August 8, 2012

As I now move, graciously, I hope, toward the door marked Exit, it occurs to me that the only thing I ever really liked to do was go to the movies.

—Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

The first sentence of Gore Vidal’s Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir 1964-2006 (Doubleday 2006) appears disarmingly contrary to the obituaries presenting him as an elegant elitist who made his mark less as a novelist (he wrote 25) and essayist (some 20 collections) than as a caustic, combative public intellectual. The New York Times suggests he was “at the end of his life, an Augustan figure who believed himself to be the last of a breed.” In England, the Guardian obituary, written by Vidal’s executor Jay Parini, describes “a controversialist and politician manqué … celebrated both for his caustic wit and his mandarin’s poise.”

While there’s no denying Gore Vidal was thought of — and thought of himself — in those terms, the fact is that he chose to begin what, at this writing, has proven to be his swan song by declaring that the only thing he “really liked to do was go to the movies.” On July 31 — where else but in Hollywood? — he reached the door marked Exit.

As anyone who has read Vidal or seen him on television over the years surely knows, “the only thing” claim is disingenuous. He obviously “really liked” being in the limelight among the luminaries he’s sharing photos with in Point to Point Navigation, in a previous volume of memoirs, Palimpsest (1995), and in Snapshots in History’s Glare (2009), a book of 360 photographs. He also “really liked,” at least intermittently, reading, writing, politics, travel, and feeling at home in the world, whether living longterm in the Hollywood Hills, in his villa La Rondinaia in Ravello, or Edgewater on the Hudson in Barrytown, or in, among other locales, Rome, Paris, Bangkok, London, or Washington, D.C., which is where he grew up, bonding with the cinema in the various theaters fondly remembered in Chapter Four of Point to Point Navigation.

The use of a commonplace crutch word like “really” underscores Vidal’s primal enthusiasm for movies. As he’s quick to add, “Sex and Art took precedence over cinema but neither ever proved to be as dependable as the filtering of present light through that moving strip of celluloid which projects past images and voices onto a screen.” While he admits to being “a compulsive reader from the age of six,” he goes on to say that he was “so besotted with movies” that one Saturday he saw five “in a day.” Several pages farther on in Point to Point Navigation, the patrician intellectual of the obituaries confesses, “what I really wanted to be was a movie star: specifically, I wanted to be Mickey Rooney, and to play Puck, as he had done in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

A Letter from Edgewater

The Gore Vidal I knew best, in a manner of speaking, is the author of the early novels. Not yet famous, not yet a television presence or sophisticated media player, this is Vidal before the historical novels that began with Julian in 1964, Vidal before Myra Breckenridge in 1968, Vidal before he locked horns with Norman Mailer and William F. Buckley.

“I have started your book,” the handwritten four-page note with the Edgewater letterhead begins, “which looks remarkably — I might even say enviably — well-written considering its author’s age (a patronizing note I like to strike now that I am safely past that business).”

I was 20 and thought of Vidal as another, older “young writer” who had published his first novel at 21. He was a few weeks short of his 34th birthday when I sent him a copy of my aptly titled first novel, Let Me Be Awake. Until I discovered eight of his books in a bookstore rental library that was going out of business, I didn’t know anything about him beyond the fact that he’d written a hit play called Visit To a Small Planet. The unlikely discovery of these novels I’d never heard of, all in their original dustjackets, gave them a certain charisma. Since they were only 25 cents each, I bought all eight.

“I mean, of course,” the letter continues, referring to my still-wet-behind-the-ears novel of a midwestern innocent emotionally shipwrecked in the Evil East, “it is most well-written and, as far as I’ve got, has that flow, that sense of the thing held whole in a fine consciousness which is literature.”

I’ve added italics to indicate the impact that this elegant, Jamesian sentence had on someone who was only beginning to figure out the difference between a metaphor and a simile. I should have thought, “Is he kidding?” I should have been wondering just how far he’d actually “got” in a narrative that didn’t really lift off until the protagonist went to New York. “I have started … as far as I’ve got …” Like maybe as far as page two? But who was I to question such eloquence? Reading on, I found that, as I’d anticipated, he was pleased to hear my “kind words” about his early novels. “I can only marvel that you found them! There are times when I think I dreamed them all — since all are out of print except for occasional paperback reprints — I am now the subject of obscure master theses on the novel of the 40s, or what went wrong?” He then assured me, “I have not given up prose — I just went into the trade (i.e. drama) for a few years to make money.”

The letter ends with a facetious coda, a Gore Vidal moment true to the urbane wit described in the obituaries: “I hope you will order your life better; one way — perhaps the only honorable way — is to marry money.”

Sexual Orientation

Having read Vidal’s groundbreaking 1948 best-seller The City and the Pillar shortly before receiving his letter, I knew something of the author’s sexual orientation. I did not know, however, that at the time of the writing, he was already nine years into his 53-year relationship with Howard Auster, who, because he couldn’t land a job on Madison Avenue with a Jewish last name, took Vidal’s advice, changed Auster to Austen, and joined the Mad Men. I should also mention here that Vidal’s sensitive account of the illness and death of his longtime partner in Point to Point Navigation is another facet of his character at odds with the “cool and detached” obituary stereotype.

On the subject of The City and the Pillar, Vidal claims in his memoir that “the most powerful reviewer of the day,” the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, was so repelled by the mere idea of a novel portraying “a love affair between two ‘normal’ male athletes” that he not only refused to review it, but imposed a personal embargo: he would “never again read —  much less review” anything by Gore Vidal.

While The City and the Pillar reads like the work of a writer who had yet to find the voice he found four years later in his seventh novel, The Judgment of Paris, it remains the book of Vidal’s that made the strongest impression on me, if only because, in its unaffected, straightforward, sometimes plodding way, it opened my eyes to my own clueless perception of “gays” (a term Vidal despised).

It Got Ugly 

As much as I’ve enjoyed Gore Vidal’s essays and reviews over the years, I’ve read very little of his middle and late-period fiction. I found it hard to get into the spirit of literary tour de forces like Myra Breckenridge (1968), and his series of novels recreating American history never attracted me. The writer who had my attention was his arch rival (and at times mortal enemy) Norman Mailer, who was able impose his own style of novelistic excitement on real-life events such as the Democratic conventions of 1960 and 1968. While Vidal was on television going nastily one-on-one with William F. Buckley, Mailer was making literary history. The Gore Vidal I connected with was the young novelist of the 1950s, not the celebrity of the talk show feuds. Even though I was on his side most of the time, I found it hard to relate to the polished, sneering cynic trading insults with William F. Buckley. I never found those television skirmishes, including the ones with Mailer, amusing. I prefer writer-to-writer encounters like the famous one-night stand starring Vidal and Jack Kerouac, who presented a discreetly muddled version in his novel The Subterraneans, wherein Vidal becomes Arial Lavalina. A more graphic account of this literary tryst can be found in Fred Kaplan’s biography, Gore Vidal (1999).

On the Afterlife

One of the films in Point to Point Navigation that Vidal singles out for special mention during his “first and most vivid moviegoing phase” (from 1932 to 1939, age from 7 to 14) is The Mummy, with a lethally scary Boris Karloff in the title role. When Vidal saw the film again for the first time in 58 years, he “became, suddenly, seven years old again, mouth ajar,” as he inhabited, “simultaneously, both ancient Egypt and pre-imperial Washington, D.C.” Speculating on the movie’s appeal beyond “the charnel horror,” he observes that “any confirmation that life continues after death has an appeal to almost everyone except enlightened Buddhists.” In the next chapter, after meditating at length on The Prince and the Pauper, another Hollywood film that captured his imagination some four years later (“I wanted to be the identical twin boys … I wanted to be myself twice”), Vidal admits that “Like most children,” he used to “imagine what death must be like. But unlike most, I had no belief, or even interest in an afterlife.” Nevertheless, he sees fit to acknowledge “the notion of images impressed on celluloid” providing “a spurious sense of immortality, as does, indeed, the notion that those light rays which record our images will keep on bending about the universe forever.”

In the end, Vidal, the afterlife-denying novelist overrules Vidal, the moviegoer. “There are those who find comfort in such concepts,” he writes. “I don’t.”


August 1, 2012

How significant was the first week of August for Herman Melville? He was born August 1, 1819, married August 4, 1847, first encountered Nathaniel Hawthorne, the most momentous meeting of his life, on August 5, l850. For Marilyn Monroe, the first week of August was the last week of her life, 50 years ago this Sunday, August 5, 1962.

Lost in Melville’s Gaze

“A man with a true, warm heart, and a soul and an intellect — with life to his finger-tips.” Sophia Hawthorne is describing her husband Nathaniel’s newfound friend Herman Melville. While observing the 31-year-old writer’s “very keen perceptive power,” and his “air free, brave and manly,” Sophia encounters his gaze and, in effect, gets lost in it. At first she sees his eyes as a defect (what “astonishes” her is that they are “not large and deep,” “not keen,” and “quite undistinguished in any way”), yet she can’t help wondering over what happens as he’s “conversing … full of gesture and force” and “his animation gives place to a singularly quiet expression, out of those eyes to which I have objected — an indrawn, dim look, but which at the same time makes you feel that he is at that instant taking deepest note of what is before him. It is a strange, lazy glance, but with a power in it quite unique. It does not seem to penetrate through you, but to take you into himself.”

Sophia communicated this revealing first impression of Melville in a September 4, 1850, letter to her mother, who may have found the last sentence mildly alarming. And what would Hawthorne have thought had he been permitted to read the letter? It’s a seductive formula, eyes that put her off only to take her in with their “lazy power” — the way she’s expressed it, the person he was taking deepest note of seems to have been Sophia, who thus feels compelled to add that the subject of the taking “into himself” was not her but the Hawthorne’s six-year-old daughter, Una.

Moved by Marilyn

Fast forward a hundred years to another first meeting, on a Hollywood film set in 1950. “When we shook hands,” Arthur Miller writes, describing his first moment with Marilyn Monroe in his 1987 memoir, Timebends, “the shock of her body’s motion sped through me, a sensation at odds with her sadness amid all this glamour and technology and the busy confusion of a new shot being set up.”

For a single time-and-space-defying moment, imagine that the contact is between two equally inspired beings, that the person taking Marilyn Monroe’s hand is not Arthur Miller but Herman Melville at 31, ablaze with the writing of Moby Dick as he was when he swept Sophia Hawthorne off her feet. Then imagine Marilyn at her zenith, having gone from bit player to living legend, as she was in 1961 when she stunned Out of Africa author Isak Dinesen with an “almost overpowering feeling of unconquerable strength and sweetness” as if “all the wild nature of Africa” were “amicably gazing” at her “with a mighty playfulness.”

And of course both leading players in the great American reality show were doomed to fall, Melville, his masterpiece all but ignored by the press when it wasn’t being scorned, telling Hawthorne in 1856 that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated” (only to die in obscurity almost four decades later); Marilyn in her own freefall of failed marriages, miscarriages, professional humiliation, dying world famous and alone at 36.

Writing in Timebends, Arthur Miller remarks on how “the press that gathered to chorus its lamentations” when Marilyn died was “the same press that had sneered at her for so long …. To have survived, she would have had to be either more cynical or even further from reality than she was. She was a poet on a street corner trying to recite to a crowd pulling at her clothes.”

A defining moment in Timebends comes when Miller and Monroe are living together in New York before their marriage, a “bond of shared silences, as mysterious as sexuality” having begun to form between them. It was after “one of those silences” that he told her she was “the saddest girl” he’d ever met, which she “first thought a defeat” and then took as the “compliment” he’d intended, telling him, “You’re the only one who ever said that to me.”

Imagining Marilyn

Though there may be no prototypical Marilyns in Melville’s work, there are definite intimations, beginning with Fayaway in his first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846): “This gentle being had early attracted my regard, not only from her extraordinary beauty, but from the attractive cast of her
countenance, singularly expressive of intelligence and humanity,”
with “a tenderness in her manner which it was impossible to misunderstand or resist.” Strange but true, that the author now best known for Moby Dick and Billy Budd, with their all-male casts, created the literary equivalent of a Hollywood diva he delights in personally costuming: “Out of the calico brought from the ship I made a dress for this lovely girl” that “began at the waist, and terminated sufficiently far above the ground to reveal the most bewitching ankle in the universe.”

Fayaway’s “free pliant figure is the very perfection of female grace and beauty,” her face “a rounded oval, and each feature as perfectly formed as the heart or imagination of man could desire,” her “full lips, when parted with a smile, disclosed teeth of dazzling whiteness,” her hair “flowed in natural ringlets over her shoulders, and whenever she chanced to stoop, fell over and hid from view her lovely bosom.” Gazing into “the depths of her strange blue eyes, when she was in a contemplative mood, they seemed most placid yet unfathomable; but when illuminated by some lively emotion, they beamed upon the beholder like stars.” Her hands “were as soft and delicate as those of any countess,” her feet, “though wholly exposed, were as diminutive and fairly shaped as those which peep from beneath the skirts of a Lima lady’s dress. The skin of this young creature, from continual ablutions and the use of mollifying ointments, was inconceivably smooth and soft.”

If nothing else, the reference to Fayaway’s skin evokes the star of whom director Billy Wilder said, “The first day a photographer took a picture of her she was a genius.” One such photographer, Eve Arnold (1912-2012), observes in Marilyn Monroe: An Appreciation (1987), that “her flesh … was almost touchable on screen; she had what cinematographer’s call ‘flesh impact.’ Her skin was translucent, white, luminous.”

The wonder of Marilyn Monroe is that she seems in some ways more hauntingly alive and aglow and charming in Arnold’s pictures than she does on film.

Isabel and Marianna

There are also intimations in Melville’s work of the troubled, vulnerable, lonely being Miller perceived in “the saddest girl” he ever knew. In Pierre: or The Ambiguities, the prodigiously immoderate, mannered and tormented, at once dated and uncannily “modern” novel written in the aftermath of Moby Dick, the bipolar title character finds himself obsessed by a “mystical face,” a “shadow” that has “come forth to him” and that appears to take the form of his mysterious, illegitimate half-sister, Isabel. “The face haunted him as some imploring, and beauteous, impassioned, ideal Madonna’s haunts the morbidly longing and enthusiastic, but ever-baffled artist.” Evoking the beguiling ambiguity at the heart of Marilyn’s appeal, on the screen and in her imperishable afterlife, Melville’s Isabel “lifts her whole marvelous countenance into the radiant candlelight,” and when “for one swift instant, that face of supernaturalness unreservedly meets Pierre’s,” it’s with a “wonderful loveliness, and a still more wonderful loneliness.”

Written in 1856 after the double debacle of Moby Dick and Pierre, Melville’s short piece, “The Piazza,” is presented as “an inland voyage to fairy-land” taken on “a mad poet’s afternoon,” wherein the narrator sets out to discover the “one spot of radiance” in the distant range he sees from the piazza he had expressly constructed so that he could cast his imagination into the view. As he’s been reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he presumes the radiance must be emanating from a cottage in “fairy-land” where he will find “a fairy princess,” his own Titania. When he arrives after an epic, madly allusive, Melvillian voyage, what he finds is “a lonely girl, sewing at a lonely window.” Shyly startled by his appearance (“like some Tahiti girl …” surprised “by Captain Cook”) the “desolate maiden” whose name is Marianna invites him in, and as he sits with her thinking, “This, then, is the fairy-mountain house, and here, the fairy queen sitting at her fairy window,” he realizes that the “one spot of radiance” in the view sad Marianna sees every day is his piazza and his own house, which from her window once appeared to be “King Charming’s palace.” The tale ends with the narrator back on his piazza, “where every night, when the curtain falls, truth comes in with darkness. No light shows from the mountain. To and fro I walk the piazza deck, haunted by Marianna’s face, and many as real a story.”

On Film

Enchanted Island, an unlikely film version of Typee, was directed by the veteran Allan Dwan in 1952 with 50-year-old Dana Andrews in the Melville role and petite blonde Jane Powell, age 30, as Fayaway. The last picture made at RKO, it was released by Warners with the Four Lads singing the title song. (Feel free to roll your eyes.) More interesting and perhaps even more unlikely is Pola X, a sexually explicit French adapatation of Pierre directed by Leos Carax that turned up in 1999 with the late Guillaume Depardieu in the title role and Yekaterina Golubeva as Isabel. The film title is an acronym of the French title of the novel, Pierre ou les ambiguïtés, plus the Roman numeral “X” indicating the tenth draft version of the script that was used to make the film.

In the best, strangest, and most unlikely of all possible worlds, Marilyn Monroe would have been a heartbreaking Fayaway and a devastating Isabel. For now, we have to make do with the films being shown by the Princeton Public Library this week to mark the the 50th anniversary of Marilyn’s death: The Prince and the Showgirl (1957), The Misfits, (1961), and Some Like It Hot (1959), along with My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams as Marilyn. For details, visit princetonlibrary.org.


July 18, 2012

“I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world.”

—Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

Hey, hey Woody Guthrie, I wrote you a song
‘Bout a funny ol’ world that’s a-comin’ along.
Seems sick an’ it’s hungry, it’s tired an’ it’s torn,
It looks like it’s a-dyin’ an’ it’s hardly been born.

—Bob Dylan, “Song to Woody”

When the folks next door gave us the new Neil Young record, Americana, I wasted no time sliding it in the CD player on Moby, my four-wheeled stereo CRV. As happened last month with the Beach Boys’ new one, That’s Why God Made the Radio, I let the thing keep playing, five times at last count, as I drove around town. To borrow an old term from MTV’s heavy metal youth, it was a high octane headbanger’s ball as Neil and Crazyhorse beat the joyful daylights out of old singalong favorites, including “Clementine,” “Oh Susanna,” “Travel On,” and Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.”

Although I was unaware until a few days ago that Woody Guthrie’s centenary was upon us, what better prelude to the event than all this pounding, full-throated vintage Americana? It was Neil Young, after all, who inducted Guthrie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. In his remarks, Young said that when he was in high school he thought “maybe I’d like to be one of those rockers that could bend the strings and get down on my knees, and kind of make everybody go crazy. Then I wanted to be that other guy, too, that had a little acoustic guitar, and sing a few songs — sing about things that I really felt inside myself, and things I saw going on around me.” He doesn’t come right out and say so (“I don’t know which one of those guys I tried to be”), but of course Neil Young is not only one of the most go-crazy-everybody guitar madmen in the universe, he is a passionately committed, devoted-to-the-message singer songwriter with one of the great rock and roll voices, full of hope and heartbreak, and as searing as a siren in the night.

“It all seems to go back and start with Woody Guthrie,” Neil said near the end of the Hall of Fame remarks. “His songs are gonna last forever, and some of the songs of his descendents are gonna last forever.”

While the first such descendents to come to mind are Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, there’s also Johnny Depp, who grew up in Kentucky “on bluegrass and country music,” has listened to Guthrie all his life, and is editing with Douglas Brinkley Guthrie’s only novel, House of Earth, which will make its publishing debut next year. In the back page essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, Depp and Brinkley locate “the roots” of the novel in Guthrie’s Dust Bowl experiences, his reading of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and the writing of “This Land Is Your Land,” which he “conceived of” while hitchhiking to New York and wrote in late February of 1940, “holed up in a low-rent Times Square hotel.”

Not surprisingly, the version in Americana sung by Neil Young restores the more contentious verses, such as:

 

By the relief office I saw my people.

As they stood hungry,

I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.

And:

There was a high wall there

That tried to stop me

A sign was painted that said ‘Private Property’

But on the other side it didn’t say nothin’

That side was made for you and me.

 

With a few adjustments, those words still have some significance in the time of the 99 percent. Centenary Princeton coincidences abound here, given what Woody reveals in his wordslinging memoir, Bound for Glory (1943): “Born 1912. That was the year … my papa and mama got all worked up about good and bad politics and named me Woodrow Wilson.” Only ten days before Woody came into the world, the other Woodrow, Princeton graduate, professor, and president, then governor of New Jersey, had been nominated for president on the 46th ballot at one of the wildest Democratic conventions ever, which took place 12 days before Woody came into the world on July 14.

Woody in the Apple

At the end of Hal Ashby’s visually stunning film version of Bound for Glory (1976), Woody (played wisely and well by the late David Carradine) is headed for New York City. The Times Square hotel where “This Land Is Your Land” was written was the Hanover House, located on West 43rd and Sixth Avenue, “a long block from the New York Public Library,” according to Ed Cray’s 2004 biography, Ramblin’ Man. Guthrie’s American anthem, orginally titled “God Blessed America for Me,” was written as a corrective to Irving Berlin’s forthrightly patriotic, “God Bless America.” The tune came from the Carter Family’s “Little Darlin’, Pal of Mine,” which, typically, derived from a Baptist hymn, “Oh My Lovin’ Brother.”

Some of the most colorful prose in Bound for Glory is inspired by his response to the big city. Sixty-five stories up (“Quite a little elevator ride down to where the world was being run”), he riffs on the Rainbow Room “in the building called Rockefeller’s Center, where the shrimps are boiled in Standard Oil” (a line ready made for the song in which it became “they tossed their salad in Standard Oil”): “I was floating in high finances, sixty-five stories above the ground, leaning my elbow on a stiff-looking tablecloth as white as a runaway ghost, and tapping my finger on the side of a big fishbowl. The bowl was full of clear water with a bright red rose as wide as your hand sunk down in the water, which made the rose look bigger and redder and the leaves greener than they actually was.”

Subway

There’s a photo from 1943 of Woody playing and singing on the subway that belongs with the iconic New York images of an overcoated James Dean walking, hands in pockets, in the middle of a rainy night Times Square and a decade later, a tan-jacketed Bob Dylan walking down West 4th Street in the Village with Suze Rotolo on his arm. My first thought was of Walker Evans’s clandestinely snapped pictures of subway riders between 1938 and 1941, most of which show seated passengers, with the exception of a blind accordion player standing and playing in the middle of a crowded car. Evans’s slightly unfocused image pales next to Eric Schaal’s photograph of Woody, who is also standing in the middle of the car bundled in what appears to be a black pea coat with a dark cap pushed back on his head, his eyes closed or perhaps downcast in a singing trance that gives his face a naked, exposed, almost beatific quality. If you’re accustomed to the more common images of Woody as the craggy, raw-boned Dust Bowl wayfarer, you might not even recognize him. He looks exotic enough to pass for, say, Jean Louis Barrault’s street-singer brother, having climbed aboard the D train fresh from the Boulevard du Crime in Marcel Carné’s film, Les Enfants du Paradis, his face lit with the otherworldly radiance of the mime Baptiste’s in one of his dumbshow reveries.

Twenty-one of the pictures Schaal took as he followed Woody Guthrie around New York can be seen (and should not be missed) in Life.com’s 100th birthday tribute, “Woody Guthrie: Photos of an American Treasure” at http://life.time.com/culture/woody-guthrie-in-nyc-1943. Guthrie’s politically suspect wartime reputation presumably explains why these flattering, sympathetic photos of Woody as a folk hero never showed up in the pages of Henry Luce’s Life magazine.

