October 28, 2015

Book Rev

Like everyone else, I’ve never gotten over The Recognitions. — Harold Bloom

When I told a friend who likes big, difficult novels that I was about to begin William Gaddis’s 956-page tour de force The Recognitions, which was published by Harcourt Brace 60 years ago, he wished me luck: “I’ve tried at least 4 or 5 times to crack that book, but without success.” In a later message, after hearing that I’d embarked on so daunting a journey, he said, “I’ll pray for you.”

Over the decades, for every person who told me I had to read The Recognitions, someone else told me it was unreadable. Yet people who had “been there” carried on as if they’d returned from the journey of a lifetime. Having arrived safely, if dazed and word-weary, I’ll tell you some of what I experienced on my four-month sojurn in Gaddis’s mid-century wasteland. more

October 21, 2015

Art Review 2

Cézanne…was the greatest. The greatest for always. — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s love of Cézanne is expressed more guardedly in his posthumous Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast (1964). Even there, after saying he was learning “very much” from Cézanne, he admits he was “not articulate enough to explain it to anyone. Besides it was a secret.” Here’s a world-famous writer entering his 60s and he’s still celebrating his enthusiasm as if he were a boy with a secret. Writing as his youthful alter ego in The Nick Adams Stories (1972) he lets his feelings show (Cezanne “was the greatest”) in a short hitherto unpublished piece titled “On Writing.”  more

October 14, 2015

book rev

Book love is your pass to the greatest, the purest, the most perfect pleasure….The habit of reading is the only joy in which there us no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.

—Anthony Trollope (1815-1882)

The quotes about “book love” and “the habit of reading” spearheading this introduction to the upcoming Friends of the Library Book Sale surfaced while I was gazing into the sprawling immensity of Anthony Trollope’s beard. Of all the views of Trollopian facial hair shown in an online gallery of images, this prodigious display most fittingly suggests the depth and range of the event that begins Friday morning at ten in the Community Room. Seen here in full flower compared to the more crafted and contained incarnations, the author’s beard spreads hugely east and west, a veritable landscape, offering in its sheer breadth not only an evocation of the scope of the sale but a definitive image of its owner’s productivity, at rough count 40-plus novels, 15 story collections, and 15 works of non-fiction. more

October 7, 2015

Book RevI’m planning ways to pipe “All I Need is a Miracle” by Mike and the Mechanics into the St. Louis clubhouse when the Cardinals host the National League Central Division playoffs this Friday. Why send a Power Pop anthem to a team that has won 100 games in spite of losing virtually half their starting lineup this season? That’s not miracle enough? Not if you add to that truckload of adversity the loss of a potential Hall of Fame catcher and proven post-season clutch hitter who saves pitcher’s souls and throws out baserunners at a major-league-leading clip. When “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold,” Yadier Molina is the center that holds, and at this writing, there’s no way of knowing how effective he’ll be even if he’s cleared to play in the post season.

The September 20 incident that put Molina out of action is an example of what his former manager Tony LaRussa calls “beautiful baseball” — in the bottom of the eighth inning in a do or die game against the surging Chicago Cubs, Anthony Rizzo racing for home, a perfect throw from right-fielder Jason Hayward snagged on one hop by Molina, one quick stab of Molina’s mitt to tag out the sliding runner, a medley of forces converging in game-saving synchronicity. Except that as the catcher executes the neat rapier-like motion of the tag, the force embodied by the 6’3, 240-pound Rizzo going hellbent for home has Molina slinging off his mitt, in pain from what proved to be a partially torn ligament in his left thumb, and just like that, the one indispensable player is out for the last ten days of the regular season and perhaps the playoffs.

So it goes with baseball. Beautiful, yes, but also inevitably bipolar, a field of ups and downs and broken dreams. more

September 30, 2015

book rev

Chrissie Hynde’s Reckless: My Life as a Pretender (Doubleday $26.99), which entered the N.Y. Times non-fiction best-seller list in 7th place this week, is a gutsy rock and roll memoir whose sales have undoubtedly been boosted by online chatter surrounding the author’s account of a sexual attack and her repeated refusal to blame her attackers. Now she finds herself, as she slyly puts it in a recent Washington Post interview, “a leading authority on rape.”

In the same interview, she says, “I wouldn’t expect most people to do some of the stuff I did. But then again, most people don’t get to be a rock star, either. We have to walk the plank.” In her case, walking the plank meant going to a biker “party” with a shipload of sexist pirates and suffering the consequences.  more

September 23, 2015
book rev

Photo by Tom Grimes

After walking in a daze down the brightly-lit aisles of McCaffrey’s, stunned by Monday’s New York Times obit, I find myself in the same check-out line where I last spoke with the poet C.K. Williams, who died at home in Hopewell Sunday. When he and his charming wife Catherine lived on Moore Street, I used to see him often at McCaffrey’s. He was hard to miss. At 6’5, he loomed over everyone else. We would shake hands and I would think how good it is to live in a town where you can shake hands with a great poet while pushing a shopping cart at the market. Life in Princeton …. more

September 16, 2015

Book Rev web

On drives from Indiana to New York City before the Interstate, my parents took U.S. 40 east, which brought us into the hilly outskirts of Pittsburgh at night. It was the most vivid moment of the trip: the red-orange glow of steel mills against the dark sky, the smoke-hazed aura around the glow, the balmy summer air, the excitement of seeing that vision lighting up the sky. The moment was marked by the metallic scent of industry, like the aroma of pure power, which is what I seemed to be breathing again in “Iron and Coal, Petroleum and Steel: Industrial Art from the Steidle Collection” at the James A. Michener Art Museum.  more

September 9, 2015

L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky“If I live.” These words translated from the Russian can be found at the end of nearly every dated entry in the 1895-1899 journals of Leo Tolstoy, who was born on this date, September 9, in 1828, and died at 82 on November 20, 1910. I wonder what Oliver Sacks, who died at 82 ten days ago, would make of Tolstoy’s daily acknowledgment of his mortality. Sacks’s maternal grandfather, who fled Russia at 16 to avoid being drafted into the Cossack army, might know. Perhaps it was nothing more than an abbreviated prayer. After “If I live” July 31, 1896, Tolstoy is quite literal, writing later the same day: “I am alive. It is evening now. It is past four. I am lying down and cannot fall asleep. My heart aches. I am tired out. I hear through the window — they play tennis and are laughing.”

Short, simple statements of fact. You can almost hear him breathing.

