneven, not dull and flat, and, more important, the cover, from a painting by the author himself, exudes an 18-19th century patina worthy of the protagonist’s noble d’Arconville pedigree. The handsome, slightly flushed face could represent any number of doomed romantic heroes including Goethe’s Werther, Poe’s Roderick Usher, Theroux himself in a self-portrait as protagonist, or John Keats, whose sonnet “Dark Star” Darconville amusingly teaches to the girls of Quinsy College.

Isabel Reading

A glance at certain chapter titles scattered throughout the voluminous contents would have alerted Isabel to the devious intentions of her old flame. But how could she resist a love-hate letter 704 pages long containing eloquent, stirring rhapsodies on her beauty and deeply felt accounts of the idyllic splendor of the relationship? And how would she deal with the section where Darconville’s satanic Harvard mentor Dr. Crucifer delivers his brutal, unabated, protracted, and definitive condemnation of the female sex. Her hair would surely be standing on end as she read, in spite of herself, the nine-page chapter brimming over with Crucifer’s manifold schemes for ways that she, Isabel, could be tortured, mutilated, or exterminated (“Drill holes into each of her teeth. wire them, and drag her over miles of steaming bitumen! …. Strip off portions of her skin, paint them, and then use them for tiny kites”). And how gratifying for Theroux if the distracted woman finds herself inexplicably, perversely engaged by the horror of it all, given the audacity and witty felicity with which her former lover sets his madcap love-hate goblins dancing and raving.

Better yet when Isabel lets herself be drawn into the chapter titled “The Supreme Ordeal,” where Theroux is able to move from the mode of Cruciferian overkill to a fully felt, devastatingly graphic and real account of Isabel’s rejection of Darconville, she may even find herself hurting for him as she refused to do in real life. Tempted still further into the dark woods of the narrative, she would tiptoe behind Darconville, who has a gun in his pocket and Crucifer’s misogynistic admonitions screaming in his brain, until she came up against the moment where her fictional alter ego’s life was on the line. Here, with everything turning on a single word, the author has her (and has us). She’s his, the reader-victim weeping, ravished, emotionally undone by his ardent and malevolent genius. Meanwhile Theroux is setting up the Venetian denouement to ensure that she will suffer with him, again in spite of herself, looking over the shoulder of the man dying for love of her, as he lays his magnum opus at her feet, “a past, a memory, calling him back to search and remember what in the knowledge that is revealed at the heart of all violation can be transfigured by the hand of art.”

About the Cat

I knew my quest for a copy of Darconville’s Cat had tipped into obsession when I found myself hopefully scouting the Pets and Animals sections of various secondhand bookshops in case some incompetent clerk had carelessly filed it there. As his name suggests, Spellvixit has little in common with the cat that will be appearing on Broadway in Breakfast at Tiffany’s; this is no “poor slob without a name,” no sentimental deus ex machina, this is Darconville’s true mate (always  a “he,” never an “it”), his spiritual companion, and you know he’s doomed when Spellvixit runs away as he’s rushing to catch a plane that will take him to his “supreme ordeal” with Isabel. When he returns to the ancestral palazzo on Corte del Gatto (where else?) to write and die, he’s in Spellvexit’s city, for the cat grew up there with Darconville’s grandmother. It would take another column to begin to fathom the cat’s significance in the haunted chambers of Theroux’s masterpiece; suffice it to say that in his last moment of life, Darconville cries out “desperately and loud, “My cat! My cat!” 

February 27, 2013

DVD revWhile channel-surfing the other night, I found myself watching the beginning of a film I’d already seen and had no intention of seeing again. That’s Fred MacMurray slumped at a desk in the film noir shadows of the headquarters of the Pacific All Risk Insurance Company. He’s talking into a dictaphone, about to confess to his boss his part in a sordid tale of claim-rigging, murder, and betrayal. The room onscreen is so deep in the murk of its mood it seems to be glowering at me from the third dimension. Never mind that the man slowly bleeding to death is being played by one of my least favorite actors, he’s sinking his teeth into the role of a lifetime, a mortally wounded insurance salesman named Walter Neff mouthing the hardboiled poetry of Raymond Chandler, with contributions by director Billy Wilder, from a novella by James M. Cain. That’s all she wrote, I’m stuck, can’t turn it off, can’t stop watching, can’t change the channel, Turner Classic Movies scores again.

