January 2, 2013

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

—Ravi Shankar (1920-2012)

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

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

In Person

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

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

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

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

All Aboard

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

Thoughtful and Worried

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

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

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

December 26, 2012

You read me Shakespeare on the 

rolling Thames, 

That old river poet that never, ever ends

– Kate Bush

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Joys of Jingle

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

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

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

The Soul of Christmas

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

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

Looking Back

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

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

December 19, 2012

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

The Word

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

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

Love Hurts

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

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

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

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

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

Accepting Columbine

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

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

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

Beginning in Venice

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2012

The word is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out melodies for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will move the stars.

—Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

When I’m bombastic I have my reasons.

—Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

Dave Brubeck, who died at 91 on December 5, once said he liked to play “dangerously” close to “where you’re going to take a chance on making mistakes in order to create something you haven’t created before.” The news of his death has altered my plan for a column on Gustave Flaubert’s birthday, which is today, December 12. What Brubeck was “dangerously” trying to accomplish on the piano, and his defense of being “bombastic,” seems not incompatible with Flaubert’s remark about the cracked kettle of the word, except that Brubeck wanted to do more than move the stars; he wanted to make them shout. As Gary Giddins suggests in his 2004 collection Weather Bird, Brubeck “elicits a bellowing roar rarely heard at concerts any more. In a time of rampant jazz politesse, the bursts of applause when a solo peaks and elated cries when it finishes are intoxicating.”

Flaubert is primarily known for Madame Bovary (1856), a landmark of world literature. Brubeck is known for a landmark album, Time Out (1959), and for helping, in the words of the New York Times obituary, “make jazz popular.” While I enjoyed watching Brubeck perform long ago, I was never a fan. Flaubert and his translator Francis Steegmuller, on the other hand, sealed my fate. For better or worse, published and unpublished, I’ve been walking the writer’s walk ever since.

In Flaubert’s Study

The first and only time I saw the Brubeck Quartet in concert, I was a high school junior covering the event for my entertainment column in the student newspaper (some things never change). Three years after seeing Brubeck, I received an unexpected Christmas gift from my parents: a copy of Madame Bovary in Steegmuller’s just-published translation, along with the Vintage paperback of Flaubert and Madame Bovary, his book about the writing of the novel. This puzzling gift was probably my writer mother’s doing, her favorite characters in literature being Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina. I had no special interest in Flaubert, had never read a word. I was busy being a college sophomore, keeping up with my classes, and working on my first novel, which at that point was going nowhere. The part of Steegmuller’s book that changed my life was in the appendix, which included Flaubert’s detailed plot outline for Madame Bovary. As an 18-year-old constitutionally opposed to the idea of planning anything, I found myself responding to Flaubert’s outline as if the author had invited me into his study, allowing me access to his intimate thoughts, each chapter a paragraph of primed impressions, key words, fragments, and ideas separated by dashes. Being already “half in love” with easeful dashes, I sat down at the keyboard of my trusty Olympia (a high-school graduation present) and executed with bombastic Brubeckian intensity a ten-page outline for my novel in the same form. Until then, all I had in the way of a plan were some notes scribbled during an ROTC lecture. The outline was my Open Sesame. The following spring I finished the novel and by July it had been accepted for publication. Without going into the admitted defects of the finished product, I have no doubt that its publication would not have been possible without my reading of Steegmuller and Flaubert.

The Ideal of Empathy

My approach to most of the subjects of this column over the past nine years has been to put myself in the writer’s or director’s or artist’s or performer’s place, doing my best to comprehend and appreciate what they’re trying to achieve. Baudelaire’s uncannily prescient response to Madame Bovary, which is included in Flaubert and Madame Bovary, still represents, for me, an ideal of enlightened empathy. At a time (1856-57) when the book was being prosecuted in the courts for obscenity (just as his own Fleurs du mal would be), Baudelaire became Flaubert’s alter ego, divining his true, deepest intentions: “We shall stretch a nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style over a banal canvas. We shall pour huge feelings into the most trivial adventure. Solemn, decisive words will escape from inane mouths.” Baudelaire also perceived how the extent of Flaubert’s impersonation of his heroine and the depth of his devotion to her fantasies of a superior world “would suffice to make her interesting.” In response, Flaubert said, “You entered the arcana of the work as if our brains were mated. You’ve felt it and understood it thoroughly.”

Building the Hat

Flaubert’s outline and Baudelaire’s critique opened the palace gates of Madame Bovary for me. The notion that something subtly subversive was hidden inside a novel subtitled Provincial Ways gave me an incentive to read with an eye to instances of what Baudelaire was talking about. In fact, that “nervous, picturesque, subtle, exact style” is not merely present early in the opening chapter, it’s in your face, you can’t miss it. After a relatively conventional description of Charles Bovary entering the study-hall, a new student “in the last year of the lower school,” Flaubert creates a hat that would delight Dr. Seuss, who alone might be qualified to draw a “headgear of a composite order, containing elements of an ordinary hat, a hussar’s busby, a lancer’s cap, a sealskin cap, and a night cap.”

These hats within hats lead to a cadenza of the sort that makes young writers swoon, in which the hat was “one of those wretched things whose mute hideousness suggests unplumbed depths, like an idiot’s face.” The italics are intended to communicate the impact those 15 words had on a college sophomore who had only begun to comprehend the potential of the almighty simile. Meanwhile Flaubert is still constructing his magnificent hat: “three convex strips” are “followed by alternating lozenges of velvet and rabbit’s fur, separated by a red band; then came a kind of bag, terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon intricately decorated with braid. From this hung a long, excessively thin cord ending in a kind of tassel of gold netting.” The passage ends with a concise, snappy “The cap was new; its peak was shiny.”

The translation I quoted, the one that amazed and delighted my sophomore self, is Steegmuller’s. In the acclaimed 2010 translation by Lydia Davis, the bravura line emerges as “one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile.”

Davis is actually closer to the original French (“une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d’ex-pression comme le visage d’un imbécile”), and so is the first English translation, by Eleanor Marx-Aveling: “one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face.”

Steegmuller’s departure from the original makes all the difference. Neither of the other versions puts the charge into the act of reading that his did. The rhetorical “indeed”/”in fine” interferes with the momentum of the description, as if Flaubert has appeared on the stage of his narrative to perform an introductory flourish. It’s true that Steegmuller imposes a hackneyed phrase when he makes the depths “unplumbed,” but even so, his is the more effective translation; the idea is not to stop to analyse or even pretend to analyse; it’s to strike the dominant note, sound it, ring it, or, to quote Brubeck, play it “dangerously” close to risking a mistake.

Emma’s Death

For all his devotion to “le mot juste,” Flaubert accomplishes another bravura, risk-taking coup in his description of Emma’s rush to death upon being rebuffed and humiliated by both her former lovers: “It suddenly seemed to her that fiery particles were bursting in the air, like bullets exploding as they fell, and spinning and spinning and finally melting in the snow among the tree branches.” Once she perceives the “abyss” of “her plight,” she knows what has to be done, and “with a heroic resolve that made her almost happy,” she runs “down the river path” on her way “to the pharmacy,” where she makes the pharmacist’s assistant give her the key to the cupboard in which the poisons are kept. Here Steegmuller once again adds something to the original. The translations by Davis and Marx-Aveling have Emma thrusting her hand into the blue jar, removing it full of white powder, which “she began to eat.” In Steegmuller she “seized the blue jar, tore out the cork, plunged in her hand, withdrew it full of white powder, and ate greedily.”

As before, Steegmuller stresses momentum and intensity over faithfulness to the original, which lacks the word “greedily” that so effectively catches the sense of Emma’s crazed urgency and once again makes Steegmuller’s reading the most powerful.

Life Imitates Art

Eleanor Marx-Aveling, by the way, was Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Jenny Julia Eleanor “Tussy” Marx (1855-1898), who became her father’s secretary when she was 16, accompanying him to socialist conferences around the world, nursing him in his last illness, and publishing his unfinished manuscripts and the English language version of Das Kapital. An executive with the Social Democratic Federation, she supported various strikes, including the London Dock strike; she also organized the Gasworker’s Union and the International Socialist Congress in Paris, not to mention becoming an actress. Among other roles, she played Nora in a staged reading of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. After finding out that her partner, Edward Aveling, had secretly married a young actress, Eleanor chose to end her life in the manner Flaubert devised for Emma. She sent a maid to the chemist for padiorium and prussic acid, which she swallowed after writing two suicide notes. She was 43; Emma, according to most surmises, was not yet 30.

“When I described Mme Bovary’s poisoning,” Flaubert wrote long after the book was published, “the taste of arsenic in my mouth was so strong … that I vomited my dinner.”

With all the attention I’ve given to translations of Flaubert, I’m trusting the footnote in Frederick Brown’s 2006 biography for “vomited.” Brown is quoting from volume 3 of the Pléiade edition of the Correspondance. I wonder what Steegmuller would have come up with (no pun intended). I’ve been consulting the Gutenberg edition of Madame Bovary and some other online sources to check the various translations (or interpretations) of the original French. The “cracked kettle” fragment at the top is based on comparing different versions with Flaubert’s own by someone with nothing more than two years of college French, a love of Balzac, and a lifetime of subtitled French movies to go on.

The latest attempt to bring Madame Bovary to the screen is set to begin filming in Europe this spring, with Mia Wasikowska (Alice in Wonderland) in the title role. The Steegmuller translation was most recently available in a Vintage Classics paperback. The epigraph from Brubeck is from the liner notes of the 1993 box set Time Signatures — A Career Retrospective.

December 5, 2012

If you think of “holiday” as an enhanced departure from routine, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (Apple Blu-Ray DVD) qualifies as the ultimate holiday movie, in spite of what happened when it was first shown on the BBC, Boxing Day, December 26, 1967. Besides being savaged by critics as “tasteless nonsense” and “blatant rubbish,” the 50-odd minutes of surreal psychedelic vaudeville appalled and alienated the British public. “Beatles mystery tour baffles viewers” was the headline in the Mirror. The show scored the lowest-ever rating (23 out of 100) on a viewer’s survey known as the BBC’s Reaction Index. Thousands actually called in to protest. Of course it didn’t help that a film made in color had been shown in black and white. (There was at least one positive notice, from the Guardian, which called it “an inspired freewheeling achievement.”)

“We got hammered mightily,” Sir Paul McCartney admits near the end of his commentary accompanying the new Blu-Ray edition, where his closing remark is a cynical “thank you” to the critics for their “kind reviews.” Forty-five years after the fact, the original rejection apparently still rankles, casting a shadow on a work McCartney values not only as a free-form adventure shared with his mates but as “a snapshot of the times,” and “an interesting document of where we were at.” Without it, no one “would have seen this side of the Beatles. Someone would have put us in a bag and made sense of it. A lot of what we were doing then didn’t make sense.”

Good as Gold

The unmagical BBC fiasco prompted NBC to cancel an agreement to broadcast the film, which was not widely shown here until 1974, four years after the Beatles had broken up. While this suggests one reason why Magical Mystery Tour never really registered as a debacle stateside, a more likely explanation is that before American listeners could be exposed to any negative feedback from England, they were blissing out to the truly magical album Capitol had released a month earlier. In England, people had to make do with an EP containing only songs from the film. The American version had those five tracks, plus the singles, “Hello Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” “Baby You’re a Rich Man,” and two unmitigated masterpieces, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.” As far as people on this side of the Atlantic were concerned, everything the Beatles touched was still turning to gold.

Consider the heady state of Beatles affairs at the time of their escape in a psychedelicized Bedford tour bus on a wholly irresponsible spur-of-the-moment lark with a cast of friends, fan club leaders, technicians, character actors, comedians, dwarfs, and cameramen. In the aftermath of the storied summer of 1967, they can do no wrong, Sgt. Pepper having exploded on the scene in May, with songs like “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” a hallucinatory anthem, and the closing track, “A Day in the Life,” which blew a hole as big as Blackburn Lancashire through the conventions of rock and roll.

On June 25, 400 million people in 26 countries would see the live feed of the Beatles’ debut performance of “All You Need Is Love” broadcast worldwide as the U.K.’s contribution to Our World, the first live global television link. A fortnight after the August 27th death of the group’s guiding light, Brian Epstein, the lads from Liverpool take off for the West country on their holiday adventure with no plan, no script. In the DVD commentary, McCartney says he simply suggested they each “come up with some ideas and go somewhere and film them.” They would make up the movie as they went along. Like putting a childhood fantasy into play. In one sense, as hard as Epstein’s death was on them, it symbolically set them free: “We wanted to have control over what we were doing. We were fed up with everything taking so long.”

As Paul admits in the commentary, the result led to a nightmare in the editing room. He thought they could shape a film from all that footage in one week; it took eleven.

Surreal Chaos

Sometimes I think a library angel is looking out for me, putting the right thing in the right place at the right moment. As soon as this week’s Town Talk question was decided on (that old standby, “What’s your favorite holiday movie?”), I went to the “community’s living room” figuring I might check out White Christmas or anything that struck the right note for a holiday theme. Then there it was displayed atop the Blu-Ray shelves, looming bold and bright with its fanfare rainbow and yellow stars, and Paul, John, George, and Ringo disguised in “I Am the Walrus” regalia.

After two viewings of Magical Mystery Tour and its special features, I put Irving Berlin’s White Christmas in the DVD player. When Paul says in his commentary that “what happened with the Beatles had to do with our memories,” he’s not just talking about growing up with the BBC, or acts like Morecombe & Wise, the Goon Show, and the ambience of the music hall, but of the enlightened affection he and John Lennon shared for classic American songs and songwriters like Irving Berlin. This becomes clear when Paul is discussing the making of the concluding number, “Your Mother Should Know,” an evocation of grandiose Hollywood musicals in which the Beatles, attired in white tuxedos, descend a grand stairway while dancing couples spin and twirl below, the girls’ skirts whirling and flaring. It’s an exhilarating sequence, the atmosphere is both formal and free like the spirited, buoyant music that makes this arguably Paul’s most effective homage to “the songs that were a hit before your mother was born.”

The surreal chaos of Magical Mystery Tour, even at its sloppiest, has a Cinéma vérité panache. In White Christmas, the highest grossing film of 1954, the gloss of the production is so polished and insistent it offends the eye. It’s all surface and the opening scene on the front lines in 1944 looks as staged and static as a display in a department store show window with mannikins dressed as soldiers. It’s a relief when the film leaves the war zone for the familiar show biz milieu of a musical comedy team (Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye) with love interest in the form of two sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen), who were singing “Sisters” at the point when I turned it off to go back to Magical Mystery Tour for another look at the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band performing “Death Cab for Cutie.”


I keep hearing “Ooh you’re a holiday, such a holiday,” from the song of the same name, one of the most irresistible melodies ever recorded by the Bee Gees. What appeals to me is the idea of a human holiday, and given the pleasure they’ve brought to millions of people around the world for the past 50 years, it’s safe to say that the Beatles are a holiday. Which means this resplendently revised film of a trip they once took (a holiday’s holiday) is worth going along on for any number of reasons, including the wonders performed on a hitherto shabby print by high-definition Blu-Ray production. Another reason: the special features, notably the one on the making of the film with appearances by 70-year-old Sir Paul looking magisterial and saggy about the jowls and Ringo who seems in fine fettle watching his 27-year-old self bickering with his fat Aunt Jessie (Jessie Robins). In the fast and loose fluidity of the film, 2012 and 1967 interact in an element open to the old and young Paul (his wide-eyed Dorian Gray charisma on display in the “Fool on the Hill” sequence) and the old and young Ringo. Plus George and John, alive again, commenting on the film years after its fraught release and present in the moment it’s being made, passengers with the rest of the oddballs from the 20th century British vaudeville of fat and lean, freak and clown, and little kids like the girl sitting next to John on the bus, the two of them playing with a red balloon in one of the film’s most charming moments (showing, as Paul says, “a side of John you never really saw”). George may seem at times to be enduring the ride, dour in shades and a wide-shouldered gangster suit jacket two sizes too big for him, but he lightens up, having fun, singing along when everyone on the bus is bellowing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” (one of the special feature highlights is Ringo’s tomcat-on-the-fence version of “Yesterday”).

No doubt we could do without Victor Spinetti’s stacatto top sergeant gibberish and the love scene on the beach with Aunt Jessie and Buster Bloodvessel (Ivor Cutler). But after all, it’s only 53 minutes long, and there’s easily enough charm and color and movement to make up for the longeurs. Blu-Ray does amazing things with the Beatles’ richly hued magician’s regalia, worn while they’re cooking up spells and exchanging Hard Day’s Night-style one-liners. Only now there’s no Richard Lester telling them what to do, and no one’s feeding them lines. Remember, they’re on a lark, “at liberty to play,” as Paul says.

The main reason to see Magical Mystery Tour, no surprise, is the music, most of all the “I Am the Walrus” sequence, captured in one of the greatest music videos ever (and accomplished before MTV was a gleam in anyone’s eye). Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye are wonderful performers, Irving Berlin a great songwriter. But the Beatles do it all. They write the songs they sing. They make the moves and carry the movies. As Paul says near the end of his commentary, “We did the trip and we came back singing songs. Who were the wizards? The wizards were us.”