While the most familiar image of Tolstoy may be the photograph from 1908 of a white-bearded patriarch seated on a rattan chair, one leg crossed over the other, very much the ruler of his domain, I prefer the word-pictures by his neighbor in the Crimea, Maxim Gorky, who used to see him along the coast, “a smallish, angular figure in a gray, crumpled, ragged suit and crumpled hat … sitting with his head on his hands, the wind blowing the silvery hairs of his beard through his fingers.” This sounds more like the man who would write “If I live” and “I am alive” in his journal. But then, in the same paragraph, Tolstoy becomes “the old magician” in whose “musing motionlessness” Gorky feels “something fateful, magical, something which went down into the darkness beneath him and stretched up like a search-light into the blue emptiness above the earth.” more

September 2, 2015

DVD rev 1You guys have a way of making a way out of no way. You know the sun comes after every storm—President Obama to New Orleans

Ten years after Katrina, the president comes to New Orleans, looks the city in the eye and says,” You inspire me.” At the same time he’s shining a light on his administration’s high points, he’s making sure the audience in a community center in the lower 9th Ward knows there’s a grease stain on his pants from some fried chicken he ate at Willie May’s Scotch House on St. Ann Street in Tremé; he’s just glad it didn’t get on his tie; he’s got his mojo working; after all, he’s in “the gateway to America’s soul, where the jazz makes you cry, the funerals make you dance, and the bayous make you believe all kinds of things.”

It’s the human touch, mix the politics with some sloppy downhome reality you can rub between your fingers, and make your exit while Bruce Springsteen’s singing “Land of Hope and Dreams.”  more

August 26, 2015

book rev

Ten years ago this week, August 29, Katrina savaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Just under two thousand people died, with damages estimated at over a hundred billion dollars. Spike Lee in When The Levees Broke, David Simon in HBO’s Treme, and Dave Eggers in his book Zeitoun are among the artists who have done justice to the magnitude of the event and its troubled aftermath. You could say Walker Percy did justice to it before it happened. more

August 19, 2015

record rev

A chapter near the end of Neil Young’s autobiography Waging Heavy Peace (Blue Rider 2012) begins with him behind the wheel of his car “rolling down a California two-lane highway” listening to a group called the Pistol Annies, with “visions of the future and past” brewing in his “coffee-soaked mind.” I can relate to a driving-listening-to-music chapter because that’s how I bonded with his new album, The Monsanto Years (Reprise), in which he teams up with Willie Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah and Lukas’s group Promise of the Real to put the Fear of Neil into corporate giants, with special attention to the one targeted in the title. more

August 12, 2015

book rev

On the last day of his life, August 12, 1827, at 3 Fountain Court, off the Strand in London, William Blake, who was born in Soho in November 1757, stopped working and turned to Catherine, his wife of 45 years. “Stay, Kate!” he said, “keep just as you are — I’ll draw your portrait — for you’ve ever been an angel to me.” What followed that last drawing “has been told more than once in print,” and “can never be told without a sense of some strange and sweet meaning,” Swinburne writes, picturing “how, as Blake lay, with all the tides of his life setting towards the deep final sleep, he made and sang new fragments of verse,” which his wife heard as “songs of joy and triumph.” After telling her that they would never be parted, that he would be with her always, he died, says one witness, “in a most glorious manner.”

With the help of Peter Ackroyd’s definitive biography, Blake (Knopf 1995), it’s possible to visualize the scene that took place in the “plain, red-brick house of three stories” adjacent to the future site of opera impresario D’Oyly-Carte’s luxury hotel, the Savoy. The Blakes had moved into two rooms on the first floor in the spring of 1820.  more

August 5, 2015

rec rev

In the sleeve notes accompanying Beatles for Sale, Derek Taylor surmises that “the kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today,” for “the magic of the Beatles” has “cut through our differences of race, age, and class” and “is adored by the world.” Half a century later in AD 2015, “One of the strangest things about the Beatles phenomenon,” according to the group’s first biographer, Hunter Davies, “is that the further we get from them, the bigger they become.” more

July 29, 2015

book revI recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. — George Orwell, from Homage to Catalonia

A friend who went to Antioch College tells of arriving as a freshman to find himself confronted on a dormitory stairway by a stunningly lovely girl holding a pail of water, shouting, “Would you have fought in Spain?” Taking into account the water, the stairway, and the girl, he answered in the affirmative and was allowed to pass.

George Orwell, who fought in Spain and wrote about it in Homage to Catalonia (1938), found something more rewarding than the chance to fight fascism: “Up here in Aragon one was among tens of thousands of people…all living at the same level and mingling on terms of equality.  more

July 22, 2015

book rev“Why is it that everything I have loved on this earth has gone away from me in two day’s time?” wonders Jean Louise Finch a little over halfway through Harper Lee’s long-awaited (to put it mildly) Go Set a Watchman (Harper Collins $27.99).

To Kill a Mockingbird’s Scout has grown up, is living in New York City, and has returned to her Alabama hometown, Maycomb, during what might be called the post-Brown v Board of Education era. Her cry from the heart follows a shattering encounter with Calpurnia, the black woman who raised and loved her and her brother Jem, and is now a remote figure on the other side of the racial divide the color-blind Jean Louise is struggling to comprehend. There the old woman sits, “in a haughty dignity that appeared on state occasions … wearing her company manners,” her face “a million tiny wrinkles, and her eyes dim behind thick lenses … no hint of compassion” in them, even as Jean Louise begs her, “I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”  more

July 15, 2015

book revThe peace of the heart is positive and invincible, demanding no conditions, requiring no protection. It just is.

—Henry Miller, from The Colossus of Maroussi

If nothing else, Greece’s last-ditch stand against austerity has led me to the poetry of George Seferis, given me a reason to reread Henry Miller’s Colossus of Maroussi (1941), and reminded me of three “it just is” evenings of peace on the Acropolis, each on the same day in the first week of August, all in the space of six years.

Miller writes of arriving in Greece on the eve of World War II: “I had entered a new realm as a free man … for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy,” because “to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how … and still be happy … in the being and knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”

That’s vintage Henry Miller — never go halfway, take it to the rhetorical limit, damn the torpedoes! full speed ahead! If there’s any writer anywhere who embodies the antithesis of austerity it’s Henry Miller. And in Miller’s Colossus, Greece is “the antithesis of America”: “Economically it may seem unimportant [those were the days], but spiritually Greece is still the mother of nations, the fountain-head of wisdom and inspiration.” At the moment mother Athens is under siege. While the front page of Monday’s online edition of the New York Times says the European moneylenders have reached an agreement on the Greek debt crisis, the story comes with a photo worth a thousand words showing a street person holding an empty glass, crumpled as if dead on the pavement in front of an Alpha Bank ATM where people are waiting in line. more

July 8, 2015

DVD rev

“That was the greatest entrance there ever was,” Orson Welles tells Henry Jaglom in My Lunches with Orson (Metropolitan 2013), referring to his first moment as Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).