As the scene shifts to a daylight flashback that shows Neff driving up to a nifty little Spanish colonial hillside chateau, I shout out, “It’s Double Indemnity, Barbara Stanwyck’s house in Los Felix!” and my wife, who grew up in L.A. and loves this movie, comes running.

The house is still there, though according to underthehollywoodsign.com, the reality is not in Los Felix but in the Hollywood Dell. “It was one of those California Spanish houses everyone was nuts about 10 or 15 years ago,” Neff is telling us. The interior, according to the screenplay, is “Spanish craperoo in style” with a wrought-iron staircase curving down from the second floor.

And look who’s coming down that unworthy staircase.

By now my wife’s sitting in her usual place beside me to enjoy one of the seminal moments in film noir played to tawdry perfection by a woman we feel as close to as we would to a glamorous beloved relative who’s been dead for 22 years. We’re familiar with every nuance of her voice, with the way she walks, and moves, and we can imagine her having a laugh with the crew about that big blond wig she’s wearing and the ankle bracelet or “anklet,” as Walter Neff calls it, his eyes fastened on the ankle it’s fastened to while he snidely fields sinister queries from the shady lady about her husband’s life insurance policy. Call it what you will, the effect that little adornment has on Walter is devastating. Stanwyck’s anklet is to Double Indemnity as Rosebud is to Citizen Kane, everything evolves from it, and Walter’s a goner the moment he sees it, as is Stanwyck’s about-to-be-double-indemnified husband.

According to Shadows of Suspense, the documentary accompanying the Universal Legacy Series 2-Disc DVD of Double Indemnity, when Fred MacMurray was offered the part, his are-you-kidding-me response was, “I’m a saxophone player. I do light comic stuff with Claudette Colbert.” Barbara Stanwyck was afraid the film would ruin her career. The beauty of casting a “regular guy” like MacMurray was that audiences would be fascinated by the there’s-a-killer-in-all-of-us aspect, and as a result the glib, regular-guy insurance agent Walter Neff has become one of the rare characters from vintage Hollywood whose name is as much a part of movie lore as the name of the star playing him. If the same can’t be said for Phyllis Dietrichson, the name of the scheming wife, it’s because Stanwyck’s allure overwhelms the impersonation. MacMurray is a mere mortal transcending himself in a killer role. Stanwyck is a luminary from a loftier realm who in 1944 was said to be the highest paid woman in the United States.

Academy Awards 1944

Besides being the only film noir to come close to winning a Best Picture Oscar (it lost to the upbeat, feel-good, priests-can-be-charming box-office smash, Going My Way), Double Indemnity also fits the sub genre of the so-called “buddy movie” most recently represented by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. The affectionate rapport between Neff and his boss, Barton Keyes (Edward G. Robinson in his prime) creates a sympathetic contrast to the cold-blooded bond between the lovers. Whenever Keyes fumbles to find a light for his cigar, Neff is there to light it for him with a playful but caring “I love you too.” Walter and Phyllis consummate the relationship by killing one another; but when Neff is dying in the hall outside the office where the story began, it’s Keyes who lights his cigarette.

The various talking heads in Shadows of Suspense all agree that the Academy’s recognition of Double Indemnity (seven Oscar nominations), along with its box office success, helped ignite the film noir boom that took place between the mid-1940s and the advent of CinemaScope ten years later. While the wartime American public “had lost its innocence and wanted more adult stories,” according to film noir authority Eddie Muller, the Motion Picture Academy couldn’t stoop to honoring so disreputable and nascent a genre with an actual Oscar. Probably the most deserving of the nominees, along with Wilder as Best Director, was the cinematographer John F. Seitz, who steeps scenes in lavish depths of darkness that are remarkable even for film noir. While Barbara Stanwyck was at least nominated for Best Actress (Ingrid Bergman won for Gaslight), MacMurray and Robinson did not even make the cut for the Best Actor and Supporting Actor Oscars, which went to Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald in the Going My Way landslide.