November 28, 2012

For the long hard slog through the eight years of the Bush presidency, it helped to have Paul Krugman’s Op Ed columns in the New York Times, and Frank Rich’s meditations in the Sunday Times Week in Review. While Krugman and Rich were trying to make intelligent sense of an ongoing national calamity, the poet C.K. Williams offered another, more deeply felt level of understanding. The columnists were like sentries in the watch tower. The poet was a troubled citizen speaking in a low compelling voice one-on-one to troubled readers in poems like “The War,” “Night” and “The Hearth,” which I read as they appeared in the New Yorker and again in The Singing (Farrar, Straus and Grioux 2003), the subject of my June 9, 2004 column (“A Book to Live With”). Remarking on the “intimate and companionable” qualities of the collection, I ended by saying it would take a separate review to do justice to “these wartime dispatches from the homefront” by a poet “who is seeing and feeling this grim time for us as bravely and lucidly as he can.”

My sense of Williams as a one-on-one poet writing for us, with us, as though on our behalf, a quality also expressed in my review of his Collected Poems (“Look, He Has Come Through,” Dec. 6, 2006), began with a reading of “The Hearth” in the March 3, 2003 New Yorker, two weeks before the invasion of Iraq. While the image of a hearth suggests something comfortable and inviting, what you find when you enter the poem is a “recalcitrant fire” the poet (alone “after the news”) is “stirring up” as he follows a course of dark thought (fire blinding and maiming someone, nature devouring its prey) that leads to the war and the “more than fear” he feels for his children and grandchildren. Once he has the fire blazing, “its glow on the windows makes the night even darker but it  barely keeps the room warm.” By the time you come to the last line (“I stroke it again and crouch closer”), you’re there in the chilly room with him holding your hands toward the same fading fire.


A decade later there are two new books, both published this month, Writers Writing Dying (FSG $27.50), a collection of recent poetry, and In Time: Poets, Poems, and the Rest (University of Chicago Press $27.50), a collection of prose writings and interview excerpts containing an essay, “On Being Old,” in which he discusses some developments in his later poetry. Referring to poems “unlike any” he’d written before, he notes that there “seemed to have arrived in them an element of not only the irrational but also the absurd, a willed goofiness.” After addressing the possibility that maybe he “was tired of being logical, rational, lucid, ‘mature,’” he admits that when he “hit seventy” he realized he “hadn’t changed a bit” since he was eighteen, still “chartless,” still “meandering through the world.”

While the poet of the dark time expressed in “The Hearth” has gone through some exciting changes in recent years, perhaps inspired in part by the election of Obama in 2008 and the accompanying surge of relief, hope, and irrational exhilaration (renewed several times over three weeks ago), it’s not so much that he’s less lucid and rational, just that his recent manner tends to be more daring, headlong, and aggressive, as if he’d received a charge of adolescent energy to go with a turn toward all-out, no-holds-barred performance that would seem to be somewhat at odds with his former companionableness.

Negative Impetus

After providing a stern if generally appreciative assessment of Williams’s Collected Poems, Dan Chiasson concludes his Dec. 24, 2006 New York Times review by disparaging the later work, where “the contest between comfort and distress feels rigged for comfort” and the poems “tip from too much sentiment.” The suggestion is that the poet who once “tested poetry against ugliness, the imagination against the world,” has given way to Williams the doting grandfather (“There are hazards to being around one’s grandchildren, and one of them is that a person’s poems will suffer”). At the end, carried along by the negative momentum he’s riding, Chiasson reduces the poet whose entire career was the ostensible subject to someone who “settles for the dreary, flummoxed middle zone of life where the rest of us are consigned to live: really loving our ‘children, and their children,’ really hating the president.”

It’s tempting to think that Williams profited from the negatives of that high-profile notice while avoiding inane advisories about the “hazards” of grandchildren. In that sense, perhaps Chiasson indirectly contributed to the edgier, more adventurous, more combative manner of the later poetry (a quote from the same review is featured on the dust jacket of In Time).

Far from being wary of the grandchildren, Williams brings all three of them into the new collection’s penultimate poem, “The Day Continues Lovely.” Thus the undaunted poet manages to test “poetry against ugliness, the imagination against the world” in the same room with children “more golden than gold” and a beloved dog asleep on the floor even as he’s summoning Kierkegaard, Buber, and some full-throated shouting from the voice of God. Plus he’s riffing and rapping on the notion of prayer, because he “Can’t. Pray.” So he conjures up “the Binary Kid” and instead of praying on he plays on “God, not God”; “Good, bad./Hate love”; “Galaxy on. Galaxy off.” But then, when he’s through dancing from switch to switch in the “space between on and off,” singing the mind-body electric, going expansively and allusively nuts, he companionably opens the door and lets us into his children-golden room as one of them wakes up, the dog, too, and comes to see what he’s doing, “Turner leans his head on my shoulder to peek./What am I doing? Thinking of Kierkegaard. Thinking of beauty. Thinking of prayer.”

So there we are again, with Williams in the moment.


The post-2008-election changes in Williams’s work are actually already taking exhilarating form in “The Foundation,” which appeared in the New Yorker (March 23, 2009) two months after Obama was clumsily sworn in (it’s also the penultimate poem in the 2010 collection, Wait). “Watch me, I’m running, watch me, I’m dancing” — so Williams begins this “jubilant song of the ruins,” reliving and reimagining the memory of exploring the rubble of a Newark building site. Like a grown-up kid at play, he revels in the sheer fun of celebrating his heroes and mentors — “Watch me again now, because I’m not alone in my dancing,/my being air, I’m with my poets, my Rilke, my Yeats,/we’re leaping together through the debris, a jumble of wrack/but my Keats floats across it, my Herbert and Donne.”

“Play” and “playing” are among the operative words in “The Foundation” as well as in the poems in Writers Writing Dying that appear to be its descendants, whether the subject is death and work in the title poem, being a poet in “Whacked” or being a “cad” in “Salt.”

In “Whacked,” where Williams takes amused poetic possession of the slang for “kill” made famous in The Sopranos, some of the same poets he was romping with in “The Foundation” are all over him, not just the Yeatses and Herberts but whole tribes of younger poets and even the bad ones whose “whackless poems” can still “hurt you.” It’s a deceptively confessional poem (“I’ve read reams, I’ve written as many”) disguised as a spree in which the poet runs wild with a single word — in effect, the 6’5 Williams, a former basketball player at Bucknell, grabs the ball called whack and runs with it, weaving through the whack-whack-whacking opposition into the open, an all-out fast break taking him to some wondrous figures (“warm tangles of musical down as from the breasts of the choiring dawn-tangling larks”) on the way to a magnificently unlikely concluding image. In the second stanza, almost before we know it, he’s become a mustang “stampeding” through the “sweet-seeming” poems of Elizabeth Bishop on his way to becoming the last stanza’s “old racehorse.” Will they put him out to pasture? Not a chance, he’s too slippery, he’s as slyly shape-shifting as he ever was, “like a mare” now “giving birth, arm in my own uterine channel to tug out another,/one more, only one more, poor damp little poem, then I’ll be happy — I promise, I swear.”

There’s not much to say of such audacity except to be glad that somewhere between 2007 and 2011 Williams gave himself up to a more brazen, playful muse.

And the course he runs in “Salt” is no less wild and woolly, doing for the term “cad” what he did for “whacked” and putting “miniature mountains” of the salt of caddish deception in a Cornell box (Dali would love it) that also contains a flock of his former lovers, “their beaks open now not to berate but stereophonically warble forgiveness.” Again the zany moves of the uninhibited muse lead to touches like the “memory moon, still glowing” in a corner of the box, which brings him back to salt’s equivalent “anapests, iambs, enjambments” and the saving grace of verse. As in the title poem that concludes the collection, it’s ultimately all about the endgame. In “Salt,” he quotes Sir Thomas Wyatt, “which is why I can croon now, ‘My lute be still …” and why I can cry. ‘… for I have done.” But the last line of the last poem is no less infused with play: “and if you’re dead or asleep who really cares?/Such fun to wake up though! Such fun too if you don’t! Keep dying! Keep writing it down!”

The appropriately spirited painting on the cover of Writers Writing Dying is the work of the poet’s son, Jed Williams.

November 14, 2012

I believe in Walter White, his family and his friends. They aren’t just objects of interest and curiosity and occasional sympathy …. I actually care deeply about whether they live and die.

—Ross Douthat

Ross Douthat’s June 15, 2010, New York Times piece turned up during an online fishing expedition baited with the tag, “Breaking Bad/Dostoevsky.” It’s not that I’m looking to put a Dostoevskian spin on Vince Gilligan’s AMC series about a cancer-stricken high school science teacher turned methamphetamine overlord; it’s just that Breaking Bad has elements and characters that the author of Crime and Punishment would find fascinating. Same for Balzac and Poe and Hawthorne, and don’t forget Robert Louis Stevenson, since anyone watching Walter White cooking up batches of crystal blue meth is sure to visualize Dr. Jekyll in his lab and the macabre fate he meets when the chemically induced Mr. Hyde takes complete possession of the good doctor’s soul.

I came late to Breaking Bad. No one tugged at my sleeve and said, “Don’t miss it.” I was unaware until recently that Bryan Cranston had won the “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series” Emmy three years in a row. One thing for sure, if I’d read somewhere of Vince Gilligan’s concept for the show — to turn his central character from protagonist to antagonist, from Mr Chips to Scarface — I’d have jumped on board a year or two sooner. The concept, not to mention the acting, writing, and cinematography used to explore it, is what makes Breaking Bad superior to any series since HBO’s Big Three, The Wire, Deadwood, and The Sopranos. HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which recently launched its third season, is an impressive production but not in the same league as Breaking Bad, which will end its five season run next summer.

Breaking Through

My online search took me to a short essay by Corey Pung quoting Dostoevsky (“Without God, anything is possible”) on Walt’s reaction to the death sentence he receives in Breaking Bad’s opening episode. While his primary motive is to provide for his family (wife pregnant, baby’s arrival imminent, teenage son with cerebral palsy), as soon as he’s told he may have only months to live, he begins to challenge the reasonable, responsible limits that have ruled his life, struggling to make ends meet teaching high school science while moonlighting in a car wash. Most good providers (and Walt becomes a good provider with a vengeance) would still observe the limits, pursuing medical treatment (as Walt does), setting their house in order (this too), or looking for moral support in religion. Religion? Not Walt. He takes the anything-is-possible route. The spectre of death releases the genius seething inside him.

More Than Adrenaline

Writing on Good Reads, a blogger from India wants to know if there is any novel “as adrenaline pumping as the Breaking Bad TV series?” So far the only book that comes close, he says, is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. He finds the thriller writers like Patterson, Grisham, and Ludlum wanting because “they seldom really make the scenes absolutely memorable along with keeping me on the edge of my seat.” He wants an experience that “stays with” him “long after” he reads it: “Just like Breaking Bad is doing to me.”

That says it: you don’t just watch Breaking Bad; it does things to you, it stays with you, stirs you, moves you, haunts you, and makes you care about the characters as life-and-death intensely as Ross Douthat suggests when comparing the show to AMC’s other hit series, Mad Men.

The Moment of Truth

At this point it’s necessary to announce a modified spoiler alert, since the scene I’m about to focus on concerns the death of a character, a sad, ugly, needless death that occurs late in the second season and could have been prevented. The sequence, in its subtle but stunning way, is one of the defining moments in this savage series where violence explodes, bloodily, outrageously, gruesomely, sometimes with gory black comedy overtones (like the notorious raspberry slushie sequence in the first season). Not to worry, nothing’s going to blow up in your face in this small, hushed room where a young couple lies cuddled together, spoon style, deep in a heroin stupor on a mattress at Walt’s feet. He intends them no harm. There’s even a sense that as he looks down on these two kids, he’s touched, briefly bemused, and a bit embarrassed to have invaded their privacy, for they really are like two children, innocent, helpless, vulnerable (“Shades of Romeo and Juliet,” was Gilligan’s comment in an interview about the scene).

Then the female, the Juliet, turns over on her back and begins softly coughing. She’s choking, and he knows that if he doesn’t do the right thing, the simple obvious human thing anyone else would do, she might die. Yet he’s hesitating, holding back, you can see the pressure of the thought closing in on him as he realizes that a solution to the problem that brought him to this place is at hand: a threat to his enterprise is about to be nullified. If he allows it. This death will be to his advantage. So he thinks, he hesitates, allows it, and watches, in pained amazement, as death happens. It takes less than 30 seconds. As he watches, he has to press his hand over his mouth to keep from crying out, tears spring to his eyes, he’s torn, hurting, because what’s left of the father, the teacher, the good provider is appalled and ashamed and sick with sympathy, as if he’s been standing by and watching, allowing, the death of his own child.

Why You Care

I found the loss of this character, this Juliet, truly hard to accept even after I’d moved on to the third season. This is the “caring deeply” that Douthat’s talking about. The loss hurts not just because you liked her, cared about her, and even valued her as a rare glimmer of sweetness and light in her lover’s life, but because you know her death is going to devastate if not destroy a character you care about a great deal more — Walt’s partner in meth cooking, Jesse Pinkman, who is played with an intensity second only to Bryan Cranston’s by Aaron Paul (winner of two Supporting Actor Emmys). By this point in the second season you can’t help but share some of Walt’s quasi paternal/fraternal feelings for this seemingly hapless loser, the F student forever even though he’s earned his half of a fortune, survived brutal beatings and unthinkably dire near-death dilemmas with the science teacher who flunked him years ago. One of the most lovable things about this series, which may be the most bizarre buddy movie ever made, is that after all they’ve been through together, Jesse still calls Walt “Mr. White.”

The repercussions from this same scene are immense, and it’s here that Breaking Bad does what great shows do, it transcends probability, defies reason, takes an already shameless coincidence (a meeting in a nearby bar between Walt and his victim’s father) one giant step forward. With the wound of that silent death scene still smarting, the consequences of Walt’s moment of deadly hesitation explode like an action-movie version of God’s wrath writ large on the bright blue sky as a passenger plane collides with a private plane, hundreds die, and all of it, the bodies and body parts and personal odds and ends in effect descend on the man who stood by while someone’s child died, and in case you doubt that he’s culpable, you’re taken up to the sky, to the point of impact, and sent down down down with the debris of the explosion, the target below a small blue rectangle: the swimming pool in the Whites’ back yard where the man responsible is standing, staring upward, once again watching death happen.


By the time a dead child’s stuffed dog falls from the fiery collision into Walter’s swimming pool — the charred toy, one eye out, an image that has been flashed ominously forward from the first episode — you’ve been hammered by explosions, shootings, stranglings; you’ve been dazzled by the cinematographer Michael Slovis’s artistry; you’ve enjoyed the sleazy ingenuity of one of the most charming shyster lawyers you’ll ever see, Saul “Just Call Saul” Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). You’re half in love with Skyler, Walt’s beautiful resourceful wife (Anna Gunn) and handsome disabled son (RJ Mitte); you have an insider’s knowledge of his extended family, including his blustery Drug Enforcement Administration brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and Skyler’s ditzy kleptomaniac sister Marie (Betsy Brandt). For four seasons, you’ve been horrified, shocked, touched, and amused by these people and the things they do. To quote Douthat again, from his column explaining why he thinks Vince Gilligan’s creation outranks Mad Men as the best show on television (and why I think it ranks with the best shows ever), “what’s struck me watching Breaking Bad is how much more invested I am in its characters as human beings.”

November 7, 2012

“The season [June 1816] was cold and rainy, and in the evenings we crowded around a blazing wood fire and occasionally amused ourselves with some German stories of ghosts,” writes Mary Shelley in a preface describing the genesis of Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus (1818, 1831). The tales inspired a story-telling competition among a group that included 18-year-old Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron, in whose Lake Geneva villa they were staying. According to her introduction to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, she struggled for an idea that when it came, “broke in upon” her “swift as light.” Thinking to herself, “What terrified me will terrify others,” she began her story that same day with the words, “It was on a dreary night of November.”

In The Annotated Frankenstein (Belknap Press, Harvard University Press $29.95), editors Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao point out that the “extraordinarily rainy summer” of 1816 was the result of “a global climate trauma produced by the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia. In Europe the relentless weather with attendant floods and much human misery was felt to be an apocalyptic portent.”

If it sounds as though prophets of climate change were already on the job in the summer of 1816, it’s also tempting to read the stormy present into references to “relentless weather,” floods, and human misery in that “Year Without a Summer.” Before the “Frankenstorm” called Sandy began bearing down on us, Wolfson and Devao’s hefty, handsome new edition of Mary Shelley’s triumph of the imagination seemed a natural subject for a Halloween column. In any case, it made for timely company by candle light with Monday night’s gale pounding the house.