For me, at 11, it was more than an entrance. It was a revelation. Until then, most heroes on the screen were stock figures going through amusing motions, cowboys, villains, good guys, bad guys. This was something fascinating and new. Harry Lime was dead and buried, for one thing. Everybody in Vienna said so. He’d been hit by a car. Or had he?

What heightened the moment was the bombed-out European city of night surrounding it, the stark vistas of crumbling terraces, deep shadows, the blackest deepest blacks I’d ever seen, the way light gleamed on cobblestone pavement, the sense of menace in the war-haunted metropolis, the excitement of the name, Vienna, and the zither music that seemed to anticipate and express every last nuance of intrigue.

The fact that Joseph Cotten was playing Harry’s best friend immediately drew me in because I’d recently identified with the same actor as an artist in love with a mysterious girl who transcended time and space in A Portrait of Jennie. It was as if Joseph Cotten and I had already shared a romantic adventure and were together again trying to find out the truth about what had happened to Harry, who the police claimed had been involved in some nefarious business on the black market. He also had a girl friend, a sullen beauty named Anna whose cat was fond of Harry. And late one night, outside her building, we’re walking, footsteps echoing on the pavement, when we see the cat that liked Harry in a pool of light at the base of a dark doorway someone is standing in. The cat is grooming itself, very much at home. Suddenly a window in the building opposite opens and a light falls on the face of the man in the doorway. It’s Harry Lime back from the dead, slyly almost smugly alive, his face bright and strange, lit with  a kind of cold radiance. The zither takes a run up my spine to give me the moment, putting a chill on the chill already climbing the back of my neck. Harry’s smiling, he seems about to speak, as if to say, “Yes, old friend, it’s me, and I’ve seen and done things you’ll never know or want to know.”

In his biography Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles (Knopf 1996), David Thomson gets the impact of the moment, Lime’s “grin is ineffably sinister but sweet, and it goes into the camera like charm’s knife.” Only Orson Welles could have filled that moment, made it magical, with help from director Carol Reed and cinematographer Robert Krasker. As Welles says to Jaglom, referring to the film’s success overseas and his sudden fame, “In Europe Harry Lime represented their past … the dark side of them. Yet attractive, you know …. It was a kind of mania. When I came into a restaurant the people went crazy. At the hotel I was staying in, police had to come to quiet the fans. It was my one moment of being a superstar, a traffic-stopping superstar … I could have made a career out of that picture.”

The Power of His Presence

Orson Welles was born 100 years ago, May 6, 1915, and died 30 years ago, October 10, 1985, only hours after taping an interview with Merv Griffin. On a YouTube video he tells Griffin how it feels to be 70 and looks back on his life and career (“I was awful busy and awful lucky”). Such is the power of his presence, there’s no sense of a declining force; if anything, he gives the impression of entering his eighth decade still busy and still lucky. Nothing in his manner, his way of speaking, his frankness and clarity and his sense of humor about himself, would suggest that this is his last public appearance.

And busy he was, right up to the end. After taping the Griffin show, he put in some time at the typewriter working on stage directions for the television special, Orson Welles’s Magic Show, then to bed never to wake.

The Big Chill

My son just urged me to do a good job on Falstaff. It’s a Christmas Eve tradition for him to watch Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1966) on tape/DVD; he’s been doing it for the past 14 years. There’s a warmth in Welles’s Falstaff that’s lacking in much of his other work. Citizen Kane begs for superlatives, it’s a phenomenon, a miracle, a triumph, but what, for me, keeps it from being as great as it’s cracked up to be is its lack of warmth. One obvious problem is in the boorish, unsympathetic aspect of Kane, a side-effect of the fact that he’s based on an unsympathetic, to put it mildly, model, W.R. Hearst. However vivid and energetic the visuals and the pace, however brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland, with superior performances by Welles and his players, notably his close friend and fellow centenarian Joseph Cotten (1915-1994), it’s an essentially cold piece of work.

There’s also a hint of the chill in the Welles aesthetic: the way people seem to talk at cross-purposes, one voice on top of another, and the sense of distance in the interiors, almost as if Welles had discovered the visual equivalent of the echo, the seen music of chilly echoing spaces. Like the brilliant early scene that has Kane as a boy shouting and playing in the snow outside the window while his future is being coldly decided. The magnificently gothic opening credits and the closing moments crowned by the “Rosebud” revelation are thrilling. But then so was the great hoax Welles pulled off three years before Kane with his radio broadcast of an invasion from Mars that sent a chill of fear up the spine of the nation (especially central and northern New Jersey). Then there’s Touch of Evil (1958), one of the craziest great films ever made, and as cold at the center as Welles’s Hank Quinlan, the dead mountain of corruption Marlene Dietrich absurdly eulogizes (“some kind of a man”) at the end; thrilling, too, as pure cinema, is the famous hall of mirrors sequence in Lady from Shanghai; and any number of other virtuoso moments in The Stranger and Mr. Arkadin, not to mention Othello and Macbeth.

There are moments of warmth in The Magnificent Ambersons (most of them, as I remember, centered on Joseph Cotten and Dolores Costello), but, as with so much of Welles’s work, the material has been so thoroughly violated by the studio, it’s not fair to Welles to assume the finished product is as he intended it. In Chimes at Midnight, however, he has the benefit of Shakespeare’s Falstaff, a character as rich and warmly eloquent as any in literature. “If I wanted to get into heaven on the basis of one movie,” he said in 1982, “that’s the one I’d offer up.”

The Voice

It’s clear that Welles also feels close to his last completed film F for Fake (1976), which is, as he tells Henry Jaglom, “the only really original movie I’ve made since Kane.” David Thomson agrees, praising its “utmost originality, delicacy, and sly personal insight,” while finding it “flawless” and “unlike anything anyone had ever done before.” In spite of insisting, again speaking to Jaglom, that the film is “a fake confessional” and that “the fact that I confess to being a fraud is a fraud,” Welles inhabits the project companionably, and, more to the point, warmly. As he walks through the film, sometimes garbed in magician’s regalia of black cloak and broad-brimmed hat (in the opening scene he quotes Robert Houdin to the effect that “a magician is just an actor playing the part of a magician”), sometimes in his customary attire, at his ease, at table, he’s at once the director, the central presence, the narrator, and the reader, as when he recites poetry, not in the manner of an actor declaiming verse on the stage, but as he puts it, “by the fireside,” as if he were sitting side by side with you saying, “Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash — the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures, and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. ‘Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.’”