My only quibble with Shadows of Suspense is that it opens with Muller’s declaration that film noir “for all intents and purposes began with Double Indemnity.” This is a shaky generalization at best when you consider that Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady was released eight months earlier in February 1944 and that Murder, My Sweet, Edward Dmytryk’s adaptation of Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely and Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window also appeared the same year. As far as that goes, noir themes can be dated back to films like Stranger On the Third Floor (1940), I Wake Up Screaming and The Maltese Falcon (1941), Kid Glove Killer and This Gun for Hire (1942), to mention only a few.

Oscar Night

I’ll come clean: we skipped the Oscars this year to watch David Hare’s two-hour-long Page Eight on PBS because we liked the cast, especially Bill Nighy. While I’m all for one night every year being set aside to celebrate the movies, I have a low tolerance for all the glitzy scripted back and forth, the unbelievably tasteless jokes (like the cute one about the assassination of Lincoln), and I have a lifelong aversion to watching “beautiful people” embarrass themselves in public. If there were an over the counter drug that prevented cringing and squirming, I would need half a bottle to get through an hour of Oscar night. Argo was a worthy winner, but I doubt I’ll ever see it again, except maybe to enjoy the great lines dished out by Alan Arkin and John Goodman, who also lent his inimitable presence to Flight. The fact that Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar, particularly for the role that launched a thousand quotes, exposes an essential and enduring Academy blind spot. Fifty years from now somebody somewhere will be streaming The Big Lebowski and laughing at lines from Walter and Donny and the Dude they know by heart, but will anyone be visiting this year’s big winners? I doubt it. The Dude abides and so does Barbara Stanwyck’s anklet.

Born February 27

When you look at who was born on this date, you might be forgiven for thinking Oscar himself first saw the light on the 27th of February.

For instance there’s William Demerest (1892-1983), one of the best character actors of his time, a man who performed pratfalls elaborate enough to convulse the comic gods. His one Oscar nomination was for Best Supporting Actor in 1947’s The Jolson Story, but he’s at his best in Preston Sturges films like The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek. Another member of the 27 Club is Franchot Tone (1905-1968), who netted a Best Actor nomination in 1935 for Mutiny On the Bounty.

Perhaps the most unlikely nominee ever for a major award was tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon (born 2/27/23), whose rollercoaster career included jazz stardom, drug addiction, prison time, comeback as a dominant player, and then, five years before his death in 1990, being cast by Bernard Tavernier as the tenor legend in Round Midnight, for which Long Tall Dex landed a Best Actor nomination and a seat at the 1986 Oscar ceremonies.

One of two well-known writers with Hollywood credits born on this date, Irwin Shaw (1913-1984) was nominated as co-writer of the screenplay for Talk of the Town, but the single most prodigious generator of Oscar-winning product was John Steinbeck (1902-1968). Besides scoring nominations for writing Viva Zapata, A Medal for Benny, and Lifeboat, he produced a series of novels that Hollywood feasted on to a degree unmatched by his peers, the biggest winner being Grapes of Wrath, which took two Oscars out of seven nominations in 1940.

Of the three actresses born on February 27, four-time nominee Joanne Woodward (1930 —) won a Best Actress Oscar in 1957 for Three Faces of Eve. Joan Bennett (1910-1990) never won an Oscar, nor was she nominated, but any time you talk film noir, she comes into the conversation as a femme fatale in Fritz Lang’s Woman in the Window (1944) and Scarlet Street (1945). Last but definitely not least, there’s the two-time Best Actress winner James Agee greeted with a notice in The Nation she must have cherished from the age of 12 on. Writing in December of 1944, Agee admits, “Frankly, I doubt that I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment of Miss Elizabeth Taylor. Ever since I first saw the child, two or three years ago, in I forget what minor role in what movie, I have been choked with the peculiar sort of admiration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.” Later, after giving her performance in National Velvet a more objective analysis, he adds, “She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful.” Taylor, who died in March 2011 at 79, was nominated five times for Best Actress and won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966).