Dylan Crosses the Swamp

In his memoir, Chronicles Volume One, Bob Dylan describes a visit to Guthrie at Greystone Hospital in Morristown New Jersey during which Woody mentioned some boxes of songs and poems stored in the basement of his house on Mermaid Boulevard in Coney Island. Having been told he’s “welcome to them” if he wanted them (Woody’s wife “would unpack them for me”), Dylan rides the subway all the way from the West 4th Street station to the last stop and finds himself walking across a swamp (“I sunk in the water, knee level, but kept going anyway — I could see the lights as I moved forward, didn’t really see any other way to go”). When he comes out on the other end, his pants are drenched, “frozen solid,” and his feet are “almost numb.” Guthrie’s wife isn’t there, just a nervous babysitter who wouldn’t let him in until Woody’s son Arlo tells her it’s okay. Nobody knows or can do anything about the box in the basement. Staying just long enough to “warm up,” Dylan turns around and trudges back across the swamp to the subway in his waterlogged boots. Like so much in Chronicles, this anecdote is a song in itself, waiting to be written, even though it would have been better yet had Dylan forged the swamp with his arms weighed down with boxes of Guthrie’s songs and poems.

As Dylan goes on to explain, Woody’s lyrics “fell into the hands” of Billy Bragg and Wilco, who “put melodies to them” and brought them “to full life” in the first of a series 40 years later. Mermaid Avenue: The Complete Sessions was released this year on Record Store Day, April 21, in a 3-disc box set to commemorate Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday. Also in honor of the centenary, the Smithsonian has released Woody at 100, a 3-CD boxed set including 57 tracks and dozens of Guthrie’s drawings, paintings and handwritten lyrics.


July 12, 2012

If I had not existed, someone else would have written me.

—William Faulkner (1897-1962)

This time last year, on the fiftieth anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s death, I described “the big this-is-what-it’s-all-about moment where a 14-year-old who has been reading Mickey Spillane suddenly recognizes ‘the real thing.’” (“Fifty Years Later: Hemingway’s Hymn to the Writer and His Craft”). The book providing that moment was The Old Man and the Sea. With Faulkner, who died on July 6, 1962, almost a year to the day after Hemingway, the first shock of recognition came around the same age in a mass-market paperback edition of Sanctuary. The first thing I saw was a publisher’s note that immediately put Sanctuary and Faulkner beyond my range by referring to the novelist as “the modern master of the Grand Guignol” (whatever that was) and comparing his work with the plays of Webster and Tourneur (whoever they were). Next came the shock of encountering a character called Popeye in the first sentence when the only Popeye I knew was the cartoon sailor man and this was someone whose face “had a queer, bloodless color, as though seen by electric light.” When I went on to read that he had “that vicious depthless quality of stamped tin” and that his eyes were “two knobs of soft black rubber,” I knew I was “not in Kansas any more.”

Five years later I found myself pondering the first page of The Sound and the Fury. I was reading it outside of school, on my own, and I was lost. I had no idea what was going on. “I could see them hitting.” Hitting what? Caddie? Oh, golf. They were playing golf? The first time through was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I couldn’t put the book down, but what kept me reading had nothing to do with plot or character or suspense in the usual sense of the word. Faulkner’s departure from the conventional guidelines added a new dimension to reading. As I began to pick up on what he seemed to be doing, it was like sneaking into his secret workshop to look over his shoulder as he wrote, feeling a small part of what he must have felt, to be building something so mysterious and unique. By the end, I thought I’d discovered a new world but only barely. I knew I was still missing a lot, I wanted more, I couldn’t put the book away. So I went back to the beginning and started reading it over again.

Faulkner in Princeton

Some months ago, thinking ahead to a column on the 50th anniversary of Faulkner’s death, I began reading A Fable, which he finished writing here in Princeton in November 1953 in his editor Saxe Commins’s Elm Road home. Years later when we were living around the corner from the Commins house, I used to picture Faulkner in his overcoat walking off a hangover under the Hodge Road sycamores. He acknowledged his relationship with Commins in the dedication accompanying his collection of hunting stories, Big Woods (Random House 1955); presented in the form of an author-to-editor memo, it reads, “We never always saw eye to eye but we were always looking at the same thing.”

It’s best to read A Fable the way Faulkner suggested that readers come to James Joyce’s Ulysses, as “the illiterate Baptist preacher approaches the Old Testament: with faith.” Even so, you soon get the impression that Faulkner approached the writing of the novel in the same spirit, in effect saying a prayer and betting everything he had on the power of his art while making himself available to that metaphorical “somebody else” who would write him if he “didn’t exist.” According to Dorothy Commins’s book, What Is An Editor: Saxe Commins at Work, Faulkner typed a two-page preface “as a favor to Saxe and to Random House,” to be used on the dust jacket of the finished book. The result was a rambling meditation on war and pacifism (“which does not work, cannot cope with the forces that produce the wars”), none of which was used in the eventual jacket copy, with its references to “mutiny in the trenches,” “the ageless tragedy and triumph of the crucifixion and the resurrection” and its promise to the reader of “a compelling story of violence and humility, of cruelty and compassion, of pathos and humor, of war and peace.”

Faulkner Plays 50 Choruses

At this point I should admit that I interrupted my reading of A Fable at page 215 in order to reread Light in August. Although I may never finish the book, I’m glad I read far enough to witness the feat Faulkner performs between pages 126 and 139, an Olympian run that begins inauspiciously with these two sentences:

“But when they reached the city they found no placid lake of grieving resignation. Rather, it was a cauldron of rage and consternation.”

I wonder if Commins had the nerve to point out that resignation-consternation trainwreck or the way the engine of Faulkner’s prose seems to come to a crashing halt when it hits a pair of labored, no-way-out, dead-end metaphors. “Seems” to come, I say, since what follows are 13 pages of Faulkner in full flight, all his jets and subsidiary igniters kicking in, propelling those “as if” and “not … but” clauses he’s addicted to. Give yourself up to it with a full measure of faith and the rhetorical onslaught sweeps you past bizarre liberties (“which was when the inspectors and inquisitors … realised the — not enormity, but monstrosity, incredibility; the monstrous incredibility, the incredible monstrosity, with which they were confronted”); when Faulkner’s locked in, it’s best to just sit back and let him play, the way you would if he were a jazz virtuoso standing on a storm-wracked promontory blowing 50 choruses against a gale-force wind. Like all great musicians, Faulkner has his own sound, as you’ll hear if you listen to the recordings of him reading from his work, his voice soft and swift and unstoppable, beyond mere accent and affect.

I’ve listened to recordings of Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, Hemingway, Yeats, Pound, but no poet or writer I’ve ever heard is as insidiously seductive as Faulkner. It’s hard to imagine that a literate person of either sex could resist the way he makes love to the word “avatar.” The cassette I’ve been listening to includes passages from The Old Man, As I Lay Dying, and A Fable, as well as the Nobel Prize acceptance speech that no one at the ceremony could hear because he rushed the words and was standing too far from the microphone. It’s true, he seems happiest when he’s reading uptempo, feeding off the momentum, muting the rush of rhetoric; in terms of intonation, cadence, and melodics, the musician who comes to mind with his, in Nat Hentoff’s words, “pulsating ease,” is Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian, Lester Young.

Faulkner and Blackness

In 1959, his skin darkened with the help of a dermatologist and long sessions under an ultraviolet lamp, the novelist John Howard Griffin (The Devil Rides Outside) took his chances travelling through the Deep South as a Negro and published the results two years later in his book, Black Like Me. In 1931-32, after, incredibly, producing Sartoris, Sanctuary, The Sound and the Fury, and As I Lay Dying in the space of three years, William Faulkner wrote Light in August. You could say that Faulkner was safe within his fiction while Griffin put his life on the line passing as a black man in the reality of the South, but in Light in August, Faulkner dared to submerge himself and his art in the “black abyss” of race by creating and inhabiting and finally destroying Joe Christmas, who had passed as a white man until, obsessed by the enigma of his origins, he began fatally announcing that he had Negro blood.

Faulkner and Milch

According to a Dec. 1, 2011 New York Times article by David Itzkoff, when David Milch found that his daughter, Olivia, was studying Light in August at Yale, it “renewed [his] engagement with the material,” eventually leading to discussions between his company, Red Board Productions, and the William Faulkner Literary Estate for the purchase of the rights to 19 novels and 125 short stories by Faulkner that could be adapted for film or television. HBO said in a news release that it would have the first opportunity to finance and produce these projects. Admirers of the great HBO series Deadwood, with its rhetorical overtones of Shakespeare, Dickens, and, yes, Faulkner, may agree with me in thinking that if anyone can do cinematic justice to the author of A Fable and Light in August, it’s David Milch.

In a Nov. 30, 2011, interview with the L.A. Times, Milch says that his interest in Faulkner “deepened” when he was at Yale assisting Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and R.W.B. Lewis “on a history of American literature.” What attracts him in Faulkner is that he “speaks to us on the questions of race, the challenges of modernity and modern man’s dilemma in all of its aspects.” Asked about the challenge of filming “an unfilmable writer,” Milch contends that Faulkner is “enormously cinematic,” his prose and dialogue “superb, and compelling, and absolutely authentic,” and “his ear … just impeccable.”

When he was asked which of Faulkner’s works would begin the series, Milch said the decision had not been made. My guess is he will choose Light in August. If he does, he might cast Ray McKinnon, who was so heart-breakingly brilliant as the Rev. Smith in Deadwood, as the fallen Rev. Gail Hightower, in whose kitchen Joe Christmas is gunned down and castrated by a National Guardsman with the “voice of a young priest” and a face that has the “serene, unearthly luminousness of angels in church windows.”

For an example of the challenges Milch will face if he means to put the essence of Faulkner on film, consider the language surrounding Hightower as he thinks he should never have let himself “get out of the habit of prayer.” When he turns to the book-lined wall of his study, what is he seeking? Something theological? No.

“It is Tennyson. It is dogeared. He has had it ever since the seminary. He sits beneath the lamp and opens it. It does not take long. Soon the fine galloping language, the gutless swooning full of sapless trees and dehydrated lusts begins to swim smooth and swift and peaceful. It is better than praying without having to bother to think aloud. It is like listening in a cathedral to a eunuch chanting in a language which he does not even need to not understand.”

Good luck, David. Keep the faith.


July 3, 2012

Borough resident Marianne Farrin has worn many hats over the years: Stanford University alumna, wife, mother (raising her three children on several continents), psychotherapist, theologian. The list goes on, and has always, by the way, included sports like swimming, cycling (as in serious, days-long cycling commitments), and rowing. Her most recent role is translator; she has translated from German to English, Roosevelt: A Revolutionary with Common Sense, the book written in 1933 by her late father, Helmut Magers.

Magers’s book is a paean to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s swiftly-implemented accomplishments in the early 1930s. In 1930-1931, the German-born Magers spent a year as an Honorary Fellow at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Initial skepticism about Roosevelt’s plans to reinvigorate the country turned to admiration as Magers observed what he described as “’a top-down’ revolution that, in generosity and reasoning, surpasses any radical social change currently experienced elsewhere in the world.”

“Magers’s reflections on Franklin Roosevelt’s handling of the daunting challenges to American society posed by the Great Depression provide a remarkably prescient, and hitherto overlooked contemporary German perspective on the relevance of the New Deal to a world in crisis,” said Rutgers University History Department Chair Michael Adas of the English edition prepared by Ms. Farrin.

Sadly, Magers’ dream that Germany and other strife-ridden countries would emulate some of the economic policies that were proving successful in the U.S. never happened. Instead, he was silenced for what was considered progressive writing and thinking by Hermann Göring, a high ranking Nazi official. Magers was ultimately sent to fight on the Russian front in 1944, a fate Ms. Farrin describes as “a death sentence.” An advice-filled letter to her written from her father, who was then stationed in the Crimea, suggests that he knew his fate.

It wasn’t until 1951 that the family received a letter from the Red Cross describing Magers as “missing in action.” In the interim, Ms. Farrin says, “The silence was devastating.” A soldier who remembered Magers later described how they were eventually taken to a camp called Mogilev in Belarus as prisoners of war by the Soviet Army. Mr. Magers died there of typhoid fever in the spring of 1945, at age 38. Magers apparently, never lost his admiration for this country; the former soldier described how Magers would entertain them at night with stories about America.

Ms. Farrin, who was born in 1938, escaped to Denmark with her mother and two siblings. Ten years later they immigrated to America, and eventually settled in California. Ms. Farrin reports that she was very self-conscious about being a German in this country, and that she grew up quickly as the eldest child and helpmate to her mother.

Ms. Farrin’s sense of purposefulness and determination were apparent early. Moved by the grandeur of the procession and ceremony she observed as a junior at Hollywood High School graduation, she determined that she would be next year’s valedictorian, and she was. She moved on to Stanford, where she met husband, Jim Farrin (Princeton University class of 1958), with a full scholarship.

Ms. Farrin says she has no idea how the German edition of the book was received in Germany when it was originally published. A copy of the first edition is in the Presidential Library at Hyde Park, and Mr. Magers’s inscription is reproduced in the new edition of the book: “To the President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in profound admiration of his conception of a new economic order, and with devotion to his personality.” It is signed “The author, Berlin, Germany, November 9, 1933.”

Translating her father’s book was, Ms.Farrin says, nothing less than a labor of love. The translation is “absolutely literal,” she comments; “there was no other way to do it.” Reading aloud as she worked helped her soften some of the “very stilted German sentences.” A research trip to the Berlin Library, where she read newspaper accounts of Germany during the 1930s and 1940s, left her “very depressed.”  Although her memories of her father are “slight,” she says that she was very attached to him, and shares his “intellectual, introspective character.” She would like to visit the site of the Mogilev camp where he died.

Copies of Roosevelt: A Revolutionary with Common Sense are in both the Princeton Public Library and Princeton University’s Firestone Library. It is available for sale at Labyrinth Books, and online through Amazon and Barnes & Noble.


June 20, 2012

Tuning in the latest star 

From the dashboard of my car

The CD-equipped dashboard providing 800 miles of words and music during a recent drive to and from Montreal belongs to a 2000 Honda CRV named Moby, after Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. The two lines at the top are from the title track of That’s Why God Made the Radio, the first Beach Boys album in 16 years, which just debuted at number 3 on the Billboard Chart. In the spirit of the same lyric, “Feel the music in the air/Find a song to take us there,” this stereo-driven solo flight began at 10:40 a.m. last Wednesday, taking me up U.S. Route 206 to I-287 to I-87 and Quebec 15 to Montreal, where I bought the new CD at the big HMV store on Rue St. Catherine. Two days later, with Brian Wilson’s music leading the way, I followed the same course in reverse.

Brian Wilson turns 70 today while the group he founded marks its 50th anniversary with a tour that played Central Park June 15 and will touch down tonight, June 20, at the Bell Center in, of all places, Montreal.

Over and Over

I saved my first listen to That’s Why God Made the Radio for the moment we crossed the border into the springtime splendor of upper New York state. Between the border and Saratoga Springs, I played the album five times in succession (the title track seven times). The way Moby’s CD player works, unless you reject the disc when it ends, it automatically begins again at the beginning. This hitherto unthinkable behavior on my part was made possible only because Moby and I were on our own, and the album had become, in effect, one long song. No way would my wife and son have indulged me in this madness, however much they might have enjoyed the music the first time around.

The Program

Although I hadn’t mapped out a definite program either going or coming, everything fell into place as we headed north, from Debussy’s Preludes to P.J. Harvey’s magnificent Let England Shake (reviewed here Jan. 11, 2012) to Chapter One of James Joyce’s Ulysses (brilliantly read by Donal Donnelly) to the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation Society and back to Chapters Two and Three of Ulysses. As we entered (and left) Montreal, jazz pianist Dodo Marmarosa was on the stereo performing his own peculiar form of magic. On the way home, after those first 150 miles of Beach Boys, Debussy took us from Saratoga Springs to the Modena pit stop on the New York Thruway. In need of something with a bit more caffeine in it as we approached the New Jersey border, I found Camden native Patti Smith’s Trampin, with passionate, driving songs like “In My Blakean Year” providing all the sonic fuel Moby needed for the next to last lap. Finally, taking us from the dread Somerville Circle to the front door on Bloomsday eve was Chapter Four of Ulysses, in which we meet Leopold Bloom, his cat, and his Molly at No. 7 Eccles Street, Dublin, June 16, 1904.

Debussy in the Passenger Seat

While Dodo Marmarosa may be little known outside the jazz world, he was a classically trained virtuoso with a fertile musical imagination, and I have no doubt that if Debussy could hear him play his own compositions (“Tone Paintings,” “Escape,” “Raindrops,” and “Bopmatism,” to name a few), the great man would want to shake Dodo’s hand. Had the composer of “Clair de Lune” been sitting in the passenger seat while Polly Jean and Patti and the Kinks were rocking out, he might have had to recalibrate his receptors. But the Beach Boys? My guess is that as soon as the first track of That’s Why God Made the Radio began playing — the achingly lovely wordless “Think About the Days” — Debussy would have been as receptive to those incredible harmonies as I was. As for the lyrics, I doubt that the man who set Verlaine and Mallarmé to music would be troubled by blatantly simplistic English rhyme schemes like motion/devotion/emotion, air/there/prayer, or forgivable outrages like the rhyming of “when I and antenna” (when-eye/anten-eye) in the title track.

From “Surfin Safari” to “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” Beach Boys lyrics have been predictably and often justly scorned or patronized or laughed at (“cringeworthy” is the word that turned up in one of the more positive reviews of the new album), which is one of the obstacles disdainful or doubtful listeners have to overcome before submerging themselves in the wondrously sustaining element of the music. The first Beach Boy record I ever bought was Smiley Smile, the 1967 version containing the leavings of the infamous recording studio debacle at the heart of the Brian Wilson-as-mad-genius legend (with quirky, sometimes clever-to-a-fault lyrics by VanDyke Parks). Also on that LP was “Good Vibrations,” the three-and a-half-minute masterpiece that dominated car radios all over the land through the heart of the sixties. Though Pet Sounds (1966) is still generally considered to be Brian Wilson’s finest hour, Sunflower (1970) is the record I feel closest to, the pinnacle being the 1:58 minutes of “This Whole World” (the transition at 1:40 is still no less thrilling to hear all these years later, even with the om-da-did-its and lines like “When girls get mad at boys and go/Many times they’re just putting on a show”).

A Father’s Day Aside 

Sunflower also provided the most effective music to rock our child to sleep to until the arrival of the, for him, aptly titled, The Beach Boys Love You (1977), upon which his bedtime was so dependent that I had to rush out to the Walmart to buy an emergency duplicate copy when we were visiting my father in Key West.

Since this column is being written on Father’s Day, I should mention the man without whom there would be no Beach Boys, Murry Wilson, father of Brian, Dennis, and Carl, who was born in Hutchinson, Kansas (as was I, strange to say), before moving to California at age five. By most accounts, he was the stage parent from hell, a tyrant who bullied Capitol Records on behalf of the group and is said to have hammered Brian in the head with a 2×4, causing a loss of hearing in the right ear. As recently as a 2004 interview with The Independent, however, Brian says of Murry, “He was the one who got us going. He didn’t make us better artists or musicians, but he gave us ambition. I’m pleased he pushed us, because it was such a relief to know there was someone as strong as my dad to keep things going. He used to spank us, and it hurt too, but I loved him because he was a great musician.”

America, America

Reviewers in the U.K. were especially hard on That’s Why God Made the Radio. Here’s a sampling of British brickbats: “It’s good to have them back — but only just”; “all the warmth and personality of a motorway hotel’s car park”; “a cloudless orgy of nostalgia”; “pitifully thin stuff, with far too many nostalgic hankerings.”

So, I ask myself, if there’s the faintest glimmer of truth in those snide put-downs, how could I have done what I did? Even with favorite albums like the Beatles’ Revolver and Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, two listens in a row was the limit. Five straight times I listened to a car park? I suppose I could blame my Honda alter ego, Moby, for whenever I looked in the direction of another CD, the speedometer would give a jump, as if to say, “Keep it going!”

Speed can be an influential accompanist. At 70 m.p.h., when the music’s moving, the weather’s perfect, you’re alone and feeling free, and the landscape’s head-staggeringly gorgeous, moderation is not on the menu. Days later, driving around Princeton, though the title track sounded as addictive as ever on Harrison Street, after that, I’m thinking, “How could I?”

Scenery and sentiment definitely had something to do with it. Imagine being back in your own country again after an hour of dull driving through the flat featureless landscape between Montreal and the border. Within a minute of crossing into New York state, rich, many-layered, almost unearthly stereo harmonies are sending chills up your spine amid all that Adirondack majesty, green, massive, brilliant, enfolding you and your car in its glory. Here’s where some deep-seated, unreal, inexplicable Beach Boy sentiment kicks in. If songs like “California Girls” and “Surfer Girl” can set your midwestern American boyhood heart pumping, what can you expect when you’re hearing nothing less than an anthemic creation against odds produced by a long-embattled, semi-dysfunctional group of 70-year-old teenagers 50 years down the line? Remember this is the group that doomed James Watt, Ronald Reagan’s most repellent cabinet member, the smug, sneering secretary of the Interior whose mission was to destroy it. When he mindlessly dissed the Beach Boys for “attracting the wrong element,” Watt was dead. Toast. Finito, though it took Reagan too long to dump him. The termination of Watt was not only one of the president’s finest hours, but Nancy’s. Like, “How dare you? My kids love the Beach Boys!”

Thus when we plunge at 70 m.p.h. into the lush heart of America, all this love of country is swelling in me until I’m about to explode while God’s stereo is filling my ears and God’s country is filling my eyes. Can scenery sing? Yes!

Up ahead traffic is slowing because just before you get to the New York Welcome Center on I-87, the U.S. Border Patrol has set up a surprise check point to ferret out “the wrong element.” Each driver is being asked the same question. Are you an American citizen? The Beach Boys are still singing as we approach. I start to turn down the music, but Moby won’t let me, the song that’s on is “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” sorry, can’t be done. The uniformed officer looks in, sees the CD propped on the passenger seat, hears those harmonies, starts to ask, ”Are you — ?” and before I can say a word, waves us through.


June 6, 2012

“June 6, 1944, was the turning point in Salinger’s life,” according to Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life. “It is difficult to overstate the impact of D-Day and the eleven months of continuous combat that followed.”

Six combat-driven days after landing on Utah Beach with the 4th Infantry Division, 25-year-old Salinger, a staff sergeant with the Counter Intelligence Corps (C.I.C.), was sending a postcard to Story magazine editor Whit Burnett saying that he was “too busy to go on with the book right now” (an understatement for the ages). The “book” would become The Catcher in the Rye. In effect, Holden Caulfield had landed at Normandy with Salinger, who carried a typewriter in his pack. Slawenski’s biography has C.I.C. colleagues talking about the “time when they came under heavy fire. Everyone began ducking for cover” except Salinger, who was “typing away under a table.”

Fussell’s War

Paul Fussell, who died May 23 at 88, was a platoon leader with the 103rd Infantry Division at Camp Howze in Texas when Salinger was taking part in the Normandy invasion. “D-Day of course excited us,” Fussell recalls in his memoir, Doing Battle: The Making of a Skeptic (Little Brown 1996), “but the thrill was less in the Allied success than in the excitement we felt at the likelihood that the war would be over before we could be sent to it. At moments when we felt especially victorious, we persuaded ourselves that we’d probably do no fighting at all.”

