June 12, 2013

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

—Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

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

Williamsburg Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working in Brooklyn

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

Crane’s Bridge

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

Whitman Opens His Arms

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

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

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

Brooklyn, New York: 1855.

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

June 5, 2013

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

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


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

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

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

Tour in Free Fall

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

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

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

“The Third Man Theme”

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

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

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

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

Summer Romance

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

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

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

May 29, 2013

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

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

Clarke and Keats

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

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

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

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

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

book rev2Spenser in Indiana

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

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

Spenser at Berkeley

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

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

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

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

May 22, 2013

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

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

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

Wagner, the Film

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

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

Chaplin and Levine

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

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

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

Baudelaire Floating

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

Proust’s Telephone

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

Wagner’s Reach

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

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

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

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

May 15, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Face of the Book

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

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

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

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

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

Gatsby C’est Moi

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

A Radiant World

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

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


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


May 8, 2013

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Headlong and Heartfelt

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

A Bizarre Noir

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

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

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


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

May 1, 2013

book revIn the loose living of my early years

the impulses of my poetry were shaped,

the boundaries of my art were plotted.

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

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

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

Cavafy’s Presence

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

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

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

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

Cavafy’s Charm

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

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

Cruised by Cavafy

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

Cavafy’s Ghost?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And say farewell, farewell, to Alexandria leaving.”


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

April 24, 2013

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

—Colin Davis on first hearing Berlioz

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

—Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces

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

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

Five Easy Pieces

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

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

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

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

Smashing It All Up

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

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

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

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

Davis in Action

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

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


April 17, 2013

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

—Bob Dylan

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

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

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

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

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

In Love

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

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

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

Higher Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


April 10, 2013

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

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

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

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

Hope Embattled

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

Double Anniversary

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

The Glass Mystique

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

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

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

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

Salinger and Vedanta

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

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

April 3, 2013

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

—Margaret Salinger


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

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

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

Room 512

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

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


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

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

Lost Time on 35th

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

Proust and Degas

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

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

A Salinger Moment

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

March 27, 2013

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

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

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

 A Sunset Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

A Darconville Coincidence

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

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

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

A Last Conversation

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

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

March 20, 2013

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

—Edward Gibbon

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

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

Meeting Peter

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

Google Is Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 13, 2013

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

It Began in Princeton

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

Enter David Foster Wallace

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

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

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

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

What Wallace Needs

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

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

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

Two Wives

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

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

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

book rev 1

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

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

March 6, 2013

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

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

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

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

Is It Unreadable?

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

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

Glorious Vengeance

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

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

Isabel Reading

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

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

About the Cat

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

February 27, 2013

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

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

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

And look who’s coming down that unworthy staircase.

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

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

Academy Awards 1944

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

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

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

Oscar Night

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

Born February 27

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 20, 2013

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

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

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

Wide-Eyed Kids

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

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

The Grand Central Awards

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

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

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

Grand Central Moments

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

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

Holden’s Refuge

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

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

Magnificent Windows

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

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

Improv Everywhere

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

February 13, 2013

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

—Paul McCartney from “Silly Love Songs”

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

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

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

“It’s Love, It’s Love”

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

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

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

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

Another Couple

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

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

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

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

Falling Star

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

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

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

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

February 6, 2013

DVD revLast week people all over the country were in mourning for Downton Abbey’s Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). The brutal, shocking demise from postpartum eclampsia of the youngest and most lovable of the Crawley sisters was a scene worthy of a great or at least very good novel. Looking down from death-scene heaven, Charles Dickens might tip his hat, for not since Little Nell bit the Dickensian dust has a fictional demise had such an impact stateside. All the more impressive is the fact that the blow was so deeply felt in spite of many viewers knowing it was coming, thanks to leaks from the U.K. where Season 3 had already been aired. You have to hand it to Julian Fellowes and the cast for a truly bravura piece of theatre (the great strength of Downton Abbey is in the ensemble playing), as the titled doctor, oozing class, forces through his feel-good prognosis and everything seemingly bears him out, the baby safely delivered, joy reigns supreme, then wham!

Meanwhile there are reports of binge viewers planning weekend marathons of The Wire and The West Wing or viewing a whole 12-episode season of Homeland in one sitting. Denizens of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre at least have the decency to wait a week for the next episode of Downton Abbey, allowing the plot to steep, as it were, while they quote their favorite lines from Maggie Smith’s undaunted Dowager Countess of Grantham and ponder the future for Upstairs’ Mary and Matthew and Downstairs’ Bates and Anna. No doubt when Downton fans get together, their dinner parties or high teas are more civilized than the Soprano-themed evenings we shared with our neighbors where we ate gabagool and ziti a la Carmela and speculated on great issues like who would get whacked next week. But what a great foil all that Downton decorum is for subtle, nasty little twists like the bar of soap put where a pregnant Lady Grantham will step, or the not so subtle outrages like the dead Turkish diplomat dragged out of Lady Mary’s bed.

Raising the Stakes

Along with as many as 7.9 million other viewers, my wife and I have been enjoying Season 3 of Downton Abbey on PBS and have just finished all of Season 2 of Showtime’s Homeland On Demand, firmly limiting ourselves to two episodes a night until indulging in a minor binge watching the last three straight through. We became curious about Homeland when we were in the midst of the Breaking Bad addiction described here late last year (“Investing in Breaking Bad: A Matter of Life and Death,” Nov. 21, 2012) and learned that a 24-style CIA series (same producers, Howard Gordon and Alex Gansa) had swept the top three Emmys, Best Series, Best Actor and Best Actress. After being mesmerized by 24 for 5 seasons, we fell off the back of that runaway train from sheer exhaustion.

As soon as we were able to get to the top of the library’s DVD wait list, we found that Homeland indeed offered more of the same with its crazily convoluted, high-stakes, terrorism-driven plot, but there were several stunning differences that lifted it to a level above both 24 and Downton Abbey. Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack was a very human superhero but his feats demanded a formidable suspension of disbelief and his love life was a mess. Homeland’s version of Jack, Claire Danes’s CIA agent/analyst Carrie Mathison, performs wonders on a slightly more believable level and her love life is what people have come away talking about. Carrie’s obsessive affair with ex-Marine Nicholas Brody (Damien Lewis), the terrorist disguised as war hero that she’s stalking, creates a fascinating emotional dimension all its own. There’s been nothing like this unique romance in any of cable television’s landmarks from The Sopranos on. It’s in their scenes together that Danes and Lewis earn their Emmys and put the series over the top.


Carrie is played to the hilt, taken to the limit, name your superlative, by Claire Danes. Brody is a human conundrum who, as good as Damien Lewis is, could have been played by any number of actors, probably even including Kiefer Sutherland. Lewis’s greatest moments are drawn, coaxed, caressed from him by Carrie, notably in their cozy idyll in a lakeside cabin where she spent childhood summers (“The Weekend,” episode 7 from Season 1) and ultimately and most movingly in episode 5 of Season 2 (“Q and A”), where she, in a manner of speaking, saves his soul, takes the terrorist apart, and puts the real Brody back together again. That’s the calm caring conflicted but ever resourceful Carrie, on task even when she’s turning the love of her life into a double agent.