When the power went off, we’d just managed to get dinner on the table. After Irene and last year’s freak Halloween snowstorm, we were ready for Sandy, with plenty of bottled water and batteries, a Red Cross radio, lanterns in place, candles of various sizes lit, the small glass-enclosed votive candles strategically positioned. With nothing else for diversion (no more internet, no more election news, no more TV, no more Breaking Bad), we thought about games. But our Scrabble hasn’t been seen since the flood of 2005, nor has the Shakespeare board game we used to play. We still have a not quite complete deck of Authors along with the same battered pack of Woodland Happy Families that kept us occupied during the strictly rationed miner strike black-outs in Bristol, England in the early 1970s. The damp, chilly, cozy English springs, autumns, and winters came pleasantly back again during the days without electricity — if you can imagine feeling nostalgia for huddling under blankets, shopping in candlelit markets, and venturing into the dark night, lantern in hand, to visit friends when our neighborhood was in darkness and theirs had power.

Shelter in Shakespeare

We never got around to playing Authors last week, not with books to read and a fire in the fireplace. On Monday night, while the storm engulfed and wracked the house, the wind attacking full force, the rest of the family in bed, I started reading Shakespeare’s Winter’s Tale in Volume III of an 1836 edition of the Works celebrated by Herman Melville for its “glorious great type, every letter whereof is a soldier & the top of every “t” like a musket barrel.” It was this seven volume set published by Hilliard, Gray, and Company in Boston that made Shakespeare available to Melville (“If another Messiah ever comes t’will be in Shakespeare’s person”) in time for the most Shakespearean of American novels, Moby Dick.

The question is can Shakespeare provide shelter from the storm? What comfort is there in great writing when a juggernaut’s outside the window? Maybe I should be reading King Lear or Macbeth. Maybe Winter’s Tale is too light and fantastical for the occasion. Not so, not in the second scene of Act One when Leontes, the King of Sicilia, goes ballistic after jumping to the fatal conclusion that his pregnant wife Hermione has been dallying with his childhood pal Polixenes, the King of Bohemia. After one of his attendant lords tries to sort things out, Leontes abuses him so passionately that I couldn’t resist reading the speeches aloud, revelling in all the earthy invective, “My wife’s a hobby-horse …. As rank as any flax-wench that puts to before her troth-plight.” And when Shakespeare has Leontes expanding on “nothing” I’m tempted to outshout Sandy:

Is whispering nothing?

Is leaning cheek to cheek? Is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? Stopping the career

Of laughter with a sigh? —a note infallible
Of breaking honesty: Horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? Wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? Noon, midnight? And all eyes

Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,

That would unseen be wicked? Is this nothing?

Why, then, the world, and all that’s in’t, is nothing;

The covering sky is nothing; Bohemia nothing;
My wife is nothing; nor nothing have these nothings, 

If this be nothing.

Yes, and the storm outside nothing! The fear of a flood in the basement nothing! The loss of light and heat nothing! It was consoling to speak that speech against the raging wind, drunk on all those sweet nothings, any louder and I’ll wake the house, though it’s true I have the cover of all that tumult booming outside as I give it to Camillo, “You lie, you lie: I say thou liest, Camillo, and I hate thee, pronounce thee a gross lout, a mindless slave!”

You can’t beat the force of nature we call Shakespeare. If Jane Austen can kill zombies, why shouldn’t Shakespeare tame hurricanes?


Throughout the siege I’ve had the newly published Annotated Frankenstein, with its dramatic cover image, in sight nearby. At least Sandy has spared us thunder and lightning, for which we’re grateful. But the message of that brilliant jagged cover photograph from Getty Images is electricity, which of course is the very force we’re hoping, wishing, praying for as the power-bereft hours drag on. Without it, we’re cut adrift. Cheat how we may with our battery-run lanterns and radios and such, we’re foundering in 19th-century darkness. Electricity is central to Frankenstein, for only the Romantic period equivalent of Promethean fire can animate the Creature. Among the illustrations included in Wolfson and Levao’s lavish edition is Benjamin West’s Benjamin Franklin Drawing Electricity from the Sky (circa 1816). In their introduction, the editors point out that Immanuel Kant dubbed Franklin the “Prometheus of Modern Times … who stole the spark immediately from heaven.”

The editors also point out a seemingly obvious but rarely recognized “surname-link” between the two inventors, Victor Frankenstein and Benjamin Franklin. I wonder how many scholars of American history could get their heads around the idea that good old Ben, Poor Richard, patron saint of Philadelphia, may have inspired the naming of the creature who would rank Number One among the Top Ten Monsters of All Time. But then scholars and critics and followers of American literature would be even less prepared to accept the link between Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Walt Whitman mentioned in a previous column (“Some Post-Halloween Thoughts on Dracula, Other Vampires, and Walt Whitman,” Nov. 4 2009).

It’s Still Dickens’s Year

It seems only right in this bicentenary year that Wolfson and Levao’s introduction would reveal a Dickens-Frankenstein connection that not only shows how pervasive was the spell cast by Mary Shelley’s book (the 1831 edition sold “into the thousands with many reprintings”) but how far-reaching and complex were its proliferating themes, associations, and implications. The editors point to the relationship, for example, between the protagonist Pip and convict Magwitch, whose terrorizing of young Pip in the opening scene of Great Expectations is among the greatest passages in all Dickens. As they suggest, Dickens invokes Frankenstein without naming it as well as exercising “some wry turns on the tale,” as in the scene where Magwitch reveals himself as Pip’s mysterious benefactor: “The imaginary student pursued by the misshapen creature he had impiously made, was not more wretched than I, pursued by the creature who had made me, and recoiling from him with a stronger repulsion, the more he admired me and the fonder he was of me.”

Once again the range and scope of Dickens is so broad as to suggest, as I’ve been doing this year, that he and his England are virtually one and the same, and when Christmas comes next month, Dickens’s most beloved monster, Ebenezer Scrooge, will come bah-humbugging back into our holiday lives.

Sandy vs. Sandy

And then there was light!

It was that dramatic, like the birth of electricity, accomplished in an instant, at some point in the dozy minutes between 10:30 and 10:45 p.m. Halloween night. We’d been without power since dinnertime Monday. My family having gone to bed to stay warm (the temperature was 56 and felt ten degrees colder), I was in the dark living room wrapped in a blanket listening to Sandy Denny sing a song called “Next Time Around.” Believe it or not, my choice of that particular CD (The North Star Grassman and the Ravens) had nothing to do with the Sandy-Sandy connection (nor did I recognize the coincidence at all until now); more likely, it was a natural expression of the connection between the power-loss of the present and the one so intimately bound up with a nostalgia for those years in England. The music is sad, stately, richly orchestrated, and as I drifted off I was vaguely aware that the lyrics were in line with what the other Sandy was doing, lyrics like “the rain was too high,” “the river did rise,” “the building fell down/may be the ocean next time around.”

When I dozed off the room had been fully dark except for the faintly burning fire in the fireplace. The remaining five songs on the album had finished playing, and the portable CD player I’d purchased at WalMart had turned itself off when I woke up. Every lamp and light fixture in the living room had been on when we’d lost power, so the impact of sheer illumination was tremendous. The light was so bright that I could almost hear it. The furnace had come on with the power and waves of warmth were filling the room.

November 6, 2012

A Poet is the most unpoetical of any thing in existence ….

—John Keats in letter, Oct 27, 1818

Finally I’ve found an occasion worthy of a column on The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (PEPP) the monumental volume (1639 pages, 700 contributors) just published in the new, greatly expanded fourth edition by Princeton University Press. Halloween may seem an unlikely holiday context for a volume that devotes over a million words and a thousand entries to the unscary subject of poetry, except that October 31 is also the 227th birthday of John Keats (1795-1821), of all poets surely the one most likely to dominate the electoral college of verse should there ever be an election for the standard bearer of English poetry.

Keats the Key

To explore a book this immense it helps to have a key and Keats will be mine. He makes his first appearance in the African American Poetry entry in reference to the conflict between Countee Cullen, who was “extravagantly admiring of Keats” and Langston Hughes, whose major influence was the blues. If you have the genies of the net at your disposal, and if Storming Sandy has not stolen your power, a click of the mouse will give you Cullen’s “To John Keats, Poet, at Spring Time” (“‘John Keats is dead,’ they say, but I/Who hear your full insistent cry/In bud and blossom, leaf and tree,/Know John Keats still writes poetry”). No need to stop there. Every page, every entry in the encyclopedia is freighted with leads to follow online, where Cullen’s bio tells you that no one knows for sure when or where he was born (May 30, 1903, is the best bet), though it could be either New York, Baltimore, or Lexington, Kentucky, the state Keats’s brother George and sister-in-law Georgiana, the recipients of his best and longest letters, emigrated to in 1818. Another virtual side trip and you can learn something of George’s life in Louisville as a civic leader and patron of the arts.

Finding Kunin

The site of Keats’s next appearance further indicates how the encyclopedia extends its reach into the wider world. Located under “A,” the “Poetry as Artifact” is the contribution of one A. Kunin. What to make of that “A”? Not only are the first names of contributors abbreviated in the PEPP, so are oft-used terms like classical (cl.) and modern (mod.) and centuries (cs.). This big book couldn’t breathe without abbreviations. But who and where is Kunin? Male or female, Andy or Ann?

Back in 1993, when PEPP’s third edition was published, the “information superhighway” was still a work in progress, and you’d have worn yourself out tracking down Aaron Kunin, who turns out to be “a rising star in the poetry world.” That’s according to the Holloway Series in Poetry website, where you can see a video of Kunin (thin, glasses, Afro) reading from his work. He teaches 18th century literature at Pomona College and gets good marks on Rate Your Professor (“I love him,” “the sweetest guy,” “oh what a dreamboat!”) except for the complaint that Mr. Kunin “tends to talk too long about small details.” A student in his Milton class (the “oh what a dreamboat” person, in fact) says he “can relate biblical characters to a fashion photograph of a mini skirt without the slightest hesitance.” Clearly this is someone who was born to contribute to a 21st century encyclopedia on poetry and poetics.

Keats’s connection to “Poetry as Artifact” is his sonnet, “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer.” After bringing in Heidegger, “a mod. exponent of humanist trad.,” and “15th and 16th cs. processed knowledge through cl. poetic models,” Kunin comes to the conclusion (hardly a great perceptual leap) that when Keats writes about Chapman’s translation of Homer, Chapman’s text brings him “closer to Homer than to Chapman.” Meanwhile no mention is made of Keats’s “Ode On a Grecian Urn,” arguably the most famous poem ever written about an artifact.

E. Rohrbach’s Capability

The only entry in PEPP that Keats himself generated is, not surprisingly, “Negative Capability,” a term coined in one of those extraordinarily rich letters sent to George and Georgiana in America. Google images of E. Rohrbach, the article’s author, and you find that “E” is for Emily, who is instantly appealing with her long dark hair, intense, intelligent gaze and potent, mysterious smile. It’s refreshing that rather than going off on tangents, Ms. Rohrbach, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, wisely uses much of her modest portion of PEPP to quote from the poet’s letters, including, most effectively, the Oct. 27 1818 one to Richard Woodhouse on the “poetical Character” that contains the line claiming that the poet is the “most unpoetical of any thing in existence.”

All unpoetical bets are off when Ms. Rohrbach merges the man “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts” with the one who “has no self … is everything and nothing … lives in gusto, be it foul or fair, high or low, rich or poor, mean or elevated.” Once you accept the notion of the chameleon poet, the poetical spirit that has “no self” but freely inhabits “everything and nothing,” what’s to keep the poet from an intimate encounter with his interpreter, who as a visiting professor at Rutgers in 2008 lectured on “the Romantic sense of time as a teeming present that produces an excess of what can potentially be known, due in part to the way that knowledge of that present rests on an imagined, dark futurity.” Imagine fair Emily murmuring of “dark futurity” in Keats’s ear at some dinner party in eternal London, she the “soft-spoken professor … a bit quirky but genuinely nice,” as described in Rate Your Teacher.


I’ll admit that last rendezvous was a bit over the top, but flights of fancy are going to happen when a sane, sensible, well-meaning reviewer confronts a tome of such dauntingly formal proportions with an agenda that “covers the history, theories, techniques, and criticism of poetry from its earliest days,” including comprehensive and in-depth coverage of international poetry, with articles on the poetries of more than 110 nations, regions, and languages, particularly in non-Western and developing areas, as well as an entry on postcolonial poetics. Of the more than 250 new articles, there are essays and descriptions on recent terms, movements and related topics that are either “new or previously under-studied.”

While it can’t be called blatantly unpoetical, PEPP appears to be the forthright opposite of the poetical stereotype, no fancy design elements, no embellishments, no flowery friezes or “leaf-fringed legends.” The cover design seems solid and sensible, at least until you take a closer look at the cluster of miniature uniform spheres reminiscent of the Pac Man video game played obsessively by fathers and sons alike in the early 1980s. Look inside those tiny spheres and there are fingers, toes, noses, eyes, ears, mouths, some with lipstick, smiling, some with teeth bared; there’s even what appears to be a navel. Open the book to the copyright page and you learn that you’ve been looking at a piece of visual or “evident” verse in the form of a collage called “Love Poem” (1964), by the Czech poet and artist Ji í Kolá  (1914-2002).

The truth is, when you look through The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, you find interspersed with categories like “Catalepsis” and “Catachresis,” “Ictus,” and “Prosimetrum,” entries on “Emotion” and “Empathy and Sympathy” (Keats makes appearances in both). Terms suggestive of the deepest expressions of human nature seem at first appealingly foreign to the informative function associated with and expected of encyclopedias, which of course is what poetry is all about. I can’t imagine what Keats would have done if faced with this mountainous prospect, but my guess is that another October poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (born ten days and 23 years before Keats) would treat it with the most eager attention, as if it were a ten-day hike through the Lake Country whereon he would plant as he walked whole fields and gardens of marginalia.

The editor in chief of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, which is also available online, is Roland Greene, a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University. The general editor, Stephen Cushman, is a professor of English at the University of Virginia. Associate editors include Clare Cavanagh, a professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Northwestern University; Jahan Ramazani, an English professor at the University of Virginia; and Paul F. Rouzer, who is associate professor of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota.


October 24, 2012

“No one is beyond the reach of Bruce!”

—Governor Chris Christie

The day after the second debate I’m at the library to return the DVD of Season 3 of Breaking Bad when I spot Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball on display among the CDs. While I don’t lie in wait for the new Springsteen the way I do for the new Dylan, the Boss’s recent decision to endorse President Obama makes me curious to hear what he has to say in his latest album. It turns out that the people in Bruce’s songs, “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong,” have some recession-driven issues in common with Breaking Bad’s Walt White, the cash-strapped, cancer-stricken high school science teacher who moonlights at a car wash and finds a way to provide for his family and cover over-the-top medical expenses by cooking to-die-for crystal blue methamphetamine.

In spite of his recent appearances in Ohio and Iowa on behalf of Obama, Springsteen’s appeal cuts across party lines and what better or bigger embodiment of the fact than Governor Chris Christie, who has been to 129-plus of the Boss’s concerts. As Jeffrey Goldberg puts it in the July Atlantic, containing Christie at a Springsteen event is “an exercise in volcano management” for his communications director. After dancing around “in front of many thousands of people without giving a damn what they think” and shouting the words to “Badlands” along with Springsteen (“Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king”), Christie is fed a “trick question” from Goldberg. Asked if Mitt Romney “could relate to this,” Christie “screams over the noise of the crowd,” twice: “No one is beyond the reach of Bruce!”

The Big Chill 

Rolling Stone gave “We Take Care Of Our Own,” the lead track on Wrecking Ball, four stars when it was released as a single January 19. Driving down Witherspoon with the song playing at top volume on Moby, my four-wheeled CRV stereo unit, I’m thinking it’s way better than four stars. For Springsteen, I have my own rating system, call it the Chill Chart. Five degrees of chill means an instantaneous tingle on the back of the neck, radiating out to the extremities, accompanied in this case by a surge in acceleration from the mobile stereo, which longs to hit the highway, even though the song says “The road of good intentions/has gone dry as a bone.” Moby doesn’t care. A road is a road to this 12-year-old totally apolitical Honda. Moby doesn’t need to know who the “We” is or whether it’s actually truly taking care of its own or if it’s a good or an evil “We” or a conflicted, hopelessly compromised, and ultimately inadequate “We.”

But Bruce is singing his heart out, and in the now and forever of the moment the message is “We Can Do It” because everything in the music is UP and straight ahead. It’s got the blast-off-for-the-territory excitement of “Born to Run” — it’s that exhilarating.

If a song hits five on the Chill Chart at the outset, what do you do when it rises to an even higher level, as the great Springsteen anthems do? When Bruce asks “where’s the promise from sea to shining sea,” and answers, loud and clear, “wherever this flag is flown,” the music is driving, pounding, soaring as it redeems and redefines words long since drained of their original force. The stirring poetry of “sea to shining sea” is fresh again when Springsteen sings it, and the flag isn’t the tiny item politicians dutifully pin to their lapels; it’s another breed of flag, the real thing. This flag is the one you want to believe in, as the music tells you to in spite of the words. It’s the tattered flag of the American Dream, the same flag waved by Emerson and Whitman and Ginsberg and now Obama.

