November 20, 2013

book revI used to have the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through. It’s a funny thing that as long as you have that feeling you seem to get through. I’ve lost that feeling lately but as a matter of fact I don’t feel bad about it. If anything happens to me I have this knowledge that if I had lived to be a hundred I could only have improved the quantity of my life, not the quality. 

—John Kennedy, from a letter to Inga Arvad

Written from the South Pacific following the August 1, 1943 sinking of PT-109, the long letter from Navy Lt. John Kennedy to his lover is worth a close look for what it says about a man in his mid-20s who already appears to have an enlightened sense of history and an interesting sense of himself. It’s one of the most revealing documents in The Letters of John F. Kennedy (Bloomsbury $30), edited by Martin W. Sandler and billed as the first such collection ever.

If Kennedy was satisfied with the quality of his life in 1943, what he achieved in the limited quantity he had left is astonishing, especially given what he was dealing with physically, day by day. As Sandler points out in the book’s last section (“A Triumph of Will”), here was a man who received the last rites of the Catholic Church four times, whose image of “glowing health and energy” (“vigor” a presidential buzz word) was “a well-orchestrated lie.” After mentioning how Kennedy “relied heavily on drugs and pills,” Sandler refers to the spending of “many days in bed,” which can be read two ways, given JFK’s legendary sex life. In fact, if he had been healthy, he might have graduated from Princeton, having actually enrolled at Old Nassau in 1935 “where he immediately concentrated on what was to become a lifetime obsession — the conquest of beautiful women.” We’ll never know how this need played out in the unlikely setting of pre-coed Princeton, for he soon “fell ill” with Addison’s disease, the sickness that would “continue to plague him for the rest of his life.” As a result, he missed most of the school year and enrolled at Harvard in 1936.

While most of the letters in this collection were written by the candidate or senator or president and will be of primary interest to historians, the exchange with Inga Arvad offers a teasing glimpse of the protagonist of the novel Norman Mailer imagined but never wrote, an existential adventurer with style and wit and a political agenda. Mailer tested the idea in “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” the Esquire essay on the 1960 Democratic Convention projecting candidate Kennedy as “‘your first hipster’ … a man who has lived with death, who, crippled in the back, took on an operation which would kill him or restore him to power, who chose to marry a lady whose face might be too imaginative for the taste of a democracy which likes its first ladies to be executives of home-management, a man who courts political suicide by choosing to go all out for a nomination four, eight, or 12 years before his political elders think he is ready, a man who announces a week prior to the convention that the young are better fitted to direct history than the old.”

Jack and Inga

Inga Arvad (1913-1973) was a Danish journalist who met Jack Kennedy (1917-1963) through his sister Kathleen when both women were working for the Washington Times Herald. Winner of a beauty contest at 16, she competed for the Miss Europe title a year later, around the time she eloped with an Egyptian diplomat, divorced him and in 1936 married Hungarian-born Paul Fejos, director of the silent classic Lonesome (in later life she married movie cowboy Tim McCoy, settled down in Hollywood, and raised a family). She was still married to Fejos when the romance with Kennedy began in November 1940. The FBI took an interest in the affair after the U.S. entered the war and it was discovered that Inga had conducted several sympathetic interviews with Adolph Hitler. That, and a photo of Inga and Hitler at the Summer Olympics, was all it took for her to be cast as a German spy. Hotel rooms were bugged, with FBI agents listening in, compiling transcripts indicating that besides making a whole lot of love, Jack and Inga took the relationship seriously, Kennedy with thoughts of annulling both her marriages so he could wed her in the Catholic Church, Inga with thoughts of carrying his baby (“you are the kind the world ought to swarm with”).

In the only letter from Arvad in the collection, she sounds at once amorous, sisterly, and maternal when she describes “the young handsome Boston Bean” who “when you talk to him or see him you always have the impression that his big white teeth are ready to bite off a huge hunk of life.” Her advice to him has an almost Emersonian ring: “Go up the steps of fame. But — pause now and then to make sure that you are accompanied by happiness. Stop and ask yourself ‘Does it sing inside me today.’ If that is gone. Look around and don’t take another step till you are certain life is as you will and want it.”

Kennedy’s reference to “the feeling that no matter what happened I’d get through” echoes the wording of an earlier letter to his parents describing the man in his PT-109 crew who “always seemed to have the feeling that something was going to happen to him …. When a fellow gets the feeling that he’s in for it, the only thing to do is let him get off the boat because strangely enough, they always seem to be the ones that do get it.” Kennedy refers to the same man’s fate more explicitly in his letter to Inga: “He told me one night he thought he was going to be killed …. He was in the forward gun turret when the destroyer hit us.”

A Ranch in Texas?

In view of the day in Dallas when the survivor who had lived with death finally failed to “get through,” the most curious reference in the letter is when he tells Inga “you said you figured that I’d go to Texas and write my experiences. I wouldn’t go near a book like that. This thing is so stupid that while it has a sickening fascination for some of us, myself included, I want to leave it far behind when I go.”

With the 50th anniversary of the assassination looming (this year, as it did in 1963, November 22 falls on a Friday), the mention of Texas requires at least a moment or two of reflection. Without access to the other letters, there’s no way to track down previous references to the possibility that Kennedy might have considered going to Texas to write a book about his wartime experience. According to Michael O’Brien’s biography of Kennedy, he discussed presidential ambitions with Inga as early as 1941 and was “torn between postwar dreams of moving to a ranch out west or pursuing an extraordinary political ambition.” Inga was “quite convinced that he had it in him to become president if he set his mind to it.” She saw “the ranch out West” as an alternative to “the highway to the White House,” and “out West” presumably could mean Texas. Considering the labyrinth of coincidence and conspiracy surrounding the assassination, perhaps someone will do some research on whether Kennedy ever imagined a life for himself on a ranch in Texas.

In his preface to the letters from May-October 1963, Sandler cites the various warnings Kennedy received about a visit to Dallas in the third week of November. A member of the Democratic National Committee from Texas said that the city “simply wasn’t safe for Kennedy and should be avoided.” When Senator William Fulbright repeated the warning and advised him not to go, “Kennedy responded by saying that if any president ever reached the point where he was afraid to visit any American city, he should immediately resign.”

More Than a Celebrity

A month ago in the October 22 New York Times Book Review, there was a piece on “Kennedy the Elusive President” discussing the “Kennedy fixation” that has inspired “an estimated 40,000 books.” One of the biographers, Robert Dallek, told the Times that “the mass audience has turned Kennedy into a celebrity, so historians are not really impressed by him,” seeing him “more as a celebrity who didn’t accomplish very much.”

Kennedy was more than a celebrity, he was a star, which is one reason why even as history books are negatively reassessing his administration, he still enjoys the highest approval rating among presidents of the 20th-21st centuries.

The 60s had begun with the frigid weather of the inauguration, a bareheaded old poet reciting, a bareheaded young president declaiming. After the shots in Dallas, it was if the decade had been cut down in its tracks with the man who had symbolically set it in motion. A few months later, on February 7, 1964, four young men from Liverpool arrived in America and for many of us, the 60s, for better or worse, stood up and got moving again.


November 13, 2013

book revBorn on this day, November 13, 1850, in Edinburgh, Robert Louis Stevenson was writing The Weir of Hermiston when he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on December 3, 1894, in Samoa. He dedicated the unfinished novel to his wife Fanny:

Take thou the writing: thine it is. For who

Burnished the sword, blew on the drowsy coal,

Held still the target higher, chary of praise

And prodigal of counsel — who but thou?

So now, in the end, if this the least be good,

If any deed be done, if any fire

Burn in the imperfect page, the praise be thine.

Although Stevenson considered his marriage “the best move I ever made in my life,” he described Fanny, in a letter to J.M. Barrie written the year before he died, as “a violent friend, a brimstone enemy.”

“Damn Queer”

Painted at Bournemouth in the summer of 1885, John Singer Sargent’s portrait, Robert Louis Stevenson and his Wife, which was on loan to the Princeton Art Museum some years ago, has to be one of the strangest images Sargent ever put on canvas. For one thing, Mrs. Stevenson is seated off to the side, at first glance barely distinguishable from the decor, so much so that she draws attention to herself by almost not being there. This frame from a home movie on pause may say more than the painter intended about the couple’s relationship, though Sargent seemed in amused agreement when Fanny observed, “I am but a cipher under the shadow.” Stevenson looks too thin to cast more than a sliver of shadow. He’s wandering away from his wife, not deliberately, but as if he were following the course of a stray thought. In his own account, he judged the painting “excellent” but “damn queer as a whole” and “too eccentric to be exhibited. I am at one extreme corner; my wife in this wild dress, and looking like a ghost, is at the extreme other end.” Draped in a colorful Indian fabric, with one bare foot just peeping through, Fanny resembles not so much a ghost as a spaced-out gypsy dancing girl cooling her heels. The portrait may be to blame for the rumor that Mrs. Stevenson showed up barefoot at London dinner parties.

Books Without Women

In an essay in the April 1888 Century Magazine, Henry James, who was a frequent guest when the Stevensons were living in Bournemouth, points out that Stevenson “achieves his best effects” in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde “without the aid of the ladies …. It is usually supposed that a truly poignant impression cannot be made without them, but in the drama of Mr. Hyde’s fatal ascendancy they remain altogether in the wing.”

It’s no surprise that the author of The Portrait of a Lady and creator of numerous memorable female characters would be sensitive to their absence in Stevenson, as he noted at the outset of the same essay. After describing the “gallantry” of Stevenson’s style (“as if language were a pretty woman” and the author “something of a Don Juan”), James goes on to observe that “it is rather odd that a striking feature” of Stevenson’s gallant nature is “an absence of care for things feminine. His books are for the most part books without women, and it is not women who fall most in love with them.” James surmises that “It all comes back to his sympathy with the juvenile, and that feeling about life which leads him to regard women as so many superfluous girls in a boy’s game …. Why should a person marry, when he might be swinging a cutlass or looking for a buried treasure? Why should he go to the altar when he might be polishing his prose?”

In “real life” and real time (1880), Stevenson pursued Fanny all the way to California with the fervor of a cutlass-wielding, treasure-hunting action hero, risking everything, health, funds, work, parental disfavor, crossing an ocean and a continent to track her down and win her hand, though doing so meant taking responsibility for three children from her previous marriage.

Contrary to the situation pictured by Sargent, Fanny was an immensely formative force in Stevenson’s life. She was nearly as close to his work as he was, his first reader, his conscience, his antagonist. The writing he’s known and loved for, from Treasure Island on, was accomplished when she was by his side. How intimidating, then, to attempt to form a fictional woman when a very real and fearlessly judgmental one is peering over your shoulder. After reading the first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Fanny was not only underwhelmed, she questioned the essence of his approach to the tale so heatedly that it led to “an almighty row,” after which, to Fanny’s horror, he threw the entire manuscript on the fire, having decided that she was right. The novel the world knows (or thinks it knows, given the liberties taken by various film versions) was written to address Fanny’s reservations about the first draft and in particular her insistence that he undertake to develop the “moral allegory” implicit in the situation.

In a letter to Henry James quoted in Claire Harman’s suggestively titled biography, Myself & the Other Fellow (2005), Stevenson describes the back and forth between husband/author and wife/critic, she “who is not without art: the art of extracting the gloom of the eclipse from sunshine.” He goes on to recount a recent falling out: “she tackled me savagely for being a canary-bird; I replied (bleatingly) protesting that there was no use in turning life into King Lear …. The beauty was we each thought the other quite unscathed at first. But we had dealt shrewd stabs.” No wonder Stevenson would call Fanny “the violent friend” and “brimstone enemy,” addressing her in letters as “Dear weird woman” and “my dear fellow.” In the same 1893 letter to J.M. Barrie he admitted, “She runs the show … handsome waxen face like Napoleon’s, insane black eyes, boy’s hands, tiny bare feet, a cigarette …. Hellish energy …. Is always either loathed or slavishly adored. The natives think her uncanny and the devils serve her. Dreams dreams, and sees visions.”

Maybe by now you’re thinking, as I am, “What a fantastic challenge such a character would be for any novelist.” Never mind James. Think Balzac or Dostoevsky or Proust.

From all accounts, Henry James knew Fanny better than did Stevenson’s other friends. He routinely added his “love” to her at the close of his letters, and the long letter he sent her after Stevenson’s death in December 1894 was warm and caring, yet he privately confessed to thinking her “a poor, barbarous and merely instinctive lady,” characterizing her to Owen Wister as “a strange California wife … if you like the gulch & the canyon, you will like her.” James’s invalid sister Alice compared her to “an organ grinder’s appendage” (her way of not saying “monkey”), with so large an ego that it “produced the strangest feeling of being in the presence of an unclothed being” (her way of not saying “naked”). Obviously, such comments say as much about James and his sister as they do about Fanny, but words like “barbarous,” the monkey reference, and Stevenson’s own use of “weird,” “insane,” “uncanny,” “devils,” “dreams,” “visions,” and “hellish energy” indicate qualities Mrs. Stevenson shares with Mr. Hyde. It was she, after all, who heard her husband’s scream and came to wake him when he was being consumed by the nightmare that inspired the transformation of Jekyll into Hyde.

Below Him

No less weird, uncanny, and barbarous is the P.S. that Stevenson appended to a letter praising Roderick Hudson, one of James’s lesser works. After prefacing the crude blow he’s about to strike as “a burst of the diabolic” (a Hyde-like note) he says, “I must break out with the news that I can’t bear The Portrait of a Lady …. I can’t stand your having written it; and I beg you will write no more of the like …. I can’t help it — it may be your favorite work, but in my eyes it’s BELOW YOU to write and me to read.”

This assault on a novel already being acknowledged as James’s masterpiece is wildly out of character. Perhaps Stevenson had had one drink too many. What was he thinking? What could have brought it on? More bewildered than hurt (“My dear Louis, I don’t think I follow you here — why does that work move you to such scorn?”), James knows better than to take it any further (“I feel as if it were almost gross to defend myself”). If nothing else, the outburst underscores the fundamental division James touched on when noting the “absence of care for things feminine” in Stevenson’s work, a point he comes back to decades later in his preface to the New York edition of The Portrait. Addressing the difficulty some novelists have with making a female character “the center of interest,” he observes that “even, in the main, so subtle a hand as that of R. L. Stevenson, has preferred to leave the task unattempted.”