What makes Homeland remarkable is not just the improbable Carrie-Brody romance, it’s also the bond between Carrie and her professorial mentor at the CIA, Saul Berenson, played with just the right balance of heart and mind by Mandy Patinkin. Here’s this wild woman passionately devoted to her task as a spy who also manages to be deliriously engaging, silly, slaphappy, hard as nails, funny, fascinating, frantic, disaster-prone, and infuriating. Saul is the falconeer to Carrie’s falcon, the eye of her hurricane, and in the devious world of Homeland, he’s also the emotional and intellectual mean. When everything else is descending into chaos, especially bipolar Carrie minus her meds, only Saul has the patience to sort it out. One of the reasons “The Weekend” is, along with “Q and A,” among the best episodes ever on cable television is the way the cabin scenes with Carrie and Brody are interwoven with the scenes between Saul and Aileen, a member of the terrorist cell plotting the attack that the CIA is scrambling to circumvent. Nicely played by Marin Ireland, Aileen was captured at the Mexican border but deep down she’s a Princeton girl (really) who fell in love with a young terrorist, and while it’s true that Saul is masterfully endearing himself to Aileen in order to secure information, he also is clearly becoming paternally attached to the girl and will weep for her in Season 2.

Mainly, Saul has his hands full with Carrie, who breaks all the rules. When a national catastrophe is prevented only thanks to her last-ditch, frantically determined efforts, she’s scorned, despised, and treated as a nut case. By all rights she should be hailed as a hero (at least within the CIA); instead she’s ousted from the agency, and at the end of Season 1 voluntarily receives shock therapy.


One thing that drew people to Downton Abbey and kept them watching was the teasingly thwarted, drawn-out romance of Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). The positive negative chemistry of attraction was there from the beginning and carefully processed and developed until it produced the wedding that opened Season 3. By comparison, the force of attraction binding Carrie and her quarry, Brody, is complex and explosive, with two wounded people bonding in endgame situations. As Carrie’s professional obsession with Brody becomes personal, you have the feeling that if he hadn’t existed, she’d have invented him.

Real Love

For a bizarre take on Homeland, see Lorrie Moore’s piece in the February 21 New York Review of Books (“Double Agents In Love”), where, besides contradicting her own title, she claims that the “main problem with the show is that the love between Carrie and Brody” (pictured here) is “unconvincing for many reasons having to do with common sense,” that “viewers will sense a lack of chemistry between Lewis and Danes,” that the actors “project only a cold canned heat,” that “this is too tense-making for what purports to be a love story,” that they “lack mutual trust or any palpable erotic vibe,” and that “they are not bonded and they part without any persuasive anguish.” If you turn each of these observations upside down, you will understand why Danes and Lewis and Homeland swept the Emmys. This love story is, as Carrie might say, for real.

January 30, 2013

record revWilhelm followed every movement of the dear little creature, and felt surprised to see how finely her character unfolded itself as she proceeded in the dance …. At this moment he experienced at once all the emotions he had ever felt for Mignon.

—from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship

Franz Schubert (1791-1828), whose birthday is this Thursday, January 31, found musical ideas in some unlikely places, including the old coffeemill he called his “most precious possession,” grinding away while telling a friend, “Melodies and themes just come flying in …. One sometimes searches for days for an idea which the little machine finds in a second.”

Though the anecdote comes from “a not absolutely reliable source,” according to Joseph Wechsberg’s Schubert, it sounds too good, too Schubertian, not to be true, and if he could find music in a coffee grinder, what’s to keep him from finding it in a cat? I’d like to think that at some point in his life Schubert had a feline at his feet as he was composing and that whenever he felt in need of some company he could reach down and stroke it while the creature gazed up at him the way cats do, as if he and the world were one. While I’m at it, let’s make the cat the 19th-century Viennese equivalent of our Nora, a ten-year-old tuxedo female with a white patch on her brow and white paws.

Our brother and sister tuxedos were named for that effervescent couple from the Thin Man movies, Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy). Although the Dickensian puddle of lovable catness we call Nick has never been remotely effervescent, his sister Nora has been a screwball comedy, a Disney cartoon, a creature feature, and a silent musical all in one. Most kittens meet the challenge of climbing and descending the stairs in their own sweet way, some more playfully and lovably than others. Nora slid down the bannister. Nor did she simply trip kittenishly up the stairs: she took them in three effortless bounds. She did not romp: she flew. And she danced. The gavottes we witnessed had to be seen to be believed. When confronted by a suspect obstacle or a toy mouse she would jump straight up, halfway to the ceiling.

Nora and Mignoncat

Lately I’ve been listening with special attention to the Mignon songs in Schubert Lieder (Deutsche Grammophone), with soprano Gundula Janowitz and pianist Irwin Gage, while reading selectively (the emphasis on Mignon) in Thomas Carlyle’s translation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-96). The more I read, the more I recognize qualities in the gentle, loving, otherworldly Mignon that remind me of our antic Nora.

“In her whole system of proceedings,” Goethe says of Mignon, “there was something very singular. She never walked up or down the stairs, but jumped. She would spring along by the railing, and before you were aware would be sitting quietly above upon the landing.” When Wilhelm asks her how old she is, she says, “No one has counted.” When asked who was her father, she says “The Great Devil is dead.” Later on, when Wilhelm is feeling low, “she laid her head upon his knees, and remained quite still. He played with her hair, patted her, and spoke kindly to her” (he also pats her after she performs her flawless blindfolded dance among the eggs). Mignon, like our small but mighty Nora, “was frolicsome beyond all wont.” Responding to a Punch and Judy show, she “grew frantic with gayety: the company, much as they had laughed at her at first, were in fine obliged to curb her. But persuasion was of small avail; for she now sprang up, and … capered round the table. With her hair flying out behind her, with her head thrown back, and her limbs, as it were, cast into the air, she seemed like one of those antique Mænads, whose wild and all but impossible positions … often strike us with amazement.”

Like I said, two of a kind — though, to be honest, our Mignon has mellowed into middle age and is now sweet, sensible (most of the time), and companionable.

Mignon Lives On

When it comes to singing, however, the resemblance between early Nora and Goethe’s Mignon becomes decidedly less credible. A review of a lieder recital at Manhattan’s Carnegie Hall in New York in last Friday’s New York Times (“Of Goethe’s Land, Romantic and Full-Throated”) shows that Mignon is alive and well through German soprano Dorothea Röschmann’s performance of Schubert’s setting of “Heiss Mich Nicht Reden/Bid Me Not Speak.” In Wilhelm Meister, Goethe indicates what that song means for Mignon: “Often for the whole day she was mute. At times she answered various questions more freely, yet always strangely: so that you could not determine whether it was caused by shrewd sense, or ignorance of the language; for she spoke in broken German interlaced with French and Italian.”