Think back to Charlotte, N.C., September 6, the president’s going strong, steaming down the finish line to the closing crescendo of his acceptance speech, the convention faithful roaring. “We don’t turn back!” the preacher’s telling the congregation. “We leave no one behind! We pull each other up!” On the verge of actually singing Springsteen’s line, Obama God Blesses the nation, the balloons soar, and the music explodes from the DNC amps, Springsteen coming on like thunder, saying it for him, “We Take Care Of Our Own!” Was it mere happenstance that the rhetoric of the speech segued so neatly into the rhetoric of the song? And did the president sneak a listen to Springsteen during his prep time for the second debate, channeling the words and the music and the energy in the hours before the CNN clock struck nine on October 16?

According to the Huffington Post, Springsteen’s anthem got a huge post-convention bounce online, jumping 400-plus percent with 2000 downloads. If Springsteen had not yet officially endorsed Obama, he’d at least provided him with a rousing fight song.

But the big bounce, the inspirational jumpstart, came the Saturday before the second debate when, as if to put to rest the fight song’s complaint, “There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home,” the Obama campaign announced that the Boss was on board and here he comes, galloping into view with bugles blowing as Obama comes out swinging for the third debate.

“If I Had Me a Gun”

As inspirational as it is musically (it’s produced by Ron Aniello), Wrecking Ball is not something the Democrats would want to fold into the campaign of a candidate determined to avoid being tagged with the “angry black man” label. Most of the album’s strongest songs pulse with passion and outrage, despair and desperation leading to criminal acts, theft, murder, and mayhem. Even the opening anthem, with its devious, at best ambiguous “We,” has no hope in it but the music: “good hearts turned to stone …. From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome.” When good intentions and good hearts are no more, you get the next song, “Easy Money.” Sung with savage gusto, it picks up and acts on the kinetic force of the “shotgun shack” line: “And all them fat cats they just think it’s funny,” so the singer’s “going on the town now looking for easy money” and he’s packing “a Smith & Wesson .38.” And inside him, he’s “got a hellfire burning.” Yet he sings like his belly is full, his energy is high, his spirit bold and unbowed.

“Shackled and Drawn” carries the narrative further, as if the character who went to town with a gun got himself caught and is serving time: “Gambling man rolls the dice,/working man pays the bill/It’s still fat and easy up on banker’s hill,” where “the party’s going strong” while “Down here below we’re shackled and drawn.” Once again Springsteen balances the vehemence of the singing and the lyrics with music that makes you want to run around waving your arms when you should be shooting your way out of prison. No need when the Irish-jig-infectious melodic riff has already set you free.

The next five-star hit on the Chill Chart is “Jack Of All Trades.” Your first thought is that this is one man’s voice from the jobless multitude victimized by the recession. This guy’s out of work, his wife needs consoling (“Honey we’ll be all right”), so he’ll mow your lawn, clean your drains, mend your roof, fix your engine until it’s running good. So far it’s tough but tender, spare but musically grandiose, even at times symphonic, with soulful trumpets and Tom Morello’s equally soulful guitar coda at the end. But then, like the songs before it, “Jack Of All Trades” takes a dark turn as “the banker man grows fat/working man grows thin/It’s all happened before and it’ll happen again.” And “If I had me a gun/I’d find the bastards and shoot ‘em on sight.”

Springsteen sings “Death to My Home Town” like a no-nonsense Irish sergeant -major briskly commanding his troops while a marching band backs this call-to-arms revision of Bruce’s signature lament, “My Home Town.” Where the town in the early song had “fights between the black and white,” shotgun blasts and vacant stores, in the later one the devastation is total: “They destroyed our families, factories/and they took our homes/They left our bodies on the plains/The vultures picked our bones.” So there’s nothing for it but to march into battle against the monied enemy with a rousing chorus: “Sing it hard and sing it well/Send the robber barons straight to hell.”

In the Springsteen repertoire since 1999, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” is the most purely inspirational song on the album, with the late Clarence Clemons powering “this train” of “saints and sinners.” While a special feature of the Wrecking Ball liner notes is Springsteen’s elegiac appreciation of the Big Man “and the force of nature that was his sound,” the finest tribute is the closing song, “We Are Alive,” where Bruce sings, “Sleep well my friend/It’s only our bodies that betray us in the end,” “the dead come to life/well above the stars” and “Our spirits rise/to carry the fire and light the spark/To stand shoulder to shoulder and/heart to heart” (the liner notes contain a for-the-ages photo of Springsteen and Clemons doing just that). Here the performance, the music, and the lyrics enter a realm of art beyond rankings, politics, and events of the moment. When the dust of the 2012 campaign has cleared, whatever happens, this song and this album will be played and played and played, doing for listeners what Bruce says music did for him, providing “a community, filled with people … who I didn’t know but who I knew were out there.”

The quote is from an in-depth conversation with Will Percy that ran in the spring 1998 issue of Double Take magazine and can be found in Racing In the Street: The Bruce Springsteen Reader (Penguin 2004). A decade later the election to New Jersey’s highest office of one of the Springsteen community’s most devoted members has forced the Boss to confront what his power hath wrought, given Goldberg’s claim that “the people whose lives Springsteen explores in his songs” were among the 63 percent “of white voters with only high school diplomas” who went for Christie in 2009.


Soon after checking out the library copy of Wrecking Ball, which lacks the liner notes, I went to the Record Exchange and bought the deluxe edition that also includes two exceptional bonus tracks, “Swallowed Up (in the Belly of the Whale)” and “American Land.”

October 17, 2012

Game 4 of the 2011 National League Division Series was do or die for St. Louis Cardinal manager Tony La Russa. None of his players knew it, but La Russa had made up his mind to retire at the end of the 2011 season. All the Phillies needed was a win and they would take the series 3 games to 1 and La Russa’s Hall-of-Fame-worthy career would be over. The facts say that the Cardinals won that game because of timely hitting and strong relief pitching: “our bullpen came through for us,” as La Russa makes clear in his new book One Last Strike: Fifty Years in Baseball, Ten and a Half Games Back, and One Final Championship Season (Morrow $27.99). The Cards went on to beat the Phils in the NLDS, the Brewers in the National League Championship Series, and the Texas Rangers in the World Series, after turning it around with a crushing three-time come-from-behind win in Game 6.

Facts are facts and myths are myths, however, and the mythic version says the Cardinals’ fortunes changed in that key game 4 when a squirrel romped across home plate, so distracting pitcher Roy Oswalt that the Phils manager Charlie Manuel protested to the umpire. When questioned about the incident after the game, La Russa suggested an amorous relationship between the Rally Squirrel, as it was by then already known to Cardinal fans, and Torty, slugger Alan Craig’s pet tortoise (whenever Craig came up to hit, his teammates would shout, “Do it for Torty!”). After Phillie fans threw a stuffed squirrel into the Cardinals’ bull pen, the relief corps made a good luck mascot of it, and were all but unhittable as the Cards proceeded to take the NLCS against the Brewers. During the celebration, the stuffed squirrel was sprayed with beer and champagne.

To say that the Rally Squirrel impacted the Cardinals’ 2011 championship run might sound a bit fanciful, but in the realm of the Net, strange things were happening. A Twitter account was started for the Rally Squirrel on the day it raced across home plate and within two days it had 11,000 followers. By late October the number had more than doubled. Soon the squirrel had its own theme song, its own Topps baseball card, and t-shirts were being sold in the thousands. Three days after the Cardinals won the World Series, St. Louis kids were trick or treating in Rally Squirrel costumes. And if you look closely you can see the Rally Squirrel in mid-romp engraved onto the Cardinals’ World Championship rings.

Can squirrels romp? Google Rally Squirrel on YouTube and see for yourself. This squirrel is an athlete, romping, jumping, as close to flying as grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) can get.

There’s no mention of the Rally Squirrel in La Russa’s book, but don’t let that fool you. What other baseball luminary would attract such a creature but the one who started the Animal Rescue Foundation with his wife, Elaine, in 1991 after a stray cat wandered onto the field. “The cat was threatened with being put down,” La Russa says in One Last Strike, so “Elaine and I found a home for her.”

La Russa is also seriously into music. Among his friends are Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Hornsby, jazz bassist Christian McBride, and Carlos Santana, who gave the Cardinal skipper a medallion necklace he’d worn during a September 2011 concert La Russa attended. “It had two dragons etched into the surface,” La Russa writes, “and Carlos told me that it would give me good spirit. I wore that thing every day from that point on, through the end of the World Series.”

So here’s this guy, he’s won two World Series titles in five years, he’s conversant with rock and roll, and loves animals (he travels, he admits, with a menagerie), he’s a voracious reader, has a law degree, and manages to keep all those player egos in a fine balance through unthinkably high-pressure situations — why is he so hard to like? Why does he radiate uptightness? Why do his expressions perennially hover somewhere between dour and dire?

It took me, a lifelong Cardinal fan, 15 years to begin to warm to Tony La Russa, and it wasn’t until reading One Last Strike that I really began liking him.

In Hemingway’s Time

In Ernest Hemingway’s story, “The Three Day Blow,” Nick Adams and his pal Bill are drinking Scotch and talking of books, baseball, and thwarted love. When Nick wonders if the Cards will ever win a pennant,” Bill says, “Not in our lifetime,” and Nick says, “Gee, they’d go crazy.”

In 1926, two years after the story appeared in the small press edition of In Our Time, the Cards won not only their first National League pennant but the first of eleven World Championships. You know St. Louis went crazy in 1926, but in 1985 for baseball fans everywhere and especially St. Louis Cardinals fans, Nick’s words were echoed by Cardinal-play-by-play announcer Jack Buck’s cry of “Go crazy, folks! Go crazy!” when the most unlikely of sluggers, Ozzie Smith, hit the walk-off home run that deflated the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1985 playoffs.

Stunning Washington

Though the title, One Last Strike, refers to last year’s dramatics, it works as well for what happened in the elimination game of the 2012 NLDS around 12:30 a.m. October 12, when the Cardinals were down to their last strike twice. The Washington fans were on their feet, ready to explode in a perfect storm of joy; ready to, yes, go crazy. The stadium was roaring, their team a mere strike or pop up or ground out or fly ball away from surviving to play in the League Championship Series.

Cardinal fans meanwhile are about to experience what Nick Adams and Jack Buck were talking about; but they don’t know it yet; they’re waiting for the axe to fall, hopes dashed, elimination looming. If you want to truly experience going crazy, it helps if your team is down to the last strike, your heart’s in the basement, one level above the abyss. As high as the home crowd is, you’re way low, way way down, hanging on to a feather-faint thread of faith. At the same time, the memory of last October’s miracle has you feeling an irrepressible surge of it-could-happen-again-ness.

And then it does. Happen. Again!

In the top of the ninth, two runs behind, post-season miracle worker Carlos Beltran leads off with a double, and here it comes: two quick outs, two masterfully drawn walks, a pair of two-run singles, and it’s all over, and so suddenly that your joy more than overwhelms you, it runs past you, you can’t keep up with it, all you have breath to say is “I don’t believe it!” Because the very thing you’ve been wishing for, urging, willing, aching for with everything you have, has been given to you and to thousands of friends you’ll never know, those multitudes of Cardinal fans in and out of St. Louis you’ve bonded with in this moment, all sharing the same ecstasy, just as you did last October 27 and 28.

La Russa Smiles

I doubt that even Hemingway could have done justice to the sixth game of the 2011 Series, already being touted as one of the most, if not the most, exciting ever played. How then does the manager deal with what’s happening on the field in the late innings of an historic game? Aware of what he’s up against, La Russa titles the chapter, “You Had to See It for Yourself” and prefaces it by describing how he dealt with the disaster-divided World Series of 1989 when he was manager of the Oakland Athletics. In fact he’s making the Loma Prieta earthquake the opening act for David Freese’s two big moments, the first a game saver, the second a game and Series winner, given its impact on the opposition’s morale.

So, welcome to brink of elimination, “potentially the last hope for Cardinals Nation,” Texas having just taken a two-run lead, it’s the existential moment: “One strike left in the season.” At this point, with the game on the line, La Russa inserts a prosaic managerial observation: “I hoped that David would get his front foot set sooner. On the swinging strike he hadn’t.” If you could see his face as he thinks this thought, you would witness Grimness and Glowering writ large, which is why fans familiar with La Russa’s perennially thorny demeanor will appreciate the way he prefaces Freese’s game-saving hit: “David Freese then did what many people don’t think is possible. He made me smile.”

Freese made La Russa smile! Whee! Be still, my heart! The man has just saved the season by lining a triple off the wall. For that he gets a smile? How about a Thomas Wolfian goat cry? Walt Whitman’s barbaric yawp? How about “an outburst of profane joy” like Stephen Dedalus in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man? How about going crazy?

But La Russa maintains his managerial cool. “When Freese extended his hands and stepped slightly toward the outside corner, setting that front foot,” he continues, letting us know that Freese has done exactly what his manager hoped he would, “he hits a fastball,” the “sound of the contact … so pure” that La Russa first thinks it might be a walk-off home run instead of a game-tying triple.

Finally, after the Cards come unbelieavably back from another two-run deficit, it’s the 11th inning, with Freese leading off. La Russa writes: “I sensed in the ninth inning when we’d tied it that people were going to talk about this game for a long time. When we did it again in the tenth, I knew that people were going to talk about this game forever.” Now comes the coup de grace. As La Russa describes it, Freese “hit a fastball on the inner half and crushed it to straightaway center field onto the grass of the hitters’ backdrop. In situations like that, it’s almost as if the ball has some gravitational pull on you. As it climbs, it lifts you up, body and spirit. The guys at the rail rose up on their feet, craned their necks, and raised their arms above their heads.”

What we see, what we feel, is pure baseball euphoria. Like La Russa and everyone in the dugout, we jump to our feet when Freese connects, knowing it’s gone, it’s over, once again joy outruns us, flying, soaring beyond us, we can’t keep up with it, but when the small white object hits the brilliant greensward of the “hitter’s backdrop” above the center field wall and four or five kids or grown-up kids come tumbling out of the stands after it, we’re out there rolling around with them, kids again, like David, the big kid who grew up in St. Louis, rounding the bases and then charging, dancing a modified horn pipe down the third base line, flinging his cap at his feet as he runs the happy gauntlet of his teammates.

La Russa admits wanting to join the mob jumping and dancing. Instead he hugs Dave Duncan, his longtime pitching coach and confidant, “marveling at the wonder of it all.” And then he smiles. A big smile, a smile to remember.


One Last Strike features an introduction by third-generation Cardinal fan John Grisham, whose first baseball novel, Calico Joe, has just been published. You can see Hemingway in his Nick Adams up-in-Michigan days in “Picturing Hemingway: A Writer in His Time,” which is on the second floor of the Princeton Public Library through October 31.

October 10, 2012

in 1946 in the Village, our feelings about books … went beyond love. It was as if we didn’t know where we ended and books began. Books were our weather, our environment, our clothing. We didn’t simply read books, we became them, we took them into ourselves and made them into our histories …. Books were to us what drugs were to young men in the sixties.

—Anatole Broyard, from Kafka Was the Rage

My copy of Volume 2 of the Norton Anthology of English Literature looks its age. The spine is so faded you have to get close to read the title. The corners are frayed and there’s a tear in the front hinge. Still, it’s held together nicely all these years, even more supple now than it was when it was given to me by the College Department at Norton, my working copy. The genius of The Norton Anthology was its compatibility. Unlike most college texts, you could, as the introduction boasted, read it under a tree. This is the same copy I curled up with, studied, loved, warmed my hands by, in various motels from Mississippi to North Dakota when I was on the road as a college representative talking up a text that was by then already in demand in English departments across the country.

When the Norton Anthology’s general editor M.H. Abrams, who turned 100 on July 23, was recently asked by the New York Times (“Built to Last,” August 23) “Why study literature?” his response was “Ha! Why live? Life without literature is a life reduced to penury.” He went on to say that literature “illuminates what you’re doing,” “enables you to live the lives of other people,” “makes you more human,” and “makes life more enjoyable” (not to mention, he might add, contributing to your longevity). Abrams’s younger co-editor Stephen Greenblatt (b. 1943) chimed in to the effect that literature enables him to “enter into the life worlds of others … other times, other places, other inner lives.”

Life and Love on the Page

That phrase, life worlds brings to mind two of literature’s most complex and enduring “inner lives,” Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), the 17th-century physician philosopher who wrote Religio Medici, and the inimitable Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who once observed of Browne, “A library was a world to him, every book a living man, absolute flesh and blood.”

Among the many things to love in Coleridge is his penchant for writing thoughts like that one in the margins of books that often did not even belong to him. It’s a thought I quote whenever I get a chance and it serves as the epigraph for my novel, Rosamund’s Vision. Coleridge’s scribblings fill six fat, masterfully documented volumes of Marginalia in the Collected Works of S.T.C. published in the Bollingen Series by Princeton University Press, wherein Coleridge, the so-called “damaged archangel” of Norman Fruman’s biography, gives us an intimate blow by blow account as he makes his way through the works of the “crack’d Archangel” Browne (as he’s named in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick).