Five months later, on the night of November 10, 1944, in a forest near the town of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges while relieving “a filthy, beat-up company of the Third Division,” 20-year-old Lt. Fussell and 200 soldiers in F Company had their first taste of combat. “As beginners,” they expected night relief to go according to plan, but instead found themselves stumbling forward “in the pitch black” trying to find “their assigned places” while being “so cleverly and severely shelled” by the Germans that there was no choice but to lie down, get some sleep, and “finish the relief at first light.”

In Doing Battle, Fussell describes the moment the “skeptic” of the subtitle was conceived:

“At dawn, I awoke, and what I saw all around me were numerous objects I’d miraculously not tripped over in the dark. These were dozens of dead German boys in greenish gray uniforms, killed a day or two before by the company we were replacing …. My boyish illusions, largely intact to that moment of awakening, fell away all at once, and suddenly I knew that I was not and would never be in a world that was reasonable or just.”

Until then the only dead people Fussell had seen had been his maternal grandparents (“placid, dignified, cosmeticized, and decently on display in their expensive caskets”): “These boys were different. They had not been fulfilled but cheated. But worse was to come almost immediately. The captain called for me and as I ran toward him down a forest path, I met a sight even more devastating. The dead I’d seen were boys. Now I saw dead children, rigged out as soldiers. On the path lay two youngsters not older than fourteen. Each had taken a bullet in the head …. Such murders, after all, were precisely what my platoon and I were there for.”

Explaining his “ironic view of life” in a May 1997 PBS interview with David Gergen, Fussell says the irony is “Everything you touch is going to be defeated by time. You’ve lost. No matter what you make, no matter what you do, no matter what you achieve.” To be forever conscious of this gives you “both a refined sense of humor and a refined sense of charity.”

The ironic sense of life also gives you, in Fussell’s case, an ex-infantryman’s view of aspects of everyday reality still in play decades later. In his memoir, Fussell remembers commuting back and forth to New Brunswick during the 23 years he lived in Princeton and taught at Rutgers. On the drive home, at the end of “a long stretch of absolutely straight two-lane road,” there was “a small hill covered with shrubbery” that he “never saw … without thinking it a perfect position for an antitank gun, should Princeton ever be attacked by an envious New Brunswick, which sometimes seemed a not unlikely possibility.”

The Gift

On March 15, 1945, on a combat mission in the Alsace, platoon leader Fussell was hit on the back and thigh by shrapnel. At the time, the shell sending “red-hot metal” into his body instantly killed the two men fighting beside him.

“I thought I’d been killed,” Fussell told David Gergen, “and I apparently had been metaphorically, because that moment caused me to meditate as follows: I was killed in 1945. Every month since then has been an absolute gift. And I’ve tried to enjoy them appropriately, and I’ve tried to exploit them appropriately, because I could so easily have been the third person killed on that occasion. And that shows how much luck has to do with it. Luck has much more to do with it than skill, alertness, training, knowledge, the things that you’re invited to believe are so important. The important thing is luck, which you can’t do anything about.”

In Fussell’s Class

I knew nothing of Professor Fussell’s wartime history when I was a graduate student in English during those years he was commuting between “envious New Brunswick” and anti-tank-gun-ready Princeton. Of all the teachers I had, he was the most professorial, the closest to my idea of the complacent academic, with his tweeds and loafers and his pipe. In terms of organization and presentation, the course I took, Introduction to 18th-century literature, was a perfect prototype for graduate study. The first day of class we were treated to a vivid, earthy, admirably executed portrait of the period, and the sessions that followed were models of planning compared to the more exciting, free-form, close-reading-oriented classes conducted by Richard Poirier.

During those turbulent years, roughly 1968-1970, it was Poirier’s book, The Performing Self (1970), that caught the temper of the time. Five years later, the skeptic who had been conceived in that forest on November 10, 1944, and “born” the following March 15, would make literary history with The Great War and Modern Memory (Oxford 1975), which won the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award. In the works of social criticism that followed — Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars (1980) and Class: A Guide Through the American Status System (1983) — Fussell became the “wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated” public intellectual “and cultural critic” described in the opening paragraphs of the New York Times obituary.

Salinger On The Front

If Lt. Fussell had luck, Staff Sgt. Salinger, it’s tempting to think, must have traveled with an angel — not an agent angel, but the supernatural kind. On December 5, 1944, of the 3,080 regimental soldiers enduring the month-long debacle of Hürtgen Forest, he was among the 563 who came out alive. Around the same time (“during the closing months of 1944,” according to Slawenski), Salinger wrote what appears to be his only actual at-the-front story, “A Boy in France.” Available online the last time I checked, the story, though it has Hemingwayesque lines, would be recognized as Salinger’s by anyone who knows his work. After finding a foxhole to bed down in (he ends up in “a Kraut hole” and has to dispose of the German’s blanket), the boy gets bit by a red ant, “nastily, uncompromisingly,” and compensates by fantasizing himself back in civilization, in a room with a door he can bolt, clean clothes, some records on the phonograph, and “a nice quiet girl” who will read Emily Dickinson to him (“that one about being chartless”) and William Blake (“that one about the little lamb who made thee”); the girl “will have an American voice, and she won’t ask me if I have any chewing gum or bonbons, and I’ll bolt the door.” The story ends with intimations of Glass-family-era Salinger as the boy, after perusing a crumpled clipping from a syndicated Broadway column, reads an amusingly mundane letter signed “love and kisses” from his sister Matilda in Manasquan, N.J.

In his progress from Normandy to Hürtgen Forest to the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of a subcamp of Dachau, Salinger, who had no “boyish illusions” about war, undoubtedly saw scenes as disturbing or worse than the ones recounted by Fussell. Rather than letting the sight of murdered children on the battlefield suggest a view of life based on the notion that “everything you touch is going to be defeated by time,” the unique sensibility Salinger developed in the years following the war enabled him to turn the battlefield into the field his creation Holden Caulfield describes to his sister Phoebe as he tells her he wants to be the person who stands on the edge of a cliff near a “big field of rye” where “thousands of kids” are playing: ‘What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff …. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.’”

When Salinger Returns

Significantly, it was Salinger, not Fussell, who suffered from post-traumatic stress and had to be hospitalized in the summer of 1945. Out of that experience came a short story classic, “For Esmé – with Love and Squalor.” After the war, while Fussell “exploited” his endgame sense of irony in a major work of literary history, Salinger established himself as a major literary force with The Catcher in the Rye, Nine Stories (retitled For Esmé – with Love and Squalor in England), and the Glass family stories, including the as-yet-unpublished ones written after 1965. If one day Salinger’s heirs release those stories into the world, I’ll feel like Staff-Sergeant X in “For Esmé,” only instead of Esmé’s dead fathers’s watch with its broken crystal, I’ll be holding a copy of the Salinger Returns issue of The New Yorker and unlike X, who hasn’t the courage to wind the watch to find out if it works, I’ll start reading, “suddenly, almost ecstatically,” knowing that if Salinger wrote it, it will work.


May 30, 2012

I had much sorrow in my life, and I was a soldier, which was the worst thing of all. But it is a good thing to have led a life which has had good consequences.

—Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
(1925-2012), in a 2005 interview.

If there’s a Grand Central Station of the Beyond, Maurice Sendak would likely be among the first to greet Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau when the foremost singer of Schubert lieder gets off the train that departed the land of the living on May 18. Sendak, who expressed a “passion for Schubert songs and … his birds of doom or birds of good” to Bill Moyers in 2004, had arrived at the terminal only ten days before.

The concept of trains to the afterlife, including a special underground express to hell, is brilliantly pictured in Frank Borzage’s 1931 film, Liliom. In my version of the fantasy, I would add to the welcoming party the German baritone’s most frequent accompanist, British pianist Gerald Moore, who was a long time waiting to shake his colleague’s hand, having arrived back in March of 1987. Would you believe who’s standing shyly off to one side, his spectacles flashing in the heavenly glare? Yes, it’s Schubert himself and he’s singing, very softly, something from Winterreise (Winter Journey), a song cycle that figures significantly in Fischer-Dieskau’s personal and professional history.

Schubert “sang continuously” during the last days of his life, according to Fischer-Dieskau’s biographical/analytical study, Schubert’s Songs (Knopf 1997). No wonder, since the only piece of music the dying composer had been able to focus on was the proof of the second part of Winterreise. Recorded a century and a half later by Fischer-Dieskau and Moore, Winterreise was also the subject of the 17-year-old singer’s first public performance, given in early 1943 in the town hall of Zehlendorf, a Berlin suburb. Seven songs into the cycle, the RAF intervened. “We had a terrible bombing of the city that day,” Fischer-Dieskau recalls in a 2005 interview, “and the whole audience of 200 people and myself had to go into the cellar for two-and-a-half hours. Then when the raid was over we came back up and resumed.” Asked where in the cycle he began again, he says the song was “Rückblick” (Backward Glance): “So we looked back to the part already completed.”

In fact, a clip on YouTube shows the singer rehearsing “Rückblick” with pianist Alfred Brendel for the 1978 recital that ends, memorably, with Fischer-Dieskau engulfed in darkness at the last stop in Schubert’s journey, singing “Der Leiermann” (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man), a composer’s farewell message as artless and lasting as John Keats’s “I always made an awkward bow.”

Imagine Schubert facing death in his closet of a room above Frau von Bogner’s coffee house in Vienna, musing over the last lines of “Der Leiermann” (“Strange old man, shall I go with you?/Will you grind your organ to my songs?”), and 115 years later at the conclusion of that bomb-blitzed recital, there’s Fischer-Dieskau facing war, soon to be drafted into the Wehrmacht, captured two years later in Italy by Allied forces, and not released until 1947, having proved himself a much-valued catch by giving morale-boosting recitals from the backs of trucks at various POW camps.

The Essence of Art

Maurice Sendak’s “passion for Schubert songs” was rooted in his identification with the aesthetic dimensions of Schubert’s accomplishment within that seemingly limited genre. What gave Sendak the idea, as he told Bill Moyers, was something said by the lieder singer Christa Ludwig in a television interview: “Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in this miniature form.”

For Sendak this was a revelation: “I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in the ‘50s and ‘40s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the totem pole.”

In the first chapter of Schubert’s Songs, Fischer-Dieskau improves on Christa Ludwig’s appraisal, writing that when Schubert “raised the art song (Kunstlied) to hitherto unknown heights,” he “laid bare the essence of all art: intensity, concentration, a distillation into the purest of forms.”

A Lifelong Aversion

It goes without saying that anyone engaged by Schubert’s music must at some point learn to appreciate the genre in which he is the generally acknowledged master. The more you discover about this composer, the more you realize the obvious: that listening to Schubert without the lieder is like reading Shakespeare without the soliloquies or visiting Greece without seeing the Parthenon. Thus came the day in the 1980s when I swallowed a lifelong aversion to baritones with big voices singing in German and threw myself on the mercy of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, whose monumental Franz Schubert Lieder, Volumes I and II (Deutsche Grammophon) is one of the most rigorous two-man adventures since the Lewis and Clark expedition. We’re talking the equivalent of, say, five thousand kilometers on foot (with Schubert, you can ride part of the way on horseback), meaning close to 500 songs (not counting the 50-plus in Die Schöne Mullerin, Winterreise, and Swanengesang, another Fischer-Dieskau-Moore box set I purchased later).

When Schubert songs appear en masse in the form of 25 LPs in two formidable boxes, it’s not easy to comfortably or casually approach such a domain. As soon as you lift open the cover of one of the elegantly designed receptacles and take out the fat book of lyrics and translations, it becomes a formal experience, one I preferred to save for the after-midnight privacy of the downstairs study, which naturally encouraged a preference for compositions and performances in harmony with the nocturnal atmosphere. I wanted moody quietude. I saved the heavier, more operatic versions of Goethe, Heine, and Mayrhofer for daytime hours when I had the house to myself and could hear the singing and playing at full volume.

Over time I made pencilled notations in the booklets, asterisks for my favorite songs, according to the number of listenings, which I eventually transferred to miniature versions of the booklets after trading the two monsters for the boxed CD equivalent. For the past few nights, using an ancient Sony Discman and headphones, I’ve been listening to Volume II (Lieder from 1817-1828), with a copy of Schubert’s Songs in my lap, so I could consult Fischer-Dieskau whenever I had a question about the music.

With headphones, Fischer-Dieskau’s voice is an absolute. Listening to “Erlkönig,” one of his and Schubert’s most renowned performances, it’s as if the dynamic of an entire opera has been packed into a three-minute span, Fischer-Dieskau becoming the narrator, the clueless father, the crooning demon, and the terrified child, Moore’s piano at an unrelenting gallop until death halts it. “In a recital with a mixed program I have to portray 20 characters, one after the other,” Fischer-Dieskau told an Opernwelt interviewer after his 1992 retirement; in this one song alone, he portrays four.

Infatuation

While all Schubert belongs in the “common domain” of poetry and music Fischer-Dieskau refers to as the “landscape of the soul” in his autobiography Reverberations (1989), such language seems too ponderous next to melodies like “Der Jungling an der Quelle” (The Youth at the Well), where the charm is so simple, so transcendent, and yet so direct as to inspire thoughts of a Monty Python sketch where every time the song is played the listener drops dead from sheer delight; imagine John Cleese, idiot smile, sigh, swoon, before he keels over backwards, both legs straight up. “Captivatingly beautiful” is the best Fischer-Dieskau can manage when he first mentions the piece; returning to it a hundred pages later, he speaks of Schubert’s “water music,” a “genre painting over a murmuring accompaniment that wanders up and down the triad of the fifth, while the boy’s sighs rise to a high A, until he finally whispers above the sustained dominant, the musical name which Schubert added to the end of the poem: ‘Luise.’”

You have to hear, not read, the subtle but heartfelt yearning in Fischer-Dieskau’s singing of the girl’s name as Loueeesa. Even if I understood dominants and triads of the fifth, all I could say of this song is that listening to it is like falling in love, or rather, like the fleeting, haunting infatuation from family trips when your car passed a car with a girl your age smiling out the window at you, flirting at 50 miles per hour, and you smiled, and shading that sudden lost and found and lost flash of love was the knowledge that in all of life and the world and time, you’d never see each other again.

Strolling 

In “Der Jungling an der Quelle,” what seduces you is the way the piano “wanders up and down.” However, “Im Frühling” (In Spring) doesn’t wander, it strolls, and the stroll Gerald Moore takes after the second verse is one of the most exhilarating moments in all of Schubert: love hurts, but life goes on, merry and bright, till the next blow falls. When Fischer-Dieskau comes back for the third verse, Moore is still strolling but with a hint of urgency leading to the harsh, penultimate verse, where “joys with quarrels change” and all that’s left is “love and torment.” When love is love again in the closing verse, it’s a reunion, and the strolling couple is Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Gerald Moore, with Schubert leading the way, crossing a century and an ocean as he tosses off a “how-dry-I-am” quasi ragtime postlude that would make Scott Joplin smile.

The conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler once told Fischer-Dieskau that the most important thing for a performing artist was “to build up a community of love for the music with the audience, to create one fellow feeling among so many people who have come from so many different places and feelings.” Songs like “Im Frühling” create that “fellow feeling.” Said Fischer-Dieskau, “I have lived with that ideal all my life as a performer.”

———

Except where otherwise noted, the quotes are from Martin Kettie’s May 20, 2005, interview in The Guardian, conducted a week before Fischer-Dieskau’s 80th birthday. Frank Borzage’s film, Liliom, is available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.


May 23, 2012

Not since Byron awoke one morning to find himself famous has there been such an example of worldwide celebrity won in a day by a book.

—New York Evening World

The novel that made Upton Sinclair rich and famous “in a day” was written in a tarpaper shack behind a farm house on the Princeton Ridge. By all rights, The Jungle should have been written in New York or in the urban nightmare of its setting, Chicago, or anywhere but “the hills north of Princeton.” Why there? What brought the young muckraker to our neck of the woods? And where exactly had he written the book?

Last fall I was researching a photo-based piece for Princeton Magazine on the local residences of famous writers. My mission seemed simple enough. The other houses had been easily located and photographed. But Upton Sinclair had apparently resided in a whole slew of mostly vanished tents, cottages, shacks, and farmhouses in at least two different locations between the western edge of Ridgeview Road and Province Line Road.

The rub is, I could have solved the mystery at the outset simply by visiting the offices of a local realtor. No need to study old maps or old issues of the Princeton Recollector, no need to drive all over the Ridge buttonholing residents in my quest, no need to consult former Ridge homeowner John McPhee, who graciously played a wary Watson to my hapless Holmes in The Case of the Disappearing Cottage. Nor was it necessary to join forces with another Ridge resident, the dauntless, ever resourceful Sherri, who played Nancy Drew to my Frank and Joe Hardy in The Adventure of the Chimney in Back.

Of course I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Into the Mystique

As he helped me put the facts of the case in focus, even at one point consulting Sinclair’s autobiography on my behalf, McPhee contended that “an accurate location” of Sinclair’s “early dwellings or sites thereof … would be something close to impossible to achieve. You can’t, of course, just drive up to some place and think ‘that’s probably it.’”

But that’s just what I did one sunny, hazy, mid-November Sunday afternoon.

Anthony Arthur’s biography, Radical Innocent: Upton Sinclair (Random House 2006), includes an old photo of the Sinclair house “near the intersection of Drake’s Corner Road and Province Line Road.” That’s pretty specific. No mystery there. Even if the house had been demolished or renovated or added to, I could scout the spot, and if the house was there, I could ask the owner’s permission to have a photographer take some pictures of it.

So, down Drake’s Corner toward my goal I go, only it’s a road I’ve never been on before, I know nothing of its ways, its twists and turns, ups and downs. What starts as a paved surface begins to narrow, slip out of definition and direction and sense, as if it might simply disappear, leaving one to drive off the edge of the world. Now it seems little more than a path, no room for oncoming vehicles, nature’s closing in with Blair Witch overtones, the light’s gone strange, as if strained through a filter, everything more intense, more haunting, and yet even as it seems most strange it’s becoming excitingly familiar. A force far more compelling than the possibility of finding the house in the photograph is at work. I’m picking up flashes of southern Indiana, some scary thicket of childhood, Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, the mysterious landscape the schoolbus used to plow through every schoolday morning.

Yes, there’s a frame house of the right vintage at the intersection of Drake’s Corner Road and Province Line Road. The owner is doing yard work, I pull over, introduce myself, explain my mission, and am thrilled to hear that his house had belonged to someone named Stout, which is the name of the farmer who had sold it to Sinclair. I send hopeful emails to Sherri and McPhee. The next day I show the owner the photo in the biography, but nothing matches, neither the house nor the lay of the land. So I go on my way, neither sadder nor wiser, but never mind: I’m in a state of benign mystification. It’s all to the good that the previous day’s quest led nowhere because I know there’s no such thing as nowhere in this somewhere. I’m on the other side of the Looking Glass, in the suburbs of Xanadu. Yesterday’s drive has created an enchanted neighborhood around Drake’s Corner, Province Line, the Ridge. References to other names associated with the locale — Cedar Grove and Hanging Rock — make my eyes light up and my heart beat faster. And all to find the work space of a writer I’d never read a word of — no, not even The Jungle. Not until the quest began.

Reading Sinclair 

The Jungle was not the first book Upton Sinclair wrote on Princeton Ridge. If you wonder what made him come here in the first place, the answer is a novel about the War Between the States. In his preface to the revised edition, retitled Theirs Be The Guilt (Twayne 1959), Sinclair explains that the book was written in 1903 and published a year later as Manassas: “Its author was twenty-four, living in two tents in the hills north of Princeton, New Jersey …. I had moved to that hillside woodland in order to have the use of the fine Civil War collection at Princeton University Library. They allowed me to take home a dozen volumes at a time, and I would rent a farmer’s horse and buggy for $1 a trip and drive down from the hills to load up a week’s groceries and an armful of reference books.” He claims to have studied over 200 volumes.

The two tents were pitched on the property behind a farmhouse on Ridgeview Road. According to a New York Times piece from July 21 1985 (“Upton Sinclair’s Princeton Hideaway),” all that then remained were “a few hand-hewn logs” forming “a skeletal frame” and a “chimney … of mortar and stone” under “a canopy of oak and poplar branches.” When my fellow investigator Sherri and I explored the spot in February, all that remained was the base of the chimney and some wooden remnants like railroad ties. The owner had been kind enough to give us a sheaf of material that answered all the essential questions about both Sinclair sites. That there had been two tents, yes, along with one 16’ by 18’ cottage and a “tar paper shack for writing” that in 1905 was moved to a spot behind the farm house Sinclair purchased a mile and a half away on Province Line Road upon his return from the famously productive stockyard adventures in Chicago.

I’ve been to both the Province Line and Ridgeview sites now, and have rushed through both books. Walking around the proximate location of the “black shack” where The Jungle was written, I tried to imagine how it had been. Wife and child in the house with the carpenter’s gothic front porch, Sinclair scribbling his fiendish work in that poorly insulated hut while the winter wind howled like an outraged muse. Apparently, that’s how he wanted it. He’d written the first book in the same flimsy, storm-besieged structure during the previous winter.

It makes sense that Sinclair wanted to endure heavy weather or at least a semblance of exposure to risk and adversity. He needed to write in a wilderness. The worst thing he could imagine was to be trying to work in the same space with his wife and baby. That’s why he pitched the second tent, built the second cabin. He had to be haunted, on the edge, aware of the precipice. Adversity is what The Jungle is all about. You don’t finish that book, you wake up from it, shaking your head, pinching yourself, as from a nightmare. What gets you isn’t simply the hair-raising stuff about the meat-packing plant, the rats, the filth, but the relentless punishment Sinclair lavishes on Jurgis, his Lithuanian Job whose wife is raped and later dies in childbirth and whose only son, a toddler, falls from an elevated sidewalk and drowns in mud. At the plant, where men drown in tubs of lard, a 13-year-old relative is locked in a storage room and eaten by rats. Jurgis is hammered at every turn.

Think about the writer who is conjuring up this nightmare. Did his wife and child shudder when he came back into the house of a night, wild-eyed, after one of his bouts with the demon muse? Here’s a budding socialist who wanted to write, as he boasted to Ernest Poole when he first arrived in Chicago, “the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the Labor Movement.” Instead he wrote a novel as nightmarish as Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man, a far greater work.

Imagine this unlikely creation burning like a fire in the windows of the wind-blown shack, seen flaring and fading through the trees on Province Line Road as the author hounds his protagonist through every imaginable circle of urban hell. This is the passionate, anguished, pull-out-all-the-stops narrative Sinclair wraps around his documentary dynamite, an explosion heard round the world (“I aimed at the public’s heart and by accident hit its stomach”). “By accident?”

Recalling the eerie, exciting chill I felt that first day driving down Drake’s Corner Road, I wonder if Sinclair’s muse isn’t still haunting those woods. I talked about it that November afternoon with the owner of the house I mistook for Sinclair’s. When I said, “This area feels strange, spooky,” he told me that the people living in the nearby McMansions had said as much.