A Potent Silence

A thoroughly mute and radiantly feline Mignon is 13-year-old Nastassja Kinski in Wrong Move/Falsche Bewegung (1974), the inventively free adaptation of Wilhelm Meister directed by Wim Wenders and written by Peter Handke. Having embarked on his adventures, Wilhelm (Rudiger Volger) is seated on a train bound for Bonn when he becomes aware of a presence, the full force of which is so magnificently impending you can feel him being literally turned in his seat by the penetrating gaze of the creature across the aisle. It’s an appearance in the most enigmatic sense of the word, revealed in a sequence of gradually more intimate camera movements until her face fills the screen, magnified to a mysterious glory by cinematic chemistry and the natural beauty of Kinski in her screen debut. Ten years later she’s the missing mother in Wenders’s Paris, Texas, one of the great films of the 1980s. Given the animal intensity with which she compel’s Wilhelm’s attention on the train, it’s no surprise that the same actress ends up starring in Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982).

A Notorious Tour

The notes to Schubert Lieder, which was recorded in Berlin in 1976 and 1977, refer to how Gage encouraged Janowitz to “sing as her own nature dictated.” I chose this recording not only because it includes performances of the Mignon songs but because Irwin Gage introduced me to great music when he and I were on the same student tour of Europe long long ago. The tour earned a certain notoriety when the bipolar leader had a nervous breakdown ten days into the itinerary. Among the numerous delusions consuming the man was one right out of Wilhelm Meister; he wanted us to become a traveling company of performers called the Golden Bear (after the Berkeley-based tour company). He even wrote nonsensical songs for us to sing (“Vi are di Europins uf di Golden Bear/Ve have stars und straw dust in are hair”). By the time we got to Oslo, our guide was totally out of control and had to be taken away by the police.

As the tour was shepherded through Europe for the next two months by a relay team of leaders, Irwin accompanied me to a stirring outdoor concert of Respighi’s Pines of Rome in Venice, a performance of Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla, and a Mozart program in Salzburg, presumably part of the same festival where 18 years later he and Janowitz would present a program (“The Fortunes of Women in Schubert’s Lieder”) around the time they made this record.

Mignon’s Songs

The extraordinary rapport between singer and accompanist (they had been playing together since 1970) is worth a column in itself, but in deference to my theme I’ll stick to Mignon’s songs, “Kennst du das land/Know thou the land,” in particular. It always struck me as odd that pieces meant to be sung by a haunted 13-year-old waif should be performed by ample, well-endowed middle aged women. As if anticipating the potential incongruity, Goethe describes Mignon’s singing in Wilhelm Meister in terms suited for adult performers looking for direction: “She began every verse in a stately and solemn manner, as if she wished to draw attention towards something wonderful, as if she had something weighty to communicate. In the third line, her tones became deeper and gloomier; the words, ‘Dost know?’ were uttered with a show of mystery and eager circumspectness; in ‘’Tis there! ’tis there!’ lay an irresistible longing; and her ‘Let us go!’ she modified at each repetition, so that now it appeared to entreat and implore, now to impel and persuade.”

Composed when Schubert was 18, and performed by Janowitz and Gage in just under five brilliant minutes, the song has everything: grandeur, passion, longing, and mystery: it’s wanderlust set to music. No doubt that’s why Thomas Wolfe used the poem as an epigraph for Of Time and the River, and why Wim Wenders, whose production company is called Road Movies, gave us the train scenes and Kinski’s Mignon in his version of Wilhelm Meister. And it’s why I see a tuxedo cat named Nora sliding down the bannister every time the piano breaks free and flies at the “Let us go!” moment of maximum longing.

January 23, 2013

book revWilhelm, what is the world to our heart without love? What a magic lantern is without light!

—from The Sufferings 

of Young Werther

Bear with me please while I imagine a contemporary publisher of serious stature but limited taste and tact communicating with a 21st century incarnation of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) about the denouement of his epistolary novel, The Sufferings of Young Werther (Norton paperback $13.95), newly available in Stanley Corngold’s engaging translation. The problem is that the path to the book’s moment of maximum emotional intensity is impeded by a mind-numbingly lengthy quotation from an epic poem concocted by a wily Scotsman impersonating an ancient bard he calls Ossian.

“With all due respect, Your Excellency,” says my imaginary publisher, “you’ve got us in your pocket, it’s Werther’s last moment with his beloved Lotte, he’s doomed and she knows it, down deep she’s crazy about him but she’s a good woman, a faithful wife (more’s the pity), so what does he do when he finally has her to himself (her uptight husband out of town)? He reads six and a half pages of bardic mumbojumbo by some poor man’s Tolkien who didn’t even exist, with all his Rynos and Dauras and Eraths and Ogdals and Colmas. But (no accounting for taste) she melts, he melts, and they have their moment, finally young Mr. Werther (who has no first name, never mind why) is really making out and she’s in a rapture of repressed passion, it’s happening, — I tell you, it had my heart beating like a drum machine, she’s squeezing his hands, pressing them to her breast, their ‘glowing cheeks’ are touching, ‘The world faded from them,’ he’s covering ‘her trembling, stammering lips with furious kisses.’ The reader’s feeling the book like never before! So why not just a little Ossian up front? Like maybe just the last bit about the drops of heaven, the one that pushes them over the emotional cliff?”

Goethe’s only answer is to shrug, sip some belladonna, and dissolve in a mist. In real life, even after it became known that Ossian was James McPherson’s invention, Goethe tried to justify the passage by making it symptomatic of Werther’s love-driven decline into suicidal madness, to go from “his beloved Homer” to “a death-drunk Gaelic poet,” as Corngold puts it in his introduction. The rub is that J.M. Coetzee spends a third of his massive essay in the New York Review of Books (“Storm Over Young Goethe,” April 26, 2012) expounding on McPherson’s ancient bards and quibbling about Corngold’s use of the original even while concluding that “reproducing a monstrous slab of Ossian in so short a novel is a misstep.”

But then who’s complaining? Not readers in the late 18th century and beyond who were caught up in Werthermania. Long before Byron woke up to find himself famous at roughly the same age (24-25), Goethe was already there, his Werther, in Corngold’s words, “being bought, pirated, read, translated, and imitated throughout Europe.” The luminary of the age, Napoleon himself, is said to have carried a copy in his knapsack and upon meeting Goethe in 1808 claimed to have read it seven times.

Opening the Gate

The only other time I tried to read Werther I found it almost as hard to get into as Melville’s fantastically overwrought but ultimately magnificent Pierre (which a review in 1852 called a New York Werther). Otherwise my acquaintance with Goethe’s kingdom was limited to a reading of Faust in college and Schubert’s settings of the poetry. Corngold’s translation finally opened the gate.

Comparing the new translation with Michael Hulse’s in Penguin Classics (1989), I don’t find Corngold’s that much more “modern,” perhaps because, as Michael Wood has noted, he’s been able to suggest “the modernity of the text without in any way modernizing it.” One conspicuous instance comes in the letter where Werther is describing how he’s drawn to visit his beloved Lotte in spite of himself: Hulse has it thus, “I am too close to her magic realm — snap your fingers! and there I am.” Corngold: “I am too close to her aura — whoosh! and I’m there.” Hulse’s snapping finger seems out of synch with a “magic realm,” more like a spell breaker than Corngold’s aura and whoosh, which feels casually right in a letter to a friend and suggests something closer to the telepathic instantaneity of access to his beloved that Werther fancies.