True Friends

Back in June 2013, I did a column about visiting Vienna on a summer tour (“Light and Dark: Themes and Anthems for a European Tour”). For the image I used a still from The Third Man showing the Joseph Cotten character in the shadow of the great ferris wheel at the Prater, waiting for what would be his one and only encounter with his old friend, Harry Lime. In that odd entity called “real life,” Cotten and Welles, who were born in the same month, same year, May 1915, enjoyed a friendship worth mentioning here, on their joint centenary. As Cotten recounts in his 1987 autobiography, when he suffered a heart attack followed by a stroke that affected his speech center, he began years of therapy that eventually made it possible for him to speak again. As he began to recover, he and Welles talked on the phone each week for a couple of hours: “He was strong and supportive,” Cotten wrote, “and whenever I used the wrong word (which was frequently) he would say, ‘That’s a much better word, Jo, I’m going to use it.’” One of the last things Welles read before he died was the manuscript of his old friend’s autobiography.

July 1, 2015

book revAfter the outbreak of war in April of 1861, students at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey) raised the Union flag over Nassau Hall. According to the Mudd Manuscript Library blog, two-fifths of the class of 1862 left campus for the South within a three-week period. Students had begun leaving as early as January 1861 due to what college President John Maclean called “the unhappy condition of the country.” Although the administration took the flag down, it would be raised again and remain there for the duration of the war.

Of the 70 Princeton students who died in the conflict and are remembered on a plaque in Nassau Hall, 34 fought under the Union flag and 36 under the Confederate. The plaque does not divide them accordingly, however. They’re honored together as Princeton students.

Baldwin in Princeton

Writing in the November 1955 issue of Harper’s, African American essayist and novelist James Baldwin (1924-1987) recalls visiting a Nassau Street restaurant in 1942: “I knew about jim-crow but I had never experienced it. I went to the same self-service restaurant three times and stood with all the Princeton boys before the counter, waiting for a hamburger and coffee…Negroes were not served there, I was told…Once I was told this, I determined to go there all the time. But now they were ready for me and, though some dreadful scenes were subsequently enacted in that restaurant, I never ate there again.”

True enough, although Baldwin’s friend and biographer David Leeming describes a 1965 visit to Princeton during which Baldwin suggested that they stop at a local restaurant: “He seemed angry, as standing in front of the counter with the usual crowd of Princeton students, he ordered a hamburger, left it on the counter when it was delivered to him, and announced that we were leaving.”

The fact that Baldwin felt compelled to return to the scene more than a decade later bears out his claim in the same essay, “Notes of a Native Son,” that the year he lived in New Jersey (working in a Belle Mead defense plant) “had made a great change” in his life. Having grown up in Harlem, a recent graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School, with white mentors and friends, he “knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated Negroes and how they expected them to behave.” But “it had never entered my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way. I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people.”

According to Leeming, Baldwin’s anger after reliving the scene in the restaurant was such that he subsequently became “argumentative, even abusive” at a faculty dinner party.

“Informed Conversation”

Media commentary about race and racism in the aftermath of the Charleston shootings and the debate over the Confederate flag inspired Brandeis Professor Chad Williams and colleagues at Wayne State and the University of Iowa to create a hashtag, #CharlestonSyllabus, to crowdsource books, films, and educational materials as a basis for an “informed conversation.” BBC Trending’s report (“Charleston Syllabus Builds Book List of Tolerance”) is accompanied by an image showing a dozen recommended books, three of which are by James Baldwin: The Fire Next Time (1963), No Name in the Street (1972), and the first and most influential collection, titled after that seminal essay with its Princeton epiphany, Notes of a Native Son (1955).

Meanwhile Baldwin’s 90th birthday has inspired Harlem Stage’s The Year of James Baldwin, a 14-month, citywide celebration presented in partnership with Columbia University School of the Arts and New York Live Arts, and numerous other collaborators. Singer songwriter Stew, leader of a rock group called The Negro Problem, paid homage last month in “Notes of a Native Song,” a song cycle in which he presents Baldwin as a bluesinging literary rock star who, like Stew, ultimately came into his own as an artist in Europe.

The phrase that inspired the name of Stew’s band occurs five times in the five page preface to Notes of a Native Son, where Baldwin observes that “one of the difficulties about being a Negro writer… is that the Negro problem is written about so widely. The bookshelves groan under the weight of information, and everyone therefore considers himself informed. And this information, furthermore, operates usually (generally, popularly) to reinforce traditional attitudes.”

Baldwin’s life as a professional writer began when he was  “writing book reviews—mostly, it turned out, about the Negro problem, concerning which the color of my skin made me automatically an expert.” Referring back to “traditional attitudes,” he notes that the “change from ill will to good will” is “better than no change at all….But it is part of the business of the writer—as I see it—to examine attitudes, to go beneath the surface, to tap the source.”

Fiction’s Special Appeal

Although Baldwin’s essays are generally considered to be superior to his fiction, there’s no doubt that his first novel Go Tell It On the Mountain (1952) “taps the source” and belongs in the Charleston syllabus. However commendable the desire to get people reading and talking about race, if the great underlying dream objective is to reach supposed lost causes like accused killer Dylann Roof, strongly plotted and written fiction would make a more potent weapon than expository prose. In Go Tell It On the Mountain Baldwin is exploring his own history with a sense of personal and aesthetic purpose that gives the story a compelling universality. The opening pages describe a situation in which the protagonist feels like an outsider in his own family, alienated, in particular, from his father. That it’s a black family struggling to get by is secondary to the universal theme of embattled families.

When he left Paris for Switzerland, “armed with two Bessie Smith records and a typewriter,” Baldwin’s goal was “to try to create the life” that he had “first known as a child” and from which he had “spent so many years in flight.” Even after reading Balzac, Henry James, Dostoevsky, Henry Miller, and Walt Whitman, among others, his true mentor in the “absolutely alabaster landscape” of Switzerland was the Empress of the Blues: “It was Bessie Smith, through her tone and her cadence, who helped me to dig back to the way I myself must have spoken” and “to remember the things I had heard and seen and felt. I had buried them very deep. I had never listened to Bessie Smith in America.”