Last Words

There’s no evidence that the female character at the heart of Stevenson’s last work, The Weir of Hermiston, was a considered response to James. If anything, making Christina Elliott “the center of interest” was a tribute to Fanny, as “the praise be thine” dedication implies. When the narrative breaks off in the ninth chapter, Christina is in emotional disarray, furious because the man she adores has come to her not to make love but “to trace out a line of conduct” for them “in a few cold, convincing sentences.” Her response is to subject him to “a savage cross-examination” that must have evoked smiles in readers familiar with the dynamic of Stevenson’s marriage, the “canary bird” meets King Lear.

The last passage Stevenson was ever to write, dictated to his stepdaughter the day he died, begins with a sentimental cliche with juvenile overtones (“He took the poor child in his arms”) — until “He felt her whole body shaken by the throes of distress, and had pity upon her beyond speech. Pity, and at the same time a bewildered fear of this explosive engine in his arms, whose works he did not understand, and yet had been tampering with. There arose from before him the curtains of boyhood, and he saw for the first time the ambiguous face of woman as she is. In vain he looked back over the interview; he saw not where he had offended. It seemed unprovoked, a wilful convulsion of brute nature ….”

And so everything ends with those two scarily resonant words.

It’s all there, as James would undoubtedly have recognized, from “the curtains of boyhood” to the “face of woman as she is.”


November 6, 2013

book revAccording to David Waldstein’s story, “Trying to Outrun the Cardinals’ Long Reach” (New York Times, October 29), “the penetrating strength” of 50,000 watt radio station KMOX is said to reach 44 states and “as far away as the Netherlands, East Africa, and Guam, spreading the gospel of St. Louis Cardinals baseball across the planet.”

After tuning his car radio to 1120 AM for the broadcast of Game Four of the 2013 World Series, Waldstein headed south to see if he could “outdrive the signal before the end of the game.” KMOX prevailed, “The Voice of St. Louis” clearly audible in Horn Lake, Mississippi as Cardinal broadcaster Mike Shannon gave his shocked account of the pick-off play ending the action in Boston’s favor, the turning point in the six-game battle that the Red Sox would eventually win. You can hear the call for yourself if you check out the story at, which includes a map of Waldstein’s 600-mile trip and additional audio samples of the quality of the reception in Marion, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee.

As a lifelong Cardinals fan, I was pleased to read that Bill Clinton grew up listening to the Redbirds “on a transistor radio hidden beneath his pillow in Hope, Arkansas” at the same time I was tuning in broadcasts in Bloomington, Indiana. But my most strenuous and determined transistor radio seances occurred in Princeton during the “Running Redbirds” era of the mid-1980s when the only way to keep track of a night game was to invest serious quantities of body English in the little SONY, holding it high and low, sweeping it westward, going outdoors to aim it at the summer sky, as if maybe the KMOX signal was bouncing off Venus — I was doing everything but standing on my head to decipher the play by play of Jack Buck and his then-sidekick Shannon, who played for the Cardinals’ 1964 and 1967 World Championship teams. Shannon has a big hearty voice with lots of grit in it and an expressive, salt-of-the-earth style that to me conjures up the Cardinal glory days of Dizzy Dean and the Gashouse Gang.

After all my transistory gyrations came to nought, my only recourse was to get in the car and follow the signal, like a pilgrim pursuing the holy light, but as often as not just when a rally was brewing in the bottom of the ninth inning, a redneck voice from a West Virginia station would horn in, or else it would be the ravings of some hysterical Evangelical or simply a prolonged storm of static that would bury KMOX until the game ended with Jack Buck’s exalted mantra, “That’s a winner!”

Listening in England

When I bought a ticket for a mid-October flight to London last March I realized I was going to be out of the country during the heart of the post-season and so naturally wondered if I could watch baseball over there. Thus I found myself on Friday, October 18, at 1 a.m. searching through a dizzying assortment of channels on the TV at the flat I was renting. No luck. It looked as though I was going miss Game Six of the National League Championship Series with the Cardinals only a win away from capturing the pennant. I stared helplessly at the remote. Surely I could find the magic hidden in this wand. In a fit of mindless desperation I decided to go backwards, something I’ve never done on a television set in my life. With cable, there is a backwards, and in England the backward channels are audio only, so, feeling a glimmer of hope, I clicked back from BBC One, back, back until, wonder of wonders, I found the game and a minute later heard a familiar voice that seemed to ride a transatlantic beam from KMOX — Mike Shannon doing the play by play by way of BBC Five Live Sports. I expected to stay up all night, but fortune was smiling and the Cardinals soon staked the phenomenal rookie pitcher Michael Wacha to a 9-0 lead over the Dodgers. At 3:15 a.m. I figured it was safe to turn the TV off and go to sleep.

Theater of the Absurd

You can talk all you want to about the nostalgia value of cozying up to games huddled around the radio, but when it comes to being in the middle of the action, television can’t be beat, and Game 3 of the World Series, which happened the night I got back to the States, was something you had to see to believe. When the dust of the ninth inning cleared, Alan Craig of the Cardinals was lying near home plate surrounded by players and umpires and coaches as if he’d been hit by a car on his way from third to home with the winning run. Forgotten in the Obstruction Call chaos that followed were the Kirk-Gibson-like heroics of Craig’s clutch hit. After missing most of September and all of the NLDS and NLCS with an injured foot, he came limping off the bench to face the Red Sox’s lights-out closer, Koji Uehara, and drove the first pitch into left for a double. The bizarre turn of events that followed gave Craig the curious distinction of producing, in effect, the game-winning hit before the third out had been made and then scoring the game-winning run while seemingly being thrown out at home plate.

YouTube is replete with reruns of the play that turned Busch Stadium into a Theatre of the Absurd. Yadier Molina is on third, Craig on second when John Jay’s grounder is fielded by Dustin Pedroia, who easily nails Molina at home. Meanwhile Boston’s catcher Saltalamacchia sees the hobbled Craig galumphing toward third base like an albatross with broken wings, and excited by the prospect of a sure inning-ending double play he throws, but way wild, to the third baseman Middlebrook, who is sprawled on the base path reaching for the throw as Craig comes stumbling into third, where he would normally be able to touch base and head for home. But there are no bridges over Middlebrook and to make matters worse Middlebrook raises his legs as Craig attempts to crawl over him toward victory. Umpire John Joyce, who has a way of being in the middle of landmark events, makes the obstruction call, the Red Sox briefly freak out, and a must-see clip is stashed away for any future anthology of World Series highlights.

That was not a play you want to hear on the radio (or read about here), unless maybe it could be written up and recited by Franz Kafka.

Tortoise Talk

Most Cardinal fans knew that while all this chaos was swirling about, Alan Craig’s pet tortoise was watching from the dugout and making comments on his Torty Craig Facebook page. You can imagine how Torty felt watching his namesake slog it out on the bases, tumbling over Middlebrook, only to crawl with tortoise tenacity toward home: “The Red Sox tripped Master Allen. It was obstruction! I just hope Master Allen is OK! I’M SO PROUD OF MASTER ALLEN!!!!!!!!!!”

Actually, you don’t have to be a Cardinal fan to enjoy Torty’s blog. A favorite refrain is inspired by the stellar play-off hitting of Carlos Beltran, as in “The Beltran tolls for thee, dread Pirate Liriano!” Or, for the pitching of Michael Wacha: “It’s The Hunt for Red Wachtober!” After winning the NLDS, Torty prepares to join the celebration: “Master Allen handed me my tortoise poncho. Now let us charge once more into the champagne void!” When Torty’s injured master is inserted into the starting lineup for Game Four in spite of the beating he took the previous night, he celebrates by joining pitcher Adam Wainwright “in a synchronized dancing of the Sprain with Master Allen performing Lisa Turtle’s moves and Wainwright doing Screech’s [from the sitcom Saved by the Bell].” The entire team “burst into applause at the end of the routine,” and, as in a baseball movie, the Cardinals GM John Mozeliak entered in a panic lest Craig reinjure his injury. “We were careful,” said Wainwright. “We were dancing the Sprain.”

Perhaps they were having too much fun, for it was all downhill for the Cards after Game 3, and there is a conspicuous gap in Torty postings until he congratulates the Red Sox (“a worthy foe and deserving champions”).

Love and Hate

When my father drove us 250 miles to St. Louis for the first Cardinal game I ever saw, we stayed the night at the Mayfair Hotel. On the morning of the game, we were riding the elevator down to the lobby with a big sweaty man in a dark suit who was complaining about the heat and the city.

“God, I hate St. Louis!” he growled.

Someone hates St. Louis??? I was 12. I couldn’t believe my ears. It was like we were in the Emerald City and someone said they hated Oz. “I love St. Louis!” I squeaked, glaring up at him while my embarrassed father, who was clueless about baseball, explained, “He’s a Cardinal fan, you see.”

This book review without a book involved a fair bit of reading, even so, including the story in the Times, Torty Craig’s Facebook page, the chapter on Obstruction in So You Think You Know About Baseball (Norton $16.95), and parts of Lucas Mann’s excellent new book, Class A Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Pantheon $26.95).


October 30, 2013

book revIn Bristol it all happened. I fell apart and found my own little pieces and put them together again …. It is the most beautiful city in Great Britain.

—Peter O’Toole

On Redland Hill in the city Peter O’Toole fell in love with while cutting his teeth as an actor at the Bristol Old Vic, there is a room with a view I keep returning to, as I did again last week. O’Toole also said that Bristol was such a fixation with him (“the city haunted me”) that he would make spur-of-the-moment drives there from London in the dead of night. I know the feeling. My wife and I bonded with Bristol when we lived there for a couple of years in the 1970s, and we’ve been haunted by it ever since.

The View in question deserves a capital letter. Simply reverse the title of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and you’ve got an idea of the priorities. The room is serviceable but the View is where you live. Great vistas abound in Bristol, most famously the dizzy-making spectacle of the Clifton Suspension Bridge spanning the rocky depths of the Avon Gorge, but this is something vast and brilliant and ever-changing that you can walk your mind around in, meditate on, memorize, and revel in from sunrise to sunset to midnight and beyond.

In the near distance, beyond the trees of the back garden, you behold a pleasing jumble of tile-roofs and chimney pots, housetops, and housefronts, rising to the middle distance and the Gothic tower of Bristol University, beyond it to the west the telecommunication masts that I saw as ships in the harbor, even though the docks were way down below. No matter, because one of the great appeals of Bristol is its history of playing fast and loose with reality. In addition to the schoolboy-genius-as-Medieval poet Thomas Chatterton, who pulled off the most accomplished of literary hoaxes, not to mention the laughing gas parties hosted by Sir Humphrey Davy where Robert Southey (“Davy has invented a new pleasure for which language has no name”) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (“I felt a highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame”) larked about, you have the part Bristol played as the apparition witnessed from the Brooks Range in Alaska by a party of climbers. Thousands of pictures of the phantom metropolis called The Silent City were sold by a crafty old prospector named Willoughby at the San Francisco International Exposition of 1894. It was eventually discovered that the incorrigible Willoughby had manufactured this lucrative vision from a photographic plate containing a view of Bristol taken from Brandon Hill.

My view sweeps Bristol from east to west, rising in terraced stages to the green hills of Somerset some ten miles distant. At night I can see the lights of cars driving along those hills, and one day last week when I asked my friend Roger what we would find were we to drive out there — “into the depths of the view” — he said Bath and Wells and some 20 or 25 miles farther on, the town of Nether Stowey, where Coleridge lived in 1897-1898 with his wife of two years and their infant son and wrote “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Long ago we’d hiked around the Lake Country searching out the sites S.T.C. had described in his notebooks, and since the next day was Monday, October 21, Coleridge’s 241st birthday, we knew where we were going — over those hills to Coleridge’s cottage at Nether Stowey and the Devon coast and the rocky beach of Watchet, where he and Wordsworth are said to have walked while brainstorming The Lyrical Ballads, one of the gateways to the Romantic Movement.

“The Ruined Man”

Of all the countries tourists have flocked to over the centuries the one most distinctly synonymous with great literature is surely England, home of Dickens and Shakespeare, “men who need no introduction.” When, however, Roger asked the young woman who works at his neighborhood market if she knew who Coleridge was, she admitted never having heard of him, or of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Next time Roger saw her she admitted to having “looked ’im up online,” interested to see he’d lived here in Bristol as a young man “way back in the ancient times.” Married at St. Mary Redcliffe, bad marriage. Oh, and he was an opium addict. Made a mess of his life. A glorious mess. Thomas Carlyle once patronized him as “a man of great and useless genius” and T.S. Eliot presumed to call one of the great minds of the 19th century “a ruined man,” before wisely adding that “Sometimes, however, to be a ‘ruined man’ is itself a vocation.”

Probably there should be a pub somewhere in Coleridge country called The Ruined Man. In Nether Stowey, there is, no surprise, a pub called The Ancient Mariner. After arriving at the Coleridge cottage and garden on a misty murky morning that would have chilled, warmed, or at least enlarged the Mariner’s embattled heart, we found that the place had been thoroughly arranged, decorated, and curated by the National Trust. Roger wasted no time making himself at home by the red glow of the hearth in the front room whilst expounding on his theory that the site of the Mariner’s “own countree,” the harbor where his weird adventure began and ended (“Below the kirk, below the hill, below the lighthouse top”) was not and could never have been Lynmouth or Minehead or even Watchet, ten miles away, but had to be Uphill, on the Bristol Channel. The fiftyish National Trust guide nodded politely though it was clearly in his best interests that the Mariner’s port be Watchet.

When we remarked on the fact that today was Coleridge’s birthday the man overseeing Coleridge’s cottage was taken aback. “Is it really?” he said, understandably wary of information divulged by a couple of former hitchhikers with more than a weather-beaten touch of Ancient Mariner about them. (Later, we heard him enthusing to his staff, “It actually is his birthday! Perhaps we should do something!”)

Wouldn’t you think the people at Coleridge’s house would have drawn a circle around October 21 on the calendar? The whole place was brilliantly, thoughtfully set up, even to the point of putting a cradle by the hearth in that front room. Those with knowledge of S.T.C.’s poetry will recognize the image from “Frost at Midnight,” which was written in that place (whose “inmates … all at rest,/Have left me to that solitude, which suits/Abstruser musings”) and where “my cradled infant slumbers peacefully.” The mood of the moment — a man alone at night, transfixed by the way the “thin blue flame” lies “on the low-burnt fire” — is the essence of the person I’ve visited so often over the years in his letters and diaries and marginalia (published magnificently by Princeton University Press), outside the formal constructs he customarily ignored. And our hosts had actually replicated the thin blue flame. I mean, the place was brimming with Coleridgiana, his writing desk, his quill pen, a lock of his hair, a number of painted portraits, manuscripts, the first edition of The Lyrical Ballads, wherein the “Rime” first appeared, and think of it, if two amateur readers, a grey-bearded Yank and a busking Brit, hadn’t walked in the door, the significance of the day would have been lost to the folks in charge of Coleridge’s cottage.