When Browne writes “I never yet cast a true affection on a woman,” Coleridge can’t resist declaring — all but breathing the words in your ear — that he has loved and still does love “truly, i.e. not in a fanciful attributing of certain ideal perfections … one Woman.” Ten pages later, when Browne wishes that humans “might procreate like trees without conjunction, or that there were any way to perpetuate the world without this trivial and vulgar way of coition,” Coleridge comes right back at him: “Are there not thoughts, & affections, & Hopes, & a Religion of the Heart, — that lift & sanctify all our bodily Actions where the union of the Bodies is but a language & conversation of united Souls?”

There’s a hint of the thought process behind today’s preferred modes of communication when Coleridge, after, in effect, blogging Browne, presents the intimately annotated volume to his “one Woman,” Sara Hutchinson, the lost love of his life, along with a letter that takes up three pages preceding the title page. It’s after midnight, March 10, 1804, Saturday night, Barnard’s Inn, Holborn, London, when Coleridge begins the letter (“But it is time for me to be in bed”) in a state of playful wonderment after quoting Browne at length (“what Life! what Fancy! — Does the whimsical Knight give us thus a dish of strong green Tea, & call it an opiate?”). With that, he signs off: “I trust, that you are quietly asleep,

And all the Stars hang bright above your Dwelling

Silent as tho’ they watch’d the sleeping Earth!”

Leave it to Coleridge to say good night with two lines from his own poem “Dejection: An Ode,” which he first worked out in a letter to Sara said to be the only other surviving piece of their correspondence.

When you think about it, it’s an outrageous violation of textual dignity, to scribble at length on the pages of a book you’re presenting as a gift to someone you love, using Sir Thomas Browne as a sort of go-between, a messenger bearing a lecture and a love note. Today Coleridge could have done it all online without marring the original. And there’s the rub. What better example of the qualities and capacities and organic essence of actual documents and tangible volumes vs. the web and high tech devices like Kindle? At the same time, aside from my key source, Volume I of Princeton’s Marginalia, I could never have assembled this column, or any others, without the mysterious Archangels of cyberspace.

Book Sale Life

“A living world” — that’s my “fanciful attributing of certain ideal perfections” to the Friends of the Library book sale I’ve been helping with for more than 20 years now. The books on display October 12-14 have passed through and been held by many hands. Regardless of genre, books with a past are more than an assortment of bound pages, especially when they have spanned several lifetimes in the hurly burly of the world. A Kindle can give you the message, it’s handy, it can house a world of literature, but qualities such as atmosphere, touch and texture, author signatures and inscriptions, and the glorious illusion of being “in touch” with the author, are simply not available.

In Jackie’s Hands

It happens that we have a pretty good crop of signed/inscribed books at this year’s sale, not counting the one auctioned off at the annual meeting for a sum that shows how much a mere signature can add to the monetary value of a book. Hundreds of first editions of Roger Kahn’s popular profile of the Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer, are available online for as low as $10. But if you are fortunate enough to have the copy (first edition or no) that Jackie Robinson actually held in his hands and inscribed to a friend, the value soars. Thus this year’s first transaction occurred before the event when a copy of Kahn’s book inscribed by Robinson fetched $950 at the Friends auction.

So Long, D.H. and W.B.

I once owned and cherished a book of William Butler Yeats’s later poems signed by Yeats, bought from Logan Fox at Micawber. Another book that I treasured and also eventually sold was a book of poems signed by D.H. Lawrence. The truth is, there’s only so much you can derive from being able to read and fondle your signed Yeats or your signed Lawrence, thinking “the man who wrote Lapis Lazuli” held this, or the man who wrote Women in Love held this.” When the water heater conks out, or you need a new roof, or the basement floods, it’s so long Yeats and see ya later Lawrence.

Sgt. Randall Jarrell

Unless you’re a big Norman Rockwell or Paul Theroux fan, the most desirable signed book that we have this year is a first edition of poet Randall Jarrell’s third collection, Losses (1948), which is being offered for as much as $780-800 online; the only catch is our copy lacks the dust jacket. Otherwise ours outclasses the competition. Probably dating from 1951-52 when Jarrell (1914-1965) was teaching in the Creative Writing program here and living in T.S. Eliot’s house on 16 Alexander Street, the book is inscribed to a student “from her teacher (Sgt.) Randall Jarrell.” Since most of the poems in the collection (viz. “The Dead Wingman,” “A Camp in the Prussian Forest,” “A Field Hospital”) relate to Jarrell’s years in the Army Air Force as a celestial navigation tower operator, a job title he considered “the most poetic in the Air Force,” he includes his serial number, a unique touch (it seems unlikely that Norman Mailer or James Jones cared to add their dogtag numbers when inscribing copies of The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity). Another, more mysterious number is 7 above 7, in the form of an equation, which is explained in a note posted under the inscription, from a mother to the son she was presenting it to: “Mr. Jarrell was trying to enliven a book signing so he put in his army serial number. He added the 7/7 because I got all seven right on his modern poetry exam identifying poets given a sample of their poetry.”

Besides being known for his war-related poems (“the best poetry in English about the Second World War,” said Robert Lowell), the most famous being the frequently anthologized “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Jarrell was also one of the premier critics of his time. His main work at Princeton includes six lectures on W.H. Auden, the revising of his novel, Pictures from an Institution (based on his adventures as a teacher at Sarah Lawrence), and a number of poems, among them “The Lonely Man” and “Windows,” where a woman is darning and a man is “nodding into the pages of the paper” — “What I have never heard/He will read me; what I have never seen/She will show me.”

Jarrell’s untimely death at 50 (he was hit by a car while walking along a road in North Carolina; suicide was suspected but never confirmed) occasioned a memorial service where his friend from Princeton days John Berryman read “Dream Song 121” (“His wives loved him./He saw in the forest something coming, grim,/but did not change his purpose”). Robert Lowell called him “the most heartbreaking poet of our time.”

Literature-oriented browsers at the upcoming Friends book sale, particularly those trooping through the door at Friday’s 10 a.m. $10 preview, might keep an eye out for D.H. Lawrence’s rarely seen small volume, The Ship of Death and Other Poems; the first American edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses; and a first of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, in remarkably fine condition, the gilt title on the spine glittering clear and bright. Too bad we don’t have the dust jacket; copies so clothed are going for $10,000-$18,500 online.

September 26, 2012

Written in the aftermath of Joseph Conrad’s death in 1924, Ernest Hemingway’s tribute in the Transatlantic Review’s Conrad Supplement included this sentence: “If I knew that by grinding Mr. [T.S.] Eliot into a fine dry powder and sprinkling that powder over Mr. Conrad’s grave Mr. Conrad would shortly appear, looking very annoyed at the forced return and commence writing, I would leave for London early tomorrow morning with a sausage grinder.”

Hemingway was 25. Two years earlier, in a November 8, 1922 letter to Ezra Pound in response to Pound’s touting of Eliot’s groundbreaking work, The Wasteland, Hemingway suggested that if Eliot “would strangle his sick wife,” sexually assault “the brain specialist” treating her, and “rob the bank” (Eliot was a clerk at Lloyd’s Bank at the time), “he might write an even better poem.” Below this broadside Hemingway added a brisk, cynical disclaimer (“The above is facetious”) that leaves the toxic mixture on simmer.

“A damned good poet and a fair critic,” Hemingway says of Eliot decades later in a July 9, 1950 letter to columnist Harvey Breit. In case you think he’s mellowed, Hemingway is only warming up. In fact he’s in one of his favorite metaphorical modes, pitching “high and inside,” to see if he can “turn a hitter’s cap around.” Next paragraph he’s saying “some of us write and some of us pitch but so far there isn’t any law a man has to go and see the Cocktail Party by T.S. Eliot from St. Louis where Yogi Berra comes from.” The free-association reference to the New York Yankees’ catcher is what prompts the reference to Eliot the poet and critic, and then this: “but he can kiss my ass as a man and he never hit a ball out of the infield in his life.”

Today being T.S. Eliot’s 124th birthday, it’s hardly the occasion to be documenting his fellow midwesterner’s epistolary boorishness. But there’s another, more local occasion. Next month Hemingway and his novel, The Sun Also Rises, will be the subject of several events at the Prince
ton Public Library capped by an October 25 talk by Sandra Spanier, co-editor of Volume One of the Cambridge University Press edition of Hemingway’s letters (see story this issue for details).

Play Ball

If Hemingway can use tropes from the National Pastime as a means of measuring character, manhood, and literary ability, why not follow his example? Baseball may also help me demonstrate why my fondness for Hemingway and his work endures, undiminished, in spite of his personal flaws and phobias, and may even explain why I’ve never warmed to Eliot, whose essays and poetry have been among the most rewarding reading experiences of my life.

Okay, let’s look at Eliot the player. As a pitcher, he would specialize in offspeed stuff, with a killer curve and a knuckleball so devious and outré that hitters tie themselves in knots trying to follow it. Better yet, let’s make him a position player. Forget that ill-natured crack about his abilities with the bat, I see the deceptively fragile St. Louis Kid as a solid .300 hitter with sneaky power and a Mr. October reputation for performing in the post-season clutch, like the game-tying grand slam he hit in the last of the ninth inning of the 1922 World Series; you knew The Wasteland was out of the park the instant Tom Terrific connected. The Kid’s one big drawback was very big indeed, however; he lacked color. The sports writers did what they could, with their catchy nicknames, but it made no difference. Before, after and during the game, Eliot kept to himself. In the locker room, he was a one-man monastery.

This is where the big guy from Oak Park wins your heart. Injury-prone, yes, but with an eye that was the envy of Joe DiMaggio. A master bunter and a lifetime .330 hitter (as he once described himself), he could hit to all fields and his line-drive home runs cleared the wall straight and true. Best of all, he loved the game, ready to talk about the ins and outs
of it forever, recollecting key plays with such fondness that he made kids all over America want to grab their mitts (or pens, pencils, typewriters) and head for the nearest diamond. Granted, he drank between innings, delighted in high slides (he kept his spikes razor sharp), fought with umpires, opponents and teammates, roared when he won and raged when he lost. Sure, he said hideously offensive things about other players, but you knew that stuff ate him up, made him crazy, until the July morning in 1961 when he could no longer play through his injuries.

Let Us Go Then

T.S. Eliot’s poetry simply turned up one day in the room my parents called the study. Nobody, no parent, no teacher presented Eliot to me and said, “You must read this.” I was a sophomore in high school, where literature was confined to a textbook created by “educators.” It’s possible that my Medievalist father, who had no interest in Eliot beyond his High Church leanings, left the Collected Poems in plain sight for me, the way he used to do when pretending to make Classic Comics appear by magic.

Easily the coziest room in the house, the study had a roll-top desk, a day-bed by the window, and a wall of books. My departure for the new world took place on a grey midwinter afternoon, mist in the air, snow on the ground. Settling back on the daybed’s heaped-up pillows, I started reading. The first two lines instantly took me in, the poet’s spectral hand beckoning me aboard, and so began the reading journey that still continues:

“Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky….”

In popular music, specifically rock and roll, that’s called a hook, and it’s a great hook, as irresistible as John Lennon’s, “Let me take you down,” from “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Was Lennon echoing Eliot? Probably, though he might not have known it, just as the Beatles might not have known that Sgt. Pepper would be compared to The Wasteland.

Getting back to the idea of Eliot the player, if he was on the mound and you were at the plate, the next pitch, where the evening is compared to “a patient etherised upon a table,” is unhittable. You just watch it go by with your mouth hanging open. What was that? Where did he get it? Is it even legal? A literary spitball? And a few lines later, after the “muttering retreats,” “cheap hotels” and “sawdust restaurants,” he reads your mind about the  impossible line he just pitched you, saying, “do not ask ‘What is it?’ Let us go and make our visit.”

That second “Let us go” leads you to the stanza that seals your fate. Never mind baseball, it’s witchcraft when the poet waves his wand and turns “the yellow smoke” into a cat rubbing its back and its muzzle “upon the window-panes” and licking “its tongue into the corners of the evening.” The first time you read what the “yellow smoke” does is as close as you ever come to loving Eliot, as it makes “a sudden leap, / And seeing that it was a soft October  night, / Curled once about the houses, and fell asleep.”

Then everything changes and the Harvard scholar looms at the ghostly lectern, no more to be loved than a distant voice serving “visions and revisions” with “toast and tea.” By now the poet is miles away, but still in possession of this normal, baseball-playing, girl-crazy, red-blooded American 15-year-old’s unworthy attention, with lines never to be forgotten (“When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall”) and smooth, sensuous imagery (“Arms that are braceleted and white and bare” and “in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair”) as J. Alfred “Do I dare disturb the universe?” Prufrock approaches his fate. At this point the original excitement has faded, and the last lines about growing old and the mermaids singing and the “chambers of the sea” where “human voices wake us, and we drown” make the schoolboy reader edgy and uneasy. Outside the window it’s gone from dusk to night, and he’s thinking of the pretty young mother across the street who’s dying of cancer.

When Less Is More

I just finished reading the last 15 pages of The Sun Also Rises, where Hemingway’s impotent protagonist Jake Barnes (“I got hurt in the war” he tells the prostitute when she puts her hand between his legs) encounters a fate not unlike Prufrock’s. After the drunken fireworks of the fiesta at Pamploma, Jake is very much alone. By all rights, he should be glad to be on his own. He decides to go to San Sebastian because “it would be quiet there.” He takes the train, stops at a hotel he knows, unpacks, has lunch, goes for a swim, all his movements crisply documented in Hemingway’s less-is-more prose. He sees a boy and a girl out on a raft, she’s laughing at the things the boy says, she’s undone the top strap of her bathing suit and is “browning her back.” Jake says nothing about what seeing this does to him but Hemingway makes you feel it, making you care about Jake in his aloneness far more intensely than you ever did for Prufrock, so that when Jake dives deep, “swimming down to the bottom,” it’s as if you’ve followed him into the undercurrent of Hemingway’s art: “I swam with my eyes open and it was green and dark. The raft made a dark shadow.”

Summoned to Madrid by Brett, the woman he loves and who loves him, hopelessly, Jake once again goes about the business of living, relating the incidental details that make you hurt for him, and all without a single nudging word from the author, who vicariously enjoys the big meal and the three bottles of wine at Botin’s while never letting you forget that it’s all death and denial and we know Jake is doomed as he reports how he got from the train to the hotel and how he consoled Brett, who is recovering from a failed romance. The conversation that ends the novel mirrors the one the thwarted lovers had at the book’s beginning, both times in a cab, sitting close to one another, she saying, “We could have such a damned good time together,” he saying, as the car slows suddenly, pressing her against him, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Hemingway’s love song comes to an end more desperate than Eliot’s. But it’s the pitcher poet who provides the perfect epitaph, closing out the game, a scoreless tie.

I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing
to me.

HOMECOMING: Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison will return to Princeton to read from her new novel, “Home,” October 2 at 5:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium. “It is an honor to welcome back Toni Morrison,” said Chair of the Council of the Humanities Gideon Rosen.

The Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved Toni Morrison, will read from her new novel, Home, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, October 2, in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall, at Princeton University. Ms. Morrison is the University’s Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emeritus.

Sponsored jointly by the Center for African American Studies and the Council of the Humanities, the reading is free and open to the public. Tickets are required for admission and can be picked up from the University Ticketing Office at the Frist Campus Center beginning Thursday, Sept. 13, for Princeton University I.D. holders, and Thursday, Sept. 20, for the public. The University Ticketing Office is open from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. There is a limit of two tickets per person.

“The Center for African American Studies is delighted to have Professor Morrison return to Princeton to read from her new novel. Her work is so important to 20th- and 21st-century literature, and to be able to hear it from the author herself is truly an amazing thing,” said Wallace Best, professor of religion and acting chair of the Center for African American Studies.

Morrison is also the first 2012-13 Belknap Visitor in the Humanities, through the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. Professor Gideon Rosen, the Stuart Professor of Philosophy and the Chair of the Council of the Humanities, is also excited by Morrison’s return to Princeton. “It is an honor to welcome back Toni Morrison. We celebrate her homecoming as well as her new book, aptly titled Home. The Belknap Visitor is our highest honor, and no one is more deserving than Toni Morrison,” he said.

Morrison’s nine major novels, The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Tar Baby, Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, Love, and A Mercy have received extensive critical acclaim. She received the National Book Critics Award in 1978 for Song of Solomon and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for Beloved. In 1993, Morrison became the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature. In 2006, the New York Times Book Review chose Beloved as the best work of American fiction published in the last quarter-century. On May 29 this year, Morrison was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama, which is the highest civilian award in the United States.

Published in May by Knopf, Home is the story of a young African American soldier, returning home from the Korean War to the pre-civil rights South.

Labyrinth Books, of 122 Nassau St. in Princeton, will be on location selling signed copies of Home before and after the reading.