The Turning Point

In the long August 12 letter to Wilhelm that contains what is arguably the narrative’s pivotal scene, Werther expounds on the virtues of action and passion to Lotte’s eminently rational fiance, Albert, with a command that Napoleon must have appreciated. Impatient with the qualifying phrase (“True, but”) Albert uses following his account of an accident with a loaded gun, Werther admits a fondness for him, “up until his True, but; for isn’t it self-evident that every statement admits of exceptions? But the man is so eager to justify himself! When he thinks he’s said something in haste, a generality, a half-truth, he won’t stop limiting, modifying, and adding on and taking back, until there’s nothing left of the statement.” At this point, when language falls short, Goethe has Werther foreshadow his own fate by abruptly putting one of Albert’s guns to his forehead.

Repelled by the gesture, Albert grabs the unloaded pistol, saying he can’t imagine “that a man can be so foolish as to shoot himself.” Which inspires Werther to make his case for irrational behavior with several analogies, the last of which concerns a girl who “in an hour of ecstasy, gives herself over to the irresistible joys of love” (something Lotte comes dangerously close to doing with Werther in their last encounter). Albert contends that one “swept away by passion loses all his powers of reason and is viewed as a drunkard or a madman,” but Goethe has given all the rhetorical firepower to Werther, who delivers a vivid account of a girl who drowned herself for love, imagining every stage of the fatal affair up to the point where, feeling lost and alone, “cornered by the terrible need of her heart, she plunges down to stifle all her pains in the death that envelops her all around.”

Schubert’s Formula

The August 18 letter, possibly the strongest piece of writing in the book, begins with a question that led me to pencil “Schubert” in the margin: “Does it have to be this way, that whatever it is that makes a man blissfully happy in turn becomes the source of his misery?” This comes close to the emotional formula at the heart of Schubert’s music (of all music and all art, you could say), whether he’s composing lieder from Goethe’s verses or the fourth movement of the great piano sonata in B-flat, the back-and-forth dynamic that pianists are said to translate as “I know not if I’m happy — I know not if I’m sad.”

The passage that follows moves from “the full warm feeling of my heart for living nature” — the adoration of a landscape that nourished and inspired him (“how I felt like a god among the overflowing abundance”) — to a heart “undermined by the destructive force that is concealed in the totality of nature; which has never created a thing that has not destroyed its neighbor or itself,” and then to the harrowing conclusion, “And so I stagger about in fear! heaven and earth and their interweaving forces around me. I see nothing but an eternally devouring, eternally regurgitating monster.” Once again Corngold’s translation improves on Hulse’s “And so I go my fearful way betwixt heaven and earth and all their active forces; and all I can see is a monster, forever devouring, regurgitating, chewing and gorging.”

The Creature Reads It

Searching for signs of Werther’s impact on English literature in the late 18th-early 19th century, I found a line in Jane Austen’s epistolary juvenalia from 1790, Love and Friendship (“We were convinced he had no soul,” having “never read” the Sorrows of Werther), and in Keats from a September 1819 letter, spinning some “nonsense verses”: “A fly is in the milk pot — must he die/Circled by a humane society?/No no there mr Werter takes his spoon/Inverts it — dips the handle and lo, soon/The little struggler sav’d from perils dark/Across the teaboard draws a long wet mark.”

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge is discoursing in 1796 on the “false and bastard sensibility” that denies evils like “the continuance of the slave trade” which “by hideous spectacle or clamorous outcry are present to their senses and disturb their selfish enjoyments,” he imagines a “fine lady” whose nerves “are not shattered by the shrieks” sipping “a beverage sweetened with human blood, even while she is weeping over the refined sorrows of Werther.” Some three decades after that passage from his self-published journal, The Watchman, Coleridge pairs Wordsworth and Goethe as “spectators ab extra, — feeling for, but never with, their characters.”

The Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein finds a copy of The Sorrows “in a leathern portmanteau,” and thinks Werther “a more divine being that I had ever beheld or imagined.” Says the monster, “Besides the interest of its simple and affecting story, so many opinions are canvassed, and so many lights thrown upon what had hitherto been to me obscure subjects, that I found in it a never-ending source of speculation and astonishment …. The disquisitions upon death and suicide were calculated to fill me with wonder. I did not pretend to enter into the merits of the case, yet I inclined towards the opinions of the hero, whose extinction I wept, without precisely understanding it.”

Aimez-vous Goethe?

In J.D. Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” five-year-old Seymour Glass confesses in his prodigious letter home from camp that while he was swimming in the lake, “It was suddenly borne in upon me, utterly beyond dispute, that I love Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but do not love the great Goethe!” Even after reading Corngold’s first-rate Werther and watching Wrong Movement (1974), Wim Wenders’s fascinating, freely adapted film of Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship with Nastassja Kinski making an unforgettable screen debut at 14 as Mignon, I’m still not inclined to love the great Goethe. But I did feel some affection for the version of him played by Alexander Fehling in Young Goethe in Love (2011) and I definitely loved Miriam Stein’s Lotte. Both films are available at the Princeton Public Library.

January 9, 2013


I’ve never been one of those charisma nuts …. I think one of the curses of the modern television age is that it puts far too much attention on appearance rather than substance, on froth rather than what the beer is really like.

—Richard Nixon (1913-1994) in a 1983 interview

The 37th president’s remarks on the downside of charisma are taken from the remarkably revealing series of interviews his former aide Frank Gannon conducted with him in June 1983, a little less than a decade after the August of Nixon’s discontent. When Gannon was first ushered into the Oval office at the time of Watergate (“the iceberg had ripped a hole in the ship,” as Gannon puts it, “and the compartments were flooding”), Nixon was “in his easy chair with his feet up, eating soda crackers and spilling crumbs all down his chest.”

While much has been written and reported about the Kennedy charisma, Nixon’s notable lack of it is among the qualities that make his life worthy of a great novel. A Scott Fitzgerald might do justice to Kennedy. It would take a blend of Dickens and Dostoevsky to capture the stranger-than-fiction essence of Richard Nixon.

Consider the moment when the 39-year-old Republican vice-presidential nominee audaciously commanded the media on his behalf with the “Checkers Speech” in September 23, 1952. Introducing the full text in Richard Nixon: Speeches, Writings, Documents (Princeton University Press 2008), Rick Perlstein calls it “a remarkably courageous act,” Eisenhower’s handlers having put Nixon “on live television broadcast in order for him to deliver his resignation speech. Instead, he displayed before the world his most admirable quality: a refusal to back down before intimidation.” Charisma had nothing to do with what was arguably the turning point of Nixon’s political life. Even as he craftily exploits the gift of a cocker spaniel and his wife Pat’s cloth coat to save his place on the Republican ticket with Eisenhower, Nixon’s looking almost as nervous, shifty, and unsuited to the occasion as he would in the sweat of his first debate with Kennedy in 1960. While the “nation’s opinion elite,” as Perlstein reports, “considered the broadcast an embarrassing farce,” the Republican party “was inundated with more than two million telegrams demanding that he be kept on the ticket.”