From Nether Stowey we drove to Watchet. Though the harbor there is clearly not the model for the one described in the “Rime,” the esplanade features a suitably grim, twisted statue of the Ancient Mariner by Scottish sculptor Alan B. Herriot. Earlier, we’d walked on the stony shore along the bleak, brackish Severn estuary where Coleridge and Wordsworth talked out the Lyrical Ballads.

Getting to Know S.T.C.

When I discovered Coleridge in my mid-teens, the note that prefaced “Kubla Khan,” one of the only poems I ever voluntarily memorized, said that after consuming the opium brandy otherwise known as laudanum, the poet had nodded off dreaming of Xanadu and a “stately pleasure dome … where Alph the sacred river ran, down through caverns measureless to man.” Upon waking, he’d begun writing the poem, only to be interrupted by the now infamous Person from Porlock.

Me, right now I’m dreaming of the View and the Silent City. No opium required. I prefer to dismiss the hoax theory. Just travel online to The Rough Guide to Unexplained Phenomena: “One of the attractions of Alaska is that its local sky is peculiarly receptive to images of the city of Bristol in England.”

What a thought. A receptive sky. A sky as haunted by Bristol as I am.

In New Lands (1923) Charles Fort quotes a report in the Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society 27-158: “That every year between June 21 and July 10, a ‘phantom city’ appears in the sky, over a glacier in Alaska; that features of it had been recognized as buildings in the city of Bristol, England.”

Painting of Bristol, Clifton Suspension Bridge, is by Claude Buckle. The Peter O’Toole quotes are from Conversations, a book of interviews by Roy Newquist (Rand McNally 1967) 


October 16, 2013

DVD revBefore I plunge into a column on Giuseppi Verdi, whose 200th birthday was last Wednesday, I have to admit that it’s taken me an embarrassingly long time to come to my senses about opera. A random search on YouTube just now brought me to the Guardian music blog’s birthday celebration in which aficionados were asked to send a clip of their favorite Verdi moment. At the top of the list was a black and white video of Maria Callas as Violetta in a 1958 Lisbon production of Verdi’s La Traviata said to be “precious beyond price” because it’s the only surviving film of Callas “in a role she made her own.” The opening image of people in period dress — a party scene where no one looks comfortable, everything posed, stagey, static — shows that what made it hard for me to get into opera at a time when I was able to appreciate other forms of classical music was that it seemed to take itself so seriously — so much that it made you want to see Groucho and Harpo and Chico set loose on the scene, as M-G-M did so devastatingly in A Night at the Opera.

Opera suggests life on the grand scale. The first opera I ever saw, at 19, was a production of Puccini’s Turandot at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, where the scale was so grand that it got in the way of the music. Rome overwhelmed it. And the surroundings! I mean, Orson Welles was sitting five rows in front of me. My parents bought me an LP of the highlights for my birthday, but all I wanted to hear after that first summer in Europe were songs like “Nel blu dipinto di blu.”

The way Dominic Modugno’s “Volare” swept Europe that summer, on the street, in the air, everywhere, was a throwback to what happened the day after a new opera by Verdi (1813-1901) was performed, when his songs could be heard sung and played on the street by singers, bands, and organ grinders. Verdi was composing the equivalent of hits a century before “Volare.” Of course one of the stereotypes of Italy is that people of all social classes are mad for opera. One of my most memorable hitchhiking experiences was a ride to Naples with a neatly dressed man (suit and tie, expensive-looking footwear) who turned out to be an insurance salesman, and before you could say “Giuseppi Verdi” he was singing “Libiamo, libiamo” from La Traviata and singing it, to my untrained ear, magnificently. Having just seen Placido Domingo sing it in Franco Zefferelli’s spectacular 1982 film of that opera, I have no doubt that was the song — how could I forget? We were on the Amalfi Drive, winding around cliff edge curves, the singing salesman steering with one hand while lofting an invisible goblet with the other.

Setting It in Motion

Zefferelli’s La Traviata presents sensations no opera house in the world could create. After the rich dark depths of the funereal opening, in which Violetta (Teresa Stratas), the “strayed woman” of the title, seems to come back from the dead, Zefferalli sets everything in motion. No one’s standing around looking pompous or posed or static, the party’s in a whirl, the very lamps and candelabras seem to sing and shine and glow like gold. The camera makes music of movement, sweeping you here and there but always smoothly, always true to and in synch with the melodic contours of the sequence. What Zefferelli does with the great party and masquerade scenes in La Traviata was so intoxicating (sheer ecstasy of imagery, no wasted spaces, nothing left to mundane chance, every detail at once subtle and vivid, as if the very molecules had been painted with light) that I didn’t fully appreciate Teresa Stratas’s charming, passionate, down to earth Violetta. Slightly built, with a very expressive Greek face, which becomes irresistible whenever Zefferelli brings the camera into kissing range, Stratas is like one of the great courtesans from Balzac’s Lost Illusions come to life. There’s no way not to love this woman when she’s singing full out and feeling every note. And when the doomed beauty lets go and scampers wildly about that incredible interior — a fantasy of elegance even Balzac would be hard put to describe — singing of ecstasy, madness, freedom, and euphoria, “love a heartbeat through the universe,” she has you believing it.

The Social Masquerade

The experience of reading Frank Walker’s 1962 biography of Verdi has in common with Stratas and Zefferelli’s Traviata the shining central presence of a charming, intelligent, articulate woman, Giuseppina Strepponi, an acclaimed soprano in her time who came to Verdi with a shady reputation not unlike Violetta’s. The most interesting portions of Walker’s book are built around long letters from Strepponi, Verdi’s second wife, who called herself “your Nuisance” and “Peppina” and called him “my Pasticcio.” Their relationship began in 1847 and continued until her death in 1897. Her letters are full of fancy and feeling, warmth and wit (an entire chapter is titled “Giuseppiana at her Writing Desk”). In one, she expresses her less than positive feelings about Verdi’s hometown Bussetto (“And to think that that lofty soul of yours came spontaneously to lodge in the body of a Bussetano”) and prefers to imagine that “an exchange took place in your childhood and that you came into existence as the result of some sweet lapse of two unhappy and superior beings.” She goes on to a statement that seems to reflect the milieu of La Traviata: “We are still the whole world to each other and watch with high compassion all the human puppets rushing about, climbing up, slipping down, fighting, hiding, reappearing — all to try to put themselves at the head or among the first few places, of the social masquerade.”

In another letter, after referring to the esteemed Verdi who “goes to pay calls on ministers of state and ambassadors,” she writes that “many times I am quite surprised that you know anything about music! However divine that art and however worthy your genius of the art you profess, yet the talisman that fascinates me and that I adore in you is your character, your heart, your indulgence for the mistakes of others while you are so severe with yourself, your charity, full of modesty and mystery, your proud independence, and your boyish simplicity — qualities proper to that nature of yours, which has been able to preserve a primal virginity of ideas and sentiments in the midst of the human cloaca!”

“Let’s Do ‘Falstaff’”

Decades later when Verdi was approaching 80, the opera legend Adelina Patti observed that “he only looks sixty … jolly and gay as a lad.” Obviously Patti was picking up on the spirited overflow from the composition of Falstaff, which Verdi came to refer to as “The Big Belly” and began when he was 79. “What a joy!” he wrote to Boito, his liberettist. “To be able to say to the Audience: ‘We are here again! Come and see us!’ So be it. Let’s do Falstaff! Let’s not think of obstacles, of age, of illness!” The zany pacing and rhythms of the score are reflected in the madcap style Verdi gives to his accounts of it: “The Big Belly is on the road to madness. There are some days when he does not move, he sleeps, and is in bad humor; at other times he shouts, runs, jumps, and tears the place apart.  I let him act up a bit, but if he goes on like this I will put him in a muzzle and a straitjacket.”

Falstaff was a triumph. The ovation at La Scala lasted a half hour. Boito said “All the Milanese are becoming citizens of Windsor [the opera was based primarily on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor].” When it was over, Verdi celebrated it in the same terms: “Everything ends! Alas, alas! too soon! The thought is too sad! It’s all Big Belly’s fault. What madness! Everyone … everything on earth is a joke!”

Verdi died at the age of 88 on January 27, 1891. At the funeral service in Milan, Toscanini conducted orchestras and choirs composed of musicians from throughout Italy. To date, it is said to have been the largest public assembly of any event in the history of Italy, with a crowd of 200,000.

Besides Frank Walker’s Verdi the Man (Knopf 1962), I consulted Mary Jane Philips-Martz’s Verdi: A Biography (Oxford 1995). Zefferelli’s films of  Verdi’s La Traviata and Otello are available on DVD at the Princeton Public Library.


October 9, 2013

DVD revYou never know. Somehow a column marking Giuseppi Verdi’s 200th birthday has gone astray and broken bad. What could possibly justify putting the man who gave us Rigoletto, Falstaff, and La Traviata on hold for another week? How about the concluding episode of Breaking Bad? So much for high art, right? Joe Green meet Walter White.

It begins to look as though the theme of this column is why not have Verdi, Shakespeare, Bryan Cranston, Badfinger, high art, pop art, rock and roll, Faustus and Mephistophles, Violetta and Walt singing and dancing and scheming in the same 1800-word opera house? Verdi grew up in a tavern, after all, and returned to his roots at 80 for the tavern scenes in Falstaff, where the title character embodies the highs and lows of art and expounds on the joys of getting divinely drunk: “A good sherris-sack hath a twofold operation in it. It ascends me into the brain, dries me there all the foolish and dull and crudy vapors which environ it, makes it apprehensive, quick, forgetive, full of nimble, fiery, and delectable shapes, which, delivered o’er to the voice, the tongue, which is the birth, becomes excellent wit.”

Now right on cue here comes Walter Pater reminding me that all art “aspires to a condition of music” and I’m thinking how well that describes the aspiring, ascending final moment of Vince Gilligan’s phenomenal series, which just ended its five-year run on AMC with an audience said to number 10.3 million. When Frank Capra came to Princeton to talk to some film students, his main message was that all the art in the world that ever mattered was popular. Ten million people in one night, not to mention all those who saw Breaking Bad on DVD or On Demand or who streamed it or dreamed it — that’s popular!

“Baby Blue”

Right now after a week of having Badfinger’s freshly resurrected hit from 1972 playing in my head, I keep hearing “Follie! Follie!” (“Madness! Madness!”) from the first act of Zeferelli’s lavish 1983 film version of La Traviata. Admitted, the music the other Walter had in mind was a long way from “Baby Blue,” the song that Breaking Bad aspired and ascended to the other Sunday. But how good it felt to recognize the opening chords, then the descending bass line, to know the song even before you could name it, a surge of melodic rock and roll excitement lifted over the top with a camera movement that was nothing less than operatic (lest we forget whose birthday this is). Suddenly you find yourself rising above the concluding image of a show defined by the richness of its imagery, looking down as if from a Paris Opera chandelier with the fallen phantom way below. That crane shot and the choice of “Baby Blue” was the defining stroke of genius in a show propelled by its own brilliance, like a Catherine wheel Vince Gilligan set spinning when Bush was still in the White House. For cinematography alone, the saga of a high school science teacher in Albuquerque who took his life to another level as the master chef of crystal blue meth is an outstanding work of art.

Now that I think of it, a fascinating opera could be composed around Walter White’s Mephistophelian journey, with arias and choruses featuring the downtrodden scientific genius, his family, his former D-student helper, his underworld associates and enemies, clowns and kingpins, and the fire that consumes them.

The Right Song

According to a story in Rolling Stone, Vince Gilligan’s music team didn’t agree with his choice of Badfinger’s rocker. Numerous songs with titles playing on blue meth were suggested, including no doubt Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and Tommy James’s “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Profiting from the stir created by Breaking Bad, Badfinger’s prototypical piece of Power Pop, the polar opposite of Dave Porter’s succinct, hypnotically sinister opening theme, is on the verge of entering the Billboard Top 100, with a nearly 3000 percent sales gain in the week following the September 29 showing; in the 11 hours immediately after the finale, according to Spotify, global streams of the song were up 9,000 percent. The hint of media mania also reflects a reprise of the Beatles magic that gave an early glow to their Welsh proteges. Not only was Badfinger the first group signed to the Apple label, it took its name from John Lennon, who used to riff on his “Bad Finger Boogie.”

Breaking Blue

The breaking bad downside is that Pete Ham, the song’s composer and lead singer, hanged himself in 1975, three years after “Baby Blue” was released. Tom Evans, whose bass line gave the song its signature, took his life in the same manner in 1983, three years after the murder of John Lennon. The crook who stole the group blind and helped sink it (he was actually named in Pete Ham’s suicide note) would have been at home in the cut-throat world of Gilligan’s Albuquerque where the show’s crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) provides all kinds of unlawful advice along with indispensable comic relief. A sign of Saul’s popularity is that Odenkirk is under contract to AMC for a spinoff series tentatively titled “Better Call Saul.”

Not all of Breaking Bad’s followers go along with the ending. The show that rocks its way off the stage has given us hell on earth, plumbed depths of evil, created paintings on film as savage as they are beautiful, shot through with outrages like the raspberry slushie, the pink teddy bear, and the severed-head-of-a-drug-dealer-aboard an exploding tortoise. At the same time, Badfinger’s jubilant, undaunted song underscores the recognition that Walt himself finally articulates in the closing episode, that he’s an unapologetic genius who sinned mightily going to the limit for his art, which in the end was not merely for money and family but for himself.


So how do we define or relate to or properly appreciate Breaking Bad? In Alan Sepinwall’s Hitfix blog, which is heading toward a thousand comments, most respondents make generally positive value judgments about the finale, debating plot elements, unresolved twists and turns, loose threads, speculating on the fates of supporting characters, fools and knaves, bodyguards and hitmen. The level of analytical involvement made me think of the brave new world of teaching the critic Richard Poirier was proposing around the time he wrote The Performing Self (1970). Poirier’s goal was to open the study of literature to elements of popular culture and compelling subjects like sports, video games, technology, advertising, making the most of everyday interests and enthusiasms undergraduates and graduate students could engage with, therein leading them to the spontaneous practice of a primitive, but potentially productive form of analysis that could then be brought to bear on what they were reading. Right now the last comment on the Hitfix blog, from “Jerseyrudy” ends with a reference to everybody’s favorite analogy for ambiguity, the Mona Lisa: “it is a strength of any work of art that it can be open to different interpretations.” The Mona Lisa was also Frank Capra’s favorite example of Great Popular Art.