The Chimney in Back

It was thanks to Sherri’s considerable charm that we were allowed to explore the yard behind the house on Ridgeview Road, which turns out to be not far from the home owned by Sherri and her husband, who, coincidentally enough, has always had “a fascination with The Jungle.

All that remains of the cottage is the base of the chimney, the open hearth that Sinclair, his wife and baby warmed themselves by during the vicious winter of 1903-1904. The author must have been better company when he was working on Manassas, where one striking domestic detail makes an unlikely appearance in the next to last chapter. With the battle raging, bullets flying, Union soldiers are barricaded in the home of a “poor white,” where, “near the fireplace of the little room,” two kittens are playing together: “one would lie on its back and the other would bite it, and they would roll over and over.”

May 16, 2012

In May 1981, Maurice Sendak, who died at the age of 83 on May 8, confided to his journal: “I hate May, everything seems to begin and end in May. May 3 I had my coronary. The dreadful May, 14th anniversary of my coronary. I count myself 14 years old, I was born with my coronary. Death has the features of Mozart’s face and is my waiting friend.”

Sendak began keeping a journal in 1967, when he was in an English hospital recovering from “his” coronary. With such a self-aware man, it couldn’t just be “a” coronary or “the” coronary; it had to be Sendak’s coronary. Picture Max in the Night Kitchen bellowing “It’s my Coronary!” at the moon instead of “Cock-a-doodle-do!” Of course coronary in itself is the word a poet prefers to heart attack, and Sendak was a poet.

If you have ever “been” Sendak, which is how it is to share Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen with your children, you should be sure not to miss the online interviews with Hank Nuwer (1980) and, especially, Bill Moyers (2004). Although there’s an NPR anthology of the Fresh Air conversations on the Web, Sendak becomes more interestingly engaged with Nuwer and Moyers. The most unique — and maybe the last — interview aired this January on Comedy Central and is a minor comic masterpiece in which an under-the-weather-looking Sendak resists and then begins grouchily enjoying Stephen Colbert’s infectious idiocy (one of the highlights is the exchange on Night Kitchen Max’s controversial nudity, Colbert having cut out all images of the lad’s offending member and put them in a cellophane bag). Every time the seemingly grim and grizzled Sendak laughs in spite of himself (at one point he gets high sniffing his marker) is like the moment in Where the Wild Things Are when Max cries, “let the wild rumpus start!”

The Lindbergh Baby

In November 1932, when the radio is “always on” with news of the Lindbergh kidnapping, a sickly four-year-old boy in Brooklyn identifies with the infant. His immigrant parents, who have spoken openly and frequently of the possibility of his dying from one illness or another (“I knew I was mortal from a very early age”), have assured him that that “rich, gentile baby” who lives in “a place called Hope-well” can’t die. This must be the safest, most protected infant in the world and look what happened. “Who could climb up the wall, climb in the room and take the baby out and nobody know? How defenseless could babies be even among the rich?” As Sendak tells Bill Moyers in the PBS interview, the kid in Brooklyn figures that the blond, blue-eyed son of “Captain Marvel” and “the princess of the universe” is a good bet to make it. When the child’s body is found, the impact is life-changing, “I could not bear the thought that that baby was dead. My life hung on that baby being recovered. Because if that baby died, I had no chance. I was only a poor kid, okay? I mean, it doesn’t make much sense to say it. But, that’s the equation. And when the baby was found dead, I think something really fundamental died in me.”

Almost 50 years later Sendak projects the kidnapping into the goblins’ abduction of the baby in Outside Over There (“That’s what Outside is about, vomiting that up”). Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen are among the greatest books for children ever written. Outside Over There is a work of art on another level; to call it a childrens’ book is like calling Moby Dick a sea story. Children who “get” the other two books are usually baffled and disturbed by Outside Over There. What does the title mean, for a start? What would their parents tell them? Just another way of saying the Land of Makebelieve? My wife and I must have read the other two books a hundred times over to our child. We read Outside Over There to him once when it came out and never again. He knew only too well what was “over there.”

Sendak’s Gods

“I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart.”

—Sendak to Bill Moyers

Asked by Bill Moyers how he calms his demons and finds “a separate peace in a world that’s so full of scary things,” Sendak admits being “anxious about … coming here today,” wondering “Would I be all right?” What gave him the lift he needed? A “little tiny Emily Dickinson … that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong ….I feel better …. Art has always been my salvation.”

When Nuwer asks him if he believes in heroes, he says, “Not many,” and names Mozart, Kleist, and Herman Melville as “the core group.” In Kleist’s plays it’s the “imbalance in Nature” he responds to; in Mozart, it’s “the most quintessential perfect balance.” In Melville he finds “a more comprehensible … readable … lovable Kleist.” Sendak tells Nuwer that if a book is by a philosopher, he’ll “reject it out of hand.” If it’s by Melville, he’ll “buy it.”

While Sendak thinks of Mozart as more than human, a force of nature as large as life itself, he loves Melville both as a god and a benighted mortal, too humanly touching, lost and lonely to be merely “the lodestar of his literary heaven,” as Tony Kushner puts it in The Art of Maurice Sendak 1980 to the Present (Abrams 2003). There are deeply felt references to Melville toward the end of both the Nuwer and Moyer dialogues. Speaking of himself at 76, Sendak quotes Shakespeare (“Ripeness is all”) and Keats on the ecstasy of savoring a peach, but it’s Melville he loves and feels for, even in the context of his own life. “I’ve had my career. I’ve had my success. God willing, it should have happened to Herman Melville who deserved it a great deal more, you know? Imagine him being on Bill Moyers’ show. Nothing good happened to Herman Melville.”

Toward the end of his talk with Nuwer, when the subject comes round to Melville’s “great and ingenious work of art,” Pierre, a controversial edition of which Sendak illustrated in 1995, he’s still venting about Hawthorne’s apparent rejection of Melville’s loving friendship: “I’ll never forgive Hawthorne for Herman…. I’ll take that up with him someday. I’ll never forgive him for having so misunderstood. Mrs. Hawthorne understood better. Her journals have intuitive little things about what this poor man needed from her husband and how incapable her husband was of giving.”

Knowing and Caring

Sendak has admitted having Melville’s Pierre in mind when he composed his own story for the Nutshell Library about a boy whose thoughtless mantra for everything in life is “I don’t care.” Compared to the bellowing, forthright, fearless Max of Wild Things and Night Kitchen, Pierre is a perverse, ambiguous fatalist-in-the-making. For the sake of his young readers (and perhaps their parents), Sendak gave his Pierre a happy ending in which the lion who ate him vomits him up. My guess is that the Sendak who hates May, loves Melville, and never got over the death of the Lindbergh baby would foresee an adulthood for his Pierre nearly as tortured and fatal as that of Melville’s Pierre. Like poor mad little Pip after his near-drowning submergence in Moby Dick, and Melville after the rejection of Moby Dick, the after-the-lion Pierre will never be the same.

Rosenbach Exhibit

“Things of mine, when I’m no longer in this world, I intend to leave in my will that they be auctioned off again,” Sendak tells Nuwer. “I don’t want to leave them to anybody because I had so much fun getting them, I’d like them all dispersed.” In fact, a great many of Sendak’s “things” (a collection of nearly 10,000 works of art, manuscripts, books, and ephemera) have found their way to Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum and Library, a repository for his work since the early 1970s. “From Pen to Publisher: The Life of Three Sendak Picture Books” will be on display until July 15 at the Rosenbach, 2008-2010 Delancey Place. The books are: The Sign on Rosie’s Door(1960), Outside Over There (1981), and Brundibar (2003).

May 2, 2012

When the eldest of Charles Dickens’s ten children, 33-year-old Charley, looked in on him less than a week before the author’s death on June 9, 1870, Dickens was “writing very earnestly” on the last chapter of The Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Charley took his leave (“I shall be off now”), Dickens paid no attention and continued writing “with the same intensity as before.” Half a lifetime of such moments had conditioned the son to expect at least a few words from his father, but on this occasion, as Charley recalls, he “gave no sign of being aware of my presence. Again, I spoke — louder, perhaps this time — and he raised his head and looked at me long and fixedly. But I soon found that, although his eyes were bent upon me and he seemed to be looking at me earnestly, he did not see me, and that he was, in fact, unconscious for the moment of my very existence. He was in dreamland with Edwin Drood and I left him — for the last time.”

Quoting Charley’s account in his massive biography, Dickens (HarperCollins 1990), Peter Ackroyd finds it “disturbing” that the father was “still so immersed in his words and images that he could not even see his own son standing in front of him,” and no less disturbing that in Charley’s last moment with his father “he was ignored by him in favor of the creatures of his imagination.”

Ackroyd doesn’t acknowledge the obvious, however, which is the outward resemblance between the trance immersing the writer at work and the opium dreamland inhabited by the choirmaster of Cloisterham Cathedral, John Jasper. It’s in that tranced state that Jasper embarks on the opium “journey” that leads, again and again, to the murder of his beloved Ned, that is, his nephew, Edwin Drood (“I did it millions and billions of times. I did it so often, and through such vast expanses of time, that when it was really done, it seemed not worth the doing, it was done so soon”). Beloved though he may be, Ned is in danger because the being Jasper desires beyond all reason is Edwin’s fiance, “the pretty, childish” orphan, Miss Rosa Bud.

An End-Game Awareness

Charley caught his father in the middle of a creative transport, in another world where the word of choice is “Unintelligible” and the preferred substance is opium. To see Dickens in that state was like seeing Coleridge in the moment he was roused from the laudanum dream that spawned his poem, “Kubla Khan,” another great, unfinished work.

Dickens was not just in “dreamland with Drood” when Charley came to say goodbye, he was deeply absorbed in one of the most extraordinary, richly accomplished chapters he would ever write, and not merely because it happened to be his last. With its explicit reference back to the Chapter I (“The Dawn”), Chapter XXIII of Edwin Drood (“The Dawn Again”) is marked by an end-game awareness that Dickens has reached the turning point of a narrative he feels he will not live to complete. Three days before the stroke that killed him, he admitted as much, according to his daughter Katey (“he spoke as though his life was over and there was nothing left”). Far from surrendering, Dickens is consolidating his intentions, as if he could make a half-finished work seem complete in itself, a self-contained enigma that would do sufficient justice to his original intentions for the novel.

Dostoevsky

The fact that The Mystery of Edwin Drood was left unfinished has led to a cottage industry of guessing games, reimaginings, and rewritings based on clues scattered by the author himself. The most credible evidence drawn from Dickens or the sources closest to him, however, has the opium-addled choirmaster John Jasper strangling his nephew and disposing of the body in quicklime. Contrary to the endings of both the 1935 Universal film and last month’s BBC dramatization, Dickens did not intend for Jasper to fall to his death from the belltower of Cloisterham Cathedral. He expressed his notion of Jasper’s fate to his close friend and biographer, John Forster; there would be a “review of the murderer’s career by himself at the close, when its temptations were to be dwelt upon as if, not he the culprit, but some other man, were the tempted. The last chapters were to be written in the condemned cell.” Compared to the melodramatic deaths of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist or Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, the novel preceding Drood, Jasper’s end would be subtle, complex, and probably redemptive, something closer to the fate of Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment or of Dmitri Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. 

Speaking of Dostoevsky, when he visited the London office of Dickens’s journal, All The Year Round, in 1862, Dickens told him that “the good simple people in his novels” were “what he wanted to have been, and his villains were what he was (or rather, what he found in himself),” and that there were “two people in him,” one “who feels as he ought to feel and one who feels the opposite. From the one who feels the opposite I make my evil characters, from the one who feels as a man ought to feel I try to live my life.”

“Unintelligible!”

If there’s a password to the cloistered heart of Edwin Drood, one that Sherlock Holmes would pounce on were he and Watson on the case (too bad Conan Doyle never thought to send the great sleuth to Cloisterham), it’s the word unintelligible, which is uttered twice and with marked emphasis by Jasper in the novel’s opium-shrouded opening, opium being a potent enemy of the intelligible.

The first paragraph of Edwin Drood has Jasper confusing a bed-post in an East End opium den with the tower of Cloisterham Cathedral. Coming out of the drugged reverie, he’s like a surrogate of the author “whose scattered consciousness has thus fantastically pieced itself together,” or like Hyde morphing back into Jeckyll. Lying on the “sordid bed” with him are a Chinaman and a Lascar, two other clients of the “haggard woman” who is “blowing at a kind of pipe to kindle it.” As Jasper gazes down at the woman who will ultimately help unmask him, he smugly wonders “what visions can she have” and “turns her face toward him” for a better look (the positions will be dramatically reversed in the book’s last chapter) before bending down “to listen to her mutterings.” What he hears makes no sense (“Unintelligible!” he exclaims), but given what happens next, he might have stuck his head into the crater of an active volcano: “As he watches the spasmodic shoots and darts that break out of her face and limbs, like fitful lightning out of a dark sky, some contagion in them seizes upon him.” The choirmaster is so shaken that he has to sit down in a chair, “holding tight, until he has got the better of this unclean spirit of imitation.”

In case the reader doubts that Jasper is capable of murder while under the influence, Dickens has him, still in the grip of the “unclean spirit,” assault both the men he’d been sharing the “ink-bottle pipe” with; when the Chinaman “resists, gasps, and protests,” Jasper asks, “What do you say?” and answers himself, after a “watchful pause,” again with that word: “Unintelligible!” In the fog suggested by that word, one may commit murder without perceiving the reality of the act.

“The Dawn Again”

Dickens gives the “haggard woman” no proper name, nor does he include her on the list of characters preceding the first chapter, which makes sense: why list Jasper’s vengeful opium genie, as if she were a “real person”? She does have a nickname, Princess Puffer, supplied by “Deputy,” a stone-throwing imp whose real name is known to none but the ”mysterious white-haired man” identified on the same list as Dick Datchery.

The only way to do justice to the last chapter — Dicken’s masterful swan song — would be to reprint the scene between the old woman and Jasper in full. By the time the choirmaster revisits the miserable room where the novel began, Edwin Drood has disappeared and is presumed dead. Thus this exchange:

‘Who was they as died, deary?’

‘A relative.’

‘Died of what, lovey?’

‘Probably, Death.’

‘We are short to-night!’ cries the woman, with a propitiatory laugh. ‘Short and snappish we are! But we’re out of sorts for want of a smoke. We’ve got the all-overs, haven’t us, deary? But this is the place to cure ’em in; this is the place where the all-overs is smoked off.’ “

Sensing Jasper has something significant to hide, the old woman teases him with endearments like “deary,” “lovey” “poppet” (and even at one point “chuckey”) “lays her hand upon his chest, and moves him slightly to and fro, as a cat might stimulate a half-slain mouse.” Repeating “her cat-like action she slightly stirs his body again, and listens; stirs again, and listens; whispers to it, and listens. Finding it past all rousing for the time, she slowly gets upon her feet, with an air of disappointment, and flicks the face with the back of her hand in turning from it.”

Is there any doubt which of the two Charles Dickens is in charge of this scene?

Dickens and Datchery

There is almost as much speculation among readers and critics about Dick Datchery’s identity as there is about whether Drood is dead or alive. Datchery’s white-maned disguise is just the sort Sherlock Holmes would use, which makes sense, since one theory is that Datchery is the detective who will solve the mystery, with some help from the opium woman who has stalked Jasper all the way from London to Cloisterham.

In the novel’s closing pages, which are dominated by Datchery, he hails the imp nicknamed Deputy, “ ‘Halloa, Winks!’ At which the imp says, “ ‘don’t yer go a-making my name public. I never means to plead to no name, mind yer.’ “ At this point, it’s as if Dickens has, in effect, entered his own novel in the guise of Datchery, for the only other person who knows the imp by name is the author who created him and put “Winks” in parentheses in the list of characters preceding the first chapter.

Dickens also bestows on Dick Datchery an elaborate analogy unlike any other figure or fancy in the novel. It’s as if he had called up the spirits of Homer and Milton for the occasion of his last hurrah:

“John Jasper’s lamp is kindled, and his lighthouse is shining when Mr. Datchery returns alone towards it. As mariners on a dangerous voyage, approaching an iron-bound coast, may look along the beams of the warning light to the haven lying beyond it that may never be reached, so Mr. Datchery’s wistful gaze is directed to this beacon, and beyond.”

Is that Dickens himself gazing wistfully toward the beacon “and beyond” of the ending he knows he will never write (and yet triumphantly does)? I’d like to think so.

I used the Chiltern Library edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood (John Lehman 1950), which I bought for $2 at this year’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley book sale. The first installment, with the cover shown here, was issued in April 1870; the last in September 1870. I found the Dostoevsky anecdote in Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens (2011)


April 11, 2012

He offered the cosmos as an adventure rather than a scheme. He did not explain evil, far less explain it away: he enjoyed defying it …. He may be said to have serenaded heaven with a guitar, and even, so to speak, tried to climb there with a rope ladder.

—G.K. Chesterton

One click of the iMac mouse and into the YouTube universe we go, Robert Browning’s voice coming through, at first faint and sketchy over the noise made by the Edison cylinder, like the sound of a horse at full gallop as the poet springs “to the saddle …. I galloped, Dirck galloped, we galloped all three …”

It’s April 7, 1889, and the first recording ever made of a poet reading from his work is barely underway when Browning forgets his lines. “I’m terribly sorry,” he cries in mid-gallop, “but I cannot remember me own verses!” It’s as if he were slyly playing out the eccentric, self-conflicted dynamic of one of his dramatic monologues as, undaunted, he lifts his voice in a transatlantic salute to the wizard of Menlo Park, for this “astonishing moment by your wonderful invention,” a moment he says he will remember all his life (he had less than a year to live). Still riding full-tilt above the galloping background noise, he shouts his name for the ages — “Robert Browning!” — before bellowing three times at the top of his lungs, “HIP-HIP HOORAY!” as he gallops off with a last brazen farewell roar of wordless exultation. This is Browning writ large, the heart’s-core essence of the energy that runs like an electric charge through his poetry.

On the afternoon of December 12, 1890, after a group at Edison’s Menlo Park lab marked the first anniversary of Robert Browning’s death by listening to the white wax cylinder, someone noted that this was the first time that any voice had been heard from “beyond the grave.”

Browning’s 200th

It was only after listening to another voice from the grave that I found the Edison cylinder of Browning and, with the wind of his farewell roar at my back, came upon Allan Massie’s March 31 story in the Daily Telegraph, which ends by rightly declaring that Browning’s bicentenary “should be celebrated with loud, cheerful, and sometimes discordant music.”

April was the key. Among poets, you could say that T.S. Eliot staked a claim to the “cruellest month,” but if any poet has April in his vest pocket, close to his heart, it’s the man who wrote, “Oh to be in England/Now that April’s there.” It wasn’t Browning’s “Home-Thoughts from Abroad,” however, that led me to my subject. It was a song with the same title sung by a British singer songwriter named Clifford T. Ward, who composed it in the form of a letter to his wife, with a reference to Browning in its opening line and a hint of the poet’s conversational manner in the phrasing. If you want to see this very special artist, you can find him on YouTube, as I did, alive and well, singing his “Home-Thoughts” beautifully, as he sang all his songs, even after multiple sclerosis was diagnosed in 1984, when he was 40; he died on December 18, 2001, singing and writing to the end (it’s said that he “crawled on all fours” to his home-based studio to make his last album).

How Strange It Seems

The Browning poem most in accord with my recent encounters and discoveries in the online “cosmos” (“an adventure rather than a scheme”) is “Memorabilia,” which begins, “Ah, did you once see Shelley plain,/And did he stop and speak to you.” In his note to the poem, Browning recalls an encounter in a London bookshop when a stranger spoke of something that Shelley had once said to him. “Suddenly,” Browning writes, “the stranger paused, and burst into laughter as he observed me staring at him with blanched face …. I still vividly remember how strangely the presence of a man who had seen and spoken with Shelley affected me.”

When the first stanza ends (“How strange it seems and new!”), it’s Browning himself speaking, not Andrea del Sarto or Rabbi Ben Ezra or Fra Lippo Lippi, or any of the other personae this poet assumes in his signature dramatic monologues. How mind-boggingly strange and new it seems, then, to discover Robert Browning’s handsome face, as I did today, side by side with the face of Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on the Washington Times website, wherein columnist Tim Kern, having plucked Browning’s “Less is more” out of the virtual universe, attempts to build an economic argument around it in the cause of “More is more.” Kern does admit that the Laffer Curve is one practical application of the “less is more” principle; the problem is that he quotes from the wrong poem, “My Last Duchess,” when the line in question is actually to be found in “Andrea del Sarto.”

In fact, a brave new old world of Browning is out there, not only online but in so-called everyday life. Take a poem like “Rabbi Ben Ezra.” No one needs to know what it’s all about to cop a line and run with it. When I was raving about God and Shakespeare under somewhat extraordinary circumstances (a large dose of mescaline in a laboratory setting), the scientist in charge, one of the few great men I ever knew, whispered “What I aspired to be,/And was not, comforts me,” in my ear. I had no idea where those words came from at the time, but the message was on the money and I never forgot it. Whether you read Browning or Keats, Tolstoy or Melville, you’re aspiring to share in greatness and the comfort you find in the sharing is worth the effort.

Brett Does Browning

Think how many couples over the past century and a half have shared and been inspired by the story of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, whether as an audience to dramatizations of their courtship and romance or as readers in their voluminous correspondence. Just as Browning became Ben Ezra, so actors on the stage and in film have become Browning, the shining knight who rescued the captive invalid, saving the life of a poet whose reputation at the time was larger than his own. Theirs, the most renowned of all real-life literary romances, was first portrayed in The Barretts of Wimpole Street, Robert Besier’s 1931 play, a triumph for Katherine Cornell (Brian Aherne played Browning). M-G-M released it in 1934 with Frederic March and Norma Shearer in the leads; Bill “Geordie” Travers and Jennifer Jones starred in the 1957 CinemaScope version.

The best and most elusive version of the story is the BBC production from 1982, which apparently can be seen only in YouTube installments. In a January 2008 column celebrating Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, I suggested that his talent up to then had been wasted in unworthy roles. Among the most significant exceptions, it turns out, was his Browning, which is as exemplary and almost as energetic as his Holmes. Brett’s rapport with Jane Lapotaire’s Elizabeth makes their scenes together a pleasure to watch even in the washed-out print posted online. Brett’s alertness, the way he pounces on and passionately elucidates every nuance of his beloved’s response to him, her self-deluding acceptance of her lot, her unhealthy devotion to her father, and her fear of Browning’s physicality and indefatigable devotion to her recalls the genius that will animate Brett’s performance as Holmes three years later. What he learned from playing Browning clearly proved useful when he took on the role of his life as Conan Doyle’s moody master sleuth.

Like Holmes, Browning was a master of disguises. One of Jeremy Brett’s best moments is when Robert admits to Elizabeth that if he wrote about himself rather than disappearing into roles, the result would be dreadful. After Elizabeth hands him his famously obscure work, Sordello, and asks him to explain a particular passage, he scans it, ponders it by the fireplace, and admits, as the real-life Browning once said, that when he wrote it “only God and I knew what it meant, and now — alas — only God does.”

How He Lives On

How does he live? Let me count the ways.