Personal History

Watching President Obama lead the singing of “Amazing Grace” during his eulogy for the shooting victims in Charleston, I found myself focusing on the words African Methodist Episcopal on the purple banner draped over the podium. I was remembering two quite different race-and religion-based experiences. In the first incident I was 15, on a train somewhere between Tottenville and St. George on Staten Island. It was a Sunday and at one stop a number of black women in their Sunday best came aboard. The tambourine-bearing lady who sat down beside me was the oldest and most diminutive of the group. Right away she began asking me questions about my religion. Was I believer? Was I a sinner? Uh, well, er, what to say? Brandishing the tambourine in the direction of my hemming and hawing, she asked what my church was. Though it had been some years since I last dutifully attended Trinity Episcopal, where my father played the organ, I felt within my rights to say “ Episcopal,” but as soon as the word was out of my mouth, the old lady yelled “Episcopals is Catholics!” and began banging her tambourine and shouting “Save this sinner! Help this poor sinner!” The tambourine banging and the shouting continued until the next stop, where she got off with the others. One of the women came over, patted my shoulder, and said, “She’s old and cranky. Don’t pay her no mind. You believe whatever you want to believe.”

The second incident occured in the fall of the same year when I went with a friend to a black church in Indianapolis. We were two white boys who had come to the capital city to find blues and jazz records and to see if what an older friend had told us about this church was true—that people had “the time of their lives” there. What a thought. To have the time of your life in a place that, for me, was associated with squirming through endless dull sermons and being bored, literally, to tears. The atmosphere of friendly, unforced good feeling we found ourselves in could be seen again in the faces and attitudes of the people sitting behind President Obama and, in effect, cheering him on at the Emanuel A.M.E. in Charleston. At the church in Indianapolis we were not only made to feel at home, we were treated as if we were children of the congregation. It was something better than what I thought of as “having the time of your life.” When all the males were called to stand in front of the altar and join hands to sing a hymn, a woman like the one who patted my shoulder that day on the train urged us to go up and join in and we did. We sang a hymn. It was called “Somebody Touched Me” and the tears in my eyes were not from boredom.

June 24, 2015

DVD revTake a walk with me down by Avalon… — Sir Van Morrison, from “Summertime in England”

According to the June 17 New York Times, the Season Five finale of Game of Thrones drew eight million viewers, making it most watched HBO series ever. The death of one of the major characters was front page news the day after, at least in certain New York tabloids. Also in the news were reports that longtime viewers of the show like Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill had had enough. “Ok, I’m done,” she tweeted. “Gratuitous rape scene disgusting and unacceptable. It was a rocky ride that just ended.”

It’s a rocky ride, for sure. But I’d tweak the phrasing. This ride isn’t just rocky, it rocks. How hard and relentlessly it rocks its audience reminds me of seeing Cream live in a small venue, amps up all the way, Ginger Baker satantically attacking the drums, Eric Clapton and Jack Bruce riding out on “Tales of Brave Ulysses,” while “our naked ears were tortured” and you could say the same for the “naked eyes” of the audience assaulted by the scene that upset the senator. But we’re staying on board. We’ve been there before. To be stunned, shocked, repelled has been the name of the Game from day one. You can see for yourself in the home videos on YouTube of people reacting, hands over eyes, recoiling in horror, screaming, totally at the mercy of the Red Wedding sequence.

Enter Sir Van

So, how is it, speaking for my wife and myself, that at our advanced age we not only put up with but actually find pleasure in the dark world of Westeros where no one is safe and innocent children are sacrificed, burned alive by their own fathers? Is it that people who came of age in the rock and roll renaissance of the sixties are more receptive to a television series fraught with the outrages and excesses that have led others to jump ship?

I found one answer in the Arts section of Monday’s New York Times where Jon Pareles has the “newly knighted” Van Morrison taking “a song from way back when” and “living it anew” during a concert at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens. Two months short of his 70th birthday, Sir Van’s singing a song called “Magic Time” that begins “Don’t lose the wonder in your eyes” before a crowd of ecstatic fans shown in the picture at the top of the story, arms high, wrinkles in evidence along with glimpses of hair touched with white and grey. You know that many of those shown blissing out en masse lived through the wildness and wonder of the years of Woodstock and Altamont, “Helter-Skelter” and Manson when the airwaves were dominated by Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Led Zeppelin, and magical albums like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. 

Somehow the titles Sir Paul and Sir Mick don’t signify much beyond the prestige of knighthood. Think of Sir Van, however, and you can see a knight on horseback riding through the gates into Arthur’s Court “down by Avalon”— or into the domain of the Iron Throne at King’s Landing in Game of Thrones. Over the years the limitless realm of rock has permitted Van Morrison to move freely through time and space and context, bringing Wordsworth, Blake and Coleridge together with Mahalia Jackson and Yeats and Lady Gregory singing and dancing in the summertime in England. Or else he’s taking us “up the mountainside/With fire in our hearts” walking “all the way to Tir Na Nog.”

And remember where Sir Van, also known as the Belfast Cowboy, is coming from. When asked why Northern Ireland was “the ultimate choice for the bulk of the shoot and The Game of Thrones base of operation,” co-creator David Benioff mentions “windswept hilltops, stony beaches, lush meadows, high cliffs, bucolic streams — we can shoot a day at any of these places and still sleep that night in Belfast.”

The Miller’s Tale

Another force from the rock renaissance evoking the world of Game of Thrones is Procol Harum in albums like Home from 1970 and the chart-topping 1967 single, “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” where “As the Miller told his tale … her face, at first just ghostly,/Turned a whiter shade of pale.” Though the group’s out-there lyricist Keith Reid has denied consciously channeling Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, there’s no denying the “magic time” of myth and legend haunting that lyric and the songs on Home: “Light a candle up in kingdom come…A candle burning bright enough to tear the city down.” Or: “I beheld that flaming chariot and I saw the sacred bride,” or “God’s aloft, the winds are raging/God’s aloft, the winds are cold.” Or, given the revenge theme running through the Season Five finale, you have Gary Brooker belting out “Still There’ll Be More,” a deliriously jubilant serenade of unending vengeance: “I’ll waylay your daughter and kidnap your wife/I’ll savage her sexless and burn out her eyes/…You’ll cry out for mercy. Still there’ll be more!”

Drawing the Line 

The underlying issue in the blogosphere debate about Game of Thrones is where do you draw the line? Or where or when should the producers draw it? In fact, the secret of cable’s success, HBO in particular, has been to ignore the line networks have had to live on the other side of from the inception of television all the way back to Hollywood and the reign of the Hays Office and the Legion of Decency. Explaining why compressing Martin’s massive work into a feature film was impossible, David Benioff says that besides being forced to discard “dozens of subplots and scores of characters,” such a film “would almost certainly need a PG-13 rating. That means no sex, no blood, no profanity.” To which he added: “[Profanity] that!”