September 19, 2012

I wear dark glasses to cover my eyes, there are secrets in ‘em that I can’t disguise…

—Bob Dylan, from Tempest

It was an image for the ages, post-millennium Americana in all its glory at the White House May 29 as President Barack Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Bob Dylan. Masked behind dark glasses, the 71-year-old with the shadow mustache and air of tenuously contained vehemence (“You’re like a time-bomb in my heart,” he sings in “Duquesne Whistle”) might have stepped from the pages of a story by Flannery O’Connor. When he was called forth to receive his medal, a cheer went up from the overflow East Room crowd. Dylan did not look happy. Not once did he come near to a smile. He was fidgeting like a prize fighter at the ringing of the bell, the president standing by while a disembodied female voice read the inane citation, something about “a voice in the national conversation.”

Tending to the other honorees, including astronaut-senator John Glenn and Nobel-prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison, President Obama had been his usual unflappable self. With Dylan, it was as if he were putting a collar on a pit bull or decorating a land mine. Maybe he’d had a sneak preview of the new album, Tempest, where Dylan growls, “I got dogs could tear you limb from limb,” “I could stone you to death” (“Paid in Blood”); “Ever since the British burned the White House down/There’s a bleeding wound in the heart of town” (“The Narrow Way”); “Then she pierced him to the heart and the blood did flow” (“Tin Angel”); or “I can strip you of life/strip you of breath/ship you down/to the house of death” (“The Early Roman Kings”). In “Long and Wasted Years,” where the singer “can’t disguise” the secrets in his eyes, he warns that “the sun can burn your brains right out.”

As he and Obama shook hands, Dylan gave the president’s arm several little pats, as if to say, no harm done, hang in there, you’re all we got.

His Darkest Work?

No doubt it was Dylan’s idea that Columbia Records release Tempest on September 11, 2012, 50 years to the day that his debut LP Bob Dylan came out. A more curious coincidence is that his highly-acclaimed album, Love and Theft, appeared on September 11, 2001. Paranoid bloggers who suspect Dylan has the devil’s unlisted phone number and may even be his emissary contemplate a satanic conspiracy of wonderful dimensions (throw together the operative words and you’ll find at least one blog debating the issue).

There’s no denying, now more than ever, that Dylan trades in ominous nuances and edgy stalemates, the play of shadows and century-spanning vignettes of gutter romance and violence, of which there are, as I’ve already hinted, a remarkable abundance in the new album. Numerous reviewers think Tempest may be his darkest work ever. In the last chapter of  his memoir, Chronicles Volume One, where Dylan’s “little shack in the universe was about to expand into some glorious cathedral, at least in songwriting terms,” he discusses the origins of the tear-your-heart-out dynamic that’s still in force in Tempest. One of the key transformative influences was seeing Brecht on Brecht (with music by Kurt Weill, Brecht’s lyrics translated by Marc Blitzstein) at the Theatre de Lys in the Village in early 1962. Dylan was “aroused right away by the raw intensity of the songs,” “songs with tough language… herky jerky — weird visions” sung by “thieves, scavengers or scallywags” who “roared and snarled.” He mentions “grim surroundings, creepy sensations,” and how “every song seemed to have a pistol in its hip pocket, a club or a brickbat.”

The number that hit him the hardest was “The Black Freighter” or “Pirate Jenny.” After calling it “a wild song. Big medicine in the lyrics. Heavy action spread out,” he writes, “Each phrase comes at you from a ten-foot drop, scuttles across the road and then another one comes like a punch on the chin.” He can’t let it go, still fascinated by what it did to him: “It’s a nasty song, sung by an evil fiend, and when she’s done singing, there’s not a word to say. It leaves you breathless.”

Knowing he’s on to something, Dylan tries to find out “what made the song tick, why it was so effective.” What excites him as a songwriter is that “you couldn’t see what the sum total of all the parts were, not unless you stood way back and waited ‘til the end. It was like Picasso painting Guernica.” Inspired by “Pirate Jenny,” he “began fooling around with things,” taking a lurid story out of the Police Gazette and using Brecht’s song “as a prototype…piled lines on, short bursts of lines.” He liked the idea “but the song didn’t come off.” He was “missing something.” He wastes no time revealing what it was.

When Dylan signed his first contract with Columbia, producer John Hammond gave him an acetate of King of the Delta Blues by Robert Johnson. “From the first note the vibrations from the loudspeaker made my hair stand up,” Dylan writes. “The stabbing sounds from the guitar could almost break a window.” So writes the composer of lines like “Blades are everywhere and they’re breaking my skin” in “The Narrow Way.” When Johnson started singing, he “seemed like a guy who could have sprung from the head of Zeus in full armor.” Six pages later Dylan brings Rimbaud into the mix (“That was a big deal, too…the bells went off”), which “went right along with Johnson’s dark night of the soul” and “the Pirate Jenny framework.” Woody Guthrie’s “hopped up union meeting sermons” are also mentioned, but Dylan’s debt to his mentor is so intimate and respectful that it seems dispassionate by comparison. At this point, five pages from the end of Chronicles, Dylan sets the stage: “I was standing in the gateway. Soon I’d step in heavy loaded, fully alive and revved up.”

The Course of a Lyric

So here he is at 71, with a new album that is undeniably “heavy loaded,” with an event at its center he knew he wanted to write a song about back when he was 20, before he ever made a record. “The madly complicated modern world was something I took little interest in,” he writes in the first chapter of Chronicles. “What was swinging, topical, and up to date for me was stuff like the Titanic sinking.”

In the 45 verses of the title song on Tempest, with its Shakespearean resonance, Dylan is still channeling his early allies, Picasso and Guernica, Rimbaud (“The Drunken Boat”), Robert Johnson (“short punchy verses that resulted in some panoramic story”), and Brecht’s “Black Freighter” while using the Carter Family’s “The Titanic” as his prototype. “I was just fooling with that one night,” he says in an interview with Mikhail Gilmore in the latest Rolling Stone. “I liked that melody — I liked it a lot. ‘Maybe I’m gonna appropriate this melody.’ But where would I go with it?” While he borrows most of the first verse of the Carters’ version and makes good use of the dreaming watchman from the second verse, Dylan’s moon rises not on the ocean but “Out on the Western town.”

Time to set aside the road map and the rule book. If Bob Dylan wants to put the town where it has no business being, like in the middle of the North Atlantic, or vice-versa, that’s his prerogative. “A songwriter doesn’t care about what’s truthful,” he says in the Rolling Stone interview. “What he cares about is what should’ve happened, what could’ve happened. That’s its own kind of truth.” The next 16 verses of “Tempest” are generally true to the historical reality, chandeliers swaying, orchestra playing, smokestack leaning sideways, ship going under, but (with one exception) you won’t find the passengers Dylan mentions on the actual Titanic, although “Leo” and “his sketchbook” (the actor Leonardo diCaprio) were in the James Cameron film. But what about this character Wellington, who was sleeping when “his bed began to slide”? Now he’s strapping on “both his pistols” (“How long could he hold out?”), so it’s that Wellington, and Dylan has cut from April 14, 1912 to the War of 1812. No sooner do you encounter someone who was actually on board (“The rich man Mr. Astor/kissed his darling wife”), then you hear that “Calvin, Blake and Wilson gambled in the dark,” and the Titanic is becoming Desolation Row, with (it seems) John Calvin, William Blake, and (could it be?) Woodrow Wilson joining Wellington and “Davey the brothel keeper” who “came out and dismissed his girls.” Typical of the violence flaring throughout the album, you have brothers on board fighting and slaughtering each other “in a deadly dance.”

Wherever and however Dylan chooses to take it, the ballad’s 45 verses offer the main course in Tempest’s feast of imagery, and 14 minutes on his Titanic is better than 194 on James Cameron’s recently re-released billion-dollar 3-D blockbuster.

“It’s All Good”

Dylan’s band is, as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie used to say of one another, “the other half of his heartbeat”: Donnie Herron (steel guitar, banjo, mandolin, violin); David Hidalgo (guitar, accordion, violin); guitarists Charlie Sexton and Stu Kimball, drummer George G. Receli,  and Tony Garnier’s bass, which at times suggests a lovelorn ghost. The 45 seconds of sunshine leading into “Duquesne Whistle” (co-written with Robert Hunter and released as the album’s single with an accompanying music video) is some of the most sweetly seductive music in all Dylan, and when the drum and bass come pounding in bigtime after the light, melodic spell created by the opening, you feel like the guy in Nash Edgerton’s rough and tumble Chaplin-meets-Tarantino video who can’t help dancing as he playfully stalks the beautiful girl. Look for John Lennon’s face 13 seconds into the video, a subtle acknowledgment of the way he and the Beatles haunt the album, which ends with “Roll On John,” a strong, unsparing elegy for Lennon, who also haunts “Soon After Midnight,” with its subtle echo of the Beatles song “This Boy.”

As for the rest, as Dylan sings on Together Through Life, “It’s all good,” especially “Long and Wasted Years,” the circular motion of life’s wheel of fortune in its gyring guitar; “Scarlet Town” with its sinister “Ain’t Talkin’” ambience; and “Narrow Way,” which swings fiendishly under a killer lyric.

In the Rolling Stone interview, Dylan rightly expresses righteous indignation on the issue of his unacknowledged borrowings. In Desolation Row, there’s room for Wellington and Whittier, Blake and Bo Diddley, and even the city of Vienna, which provided the cover art. The detail shown is from  “The Moldau,” one of the four statues in the “Pallas Athena” fountain in front of the Austrian parliament. As I’ve indicated, Dylan has vividly expressed his debt to Brecht, who wrote “The Song of Moldau,” which has a line, claims a blogger from Vienna, that can be translated, “the times they are a changin.”

Last time I checked, the Princeton Record Exchange had restocked discounted copies of Tempest, both regular and deluxe editions.

September 12, 2012

Beatles publicist Derek Taylor (1932-1997) begins his preface to Volume 1 of The Beatles Anthology (1994) by contrasting his “rose-colored” view of the group’s worldwide impact — “the Twentieth Century’s greatest romance” — to John Lennon’s typically hard-nosed, “We were just a band who made it very very big.”

Had he been alive in May 2003 and June 2004, Taylor would have witnessed a massive validation of that great romance in the delirious crowds thronging Red Square (est. 100,000) and St. Petersburg’s Palace Square (est. 50,000), waving their arms and dancing and smiling and cheering in ecstasy as the embodiment of the Beatles, Paul McCartney, sang “Hey Jude” (with the crowd joining in) and closed the show with “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” belting out the line, “And Moscow girls make me sing and shout” to the delight of countless singing shouting Moscow girls.

Now consider what was going on in the world when the Beatles made their first recordings 50 years ago this month, keeping in mind the Moscow and St. Petersburg multitudes and especially those among them who had come to cherish the musicians, the music, and even the words, in a language not their own, by taking their chances with records smuggled in from the West. On Tuesday, September 11, 1962, when the Beatles were in the studio recording “Love Me Do” and “Please, Please Me,” the Soviet Union was warning the U.S. that an attack on Soviet ships carrying supplies to Cuba would mean war, Soviet missiles fitted with nuclear warheads having arrived in Cuba on September 8. A month later, after U.S. spy planes obtained photographic evidence of the building of Soviet missile sites, the battle lines were drawn and the world was closer to nuclear war than at any time before or since. The day the crisis was resolved, October 28, a rock group from Liverpool virtually unknown outside the British Isles was making its first major stage appearance at Liverpool’s Empire Theatre, on a bill topped by Little Richard.

9/11/62 vs. 9/11/01

Most people, me definitely included, are susceptible to the significance and power of dates. During the almost nine years I’ve been writing these columns, the day of the month or the year has as often as not given me a subject, a motive, or an inspiration. So here I am balancing on either end of a manichean seesaw two Tuesdays that happened to fall on the eleventh day of September. On the tables of history September 11, 2001 will weigh as heavily as December 7, 1941, and November 22, 1963. According to the depth and weight and dissemination of immeasurable forces like joy and love, truth and light, the group that began life unspectacularly in London 50 years ago, September 11, 1962, “gave more cheer,” as Derek Taylor put it, “than almost anyone else this century.”

The four rockers from Liverpool did a great deal more for the world than cheering it up, regularly testing the limits in EMI’s Abbey Road studio while creating wonders over the next eight years that no one in 1962 could have imagined. On September 11 they recorded their first single, “Love Me Do,” which failed to get beyond 17 on the British charts. Toward the end of the session, they tried out a Roy-Orbison-inspired song by John Lennon that producer George Martin felt “badly needed pepping up.” The next time they returned to the studio, more than two months later, they increased the tempo, tightened the vocals, and after 18 takes produced their breakthrough song, “Please, Please Me.” At the end of the session, Martin told them “You’ve just made your first number one.” It was the first of 15 number ones, in fact.

“Free as a Bird” 

Sitting in a Montreal hotel room, picture window curtains parted for a bright-lights night view packed with skyscrapers after the 400-mile drive to the Miracle of the North, I’m putting Volume One of The Beatles Anthology on the disc player, which is mine, all mine, now that my son is asleep. For a golden anniversary column, my plan is to go back to the earliest record, the primal disc cut in 1958 in the living room of a Victorian house on Kensington Avenue in Liverpool. “In Spite Of All the Danger” is a song Paul co-wrote with George Harrison two years before the Quarrymen became the Beatles. The unlikely title, with its hint of dark fate lurking, is the first example of the group’s knack for “being in mystery.”

I’d forgotten that the album devoted to Beatle history begins with a “new” song, “Free As a Bird,” born in 1977 in New York when John made the demo and completed in 1994 when Paul wrote and sang a brilliant bridge (one of the glories of Beatles music are the middle eights). Meanwhile George was moved to perhaps the most spiritual, passionate playing of his life, Ringo having set things in motion with a thunderclap. In the ten years since the break-up, fans all over the world had been wishing and hoping the group of groups would get back together; the invitation from Russia might have done the trick, had John and George lived that long. The haunting “Free As a Bird” video reminds me of the golden period between A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and the White Album (1968) when everything the Beatles touched seemed to fall magically into place. The dreamlike imagery of the video, viewed as by a bird in flight, offers a dark tour, touching, gloomy, whimsical, and portentous, with John’s voice wailing from beyond the grave and the emergency imagery of police lines and wreckage recalling “A Day in the Life” from Sgt. Pepper (“He blew his mind out in a car”) which in turn evokes the Paul-is-dead phenomenon that had everyone looking for ominous messages in the closing seconds of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I am the Walrus” with its sampling from Act Four of King Lear, Oswald (Shakespeare’s or Lee Harvey’s, take your pick) moaning, “untimely death.”


Paul McCartney turned 70 on June 18 of this year. Wherever he plays, and he’s still at it, he is the Beatles, as he was in Red Square, and in New York in the aftermath of September 11, closing the October 20, 2001 benefit concert he organized for the first responders to September 11, the New York police and fire departments and their families, as well as for the families of those lost in the attacks, and those working in the recovery effort. The star-studded show ended with McCartney singing “Freedom,” which he’d composed for the occasion. “Yesterday” the last song of the Beatles medley, however, had the most visible emotional impact on the audience.

Paul’s “Yesterday” was a major breakthrough in the Beatles romance, charming and converting adults who had been staring with nagging, reluctant, uneasy fascination at the object of the ludicrous “moptop” phenomenon they never imagined they could ever take seriously. I was in the living room with an English family, a middle-aged couple and their neighbors who had been gently teasing me about my fondness for the Beatles. We were watching Paul sing “Yesterday” on the telly. When the song was over, the adults in the room were, literally, speechless, until one said, in a choked voice, “Well, that was quite nice, wasn’t it?”

Watching the faces of the thousands in Red Square as Paul sang his signature song, I thought of the faces of the people at the 9/11 benefit who took the lyrics and the sad melody personally. In Moscow where many in the crowd were singing along in a language they did not know, their eyes were shining not with sorrow but with love. Well, except for Vladimir Putin, who did at least look pleasant. Which is saying something.

Finally, there was the moment in Pula, on the Adriatic coast in Yugoslavia, a country where the people seemed cold and unfriendly, even hostile, at least to a bearded American hitchhiker still coming down to earth after a year in India. Late one night I heard voices in the street, looked out the window and saw a group of boys and girls about my age singing as they walked, serenading anyone who chose to listen. A bit drunkenly perhaps but beautifully, romantically, they were singing “Yesterday.”

In addition to the program notes for The Beatles Anthology, I used Mark Lewisohn’s  The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions and William J. Dowlding’s Beatlesongs. “Being in mystery” comes from a letter by John Keats in which he spins the theory of Negative Capability.

As for Paul McCartney, he will begin his next tour in St. Louis this November. And the French government just awarded the embodiment of the Beatles the Legion of Honor. Cue the Marseillaise opening from “All You Need is Love.”

September 5, 2012

The most hysterical high-profile response to the literary timebomb called Lolita came, predictably, from the New York Times’s Orville Prescott, whose August 18, 1958 tirade (“dull, dull, dull” “repulsive,” “disgusting,” “fatuous,” “tiresome”) ends by suggesting that Humbert Humbert’s “ravaged brain belongs to the psychiatrists and psychoanalysts, not to novelists.”