Even though the above echoing of one of the most quoted sonnets this side of Shakespeare was written by Browning’s Elizabeth, he owns the emotional rights; it was written for him. And, as I’ve been suggesting, he doesn’t need any help from Edison’s “wonderful invention” to speak to us from beyond the grave. Like his American literary cousins, Emerson and Thoreau, he dispenses high-energy mood-enhancers. He courts the ailing Elizabeth Barrett in us, and when we’re in need of being roused out of our particular prisons, he cheers us on. But you can’t always be sure that he’s speaking for himself. In “Pippa Passes: A Drama,” he can make one of his most oft-repeated pronouncements (“God’s in his heaven;/all’s right with the world”) and end the same work by suggesting that we’re “God’s puppets, best and worst.”

Lennon’s Last Song

Among the couples who aspired to be Robert and Elizabeth were John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The Brownings gave them a romantic theme for their last album, the posthumous (for John, speaking of voices from the grave) Milk & Honey (1985), which carried John’s song “Grow Old With Me” (with its adapting of the first two lines of “Rabbi Ben Ezra”) and Yoko’s “Let Me Count the Ways,” taken from E.B.B.’s most famous sonnet. The couple envisioned “Grow Old With Me” as a song comparable to Lennon’s “Imagine” (a New Year’s Eve standard in his adopted home, New York City), one that would be chosen for special occasions, namely marriage ceremonies. Evidence online suggests that this is what has happened. While John’s “Grow Old With Me” may be in better shape than Browning’s Edison cylinder travesty of “How They Brought the Good News from Ghent to Aix,” the clearest, loveliest version is sung by Princeton’s own Mary Chapin Carpenter.


March 28, 2012

Based on my experience last week, the best things to be found at used book sales like Bryn Mawr-Wellesley are the ones that you didn’t know you wanted and, in this case, that you didn’t know existed.

What I was looking for when I walked into the sturm und drang of the Thursday preview was something with a story or a cover quaint and curious enough to write about and reproduce on this page. What I found was a new paperback edition of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and a like-new copy of Debussy On Music, both of which will be of use for future columns on Sinclair and Debussy, whose 150th birthday falls on August 22.

The closest thing to a “want” that I found at the preview was a volume from 1908 with a handsomely embellished Art Nouveau style cover titled The Poetic Old World: A Little Book for Tourists, which I abandoned on the cookbook table when the surprise announcement was made that Collectors Corner, the domain of rarities, was “open to everyone.” I naively assumed that my find (edited by one Lucy H. Humphrey) was safe tucked between Beard on Pasta and a trashed copy of The Joy of Cooking. When I got to Collectors Corner, a dealer was walking out with a big box in his arms and a big smile on his face. Five minutes later, after finding nothing in the CC, I went back to the cook book table and The Poetic Old World was gone. After rummaging around in the vicinity, I gave up. I felt only mild regret, not having had time to fully appreciate the gem I had so thoughtlessly thrown to the winds.

I left the vaunted preview with nothing visually enticing enough to show off here, except perhaps the third edition of Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, with its tan buckram cover (the big red “T” set in a little gilt window). It always feels good to find anything early by Stephen Crane and it would have given me an excuse to write about a man who, if American literature were baseball, would be the catcher on my personal all-star team. A best-seller in its day, the Red Badge isn’t particularly rare in later editions, even ones from 1896, although most book people who can see beyond their scanners would have shelled out more than the $2 I paid for it.

“Tarry at the Taft” 

What a difference a day makes. On Thursday afternoon, the first day of the regular free-admission sale, I immediately found six books I’d have gladly snatched up the day before, if they’d been there. One of the realities of the Bryn Mawr event is that dealers and book lovers gorging themselves on the first day often leave a few crumbs behind, most likely because the condition is just a bit off or the price a bit too high. With my small stack of dealer rejects in one arm, I went downstairs to the main room and found Lucy H. Humphrey’s The Poetic Old World among the neglected masses on the poetry table.

I was still smiling when I walked over to the literary classics table and found this year’s treasure, my heart’s desire, which had been picked up, stashed, pondered over, and tossed back into the Bryn Mawr book stream for some dutiful volunteer to fish out and return to its rightful place early that morning, and now there it was, waiting for me. Reader, how often do you see a small professionally bound hard cover copy of A Tragedy By the Sea and Other Stories by Honoré de Balzac with a decorated Deco cover featuring a raised image of the Taft Hotel and the words “Compliments of the HOTEL TAFT New York” imprinted in the lower right-hand corner? Open it and on the inside cover you see a simulated Ex Libris book plate with a space for the name of the guest (“This Book Belongs To”) under another image of the hotel (“Adjoining the Roxy Theatre”). Think about it: 70-plus years ago, a big New York hotel a stone’s throw from Times Square published Balzac’s stories under its own imprint (“Tarry at the Taft”) while alerting its guests to the fact that it adjoined, was connected to, in touch with (avoisiner in French) one of the city’s foremost movie palaces, which could be entered directly from the hotel according to an online website about the Taft.

So why this rush of mindless joy? Only because the book fates who gave me this gift obviously knew how I felt about New York and big New York hotels, thirties movies and the Roxy, not to mention Balzac. What really got me was the idea that the management of a major Manhattan hostelry during the Great Depression would go to such quixotically thoughtful lengths for their guests. Would you believe that Tarry at the Taft also published The Picture of Dorian Gray? And Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue? And at least half a dozen others, including Alice in Wonderland? Wilde, Poe, Balzac, and Alice! I mean, what sort of guests, aside from me, did they have in mind?

Imagine you’re coming to the city for the first time, a young writer in the 1930s, thinking to splurge by spending your first night at a great Times Square hotel, and you walk into your room and find this little orange book waiting for you on the bedside table. And outside maybe it’s windy and raining and the radiator’s knocking like a demented spirit, so you crawl under the covers, open the book, and lose yourself in Balzac’s Paris, which is to say, in Balzac’s mind, heart, and soul, and he’s writing about the great surgeon Despleins (in Balzac, as Swinburne observed, everyone is a genius), “this perpetual observer of human chemistry” who possesses “the knowledge of the elements in fusion, of the causes of life, of life before life, of what from its preparations it will be before it is” — okay, so it’s a clumsy translation, not to worry, life goes on.

The first paragraph is three pages long, no break, and every now and then you can hear the soundtrack from the movie at the Roxy (sounds like Henry Fonda taming the lynch mob in Young Mr. Lincoln), it’s not a smooth ride, you soar and sink, the unnamed translator staggering about as if in drunken awe as Balzac dissects the surgeon’s atheism, “recognizing in man a cerebral center, a nervous center, and an aerosanguineous center … convinced during the last two or three days of his life that the sense of hearing was not absolutely necessary for hearing, nor the sense of sight absolutely necessary for seeing, and that the solar plexus could replace them beyond suspicion of any change.”

Finally coming up for air, brought to attention by the horns honking down below on the passage au Commerce (except you’re no longer in Paris, it’s a line of Yellow Cabs on 50th Street), you begin to realize where you are. Only then does it hit you: that three-page-long Balzacian cadenza came with the room, compliments of a hotel that not only serves its guests but contains its own publishing venture, or so I like to think. So where did they get that weird translation? Nathaniel West worked in more than one Manhattan hotel during the Depression. Maybe he sent some down-and-out editor pal who’d lost his job to sell the idea of an in-house reprint line to the manager of the Taft, who then hired a needy writer (a Woody Allen type) to translate Balzac’s stories rather than pay some publisher for the right to use the existing translations of Clara Bell or Ellen Marriage. I can just see it: the hotel manager banging on Woody’s door — ”Get a move on, kid! We go to press in a month!”

Lucy and Henry

The dozen or so books I found at the big sale reflect two different states of mind. The first bunch came from the chaos of the preview; the second, better group from the relative calm of the following afternoon. The Poetic Old World bridges both days, since I found it, lost it, and found it again. I couldn’t learn much about Lucy Humphrey online beyond the fact that this was the sort of pocket-(or purse-) sized volume of “famous poems associated with historic and classic localities” that she herself had “longed for” when traveling in Europe. She compiled a sequel, The Poetic New World, that appeared in 1910. Otherwise she seems to have been known primarily for her translations, an art I became all too aware of while reading the Taft version of Balzac.

Who better to bring down the curtain on translations, finding and losing, and the old world, than Henry James? The 1889 edition of Guy de Maupassant tales called The Odd Number, a book I found on the first day, has an introduction by the Master, who begins to the effect that it is “embarrassing to speak of the writers of one country to the readers of another,” for “One should never go out of one’s way to differ, and translation, interpretation, the business of adjusting to another medium, are a going out of one’s way. Silence is the best disapproval, and to take people up, with an earnest grip, only to put them down, is to add to the vain gesticulation of the human scene.”

I bought 12 books altogether, two were $3, the rest were $2. Two of the $2 books have covers I’d show off here if we had room: from 1902, The Dragon of Wantley by Owen Wister (the third edition), nicely illustrated by John Stewardsom, and from 1889, The Bon Gautier Ballads, with illustrations by Doyle, Leech, and Crowquill. I was also glad to find the 1950 edition of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which I hope to read in connection with the Dickens bicentennial.


March 14, 2012

The cult of individual personalities is always, in my view, unjustified.

—Albert Einstein (3-14-79 — 4-18-55)

A major component of Albert Einstein’s enduring appeal is his self-deprecating sense of humor, of which there are numerous examples in Denis Brian’s The Unexpected Einstein: The Real Man Behind the Icon (Wiley 2005). One such instance, provided by Princeton University photographer Alan Richards, occurred when an 18-month-old boy introduced to the unkempt genius “took one look and burst into a screaming fit.” Einstein’s response was to “smile approvingly” as “he patted the youngster on top of his head and crooned, ‘You’re the first person in years who has told me what you really think of me.’”

Would Einstein be amused by the community celebration called Pi-Day that descended on Princeton the weekend before his actual birthday? My guess is that if he were still around, he’d either hide out in the Institute woods or maybe hunker down in his dinghy in the middle of Lake Carnegie.

Einstein and Washington

On the subject of personality cults, Einstein found it “unfair, and even in bad taste,” to select a few individuals “for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them.” The “one great consoling thought,” however, was that “in an age which is commonly denounced as materialistic,” such cults make “heroes of men whose ambitions lie wholly in the intellectual and moral sphere.” Certain of Einstein’s colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study would have been among the heroes he had in mind. While he might be mildly appalled at the Pi-Day shenanigans, imagine what Einstein would think of the recent campaign against the Institute by Battlefield Society partisans, a battle they are apparently determined to carry into the courts now that the Planning Board has unanimously approved the Institute’s housing plan.

At the symbolic heart of Princeton, the harmony between the spheres of Battle and Institute remains undisturbed. On one end of the drive in front of Borough Hall is the Princeton Battle Monument, dedicated in 1922, the year after Einstein made Princeton his residence. Atop the massive sculpture of embattled forms, George Washington stares toward downtown Princeton. In his line of sight at the other end of the drive, a bronze bust of Albert Einstein mounted on a granite pedestal seems to be gazing in the same direction. Between these two Princeton heroes, J. Seward Johnson’s bronze Everyman sits on a bench reading The New York Times. The continuum flowing through the three works of art reflects what Einstein said when he was visited by physicist Max Born’s wife, Heidi, during a serious illness. “I feel so much part of every living thing,” Einstein told her, “that I am not in the least concerned with where the individual begins and ends.”

Face of Light

The smiling bare-chested captain of his fate shown on the cover of The -Unexpected Einstein is obviously meant to counter the image of the sockless, shabby-sweatered old sage shambling through the streets of Princeton with his head in the stars, the same beloved caricature impersonated by Walter Matthau in the film IQ and by numerous local look-alikes during the Pi-Day revels. In the chapter of Brian’s book titled “What was Einstein Like Face to Face?” the formidable reality is recounted by the editor of The American Scholar, Hiram Haydn: “There was light coming out of his face — that light grew there, as hairs do on the faces of men. It seemed to me that this was not a man in the ordinary sense, that the face belonged to another, different species. And then he smiled at me. This act constituted the most religious experience of my life.”

According to Brian, the cover photograph was taken on Saranac Lake, August 1, 1945, by the husband of the Soviet spy Einstein was having an affair with and may be the only photograph of him smiling “as an adult among the hundreds, if not thousands, of photos taken of him.” Brian notes that Einstein “looks like a man in love — with the photographer’s wife, in fact — and without a care in the world.”

Five days later he would be dealing with the biggest “care” of his life and he would not be smiling.

Ball of Fire

The Princeton Public Library will ring down the curtain on Einstein’s birthday party with a showing of Howard Hawks’s Ball of Fire (1941) tonight, Wednesday, March 14, at 7 p.m. in the Community Room. It’s a terrific movie, with Barbara Stanwyck as the fiery life force blazing through an Ivy Tower monastery occupied by a committee of unworldly, puppydog-cute scholars, including a dithery Gary Cooper; it’s also a classic example of Hollywood’s benighted notion of the “intellectual and moral sphere” Einstein was talking about.

What of Einstein himself then? Is there any director or writer in the world who could put us inside his head in the wunderjahre of 1905? John Stachel, the first editor of the Einstein Papers (Princeton University Press), does his best in his essay, “How Did Einstein Discover Relativity?” — but only after admitting at the outset the impossibility of encompassing “those elements of the creative process that Einstein referred to as ‘the irrational, the inconsistent, the droll, even the insane, which nature, inexhaustibly operative, implants into the individual, seemingly for her own amusement’ (my italics) since ‘these things are singled out only in the crucible of one’s own mind.’”

The Idea of Einstein

Probably the best option is to explore the idea of Einstein, as if it were an absolute like art or war or faith or science. In the spirit of the Pi-Day celebration, I’ll offer two of my personal favorite improvisations on the idea of Einstein, both of which make me smile, move me, and fill me with admiration for the performers, Randy Newman, the composer of “Sigmund Freud’s Impersonation of Einstein in America” and Theresa Russell in her inspired depiction of Marilyn Monroe demonstrating the Theory of Relativity for Einstein in Nicholas Roeg’s film Insignificance (1985).

Introduced on his 1976 album Little Criminals, Newman’s song, one of his masterpieces, begins with a formal fanfare over a slow march that has overtones of a trumpet voluntary:

The world of science is my game

And Albert Einstein is my name

I was born in Germany

And I’m happy to be

Here in the land of the brave and the free.

Newman sings the lyric with his characteristic mixture of sarcasm and sentiment, his voice almost plaintive when he intones “Albert Einstein” before returning to his relaxed just-a-guy-at-the-piano style for the last two lines, which he sings twice. The next verse brims with still more of Newman’s easygoing art, a feelingly told four-line story that does more for my sense of Einstein than a dozen biographies:

In the year of nineteen five

Merely trying to survive

Took my knapsack in my hand

Caught a train for Switzerland.

There’s an emotional diminuendo in the singing of the last line that suggests a journey as casual as it is momentous, leading to the chorus with its playful but potent borrowing from “America the Beautiful” (“America America, God shed his grace on Thee”). As Freud steps in for Einstein — a pretty neat turn, two 20th century giants in a two and a half minute song (he does it again with Karl Marx in “The World Isn’t Fair”) — Newman sings what may be the most memorable five lines he ever wrote:

Americans dream of gypsies, I have found

And gypsy knives and gypsy thighs

That pound and pound and pound and pound

And African appendages that almost reach the ground

And little boys playing baseball in the rain

However much it may or may not relate to Einstein and his theory, that verse enacts a masterly piece of cadenced relativity as Newman weaves Einstein and Freud and fantasy into a sexual drumbeat prompting an outrageous image of obsessive racism. And before you have time to laugh, you’re emotionally disarmed by a one-line evocation of a heartland boyhood that may put a lump in your throat if you grew up in America, especially if you played baseball in the rain. The concluding chorus seems flippant by comparison, with “America, America” stepping “out into the light,” the “best dream man has ever dreamed /And may all your Christmases be white.” With that sarcastic close and its race-charged “white,” Einstein, Freud, and Irving Berlin have definitely made way for Newman.

Sexing up Relativity

Theresa Russell’s charming demonstration of Relativity in action can be viewed on YouTube if you don’t have time to go to the library to pick up the Criterion DVD of Insignificance. Played with understated warmth by Michael Emil, Einstein is wearing a sweatshirt with a Princeton University “P” on it while Russell is in full gorgeous bloom in the iconic white dress from the skirt-up-around-her-ears street scene in The Seven Year Itch. When the barefoot “Professor” tells the “Actress” what she wants to hear (that he really believes she really understands his theory), she swoops down on him, face to face and breathlessly whispers, pitch-perfect Marilyn, “Swear to God?” Among her props are two toy trains, a toy car, two flashlights (one each for her and the bemused genius), a balloon, a copy of The Brothers Karamazov that she joyfully flings across the room on the way to proving “the first thing you have to know about relativity,” and a copy of Jane Eyre, which she drops on the floor (“it doesn’t fly, it just drops relative to the train”), because “whether anyone conducts an experiment on a moving train or in the laboratories at Princeton, the results will always be the same.”

Einstein’s Dance

Another gem from the “What Was Einstein Like Face to Face?” chapter in The Unexpected Einstein is offered by onetime Princeton resident, Ashley Montagu. Recalling his first visit to 112 Mercer Street, he pictures Einstein gliding toward him from the far end of a long corridor “in a sort of un-deliberate dance. It was enchanting, as if Einstein were walking on air. It was maybe the way someone else might whistle as they moved. He danced. He seemed somehow to be expressing his love of music as he moved.”


February 15, 2012

Clark: The Autobiography of Clark Terry (University of California Press $34.95) has an abundance of memorable moments, some shocking, some joyful, some sad, some funny. The ninety-one-year-old jazz legend had help pulling it all together from his wife of 22 years, Gwen Terry, who not only saw him through this project but stood by him during a perfect storm of medical challenges that intruded on but never fully thwarted his busy life as a performer, teacher, and goodwill ambassador.

Out of Nowhere

I shared a moment with Clark Terry nine years ago. It began with a telephone call. I was writing a piece about a November 1950 recording session by the Count Basie small group on which Clark played trumpet. After finding “C Terry” in the Englewood N.J. phone book, I had to work up the nerve to dial the number, being, after all, a stranger calling out of nowhere about a three-minute performance he’d been part of more than 50 years before. Half-expecting to encounter an answering machine or a protective spouse, I was startled when the man himself answered the phone. At first he sounded tired and groggy, having just returned, he told me, from L.A, where he’d played a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. He perked up when he heard that the focus of my article was the song “Little White Lies” and the solo played by the brilliant tenor saxophonist Wardell Gray, who was born this week, February 13, 1921, and died an ugly, drug-related death in May 1955. Gray’s widow, Dorothy, had called me from California after reading “Song of the Thin Man,” a piece I’d written for the Village Voice. My enthusiasm for her husband’s playing with Basie had prompted her to suggest that I talk with Clark. “They were very close in those days,” she said. “He was best man at our wedding.”

“A Beautiful Time”

Holding the phone to the speaker, I played Clark both takes of “Little White Lies” while for the first time in half a century, he listened to his performance as the sweet-talking liar while Wardell played, with naked feeling, the heartsick victim. When he asked to hear the music over again, it was as if Wardell had come back to life again long enough to formally introduce us.

I mailed Clark my CD of the “Little White Lies” session along with a note and some questions, and with true jazz-life timing, he called me at 2:30 in the morning and talked well past three about “the beautiful time” he and Wardell Gray had with the Basie small group, the road trips, sharing a room in Philadelphia, the food (“Beans smeans!”), baseball and haircuts and the secret language they shared, esoteric phrases like “Put the cuffs on him, Sam!” borrowed from some show they’d seen. After Clark left Basie to join Duke Ellington, they kept in touch, corresponding “religiously” until drugs came between them. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard he was using. He was such a conscientious person. And when I read about his death in the paper, I jumped up and screamed. I couldn’t believe it, you know. I really loved him.”

“It Broke My Heart”

For reasons most likely having to do with space and name recognition, Wardell Gray receives only a passing mention in Clark Terry’s memoir. But he’s there, between the lines, when reference is made to the “camaraderie” of the Basie group, and if you’ve heard Clark lament what happened on that May night in Las Vegas, you know that his old friend’s death haunts the chapter where for the first time in the book he directly confronts the plague of drugs. “It was an overdose,” he told me during that late-night call. They “thought he was dead so they put him in a car, drove into the desert and dumped him out but he wasn’t dead yet. It was the rocks in the desert that broke his neck. Dorothy showed me the death certificate.” The pained disbelief was still in his voice five decades later. “I couldn’t understand it. He had everything going for him.”

In the chapter focused on the issue of drugs, Clark recalls the time, “around 1953,” when he was on his way to a restaurant in the Times Square area and saw “this bulk lying in the gutter on Broadway. I walked closer and looked and discovered that it was a person. I rolled him over with my foot and I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Miles Davis!”

Thinking back to that stunning moment, Clark surely flashed on the fate of Wardell Gray. With Miles, who would survive to have a spectacular career, Clark could at least do something about it, so he helped him up, took him into a restaurant, bought him some breakfast, walked him back to his own hotel, and put him to bed before going out for a couple of hours. When he came back, the door to the room was open, Miles was gone, and so were Clark’s clothes, trumpet, and radio.

Clark’s coda to that scene: “So many of the cats were on dope. It broke my heart, but there was nothing I could do.”

In fact, Clark Terry went on to do a great deal, setting an example by abstaining, even when users tried to force it on him, and by helping enrich the future of jazz through teaching and working with generations of young musicians.

Words and Music

One of the core lessons Clark Terry teaches his students is the importance of translating the lyric of a song (like “Little White Lies”) into “the language of jazz” (his italics), “how to bend a note, slur it, ghost it,” how to say “I love you” to “a lovely lady.” As a writer, he turns the lesson around, finding ways to translate the Terry sound into English. What enlivens his writing is the element Gary Giddins has singled out in his playing, his “personality,” that distinctive “comic esprit” — “every note robust, beaming, and shadowed with impish resolve and irony.”

Clark’s personality shines forth throughout the book, but most vividly during his early years on the road. After describing Ida Cox, whose voice “could have knocked a fly off the back wall,” Clark sketches another performer in her troupe, “a peg-legged guy” whose skin color was “coffee with a dash of cream” and whose “slicked back conk was so oily that a flea would have broken his neck trying to land.” Clark nicknamed him “A Track and a Dot,” because “when he’d walked in the snow he’d made a footstep and a hole.”

Clark had names for just about everyone. Tall, thin Wardell was “Bones” and his stylish wife, Dorothy, was “Vogue.” His nicknaming skills get mightily exercised in one of the numerous early road life anecdotes, where he and his bandmates endure a 750-mile ride in the back of a truck full of monkeys he names “Twitchy,” “Chatty,” “Snags,” “No-Tail,” “Old Man Mose,” “Lips,” “Bubble Eyes,” “Ribs,” and “the Warden” (who “fought a lot”). The monkeys “became tolerable after a few hours and it seemed like they didn’t want to be bothered with us any more than we wanted to be bothered with them. So the trip wasn’t too bad, other than the smell and the noise. But we did have to turn our back and sneak bites from the food.”