Those who claim to be abandoning Game of Thrones because of the violence and sex should consider the ultimate dramatist. When did Shakespeare draw the line? Even if you dismiss the crazed, cannibalistic bloodbath of Titus Andronicus as a parody of Marlowe or the work of another hand, what about, for a start, the Macbeths, and Goneril and Regan in King Lear, and the ultimate protagonist Hamlet (“my thoughts be bloody or nothing worth”), who skewers his true love’s father and when asked where the old man is, says “At supper…Not where he eats but is eaten. A certain convocation of politic worms are e’en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet.”

Heroes and Villains

While Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf Hamlet of Game of Thrones, pictured in the graphic above and memorably played by Peter Dinklage, might not be a match for the Dane verbally, he has Shakespearean dimensions, as do most of the major characters. Interviewed in Inside HBO’s Game of Thrones (Chronicle Books 2012), Dinklage speaks of the way the show “crosses genres” and finds the characters “as vibrant and real” as anything he’s come across in “more traditional great fiction.” Lena Headley, who plays his deadly, diabolical sister Cersei, finds that the characters “never stop moving, growing, changing. No one ever remains what you think they are.”

Audience Awareness

Referring to the show’s source, George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire, co-creator D.B. Weiss mentions always being “on the lookout for deep characters, a beautifully crafted and compelling story, passion, violence, intrigue, humanity, and all the ambiguities that come with a fully realized world … and you never find them all in the same place. Except we did. It was exhilarating and terrifying.”

Using terms like “exhilarating and terrifying,” Weiss already understands the dimensions of the challenge facing not merely the producers of the show but the audience. For one example, there’s the wedding night rape in Season Five that led Senator McCaskill, among others, to say “I’m done.” It’s important to mention that there’s an audience within the scene in the person of the man being forced to watch it; he and the victim were childhood friends. Well aware of the previous relationship, the husband says, “You’ve known her since she was a girl, now watch her become a woman.” The viewer doesn’t actually see the rape except as it’s reflected in the person standing helplessly by watching it. We know that he himself has been violated, and worse—beaten, tortured, emasculated, and dehumanized—by the perpetrator. We hear her cries but watching him watch, shaken, torn, sobbing, is where the rape is most vividly manifested. The act is as much a violation of the witness as it is of the victim. And there’s reason to believe that the scene was conceived with an awareness of what the audience to Game of Thrones has been going through. Remember those videos of horrified witnesses to the Red Wedding. They don’t want to see it, they hide their eyes, but they have to look.

Slapping Joffrey

For detestable characters, it’s hard to equal Joffrey (Jack Gleeson), the horrific brat who steals the throne and orders the beheading of Ned Stark (Sean Bean), the true hero of Season One. Thankfully, there’s a scene before Joffrey becomes king where his Uncle Tyrion gives him the slapping he more than deserves, a moment to be savored that has been posted on YouTube and extended to ten minutes by a viewer who appreciates Game of Throne’s rock and roll undercurrent. As Peter Dinklage unloads, again and again, the music playing is Led Zeppelin’s “Achilles Last Stand.”

June 17, 2015

book revToday is Igor Stravinsky’s 134th birthday. The facts say that he died in 1971 but here he is on YouTube in a shipboard afterlife. While everyone else is assembling for a lifeboat drill, Stravinsky remains at his table with his drink, as if the deck were a sidewalk cafe. “I never am sea sick,” he leans over to tell us, tête-à-tête. “Never.” Leaning closer with a smile, almost singing the words, he says, Russian to the core, “I am sea drunk. Quite different.” With that, he toasts our good health. Where or when, which ship or which ocean, dead or alive, does it matter? We’ve been toasted by the maestro.

In Paul Horgan’s Encounters With Stravinsky: A Personal Record (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1972), the composer of orchestral dynamite in the form of Le Sacre du printemps (hereafter The Rite of Spring) denounces snobbery as “snobism oblige” and expresses his undying love for Chivas Regal: “My God, so much I like to drink Scotch that sometimes I think my name is Igor Strawhiskey.”

What can you say? It’s a silly pun, beneath his dignity, but he could care less, he whose music savaged dignity and incited concertgoers to riot a little over a hundred years ago at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. So let’s take it in the spirit of the man, give it a shrug and a smile and move on. Otherwise, he’ll tell us “Thank you very much, go to hell,” his stock response to “opinions which seek to influence, discredit, or even for the wrong reasons, to praise.”

In the Vernacular

“First I heard The Firebird Suite,” Charlie Parker told Nat Hentoff in 1953. “In the vernacular of the streets, I flipped.” According to Howard McGhee, who plays trumpet on Parker’s Dial sessions of 1945, “Bird hipped me to, like, Stravinsky …. So, like The Rite of Spring, he brought it over to the house and let me hear it. And I said, “yeah, this cat … knows what he’s doing.’ I mean Stravinsky was a hip dude, you know, as far as writing music was concerned. He had this thing down.”

Jazz and Stravinsky have always had a relationship, but in the wake of Friday morning’s news of the death of Ornette Coleman (1930-2015), it’s impossible to mention this giant of 20th century music without reference to the loss of the man, who as the Times obit has it, “rewrote the language of jazz.”

A common language can be heard in the way the sinuously haunting phrase that begins The Rite surfaces in an exhilarating cycle of variations in “Sleep Talkin” on Coleman’s appropriately titled 2006 album Sound Grammar. You can also hear hints of Stravinsky in “Lonely Woman,” the anthemic opening track on Ornette’s 1959 album The Shape of Jazz to Come.

When I lived briefly at the Albert Hotel in my first year on my own in New York, I heard someone practicing scales in a room on the same floor. Asked about the saxophonist down the hall, the night clerk said, “It’s some musician named Coleman.” It took awhile for it to sink in that the guy on my floor was the wild man from Texas shaking the jazz world and being treated no less abusively (“tone-deaf,” “out of tune,” “a charlatan”) than Stravinsky had been (“a Parisian freak,” a “hoax”). Later that year I stood mesmerized in the presence of the man himself at the Five Spot listening to something piercingly new that didn’t ask you to like it or even to bear with the urgency of a sound that could be translated into Stravinsky speech, “Thank you very much, go to hell.”

A Marvelous Scandal

Paul Horgan’s encounter with Stravinsky began in 1920 when Horgan was a 17-year-old student at a military academy in Roswell, New Mexico, where an enlightened teacher who had never actually heard The Rite of Spring said that from what he’d read about it, “violent dissonances together with rhythms previously unheard in serious music, and described by everyone as primitive, even barbaric, were what had set off the work’s career in a marvelous scandal” in Paris in May 1913.

