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

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.


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.”

December 1, 2011

DVD Review: "Homicide"I have never been a fan of cop shows. At the time Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue were first aired on network television (NBC and ABC, respectively), I was busy watching Turner Classic Movies, which was launched in April 1994. I doubt that anyone back then could have convinced me to tune in to a couple of shows about detectives doing their job on the mean streets of Baltimore and New York. So why go back there now? Because those two programs were the antecedents of two of television’s greatest accomplishments, David Simon’s The Wire and David Milch’s Deadwood.

In Princeton this past September to deliver the Belknap lecture, David Simon, the dominant creative force behind The Wire, described his transition from journalism to television, a medium for which he’d had little respect (“It was a paycheck”). Even though he was writing for a highly acclaimed program based on his own book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991), he felt constricted by the sponsor-mandated reality of network television. Then, in Simon’s words, “Something happened. Suddenly television changed.” The “something” was HBO and the emerging reality of pay-for-view cable channels. The “economic model” that had prevailed from the medium’s inception was transformed. No longer was everything subsidized by advertising. No longer was the programming “what they wrapped around the ads to keep you watching the ads.” No longer did a writer have to think of the objective in terms of devising “a teaser followed by four or five acts,” depending on whether the commercials came at 14 or 12 minute intervals.

Liberating the Writer

In his Princeton talk, which eventually addressed the larger issues suggested by the title (“The End of the American Century and What’s In It For You?”), Simon imagined the producers at HBO saying “What if we let the writers loose?” That, along with a relative indifference to the show’s audience share — “It’s a cute little number,” said Simon’s boss at HBO in reference to The Wire’s modest Sunday night rating — represented “a Magna Carta for writing on TV.” Simon was thrilled to find that he could say things about the war on Baltimore’s underclass he’d been unable to say as a journalist covering the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun.

The equivalent moment for David Milch came when HBO turned him loose on the muddy paths and alleys of Deadwood. He’d already been testing the limits of profanity, sex, and violence on NYPD Blue (1993-2005), which he created with Stephen Bochco. In a 2005 interview on Salon, Milch compares the limitations endemic to network television to those imposed on Hollywood by the sanitizing dictates of the production code: “You can spend your time … moaning about the strictures within which you’re forced to work, or you can try and find ways to neutralize the distorting effect of those strictures.” Milch’s way of doing this was to incorporate the conflict between authority and free will, repression and creative force into the program by developing characters who are struggling against adversaries comparable to the censors and the sponsors. In NYPD Blue, which was challenged by the American Family Association for its infusions of “soft-core porn,” Milch “tried to engage the theme that in order to administer the law, you have to break the law,” an idea he takes to the limit in Deadwood, where the Gem saloon’s foul-mouthed evil genius Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) is “indissolubly associated” with sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), a “murderous personality who embraced the idea of law as the only way he could control himself.”DVD Review: "NYPD Blue"

Fans of Deadwood will see a potent preview of Al Swearengen in NYPD Blue detective Andy Sipowicz (Dennis Franz), who also has qualities in common with Seth Bullock regarding the use of law enforcement as a way to control his own inner violence. Like McShane’s cut-throat rogue Swearengen, Franz’s Sipowicz is the life-force driving the show. He’s explosive, funny, repellent, impossible, lovable, and immensely human, and he shares Swearengen’s mastery of colorful invective. In the Salon interview, after proclaiming Swearengen a “lineal” descendent of Sipowicz, Milch offers an aside on his inventively profane art: “You know, as they say, the devil always gets the best lines.”

There are no giants like Sipowicz or Swearengen in Homicide or The Wire unless you count Omar (Michael K. Williams), the gay stick-up man I compared to a psychopathic Robin Hood in my September 10, 2010 column on The Wire and its main character “an African American immensity called Baltimore.” It should be noted that an early version of Omar appears in the one episode Simon contributed to NYPD Blue (“Hollie and the Blowfish), where the gay title character, like Omar, holds up drug dealers, cooperates with the police, and wins their respect.