Food also provides material for several Terryesque zingers. To describe rapport with a buddy, he writes, “We hit it off like biscuits and molasses.” Playing a gig in the rain, many pages and years later: “We were all as wet as biscuits in the river.” Clark’s “repertoire was getting fatter than a liver-fed cat.” Some product placement from early days with a band: “We were dressed sharper than Gillette razors.” Having never finished high school, he was daunted by teaching a clinic at a real college: “I felt like a young mouse on a cat farm.”

One of Clark’s most curious similes — “I felt like a small dot on a huge manuscript” — comes when he abandons Basie for Ellington, his guilt compounded by a not so little white lie he had to tell in order to make the move. When he runs into Basie years later: “Seeing the smile on his face and knowing that I’d lied to him made me feel as small as a cork in the ocean.”

Among the book’s strongest chapters are those covering his years with Ellington. Describing the way Duke handled his musicians (“all these very different attitudes and egotudes”), Clark writes, “He knew exactly how to use each man’s sound to create the most amazing voicings. The sounds of trains, whistles, birds, footsteps, climaxes, cries. Rhythms that vibrated the floor. Harmonies with ebbs and flows that almost lifted me right out of my chair.” Clark imagines the eyes of the audience “glued to us like we were the fountain of life. The music was so powerful and electric, if I’d had a big plug I could have stuck it in the air and lit up the whole world.”

Lighting Up YouTube

You can see Clark Terry lighting up YouTube’s vision of jazz heaven, whether he’s making love to the trumpet or the flugelhorn, or creating his own foxy language with “Mumbles,” the ultimate in word jazz, on the Tonight Show, or in what may be his earliest filmed appearance, the Snader transcript of the Basie small group’s “Bass Conversation.” In the parallel universe of YouTube, Clark is forever 30 and Wardell is 29, they’re always on the bandstand, moving shoulder to shoulder, swaying, jiving to the beat laid down by the Basie rhythm section, the Count mugging outrageously at the piano, steady Freddie Greene strumming, Jimmy Lewis “playing the hell out of the bass” (as Clark would put it), smiling Gus Johnson dealing with the drums. After clarinetist Buddy DeFranco takes the first solo, it’s Wardell’s turn, quoting “Swinging On a Star” before cutting loose, one on one with Jimmy Lewis. But it’s Clark who delivers the show stopper, making his trumpet talk, sassing the Count and then riding out in style as the ensemble kicks in and all is as it should be in the best of all possible worlds.


February 8, 2012

Dickens_dreamHis genius plays like a warm light on the characteristic aspects of homely England. No man ever loved England more; and the proof of it remains in picture after picture of her plain, old-fashioned life — in wayside inns and cottages, in little dwellings hidden amid the City’s vastness and tumult, in queer musty shops, in booths and caravans. Finding comfort or jollity, he enjoys it beyond measure, he rubs his hands, he sparkles, he makes us laugh with him from the very heart.

—George Gissing on Charles Dickens

The first night of my first trip to England, Ethel and Bertie, the suburban London couple I was staying with, took me to the pub described in the opening paragraph of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841). They had treated my father to the same outing ten years earlier during the summer he’d spent in their guest room. When I left after a week of cheerful and caring English hospitality, they gave me a copy of Barnaby Rudge inscribed “In memory of a happy evening spent at the Dickens Maypole, King’s Head, Chigwell.” Ethel and Bertie’s parting gift to my father was a family treasure — a letter with the Gad’s Hill letterhead in Dickens’s hand, written not long before he died.

In a 1939 essay that aided the 20th century revival of Dickens’s literary reputation, Edmund Wilson blamed the lack of “serious attention” from British biographers, scholars, or critics on the fact that Dickens “has become for the English middle class so much one of the articles of their creed — a familiar joke, a favourite dish, a Christmas ritual — that it is difficult for British pundits to see in him the great artist and social critic that he was.”

Although Dickens meant more to Ethel and Bertie than “a familiar joke,” our trip to the Dickens Maypole fits with the “favorite dish” and “Christmas ritual” stereotype Wilson has in mind. But when I think of the way they opened their home to me and my father, it’s clear that Ethel and Bertie were themselves Dickensian, in the best sense of that hugely inclusive term. They were just the sort of warm, caring, pure-of-heart people who would have given refuge and nourishment to David Copperfield or Oliver Twist or Little Nell and her grandfather.

A Dickensian Hero

Wilson sees the “typical Dickens expert” circa 1939 as an “old duffer” primarily interested “in proving that Mr. Pickwick stopped at a certain inn or slept in a certain bed.” After chiding the Oxbridge literati and the Bloomsbury set for their haughty neglect of “the greatest English writer of his time,” Wilson singles out George Gissing (1857-1903), “whose prefaces and whose book … are not only the best thing on Dickens in English, but stand out as one of the few really first-rate pieces of literary criticism produced by an Englishman of the end of the century.”

A Dickensian hero in his own right, Gissing was born above his father’s chemist’s shop and had a brilliant career as a scholarship student at Owen College, Manchester, until he fell in love with Nell, a prostitute he’d rescued and attempted to reform, spending what little money he had to keep her off the streets. Caught stealing from fellow students, he was arrested, imprisoned, and expelled. After doing a month’s hard labor in prison, he spent a year in the U.S., taught school, wrote poems idealizing Nell, and published his first fiction in a Chicago paper. On his return to England, he married Nell and wrote Workers in the Dawn (1880) while struggling to care for his ailing alcoholic wife, who would be back on the streets five years after the marriage, and out of his life until he had to identify her body five years and six novels later.

By the time Gissing published Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1898), he’d written 18 novels, including major works such as The Nether World (1889) and New Grub Street (1891) and, along with Thomas Hardy and George Meredith, was among the most highly regarded British novelists of the late 19th century. Coming to his study of Dickens as an enlightened admirer who had “lived the life” while proving himself an expert practitioner of the same craft, Gissing balances a novelist’s insights with the uninhibited attitude of a reader who attacks the defects no less forthrightly than he celebrates the highlights.

Getting Personal 

Gissing’s fraught personal history with Nell may explain why his remarks on Dickens’s fallen or embattled women can at times take on a distinctly personal intensity. In the chapter titled “Women and Children,” Gissing appears to be drawn by the dynamic of his own experience to the issue of “English censorship” and the fact that showing the “actual course of things in a story of lawless (nay, or of lawful) love is utterly forbidden” while “a novelist may indulge in ghastly bloodshed to any extent of which his stomach is capable.” The example he offers is of Dickens himself performing scenes from his own work “on a public platform,” where he “recites with terrible power the murder of a prostitute by a burglar [in Oliver Twist] yet no voice is raised in protest. Gore is perfectly decent; but the secrets of an impassioned heart are too shameful to come before us even in a whisper.”

You can almost feel the negative charge flowing from Dickens to Gissing when he says, “On this account I do not think it worth while to speak of Nancy [the murdered prostitute], or of other lost creatures appearing in Dickens.” For the ex-husband who sacrificed his education and more than ten years of his life to one of those “lost creatures,” the response is an outraged citing of a passage from Little Dorrit where “a woman of the town” accosts Amy Dorrit “and her idiot friend Maggy” as they are “wandering about the streets at night.” Suddenly Gissing is right there, in your face as surely as if he were sitting across from you in a pub telling you “read, I beg, that passage” and “wonder that the same man who penned this shocking rubbish could have written in the same volume pages of a truthfulness beyond all eulogy.”

Contemporary readers accustomed to novels like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo will find nothing shocking in the 14th chapter of Book I of Little Dorrit. And while it may cause an occasional awkward silence in my imaginary pub table dialogue with Gissing, his spontaneous, sometimes indecorous attitude is among the qualities that make him such an appealing and effective champion of Dickens. In fact, he’s doing it again on the same page, badmouthing Dora, David Copperfield’s lavishly idealized, ever-attentive wife: “Take Dora seriously,” he tells you, “and at once you are compelled to ask by what right an author demands your sympathy for such a brainless, nerveless, profitless simpleton.” Before you have time to say a word or two in Dora’s or Dickens’s defense, Gissing leans closer, his eyes shining as he completes another shocking rubbish-to-unparalleled truthfulness couplet, “Enter into the spirit of the chapter, and you are held by one of the sweetest dreams of humour and tenderness ever translated into language.”

Gissing’s approach is a critical version of tough love. When Dickens gets out of line, he holds him to account but through it all you know that he would agree with Edmund Wilson that Dickens was “incomparably the greatest English writer of his time” and the creator of “the largest and most varied world.”

For my long-ago hosts Ethel and Bertie, Dickens was as much a part of their homeland as high tea and a night at the King’s Head, but their notion of his greatness was closer to Gissing’s: “He lived to take his place in a society of wealth, culture, and refinement, but his heart was always with the people, with the humble-minded and those of low estate,” where “he had found the material for his genius to work upon,” as “the perfect mouthpiece of English homeliness.”

Born February 7, 1812, Charles Dickens died of a stroke on June 9, 1870. Shown here, Dickens’s Dream is a watercolor by Robert William Buss (1804-1875), who began it after Dickens’s death but did not live to finish it. An edition of George Gissing’s Charles Dickens: A Critical Study was published last year by Kessinger Legacy Reprints. The Princeton Public Library’s Charles Dickens (1812-1870) bicentenary celebration concludes tonight, Wednesday, February 8, with a 7 p.m. showing of George Cukor’s 1935 film David Copperfield in the Community Room.

Note: I’ve just been informed that Grayswood Press has published a 3-volume edition of the complete works of George Gissing on Charles Dickens  (http://grayswoodpress.clanteam.com/gissing.pdf). There are also several online e-versions of Gissing’s writings on Dickens.

January 25, 2012

Wordsworth & his exquisite Sister are with me …. Her manners are simple, ardent, impressive …. Her information various — her eyes watchful in minutest observations of nature — and her taste a perfect electrometer — it bends, protrudes, and draws in at subtlest beauties & most recondite faults.

—Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
from a letter, July 1797

It’s late at night, the wind is blowing, and for the first time in too many years, I’m reading Virginia Woolf, who was born on January 25, 1882. In a piece about Dorothy Wordsworth, who died on January 25, 1855, Woolf is writing so lucidly and thoughtfully, in prose so nuanced and true, you feel that you’re there, in the moment, in the room, the sentences glowing like the embers of a fire you’re warming your hands by:

“For did not Coleridge come walking over the hills and tap at the cottage door late at night — did she not carry a letter from Coleridge hidden safe in her bosom?”

In that paraphrasing of passages in Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal from the winter of 1801-1802, Woolf could be quoting from a child’s storybook of England where the author of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” comes walking over the hills of night to tap at the door of Wordsworth’s “exquisite sister.” She’s waiting, “tormented by feelings which almost mastered her, still she must control, still she must repress, or she would … cease to see,” for she knows that only “if one subdued oneself, and resigned one’s private agitations” would one be rewarded. It’s as if Virginia has been reading over Dorothy’s shoulder before becoming her, sitting in her place, pen in hand, arranging the journal as I’m arranging her commentary.

An Uncommon Reader

Reading The Common Reader and The Death of the Moth in handsome online texts provided by the University of Adelaide Library in Australia, I came to Virginia Woolf’s Dorothy Wordsworth fresh from the passionate intensity of her Mary Wollstonecraft and “the high-handed and hot-blooded manner in which she cut her way to the quick of life,” she who was “at once so resolute and so dreamy, so sensual and so intelligent, and beautiful into the bargain.” When a certain unworthy lover attempted to escape her “quickness, her penetration, her uncompromising idealism,” Wollstonecraft followed him with letters, “torturing him with their sincerity and their insight.” Fishing “for minnows,” Woolf writes, “he had hooked a dolphin.”

Woolf’s responsiveness to Dorothy Wordsworth is less passionate, but no less eloquent and intimate. Comparing the two women, she writes that Dorothy “never railed against the cloven hoof of despotism” and “never confused her own soul with the sky” but “ruthlessly subordinated” herself “to the trees and the grass.” Otherwise she would be letting her own ego get in the way of the object she was observing, “would be calling the moon ‘the Queen of the Night’” and “talking of ‘dawn’s orient beams’” while “soaring into reveries and rhapsodies and forgetting to find the exact phrase for the ripple of moonlight upon the lake.” In other words, she would be bound by poetical conventions like those sometimes observed by Coleridge and her brother William, with his “metrical arrangement” of “the real language of men.”

Woolf and Coleridge

Meanwhile in “The Man at the Gate” (from The Death of the Moth), “the labyrinth of what we call Coleridge” inspires Virginia Woolf to transcend the brilliant, gossipy portraiture of contemporary observers like Thomas DeQuincey, whose image of S.T.C. “standing in a gateway” offers her an opening. After quoting DeQuincey’s description (“his eyes were large and soft in their expression” etc), she points out that by the time DeQuincey met Coleridge, in 1807, “the Kendal black drop” (as medicinal opium was called) “had robbed [Coleridge] of his will” but had “left his mind unfettered,” and so “as he became incapable of action, he became capable of feeling. As he stood at the gate, his vast expanse of being was a passive target for innumerable arrows, all of them sharp, many of them poisoned” (DeQuincey’s among them of course). Woolf then proposes Coleridge as the “immortal character” a “great novelist” such as Charles Dickens might have created.

Using examples of passages from Coleridge’s letters that Dickens might have incorporated in the portraying of such a character, including one she identifies as “the very voice … of Micawber himself,” Woolf takes full command of the analogy, becoming great herself in respect of her subject’s greatness:

“But there is a difference. For this Micawber knows that he is Micawber. He holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis. Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation. He is so made that he can hear the crepitation of a leaf, and yet remains obtuse to the claims of wife and child.”

Woolf ends the paragraph by imagining “the Dickens Coleridge” and “the Henry James Coleridge perpetually [tearing] him asunder,” as one “sends out surreptitiously” to the chemist “for another bottle of opium” while “the other analyses the motives that have led to this hypocrisy into an infinity of fine shreds.”

How They Looked

On first meeting Dorothy Wordsworth in 1897, when she was 27, Coleridge wrote of her to a friend: “a woman indeed! — in mind & heart.” DeQuincey sketches an intriguing picture of Dorothy at 30 (except for a silhouette, the only image we have is a dull, dowdy portrait painted when she was 62), beginning with a phrase from her brother’s poem “Beggars”: “‘Her face was of Egyptian brown’; rarely in a woman of English birth, had I seen a more determinate gipsy tan.” Her eyes “were wild and startling. and hurried in their motion” and “some subtle fire of impassioned intellect burned within.” Wordsworth himself writes of “the shooting lights” of her “wild eyes.” Coleridge was more straightforward: “her person is such that, if you expected to see a pretty woman, you would think her ordinary — if you expected to find an ordinary woman, you would think her pretty.”

In The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth (Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2008), Francis Wilson compares the bond between Dorothy and her beloved William to the fictional one between Catherine and Heathcliffe in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. While it’s easy to see flashes of Dorothy’s wildness in the moor-roaming Catherine, it’s a stretch to picture the waspish William in the same dark glass as Heathcliffe. Remove him from the radiant aura of his most inspired poetry and his sister’s adoration, and you find someone with an ego as big as the Lake District (when skating on a pond, it’s said that he liked to spell his own name in the ice). And try imagining a Heathcliffe small enough to fit into Thomas DeQuincey’s picture of Wordsworth, “upon the whole, not a well-made man … pointedly condemned by all female connoisseurs in legs,” not that there was an “absolute deformity about them,” for they had been “serviceable legs beyond the average,” having “traversed a distance of 175,000 to 180,000 English miles.”

While Dorothy’s references to her brother are almost always loving, if not adoring, she seems never to really see him the way she (after subduing her “private agitations”) sees a landscape. She regards Coleridge, however, as clearly and honestly as she perceives objects in nature: “At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes” with his “wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth, longish loose-growing half-curling rough black hair,” but he is “a wonderful man” whose “conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit.” As natural and devoted as Dorothy’s sisterly love for William may have been, her feeling for Coleridge sometimes overwhelms her, breaking through, spiritedly and spontaneously, as it does in a journal entry from November 1801: “C. had a sweet day for his ride. Every sight and every sound reminded me of him dear, dear fellow, of his many talks to us, by day and by night, of all dear things. I was melancholy, and could not talk, but at last I eased my heart by weeping — nervous blubbering says William.” Contrast this glimpse of William’s callousness (which Dorothy instantly rebuts: “It is not so”) to her appreciation of the opposite qualities in Coleridge, “so benevolent, so good-tempered and cheerful.”

Lake Country Mystique

When Van Morrison sings, “Did you ever hear about Wordsworth and Coleridge smokin up in Kendal by the Lakeside” in “Summertime in England,” he’s playing on the mystique embodied by, as Coleridge phrased it, “three persons and one soul” wandering the hills and valleys and cliffs of Devon and the fells of the Lake Country between 1798 and 1808. While Morrison throws Bristol and Avalon, Blake and T.S. Eliot, Yeats, Joyce, Lady Gregory, and Mahalia Jackson into the mix, there’s no room in his rock and roll vision of Avalon for the Bloomsbury set. Even so, it’s easier to see a “gipsy-tan” Virgina Woolf hiking the Lake District with Dorothy than it is to picture Wordsworth sharing a joint or even a taste of the “Kendal black drop” with Coleridge.

Her Departure

Surely Virginia Woolf must at some point have registered the fact that January 25, the month and day of her birth, coincided with the month and day of Dorothy Wordsworth’s death. A picturesque version of Virginia’s own death, on March 28, 1941, can be seen in The Hours (2002) as Nicole Kidman walks resolutely into the River Ouse. There’s something closer to Dorothy Wordsworth’s subdued “seeing” in the account of Virginia’s last walk in Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf (Oxford 1996) by Panthea Reid, who lives in Princeton:

“… Virginia walked across the bowling green unobserved. She passed along the fence by two elm trees and let herself out at the top gate. With huge black rooks cawing in the tall trees above, Virginia set out toward the river valley. She walked across the meadows, buffeted by the wind from the sea, until she reached the River Ouse, put stones in her pocket, left her walking stick on the bank, walked into the water, and sank into a tidal current, hoping to find ‘rest on the floor of the sea.’”


January 18, 2012

The crimes of Bernard Madoff have occupied journalist Diana Henriques since the details of his stunning, $65 billion Ponzi scheme began to unfold in December 2008. Ms. Henriques, a senior financial reporter for The New York Times and the only journalist to have interviewed Madoff in prison since his incarceration, has written a book about the scandal, The Wizard of Lies: Bernie Madoff and the Death of Trust, published by Henry Holt and Company.

Ms. Henriques’s fascination with the now-legendary character continues. As guest speaker at the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s monthly luncheon at the Princeton Marriott on January 5, she expressed amazement at the way that Mr. Madoff, a quiet loner, was able to gain people’s trust and carry out decades of deception.

“We don’t know exactly when he stepped over the line and began to cheat,” she said, adding that her research leads her to believe it had definitely started by about 1987. “Regardless,” she added, “Madoff put his own distinctive stamp on what is an age-old crime: Robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Mr. Madoff conducted what is considered to be the largest financial fraud in U.S. history. In March 2009, he pleaded guilty to 11 federal felonies and admitted to turning his wealth management business into a massive Ponzi scheme that defrauded thousands of investors, from individuals to large, charitable foundations. Clients, located across the globe, ranged from friends and relatives of Mr. Madoff to foundations started by filmmaker Steven Spielberg and author Elie Wiesel.

Ms. Henriques, whose local connections include stints at The Lawrence Ledger and The Trenton Times, credits Mr. Madoff’s troubled upbringing in Queens, N.Y. to his criminal behavior. “His father’s serial business failures put the family in a precarious financial state,” she said, leading to his “nearly pathological inability to meet failure.” As early as 1962, when faced with the choice of admitting failure at one of his ventures, he lied.

“Even then, he found it easier to lie,” Ms. Henriques said. “When I first interviewed him in prison, he refused to even admit he had failed at his Ponzi scheme. He simply got tired of the constant tap dance he had to do to raise fresh cash, and he quit. He let it collapse.”

For several years before the 2008 scandal, Ms. Henriques knew Mr. Madoff as the head of a small firm that was often open past the market’s 4 p.m. closing time, making him a frequent source for late-breaking information. Never, in those days, would she have imagined him as a criminal mastermind, able to convince people to entrust him with their life savings.

“He was a quiet, soft-spoken loner who hated parties,” she said. “Unlike the classic Ponzi schemer, he treated you like you were the smartest person in the room. Instead of trying to impress you that he was a Wall Street wizard, he seemed impressed by you. It was a remarkable form of emotional jiu-jitsu. People were blinded by his quiet magnetism and laid-back confidence. He could win your trust, and that is the sine qua non of Ponzi schemers.”

While other Ponzi scheme masterminds exploited investors’ greed, Mr. Madoff exploited their fear. What people fear most, Ms. Henriques said, are the risks of an increasingly complex market that they don’t understand. “Consistency, safety, and security — that’s what he promised,” Ms. Henriques said. “Americans baffled by the market placed their trust in people like Madoff.”

By the time Ms. Henriques made her second visit to Mr. Madoff in prison, his son Mark, unable to withstand the constant implications that he and his brother were involved in the scheme, had committed suicide. “On the first visit, I could sense only self-deception and denial,” she said. “But on the second visit, I saw a shattered man, almost unrecognizable from the man I had met earlier. There is no doubt he feels remorse, but just how much, I don’t know.”

Ms. Henriques concluded her talk by speaking of lessons that can be learned from the Madoff scandal. “All of us need a crash course in the care and handling of the wizards in our lives,” she said, “before we encounter the next Bernie Madoff.” As an example, she mentioned former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, who resigned last November from his position as chief executive officer of the MF Global securities firm amid an investigation into money that disappeared from client accounts as the company sank into bankruptcy. “Warnings were dismissed, because, well, Corzine was special,” she said. “He was a Wall Street wizard and seemed confident, until things blew up.”

Exceptions were made for Mr. Madoff despite many inconsistencies in his business practices because he, too, seemed like such a wizard. If more people had shared their doubts with the Securities and Exchange Commission, the outcome might have been different.

“We’ve got to figure out how to navigate in a world that runs on trust,” Ms. Henriques said. “The magic spell that keeps us safe from wizards is humility. I have a growing sense of certainty that we still haven’t learned our Madoff lesson. I just hope The Wizard of Lies can change that, one lesson at a time.”

Continuing toward February 7, which would be Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday, this second in a series of bicentenary meditations with an English accent appears on the birthday of Archie Leach (1904-1986), the creator of Cary Grant, and A.A. Milne (1882-1956), the creator of Winnie the Pooh. With apologies to Pooh, who was, after all, only a fictional character, the subject will be the real person who became, according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, “the best and most important actor in the history of the cinema.”

That Cary Grant was real I can offer eyewitness proof, for my wife saw him once, her all-time favorite movie star, on a street corner in 1972 in his hometown, Bristol, where the picture shown here was taken, probably that same year. Though she was in shock, my wife did not faint, but she did stare in spite of having grown up in Hollywood, where children are taught not to stare, even if they find themselves sharing the same elevator with Audrey Hepburn.