The account of the event Horgan quotes from at length is by Carl Van Vechten (also born on June 17), who described the battle between those “swept away with wrath” by “a blasphemous attempt to destroy music as an art” and those who “bellowed defiance” and “felt that the principles of free speech were at stake.” Such was “the potent force of the music” that the man sitting behind Van Vechten began beating rhythmically on the top of his head with his fists. “My emotion was so great,” Van Vechten admits, “that I did not feel the blows for some time. They were perfectly synchronized with the beat of the music.”

Alone in the House

I read about the Paris riot in the liner notes of the Leonard Bernstein /New York Philharmonic recording I acquired as a member of the Columbia Record Club (a 17th-birthday present). Although the notes said something about the Paris riot, Nijinsky and Diaghilev, and the Russian folk tradition behind the ballet, nothing prepared me for what happened when I put the record on the turntable. Soon I knew I was not going to be able to listen to the music sitting down. Since I was still living with my parents at the time, I made sure I was alone in the house, drew the shades, put the cat out, and locked the front door, like Dr. Jekyll securing the lab before quaffing the formula that would transform him into Mr. Hyde. So overwhelming was the convergence of rhythms and clashing motifs and pagan fanfares, there was no room for anything but the storm of sound. If Van Vechten had been sitting in front of me, I’d have been dancing on top of him. At some point I seemed to be engaged in a spasmodic parody of conducting as I waved my arms and jumped around, in the grip of blind, helpless, hapless, idiot excitement. When it was over, I collapsed, out of breath, not knowing at the time, just as well, that the ballet ends with a dance to the death by the sacrificial maiden.

It’s odd to realize that I never equated the power and glory of Stravinsky’s Rite with my passion for Russian literature, which eventually led to a minor in Slavic Studies. After absorbing three different performances of The Rite (conducted by Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim, and Michael Tilson Thomas), it’s possible to imagine the music scoring everything from Raskolnikov’s fevers in Crime and Punishment to the Siege of Moscow in War and Peace. Late one night I indulged in a fantasy of an orchestra composed of musicians resembling Dostoevsky’s clerks and drunkards and angelic prostitutes playing side by side with peasants and aristocrats out of Tolstoy, all conducted by who else but Chekhov, the steady hand, balanced and brilliant to the last note.

Remembering John Fischer

Having been submerged for days in Stravinsky, I came to the surface Sunday wondering what sort of music would be chosen for a memorial service at the University Chapel for our friend and neighbor John Fischer, who died on May 15. No surprise, there was Bach, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” a singing of “Fear No More the Heat of the Sun” from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, and “Amazing Grace,” a lovely but not unusual choice. The surprise was “Lord of the Dance,” a hymn by Sydney Carter. After a morning listening obsessively to The Rite of Spring, music written, after all, for dancers, how remarkable to be singing a hymn with a jaunty beat and a joyous chorus (“Dance, dance, wherever you may be”), a hymn in which we seemed to be singing along with Jesus (“I came down from heaven and I danced on the earth/At Bethlehem I had my birth”). Most hymns are like stately pageants. Here, in the austere, spacious, stained-glass wonder of the chapel we were singing lines like “I danced in the moon and the stars and the sun” to a catchy, folky melody that I recognized from many hours listening to Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring around the time I was dancing myself dizzy to Stravinsky.

The Postlude for John’s service was “Sheep May Safely Graze” from Bach’s Cantata 208, music to melt a heart of stone, the same music on the tape I played again and again for my father when he was dying.

Books and Love

Later at the Arts Council, where friends and family remembered and celebrated John Fischer, a fellow scholar read Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poem John’s wife Panthea had been reading to him as he died. Best known for his writings on the poetry of Jonathan Swift, John once observed, in the context of Swift’s long poem “Cadenus and Vanessa,” that “a relationship that mingles love and books is possible and joyous.” He dedicated that essay, “itself about books and love,” to Panthea.

June 10, 2015

book revSaul Bellow, who was born 100 years ago today in a suburb of Montreal, began his breakthrough novel The Adventures of Augie March in Paris in 1948 and finished it four years later in Princeton, in an office at Firestone Library.

Besides winning the National Book Award, Augie March has been named by Time and the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels in the English language. Writing in 1995, Martin Amis declares it “The Great American Novel” and Salman Rushdie seems to agree (“If there’s a candidate … this is it”). In the context of the GAM, Christopher Hitchens compares Augie March to The Great Gatsby, another perennial candidate, observing that its great advantage “lies in its scope and its optimism” as “the first time in American literature that an immigrant would act and think like a rightful Discoverer, or a pioneer.”

On those terms, Bellow’s personal history as an infant illegally smuggled over the border from Canada clearly qualifies him. He stakes his claim in one of the great American opening sentences, a legend in itself:

“I am an American, Chicago born — Chicago, that somber city — and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.”

No Turning Back

I’ve gone at Augie March numerous times over the years in one edition or another, including the Popular Library Giant with the sexy cover (“Ribald  … Vital … Virile”), but I never got much beyond that powerful opening paragraph; first to knock, first admitted, and each time I turn back. Why? I suppose it’s a combination of too much prose and too little plot. Even now, I might not have completed this 536-page expedition but for my determination to meet the 100th birthday deadline.

Big, complicated, densely written novels like Augie March offer a challenge comparable to a long trek in the mountains, with the goal of a literary Shangri-La shining somewhere on the other side of a No Man’s Land of devious challenges, the prose equivalent of deadly crevasses and threadbare rope-bridges that may scare you into turning back. And even if you slog it out and get there you may not last, if, say, things begin to go south after the golden arrival, the glow fades with a spell of lousy weather, a Himalayan air-inversion, the potential for a plague or an avalanche, until you panic and take the first helicopter out, only to find that right after you left an unheralded, unimaginable event cast everyone and everything in Shakespearean radiance, making poetry of the air and opening all the closed doors of the mystic city for the first time in a century.

With Augie March — and the word “adventure” in the title is more than a picaresque convention, it’s what happens to you the reader — the experience is a lot more subtle than that high-altitude analogy. Around about page 420, after a long sequence in Mexico vicariously training an eagle and losing a lover, you may make the mistake of thinking that Bellow is folding up his tent, winding things down, ready to cruise through the last 100 pages toward the dreaded Curse of the Denouement. Far from it — a torpedo blows your doubts at the moon as the curtain rises on a mad and masterful scene wherein two Chicagoans adrift in a lifeboat have an endgame conversation somewhere to the far side of Strindberg, Beckett, and Mary Shelley — “You didn’t create life!” “In all humility, that’s exactly what I did. Six universities have thrown me out for claiming it.”