Nixonian Traits

Amping up the rhetorical excitement for his narrative of the 1972 political conventions in St.George and the Godfather (Signet 1972), Norman Mailer claims that it took genius for Nixon, “a politician who was fundamentally unpopular even in his own party” to “nonetheless win the largest free election in the world, and give every promise of doing considerably better the second time” According to Mailer, Nixon is not only a genius but an artist of a sort it was “almost impossible to conceive … a literary artist who has a wholly pedestrian style. It was possible that no politician in the history of America employed so dependably mediocre a language in his speeches as Nixon, nor had a public mind ever chased so resolutely after the wholly uninteresting expression of every idea. But then few literary artists proved masters of the mediocre.”

While Perlstein offers ample evidence of Nixon’s mastery of the mediocre in Speeches, Writings, Documents, he begins with a reference to the opening passages of RN, the bulky 1978 memoir that Frank Gannon helped put together and that displays “several Nixonian traits,” including “first and most neglected, that Nixon was an outstanding storyteller”; second, “the surprising quality of self-revelation”; and finally, “the deep psychological imprint that the modesty of his upbringing made on him, combined with the cosmopolitan yearning of the devoted National Geographic reader who even then longs for worlds to conquer.” The passage that Perlstein’s comment prefaces reads like a trope out of Thomas Wolfe; after referring to the “railroad line that ran about a mile from our house,” Nixon writes, “In the daytime I could see the smoke from the steam engines. Sometimes at night I was awakened by the whistle of a train, and then I dreamed of far-off places I wanted to visit someday.”

One of the more unlikely literary references to turn up in the Gannon interviews concerns the Whittier College summer when Nixon claims to have read “virtually everything that Tolstoy has written …. I became, frankly, a Tolstoyan, which was very easy to do because nobody can read Tolstoy without being deeply moved.” When Gannon has the good sense to ask the obvious (“What is a Tolstoyan?”), Nixon gamely replies that in his case it “meant a belief in the individual and his importance, a belief in freedom, but particularly a passion for peace.”

A Dog’s Life

Of all the charisma-challenged cartoon characters ever created, Charles Schultz’s Charlie Brown is one Nixon might well have identified with in his why-does-everything-happen-to-me moments. Even as a child, Nixon seems to have had a predilection for disaster, for example the schoolboy effort Perlstein includes in Speeches, Writings, Documents. Writing at the age of ten in response to a school assignment to compose a letter in the voice of a pet, he produces a piece of work Franz Kafka might have admired. Addressed “My Dear Master” (he means his mother) and signed, “Your good dog, Richard,” the composition, a veritable treasure trove for predestination-minded pathographers, begins by complaining that “the two dogs you left with me are very bad to me” and the dog named Jim “will never talk or play with me.” When Richard the dog and Jim the dog go hunting with two boys, one of them “trip[p]ed and fell on me. I lost my temper and bit him …. While we were walking I saw a black round thing in a tree. I hit it with my paw. A swarm of black thing[s] came out of it. I felt a pain all over. I started to run as both of my eyes were swelled shut I fell into a pond. When I got home I was very sore. I wish you would come home right now.”

As I said, for a novel about Nixon, you’d need a mix of Dickens and Dostoevsky (forget Tolstoy), plus a touch of Kafka and a pinch of Charlie Brown.

Bunking With JFK

It may be that much of what Nixon has to say about Kennedy in the Gannon interviews is part of the post-resignation attempt to repair his reputation, which included publishing seven books to present himself, in Perlstein’s words, “as a foreign policy sage, the man who could take the long view, the guru of peace.” His centenary comes at a time of vicious political endgamesmanship, the worst of it fueled and fired by the Far Right with a blind fury that makes the Nixon era look like a bipartisan holiday. Numerous passages in the Gannon interviews stress the collegiality of his days in the House and Senate, whether playing poker with Tip O’Neill or working closely with Kennedy when they were first-term congressmen serving on the Education and Labor Committee. He tells Gannon that the original Kennedy-Nixon debate actually took place 13 years before the presidential one, at a Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Penn-McKee Hotel in McKeesport, Pa., where the subject was the recently passed Taft-Hartley bill. On the overnight train back to Washington, the two men shared a compartment and drew straws for who had to take the upper berth. “Didn’t make a lot of difference,” Nixon tells Gannon, “because we didn’t sleep all the way back. We talked, and mainly about what we agreed on. You always do that when you’re in Congress, and with people that are personal friends though political opponents.” In another passage from the Gannon interviews, Nixon returns to that overnight train ride: “We talked about our experiences in the past, but particularly about the world and where we were going and that sort of thing. I recall that was the occasion too, we talked about what we had done in the Pacific [when they were in the Navy] or where we had been. I asked him if he’d ever been in Vella Lavella [in the Solomon Islands]. He said, ‘Absolutely.’ He’d been in there many times. And I said, it’s very possible we met there, because I went aboard a PT boat and met all the officers … and we laughed about the fact that we might have met.”

Nixon in Princeton

In the spring of 1947, around the time he was debating Kennedy in McKeesport and making a name for himself going after Alger Hiss, Richard Milhous Nixon stopped in Princeton to speak at a meeting of the Republican Club. His growing fame was not yet widespread enough to prevent posters on campus from incorrectly announcing him as “Richard W. Nixon.” According to an email from the person who invited him, novelist, translator, and Princeton professor emeritus Edmund Keeley, then a Princeton sophomore, “He proved to be a good-looking (if slightly heavy-jawed) and reasonably intelligent young speaker, who offered rather casual thoughts on how spending might be cut back here and there in the national budget, except for the military portion, how taxes might be reduced for those paying too high a portion of their just riches, and how the kind of foreign policy the country was heading towards under Truman deserved serious review. At the end of his talk he took a few non-controversial questions, shook hands all around, and left with his aide for New York on an apparently tight schedule. As it turned out, he was scheduled to meet Whittaker Chambers later that evening.”

In his role as president of the Princeton Republican Club, Keeley was given a smiling picture of Nixon dedicated to the Club. “I wrote him a thank-you letter soon after his appearance on campus, and that was the last time I had any communication with him or, soon after with any Republican politician, because my education in Republicanism was so devastatingly negative under the selection of speakers I had invited to campus that I resigned from the club during the following year and joined the Liberal Union.”

The Nixon Foundation is hosting a centennial gala in Washington D.C. today, January 9, at 7 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. Both daughters, Julie and Tricia, will be there, along with Henry Kissinger, who will chair the dinner. The quotes from and about Frank Gannon are from the online archive of People (April 2, 1984). The Gannon interviews can be found at www.libs.uga.edu/media/collections/nixon/nixonday1.html.

January 2, 2013

dvd revMany might ask why re-release Raga now [2010]? The answer is simple: it was a very special period of my life.

—Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

The 1960s without Ravi Shankar, who died on December 11 at 92, seems as unimaginable as the 1960s without the Beatles. The headline over the New York Times obituary credits him with introducing Indian music to the West, but what he brought was beyond music; he radiated the style and ambiance and spiritual charm of his homeland. A generation’s passion for India, the fabrics, the gestures, trinkets, artifacts, posters, incense, the very colors of the country, found its brightest, warmest reflection in his presence and his devotion to his art. If it could be said that any one person was India during that period, it was Ravi Shankar, not the Maharishi or any of the other media-savvy sages.