In explaining why Cary Grant was the “the best,” David Thomson locates “the essence of his quality” in the ability to be “attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him, but, whichever is dominant, the other creeps into view.”

Cary Grant hints at the same idea, if inadvertently, in the opening of the three-part magazine autobiography he titled “Archie Leach,” writing that he “first saw the light of day — or rather the dark of night” at around 1 a.m. “on a cold January morning.” True to the traditional Dickensian beginning, the house was humble, lacked “modern heating conveniences,” and “kept only one step ahead of freezing by means of small coal fires in small bedroom fireplaces.”

Archie Leach grew up in an area of Bristol called Montpelier, lived in a rowhouse on Picton Street, went to a nearby school, played goalkeeper on the football team, shivered in the damp cold English winters, hung his stockings on the mantel at Christmas, collected stamps, ran errands for his mother, took piano lessons, suffered a siege of puppy love for the butcher’s daughter, and wore his first pair of long trousers (white flannels made by his mother) to a church bazaar. The “high point” of his week was to escape parental supervision every Saturday at the local cinema watching and no doubt learning from favorites like Charles Chaplin, Ford Sterling, Roscoe Arbuckle, Mack Swain, and Bronco Billy Anderson, the cowboy star. As he grew older, he went with his mother to the Clare Street Cinema, “where one could take tea while watching the films,” but he preferred to go with his father to a larger cinema called the Metropole that “smelled of raincoats and galoshes.” His father would stop at a tobacconist’s shop and buy his favorite pipe tobacco, and at the next shop some apples, “an occasional small bag of white round peppermints,” or, if Archie was good, a bar of chocolate. Father and son shared a special fondness for a weekly serial called The Clutching Hand.

In case that sounds too ordinary for a Dickens novel, the plot thickens plenty when nine-year-old Archie comes home from school one day to find his mother has disappeared. No warning, no believable explanation. After a while it became clear that she  was not coming back, ever. Archie’s father, who told him she was on a “long holiday,” had placed her in a “care facility.” It would be 20 years before Archie saw her again. By then he had become Cary Grant.

While Dickens might well have conceived a minor music hall troubadour named Archie Leach searching for his lost mother on the byways of life, surely no novelist prophet on the planet could imagine Archie Leach coming to the U.S. at 16, playing the vaudeville circuit for 10 years as an acrobat, stilt-walker, juggler, and mime, signing a Paramount contract as “Cary Grant” and launching a moving picture career that led to worldwide renown as the paragon of Hollywood sophistication, the embodiment of “class.” And who could imagine that a stilt-walker from Bristol would be named named second only to Humphrey Bogart among “The 50 Greatest Male Stars of All Time” in 1999 by The American Film Institute and first among “The 50 Greatest Movie Stars of All Time” by Premiere magazine in 2005. Even so, he never won a Best Actor Oscar, unless you count the honorary one he was given in 1970.

A Wartime Gesture

One of the two films for which Grant did receive an Oscar nomination, None But the Lonely Heart (1944), was made, as James Agee points out in his Nation review, “under unusually unexpected auspices,” in that “its star, Cary Grant, asked that it be made, and plays its far from Cary Grantish hero so attentively and sympathetically” that Agee “all but overlooked the fact that he is not well constituted for the role.” There’s a poignant irony in such an assessment, since this was the one film (with the exception of his breakthrough role as a Cockney con artist in Sylvia Scarlett) where Cary Grant came consciously closest to playing Archie Leach; it was also his way of identifying with his homeland and mother during the devastating series of bombing raids that ravaged Bristol between 1940 and 1944. The film also evoked his star-crossed relationship with his mother, who communicated with him by cablegram during the war. Based on a Richard Llewellyn novel, the story is about a cockney drifter who comes home to his beleaguered family and ailing mother, and most of the details and the London East End setting were based on Grant’s recollections of his Bristol youth as poured forth in hours of conversation with his chosen director and script writer (and lifelong close friend), Clifford Odets.

According to Graham McCann’s Cary Grant: A Class Apart (Columbia 1996), Grant “gave careful instructions to the set designers, ensuring that the dimensions and décor matched those of the sitting-rooms and bedrooms he had once inhabited in Bristol.” His choice of a left-wing playwright like Odets to both write and direct was a gamble for the apolitical Grant; that, and the proletarian setting, led to the inevitable suspicions about communistic propaganda (in 1953 Grant publicly condemned McCarthyism).

None But the Lonely Heart was the last and least profitable of a wartime group of films that included some of Cary Grant’s darkest, strongest, most personal roles. The series began in 1941 with George Stevens’s Penny Serenade, his first Oscar nomination, for a deeply felt, “good to the point of surprise” performance; the surprised reviewer was Otis Ferguson, who is reacting to the dark/light Grant dynamic, “not only that easy swing and hint of the devil,” but the expression of “faith and passion.” Next was Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (1941), where the subtle ambiguity of Grant’s persona is brilliantly and definitively exploited, a combination that is also vividly at work in Grants’s virile, exciting performance as a suspected murderer and anarchist in 1942’s The Talk of the Town (another exemplary George Stevens film). Then there’s the charismatic, tough-talking, draft-dodging gangster in H.C. Potter’s Mr. Lucky (1944), where real-life implications come into play when Grant jumps all over the love interest (Laraine Day) for taking umbrage at his avoidance of military service: “Listen this isn’t my war! I had my war: crawling out of the gutter — the hard way. I won that war!” As McCann points out regarding another outburst, there’s a good deal more Archie Leach than Cary Grant in the references to being “awful poor” with “what-for to eat.”

The Blitz

None But the Lonely Heart reflects a wartime state of mind in addition to giving Grant a way of reaching out to his embattled Bristol. On November 24 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the city for six hours, killing 207 people and leaving 1,400 homeless; two weeks later when the city center was pounded, 256 people died; a month later, on the night of January 3, 1941, while Grant was filming Penny Serenade, another raid took 149 lives and destroyed still more of the most historic part of the city he grew up in. The next and most demoralizing attack, on the night of March 16, 1941, which roughly coincided with the filming of Suspicion, killed 257, devastating the neighborhood where he went to school, experienced first love, and saw his first movies. The Mass Observation Unit noted that “People are getting worn out with the continual bombardment …. The irregular, sporadic, sudden switching of heavy raids here has a strongly disturbing effect.”

But the bombs kept coming, with another major attack, “the Good Friday raid” on April 11, as “wave after wave of bombs dropped incendiary devices and high explosives.” The total death toll for attacks was 1299, with 1303 seriously injured, and 81,830 houses destroyed. While Cary Grant was presumably spared the details of the devastation of Archie Leach’s Bristol, he was not spared the knowledge that his aunt and uncle and two cousins were among the dead.

You don’t need to read much about Cary Grant to know that for all the wit, comic style, and charm that brighten and energize films like Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, George Cukor’s Holiday and Philadelphia Story, and Leo McCarey’s The Awful Truth, he would have found it unconscionable to be living a life of glamour, wealth and ease in La La Land (Aldous Huxley called L.A. “the city of dreadful joy”) while his home city was a blazing inferno. He tried to find a way to get over there to see his mother and do his part (she told him she was “a fire watcher” but wished she “could do more”), his numerous applications for a passport (he didn’t become an American citizen until June 26, 1942) and requests for permission to go abroad on an entertainment tour were denied. He had to settle for touring various camps and bases around the U.S.

Class, Classy, Classic

“Class” is as loaded a word in England as “race” is in the U.S.A. Besides showing the impact World War I had on the class system, Downton Abbey, like Cary Grant, has class. Script, actors, sets, cinematography, all exemplify the positive implications of the word for which “style” is a close relative. Graham McCann played on the nuances of “class” when he subtitled his biography A Class Apart. In his prologue, he sums up his subject, “Socially, he was a glorious enigma, eliding every pat classification. Artistically, he was, in his own particular field, without peers,” and “a master of the ‘high definition performance’ Kenneth Tynan defined as “the hypnotic saving grace of high and low art alike.” You can find both extremes in Cary Grant and Archie Leach, Charlie Chaplin and his tramp, and Charles Dickens and his England.

The 1972 photograph shows 68-year-old Cary Grant on a hotel balcony in Bristol. He is pointing to the 148-year-old Clifton Suspension Bridge, which spans the Avon Gorge. Grant’s birthday is being celebrated by Turner Classic Movies today, January 18, with the showing of seven of his films. Grant’s autobiography “Archie Leach” first appeared in three issues of The Ladies Home Journal, February, March, April 1963. You can read it on the Ultimate Cary Grant pages (www.carygrant.net/faq.html). On YouTube there are a number of sensitively made memorial montages showing both the light and dark sides of the ultimate Class Act. And if you want a glimpse of the neighborhood he grew up in, google earth can set you right down in front of No. 21 Picton Street in Bristol, which remains, in spite of the blitz, one of the most beautiful cities in the British Isles.


January 11, 2012

“Undaunted, never-failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” —from P.J. Harvey’s song “England”

PJ Harvey

PJ Harvey, "Let England Shake"

The new year belongs to England, or so it seems after a week listening to and living in P.J. Harvey’s Let England Shake (Vagrant 2011) and watching a DVD of the first season of BBC’s savage, shamelessly gripping detective series Luther. As if those two brilliant broadsides weren’t enough, 2012 is also the Charles Dickens bicentenary. Since the “man who invented Christmas” also had a lot to do with the invention of England, the coming year presents an opportunity to explore one’s inner anglophile and/or anglophobe. If you’ve ever lived for an extended period in the place Nathaniel Hawthorne called “Our Old Home,” you’ve probably known both extremes.

Winner of the Mercury Prize as the best album of 2011 and the Guardian’s choice for Album of the Year, Polly Jean Harvey’s latest record should not be approached as either an indictment of her homeland or an anti-war polemic. Let England Shake is a work of art for the ages. At the moment I can’t remember the last time an album this side of Mozart or Charlie Parker has encouraged me to think in those terms. Well aware of the kneejerk reaction of certain benighted critics (the only one so far is Robert Christgau, who calls it, incredibly, “a suite of well-turned if unnecessarily understated antiwar songs”), Harvey has made it clear in various interviews how careful she was not to let the album become preachy or overtly political. While she’s admitted that her intentions could be called “political,” she uses the term only in the broadest sense, as in “how people relate to one another.”

Harvey’s lyrics can be as unsparing as the dark twists and turns of the action in Luther: England’s “weighted down with silent dead,” its “dancing days are done,” and “by the shores/heavy stones are falling.” In “The Last Living Rose,” Harvey sings:

Let me walk through the stinking alleys

To the music of drunken beatings

Past the Thames river glistening

Like gold hastily sold

For nothing … nothing

In “This Glorious Land,” the answer to her question, “What is the fruit of our glorious land?” is “deformed children” and “orphaned children.”

Charles Dickens might not be quite so harsh, but he would know where she’s coming from, having created characters like Fagin and Bill Sikes and, in Bleak House, a man so freighted with the stuff of sin that he simply exploded, leaving a toxic miasma in his wake. In Neil Cross’s fascinating Luther, mentally deformed Londoners kidnap, torture, and murder women and children and occasionally men, and England’s favorite couple, Alice and Luther, a pretty psychopath and a troubled black genius chief of detectives, take their romance to another level, discussing Paradise Lost in a church while a statue of Milton listens in.

And now we have the return of Downton Abbey, English life upstairs and downstairs during the Great War, featuring another star-crossed couple, Matthew and Mary. In Let England Shake, P.J. Harvey sings of war and death and pain with a ferocity that puts the token battle scenes in Downton Abbey to shame. While the themes and movements coming together in the concluding episode of Luther will have your heart in your throat, Harvey’s “All and Everyone” is a far more sophisticated and accomplished piece of emotional enchantment, driven, even diabolic, in its relentless pattern of pressure and release, crescendo and diminuendo, pounding out its message of death “everywhere, in the air.” Death isn’t confined to the battlefield, it’s as the title says “all and everyone.” The way the song is paced, moving in grim, stirring surges, creates an intensity that is both harrowing and beautiful. But then every song in this album is rich with beauty, no matter how grim the lyric or how dirge-like the sax/trombone/drumbeat of doom created by Harvey, who plays saxophone as well as autoharp, and is accompanied by John Parish, Mick Harvey (no relation), and John Marc Butty.

“The Dark Places,” another devastating lament (“So our young men hid/with guns, in the dirt/and in the dark places”), is as raw and pure as a cry of anguish. There’s nothing of mere message in Let England Shake. Like the title, the music simply moves in on you, grabs you, holds you, and, yes, shakes you.

“The world we live in” was Harvey’s answer when she was asked by an interviewer what inspired the album. These 12 songs ultimately celebrate life, music, nature, love, poetry, and the creative spirit. At the same time, considering that war and waste, greed and madness, sickness and death, are all worthy, challenging subjects for an artist with Harvey’s gifts, she embraces them, takes them on, makes a mission of them. When the album came out last February, she told an interviewer on Radio 4 that she’d started wondering “where the officially appointed war songwriter was. You’ve got your war artists, like Steve McQueen, and your war photographers. I fantasized that I had been appointed this official songwriter.” When her thoughts were brought to the attention of Roger Tolson at the Imperial War Museum, he was ready to explore the possibility that Harvey might actually visit the war zone in Afghanistan, submitting her name to the museum’s committee for discussion.

Clearly Harvey had a great deal more than England, the Great War, and the Gallipoli debacle on her mind during the two years she was gathering material for this album. She told New Musical Express that what most interested her were the “cycles of conflict across many eras” from World War I “right up to Iraq and Afghanistan” and “long after we’ve come and gone.” Part of her lengthy preparation involved reading blogs from Afghani women and Iraqis, “to hear what people are actually saying now.” Another key influence was Darkness Visible: Afghanistan, a photography exhibit by Seamus Murphy, whose videos accompany each of the album’s 12 songs. Since the lyrics are not always completely audible, Murphy begins most of his videos with someone speaking words from the song (my favorite is the auto mechanic reciting “Bitter Branches” as he works on an engine).

Harvey’s England

Harvey considers her conflicted view of England, “the push and pull you feel with your native land,” as a universal reality, something she hopes people from other countries will understand and sympathize with when they hear Let England Shake. In the title track, which is sung over the xylophone riff from the old pop novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” a play on the Gallipoli theme, Harvey creates a realm of sound that rises like a rainbow over a lyric “weighted down with the silent dead.” The words and music run free, turning heavy death into a fountain to “splash about, swim back and forth, and laugh out loud” in.

From the first song on, Harvey gives herself up to the “cruel nature” of her theme, which the wind says “has won again” in “On Battleship Hill.” The first time you hear “England,” where she sings beyond singing in a transport of pure sound, it’s hard to listen to, a dissonant wailing that blends stridently with a sample of “Kassem Miro” by Said el Kurdi. As the song progresses, she seems to be letting it have its way with her, as if the song were singing her. The effect is searing, like the sound of an embattled spirit crying to be heard.

Other Englands

“England” is as scary a love song as you’ll ever hear, but a love song is what it profoundly is, “Undaunted, never failing love for you, England, is all, to which I cling.” Compared to Harvey’s England, Kate Bush’s love song for her homeland in “Lionheart” is an idyll. When Bush sings the line “You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames — That old river poet that never, ever ends,” she wants love of England to make your heart ache, not to pierce it. While Polly’s war and death England tears her up, Kate dives into her lyrical war (“Dropped from my black Spitfire to my funeral barge”) where “the air raid shelters are blooming clover,” and, typically, kiss-me Kate sings, “Give me one kiss in apple-blossom./Give me one wish, and I’d be wassailing/In the orchard, my English rose.”

The “drunken beatings” in P.J. Harvey’s “Last Living Rose” that suggest the land of Luther take a gentler turn (“the sky move, the ocean shimmer, the hedge shake”) at the end. But the music recalls a line from an older song, Sinéad O’Connor’s “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/It’s the home of police who kill black boys on mopeds.”

Then there’s Ray Davies’s England in Arthur, Or the Decline and Fall of The British Empire, but that’s something for another column, in the year of Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday.

If Ray is the UK’s rock and roll poet laureate, P.J. Harvey in Let England Shake performs in that realm where issues of custom, culture, time and place give way to the power of art. I can imagine her singing for England’s poets and writers, composers and painters, Turner and Whistler, Dickens and Wilde, Britten and Elgar, Rupert Brooke and Kipling, Chaplin and Shaw, among many others, dating back to Blake and Milton, shadowy figures in the balcony of the church in Harvey’s Dorset hometown of Bridport, where the album was recorded, watching the woman holding the autoharp to her chest and singing “I live and die through England.”

January 10, 2012
jim-weaver

A CHEF’S MEMOIR: Jim Weaver, the executive chef/owner of Princeton’s Tre Piani Restaurant, has just published “Locavore Adventures” (Rivergate Books $22.95), a memoir about growing a sustainable food culture that also features 40 recipes.

Jim Weaver, the executive chef/owner of Princeton’s Tre Piani Restaurant, has written a book. Locavore Adventures (Rivergate Books $22.95) is a memoir about growing a sustainable food culture and a guide to “slowing down, savoring locally grown food, and celebrating life.”

Mr. Weaver is also the founder of the Central New Jersey Chapter of the “Slow Food” International Movement. The Slow Food Movement started in Italy a decade ago and is committed to preserving “endangered foods,” as well as small farms and unique food production methods. Slow Food enthusiasts argue that the contemporary obsession with fast, processed foods has destroyed people’s ability to taste, savor and understand the origins of food.

In Locavore Adventures, Mr. Weaver shares the story of how he came to solve this problem — building a local slow food culture that is ecologically responsible and also yields delicious results. He tells of his odyssey founding the Central New Jersey chapter of Slow Food, connecting local farmers, food producers, and chefs with the public to forge communities that value the region’s unique bounty. There are more than 40 recipes throughout the book, from Hot Smoked Brook Trout with Asparagus Puree and Pickled Cippollini Onions to Zuppa di Mozzarella.

“The Slow Food mission is aggressive,” according to Mr. Weaver. “We are active in many areas of food education, taste education, public awareness and promotion. We promote the dining table as a place of pleasure and conviviality. We promote diversity in food products and have helped many farmers find niche markets for products that supermarkets do not want to deal with because of looks, price, or perishability, such as heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and rare breeds of animals.”

Slow Food has also started an “Ark of Taste” to preserve “endangered foods” and food production methods from extinction. “If you want to taste true American history, try a genuine Delaware Bay Oyster,” says the chef who spearheaded the effort to preserve the Delaware Bay Oyster from extinction, which is threatened due to over-cultivation and environmental deterioration. He nominated and succeeded in getting the Delaware Bay Oyster inducted into the United States Slow Food Ark of Taste.

Chef Weaver works with many state and local organizations to sponsor events highlighting local foods. He was also a featured speaker at the 2004 NJ Vegetable Grower’s Annual Meeting in Atlantic City, to help market Jersey fresh produce. He recently served on the board of directors for the New Jersey Restaurant Association and is affiliated with countless professional organizations and charity events.
According to Josh Viertel, president, Slow Food USA, ”We are working to build a different world — one where food and farming are sources of health and well being for all people and the planet; one where food can be good, clean and fair. Jim Weaver sees that that different world is already partially built. Through telling that story, he paints a picture of what is possible.”

 

January 9, 2012

SALINGER BIOGRAPHER: Kenneth Slawenski, author of “J.D. Salinger: A Life” and creator of the Salinger website Dead Caulfields, will be talking and answering questions about Salinger in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library on Tuesday, January 10 at 7 p.m.

Kenneth Slawenski, author of J.D. Salinger: A Life and creator of the Salinger website Dead Caulfields, will speak and sign copies of his book on Tuesday, January 10 at 7 p.m. at Princeton Public Library. His appearance in the library’s Community Room will largely be a question and answer session, and attendees will be welcome to share their insights.

Mr. Slawennski will also be speaking to Princeton High School students in the PHS Performing Arts Center earlier that same day, January 10 at 1:30 p.m.

The Princeton event will mark the official launch of the paperback edition of J.D. Salinger: A Life, which appeared in hardcover a year after Salinger’s death on January 27, 2010, at the age of 91. Mr. Slawenski’s biography of the reclusive author of The Catcher in the Rye was a Book of the Month Club selection. The English edition was reviewed by Peter Ackroyd, who found the book “well-written, energetic and magnificently researched.” A review in The Spectator pointed out the “love and zest” with which Mr. Slawenski “sets about his task.”

In citing the biography’s focus on the impact of Salinger’s combat experience in World War II, the Town Topics review (Jan. 26 2011) quoted a passage describing Salinger’s state of mind on completing The Catcher in the Rye in the autumn of 1950:

“Holden Caulfield, and the pages that contained him, had been the author’s constant companion for most of his adult years. Those pages were so precious to Salinger that he carried them on his person throughout the war. In 1944 he confessed … that he needed them with him for support and inspiration. Pages of The Catcher in the Rye had stormed the beach at Normandy; they had paraded down the streets of Paris, been present at the deaths of countless solders in countless places, and been carried through the death camps of Nazi Germany.”

Mr. Slawenski’s website deadcaulfields.com currently features birthday celebrations of The Catcher in the Rye’s 60th and Franny and Zooey’s 50th. The site offers everything from a timeline and photos, to a comprehensive inventory of Salinger’s unpublished fiction.

All Princeton Public Library programs are free and open to the public. If programs require registration, preference is given to library cardholders. The physically challenged should contact the library at (609) 924-9529 48 hoursbefore any program with questions about special accommodations.

The library is in the Sands Library Building at 65 Witherspoon St. in Princeton Borough. Parking is available on neighboring streets and in the borough-operated Spring Street Garage, which is adjacent to the library. For more information about library programs and services, call (609) 924-9529 or visit www.princetonlibrary.org

 

December 21, 2011

The best picture I ever made in my life.
—Ernst Lubitsch
I don’t like any holiday movies.
—various people

I walked into a silent movie at a loud and lively holiday party the other night. It wasn’t like what happens when Buster Keaton walks out of the audience right into the screen to save a damsel in distress in Sherlock Jr. Buster wanted to be in the picture. Not me. I’d just hung up my coat and was on my way into a new downtown office space I’d never been in before and straight ahead of me filling an entire wall was an enormous image of Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. Meanwhile the people at the party were talking, drinking, snacking on the hors d’oeuvres, and nobody seemed to be aware that looming on the wall behind them a larger-than-life George Bailey was having words with a monstrously enlarged version of the ruthless banker Mr. Potter, and no wonder, since you couldn’t hear what they were saying. It’s odd, but when you turn off the soundtrack, it drains the meaning from the film, cuts it loose, so that it becomes another element, a sort of fluid filmic wallpaper where it no longer really matters that Mr. Potter is evil and George Bailey is good, or that the good man is so deep in despair that he’s about to kill himself, all because of some missing moneyDVD rev. Without sound, without the ballast of an audience’s attention to it, even if you know the movie by heart, as I know this one, it turns into a ghostly dream from 1946 floating meaninglessly around in the background of real-life party circa 2011.

Sorry, I forgot, this is supposed to be a cheery Christmas column about films of the season where good conquers or simply ignores evil, Scrooge is transformed, George Bailey is saved by an angel in need of wings, Bing Crosby sings “White Christmas,” and Mr. Kralik and Miss Novak, the feuding employees of Matuschek & Company known in real life as Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan, discover true love on Christmas Eve.