A Sea of Prose

In his New Yorker review of Zachary Leader’s new biography The Life of Saul Bellow: To Fame and Fortune (Knopf), Louis Menand suggests that the first 200 pages of Augie March contain “the best writing Bellow ever did,” which is to say “the best prose” since a quick random count suggests that only around 40 of those first 200 pages appear to contain dialogue.

Writing in Advertisements for Myself (1958), Norman Mailer states the obvious when he calls Bellow’s style “self-willed and unnatural.” It’s easy enough to find examples of what Mailer’s talking about, like: “Before vice and shortcoming, admitted in the weariness of maturity, common enough and boring to make an extended showing of, there are, or are supposed to be, silken, unconscious, nature-painted times, like the pastoral of Sicilian shepherd lovers, or lions you can chase away with stones and golden snakes who scatter from their knots into the fissures of Eryx.”

As it turns out, the long paragraph in Chapter Six containing that passage is a journey worth taking, in spite of the borderline self-parody, you go from Eden and shepherd-Sicily to “deep city vexation” and studying Greek in Bogotá to temples, pool rooms, “musical milk-dreaming innocence,” fiddle lessons, and Robinson Crusoe. On top of that, Bellow’s “unnatural” prose seems to have driven Mailer off the rails into tortured equivalents (Bellow’s “narrative disproportions are elephantiastical in their anomaly”) and nonsensical declarations (“I do not think he knows anything about people or himself”)
culminating in a dismissal of Augie March “at its worst” as “a travelogue for timid intellectuals.”

A Bloody Genius

In Princeton, where his friendship with John Berryman seems to have coincided with the composing of the extraordinary lifeboat chapter, Bellow gave the poet the finished manuscript, and according to Berryman’s wife Eileen Simpson in Poets in Their Youth, Berryman spent a weekend “immobile for hours except to light a cigarette while he trained his intelligence on The Adventures of Augie March, giving it the kind of reading every writer dreams of having.” When Berryman finished, he announced “Bellow is it!” and went off to tell the author that he was “a bloody genius.”

Removing Restraints

“My earlier books had been straight and respectable,” Bellow said in a 1991 interview. “But in Augie March I wanted to invent a new sort of American sentence. Something like a fusion of colloquialism and elegance.” In the Winter 1966 Paris Review (Art of Fiction No. 37), Bellow admitted being afraid to let himself go in The Dangling Man and The Victim. “I was timid. I still felt the incredible effrontery of announcing myself to the world (in part I mean the WASP world) as a writer and an artist. I had to touch a great many bases, demonstrate my abilities, pay my respects to formal requirements …. When I began to write Augie March. I took off many of these restraints.” In 1991, he mentioned “reckless spontaneity” as he “began to write in all places, in all postures, at all times of day and night. It rushed out of me. I was turned on like a hydrant in summer. The simile is not entirely satisfactory. Hydrants are not sexually excited. I was wildly excited.”

Celebrating Mimi

You don’t have to read far in the reviews of Leader’s biography to learn that Augie and his creator have in common a compelling weakness for women. For all that might be said on the lofty theme of immigrants, discoverers, and pioneers, the point where I bonded with the novel is when Augie goes all out, against odds, to help a female friend through a botched abortion that might have proved fatal had he not been there for her. The most appealing of all the memorable women in Augie March, Mimi is a feisty waitress in a student hash house who had been expelled from the University of Chicago “for going beyond the bounds of necking,” which became “a favorite subject for her ferocious humor.” The beauty of her relationship with Augie is that being platonic, it’s free of “formal requirements,” developing outside the norm (everyone thinks they’re lovers anyway since they share rooms in the same boarding house); at the same time their life-or-death intimacy during the crisis has a sexual tension, so passionately does Augie give himself to the cause of her salvation.

More than any other character, “hard and spirited” Mimi, “editing her words for no one,” expresses the conceptual passion in which Bellow discovered and composed the book, the letting go, the freedom from restraint, she who “led a proclaimed life, and once she got talking … held back nothing,” with her “tough beauty,” her “large mouth, speaking for a soul of wild appetite, nothing barred; she’d say anything, and had no idea what could hinder her.” The sense of excitement and excess are in her “long and narrow hips,” her large bust, and “high heels that gave a tight arch of impatience to the muscles of her calves; her step was small and pretty and her laughter violent, total, and critical.” When she slams down the phone on the man who got her pregnant “it was as a musician might shut the piano after he had finished storming chords of mightiest difficulty without a single flinch or error.”

No wonder the novel rips itself open to make room for Mimi’s crisis, Chapter 12 sprawling for almost 50 pages while previous chapters, at their longest, rarely go beyond 20. Saving Mimi, Augie follows the courage of his heart and Bellow’s art, that “reckless spontaneity,” as he sacrifices his chance to marry into a wealthy family by breaking a New Year’s Eve date with his fiance, the heiress, to take care of this hash house waitress with “her round face of tough happiness.”

A Long Time Coming

It’s time to admit that I have a tough, intelligent, “hard and spirited” Chicago woman to thank for giving me this long overdue reading assignment. In an email exchange with an old friend who has lived most of his life in Chicago and recently began rereading Augie March, I reminded him that it was his mother’s favorite book, she who one day looked a certain high school senior sternly in the eye and told him to read The Adventures of Augie March. Now, a senior again, long out of high school, he’s finally done it and wishes he could call her up and talk about her favorite book.


By the way, Bellow’s was not the only famous Chicago novel to have been finished in Princeton. About 50 years earlier, out on Province Line Road, Upton Sinclair was writing The Jungle. 

June 3, 2015

book rev

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

A Hothouse Orchid

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

Princeton Junction

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

Bartleby at Firestone

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

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

Last Words

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

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

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


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

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

A House on Aiken

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

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

May 27, 2015
Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

Photo Credit: Courtesy of AMC

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

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

The Real Thing?

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

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

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

Bowing Out Early

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

The Nuisance of Ads

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

The Show’s Finest Hour

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

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


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

May 20, 2015

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

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

The Himalaya Hotel

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

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

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

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

Falling Down

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

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

Loud Mouth Lime

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

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

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

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

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

Sidewalks of London

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

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

May 13, 2015

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

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

Having it Both Ways

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

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

Enter Nelly and Shelley

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

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

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

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

Beckett in Manhattan

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

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

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

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

Earth Opera

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

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

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

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