The two-disc Double Idemnity DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

February 20, 2013

book revPeople on their busy way across Grand Central’s main concourse the evening of February 1 stopped and looked up, struck by the sudden appearance of rows of lights dancing in the great arched windows on the west wall. Though the lights seemed to be appearing sequentially, changing color as they moved up and down and back and forth, there was nothing remote-controlled or digital or otherworldly about the behavior of these white, red, and green flarings and flashings. This was no manufactured Times-Square-type display. These dancing lights were dancing people.

The show created by over a hundred members of the Improv Everywhere troupe using a combination of LED flashlights, camera flashes, and body English began at 7:13 p.m., according to the legendary golden clock atop Grand Central’s information booth, one of Manhattan’s favorite meeting places. It was the first evening of the terminal’s year-long centennial celebration. In railroad time, 7:13 is 19:13, which with a simple subtraction becomes the birth year, 1913.

The formal ceremony, complete with a giant cake and the singing of “Happy Birthday,” featured a tribute from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who called Grand Central “a symbol of all that is great about our city, “an innovative and visionary place” that has the “power to inspire awe and wisdom” and “beauty and art” as well as “commerce and industry.” Billy Collins read his poem, “Grand Central,” Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon observed that “Grand Central is everything that New York is,” and Caroline Kennedy spoke of her mother, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, who helped set in motion the process that saved the terminal from the wrecking ball. In his new book Grand Central: How A Train Station Transformed America (Grand Central $30), Sam Roberts quotes from the letter Jackie sent to then-mayor Abe Beame: “Is it not cruel to let our city die by degrees, stripped of all her proud monuments, until there will be nothing left of all her history and beauty to inspire our children?”

Wide-Eyed Kids

If you want to see children of all ages inspired by beauty, watch the YouTube video of Improv Everywhere’s smile-making spectacle that turned a crowd of grown-ups into wide-eyed kids. In addition to all those delighted adults, you’ll see a young boy being held high by his mother so he can see the living aurora borealis in the west windows. You’ll also notice another boy, about ten, gazing in wonder at the immensity of the scene. I know the feeling. Long long ago, I was there. My fascinated attachment to Manhattan as the place where people are capable of simply suddenly performing, out of the blue, like Gene Kelly merrily splashing about singing in the rain, began when I walked wide-eyed into the main concourse of Grand Central at the age of ten and saw a glamorous lady in an evening gown singing Christmas music on a balcony very like the one Mayor Bloomberg and the other dignitaries would be celebrating the centennial on more than half a century later.

Fresh off the train from Indianapolis with my parents a few days before Christmas, I was already punchy and highly susceptible after sitting up all night watching the heavy snow make cinematic wonders of the bright lights of Cleveland’s Terminal Tower and the snow-laden platforms of Buffalo and the smaller stations along the way. When you come to the city from the midwest for the first time, Grand Central is the opening chapter in the book of New York, or the first scene in New York, the movie. And what a beginning was the main floor, the marble railing of the balcony trimmed in the colors of the season and hung with massive red-ribboned wreaths. No doubt there was a huge, dazzlingly lit and decorated Christmas tree somewhere, but my memory has retained only the singing woman and the sense of luxurious enormity, the subdued, stylish majesty of the cream-colored stairway and balcony, the hum of milling multitudes. Perhaps the most striking thing of all was that the mellow grandeur of the space conveyed something like warmth instead of the chill I felt a few days later in the supremely majestic and long-lost vastness of Penn Station.

The Grand Central Awards

It took me less than a New York minute to realize that this column about the great terminal at the heart of the city I love makes sense sandwiched between Valentine’s Day and Oscar night. Besides being concerned with the way movies and books enter into the “Grand Central of the Imagination,” to quote a chapter title from John Belle and Maxinne R. Leighton’s big, spectacularly illustrated Grand Central: Gateway to a Million Lives (Norton $50), my subject necessarily embraces Hollywood because Hollywood embraces New York. From the dawn of the silent era to the present, from Douglas Fairbanks in Manhattan Madness (1916) to the Madagascar films (2005-2012), thousands of movies have been set (and/or filmed) in New York City, way more than any other specific locale. By all rights, the Academy should give New York a Lifetime Achievement Oscar.