This week’s Town Talk question elicited the usual answers, from It’s a Wonderful Life to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the happy exception being the person who simply said, “I don’t like holiday movies.” The truth is, most of the best films from any period in the past 100 years have not been conceived of or even promoted as holiday movies. The whole notion suggests warm and fuzzy, bright and sane films to feel good about. So what are the movies getting serious play in the December 20 New York Times? The David Fincher-Rooney Mara version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and that September 11 Christmas Carol, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.

A City Lights Ending

If you put the climactic moment of recognition from Ernst Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner (1940) on the wall at a Christmas party, the meaning might remain intact even if the sound were off. Except of course that you’d be missing two of the most appealing voices ever to come out of Hollywood. Margaret Sullavan’s is rare enough to justify all by itself the advent of motion picture sound (“strange, fey, mysterious,” in the words of another rare star, Louise Brooks “like a voice singing in the snow”). In the denouement of this Budapest fairy tale, Sullavan’s stunned expression behind one word (“You?”) says it all. Jimmy Stewart has finally gently revealed that the person she’s fallen in love with through the eloquent anonymous letters he’s been writing her (with some help from Victor Hugo) is he, Kralik, the quarrelsome fellow worker she’s insulted (he’s bow-legged, has a “hand-bag” instead of a heart, “a suitcase instead of a soul,” and “an intellect like a cigarette lighter that doesn’t work”). It’s not as overwhelming a moment as the one it somewhat resembles, the shattering ending of Chaplin’s City Lights when the flower girl realizes that the silly little tramp (“You?”) is the rich handsome savior who paid for the operation that restored her sight. When Sullavan makes the adjustment from misery to doubt to luminous joy, it’s as if the bow-legged jerk has turned into a handsome prince and who else but Ernst Lubitsch would end a romance with the handsome prince hiking up his trousers to show that he’s not bow-legged?

Behind the Scenes

The back story to The Shop Around the Corner is worth telling. For one thing, Margaret Sullavan was by all accounts the love of Jimmy Stewart’s life (even his wife, Gloria, has admitted knowing that he was “always madly in love” with Sullavan “and she with him”). A year ago, I described a scene between Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You (1938) in which Stewart’s passionately delivered speech about “the tiny engine” in a blade of grass shows “a true American idol coming into his own.” In fact, it was Margaret Sullavan who, more than any other person, helped Stewart develop his unique style as an actor. Only two years earlier, he’d been going nowhere in minor roles at M-G-M. According to Lawrence J. Quirk’s 1986 biography Margaret Sullavan Child of Fate, when she was a top star at Universal, she insisted on having Stewart play the lead opposite her in Next Time We Love (1936), and when he struggled under the direction of Edward H. Griffith, who complained that the gangly young actor was “wet behind the ears” and “going to make a mess of things,” Sullavan spent the evenings “coaching him and helping him scale down his awkward mannerisms and hesitant speech,” the very qualities that were destined to be central to his appeal. Later, Griffith himself was among those who gave Sullavan credit for making Stewart a star.

You can see Next Time We Love in all its disappointing entirety on YouTube. Like so many films from the period, it begins charmingly enough with Margaret Sullavan as a college girl who goes to “junior proms with little boys from Princeton.” She and Stewart are at Penn Station, where she’s returning to school  via a 1936 version of Jersey Transit (“Princeton Junction” the third stop called out) until a goodbye embrace with Stewart convinces them to get married instead; she’s a budding actress, he’s a foreign correspondent whose job will put a fatal strain on their marriage. The love scenes, which are mostly centered on close-ups of her face, reveal the real-life emotional bond between the two actors.

Sullavan and Stewart co-starred again two years after Next Time We Love in Shopworn Angel, but it’s not until The Shop Around the Corner that they share a film as true equals, both major stars. Only ten years before, Stewart had been a sophomore at Princeton and Sullavan was working at the Harvard Coop.

Remakes

I’ve seen neither The Shop Around the Corner’s 1949 turn-of-the-century musical remake, In the Good Old Summertime, with Van Johnson and Judy Garland, nor Nora Ephron’s 1998 version, You’ve Got Mail, which takes the medium of communication from snail mail to email and moves the story to the Upper West Side with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. I can’t say that I’ve avoided either film out of any particular devotion to the original, but after a YouTube tour of each of the concluding recognition scenes, I think my instincts were right. The 1949 version of the last scene follows the script almost word for word and move for move, but Van Johnson’s charm is a long, long way from Jimmy Stewart’s. When she’s singing, Judy Garland can light up the dimmest of movies, but she has no song to sing in the last scene and even if she had, it couldn’t have given the moment the magic it has in The Shop Around the Corner. In fact, Garland’s signature song is used to provide some emotional heft to the conclusion of You’ve Got Mail, with Harry Nilsson’s rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on the soundtrack to help Meg Ryan suffer the touching revelation as Tom Hanks approaches amid the flowers of Riverside Park with his dog, Brinkley.

A Bergman Holiday

Imagine a Woody Allen scene where for an upbeat holiday date, he takes a warm-and-fuzzy type girl to an Ingmar Bergman double feature of The Seventh Seal and Through a Glass Darkly. The idea started me wondering what the great European directors have done with the holiday. Fellini for Christmas? Antonioni, Godard, Chabrol? Can you think of a French Christmas movie this side of Desplechin’s not very joyous Christmas Tale? How about Germany? Christmas with Pabst and Murnau? A Fassbinder noel? Herzog for the holidays?

Strangely enough, that gloomy Swede, Ingmar Bergman has made not one but two great holiday films, The Magic Flute and Fanny and Alexander, which I just revisited on YouTube. As fine a Christmas scene as you’ll ever see begins with a gift exchanged between the grandparents followed by a kiss with a newly wed glow to it. Then, when they open the window and the sounds of the street come in, the grandmother peers out smiling at the children cavorting in the snow, and says, “Here comes my family.” True, things do get very bleakly Bergman before his autobiographical epic comes to a close, a possibility introduced in the title sequence, which is set to some of the most beautiful and funereal music ever written (the second movement of Schumann’s piano quintet in E flat major), life and death and love, as Alexander wanders through empty rooms that will soon be filled with festive life, calling the names of family members who are no longer there.

December 14, 2011

On Conan DoyleMy father was easy to shop for at this time of year. “Anything to do with Sherlock Holmes” was the Christmas mantra. As December came around, some publisher always had a book to offer, although nothing could top William S. Baring-Gould’s boxed two-volume The Annotated Sherlock Holmes published in 1970 by Clarkson Potter. Any time I want to commune with my taciturn father, who died in 1986, all I have to do is browse in either volume, looking for his pencilled notes. Another way of getting in touch with him is to take out the bound typescript of his dissertation, an editing of the first three books (“which treat of Incorporeal Substances”) from the medieval encyclopedia that I cannot, to this day, pronounce without a hitch (De Proprietatibus Rerum), every word of it typed by my mother on a Royal portable.

My father’s scholarly fondness for Sherlock Holmes is not atypical. Michael Dirda, for one, pursued medieval studies, among other subjects, as a graduate student at Cornell before becoming a book critic for the Washington Post, a bibliophile, and a member of The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI). That society of true believers spearheads the complex Sherlock Holmes subculture described in Dirda’s contribution to Princeton’s Writers On Writers series, On Conan Doyle: The Whole Art of Storytelling (Princeton University Press $19.95). In the realm of the BSI, fiction is truth and truth fiction, and if this playfully serious merging of reality and make-believe resembles a child’s game for adults, what else would you expect of a group named for the street urchins Holmes enlisted at a shilling a day in his quest for clues?

Salinger and Sir Arthur

There are moments in Dirda’s account of the inner workings of the Irregulars when the tone verges on becoming too “clubby,” as in his reference to the “absolutely wonderful time” he had at his first BSI weekend (an evening “for fraternal refreshment and for harmony”), where he felt “connected to an otherwise vanished era of literary bonhomie and frivolity.” While language like “literary bonhomie” rouses my inner Holden Caulfield, the fact is that Holden’s creator, the late great enemy of all things phoney, J.D. Salinger, had a soft spot for Sherlock Holmes.

Consider Conan Doyle’s place on the daunting list of books for summer reading at Camp Haworth that five-year-old Seymour Glass requests of his librarian, “the incomparable Miss Overman,” in Salinger’s “Hapworth 16, 1924,” which appeared in the June 19, 1965 issue of The New Yorker. After requesting that he be sent the works of Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, and Proust “in their entirety,” among many others, Seymour asks for “the complete works, quite in full, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, with the exception of any books that are not utterly concerned with Sherlock Holmes.” (By the way, Dirda celebrates some of the books Seymour takes exception to.) At this point in the prodigious letter Seymour recalls how, 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!” The essence of Seymour’s revelation is not only what “Hapworth 16, 1924” is all about, it’s what Dirda and groups like the Baker Street Irregulars are all about; it’s the difference between admiration and adoration. Says Seymour: “As I darted through the water, it became crystal clear that it is far from an established fact that I am even demonstrably fond of the great Goethe, in my heart, while my love for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, via his contributions, is an absolute certainty!”

The equally buoyant enthusiasm at the heart of Michael Dirda’s appeal as a writer demonstrably in love with reading is underscored by the quotes on the back cover of his book, one of which declares that Dirda’s “life’s work” is to “declare his adoration for some literary gem” (“On Conan Doyle traces the arc of one such love affair”) while another uses the word “love” three times to explain why Dirda makes you feel “as if you’ve been inaugurated into a secret society of people who love what can be done with words.”

Living the Book

Although “love” may be the word of choice, it’s not really Sir Arthur Conan Doyle readers adore, it’s the act of reading itself, the moment of complete submission as you settle into the motion of the narrative and can feel the creaking of the horse-drawn coach, taste the fog, or, the ultimate reward, when you actually for the first time in your life experience the names, Charing Cross Station, Victoria, Marylebone Road, and Baker Street, and all those places you’ve known in the company of Holmes and Watson. It’s as if until that moment London had been a wonderful fantasy, something in a storybook co-authored by Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens. In James Joyce’s Dublin, another fictional character with a devoted following in the real world, Leopold Bloom, guided me on the night walk I described in a June 16 Bloomsday column last year. Whether it’s London or Dublin or Balzac’s Paris, the authors of the books you love seem to hover watchfully over the cities you’re exploring.

In Person

Imagine for a moment what Sherlock Holmes could do online. Out of all the scholar geniuses of fiction, he’s the one easiest to imagine conceiving the internet, or at least dreaming it up during a cocaine high. In fact, we can all scan the internet the way Holmes scanned the agony columns in The Times. Search for clues in this Byzantine universe and, if you like, you can spend ten and a half minutes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his dog. You don’t need a seance. Forget the ectoplasmic mist. Here he is in the flesh, for real, looking and sounding at age 68 pretty much as you’d expect Dr, Watson would. It’s clear that he dotes on his dog — a sprightly, happy, loving little terrier he calls “good old boy” as he walks toward us with a book in his hand. The year is 1927 and the author is being filmed for Fox Movietone News. After setting down his book and putting his hat on top of it, Conan Doyle explains his conception of Sherlock Holmes and celebrates the veracity of his psychic explorations. His voice is pleasant and throaty, with that Scots burr, becoming most assertive on the subject of the spirit world: “I am not talking about what I believe. I am not talking about what I think. I am talking about what I know. There’s an enormous difference, believe me, between believing a thing and knowing a thing.”

So saying, Conan Doyle expresses the determined act of sympathetic imagination that gives an almost spiritual force to groups like The Baker Street Irregulars. But that’s not all. When he utters his last words to us, about all the people his psychic views have comforted — “how they have once more heard the sound of a vanished voice and felt the touch of a vanished hand” — I find myself having a Sherlock Holmes moment. The guise of the aging writer begins to dissolve around another, most unlikely image but one that makes sense and can be captured with a few taps on the keyboard, yes, here he is, Shri Lahiri Mahasaya, disciple of Babaji, teacher of Shri Yukteswar, who was Parmahansa Yogananda’s guru. As I foresaw, there is a definite resemblance between the avuncular, white-mustached Scotsman petting his dog and the bare-chested, dhoti-clad, white-mustached sadhu who revived the science of Kriya Yoga while marrying, raising a family, and working as an accountant for the Military Engineering Department of the British Indian government. How did I get from Sir Arthur to Shri Mahasaya? Elementary, my dear Watson!

When I open my eyes and return to reality, Sir Arthur puts on his hat, picks up his book, bids us goodbye, and softly tells the dog to “come on,” as he goes back into the house.

In the Margin: Yes

My reclusive father’s copy of The Annotated Sherlock Holmes occupied the place of honor in his study. Reading “The Adventure of the Copper Beeches” in his copy of the second volume just now, I found a “Yes” lightly written in the margin next to the following paragraph:

“It was a cold morning of the early spring, and we sat after breakfast on either side of a cheery fire in the old room at Baker Street. A thick fog rolled down between the lines of dun-colored houses, and the opposing windows loomed like dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths. Our gas was lit and shone on the white cloth and glimmer of china and metal, for the table had not been cleared yet. Sherlock Holmes had been silent all the morning, dipping continuously into the advertisement columns of a succession of papers until at last, having apparently given up his search, he had emerged in no very sweet temper to lecture me upon my literary shortcomings.”

As far as I can tell, that’s the only “Yes” my father permitted himself in the whole 1500-plus pages of the two-volume tome. This is someone whose highest compliment was “That’s fine,” and whose marginalia consists primarily of technical signals such as “false lead” or “plant” or “hint” for passages pertaining to the solution of a case. So why this “Yes” for a paragraph where nothing remarkable appears to happen? I deduce that this is, in fact, a clue — my father’s way of signaling that here is the essence of what he loved about these stories, though he would never have been so forthcoming “in real life.” It’s all there, the cheery morning, the thick fog, the ominous presence of “dark, shapeless blurs through the heavy yellow wreaths,” the gaslight, Holmes’s silence, and his scouring of the papers. That’s what it’s all about, the mood, the ambient essence, or what Henry James would call “the real thing.”

 

Michael Dirda will be in the Community Room at the Princeton Public Library tonight, Wednesday, December 14, at 7 p.m. On December 15, also at 7 p.m. in the Community Room, there will be a showing of “Sherlock Holmes,” starring Robert Downey Jr.

December 8, 2011

William Makepeace ThackerayA big, fierce, weeping, hungry man, not a strong one.

— Thomas Carlyle,
in a letter to Emerson

Carlyle was attempting to describe William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-1863), whose bicentenary has received little notice while the celebratory drums are already beating for Dickens 2012. The shelves of the Princeton Public Library are teeming with Dickens while Thackeray is represented by two paperback copies of Vanity Fair (1848) with Reese Witherspoon as Becky Sharp on the cover, one battered, yellowed Penguin paperback of The History of Pendennis (1850), and a two-volume Everyman edition of The Virginians (1859); one copy of The Rose and the Ring (1855) is available in the children’s collection. As for biographical or critical works, I had to order Ann Monsarrat’s An Uneasy Victorian: Thackeray the Man (Dodd, Mead 1980) through interlibrary loan.

By now we should have had a BBC dramatization of the triumphs and travails of the author of one of the world’s great novels and the creator of one of literature’s great characters, Becky Sharp. Why don’t we know him better? Why isn’t he regularly taught and quoted? Surely his face deserves to hang in the Barnes and Noble-Starbucks cafe life pantheon next to Dickens and George Eliot, who thought him “on the whole the most powerful of living novelists.”

Thackeray’s first biographer was his colleague Anthony Trollope, who clearly shared George Eliot’s opinion of a writer who, in Trollope’s words, “sees his characters, both men and women, with a man’s eye and with a woman’s” and who “dissects with a knife and also with a needle.” Contemplating Dickens, on the other hand, Trollope found “the sale of his books … so great as almost to induce a belief that Pickwicks and Oliver Twists are consumed in families like legs of mutton.” While Dickens was “a literary hero bound to be worshipped by all literary grades of men, down to the ‘devils’ of the printing-office,” Thackeray, “the older man [by a year], was still doubting, still hesitating, still struggling.”

Thackeray and Brontë

Writing under the cover of her pen name Currer Bell, Charlotte Brontë dedicated the second edition of Jane Eyre (1847) to Thackeray, giving him the lion’s share of a long, lavish preface, “a man whose words are not framed to tickle delicate ears,” who “comes before the great ones of society” speaking “truth” with “a power … prophet-like,” the “satirist of Vanity Fair” hurling “the Greek fire of his sarcasm.” She “sees in him an intellect profounder and more unique than his contemporaries have yet recognised.” After dismissing the commentaries comparing him to Fielding” (“he resembles Fielding as an eagle does a vulture”), she writes: “His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning, playing under the edge of the summer cloud, does to the electric death-spark hidden in its womb.”

Best to step back from that one. Give it space. No wonder Brontë was let down when she met the eagle in person. Instead of the prophet’s “Greek fire” and “sheet-lightning,” she found “an unwilling idol.” According to a witness in Monsarrat’s biography, “The more intense she became, the more mundane were his responses.” Still recuperating from a near-fatal illness, Thackeray saw “the trembling little frame, the great honest eyes” of “a little austere Joan of Arc marching in upon us and rebuking our easy lives and morals.” Brontë was looking for the man possessed of the audacity to conceive the heroine of Vanity Fair, whose first act is to toss the gift of Johnson’s Dictionary out the window of a coach at the feet of a Dickensian caricature of sentimental goodheartedness. In the words of the same observer of the Brontë-Thackeray conversation, Thackeray, “with characteristic contrarity of nature … insisted on discussing his books very much as a clerk in a bank would discuss the ledgers he had to keep for a salary.” Brontë was looking for a man with a mission while Thackeray, “with many wicked jests refused to recognize the mission.”

Had the big man (he was 6’4) assumed the Promethean dimensions of his “serious genius,” however, Brontë might have faulted him for arrogance, which seems to have been the case on another occasion, described by the same witness, when she treated him to a face-to-a-face litany of his shortcomings, against which he defended himself, as she puts it, “like a great Turk and heathen — that is to say, the excuses were often worse than the crime itself.”

You don’t have to read far in any account of Thackeray’s life before you once again wonder why Andrew Davies or some other BBC mainstay hasn’t written it up for a miniseries. The Brontë episode alone would make for fascinating theater, as would young William’s embattled school days, his adventures in Paris, and the poignance of his marriage to a woman who descended into madness after bearing their third child. (The coincidental resemblance of Thackeray’s doomed marriage to Rochester’s in Jane Eyre led to spurious gossip about a Bronte-Thackeray affair.)

Thackeray’s Doubts

In his preface to Pendennis (1850), the novel that followed Vanity Fair, Thackeray celebrated Brontë’s “vulture,” Henry Fielding: “Since the author of Tom Jones was buried, no writer of fiction among us has been permitted to depict to his utmost power a MAN. We must drape him and give him a certain conventional simper. Society will not tolerate the Natural in our art. Many ladies have remonstrated and subscribers left me because, in the course of the story [Pendennis having appeared first in monthly parts] I described a young man resisting and affected by temptation.” The curious thing about Thackeray’s preface is that it anticipates opposition at the outset, alerting the reader, “I tell you how a man really does act, — as did Fielding with Tom Jones, — but it does not satisfy you. You will not sympathise with this young man of mine, this Pendennis, because he is neither angel nor imp. If it be so, let it be so. I will not paint for you angels or imps, because I do not see them. The young man of the day, whom I do see, and of whom I know the inside and the out thoroughly, him I have painted for you; and here he is, whether you like the picture or not.”

If Dickens was everyman’s idea of the forthcoming, ever-agreeable novelist, Thackeray would seem to have been a more demanding alternative, if not strictly speaking an anti-novelist. Trollope’s biography begins by discussing Thackeray’s indeterminate relation to his work and his audience: “He doubted the appreciation of the world; he doubted his fitness for turning his intellect to valuable account; he doubted his physical capacity, — dreading his own lack of industry; he doubted his luck; he doubted the continual absence of some of those misfortunes on which the works of literary men are shipwrecked. Though he was aware of his own power, he always, to the last, was afraid that his own deficiencies should be too strong against him.”

Like Becky Sharp, Pendennis is an anti-hero, but without Becky’s wicked allure. As Trollope observes, he is “weak, and selfish, and untrustworthy,” and Pendennis, along with Henry Esmond (1852), The Newcomes (1855), The Virginians (1857-59), among others, has been ignored both by contemporary readers and the producers of programs like Masterpiece Theatre. Meanwhile adaptations of Vanity Fair have been staged numerous times in London and New York over the years (we may yet see Bad Becky, the musical), filmed seven times since 1911, most recently in 2004 when Mira Nair directed a heavily Indian flavored version starring Reese Witherspoon as Becky. The 1935 version, titled Becky Sharp and starring Miriam Hopkins, was the first Hollywood film shot in technicolor. The BBC has produced various miniseries, beginning in 1956 (with Joyce Redman as Becky) 1967, 1987, and 1998. In 1975 Stanley Kubrick adapted Thackeray’s The Luck of Barry Lyndon (1844), the adventures of another anti-hero, a sort of male Becky Sharp, and one of Kubrick’s most admired films.

Neither the 1998 nor the 2004 versions of Vanity Fair, which I watched this past week, explore the source as satisfactorily as numerous recent adaptations of Dickens, Austen, and Trollope, not to mention the BBC presentations of works by lesser authors like Mrs. Gaskell and Laura Riding. One day perhaps some digital magician will follow Thackeray’s lead by making an animated film based on his witty illustrations, which would at least produce something closer in scale and spirit to the puppet show cited in the Vanity Fair’s closing sentence, “Come, children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

A Game of Authors

Speaking of children, I first encountered William Makepeace Thackeray while playing the card game called Authors. My early fondness for him had little to do with the stern image of his face on the cards. It was his name. Of all the three-part names of authors the rules said had to be pronounced in full when you were asking for cards from your opponent’s hand — Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Fenimore Cooper, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louisa May Alcott — none felt as nice to say as William Makepeace Thackeray, who was, all the better, the author of what I felt to be the most intriguing and thus coveted card in the deck. Besides having a title I found fascinating in itself without really having any idea why, the Vanity Fair card sported the oddest image. Most of the small title illustrations in the upper left hand corner of the cards made sense — a knight on horseback for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, Tiny Tim on Bob Cratchit’s shoulder for A Christmas Carol — but what was the point of the Vanity Fair card’s image of a woman and three air-borne books? Was she dropping them? Recoiling from them? Or had they just fallen upon her out of nowhere?

My parents never explained the “flying books” to my satisfaction, though they must have known the famous opening chapter of Vanity Fair where Becky Sharp unceremoniously disposes of the kindly meant gift of Johnson’s Dictionary. But why three books? You have to give the creators of the game credit. The extra books put a special spin on what was a defining moment for the character, and gave a touch of residual mystery to the stern looking author in the granny glasses — “a stout, healthful broad-shouldered specimen of a man,” according to someone present at one of Thackeray’s wildly successful American readings, “with cropped greyish hair and bluish grey eyes, peering very strongly through a pair of spectacles that have a very satiric focus.”