Four years later, the Stanley Kubrick film made from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel received a relatively polite, if no less clueless, response from film critic Bosley Crowther, Prescott’s colleague at the Times during the same mid-forties to mid-sixties time period. Crowther had to show some respect since by 1962 Lolita was on its way to achieving its current somewhat inflated literary stature (ranked No. 4 on the Modern Library’s list of 100 Best Novels while a poll of 125 writers ranked it No. 1 in the Top Ten Works of the 20th Century, No. 4 in the Top Ten Books of All Time). What most likely prevented the sort of moralistic venting that eventually cost Crowther his job (following his 1967 hissy fit over Bonnie and Clyde) was the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) production code, which forced Kubrick to dilute the story’s eroticism by turning Nabokov’s word-drunk pedophile Humbert Humbert into a brooding academic played by James Mason. More important, Lolita was transformed from a 12-year-old child into a blonde beauty (15-year-old Sue Lyon) likely to awaken lustful urges in any red-blooded male on the planet, including brooding academics and a certain 57-year-old New York Times film critic who admits that Kubrick’s Lolita “looks to be a good 17 years old” and is “possessed of a striking figure,” which makes the “passion of the hero … more normal and understandable.”

The N-Word

When Crowther brings “normal” into the conversation, he’s using a word with which both Nabokov and Kubrick have a love-hate relationship. In Nabokov’s prose universe the n-word is synonymous with the post-war American nightmare in which Humbert Humbert is fated to live, lust, love, murder, and die. For Kubrick, “normal” becomes the foil for a black comedy of banal interiors and situations (with one magnificent exception) not so much taken from Nabokov’s novel as inspired by it; “normal” is also the nature of the approved behavioral objective forced upon the director by the MPAA. Which means no under-the-radar sex on the sofa leading to “the last throb of the longest ecstasy man or monster had ever known” and no drugging of the monster’s prey when her mother is conveniently dead and Humbert finally has the child in his clutches.

The not so secret weapon Kubrick uses to liberate the film from normalcy is Peter Sellers, whose performance as the one-man-theatre-of-the-absurd Clare Quilty explodes conventional expectations and creates chaos in what would be an otherwise conventional arrangement of set pieces featuring pseudo-American interiors in a film that was shot in England. It’s when Sellers is improvising in the Nabokovian mode that you get reactions like  Pauline Kael’s “it’s so far out that you gasp as you laugh.”

Missing the Point

Crowther’s inability to comprehend what Sellers and Nabokov and Kubrick are up to becomes most apparent when he refers to the film’s “strange confusions of thought and mood” and faults Kubrick for “scenes in which Mr. Sellers does various comical impersonations as the sneaky villain who dogs Mr. Mason’s trail.” The late Andrew Sarris had the same issues, dismissing Sellers in a July 5, 1962 Village Voice review as “an accurate mimic without physical presence or discernible personality” and, suggesting that Kubrick was not “in tune with Nabokov’s delirious approach to his subject.” In fact, it’s Sellers performance as the mercurial Quilty that sustains the harmony between Kubrick’s cinema and Nabokov’s prose.

Besides perceiving the film’s capacity to amuse and amaze, Pauline Kael calls Lolita “the first new American comedy since those great days in the forties when Preston Sturges recreated comedy with verbal slapstick.” In Sullivan’s Travels and The Lady Eve, Sturges also seasons the comedy with romance, but in neither instance does he accomplish what Kubrick does when he brings together what Kael calls “black slapstick” with a love story. Crowther at least shows a fumbling awareness of this feat when he refers to the “hauntingly poignant hospital scene,” the film’s “rare power,” and the “garbled, but often moving push toward an off-beat communication.”

What he means by “moving” is Humbert’s profound love for Lolita, a development Nabokov intended, except that in the novel it’s not revealed until the end when Humbert, finding that his nymphet has become a bespectacled, slovenly, pregnant housewife, tearfully pleads with her to come away with him, and when she refuses, gives her and her deaf young husband all his money. In the film the reality of Humbert’s love for Lolita becomes clear early on because, as Kubrick has pointed out in several interviews, unrelenting pressure from the MPAA required the removal of anything that could be perceived as overtly perverse or depraved in Humbert. According to Vincent Lobrutto’s biography Stanley Kubrick, what Kubrick and producer James Harris wanted from Nelson Riddle’s lush score was “a straightforward romantic sound” rather than “any form of dissonance” that “might disparage Humbert” and his love “in the audience’s eyes.”

More important than the music in bringing off this difficult black comedy-romance dynamic is the power of James Mason’s sympathetic performance, arguably the finest of his long career. Because of the MPAA strictures, it’s not with Lo but with her mother Charlotte Haze, memorably played by Shelly Winters, that Mason is allowed to become the darkly and diabolically Humbertian character who bursts into satanic laughter after reading his “landlady’s” ludicrous letter proposing marriage, who seriously contemplates murdering her, and who, when fate does the job for him, luxuriates in the bathtub drinking Scotch immediately afterward.

Beginning at the End

The most obvious example of what Pauline Kael means by “you gasp as you laugh” is the bravura opening scene, a movie in itself set in the party-shattered shambles of Clare Quilty’s elaborately cluttered and chaotic labyrinth of statuary, kitsch and bric-a-brac, with here and there amid the chaos a bust of Shakespeare, a harp, a piano, a ping-pong table. Though Nabokov ultimately had mixed feelings about the film, he told Alvin Toffler in a Playboy interview from 1964 that “the killing of Quilty is a masterpiece.” While working on the screenplay, of which only a fraction was used (Kubrick wisely mined the novel itself), he came to appreciate what the director was up against. For one thing, it was Nabokov who realized that the film had to begin at the end of the story.

Projected in Nabokov’s screenplay as “a silent shadowy sequence which should last not more than one minute,” the murder of Quilty becomes a painfully funny ten-minute-long nightmare in which the straight man kills the clown, who “jigs and ambles” to the end. It begins when Humbert asks, “Are you Quilty?” At which Sellers wraps himself in a sheet as if it were a toga and says he’s Spartacus, a sly reference to Kubrick’s previous picture.

Then, as Mason stands grimly behind the ping-pong table, ready to commit a literary crime of passion (he’s written a poem to explain his motive, the abduction and debauching of Lolita), Quilty shuffles and sashays over to the table in his toga and suggests they have a game of Roman ping-pong “like two civilized senators.” At this point, as Quilty begins the game with a serve (“Roman ping!”) that the appalled Humbert does not return (“You’re supposed to say ‘Roman pong!’”), the audience is giddy. When Humbert asks Quilty if he wants die standing or sitting, Sellers dons a pair of boxing gloves: “I wanna die like a champion!” He’s still clowning even as the first shot hits the glove. Finally showing signs of panic, he flounces over to the piano and begins playing Chopin’s Grand Polonaise (“Nice sort of opening, that. We could dream up some lyrics maybe”). At this point, the audience is, as they say, in hysterics.

A minute later Quilty, still bantering, will be shot dead behind a Gainsborough. So you laugh and catch your breath. Or gasp. A man is being murdered and you’re laughing.

That’s not normal. But this was not the time for the n-word.

Kubrick’s Lolita was being made during the Kennedy inauguration and the building of the Berlin wall. It hit American movie screens the summer before the Cuban missile crisis. The nuclear brinksmanship of the Cold War would send Kubrick and Sellers into the endgame black comedy of Dr. Strangelove. Meanwhile the Beatles and Stones were tuning up. Here come the sixties.

Lolita will be shown on TCM on September 21 at 5:15 p.m. The DVD is available at the Princeton Public Library.

—Stuart Mitchner

August 29, 2012

I consider life to be a continuous series of improvisations. —Jerry Garcia (1942-1995)

There’s too much in my head for this horn.

—Charlie Parker (1920-1955)

I am looking at a 12-inch Verve LP, Now’s the Time, the Genius of Charlie Parker #3, which is in the same dismal shape it was when the girl I married four years later unceremoniously presented it to me in San Francisco on my 24th birthday. “Bobby Petersen, the guy who gave it to me, stole it,” she said.

Not much of a birthday present, you may be thinking. In all fairness, the girl, who was 18 and in her first year at Berkeley, hardly knew me at the time. Strips of army-green friction tape had been clumsily applied to the entire top and bottom seams of the cover and another shorter piece was holding the spine together. Charlie Parker’s face, what you can see of it, has a cloudy, glazed-over look, though the original spotlight blue has sustained a certain luminosity in spite of the wear and tear. The vinyl is scuffed and scratched, but it plays fine, and the music is coming, after all, from a performer of such impenetrable charisma that the disc’s very flaws, its crackles and hisses, have an archival validity. In James Joyce’s Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus tells Mr. Deasy history is “a shout in the street.” Now’s the Time says history is “a record with surface noise.”

By now I’ve sold or traded almost all my jazz vinyl, and I’ve got a CD of this album, so why am I hanging on to stolen merchandise in laughably bad shape with the name of the guy it was probably stolen from (“Wade November 1958”) written in blue ink on the upper right of the back cover? Just because it was my future wife’s first ever gift to me? Am I that sentimental?

You bet I am. But even more, I’m looking for ways to tie together a column about two legends of American music, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, whose 92nd birthday is today, and guitarist Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead whose 70th fell on August first.

The Petersen Connection

Early in his five-hour-long Rolling Stone interview with Jann Wenner and Charles Reich on January 20, 1972, Jerry Garcia recalls first getting together with Dead-bassist-to-be Phil Lesh and “this other guy named Bobby Petersen, who is like an old-time wine-drinkin’ convict post criminal scene, a great guy.” Blair Jackson’s Garcia: An American Life puts Petersen, along with Lesh and Garcia “and about two hundred other people,” at “a giant party dubbed the Groovy Conclave” that began on November 18, 1961, and went on for three days at a rambling Palo Alto “party house” known as the Chateau.

Meanwhile Petersen’s pal Phil Lesh had enrolled in the music department at Berkeley, where in addition to working as a volunteer engineer at KPFA, he helped the girl-who-gave-me-Now’s the Time with her homework for a physics class taught by Edward “Dr. Strangelove” Teller. Petersen most likely still had the record when he was hanging out with Garcia and Lesh and the Dead’s eventual music publisher Alan Trist. In Robert Greenfield’s Dark Star: An Oral Biography of Jerry Garcia, Trist recalls smoking grass with Petersen, Lesh, and Garcia, among others, at his house in Palo Alto (“my parents were away”), which happened to be in back of Ken Kesey’s cabin: “We got very stoned because we were young people whose systems were quite open. And we designed this fantasy of how we would like to be, where we would like to take all this beat stuff.” It’s not much of a stretch to imagine that during the designing of this fantasy, or during “the giant party” in November, my destined-to-be-24th-birthday copy of Now’s the Time was playing, either in the back or foreground, for this was the period, before Dylan and the Beatles, when the music of choice for stoned “young people” with “open systems” was jazz, along with blues, bluegrass, and folk, and the player  of the hour and the era was Charlie Parker.

Years later, in his introduction to Alleys of the Heart: The Collected Poems of Robert M. Petersen (published in 1988, a year after Petersen’s death at 51), Alan Trist mentions the lyrics Petersen wrote for the Grateful Dead (“New Potato Caboose,” “Unbroken Chain,” “Pride of Cucamonga”) and describes the poet as “one true voice of a generation” who hopped the freights, played jazz saxophone, served time, “practiced freedom” and “bridged the beat scene of San Francisco to the rock era, like his sometime companion Neal Cassady.” In “Fern Rock,” one of the longest poems in Alleys of the Heart, Petersen describes Jerry Garcia “bending the frames of / reality … reaching into that system / pulling out dream after dream.”

The Vinyl Connection

Such then is the provenance of my well-traveled birthday gift of Bobby Petersen’s stolen copy of Now’s the Time, which I’ve just been listening to in its original state, scuffs and scratches and taped-up sleeve notwithstanding, and after the first three tracks, I had to run up here to the “keyboard” — which I put quotes around because the only keyboard worth serious mention after listening to this record is Hank Jones’s, a subtle, solid, and ebulliently inventive complement to the brazen brilliance of Charlie Parker, superbly driven in turn by Max Roach’s drumming and Teddy Kotick’s bass.

One of the virtues of returning to the primal vinyl after a long absence (our only turntable has been my son’s domain for 15 years) is the sheer size and depth of the sound compared to that of a compact disc. When you listen to a record like this one, you’re closer not only to the music and the moment of its making, but to all the previous playings, from the first needle-in-the-groove moment in 1958 when “Wade,” the guy who wrote his name on the back, set the jazz genie free. Close your eyes, open your imagination, and you may hear, as on an extended voice mail playback, the various exclamations of delight and fanciful stoned dialogues of previous listeners at those Palo Alto parties Wade may have been attending when my wife’s long-ago friend Bobby P. ripped him off.

Or maybe Petersen lied about stealing the album in order to impress the impressionable Berkeley freshman he was generously introducing to Charlie Parker. As for the sorry condition of the thing, inside and out, the defects, like I said, are part of the historical profile, as are Bill Simon’s lengthy liner notes on the back of the worn and faded sleeve additionally marred by grease spots and the yellowish imprint left by years of sweaty-handed handling, not to mention an informational defect that has Al Haig and Percy Heath playing piano and bass on the first six tracks, from December 30, 1952 (they play on the last six, from the July 30, 1953 session). As for the surface noise, it’s only there for Bird to blow through when Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” explodes from the speakers, followed by two numbers named for children, the first, “Laird Baird,” a sassy and playful blues for Parker’s son Laird and the second, for his stepdaughter Kim, what else but “Kim,” a flight of fairytale fancy on the changes of Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”

The Kern Connection

While several Jerome Kern standards were in Parker’s repertoire, notably “All the Things You Are” (reborn as “Bird of Paradise”), the composer’s association with Jerry Garcia began at birth when his father, a clarinetist and saxophonist who admired Kern, named him Jerome John Garcia. Students of Garcia’s improvisations with and without the Dead might be able to find instances where he quotes some melodic fragment of his namesake’s music, but the most obvious recognition of the connection comes in a recording of Kern’s “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” on the soundtrack album for Wayne Wang’s film Smoke, released two months before Garcia’s August 9, 1995 death. In retrospect, the video, which can be seen on YouTube, becomes a playful, quirky swan song, with a seated, Buddha-benign Garcia performing while a sexy earth angel in the form of Ashley Judd looks on, making love to the moment. Smiling just about all the way, Garcia appears in fine fettle, his playing bell-clear, as he performs an atypically lively version of one of the great ballad melodies of American popular music. In the last image, as the smoke fades, Jerome John Garcia sits all alone in the rear of the deserted night club.

The Connection Connection

Unfortunately, the most obvious parallel between Charlie Parker and Jerry Garcia is in the Faustian role hard drugs played in each man’s life. There’s the familiar quote from a doctor who upon examining Parker said that at the age of 33 he had the body of a man twice that age. Something similar was said of Garcia at 53.

Since it would take more listening than I have time for, and a lot more thought and knowledge, I won’t presume to make comparisons between these two masters, beyond wishing for a front row seat at the concert in music heaven where Bird sits in with the Dead, joining Garcia in mid-flight during a performance of “Dark Star” like the one on Live/Dead where you know he’s venturing into regions not unlike the “realms of gold” Charlie Parker traveled in.

Reading the guitar.com and Rolling Stone interviews with Garcia, I found a number of places where he said things that might have been said by or about Charlie Parker, for instance, “I consider life to be a continuous series of improvisations …. Because being high, each note, you know, is like a whole universe. And each silence. And … all of a sudden we find a certain kind of feeling or a certain kind of rhythm and the whole place is like a sea and it goes boom…boom …boom, it’s like magic and … you discover that another kind of sound will like create a whole other, you know ….”

He didn’t finish the sentence, and no need. All the better, in fact. Let it be “a whole other —.” Not that he was ever at a loss for words. Speaking of another musician, Garcia once said that “nobody has come up to the state that he was playing at — that whole fullness of expression, the combination of having incredible speed and giving every note a specific personality.” He was referring to Django Reinhardt, but he could have been talking about Charlie Parker — and Jerry Garcia.

August 22, 2012

Music is a dream from which the veils have been drawn! It’s not even the expression of a feeling — it is the feeling itself. —Claude Debussy (1862-1918), from a letter

On a spring morning in 1884 a classroom window at the Paris Conservatoire is open to the racket of horse-drawn omnibuses on the cobblestones of the rue du FaubourgPoissonnière. At the piano sits a “dishevelled” 21-year-old student, “his shock of tousled hair constantly shaking,” as he produces “chromatic groanings in imitation of the buses … all the notes of the diatonic scale heard at once in fantastic arrangements; shimmering sequences of arpeggios contrasted with trills played by both hands on three notes simultaneously.” The performance continues until a supervisor hearing the “strange noises ringing through the corridors” puts a stop to it, branding the pianist “a dangerous ‘fanatic’ “ and ordering the “spellbound” students “to be off.”