But how to classify enterprises as indisputably great as The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, and Breaking Bad? At the moment I can’t think of a film made in America since, say, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West that even comes close to what David Chase, David Milch, David Simon, and Vince Gilligan have somehow presided over, or as they put it, created. However many times you choose to see a motion picture in the course of your life, it’s not the same as living with characters and situations week to week, as did everyone who started watching Breaking Bad in January 2008.

Because viewers of the controversial closing episode of David Chase’s The Sopranos had been living with Tony Soprano for eight years, they felt they had a stake in his fate, and even now, for all I know, bloggers are still arguing about the unresolved ending — was that sudden cut to black a cop out or a masterstroke? Who can blame people after eight years of watching, eight years that included any number of near-death experiences for Tony? Thus the cumulative pressure on the last few minutes charges a superficially routine situation with extraordinary tension as Tony sits in a Bloomfield Avenue restaurant with his wife and son, waiting for his daughter to join them for dinner. As soon as Tony pushes the button for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ “ on the table-top jukebox selector, the tension becomes almost unbearable.

The instant the song starts playing it generates excitement similar to what happens when “Baby Blue” comes in at the end of Breaking Bad. Unlike viewers of The Sopranos, people who have been following Walt’s tempestuous career have the benefit of a resolution.

Celebrating Bryan Cranston

Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter White is worthy of superlatives beyond the usual, words like “courageous” and “heroic” that reflect our commitment to the character. Cranston puts us on Walt’s side, whether he’s doing evil or permitting evil to be done. Even at the moment when he passes the show’s most clear-cut moral point of no return, standing by as a young girl chokes to death, he’s not doing evil, he’s protecting his money, the fruit of his newfound creation, and his working relationship with Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) by letting nature take its deadly course. And it hurts. He suffers the moment like a cut to the quick of his humanity. Heroic actor, anti-heroic character, gifted creator, all are elements composing the chemistry of Breaking Bad.


October 2, 2013

Salinger final cover.JPGJ.D. Salinger’s refusal to publish anything in the 45 years between the June 19, 1965, issue of The New Yorker and his death at 91 in 2010 was disappointing, to  say the least. It was also frustrating, weird, unaccountable, and downright demoralizing if, like me, you’d been looking forward to the major work that could be intuited from “Hapworth 16, 1924,” a novella-length, flagrantly misunderstood tour de force, and the previous Glass family stories, Franny and Zooey (1961), Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction (1963), not to mention “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the piece of literary dynamite from 1948 that launched the series. Still, there was something awe-inspiring, even heroic, in Salinger’s sustained resistance to publishing, whether perceived as evidence of his respect for the discipline of Vedanta, his determination to focus on his work, or as a symbolic rejection of the distractions and follies of the book world.

Selling Salinger

And now here comes David Shields and Shane Salerno’s heavy-handed blockbuster Salinger (Simon and Schuster $37.50), which is hyped on the front cover as “The Official Book of the Acclaimed Documentary Film” that currently has a rating of 40 on Metacritic, only a point above “Generally Unfavorable.”

One problem Shields and Salerno (hereafter S&S) had to deal with was that they’d been beaten to the press by  a thoughtful, fully researched biography by Kenneth Slawenski highlighting one of their big selling points, Salinger’s wartime experience. So, the first thing S&S did was suck up the sour grapes and make a lame attempt to discredit Slawenski, the author of the first biography of Salinger since 1999, a book S&S undoubtedly used and then brazenly left out of their 35-page-long bibliography. That piece of bad form alone should make readers wary of the claims made and the information offered in S&S’s slipshod, almost 700-page-long hodgepodge of oral history, rumor, and negatively calibrated, shoot-from-the-hip criticism of Salinger’s life and work.

Presenting only the façade of a legitimate biography, S&S go all-out in the direction of a tabloid exposé, playing up the psychic damage of Salinger’s World War II ordeal, needlessly including five graphic photographs of concentration camp horrors. Besides making the most of Salinger’s consensual relationships with women who were often considerably younger than himself, they flog the absurd idea that The Catcher in the Rye was somehow complicit in the assassination of John Lennon, and they save a place of revelatory honor for the singular, unsubstantiated shocker of The Undescended Testicle.

And what’s the really big news S&S have going for them, news so many of us have been waiting for, news exciting enough to link the film and book to an event of worldwide literary significance? It’s the announcement by way of anonymous sources that J.D. Salinger actually produced a substantial amount of work during his years of silence, work scheduled to be published beginning in 2015. To burnish the revelation S&S boast that the new books will be “the masterworks for which he is forever known.” My italics are to emphasize the fact that earlier in their cranky opus S&S claim that Salinger was “destroyed” as an artist years before he could have written those masterworks. In the chapter ludicrously titled “Seymour’s Second Suicide,” S&S claim that the “one constant in Salinger’s life, from the early 1950s until his death in 2010, was Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, which transformed him from a writer of fiction into a disseminator of mysticism, destroying his work.”

Those are my italics again. How else to express the absurdity of so presumptuous a contention about a writer whose lifelong constant, even on the battlefield, was his work? At the end of that same chapter, S&S say it again: “His commitment to Vedanta was, by far, the most serious and long-lasting commitment of his life. His religious devotion … wound up being his second suicide mission. War killed him the first time; Vedanta the second.”

My italics again. What can you say? Salinger must really be some kind of sainted being, to come back from the dead to write The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Nine Stories (1953), two classics of American fiction, only to be killed again by Vedanta, and come back from that death-in-middle-and-old age to write the Glass stories. But let’s be fair. Surely S&S don’t really mean what they’re saying; all that stuff about being “destroyed” and “killed” is some heavy figurative rhetoric to put a charge into their product. If you want to hold the reader’s attention, you have to resort to sweeping negative generalizations, never mind that you contradict yourselves in the process and expose the essentially bogus, hypocritical nature of your enterprise.

Misreading Holden Caulfield

But why stop there? Why not rewrite The Catcher in the Rye according to your war-damaged-writer thesis? Since Slawenski’s biography beat them to the news that Catcher was partly written on the battlefield, S&S upped the ante and said that to get all that post-traumatic repression out of his system Salinger created a hate-sick psychopath called Holden Caulfield, the subject of a narration rife with incitements to violence, an assassin’s handbook. The subtext of mayhem S&S are suggesting about a book beloved by millions for exactly the opposite qualities reminds me of Charles Manson’s reading of violence and insurrection into “Blackbird,” one of the most beautiful songs Paul McCartney ever composed.

Misreading “Hapworth”

In 1997 Salinger was about to permit the publication in book form of “Hapworth 16, 1924” when one of the publishing world’s most illustrious trolls couldn’t wait and attacked seven-year-old Seymour’s unthinkably long and literate letter from camp before it was even published. Salinger was testing the water and a piranha named Kakutani bit him on the toe.

S&S introduce this advance on the “masterworks” to come with a hail of brickbats — “impossible to believe and created to be unpalatable to the public and critics,” “a disaster,” “a total cessation of talent,” “almost as if the mental acuity of Salinger is diminishing right in front of you,” “an act of literary suicide.”

David Shields outdoes himself, recycling the terms of his travesty of Holden: “ ‘Hapworth’ just seemed dead on arrival …. He wants to maim or kill all his critics … ‘Hapworth’ careens wildly between murderous rage and a desire for peace.”

Even as I type those words, it’s hard to fathom how anyone could read “murderous rage” into a text intoxicated with love and wonder. No doubt Shields is thinking of young Seymour’s low opinion of certain camp counselors whose “heartless indifferences” to the “heartrending young campers” have him “secretly wishing” he “could improve matters quite substantially by bashing a few culprits over the head with an excellent shovel or stout club.” While it’s possible Salinger was sending a subliminal message to certain critics of his work, my guess (never having been a camper myself) is that this is pretty standard stuff according to the content of letters sent home by campers of any age and any era.

One of the most humorous aspects of “Hapworth” exposes an essential blind spot shared by Salinger’s critics and biographers, which is to read with a dead straight face a playful, at times mischievous writer who can be, and always has been, very funny. Here in a camp called Hapworth run by a young couple Salinger names Mr. and Mrs. Happy, young Seymour confesses to his parents that “this cute, ravishing girl, Mrs. Happy, unwittingly rouses all my unlimited sensuality” (“Considering my absurd age, the situation has its humorous side, to be sure”). It’s an amusing reversal for the writer whose predilection for young girls and women is made so much of in Salinger — now he’s rousing the ire of Michiko Kakutani because his seven-year-old letter writer speaks “like a lewd adult” and expresses “lustful feelings about the [22-year-old] camp matron.”

Seymour’s Quirky Poetry

By stressing Salinger’s spiritual dedication at the supposed expense of his work, S&S unwittingly signal the magnitude of his mission and the portion of it so far most powerfully accomplished in “Hapworth,” where Seymour tells his parents of his “karmic responsibility” but promises not to “harp on the subject, knowing and quite sympathizing with your disdain.” Ms. Kakutani’s “peevish,” “lewd,” “deeply distasteful,” “obnoxious child,” who lusts after Mrs. Happy, dares to “condescend” to his parents when in fact (and fiction) he’s writing to them from the other side of his life: “I for one do not look forward to being distracted by charming lusts of the body, quite day in and day out, for the few, blissful, remaining years allotted to me in this appearance.”

Perhaps someday someone will be able to do full justice to Salinger’s accomplishment in “Hapworth.” Various terms and tropes out of Vedanta have given him a rich resource from which to forge a style unlike anything in his previous work. Seymour’s quirky poetry should charm any reader able to come to the story without some preconceived notion of fictional reality. And his precocious spirituality (among the books he wants sent to him are Vivekenanda’s Raja-Yoga and Bhakti-Yoga) enables him to see others, including his own parents, with a kind of supernatural objectivity, as if they were all children. So, referring to Mrs. Happy, Seymour can say, “God bless this gorgeous kid’s heart!”

In his fictional life-span, Seymour will bow out at the age of 31, but when he tells his parents and readers, “There is monumental work to be done in this appearance, of partially undisclosed nature,” it’s tempting to picture Salinger busy in his New Hampshire bunker with 45 years remaining and “monumental work to be done.”


Admittedly, Shields and Salerno bring some valuable information to bear on Salinger, including anecdotal insights and excellent photographs from the author’s wartime buddy and lifelong friend, Paul Fitzgerald. To their credit, S&S also include responses from a few readers who “get” Hapworth, namely novelist Leslie Epstein and radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, who says that once you have a seven-year-old boy at summer camp “writing in an adult voice, asking for the most abstruse books to be sent to him … you can’t go back to the conventions of realistic fiction again. You’ve crossed a line …. In my opinion, if he’s written anything since, he’s moved ‘Hapworth’ forward. To me, that’s thrilling.”


September 25, 2013

book rev wolfebook rev perkinsMy friend, the editor, has likened his own function at this painful time to that of a man who is trying to hang onto the fin of a plunging whale.

—Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) on Maxwell Perkins (1884-1947)

The “whale” was the manuscript of Thomas Wolfe’s Of Time and the River (1935). How could a mere book editor’s task inspire such hyperbole? The editor as action hero? Perkins and Wolfe soon to be a major motion picture? In fact, a film presently titled Genius, starring Colin Firth as the wily editor and Michael Fassbender as the word-drunk author, will begin filming next year. Honest. I didn’t make it up. The film is based on the biography of Perkins by Princeton alumnus A. Scott Berg, who was at the library in last week’s “Evenings with Friends” event.

When he delivered the massive first draft of his second novel to Perkins in December 1933, Wolfe confessed in a letter, “I need your help now more than I ever did.” It was up to Perkins to help him “get out of the woods,” as he had done in the course of shepherding Look Homeward Angel (1929) to the promised land.

In his essay, “The Story of a Novel,” Wolfe describes the teamwork between author and editor, “the whole strike, catch, flow, stop, and ending, the ten thousand fittings, changings, triumphs, and surrenders” that went into Of Time and the River.

You get a sense of just how demanding the editing process was from Struthers Burt, another Scribners author who worked with Perkins. In his June 9, 1951 Saturday Review piece, “Catalyst for Genius: Maxwell Perkins,” Burt recalls, “I would meet Tom and Max around eleven o’clock at the Chatham Walk of the Hotel Chatham, in Manhattan …. Tom would come striding in like a giant … but always a little cross and pettish with the childish crossness of a giant. Behind him would be Max, white and utterly exhausted. Max was of average height, but he looked small on those hot June nights and sparse like a dry-point etching. Every night for weeks Max and Tom had been working over in Brooklyn [where Wolfe lived “because it was the only place in the U.S. where you could be hidden and lonely”]. Max would persuade Tom to leave 5,000 words out of a new chapter. Tom would consent. Between them they would delete. The next day Tom would turn up with 10,000 new words.”

Star Attraction

It’s thanks to Struthers Burt, by way of his son Nathaniel and grandson Christopher, that the star attraction at this year’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale, which begins Friday at 10 a.m., is a copy of the first edition of Of Time and the River signed by Maxwell Perkins, the man without whom it could not have been written and to whom it is emotionally dedicated. In all my years as an amateur bibliophile, attender of rare book fairs, and for some 25 years Friends book sale volunteer, I have never seen anything comparable to this tangible evidence in book form (albeit lacking the dust jacket) of the most storied editor-author relationship in American literature.

Like so many literary partnerships, however, this one did not go smoothly. Imagine a platonic romance — the ultimate literary buddy movie — that falls apart when the more demonstrative party is too extreme and too public in expressing his devotion and appreciation. While it makes perfect sense that Wolfe would dedicate Of Time and the River to Perkins, this was a writer forever given to extremes, and even though various associates at Scribners pleaded with him to tone down the dedication printed in the front matter of the novel, Wolfe insisted on paying a detailed tribute to “a great editor and a brave and honest man, who stuck to the writer of this book through times of bitter hopelessness and doubt and would not let him give in to his own despair … with the hope that all of it may be in some way worthy of the loyal devotion and the patient care which a dauntless and unshaken friend has given to each part of it, and without which none of it could have been written.”