For people in the so-called art house movie audience who had not been to India, the next best thing to being there was to see Satyajit Ray’s great Apu trilogy, where music composed and played by Shankar helped generate the emotional force of Ray’s art, particularly in the opening moments of Pather Panchali; the explosive impact of the father’s death in Aparajito; and the madness of the bridegroom in The World of Apu. For me, after returning to the States from a year in India however, the music that came closest to reviving the intensity of being up to my neck or over my head in the color and the chaos was not the sound of Shankar, but the soaring, swirling voices of Bollywood’s Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi. The chance of hearing Shankar’s music in the streets of Calcutta was about as good as hearing Mozart’s in the streets of Philadelphia.

In Person

I saw Ravi Shankar three times in India, twice in performance in Allahabad and New Delhi and once at a table by the window in the Kwality Restaurant in Allahabad. To sit down to order dinner after smiling and nodding hello to Ravi Shankar and his party was like casually nodding hello to Mozart. No surprise, really: he was in town for the great Hindu fair taking place at Sangam, where the Jumna meets the Ganges, and for the concert we would be enjoying the next evening. Among those at the table with him was a disagreeable looking man, typical of the well-fed, patronizing types who would accost us with questions (“And from where are you coming? And what is your religion?”); the most annoying such encounter had taken place earlier the same day, when I’d been cross-examined by a formidably pompous individual who suspected I was a spy because I was taking photos at the railway station (“And why is it please, sir, that you are taking these pictures?”). His excuse was that India and Pakistan were at war. My excuse was being a tourist with a fondness for Indian trains and stations.

Next evening the man I’d noticed having dinner with Ravi Shankar was sitting on the stage next to him looking distractingly like my fat, pompous accuser. There was a scowl on his face, his chin was in the air, and when he wasn’t looking superior, he seemed to be giving me dirty looks, as if he knew what I was thinking, which by then was something like what’s one of those officious creeps doing playing tabla with Ravi Shankar? Needless to say, my knowledge of Indian classical music at this time, about half a year before Shankar met George Harrison, was limited. As the raga commenced, the tabla player was still looking sour and cranky before slowly becoming earnest and intent and downright cocky as he began delivering elaborate rhythmic fills for the sitar’s introductory runs. Then, as the two men got into an incredibly involved and precise passion of counterpoint (so closely woven that “counter” had nothing to do with it), they glanced at each other on either side of the invisible temple of music they were building, and when their eyes met, the tabla player’s face lit up with a smile so broad, so sweet, so full of joy that it instantly shamed my misconception of him. From that point on he was beaming and so was the master. The shock of the transformation from fussy Philistine to happy genius was not unlike what happened, one way or another, at least once a day in India. You almost lose your life in a third-class crush on Indian Railways and a minute later your head is swimming in mindless joy.

The tabla player was Alla Rakha (1919-2000), whom Shankar describes in his 1999 autobiography, Raga Mala, as “a great virtuoso, with wonderful tonal quality and a romantic and humorous quality to his playing” who, “as a person,” has “such a good nature, almost like a child.” Grateful Dead drum master Mickey Hart was more extreme, calling Rakha “the Einstein, the Picasso … the highest form of rhythmic development on this planet.”

You can get some idea of the Rakha-Shankar chemistry by seeing Raga, or by viewing their scenes in Monterey Pop and Woodstock on YouTube.

All Aboard

In the opening image of the DVD of Raga, you’re in an Indian Railways carriage sitting next to Ravi Shankar as he stares out the window, his chin propped on his hand. There are no bars on the window to keep out monkeys, beggars, and madmen, so it’s most likely not one of the third-class coaches of my memory but a first-class car on a special train. This being one of those DVD menu sequences that keeps replaying itself until you hit Play Movie, I let it run over and over again to sustain the illusion that I was actually on that gently rocking train with the man, side by side in the moment. The fact that the haunting song accompanying the first appearance of the menu is never repeated is typical of India, where you occasionally lose moments you know are too good to be true before you have time to begin to fathom them. After the appearance and disappearance of the song, we keep moving, the hypnotic sound of the wheels in a fine subtle balance with the tranquil thoughtfulness of the man gazing out the window, perhaps listening to music of the train underscoring the story of his life as an artist, where the acceptance of the impossible is an aesthetic in itself, a sacred fact of life, as Shankar says or suggests more than once in the film, “always that sadness in a raga, that wanting to reach something that I know I never can and each note is like crying out, searching.”

Thoughtful and Worried

In this “very special period” of Ravi Shankar’s life (he would have been in his late forties) you see him reunited for the first time in many years with his musical guru, Ustad Allaudin Khan, the “tyrant” to whom he movingly admits he owes his life; praying with his spiritual teacher; receiving an honorary degree from the University of California; rehearsing with Yehudi Menhuin; teaching George Harrison and others in California, the blue Pacific in the background; and in his glory performing with Alla Rakha. What makes the film special is Shankar’s narration. His voice is tender, expressive, thoughtful, and worried, for he had much to be concerned about in the days when he was being lionized in the West: “the patterns of life changing everywhere …. The very soul of our music seems to be slipping away, so little concern, so much indifference, the young people drifting away from their roots.” The voiceover throughout is close to the lilt of a song, like a spoken version of the music that comes once and once only with the DVD’s menu. The man who died a few weeks ago is speaking to you, intimately, openly, vulnerably, telling you, and this was 40 years ago, “At times I feel as if I don’t belong today. My roots are so deep in the past; sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own country.”

Even so, as the camera moves along the riverfront in Benares, where he was born, he’s saying, “I feel all the richness of India in our music, the spiritual hopes of our people, the struggle for life …. In the holy city of Benares sound is everywhere; as a child I would spend hours filling myself with the vibrations of this place.”

In the sequence on the train, when he’s on his way to pay his respects to the teacher he loves and fears, he’s telling us how he devoted himself to the raga (working for seven punishing years “until it became alive”), which followed, he admits, the period when he was a young man in Paris (“I dressed like a dandy and chased girls all the time”). He also speaks openly about a lifelong “weakness for women” in Raga Mala, which is edited and introduced by George Harrison. At the beginning of the film there he is, one of the handsomest men on the planet, strolling through a crowd somewhere in the U.S. surrounded by fans, two beautiful girls, one Indian, one American, holding on to either arm. In view at the recent memorial service were two other beautiful women: Anoushka, his daughter, a virtuoso sitarist, and his American daughter, the acclaimed singer, Norah Jones. His final performance was a concert with Anoushka, on November 4 in Long Beach, California.

December 26, 2012

You read me Shakespeare on the 

rolling Thames, 

That old river poet that never, ever ends

– Kate Bush

“The new year belongs to England” is how I began the column (Jan. 11, 2012) marking the Charles Dickens (1812-1870) bicentenary, my first subject being PJ Harvey’s brilliant album, Let England Shake. Harvey’s song “England” was wrenchingly emotional, the message “Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” If you have close ties to the U.K., that song should remind you that you love the place in spite of the politics and politicians, the surveillance cameras, the crazed drivers, and the unthinkably bad weather (even for England) they’ve been enduring lately. A quite different song, Kate Bush’s “Lionheart” from her 1978 album of the same name, is guaranteed to put you back in touch with the England of the White Cliffs of Dover, that “old river poet” the Thames, “London Bridge in rain,” air-raid shelters “blooming clover,” and at this time of year, of course, A Christmas Carol.