Quirky Relationships

Watching Homicide, with its divertingly varied ensemble of characters, you can see the prototype for the Baltimore police unit and municipal administration that will be more elaborately and provocatively developed in The Wire. The rapport or lack of it characterizing the different teams the unit is divided into is one of the most appealing aspects of Homicide, at least in the first three seasons, which are all that I’ve seen so far. Midway through the third season, the glow began to fade a bit after NBC’s concern about the ratings (the sort of thing Simon looks unfondly back on from the promised land of HBO) led the network to begin demanding action and sensation at the expense of character. Up to that point, the show had sustained a nice balance between the quirky relationships and the morbid, violent world the detectives work in without indulging in any of the strained sit-com clowning that sometimes mars Hill Street Blues, the landmark series that Milch began writing for in 1982.

Although Tom Fontana, Paul Attanasio, and Barry Levinson are generally credited with sharing the primary creative responsibility for Homicide, Fontana suggests in the audio commentary for the show’s first episode that “by the end of six years, we had pretty much sucked every comma and question mark out of the book.” In fact, Simon, who didn’t actually begin writing for the program until Season Four, found a disconnect between the real detectives in his book and the television counterparts, with their tendency to discuss moral, emotional, intellectual, personal, and spiritual issues in relation to their work, something the detectives Simon wrote about had never done.

Among the great saving graces of Homicide are its humanity and sense of humor, which come to life in the interplay between characters like the appealingly eccentric and relentlessly irritating John Munch (Richard Belzer) and the partner he calls “big man” (Stanley Bolander as played by Ned Beatty). Melissa Leo’s detective Kay Howard, with her lovely smile and charming movements (she elevates swaggering to a fine feminine art) is especially memorable (she surfaces 16 years later as a middle-aged lawyer in Simon’s Treme, another HBO wonder), and no less memorable is Andre Braugher as the show’s most complex and troubled character, Frank Pembleton.

As his Princeton talk suggests, Simon’s commitment to the depiction of the lives of poor blacks in Baltimore’s inner city was such that such that when HBO “set him loose,” he could create a program like The Wire, which actually thrives by taking itself seriously, although the intensity is offset by the quality that works so well in Homicide: the interplay between the detectives.

Theme Music

A key component of the addictive pleasure we’ve been finding in NYPD Blue is Mike Post’s Emmy-winning theme music, which sweeps you into the excitement of the show with rock em sock em kettle drum dynamics behind the imagery of the elevated train pounding right at you, the swift sharp flashes of city scenes, then the human theme, a sudden, tender, beautifully timed interlude as the main characters are introduced, the music slowing, expressing something quiet, poignant, and subtly emotional, before the drums and city imagery come pounding back again and drive you headlong down the track to the big NYPD shield. The way we actually look forward to this credit sequence, which may have influenced the “woke up this morning, got myself a gun” Tony-at-the-steering-wheel dynamics of the opening credits for The Sopranos, has me thinking about the way theme music became the emotional signature of the radio and television shows that were like old friends whose company you looked forward to every week, the media equivalent of comfort food.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that the viewing experience I’ve been describing was made possible by the absence of commercials. DVDs offer you a semblance of what you pay for on cable — in this case, decades after the fact. Between the Princeton Public Library, Netflix, and streaming online, no one needs to endure those “commercial interruptions” and the related constraints David Simon and David Milch had to put up with in the days before cable TV “turned the writers loose.”

If you want to read an in-depth study of these shows, I recommend Jason P. Vest’s The Wire, Deadwood, Homicide, and NYPD Blue: Violence is Power (Greenwood 2011); it can be sampled at length online. David Simon’s Sept. 20 Belknap lecture can also be viewed online. David Milch’s Salon interview is from March 5, 2005, and if you want to see him truly and fascinatingly holding forth, up close and personal, check out the MIT World interview (http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/383).