These words were all it took to stir up exactly the sort of litchat gossip about his dependence on Perkins that Wolfe found intolerable. That alone would have been enough to send him to another publisher, but an even thornier problem was his determination to write about Perkins and Scribners in his next novel. Concerned that certain personal in-house information he’d revealed to Wolfe in the course of their working friendship might come to light, Perkins made it clear that he would have to resign if Scribners published the book. But there was no stopping Wolfe. After the North Carolina coming of age described in Look Homeward, Angel, his years with Perkins and Scribners were the summit of his life. So he went to Harpers, which divided the last immense unfinished manuscript into two novels published after Wolfe’s untimely death, The Web and the Rock (1939) and You Can’t Go Home Again (1940), wherein Perkins was portrayed as Foxhall Edwards and Scribners as the House of Rodney.

The Last Letter 

When Wolfe died 75 years ago, September 15, 1938, Perkins, who thought of his three most famous authors as surrogate sons, received letters of condolence from Scott Fitzgerald, who said he felt as if he were writing to “a relation” of Wolfe’s (“for I know how deeply his death must have touched you”) and Ernest Hemingway, who referred to the farewell message Wolfe sent to Perkins: “That was a good letter he wrote …. Remember if anything happens to me I think just as much of you as Tom Wolfe even if I can’t put it so well.”

Apparently Perkins had shown Hemingway Wolfe’s last letter, written a month before his death from a cerebral infection set off by pneumonia. The letter begins, “I’m sneaking this against orders, but ‘I’ve got a hunch’ — and I wanted to write these words to you …. I’ve made a long voyage and been to a strange country, and I’ve seen the dark man very close …. I wanted most desperately to live and still do … and there was the impossible anguish and regret of all the work I had not done, of all the work I had to do — and I know now I’m just a grain of dust, and I feel as if a great window has been opened on life I did not know about before …. Whatever happens — I had this ‘hunch’ and wanted to write you and tell you, no matter what happens or has happened, I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July day three years ago when you met me at the boat and we went out on the cafe on the river and had a drink and later went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and the city was below.”

Cynics might say, look, even his last letter needs editing, but it was the essence of the document, with its soaring last words about the day he’d returned to America from Europe to find that Of Time and the River was a great success, that touched writers all over the world, especially young writers who were inspired by his work and haunted by his story.

I’ve long since given up trying to “recapture the rapture” of first discovering Wolfe and walking around Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights following in his footsteps, staying at his hotel, the Albert on University Place (the Leopold in Of Time and the River). For a period between the ages of 18 and 21, the big, wonderstruck, forever wandering wordslinger from the South was the most unlikely of my alter egos, right up there with Holden Caulfield and James Dean. Thanks to this remarkable donation from the Burt family, I had an excuse to pay a return visit to Wolfe after decades of false starts. What I did was go right to Book IV, a little over 400 pages into Of Time and the River, and start reading. At first it was hard going, like dipping one foot into a raging current, or catching hold of a speeding train bound for the Land of the Passionately Purple and Vividly Verbose. I found the secret is to read it aloud. After a few paragraphs, the rolling rhythm carries you along. I took a journey of a hundred pages, through the author’s love-hate relationship with New York, his stint teaching at NYU, his Jewish nemesis and eventual friend, Abe Jones, and a Hudson River rhapsody Scott Fitzgerald remembered as Wolfe at his best.

About the Burts

Maxwell Struthers Burt (1882-1954, Princeton Class of 1904), was the author of numerous popular novels and stories, including The Delectable Mountains (1927), Festival (1931), and the autobiography The Diary of a Dude Wrangler (1924). He was also the co-founder of the Bar BC Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Besides helping him run the ranch, his wife, Katherine Newlin Burt, was also a successful writer (30 novels and innumerable stories, most about the West). Their son, Nathaniel Burt (1913-2003, Princeton Class of 1936), another writer, was born on the kitchen table at the Bar BC. Over the years the ranch was a literary gathering place (Ernest Hemingway is said to have worked on A Farewell to Arms there). The Burt donation reflects the story of a fascinating family of writers whose interests range from the West to East. Grandson Christopher is the author of Extreme Weather, a guide and record book published by W.W. Norton. Books by the Burts will be on the tables at the Friends Book Sale this weekend, along with items like Princeton Verse 1919, which features two poems by Scott Fitzgerald (as T. Scott) and Riddle Poems by Emily Dickinson, in an edition published and signed by Leonard and Esther Baskin.


September 18, 2013

BookrevThirty chapters into Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, Bleeding Edge (Penguin $28.95 ), the familiar voice that has been riffing on “ghost stops on abandoned subway lines” and girls “whose fashion sense included undead signifiers such as custom fangs installed out in the outer boroughs by cut rate Lithuanian orthodontists” suddenly starts talking straight. No more sweet Pynchonian nothings playfully whispered in the reader’s ear. Doing a reversal of Dorothy’s “We’re not in Kansas any more” moment, the author’s funny, scary, gaudy Manhattan movie briefly becomes a real-life newsreel featuring people like you and me, people who were living in the real world on a brilliant Tuesday morning in September 2001.

The tone of the first three pages of Chapter 30 is set with a reference to the city and the nation “united in sorrow and shock.” What immediately follows is reminiscent of the elegaic reportage that dominated the media at the time. It’s as if the magnitude of the event overwhelms Pynchon the way the white whale does Melville’s Ahab: it heaps him. He can write circles around it, and in effect does just that, but rather than directly confront it in his own style, he puts his antic muse briefly on hold in deference to “that terrible morning” and writes about home-cooked meals at firehouses, flowers, child choirs, American flags in apartment building lobbies. The writing is only marginally distinguishable from the summary on the dust jacket (“It is 2001 in New York City, in the lull between the collapse of the dotcom boom and the terrible events of September 11th”), which effectively casts the shadow of the event on the narrative before you even open the book, although it’s not until page 315 that the towers actually come down.

What’s in a Name?

Forty years ago, Gravity’s Rainbow’s first words were “A screaming comes across the sky.” Bleeding Edge begins with a mother “walking her boys to school.” Maxine Tarnow knows her kids are “past the age where they need an escort,” but she “doesn’t want to let go just yet, it’s only a couple of blocks, it’s on her way to work, she enjoys it, so?” If you’re wondering where Thomas Pynchon is, and in case that snappy little “so?” doesn’t reassure you, the issue is settled as soon as you learn that the school in question is named for Otto Kugelblitz, “an early psychoanalyst” who emigrated to the U.S. after being “expelled from Freud’s inner circle.” It also helps to know that this is a school where graduation ceremonies feature the Kugelblitz bebop ensemble performing that old Charlie Parker favorite, “Billie’s Bounce.” Still, since when has the creator of Tyrone Slothrop and Benny Profane, Oedipa Maas and Rachel Owlglass, ever settled for so uncommonly common a name as Maxine Tarnow? Google “Tarnow” and out of the multitudes you come up with an insurance agent, a “casual furniture store” in Chicopee, Mass., and a dentist “in the forefront of dental implant research,” which may be of interest to scholars preparing a paper on Pynchon’s famous overbite.

The Real Story

What about the plot? Do we really have to go there? I could spend a paragraph talking about an internet startup called hashslingrz or celebrating the fascinating depths of DeepArcher, but I’d rather leave that to readers who have gone to bed with Pynchon’s work. The novel’s most passionate priorities are implicit in the epigraph from Donald E. Westlake that says as “a character in a mystery” New York is neither the detective nor the murderer but “the enigmatic suspect who knows the real story but isn’t going to tell it.” Bleeding Edge contains a wealth of false leads that are fun to follow, at least until you learn there’s no pay-off, nothing to equal the Manhattan rhapsodies, Pynchonesque allusions to pop culture, and comic audacity (the dead chicken facial, for instance). The references to Madoff, the CIA, and conspiracy teasers about the Trade Center attack can’t compare with the pleasure of reading Pynchon when he has the wind in his sails.

Given the human cost of 9/11, it’s also important that Maxine, mother and homemaker, is at the center of the action, adding domestic credibility (even her estranged husband has returned to the nest), while her professional identity as a hip, well-armed, conveniently disbarred, sexually willing investigator of online fraud leads us into a maze of bizarre encounters with individuals who for the most part qualify as characters in name only, since Maxine’s conversations with various doormen, maids, shopping or drinking buddies, suspects, shop keepers, clerks, spies, geniuses, and killers tend to blur into one another. It helps to think of certain characters as routes to follow through Pynchon’s New York, human taxis, subways, and busses, the most compelling of which is the Windust Line, after Nicholas Windust, an anti-hero right out of 24 and the Bournes, think rogue CIA, the Homeland Brody to Maxine’s Carrie, phallic villain as victim. And I should mention that the Moriarty to Tarnow’s Holmes is an internet mogul named Gabriel Ice.

With the game playing, culture vulture gleanings, and elliptical offhand dialogue (typically sez for says or said), you’re on Planet Pynchon, love it or leave it. But if you leave it, you miss what must be the best writing about New York City since Henry James’s American Scene (1907).

Pynchon staked a literary claim of sorts to New York 50 years ago in V with Benny Profane’s subway yo-yo-ing between Grand Central and Times Square and the alligators in the sewers. Now more than ever before, this is his town; he’s an Upper West Side New Yorker, and you can tell how he feels when Maxine goes for a rush-hour evening walk as the rain is just starting: “sometimes she can’t resist, she needs to be out on the street” and its “million pedestrian dramas, each one charged with mystery, more intense than high-barometer daylight can ever allow. Everything changes. There’s that clean, rained-on smell. The traffic noise gets liquefied. Reflections from the street into the windows of city buses fill the bus interiors with unreadable 3-D images, as surface unaccountably transforms to volume.”

In passages like that one, the word-drunk virtuoso of Gravity’s Rainbow is writing on a more down-to-earth life-is-real level, again perhaps in recognition of the impending event. No such lyrical moments occur in Times Square (“Disneyfied and sterile”), on Park Avenue (“the most boring street in the city”), or on the Upper East Side (“Deep hairband country … like a planned midgets’ commmunity, everything scaled down … you expect any minute to be approached by a tiny official greeter going, ‘As mayor of the Munch-kin City …’”). There are some nice views of the state across the Hudson, however: “Out into one of those oppressive wintry afternoons, the sky over New Jersey a pale battle flag of the ancient nation of winter.”

Not to Be Missed

In Bleeding Edge, New York is both suspect and victim. The city Pynchon wrote about in V is under attack not just by terrorists and corporate greed but by the Giuliani administration. There’s a piece of charged writing planted in your path early in the narrative like a gem, a glowing signifier Pynchon doesn’t want you to miss. It comes when Maxine follows a lead involving (to pronounce it, just clear your throat or cough), which rents office space in one of the many doomed vestiges of old Manhattan in the embattled city, where “sinister and labyrinthine sewers of greed … run beneath all real estate dealings.” The intrepid Tarnow enters a “nice building with terra-cotta facing from a century ago” that is “strangely welcoming as if the architects had actually given some thought to the people who’d be working there every day.” The office she’s looking for is listed in the lobby directory. She knows “old-school fraud investigators who’ll admit to walking away at this point, only to regret it later.” In other words, reader, don’t walk away, don’t hurry, go forth and focus, “keep going no matter what” until you “can actually stand” with Maxine “in the haunted space and try to summon the ghost vendor out of its nimbus of crafted silence” [my italics].

All such intensely written codas in Bleeding Edge are not just one-offs, they have legs that lead to other ghosts and other silences. Compare the charged “ghost vendor” sentence to the more lyrical, less elaborate, but no less suggestive passage about the reflections in the bus window, and then compare that to the passage near the end where Maxine’s on the subway as her train passes or is passed by another “in the darkness of the tunnel” and “as the windows of the other train move slowly past, the lighted panels appear one by one, like a series of fortune-telling cards … The Scholar. The Unhoused. The Warrior Thief. The Haunted Woman.” Maxine sees the faces as “the day’s messengers from whatever the Beyond has for a Third World.” Which leads to the “darkly exotic” Third World Woman she sees gesturing at her from “one particular window of the other train.” It’s the late Nick Windust’s Guatamalan wife, the woman he smuggled safely out of the country. The convergence of Maxine and Xiomara is the sort of brazen coincidence only a fearless writer would dare and Pynchon pulls it off.

A few pages farther on, “Deep below, trains still move through tunnels in and out of Penn Station, horns chiming in B-major sixths, deep as dreams, while ghosts of tunnel-wall artists and squatters the civil authorities have no idea what to do about … go drifting past the traincar windows in the semidark, whispering messages of transcience.”

Passages like those I’ve been quoting (and I could quote a dozen others) transcend plot and character, so it’s no surprise that the most prodigious narrative flash points, all through, are of the Twin Towers, seen from various angles and actually inhabited when Maxine’s husband Horst takes the two boys to Windows on the World. In one of the novel’s most audacious passages, Maxine, along with a friend and a drug dealer, is fleeing the DEA in a motor boat (“a 28-foot runabout”) skimming down the Hudson past “the World Trade Center leaning, looming brilliantly curtained in light gigantically off their port quarter, and someplace farther out in the darkness a vast unforgiving ocean.” After a sharp right turn to elude their pursuers, they find themselves approaching “a lofty mountain range of waste. Neglected little creeks, strangely luminous canyon walls of garbage, smells of methane, death, and decay.”

Where has Pynchon, the poet laureate of waste, taken his characters? To “the intersection of Fresh and Arthur Kills, toxicity central,” which some months later will be the last resting place of the wreckage of Trade Towers freighted with the remains of more than a thousand victims.

This is where literature sweeps everything before it and Bleeding Edge, love it or leave it, is literature.

By all rights, the Newspaper of Record, as Pynchon refers to the New York Times throughout, should make up for its violation of the publisher’s request (“Please do not review before September 17”) by putting together an online anthology of Pynchon’s New York arias.


September 11, 2013

review dh awrenceDavid Herbert Lawrence was born on this day, September 11, 1885, in the mining town of Eastwood, near Nottingham. He died March 2, 1930, some seven decades before the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With most writers, you would note the birthday coincidence and move on, but that’s not easily done with Lawrence. Writing in 1956, his sometime friend John Middleton Murray said, “Lawrence was alone in the depth of his prescience of the crisis of humanity which has developed since his death.” In fact, Lawrence wrote and thought so freely and fiercely about so many issues that it doesn’t take much looking to find passages that could be used to describe, among other things, the political reality stateside before and after 9/11, as in this sentence from Part IV of Apocalypse, his last work: “They will only listen to the call of mediocrity wielding the insentient bullying power of mediocrity: which is evil. Hence the success of painfully inferior and even base politicians.”