Now that I think of it, DreamWorks Animation’s Madagascar, with its Central Park animals and Grand Central locations, deserves some kind of award for animated features, what with scenes like Melman the giraffe getting his head stuck in the Information Booth clock and an old lady attacking Alex the Lion as he’s coming up the escalator from the subway to the terminal.

After reading about the legal battle to save the station in Sam Roberts’s Grand Central, I’m thinking maybe the GC award could be called a Brendan for Brendan Gill, the architecture critic for The New Yorker. Gill is hailed by Paul Goldberger, his successor at the magazine, as the person who did as much as anyone “to establish the climate” that made possible the saving of Grand Central “through his writing and his civic activities and his behind the scene wheeling and dealing.”

Grand Central Moments

Among the contenders for Best Grand Central Moment in a Motion Picture, the most famous occurs in Hitchcock’s North By Northwest when Cary Grant calls his mother from a phone booth before fleeing the FBI and assorted heavies to board the 20th Century Limited for Chicago and his near-fatal encounter with a crop duster. However, being mindful of Goldberger’s appealing concept of the space at the heart of Grand Central as “not a hectic passageway but an immense dance floor,” I would award the Brendan to Terry Gilliam for the beautiful moment in The Fisher King, wherein Robin Williams’s antic imagination transforms the crowd hurrying across the concourse into a Cinderella’s Ball fantasy of dancing couples. As for the best GC moment in a musical, it has to be Fred Astaire dancing along the Track 34 platform in The Band Wagon, “reminding viewers,” as Sam Roberts puts it, “that simply entering Grand Central is exhilarating.”

For Best Comedy Mystery, the award goes to the ensemble of suspects in Grand Central Murder, the only film I know of that spends much of its running time below ground and in behind-the-scene nooks and crannies of the terminal where Sam Levene’s embattled, soft-drink-guzzling police detective is busy trying to figure out who killed a Broadway diva everybody despised.

Holden’s Refuge

In the literary category, the Brendan for Best Writer using a GC setting goes to J.D. Salinger for two scenes in The Catcher in the Rye, and the award for Best Performance by a literary character goes to Holden Caulfield who twice seeks refuge in Grand Central at desperate moments, first after being roughed up by the bellhop from hell, “old Maurice,” and again when an alarming and disillusioning encounter with his favorite teacher forces a flight to “that crazy waiting room” at Grand Central, where he spends the rest of the night sleeping on a bench and wakes up feeling more depressed than ever. During his happier first time in the terminal, he checks his bags in a luggage locker and breakfasts on ham and eggs in a little sandwich bar while conversing with a nun about literary types like “old Grendel,” “old Eustacia Vye,” and “old Mercutio.”

Runner up in the Best Writer category is John Cheever for his stories “The Five-Forty Eight” and “O City of Broken Dreams,” and for the passage in his novel, Bullet Park, where a character talks about cleaning the Grand Central toilets “eight hours a night, five nights a week,” mopping the floors, and “wiping off the walls the writing people had put there.”

Magnificent Windows

The ultimate Grand Central image is the one on the cover of Sam Roberts’s book that shows shafts of light streaming down through the cathedral-scale windows onto the concourse. It’s an image that seems to be waiting for a film worthy of it, or a work of literature, or a painting or a poem, or even a religion. One star worthy of the light coming through those magnificent windows is Margaret Sullavan, who never played a scene in Grand Central (she plays one in Penn Station when she sees Jimmy Stewart off to Princeton in Next Time We Love) and who never won an Oscar. This great actress’s endgame connection with Grand Central is recounted in Haywire, a memoir by Brooke Hayward, who learns of her 51-year-old mother’s death during a phone conversation:

“The vast dome of Grand Central Station closed down over me in the glass telephone booth, so that I seemed to go deaf [Sullavan herself actually did begin going deaf in middle age]. There was absolute silence … and even when I pushed open the door for air, no sound anywhere in the entire huge space of the station … filled as before with people, but people moving noiselessly, without echoes. I moved with them, my own footsteps on the worn marble floor …. My mother, my very own mother, beautiful, warm, always more alive than anyone else in the world — alive in ways that nobody else dared to be — my mother, with her special gift for living and for giving that life to all the people who knew her and many who didn’t, dead.”