And since Dickens’s 200th year is coming to an end, it feels right to travel back to the time when he began laying claim to the hearts of his countrymen, on his way to capturing hearts around the world. He was all but unknown when his first full-length work of fiction, The Pickwick Papers, began appearing in monthly installments in 1836. Sales were sluggish until the noble-souled if unworldly Mr. Pickwick met his Cockney servant and saviour Sam Weller in the fourth installment, at which point monthly sales rose from 400 to 40,000. The moment Dickens conceived Sam was as significant for his work and for the world as the moment Chaplin created his Tramp. Sam’s charm is on another level, however, even though almost everything he says is funny or wise or both. Sam’s a true hero, tough, charming, infinitely resourceful, and, like the best characters in Balzac and Shakespeare, he’s been touched with the glow of the author’s genius, so that the humble task of tending to the boots of an Inn’s various guests (as he’s doing when he makes his first appearance) becomes in his hands an admirable endeavor.

Once Sam arrived, Pickwick “was read upstairs and downstairs,” according to Wolf Mankowitz’s Dickens in London, “by judges on the bench and the cleaners after them,” by boys and girls who talked Sam’s talk and by critics who spoke of Dickens as another Cervantes. “Poor people shared a shilling copy and read it aloud in groups …. No hat or coat, cigar or cane, plagiaristic paper or play could be sold but with a Pickwick tag.” There were novelties flogged in Sam’s name, and Sam Weller joke books, and the publishers were selling the back numbers in the thousands.

At the age of 24, Dickens had the 19th Century equivalent of rock star fame and fortune. And he had the looks, “with long brown hair falling in silky masses over his temples” and “eyes full of power and strong will.”

“The limelight never left him,” Mankowitz writes. “The Pickwick mania was unparalled.”

True enough, but there are definite parallels to another mania of once-in-a-century dimensions that swept England and the world 130 years later in the form of four guys from Liverpool who were roughly the same age as Pickwick’s Dickens. While Sam was neither singer nor songwriter, his lively, virile, down-to-earth wit had something in it akin to that flashed by John Lennon and the other Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. No less than Sam’s, their sassy upbeat attitude attracted all levels of society, rich and poor, upstairs and downstairs. That Sam was a rock star a century ahead of his time is clear to see in the 1985 BBC version of Pickwick (the DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library) where he’s slyly, appealingly played by Phil Daniels, who did the Cockney rap on one of the great rock singles of the 1990s, Blur’s “Park Life” (“I get up when I want except on Wednesdays when I get rudely awakened by the dustmen …. I put my trousers on, have a cuppa tea and I think about leaving the house …. I feed the pigeons, I sometimes feed the sparrows too, it gives me a sense of enormous well being”), not to mention his iconic Jimmy the Mod, the main character in the film version of the Who’s Quadrophenia.

The Joys of Jingle

My reaction to the BBC Pickwick followed a pattern similar to what happened in England when the first serial installments were released in booklet form in the spring of 1836. The first episode almost lost me (it did lose my wife), with its clubby 18th-century atmosphere. Who among this group of antic, quaintly convivial twits called Pickwickians could possibly be worth sticking around for? The reason I kept watching was a fast-talking charlatan whose rushed, manic, non-stop speechifying creates an effective cover for his scheming. Bearing the fine Dickensian name, Alfred Jingle (and played to a T by Patrick Malahide), he stole the show the first time I read The Pickwick Papers. It was as if Dickens had set his fancy loose in its purest state, unfettered, exposed in the quick of creation, raw wit gushing forth, as here, in one of Jingle’s first (to use Dickens’s own word for it) “stenographic” effusions, rattled off while riding atop a coach:

“‘Heads, heads — take care of your heads!’ cried the loquacious stranger, as they came out under the low archway, which in those days formed the entrance to the coach-yard. ‘Terrible place — dangerous work — other day — five children — mother — tall lady, eating sandwiches — forgot the arch — crash — knock — children look round — mother’s head off — sandwich in her hand — no mouth to put it in — head of a family off — shocking, shocking!’”

With Jingle’s stream of consciousness riffing, Pickwick seems to look miraculously ahead to the madcaps of the Goon Show, John Lennon’s wordplay, and Monty Python. Here in the free-flowing speech of a single character, Dickens is tapping the vein of comic eloquence that six years later will enliven the language of fabulous creations like Mr. Pecksniff and Mrs. Gamp in Martin Chuzzlewit. The jaunty elliptical nature of Jingle’s word jazz also harks back to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

The Soul of Christmas

In fact, Dickens was working on Martin Chuzzlewit when he took time off to write the work Thackeray called “a national benefit and to every man or woman who reads it a personal kindness.” If Dickens laid claim to England’s heart with Sam and Pickwick, he sealed the deal with the tale of Scrooge’s ghost-driven voyage from misery and morbidity to joy and glory. A Christmas Carol was written in six weeks, just in time for the Christmas of 1843. By Christmas Eve the first edition of 6000 had sold out. In his study of Dickens, George Gissing call it “a book no one can bear to criticize.”

John Forster, Dickens’s friend and first biographer, describes the author’s infatuation with A Christmas Carol: “how he wept over it, and laughed, and wept again, and excited himself to an extraordinary degree, and how he walked thinking of it fifteen and twenty miles about the black streets of London, many and many a night after all sober folks had gone to bed.”

Looking Back

After Let England Shake, with its fixation on war and soldiers (“So our young men hid/with guns, in the dirt/and in the dark places”), my next column moved on to Cary Grant and the bombing of Bristol, then Virginia Woolf and Dorothy Wordsworth, Keats and Constable on Hampstead Heath, April with Robert Browning and late lamented singer songwriter Clifford T. Ward (“Home Thoughts from Abroad”), Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, two columns on the Beatles and three on Dickens, including one about his last novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), left unfinished (yet subtly finished) at the time of his death.

So, there’s finally nothing left to say in England’s year but Hail Britannia, God Save the Queen and the Kinks and beautiful Kate Middleton, and to quote Ray Davies, the true poet laureate of the British Isles, “God save little shops, china cups, and virginity.”

December 19, 2012

“I am glad I had kids and glad I had the kids I did,” says Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine killer Dylan Klebold, “because the love for them — even at the price of this pain — has been the single greatest joy of my life.” People looking for answers or at least insights in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook School shootings might begin by reading Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity (Scribner $37.50), which includes a long, timely, in-depth conversation with Klebold’s parents. In the decade Solomon spent gathering material for this bible of “differentness” (702 pages, 130 pages of notes), he spoke with some three hundred families, including my own.