A few sentences later he seems to be casting his line in the direction of the Bush administration’s coded terror alerts: “Society consists of a mass of weak individuals trying to protect themselves, out of fear, from every possible imaginary evil, and, of course, by their very fear, bringing the evil into being.” However horrifically un-imaginary September 11 was, it brought into being war in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Raw Genius

No other writer I can think of so thoroughly saturates the page with his personality. Lawrence is prickly, rude, boorish, and vindictive, arrogantly declaiming about everything under the sun and moon because everything fires him up, pulls at him, agitates, fascinates, and challenges him. His is a force of raw genius like an engine plowing through and scattering to the wind everything in its path.

Who else but Lawrence would begin a poem with a chip on his shoulder? “You tell me I am wrong?/Who are you, who is anybody to tell me I am wrong?/I am not wrong.” What’s the poem about? A pomegranate. Who’s he arguing with? Someone who has “forgotten the pomegranate-trees in flower, /Oh so red, and such a lot of them.” Or he could very well be addressing the pomegranate itself, holding it in one hand like Hamlet holding Yorick’s skull. What does Lawrence see in the pomegranate? The Doges of Venice, for a start, and “crowns of spiked green metal/Actually growing,” and “if you dare, the fissure!” But wait: “Do you mean to tell me you will see no fissure?/Do you prefer to look on the plain side?” By now, you’re asking yourself “What fissure? What’s he on about?” No matter. It’s all enroute to the “setting suns” and “drops of dawn” when the “end cracks open with the beginning:/Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure” and the closing couplet: “For my part, I prefer my heart to be broken,/It is so lovely, dawn-kaleidoscopic within the crack.”

If Lawrence had witnessed the nightmare of 9/11, he might have been one of those chastised for daring to see a beauty in it beyond the loss of life, something actually accomplished in March of 2002 when the towers were resurrected in the form of two soaring shafts of blue light, almost as if the planners of the spectacle were borrowing ideas from one of Lawrence’s poems about blueness. The thought behind that magnificent gesture might also be read into Lawrence’s introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious, where “The living live and then die,” passing away “as we know, to dust and to oxygen and nitrogen” and perhaps “direct into life itself … direct into the living.”

In Your Face

“Peach,” another poem from Lawrence’s collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers, begins, “Would you like to throw a stone at me?/Here, take all that’s left of my peach.” As the poem ends, after a battery of nagging questions, the poet supposes, perhaps rightly by then, that “you would like to throw something at me,” and says, “Here, you can have my peach stone.” It’s poetry in-your-face, he’s standing in front of you, practically stepping on your toes, looking you in the eye as he dares you to throw the peach stone. But he’s standing too close, there’s no room, and he won’t back up. Lawrence never backs up.

The next poem in the series, “Medlars and Sorb-Apples,” moves from the “morbid” taste (“I love you, rotten, delicious rottenness”) to the Orphic Underworld, taking you “down the strange lanes of hell, more and more intensely alone,/The fibres of the heart parting one after the other,” as the soul continues “ever more vividly embodied/Like a flame blown whiter and whiter/In a deeper and deeper darkness.”

In the arrogance of his greatness (or the greatness of his arrogance), Lawrence almost makes it possible to imagine he’s envisioning the shadow of a future event in which thousands could die in the same moment, “Each soul departing with its own isolation/Strangest of all strange companions,/And best.”

Doing the Dishes 

Lawrence’s friend Cynthia Asquith once said that he could make washing dishes an adventure. It’s an appealing thought, standing side by side with Lorenzo, he with his sleeves rolled up doing the scrubbing, talking your ear off while you do the drying. In the Lawrentian overflow there’s a clarity to everything, the cups and saucers gleaming like porcelain hallucinations. Suppose he spots a lady bug on the window sill directly in front of you, the window being open to the summer night (he always had to have the windows open), he would tell you more than you ever knew or wanted to know about that insect before using it to weave a whimsical account of the Creation like the one in his introduction to Fantasia of the Unconscious (“In the very beginning of all things, time and space and cosmos and being, in the beginning of all these was a little living creature”).

A Period of Crisis

In his introduction to the 1919 edition of Women in Love, Lawrence speaks of being “in a period of crisis” where “every man who is acutely alive is acutely wrestling with his own soul. The people that can bring forth the new passion, the new idea, this people will endure. Those others, that fix themselves in the old idea will perish with the new life strangled unborn within them. Men must speak out to one another.” Tweak the phrasing a bit and it sounds like politics U.S.A. in 2013.

But the most interesting thing in the introduction is when Lawrence confronts critics who complain about his free-swinging, repetitive rhetoric. After noting how “fault is often found with the continual, slightly modified repetition,” he resists throwing peach stones and simply points out that his style “is natural to the author; and that every natural crisis in emotion or passion or understanding comes from this pulsing, frictional to-and-fro which works up to culmination.” The introduction is dated 12 September 1919.

Having just watched the opening scenes of Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), I can appreciate how well cast and costumed are Gudrun and Ursula (Glenda Jackson and Jennie Linden) and Gerald and Rupert (Oliver Reed and Alan Bates), not to mention Hermione (Eleanor Bron). There’s even something like a credible, unforced Lawrentian undercurrent in play — until Russell begins attacking the audience with the cinematic equivalent of purple prose. Lawrence at his most excessive is hard enough to take, but put Lawrence and Russell together in the same building and it’s time to head for the exits.

Working Class Hero

In Ford Madox Ford’s piece on Lawrence in Portraits from Life (1937), he admits feeling “a certain trepidation” as he awaited his first meeting with the then-unknown young writer. “If he was really the son of a working coal-miner,” the high-born Ford wonders, “how exactly was I to approach him in conversation? Might he not, for instance, call me ‘Sir’ — and wouldn’t it cause pain and confusion to stop him doing so? …. A working man was so unfamiliar a proposition that I really did not know how to bring it off.”

The comic potential of Ford’s expectations colliding with the reality is worthy of a Monty Python sketch. Lawrence’s first words as he walked into the office of the journal Ford edited were airily dismissive: “This isn’t my idea, Sir, of an editor’s office.” Needless to say, the coal miner’s son’s “Sir” was not the one Ford was contemplating. And as Ford first saw him, before a word was spoken, the “russet-haired” Lawrence’s appearance had nothing to do with either officers, authors, or working men: “And suddenly, leaning against the wall beside the doorway, there was, bewilderingly … a fox. A fox going to make a raid on the hen-roost before him.”

Even when he’s attempting to describe Lawrence’s writing, Ford keeps placing him in the wild, because “Nottingham, for all its mining suburbs, was really in and of the country” and the “nature passages of Lawrence run like fire through his books …. So that at times when you read him you have the sense that there really was to him a side that was supernatural.”

Birthday Month

Presumably the almost month-long celebration of Lawrence’s birthday (September 6-24) in and around his birthplace, Eastwood, will pause on September 11 long enough to remember the 12th anniversary of the attacks. There will be a September 11 birthday lecture as well, “D.H. Lawrence as a Philosophical Novelist.” The emphasis this year is on the centenary of one of his best-known works, Sons and Lovers. There are Sons and Lovers country walks, museum tours, photo scavenger hunts, and of course a showing of the film.

It took his hometown a long time to accept the author of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and a long time to forgive him for portraying townspeople (sometimes under their real names) in his work. Now there’s a Lawrence museum, a White Peacock Cafe (after his first novel), and a Phoenix snooker hall. You can see photos and such on the Lawrence Heritage facebook page



September 4, 2013

DVD_Review_Annex - Dean, James (East of Eden)_03I doubt that Jimmy would ever have got through East of Eden (1955) except for an angel on our set. Her name was Julie Harris and she was goodness itself with Dean, kind and patient and everlastingly sympathetic.

–Elia Kazan, from A Life

Kazan was on the money about Julie Harris. The five-time Tony-Award-winning actress, who died at 87 on August 24, was the heart and soul of East of Eden, the film that gave the world James Dean. When you see his moody, spectacularly conflicted character Cal through the eyes of Harris’s Abra, your affection for her fuels your fascination with him. It’s the quality of Abra’s eventual devotion to Cal that lends credibility to Dean’s over-the-top performance.

When studio head Jack Warner wanted to dump Harris for a “prettier” girl, Kazan insisted on casting her. He counted on the special presence she would bring to the film and she gave him even more than he expected: “As a performer, she found in each moment what was dearest and most moving.” She also had “the most affecting voice” he’d ever heard in an actress, one that “conveyed tenderness and humor simultaneously.” Kazan ends by admitting, “She helped Jimmy more than I did with any direction I gave him.”

It’s not just that Julie Harris becomes Dean’s muse, shining the light of her sympathy and understanding on his theatrics, she gives warmth, humor, and unspoiled loveliness to a big, sprawling, sometimes off-puttingly histrionic film, with music by Leonard Rosenman to match its most florid passages. No surprise, the best thing in the score is the love theme that plays whenever Cal and Abra are together.

Dealing With Dean

Harris clearly knew how to approach her notoriously difficult and unruly co-star. When they first met, he tried to get a rise out of her by making a comment about her age (“Do you think you look too old for me?”), which she laughed off, pointing out that she was only five years older. Although she was already a seasoned, award-winning actress, she was also “utterly lacking in airs or affectation,” as Donald Spoto’s Rebel: The Life and Legend of James Dean (1996) points out. Instead of treating him as a nemesis, she saw him as a character out of classic American fiction: “He reminded me of Tom Sawyer, always looking for adventure, always looking to mix it up.”

According to Kazan, Dean enjoyed antagonizing Raymond Massey, who played Cal’s father, Adam (“They hated one another”). Instead of trying to smooth things over, Kazan let the hostility simmer, rightly figuring that it would contribute to the tension he wanted. Based on John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel, with its allusion to the Cain-Abel story, the film is centered on Cal the “bad” son, Aron (Richard Davalos) the good son, and Aron’s girl Abra; the plot is driven by Cal’s move from defiance of Adam to a struggle to win his love and acceptance. While Massey fumed about Dean’s unprofessional behavior on and off the set, Harris, much like her character Abra, let Dean be what he was. As she told Spoto in a 1995 interview, “The raw material of our work is people, and I’ve always thought it’s wrong to say, ‘Why can’t you behave?’ If somebody’s not behaving, you just say, ‘Well, he’s not behaving,’ and you deal with it.”

Spoto thinks the scenes between Harris and Dean “bring the film to life as do no other moments.” The first such scene takes place in a field when Abra encounters Cal as she’s bringing Aron his lunch. Up to that point, her response to him has been wary, even fearful, but curious, interested. Now there’s no doubt that she’s attracted, and emboldened, drawing him out, moving beyond casual conversation as she charmingly relates how in a fit of anger she threw away her stepmother’s engagement ring. To get his attention she blurts out, “I threw away three thousand dollars once!” What she wants is to show that he’s not the only person who ever behaved irrationally at the expense of a parent. The remarkable thing about the scene is that it’s essentially all Harris. Dean enjoys it, says very little, laughs a bit, his low-key response charming in itself in the way it shows his awareness of the delicate balance of the flirtation they’re engaged in.

The Kiss

For 17-year-old males, and presumably females, the key love scene — the one most likely to lead to misery and humiliation when imitated in real life — takes place on a ferris wheel. As a childhood devotee of Saturday matinee westerns who shouted “Mush!” whenever a kiss between cowboy hero and comely maid was in the offing, I can testify that the kiss on the ferris wheel is beyond reproach. It’s not mushy, or corny, or silly, or anything but what it should be. We want it to happen; all of us vicarious Cals and Abras in the audience are hoping hoping hoping it will happen, and when it does, it’s like a line of perfectly imperfect poetry falling into place almost in spite of itself  — he leans toward her, she leans toward him, they kiss, but without embracing. Both begin to make a move in that direction but it’s a passionately inconclusive gesture and as he’s about to take it further, she pulls back and begins to cry, insisting miserably that she loves Aron.

Later the same night, after a riot erupts around a German American man who is set upon when he denounces the wartime propaganda (it’s 1918), Cal and Aron have it out, Cal explodes, knocking Aron down. Abra knows who’s really hurting, however, and goes to comfort Cal, and from then on, she’s determined to save him, heal his wounds, and bring together father and son. Which is another way of saying Julie Harris saves James Dean and the movie by helping bring him together with the audience.

Dean’s most extreme piece of acting, possibly the most extravagant moment of his short career, occurs after he and Abra arrange a special birthday celebration for his father. All goes well until Aron shows up and announces that he and Abra are going to be married (not having told her or anyone else in advance). Adam says this is the best possible present, nothing could be better, a blow to Cal even before he has a chance to offer his own gift, which is the money he made by taking advantage of the wartime rise in the price of beans. Adam, who serves on the local draft board, huffily condemns this as war profiteering, and hands back the money with a forced, hollow, thanks-for-the-thought brush-off far more hurtful than an angry rejection would have been. To say that Cal is devastated doesn’t come close. His naked agony is embarrassing to behold, as Kazan knew it would be; although he doesn’t comment on it in his book, the painful, cringe-inducing excessiveness of the scene must have aroused serious debate in the screening room. Presumably Kazan left it in the film because such extremity of misery is rarely seen, not to mention being a graphic example of Actors Studio acting.

Cal’s sobbing meltdown is hard to watch. It certainly wasn’t easy for Massey, who was shocked and repelled because he didn’t know it was coming. The son’s groveling, wretched travesty of an embrace as he sinks to the floor at his father’s feet was not in the script. Today’s audiences may laugh at the scene or wince or roll their eyes, while others may still respond the way those of us guided by Abra’s loving understanding did. Julie Harris had our hearts in her hand and her heart was with Cal. If she hadn’t felt for him in that horrible moment, neither would we, so that when he hurls himself into the night baying like a wounded animal, we’re with her as she goes to console him, and though we can’t see them in the shadows, we can hear her sweet soothing loving voice and his moaning misery. Kazan keeps the scene hidden, reflecting Aron’s point of view, but we know what’s happening, that this love will be taken to the limit now, she’s his, he’s hers, and Aron knows it.