In his rich two-volume biography, Debussy: His Life and Mind (Macmillan 1962), Edward Lockspeiser presents this “picturesque episode,” recalled after Debussy’s death by a fellow student, as an example of the way “all sounds must strike at some poetry” in “the mind of a musician.”

The same classroom observer, Maurice Emmanuel, was taking notes on a later occasion, during a conversation between the then-28-year-old Debussy and his former teacher, Ernest Guiraud. Debussy having just played a series of intervals on the piano, Guiraud asks “What’s that?” Debussy replies, “Incomplete chords, floating …. One can travel where one wishes and leave by any door. Greater nuances.” To which Guiraud responds, “I am not saying what you do isn’t beautiful, but it’s theoretically absurd.” Says Debussy, “There is no theory. You have merely to listen. Pleasure is the law.”

“Mystery in Art”

Drawn to that concept of composition, of music as a fluid infinitely malleable element and pleasure as the law, Debussy would surely have appreciated knowing that in a future time his work would be moving through the world at large giving comfort and joy and evoking wonderment and awe in intimate situations and unlikely environments far from the formal boundaries of the salon or concert hall, transmitted in forms undreamed of in his day, with plugged-in listeners walking, driving a car, flying across oceans and continents at 30,000 feet, or in the solitude of home, recumbent with headset in the dead of night, able to leave and return “by any door” with the push of a button, living, breathing, thinking music.

Debussy might be appalled at the idea of someone doing menial chores (the dinner dishes, in my case) while master pianist Aldo Ciccolini, born August 15, 1925, seven years after the composer’s death, is playing L’Isle Joyeuse, a work for piano composed in 1904. But this is Debussy, who could hear music in the sound of wheels on pavement while creating chromatic equivalents. Myself, I think he’d be tolerant of such mundane miracles, if not amazed and delighted, based on what evidence we have — the scene in the classroom, the conversation with Guiraud, and other statements, notably the one inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner, “the greatest creator of mystery in art.” Revert from the translation to Debussy’s actual words (“le plus grand créateur de mystère qui soit en art”) and it’s easier to see that he’s describing himself, his dream, his mission, which is how it often is when artists, whatever the medium, use works they admire to express the terms of their own aesthetic.

Admitted, “mystery” is a notoriously open term, but serviceable enough to express strange and wonderful transmissions such as the one from the young English poet who died in 1821, his name “writ in water,” the verse message reaching Debussy two months before his own death, sent by a friend who suggested the line, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter,” from John Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” was “implicitly dedicated” to a composer who once defined music as “the silence between the notes.”

Joy in Jersey

I mentioned L’Isle Joyeuse, which refers to Jersey, in the Channel Islands, where in July 1904 Debussy “eloped” with Emma Bardac (both being already married at the time), who would become his second wife and the mother of his only child. The composition for piano finds its way to La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, where it’s recorded in November 1991 by Ciccolini, one of the 16 pieces I’ve been listening to in August 2012 while the water’s running in the sink as I scrub and scour into the depths of a skillet that begins looking like one of Turner’s storms at sea as Debussy’s joyous Jersey idyll bursts forth from the Bose Wave sounding in the chiming trilling flux of demonically intense invention not unlike the “fantastic arrangements” and “shimmering sequences” that Debussy’s fellow student remembers hearing long long ago in the classroom. Next morning, already feeling worn out, not looking forward to a dreary errand, I get into my trusty four-wheeled stereo, put on the same CD (Piano Works, Vol. V) to a surefire energy source, Tarantelle styrienne (later simplified to Danse), some of the most exhilarating piano music ever written, and I’m revived in an instant, riding high, and what was a chore has become a mission.

Something Amusingly Else

Of course Debussy has much more to offer than morning euphoria and instant energy. Take one of the best-known and most-played of his compositions, Clair de lune, which begins in a state of tender hesitant beauty, builds to an emotional summit, and goes down like a sunset. It’s one thing to hear Ciccolini play it, and something amusingly else to see Spencer Tracy at the keyboard in Without Love, one of the lesser-known movies he made with Katherine Hepburn. If it had been Hepburn swooning elegantly over the keys, no big deal, but that’s Spencer Tracy tucking in the belt of his bath robe as he sits down to play. No ceremony, no airs, the most unceremonious of actors is making beautiful music as Hepburn listens transfixed on the stairs, in her bathrobe, about to dissolve into an amorous mist, just as my own mother did whenever my undemonstrative father played the same music.

The Anglophile

Debussy may not have spoken the language but, as Lockspeiser makes clear, he was thoroughly immersed in the culture of the British Isles, though it should be mentioned that Debussy was very much under the influence of France’s favorite American, Edgar Allan Poe, to the point of planning but never finishing operas based on The Devil in the Belfry and The Fall of the House of Usher. (In November 2009 Opéra Français de New York presented the enhanced remains.) Besides enjoying idylls in Jersey and Eastbourne with Emma Bardac, whom he married in 1908, Debussy hired an English governess for his daughter and was a steadfast admirer of English art (Turner, Whistler, the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris, Walter Crane, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham), poetry (Keats, Shelley, Swinburne), literature (J.M. Barrie, Oscar Wilde, Dickens, and above all Shakespeare). The original role of Mélisande in his opera, Pelléas et Mélisande, belonged to Mary Garden, a Scottish soprano with a voice he had “secretly imagined — full of a sinking tenderness” who sang “with such artistry” as he “would never have believed possible.” Perhaps the most whimsical indication of the extent of his devotion to things English is in Volume Two of the Preludes, the one titled Hommage to S. Pickwick Esq. P.P.M.P.C. [Perpetual President-Member Pickwick Club]. He also composed preludes based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Peter Pan.

“Ever Higher”

“Anywhere out of the world” was Debussy’s half-facetious response to one of the questions (“Where would you most like to live?”) on a printed questionnaire from February 1889 included as an appendix in the first volume of Lockspeiser’s biography. Among Debussy’s more earthly enjoyments: reading “while smoking complex cigars” (les tabacs compliqués), the color violet; Russian cooking; and coffee. His favorite fictional hero and heroine were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Rosalind. His idea of happiness: “to love,” his motto “Ever higher.”

Twice married, Debussy had numerous affairs. Green-eyed Gabrielle Dupont, who can be seen in all her statuesque glory among the photographs in Lockspeiser’s book, attempted suicide when their ten-year relationship ended, and his first wife shot herself on the Place du Concorde after a letter from Debussy telling her that the marriage was over (she survived). That’s the composer’s 11-year-old daughter, Claude-Emma (Chouchou), sharing a picnic on the grass with her straw-hatted father in the photograph on the cover of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s 1988 recording of the Preludes. You can imagine something of the father-daughter relationship if you to go to “Debussy plays Debussy” on YouTube and listen as Debussy plays “Golliwog’s Cake-Walk,” from the Childrens Corner suite he wrote for Chouchou, whose smiles, he told a friend, “helped him overcome periods of black depression.” In a letter home, he writes of how sad he is “not to hear your songs and your laughter and all that noise which sometimes makes you an unbearable little person.” Before going into surgery in 1915, he tells his wife that she and Chouchou “are the only two beings who should prevent me from disappearing altogether.”

The Last Word

For Lockspeiser, Debussy’s child provides the most reliable eyewitness account of his death from cancer on March 25, 1918, as German artillery bombarded Paris. In a letter to her half-brother, she writes, “When I went back into the room Papa was sleeping and breathing regularly but in short breaths. He went on sleeping in this way until ten o’clock in the evening, and at this time, sweetly, angelically, he went to sleep for ever.” At the funeral, Chouchou did her best not to cry, for her distraught mother’s sake. “I saw him for the last time in that horrible box …. As I almost fell over I couldn’t kiss him.”

Chouchou herself had less than a year to live. Her death, during the diphteria epidemic, was thought to be due to an erroneous diagnosis.

Edward Lockspeiser’s biography was an invaluable resource that would not have been available but for the Princeton Public Library, which also had the Claudio Abbado Wiener Philarmonic recording of Pelléas et Mélisande, a hypnotic experience when listened to with headphones between midnight and three in the morning. I also consulted Debussy On Music, which I found at last year’s Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale. 

August 15, 2012

If I were asked to choose a film that would justify the existence of Hollywood, I think it would be “Rio Bravo.”

—Robin Wood in
Howard Hawks (1968)

“One of the most purely pleasurable films ever made,” says Dave Kehr of Howard Hawks’s 1959 western Rio Bravo in a recent New York Times round-up of metropolitan area film fare. Kehr is absolutely right, though some may find the choice of words problematic. How does one find pure pleasure in a picture that begins with a drunk groveling for money in a spittoon and goes on from there to a beating that causes the mindless murder of the man who intervened? Then there’s the lethal mayhem that results when the jailed killer’s wealthy brother hires a small army to liberate him. The joys of Rio Bravo, however, have less to do with gunfire and violent death than with the enlightened direction of Howard Hawks and the embattled camaraderie of a group of unlikely heroes led by John Wayne as Sheriff John T. Chance.

Whatever the genre — western, gangster, film noir, newspaper, war, musical, screwball, or romantic comedy — pictures directed by Hawks belong at or near the top of the list, and if anything demonstrates the massive insult to cinematic intelligence that is the American Film Institute’s ranking of the 100 Best Films, it’s the fact that Bringing Up Baby is the only work by Hawks that made the list (and barely, at that). Worse yet, High Noon (1952) is ranked 27th while its hands-down superior, Rio Bravo, the picture that one of the most intelligent and literate writers on film, the late Robin Wood (1931-2009), put at the top of his death-bed list of great films, didn’t even crack the almighty 100.

The Anti-High Noon

John Wayne once called High Noon “the most un-American thing” he’d ever seen. While he’s referring to the fact that it was written by Carl Foreman, a black-listed ex-communist, and produced by Stanley Kramer, a liberal, Wayne also shares Hawks’s thought: “I made Rio Bravo because I didn’t like High Noon. Neither did Duke. I didn’t think a good town marshal was going to run around town like a chicken with his head cut off asking everyone to help. And who saves him? His Quaker wife.”

Hawks is talking about characters played by Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly. The idea of an “un-American movie” with a steady, stalwart American icon running around in it like a “chicken with his head cut off” is ridiculous, as Hawks would no doubt agree, if he’d had a chance to reword what he was saying. For Robin Wood, High Noon is “the archetypal ‘Oscar’ film,” the product of three men (director Fred Zinneman, writer Carl Foreman, and producer Stanley Kramer) “whose work has been characterized by those Good Intentions with which we understand the road to hell to be paved. Mental intentions [Wood’s italics], not emotional or intuitive intentions: intentions of the conscious, willing mind, not of the whole man.” According to Wood, the emotional and intuitive wholeness that High Noon lacks is what makes Rio Bravo superior “as a record of lived and felt experience.”

The Moment

“In films, what everyone is striving for is to produce moments,” James Stewart told an audience at the British Film Theatre in 1972. “Not a performance, not a characterization, not something where you get into the part — you produce moments.”

Rio Bravo is full of choice moments like the ones in which Angie Dickinson’s card sharp, Feathers, sexually disarms John Wayne, the seemingly implacable “tower-of-strength” she affectionately, half-teasingly calls John T. And there are fractured moments as swift and subtle as the range of looks — compassionate, disappointed, proud — the sheriff gives the recovering-alcoholic Dude (movingly played by Dean Martin) as he falters, begins to find only to lose himself, and finally shows signs of pulling himself together.

There is one moment, one sequence, that particularly illuminates “the lived and felt experience” Wood refers to when comparing the virtues of Rio Bravo with the limitations of High Noon. It also happens to be the sequence most often cited by people like those responsible for the AFI list as evidence that Rio Bravo is unworthy of serious consideration. When the news got round that the terminally ill Robin Wood ranked Hawk’s western at the top of his final Top Ten, the reaction was disbelieving and scornful. A typically sloppy reaction (from a film blog called hollywood-elsewhere) begins, “What is that? You’re about to leave the earth and meet the monolith and the greatest film you can think of is Rio Bravo? A zero-story-tension hangin’ movie that constantly subjects viewers to screechy-voiced Walter Brennan, and which features the very soft-spoken, adolescent-voiced Ricky Nelson singing a duet with Dean Martin?” A similarly patronizing if somewhat less klutzy response comes from Wood’s hometown newspaper, the Toronto Star, two months after his death in December 2009: “John Wayne plays a small-town sheriff who rounds up a drunk (Martin), a punk kid (Nelson), and a raspy codger (Brennan) to battle bad guys who are threatening his town …. Pop stars Martin and Nelson crooned together on the sappy ditty, ‘My Rifle, My Pony and Me.’”

The “sappy ditty” and the way it simply, nicely happens is the point at which I bonded with Rio Bravo. People with a biased or limited view of what “art” is supposed to be instantly write off the singing scene as a crass attempt to exploit two pop stars whose presence is intended to bolster the box office: Dino, the forever sloshed Las Vegas Rat Pack crooner, and Ozzie and Harriet’s Ricky, America’s favorite kid brother and 1959’s latest Teen Idol.

For a start, no one “croons” in this scene. Martin’s Dude is on his back smoking a cigarette, his hat brim down over his eyes, when he starts to quietly sing, and as he does, it’s as if he’s making the song up, feeling it, as he goes along. Nelson, as a young gunfighter called Colorado, warms to the song and the singing with a smile from the heart, strums his guitar, and at a nod from Dude takes the next chorus while Stumpy, the “screech-voiced Walter Brennan” plays the harmonica and Wayne looks on, a tin cup of coffee in his hand, smiling, simply enjoying the harmonious spontaneity of the moment, like a stand-in for the audience, or that part of it not predisposed to dismiss the scene as Hollywood hype.

In fact, Hollywood is exactly what’s happening, and the rousing song that follows (“Get Along Home Cindy”) brings everything closer to the terms of Wood’s claim that Rio Bravo “justifies the existence of Hollywood” because “The whole of Hawks is immediately behind it, and the whole tradition of the western, and behind that is Hollywood itself.” Three generations of performers covering a span of 30 years in the saga of American popular culture are coming together in, to use Wood’s words, “a bond of fellow-feeling through the shared experience of the music.”

And what makes the moment, this shared sense of the world in a fine balance, all the more precious is the presence of the killer in the adjoining cell waiting for the invading force of his brother’s hired guns to set him free and destroy his jailers and anyone else who gets in the way. For the duration of the song, this family of men is sheltered from the dead zone of the outside world in the timeless confines of a Hawks continuum of other moments, like aglow-with-love Lauren Bacall singing “How Little We Know” to Bogart in To Have and Have Not, or Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn singing “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” to an appreciative leopard; or Humphrey Bogart having the time of his life posing as a nerdy bibliophile in The Big Sleep. For Wood, this four-minute scene in Rio Bravo “is perhaps the best expression in Hawks’s work of the spontaneous-intuitive sympathy which he makes so important as the basis of human relations.”

Other Moments

Admitted, there are times early on when Rio Bravo seems slow and stagey and you’re tempted to urge the actors to get on with it. And Pedro Gonzalez Gonzalez as the effusive Mexican hotelier is borderline (no pun intended) embarrassing. And Ricky is (just as well) no Brando or even Steve McQueen. And yes, Walter Brennan may grate on the nerves, but he too has a life in the larger culture, not only as Grandpa Amos McCoy in the sitcom, The Real McCoys, but as Bogart’s alcoholic sidekick in To Have and Have Not. Then there’s the mannered, edgily charming performance of Angie Dickinson, whose moves occasionally suggest the quirky body language of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall 15 years down the road.

There is much much more to be said about Rio Bravo, though the most articulate and intelligent discussion I know of is in Robin Wood’s 1968 book, and the most succinct is in Garry Giddins’s collection of reviews, Warning Shadows, which ends with Dude and Stumpy  “strolling into the fantasy world of incandescent Hollywood, where everyone ends up content and whole.”

August 8, 2012

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

—Gore Vidal (1925-2012)

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

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

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

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

A Letter from Edgewater

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sexual Orientation

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

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

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

It Got Ugly 

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

On the Afterlife

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

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

August 1, 2012

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

Lost in Melville’s Gaze

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

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

Moved by Marilyn

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

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

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

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

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

Imagining Marilyn

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

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

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

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

Isabel and Marianna

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

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

On Film

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

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

July 18, 2012

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

—Woody Guthrie (1912-1967)

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

—Bob Dylan, “Song to Woody”

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

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

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

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

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


By the relief office I saw my people.

As they stood hungry,

I stood there wondering if God blessed America for me.


There was a high wall there

That tried to stop me

A sign was painted that said ‘Private Property’

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

That side was made for you and me.


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

Woody in the Apple

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

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


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

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

Dylan Crosses the Swamp

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

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

July 12, 2012

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

—William Faulkner (1897-1962)

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

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

Faulkner in Princeton

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

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

Faulkner Plays 50 Choruses

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

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

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

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

Faulkner and Blackness

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

Faulkner and Milch

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

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

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

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

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

Good luck, David. Keep the faith.

July 3, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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