The Word

When Andrew first contacted us (from now on it’s “Andrew,” since that’s how we know him), he was calling the book A Dozen Kinds of Love. The change from a primarily descriptive title to the more didactic, agenda-driven Far From the Tree is reflected in the almost Emersonian assertiveness of the first sentence — “There is no such thing as reproduction.” The idea that “two people are but braiding themselves together” in “an act of production” is “at best a euphemism to comfort prospective parents before they get in over their heads …. Parenthood abruptly catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.”

As the parent of a child who is as close to the tree as he is far from it (this has never been an either/or situation), I’m sympathetic to the working title, if only because the final one lacks a crucial word, and the word (as the Beatles sing in “The Word”) is “love.” It might be an awkward fit, but you could put Love after Children in the subtitle. That one word and everything it stands for is behind the force that drives parents to bravely make the best of — or else to be unmade by — a dire situation. And it’s the word parents bet everything they have on, emotionally and materially, in hopes of saving a life or a mind or at least sustaining the day-to-day reality of a family that could fall apart forever with the next 9-1-1 call.

Love Hurts

Before and after chapters on deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, severe disability, prodigies, rape, transgender, and crime, Andrew tells his own story, first as a gay son whose sexuality alienated his parents, and then, in the concluding chapter, as a gay father suddenly dealing with a new son and an extended family so diverse and complicated as to make the very issues of parenthood he highlights at the outset seem almost trivial.

In the last sentence of the book’s first paragraph, Andrew claims that “Loving our own children is an exercise for the imagination.” As many of the heartbreaking stories in Far From the Tree suggest, parental love actually blindsides the imagination; it’s a visceral experience, it hurts, it doesn’t have time or space to think or imagine, it’s a sensory ground zero, as can be seen in Andrew’s own response to childbirth.

On learning there may be serious medical issues with George, his newborn son, Andrew writes, “I felt the inside parts of my body that are usually warm go cold, while the parts exposed to the air suddenly seemed to be on fire.” Earlier, though his partner John had been “instantly enraptured” by the baby, Andrew was imagining birth as “so mysterious and so much weirder than sorcery or intergalactic warfare that it humbles you instantly.”

When, however, it begins to look as though George may have bleeding in the brain, a symptom necessitating surgery, Andrew thinks “how ironic it would be if, in the midst of writing about exceptional children,” he “were to produce such a child.” He may also have been thinking how ironic that with his powers of empathy, and the enormous effort he’s made to understand and appreciate what so many suffering parents have gone through, he’s about to experience the real thing. But “imagination” leaves the room when he looks at his son as a victim: “I knew I loved him by how hard I suddenly tried not to love him. I remembered all the parents who had described spreading the news about their thriving baby and then picking up the phone a day or two later to report a different tale.” At this point, it gets intense: “A terrified piece of me was contemplating giving him up into care. My strongest impulse was to hold him tight and not let him go for the tests at all. I wanted him to be well, but I wanted me to be well, too, and even as I formulated that divide, it collapsed, and I saw that one thing could not be true without the other.”

When the brain scan is completely clear, Andrew realizes “that George, who had done nothing more admirable than cry and feed, was richly and permanently human to me, possessed of a soul, and no alteration could change that.”

Accepting Columbine

It’s only because of the debacle in Newtown that I’ve singled out the Columbine mother’s story from among the many gathered in this invaluable book’s “epic narratives of resilience,” as Andrew puts it after describing the birth of his son (“no other optimism is so great as having a child”). When you meet Sue Klebold, Dylan’s mother, in these pages, you get at least some small notion of what Nancy Lanza would have been facing had she not been her son Adam’s first victim last week. “After Columbine,” Sue tells Andrew, “I felt that Dylan killed God. No god could have had anything to do with this, so there must not be one. When everything in your world is gone, all your belief systems, and your self-concepts — your beliefs in yourself, your child, your family — there is a process of trying to establish, who am I? Is there a person there at all? …. I sat next to someone on a train a while ago and we had a really wonderful conversation, and then I could feel the questions coming — ‘So, how many kids do you have?’ …. I had to tell him who I was. And who I am forever now is Dylan’s mother.”

On another occasion, Ms. Klebold, whose job involved counseling victims of disabilities, was talking with a client “who was blind, had only one hand, had just lost her job, and was facing trouble at home.” When the woman told her, “I have my problems, but I wouldn’t trade places with you for anything in the world,” Dylan Klebold’s mother could only laugh: “All those years I have worked with people with disabilities and thought, ‘Thank God I can see; thank God I can walk; thank God I can scratch my head and feed myself.’ And I’m thinking, how funny it is how we all use one another to feel better.”

That last thought suggests one of the many virtues of Far From the Tree. Regardless of any reader’s particular situation, from the parent of a “perfect child” to the parent of an unending human challenge, reading this book, using, in effect, “one another to feel better,” we know more and we care more.

Beginning in Venice

I can’t resist mentioning “Welcome to Holland,” the popular fable (5000 postings and counting on Google) Andrew quotes in full to open the chapter on Down Syndrome (DS). Briefly stated, the idea is that expectant parents who have been looking forward to childbirth as to “a fabulous vacation trip to Italy” (“you buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans”) end up, alas, in poor little Holland. The parents are upset (“All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy”) but since the change in the flight plan is beyond their control, they make do with the thought that it could have been worse, could have been some “horrible, disgusting, filthy place full of pestilence, famine, and disease.” But hey, it’s “just a different place,” and all you need is a new set of guidebooks.

It’s hard to believe that “Welcome to Holland” has been recommended by doctors and therapists to parents of disabled children. For a start, the essence of the premise is thoroughly absurd. To equate a lifetime proposition like raising a disabled child with a vacation! But I’m a sucker for crazy analogies, so let’s try it my way. If the birth and beauty of the child is as thrilling and as engaging as, say, ours was, Holland and Italy have got nothing to do with it. Our plane lands in Shangri-La, or, to be faithful to the original, Venice, since that’s where my wife and I actually began the hitchhiker’s honeymoon in reverse that led to marriage and a baby and a place in Andrew’s book.

Okay, so there we are in our metaphorical Venice, living humbly but happily in a pensione off Piazza San Marco with the most beautiful baby in the world. For the first few weeks we spend every evening at Caffé Florian on the Piazza pigging out on silver saucers full of chocolate gelato, but then we start hearing from Italian pediatricians about conditions like “failure to thrive” and “renal tubular acidosis” and “possible dwarfism” (precursors to the “perfect multitude of psychiatric symptoms” listed for our child in Far From the Tree) and all of a sudden Venice is threatened with flood and famine and plague; in fact, it’s sinking, possibly to its doom, and we have no choice but to head back to the U.S.A. and an apartment on Patton Avenue in Princeton. Jump ahead three decades and here we are having lunch with Andrew on the back deck of the house we now own and have been living in since 1986. And when Andrew tells our son goodbye, saying, “I know it can be hard having a total stranger come into your house and ask you all these questions,” our then-33-year-old son gives him “a warm hug,” looks him in the eye, and tells him, “You don’t seem like a stranger to me.” For a brief moment, Andrew senses “a deeply touching capacity for connection” and a “self beneath the illnesses.”

The truth is, in this relationship there are no strangers and the work of love goes on and on and on.