Loving Her Again

The few films Julie Harris made reveal her range and her genius, from the vulnerable adolescent in Member of the Wedding to the vivacious Sally Bowles in I Am a Camera, parts she also played on the stage. I was glad that she made so few movies. I didn’t want to see her in anything else. I wanted Julie Harris to keep being Abra forever. It’s only now, with the news of her death, that I realize how much her Abra meant to me. It was the first time I ever cared that much about someone in a film.

Over the years friends have told me “You must see Julie Harris in The Belle of Amherst,” a suggestion I had no interest in taking up, again perhaps partly because I felt so protective of my teenage ideal. Also, much as I admire Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the idea of a one-woman show left me cold. Even if easy access to The Belle of Amherst had been available, I’d have foolishly stayed away. Now that she’s gone — the saddest of excuses — I find the complete performance is available online and there she is — Abra 20 years later, and if anything, even lovelier now because she’s infused with the genius of a great poet and what a joy she is, what a funny, infinitely charming person. How thankful I am to be able to see her now. And how stupid I feel, to have waited this long.

The special edition DVD of East of Eden I watched was purchased at the Princeton Record Exchange. In the still from the film shown here, Abra (Julie Harris) and Cal (James Dean) are about to get on the ferris wheel, where they will share “a passionately inconclusive kiss.”

—Stuart Mitchner


August 21, 2013

book revWhat’s not to like when two giants of English literature are making news in the 21st century? What’s not to like about seeing a portion of Shakespeare’s handwriting on the front page of the New York Times and Jane Austen’s face peering out from the 10 pound note the Bank of England will put into circulation in 2016?

Shakespeare made page one of the Times last week (“Much Ado About Who: Is It Really Shakespeare”) because a scholar in Texas has claimed that the Bard is responsible for 325 lines among the “additional passages” included in the 1602 quarto edition of Thomas Kyd’s play, The Spanish Tragedy. This claim has some residual merit, if only because Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Charles Lamb noted the possibility in 1833. It does seem odd that it’s taken 180 years before the news was deemed fit to print. Not that I don’t enjoy seeing Shakespeare’s name first thing in the morning in bigger type than Christie’s or Weiner’s or Bloomberg’s.

This was not the only time Shakespeare finds have been front-page news. In January 14, 1996, a professor at Vassar was toasted for having proven through computer analysis that a hitherto anonymous 578-line elegy was by Shakespeare. Six years later, when the dust of the ensuing debate cleared, the professor made news again by recanting his claim after overwhelming evidence showed that the elegy was by Shakespeare’s contemporary, John Ford.

Another bogus news flash in the name of the Bard lit up page one of the November 24, 1985 New York Times, to tell the world that Gary Taylor, a “32-year-old American from Topeka, Kan. has discovered a previously unknown nine-stanza love lyric” that “appears to be the first addition to the Shakespeare canon since the 17th century.”

An addition to the canon sounds exciting until you read the lyric in question, a piece of borderline doggerel that begins “Shall I die? Shall I fly” and features gems like “Suspicious doubt, O keep out” and “’Twere abuse to accuse,” “Fairest neck, no speck,” and “For I find to my mind pleasures scanty.” Besides being occasionally incoherent, it’s teeming with cliches like love/dove, fair brow, love’s prize, “gentle wind did sport” and so on and on.

Worse yet, the man from Topeka was allowed to include this embarrassment, this insult to Shakespeare, in the edition of the Works he was co-editing (don’t ask why or how). The only person quoted backing Taylor’s claim in the Times’ jump-the-gun story (“It looks bloody good to me”) was one John Pilcher of St. John’s College, whose position there is unstated, and no wonder. Meanwhile Taylor managed to insult yet another genius in the process of admitting that “while it’s not Hamlet,” it’s “a kind of virtuoso piece, a kind of early Mozart piece.” Taylor’s Wikipedia entry admits that his claim “has since been almost universally rejected.” Undaunted, unbowed, unashamed, the Florida State University professor is the author or editor of four of the volumes included on the Random House list of the 100 most important books on Shakespeare. In 2010, Oxford University Press named him the lead editor of The New Oxford Shakespeare, to be published in 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The mind reels at the thought of what may be done in the course of, in Taylor’s words, “determining what Shakespeare wrote” in the ensuing “enormous, international frenzy of historical research.”

As Fats Waller liked to say, “One never knows, do one?”

It would take Terry Southern come back from the dead to do black-comedy justice to the tale of two sixties-styled Americans, one from Texas with shoulder-length hair, in 2013, and one from Kansas with an earring in his ear, in 1985, who managed to parlay themselves into page one prominence as Shakespeare heavyweights. It could be really funny, painfully funny.

The Ring

So what’s not to like about putting Jane Austen on the ten pound note? Don’t ask Mark Twain whose admission in a letter from 1898 — “Every time I read Pride and Prejudice, I want to dig her up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone” — would delight some of the bloggers who attacked Austen after the Bank of England broke the news. Never mind the shin-bone: two women who lobbied for Jane have been threatened with bombing, burning, pistol-whipping, and rape.

On a brighter note, there’s the saga of the Ring, not the Wagner Ring nor the Tolkien Ring but the turquoise and gold ring once worn by Austen and recently purchased at auction for £152,450 (about $230,000) by Texas-born pop singer Kelly Clarkson, whose worldwide hit single, “My Life Would Suck Without You” holds the record for the biggest leap to number one in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Perhaps the most famous member of the American wing of the Jane Austen Appreciation Society, Clarkson seemed to take it in stride when the government refused to let the ring leave the country. If you want to read some generally amusing back and forth on the issue, visit the Guardian blog (“Jane Austen Ring: would its sale to Kelly Clarkson be a loss to the nation?”), where Clarkson comes out on top in a poll (the “no”s have it, 65 to 35 percent) and the target of choice is the Tory government.

I don’t have a problem with the surfacing of Jane Austen in the regions of pop culture graced by Kelly Clarkson. In fact, the Jane Austen people busy raising money to buy back the ring see only good things for their cause in the pop star’s devotion.

What would Jane Austen make of her ebullient American fan? An impossible question, of course, but my guess is that she wouldn’t take long to warm to Clarkson, and that in spite of the title, she might actually tolerate “My Life Would Suck Without You,” with all its joyous emotional energy. More to the Pride and Prejudice point, how could she resist the singer’s latest, a jaunty, jumping wedding number called “Tie the Knot”?

While Austen would no doubt need another internet crash course to travel through time from John Dowland’s “Weep No More Sad Fountains” to Schubert to the Beatles to an appreciation of Clarkson, music is very much “the food of love” when Elizabeth Bennet’s singing and playing and dancing help put things in perspective with Mr. Darcy. Earlier in the narrative, during a gathering at which Darcy is present, Elizabeth experiences “the mortification” of seeing her younger sister Mary, “after very little entreaty, preparing to oblige the company” with a song. After unsuccessfully attempting to discourage Mary with “significant looks” and “silent entreaties,” Elizabeth suffers through the performance with “the most painful sensations” and “an impatience which was very ill rewarded” when Mary is asked to sing another song and happily does so. The problem for Elizabeth is that “Mary’s powers were by no means fitted for such a display; her voice was weak, and her manner affected.”

Whether she’s singing “My Country Tis of Thee” at President Obama’s second inaugural or making the most of the cliched love-is-a-battlefield lyrics of “My Life Would Suck,” Kelly Clarkson’s considerable powers are definitely fitted for such displays.

A Delightful Creature

Published 200 years ago, in January 1813, Pride and Prejudice was Jane Austen’s “own darling child,” as she told her sister Cassandra. In the same letter, she called Elizabeth Bennet “as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print” and wondered how she “would be able to tolerate those who do not like her at least.” With those words, it’s as if the author were introducing one of her favorite characters into the society of the ages, where she will be liked and loved even into the 21st century, on the page and on the screen — and on the Jane Austen ten pound note, where you can see Elizabeth in the background above an image of Godmersham Park, home of Jane’s brother, Edward Austen Knight. She’s at her writing desk, an image that also suggests the author at work. The drawing, pen and black ink, gray wash, over pencil, is by the American artist Isabel Bishop (1902-1988), from the edition of Pride and Prejudice (E.P. Dutton 1976) that features 20 illustrations of the 31 she contributed, all of which are now at the Morgan Library and Museum. It’s impossible to regard Bishop’s depictions of the novel’s female characters without thinking of the girl friends, shop girls, and working women she drew and painted for the better part of 50 years in her Union Square studio.

To know Isabel Bishop was to sometimes feel that you were in a novel that, depending on the occasion, could have been imagined by Jane Austen, or George Eliot, or Henry James, or Edith Wharton. Isabel would have been amused to find that the Bank of England had put her image of Elizabeth Bennet on the ten pound note. What would Jane Austen think? Writing to her brother Frank in September 1813 when Pride and Prejudice was being read and wondered over, she observes “that the Secret [of her authorship] has spread so far as to be scarcely the Shadow of a secret now …. I shall not even attempt to tell Lies about it — I shall rather try to make all the Money than all the Mystery I can of it — People shall pay for their knowledge if I can make them.”

As for Shakespeare’s standing with the Bank of England, he’s got nothing to complain about. From 1970 to 1993 his was the face on the 20 pound note.


August 14, 2013

dvd rev“Ever go to the movies?”

“Once in a while.”

“You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.”

—from Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers”

Last week’s Hemingway binge began with both the 1946 and 1964 film versions of his story, “The Killers,” on a 2-disc Criterion Collection DVD from the Princeton Public Library.

Meanwhile, to catch up on what’s been happening in the Hemingway marketplace, I went back to the library and checked out a copy of Paula McLain’s best-selling The Paris Wife (Ballantine 2012), still in the top 20 after 30-plus weeks on the New York Times trade paperback list. Right now I’m still recovering from two and a half hours of another library item, HBO’s Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012), which I watched on the assumption that between a solid director like Philip Kaufman and an actress I admire, Nicole Kidman, it would be worth seeing, which it sort of almost was. Except that by the end, even the impressively replicated illusion of Madrid during the Spanish Civil War and Kidman’s performance as journalist Martha Gellhorn had been fatally tainted by the humiliation visited on Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961).

Assuming no one has organized a Hemingway Anti-Defamation League, we will have to make do, for now, with The Paris Wife. Although this novel offers one of the most sympathetic depictions of the young writer ever put between covers, it surely has Hemingway doing somersaults in his grave, outraged not only by the idea of a woman taking possession of his story but, to put it crudely, stealing his first wife Hadley’s soul. In spite of being sneeringly dismissed out of hand by some reviewers, McLain accomplishes her mission with grace and style. You may occasionally cringe or roll your eyes, but by the end, you feel that you know Hadley (1891-1979) as well if not better than you do in Hemingway’s end-of-life love letter to her in A Moveable Feast — and without the happier and nicer and smarter than thou smugness that sometimes infects his account of the relationship.

One reason to celebrate The Paris Wife’s extraordinary success is the hope that many more people will have encountered McLain’s Hemingway than the loutish travesty perpetrated by Hemingway and Gellhorn, where Clive Owen’s in-your-face blowhard suggests Groucho Marx on steroids crossed with Ali G at his most embarrassingly buffoonish. You rarely believe that this guy is capable of writing “the one true word” Hemingway said every story should begin with. Philip Kaufman seems to have sold Hemingway short in his eagerness to show why, as he says in an online Hollywood Reporter interview, Gellhorn is worth a great deal more than a footnote in the life of the 20th century’s most famous writer. And when Kaufman says that Gellhorn was “the only one of Hemingway’s wives who loved him,” you know he hasn’t read The Paris Wife. All the well-known character defects are there, but instead of making you think what a jerk he is, you see him as Hadley does and you suffer with her when he makes the same wrong moves that he himself ends up lamenting in the luminous memoir that was in his typewriter on the July morning he took the story of his life in his own hands and ended it on his own terms.

Thinking the Unthinkable

The first half of Hemingway’s most famous, most anthologized story, “The Killers,” is an entertainment. Think of it as gangster vaudeville. Al and Max, two hit men from Chicago, small in stature, wrapped in big tight-fitting overcoats and gloves, come into a suburban lunch-room, engage in a kind of tag-team taunting of George, the man behind the counter, and the sole customer, Nick Adams, Hemingway’s youthful alter ego. Al and Max are cracking themselves up even as they blithely admit they are there to blow away the Swede who is known to stop in at six every evening. The verbal bullying (“Well, bright boy, why don’t you say something?” “What’s it all about?” “Hey, Al … bright boy wants to know what it’s all about”) is not that far removed from Hemingway’s own approach to journalists, correspondents, and interviewers, including even “bright boy” George Plimpton in the Paris Review (“when you ask someone old, tired questions, you are apt to get old, tired answers”). After Al eats his ham and eggs and Max his bacon and eggs, which they do with their gloves on, they get down to business and tie up and gag Nick and Sam, the black cook, and when the Swede doesn’t show up, they go looking for him.

At this point, with Nick hurrying ahead to the Swede’s rooming house to warn him, entertainment becomes literature. As can be seen by the piece he wrote for the Oak Park and River Forest High School literary magazine in 1916 (“A Matter of Color”), Hemingway already had a knack for gangland dialogue at 17. Nick’s exchange with the Swede, who is lying in bed staring at the wall, is on another, more darkly suggestive level. Every dead flat toneless sentence the Swede utters in response to the news that two men have said they’re going to kill him (“There isn’t anything I can do about it …. That wouldn’t do any good …. There ain’t anything to do”) is hard core Hemingway, the haunting, hypnotic endgame edge and acid essence of his style. Here’s a man receiving word of his impending death without emotion, without the least sign of resistance to the prospect. Appalled at what he’s witnessed, Nick goes back to the lunch room, where he and George speculate about the Swede’s attitude and what he must have done to draw the death sentence. Nick is shaken. He can’t stand to think about the man “waiting in that room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.” What George says next seals the story, wraps it up, and leaves the reader in a hush.

“Well,” said George, “you better not think about it.”

That’s it. Neither motion picture version of The Killers replays that essential Hemingway advisory because it wouldn’t work. It was made for the page and nothing but the page. Imagine trying to end a film with someone saying “Well, you better not think about it.” No actor on the planet could make of that sentence anything remotely comparable to what Hemingway accomplishes by laying it out in cold hard type. This is where the old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words just doesn’t cut it.