Improv Everywhere

To see the same great windows coming to life with Improv Everywhere’s human light show while the passersby below beam like happy children, check out grand-central-lights at improveverywhere.com.

February 13, 2013

DVD REVSome people wanna fill the world with silly love songs ….

—Paul McCartney from “Silly Love Songs”

By all rights, George Stevens’s 1941 film Penny Serenade should be to Valentine’s Day what Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is to Christmas. The season of silly love songs, candy, flowers, and date movies could do with a film about a couple struggling to honor the marriage vow, “for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part.”

Not that I’ve got anything against Valentine’s Day. If it didn’t exist, neither would I.

My mother was stone cold sober when she mentioned the occasion of my conception, a date later confirmed by my father. The revelation came when she was telling me the facts of life and my stunned response (“You and Dad did that?”) had less to do with pre-adolescent naivete than with my acute awareness of the lack of physical affection between my parents. Possibly the only reason I’m here in Princeton at this moment is because my father was living up to his part of a nationally accredited romantic situation. Otherwise, the most productive phase of the relationship took place when they were writing plays together the year before they got married. Two of their one-act farces, And Silently Steal Away and Mr. and Mrs. Uh-h, were published by Samuel French, and at the time of their divorce 37 years later they were still receiving small royalty checks. The plan was to move from Hutchinson, Kansas to New York City and write Broadway plays. To make ends meet, she would be a stenographer and he would play piano in a night club. On the way to the Bright Lights they ended up in Bloomington, Indiana, where my father became a Medieval scholar and my mother a legal secretary working for a Court of Appeals judge who put the make on her and later became the subject of a story in the Kenyon Review.

“It’s Love, It’s Love”

In the 1950s my father, of all people, filled the world with some pretty silly love songs of his own that I inherited in manuscript. Several of these ditties are so tuneful that I sometimes find myself whistling or humming the melodies. It’s hard to keep from smiling when I think of my reserved, undemonstrative father writing Tin Pan Alley lyrics like “It’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, it’s love, I’m zoomin’/She caught my eye, I’m not so shy, we’ll multiply, we’re human!”

The period when my father was composing “It’s Love,” “The Magic of Love,” “It Can Happen,” and the others must have been like a reprise of the courtship year when they were collaborating on plays. My mother was actually sitting next to him at the piano singing along one night when some friends were over, an event I witnessed, amazed, from the top of the stairs. The most musically sophisticated and lyrically overwrought of my father’s compositions, “The Magic of Love,” begins, “If I wish, I could swim like a silvery fish,” and ends with four lines that my needy mother almost surely contributed: “Hold me tight! Keep me earthbound and still tonight./Lift your spell — let me breathe the air of the ordinary room we share./The enchantment is with you there/That’s the magic of love!”

Tucked in with the song manuscripts is a royalty statement for $229 showing that And Silently Steal Away was performed in 22 different towns in Minnesota between January and May of 1950 (with multiple performances in Olivia, Windom, and Thief River Falls).

Though this story doesn’t have a happy ending (what real-life story does?), my parents remained close after the divorce and were always there for each other, “till death did them part” fifteen years later.

Another Couple

In Penny Serenade, Roger and Julie, newlyweds played by Cary Grant and Irene Dunne, struggle financially in a desperate attempt to adopt a child when the bureaucratic odds are stacked against them.