Two Movies

So how do you make a movie out of a short story that slams the door in your face with that last line? First you have to figure out what the Swede did to earn a death sentence (“I got in wrong” is all he tells Nick) and then you have to show why he doesn’t care (“There ain’t anything to do now”). Anthony Veiller and John Huston’s screenplay for the 1946 version directed by Robert Siodmak recreates the scene in the lunch room, with most of the Hemingway dialogue intact, along with Nick’s visit to the Swede. The flashback that fills out the 105 minutes of screen time is a well-done if routine film noir about a bungled heist, a femme fatale (Ava Gardner), a lovelorn boxer (Burt Lancaster’s Swede), and a crime boss (Albert Dekker). In Don Siegel’s 1964 technicolor version the lunch room scene with the Hemingway dialogue is gone, the doomed man is a race car driver (John Cassavetes) and everyone dies, including both killers (Lee Marvin and Clu Gulager), the femme fatale (Angie Dickinson), and the crime boss (Ronald Reagan). If it weren’t for the title, you wouldn’t know that what you were seeing was based on Hemingway’s story. While the two hit men in Siodmak’s film are true to the original in being confined to the setting of the opening act, the killers in Siegel’s film behave like protagonists. With Gulager providing the entertainment by way of his sarcastic one-liners, Lee Marvin carries the weight of the story, for he wants more than the missing money. He wants to know why the Cassavetes character just stood there not caring when they killed him. Marvin is an amazing actor (as Gulager movingly testifies on the Criterion DVD), one of the few who could give a charge to the you-better-not-think-about-it line. But he doesn’t have to say it, he presents it physically. He is it, he’s the medium for that terse message.

Both films fall short of the story in the end because the reason for each victim’s indifference to death amounts to nothing more than a film noir cliche: betrayal by a woman. Hemingway doesn’t go there. No need to. As he once put it, “that story probably had more left out of it than anything I ever wrote …. I left out all Chicago, which is hard to do in 2951 words.”

He also thought that the 1946 Killers was “the only good picture made of a story of mine.” When producer Mark Hellinger sent a publicist to Idaho with a print to personally screen for him, Hemingway watched it with a pint of gin and a pint of water handy so that he could numb the pain if the film got bad. After the screening, he held up the full bottles with a big smile.

The truth is, Hollywood served Hemingway well, at least when the directors were of the stature of Frank Borzage and Howard Hawks. The author was also fortunate that his close friend Gary Cooper was born to play the Hemingway hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), and Borzage’s Academy-Award-nominated version of A Farewell to Arms (1932), which Hemingway considered a romanticized abomination. As for To Have and Have Not (1944), loosely based on a novel Hemingway himself made no claims for, it’s hard to imagine how anyone, least of all the author, could have a problem with the happy wonders Hawks and Faulkner, Bogart and Bacall did with that one.

Clearly, Hemingway had little respect for the medium, as the teasing reference in the “The Killers” quoted in this column’s epigraph indicates. In fact, hitman Al’s “the movies are fine for a bright boy like you” never made it into the 1946 film version of the lunch room scene. Given the twisted concerns of an industry that was always watching its back, perhaps the Hays Office and the custodians of the Code feared that audiences would think going to the pictures was endorsed by gangsters.

“Mrs. Hemingway”

Princeton native Mary Chapin-Carpenter puts the heart-in-the-right-place essence of Paula McLain’s novel into a six-minute ballad, “Mrs. Hemingway,” from her 2010 The Age of Miracles. Hadley is left out of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, but then she’s used to that: Hemingway left her out of The Sun Also Rises. He more than made up for that in A Moveable Feast, of course.

One reason to see the Criterion DVD of The Killers is its inclusion of -Andrei Tarkovsky’s 20-minute student film version of the story.


August 7, 2013

book revIf you want to know India, study Vivekananda. 

—Rabindranath Tagore to Romain Rolland

The song really came from Swami Vivekananda, who said, ‘If there is a God, we must see him. And if there is a soul, we must perceive it.’

—George Harrison on the origins of “My Sweet Lord”

T he first chapter of Phillip Goldberg’s American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation; How Indian Spirtuality Changed the West (Doubleday 2010) opens by suggesting that the Beatles’ “extended stay” with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in February 1968 “may have been the most momentous spiritual retreat since Jesus spent those forty days in the wilderness.” Goldberg goes on to say that the resulting “media frenzy over the Fab Four made known to the sleek, sophisticated West that meek mysterious India had something of value. Our understanding and practice of spirituality would never be the same.”

While there’s no doubt that the Beatles played a major role in alerting American culture to the manifold riches of the subcontinent, I have a problem with Goldberg’s choice of words. “Something of value” doesn’t begin to say it, “mysterious India” is for travel brochures, and, above all, what does a word like “meek” have to do with the land associated with riots, juggernauts, and sadhus who can decapitate you with a look? Probably the best thing anyone said about the Beatles’ Indian venture was Ringo Starr’s comparison of the “momentous spiritual retreat” to “a Butlin’s holiday camp.” George Harrison, the one Beatle who found something  of lasting value in India, went beyond the Maharishi to the teachings of Vivekananda (1863-1902), the man who truly did bring India to the west.

Born Narendra Nath Datta in Calcutta 150 years ago, January 12, 1863, Vivekananda is the subject of A.L Bardach’s Wall Street Journal Magazine piece “What Did J.D. Salinger, Leo Tolstoy, and Sarah Bernhardt Have in Common?” wherein she takes the Beatles analogy full-circle. When Vivekananda greeted the audience at the 1893 Parliament of World Religions at the Chicago World’s Fair as “Sisters and brothers of America,” the response presaged “the phenomenon decades later that greeted the Beatles” as the “previously sedate crowd of 4,000-plus attendees rose to their feet and wildly cheered the visiting monk.”

“No doubt the vast majority of those present hardly knew why they had been so powerfully moved,” Christopher Isherwood writes some 50 years later. “A large gathering has its own strange kind of subconscious telepathy and this one must have been somehow aware that it was in the presence of that most unusual of beings, a man whose words express exactly what he is.”


While the Beatles came to America in February 1964 atop a tidal wave of music and media, Vivekananda arrived in Chicago in July 1893 wholly unknown, with no credentials and very little money. Only after finally finding the entry bureau did he learn that the Parliament of Religions wouldn’t open until September, that it was too late to register, and worse yet, that he was not qualified to take part because he belonged to no known group. Using the last of his money, he took a train to Boston, where, being an imposing presence in his red turban and yellow robes belted with a scarlet sash, he caught the eye of a retired literature professor at Smith who invited him to her home; there, she introduced him to a professor at Harvard who wrote to the president of the Committee that Vivekananda should represent Hinduism at the Parliament. He then gave the 29-year-old pilgrim a ticket back to Chicago, where he landed dazed and disoriented, having lost the address of the Committee. When he asked for directions, he was rebuffed because of the color of his skin. Doors all over Chicago were slammed in the face of this bizarrely-attired “negro.” He was sitting in the street when he was noticed by a woman who gave him refuge, took him to the Parliament, where, as 1915 Nobel laureate Romain Rolland writes in Prophets of the New India (Boni 1930), “The unknown of yesterday, the beggar, the man despised for his color by a Mob” imposed “his sovereign genius.”

There he stood, “the young man who represented nothing—and everything—the man belonging to no sect but rather to India as a whole.” The newspapers swooned over his “fascinating face, his noble stature and gorgeous apparel,” and “the raven black of his hair, his olive complexion, his dark eyes, his red lips.” The New York Herald called him “undoubtedly the greatest figure in the Parliament” and  the Boston Evening Post said he was “the great favorite” who “received acclamations every time he crossed the platform.” During the two week duration of the Parliament, he spoke 10 or 11 times and “the only way of keeping the public at the meetings … was to announce that Vivekananda would speak at the end.”

The simple power of his message sent a charge into the event, burning through all the scripted rhetoric, “his thesis of a universal Religion without limit of time or space uniting the whole Credo of the human spirit … into a magnificent synthesis, which … helped all hopes to grow and flourish according to their own proper nature.”

No internet was needed to spread the word. He was famous, if not overnight, within a matter of weeks. “Having nearly succumbed to poverty,” Rolland writes, “he was now in danger of being overwhelmed by riches. American snobbery threw itself upon him, and, in its first flush, threatened to smother him with its luxury and vanities.”

Again, it’s almost too easy to find a parallel to the experience of the Beatles when they toured America (and the world), where only the rich and famous could get near them. In order to free himself from his privvileged protectors, Vivekananda went on a speaking tour of the East and Middle West, but the more he saw of the country, and the disparity between rich and poor, the more outspoken he became about “the brutality, the inhumanity, the littleness of spirit, the narrow fanaticism, the monumental ignorance, the crushing incomprehension” of a people who thought themselves “the paragon nation of the human race.” In Boston he inveighed against a civilization of monied “foxes and wolves” whereupon hundreds of people “noisily left the hall, and the Press was furious.”

Even as Vivekananda was attacking the country at large, false Christianity and religious hypocrisy among his favorite targets, he  found pleasure and amusement in the company of American followers, many of the most devoted of whom were weathly, well-born women of a certain age. Since the inadvertenty absurd juxtaposition of such a personage with ordinary people is all but made for mockery, it’s important to keep in mind that in addition to George Harrison, Vivekananda’s admirers included Tolstoy, William James, Sarah Bernhardt, Christopher Isherwood, Aldous Huxley, Nicolas Tesla, Gandhi, Jung, Santayana, Stravinsky, and, not least, J.D. Salinger, whose long relationship with the Ramakrishna-Vivekananda Center in New York extended from the early 1950s until his death in January 2010.

An up close and gushingly personal view of Vivekananda can be found on, provided by a Detroit woman who spent time with him in 1894 at the compound on Thousand Island Park that Salinger would visit some six decades later. Among the profusion of adoring quotes: “We take long walks and the Swami literally, and so simply, finds ‘books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good (God) in every thing.  And this same Swami is so merry and fun-loving. We just go mad at times.”

When the woman from Detroit asked Vivekananda how some of the “beautiful society queens of the West would appear to him — especially those versed in the art of allurement,” he looked at her “calmly with his big, serious eyes and gravely replied, ‘If the most beautiful woman in the world were to look at me in an immodest or unwomanly way she would immediately turn into a hideous, green frog, and one does not, of course, admire frogs!’ “

“Meek, Mysterious India!”

That word meek is still crawling around like an ant in my brain. It’s hard to imagine a more grossly misguided association than “meek” and “India.” One of the most off-putting things about the spiritual stereotype implicit in the Maharishi is the travesty of humility skewered in John Lennon’s song “Sexy Sadie” (“We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table”), which he told Playboy he wrote “when we had our bags packed and were leaving.”

My negative reaction to “meek” is due to the intensity of my own experience during the six months I spent in India, undoubtedly the most significant, exciting six months of my life. What happened to me there on more than one occasion can be compared to a dumbed down version of the early moment with Ramakrishna described by Vivekananda. On one of his first visits, “Ramakrishna had placed his right foot on my body. The contact was terrible. With my eyes open I saw the walls and everything in the room whirling and vanishing into nothingness….The whole universe and my own individuality were at the same time lost in a nameless void.” When that happened to Narendra he wasn’t aware of anything cosmic or spiritual. He was terrified and repelled, thinking himself “face to face with death,” crying out like a frightened child, “What are you doing? I have parents at home.” Which comes close to describing what went through my mind whenever India lowered the boom. It would be nice to think that the heavy things that happened to me there were spiritually valid, but the charge was almost purely sensory: like being turned upside down by a roller coaster. Sharing sunrise on the Ganges at the Kumbha Mehla in Allahabad with seven million Hindus is a magnificent memory, but in the actual roar of the moment I was stunned, embattled, and disoriented. It was the ultimate manifestation of being “out of my depth.”

September 11, 1893/2001

The conclusion of Vivekananda’s opening address at the Parliament of Religions is worth repeating, if only in view of the date:

“Sectarianism, bigotry, and its horrible descendant, fanaticism, have long possessed this beautiful earth. They have filled the earth with violence, drenched it often and often with human blood, destroyed civilization and sent whole nations to despair. Had it not been for these horrible demons, human society would be far more advanced than it is now. But their time is come; and I fervently hope that the bell that tolled this morning in honor of this convention may be the death-knell of all fanaticism.”


—Stuart Mitchner


Ann Louise Bardach is working on a biography of Vivekananda. Philip Goldberg’s book, which was helpful as a back-up to Rolland’s Prophets of the New India, is available at the Princeton Public Library and should not be dismissed out of hand because of his unfortunate use of the word “meek.”

July 31, 2013

BookReview1Everything good about Detroit is available on iTunes.

—post on New York Times blog

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

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

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

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

The Anti-Hero

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

Detroit Noir

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

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

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

Crazy Numbers

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

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

Pequot and Penobscot

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

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

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

The Right To Be

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

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

July 24, 2013

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

Robin Wood in Cine-Action (1996)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

A Night in Philadelphia

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

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

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

Making Music

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

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

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

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

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

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


July 17, 2013

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

—Stephen Crane, from “Three Mysterious Soldiers”

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

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

Southern Fried Chicken

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

Cousin Jubal

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

Reading and Writing

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

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

Stephen Hero

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

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

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

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

Crane’s Vision

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


July 10, 2013

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

—Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

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

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

book rev beethovenMagnificent Monologue 

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

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

Beethoven and the Baron

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


July 3, 2013

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

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

Kafka Reads the Times

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

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

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

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

An Embarrassment

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

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

Funny Ha-Ha 

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

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

Early Kafka

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

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

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

—Stuart Mitchner

June 26, 2013

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

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

The Mozart Factor

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

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

Music Hath Charms

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

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

Family Above All

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

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

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


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

—Journey, “Don’t Stop Believin’

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

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

June 21, 2013

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

—Frederick Douglass,

Life and Times (1881)

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

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

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

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

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

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

“All Was Confusion”

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

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

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

Lincoln’s Character

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

The Movie 

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

The Captivating Widow

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

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

June 12, 2013

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

—Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938)

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

Williamsburg Surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Working in Brooklyn

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

Crane’s Bridge

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

Whitman Opens His Arms

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

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

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

Brooklyn, New York: 1855.

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

June 5, 2013

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

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


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

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

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

Tour in Free Fall

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

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

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

“The Third Man Theme”

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

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

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

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

Summer Romance

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

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

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

May 29, 2013

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

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

Clarke and Keats

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

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

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

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

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

book rev2Spenser in Indiana

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

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

Spenser at Berkeley

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

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

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

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

May 22, 2013

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

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

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

Wagner, the Film

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

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

Chaplin and Levine

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

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

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

Baudelaire Floating

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

Proust’s Telephone

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

Wagner’s Reach

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

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

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

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