The flashbacks that tell the story of Penny Serenade are structured around songs associated with the relationship, each in the form of a record that Julie is playing on the victrola, beginning with “You Were Meant for Me.” The theme is set from the first meeting in a record store where she’s a sales clerk and he buys a big stack of records (78s in those days), which gives him an excuse to spend time in her company. He walks her home, and after admitting he owns no phonograph, invites himself into her apartment to listen to some silly love songs. The next scene, which begins with the playing of another record, shows them shyly talking around embarrassingly relevant fortune cookies (marriage, a baby); then comes a big, rollicking, brilliantly directed New Year’s Eve party where Roger proposes to Julie just before midnight. A newspaperman on his way to a two-year assignment in Japan, he wants her to join him three months after he gets settled. They have only hours before he has to catch a 3 a.m. train. With Hollywood serendipity on their side, they manage to get married that same snowy night and make the train in time. As they’re sharing a passionate goodbye embrace in his compartment (in the picture shown below), the train’s about to leave, she has to get off — but she doesn’t. Next shot shows the train pulling into a station, the camera lingering suggestively on the compartment’s frosted-up, snow-edged window. In case we don’t get the point, a sign says “To New York 115 Miles.” The nudge isn’t necessary; their goodbye kiss makes clear what’s taken place, and the next time Roger sees her, in Japan, she has big news to tell him.

Although Penny Serenade shifts abruptly from romantic comedy to the dramatic mode typed as a “tear jerker” when it gets to the struggle at the heart of the story, it’s one of George Stevens’s finest films, with memorable supporting performances by Beulah Bondi as a sympathetic worker in an adoption agency and Edgar Buchanan as a tried and true friend. Grant and Dunne are even better together than they were in The Awful Truth (1937) and My Favorite Wife (1940). In both those comedies, one of Dunne’s many charms is her knowing laugh, but the half-laugh, half sigh that emerges when she perceives what Grant is up to that first day with the records is so right that it makes you laugh, too. Grant is no less subtle, speaking soft and low when he proposes and then kissing her with words of love we can barely hear.

Roger is the confident carefree Cary Grant that film fans know and love until an earthquake brings the couple’s world down on top of them, destroying the unborn child and Julie’s ability to ever carry a baby to term. After she recovers, they move back to the States and a small town north of San Francisco where Roger uses all of a small inheritance to buy a weekly newspaper that doesn’t make enough money to satisfy the adoption agency’s regulations. Eventually, thanks to the caring employee sensitively played by Bondi, they are allowed a one-year trial adoption of a baby, a little girl “like no other child.” Anyone who’s ever gone through the first days and nights home from the hospital with a baby will be touched and amused by the scenes depicting the panic-stricken inepitude of the new parents. The crisis comes a year later when Roger, still struggling to keep the paper going, appears before an unsympathetic judge and is told that because they’re financially incapable of supporting the child they will have to return her to the orphanage. Grant’s passionate, choked-up, ultimately successful plea is painful to behold. As the New Republic’s Otis Ferguson observes in his wise, eloquent review, the scene is “one of the rightly moving things in the picture.”

Falling Star

The most beautiful moment in Penny Serenade, however, occurs when Roger and Julie’s little girl, Trina, now 6, plays the “Silent Night” echo in her school’s Christmas play. As Hollywood children go, Eva Lee Kuney is about as good as you could hope for in her brief, touching, ill-fated part. Her role in the pageant becomes a piece of cinematic poetry involving a cloud on a string and a falling star. As Julie sadly puts the last record on the phonograph, a letter to the woman at the adoption agency reveals that the child has died after a sudden illness. Rather than inflict a death scene on us, Stevens and screenwriter Morris Ryskind simply show the impact on the parents. There’s no fight left in this couple; the marriage is over. Or so it seems until their guardian angel at the adoption agency gives them a call.

As far as I know, the framing device of a character playing records to accompany the flashbacks composing the picture is unique to Penny Serenade. It’s also one of the most conspicuous examples of product placement I’ve ever seen. All the records have the RCA label and are played on an RCA victrola.

Though it’s in the public domain, Penny Serenade is not easy to find on DVD. You can see it in its entirety on YouTube.

Now if only there were a film of my father playing his silly love songs with my mother sitting beside him singing along.