The girl from L.A. had just arrived in Venice and was sitting at a cafe on Piazza San Marco being hassled by a Yugoslavian when she noticed a bedraggled individual shuffling across the great space, probably on his way to the American Express office to check for mail. His hair was long and scraggly and his jeans were baggy and halfway falling down, as if he had recently lost a great deal of weight. For the better part of a year she’d been exchanging letters with a guy she’d met in Berkeley; they had arranged to meet at the foot of the campanile on the evening of June 21. more
Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine ….
—John Keats (1795-1821)
All the great poets should have been fighters.
—Muhammad Ali (1942-2016)
Courtesy of a live feed from the BBC, we’re driving through the streets of Louisville under bright blue skies with the hearse carrying the body of Muhammad Ali to Cave Hill cemetery. As the procession passes through modest neighborhoods like the one Cassius Clay grew up in, past his school, Central High, crowds on both sides of the street are throwing flowers, waving, shouting, chanting “Ali! Ali!” The flowers have fallen so heavily on the windshield of the hearse, it’s a wonder the driver can see where he’s going. more
FOREST IN THE MOUNTAINS (Forêt dans la montagne): Edgar Degas, ca. 1890, monotype in oil on paper, 11¾ x 15¾ inches. (Museum of Modern Art, New York, Louise Reinhardt Smith Bequest)
Degas was another wonder painter. I’ve never seen a bad Degas. — Ernest Hemingway
Thanks to a press pass that permitted me into “A Strange New Beauty: Edgar Degas” ahead of the paying public, I had the exhibit galleries more or less to myself for one precious, quietly hallucinatory hour. What follows should be about what I saw during a Sunday morning early opening at the Museum of Modern Art. But when the task of commenting on monotypes by Degas (1834-1917) coincides with the death of Muhammad Ali (1942-2016), all bets are off. more
I grew up with a picture of her in my bedroom hanging over my bed … watching over me … not as the icon, not as a sex symbol, but as an ordinary girl, her arms outstretched, her head back, the sun’s out, she’s laughing, barefoot in the grass, at Roxbury, where she lived with Arthur Miller.
—Michelle Williams, from an interview about My Week With Marilyn
Pictures of Marilyn are all over Times Square, for sale to tourists who want to take home a souvenir from the sidewalk caricaturists lining 7th Avenue, plying their trade, deftly capturing the essence of someone’s husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, or child. more
Ever since Einstein revealed his special theory of relativity, we’ve known that time travel — at least moving forward through time — is possible. Einstein didn’t pull this theory, or even the notion that time travel is possible, out of thin air. Rather, he took the knowledge of the day, saw an inconsistency — a piece of a puzzle that didn’t fit, so to speak — and thought about possible explanations. — PBS, Nova Online
Viewers immersed in the Starz series Outlander, where a feisty English nurse is transported from 1945 to the mid-18th-century Scottish Highlands, will know why I’m time-travelling back to January 3, 1777, and Brigadier General Hugh Mercer. The most sympathetic figure to emerge from the Battle of Princeton, Mercer might as well have been a time-traveller himself, given the shape-shifting sweep of his story. more
Charles Mingus and his music gave the impression of howling assurance and terrifying emotions. His bass echoed like a giant’s threat, to be soothed by his balmy melodies…He was dogmatic, pensive, demagogoic, irreverent, furious, nostalgic…He is the best example we have of disciplined turmoil.
—Gary Giddins, from Visions of Jazz
On midwest radio nights around the middle of the previous century teenagers up past their bedtime could pull in clear-channel stations like CKLW in Toronto, WLS in Chicago, and WLW in Cincinnati which, legend had it, beamed a signal so powerful it could be picked up on backyard fences and, some said, on the fillings in your teeth. In a college town 200 miles south of Chicago, a high school sophomore listening to a station in Dallas/Fort Worth on “a little crackerbox AM radio” picked up the music that changed his life. more
A little over a year ago, the morning after Donald Trump announced his candidacy, a Photoshopped image of his red-nosed circus-clown face filled the front page of the Daily News next to the massive headline CLOWN RUNS FOR PREZ. A little over a week ago, the day after Trump won the Indiana primary and became the presumptive Republican nominee, the front page of the same newspaper showed a piggy-bank-sized GOP elephant in a coffin with the words “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the death of a once-great political party, killed by epidemic of Trump.” more
Time for some free association: if someone says Andy Warhol, what’s the first thing you think of? For me, the word is face, not Warhol’s bland, pallid, never-quite-there visage, anything but that. I’m thinking of the faces he blew up, daubed, and decorated, like Blue Marilyn at the Princeton University Art Museum and the screenprints of Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, and Alexander the Great, plus the Polaroid portraits of, among others, Pia Zadora, Sylvester Stallone, and Princess Caroline of Monaco on view through July 31 at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick in “More than Fifteen Minutes of Fame: Warhol’s Prints and Photographs.” more
As Big Ben rang the first hour of January 1, 2014, the skies over London were overwhelmed by a fireworks display of such scope and magnitude, I was sure the occasion had to be something greater than the beginning of another year. At a loss for superlatives worthy of the spectacle, I remembered a night when I stood outside the newly reborn Globe Theatre between acts of As You Like It gazing at the floodlit dome of St. Paul, my head swimming with Shakespeare. Of course, that was it. The only word for all that glory at the midnight hour, in that place, was Shakespeare.
At the time I didn’t know that the year 2014 brought with it the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, a connection also ironically unremarked by the organizers of a New Year’s show that had been touted as “multi-sensory,” an orgy of orange-flavored smoke, strawberry mist, peach snow, and 40,000 grams of edible banana confetti. Whatever it was, celebratory serendipity or a happy coincidence, the timely grandeur of the display made Shakespearean sense. more
You can’t write a sentence in English without Shakespeare being in there somewhere. — C.K. Williams
The Writers House is located on Locust Walk, which runs through the heart of the Penn campus, like McCosh Walk at Princeton. For just over two decades the 165-year-old cottage has been a venue for readings, seminars, lectures, and events like the April 11 memorial celebration of the life and work of poet C.K. Williams (1936-2015), who died last September. more
Musical protest helps the Japanese “to voice what they cannot ordinarily express in words” according to Princeton resident Noriko Manabe’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Protest Music After Fukushima (Oxford $27.95). It’s a formidable work: 433 pages, 35 pages of notes, a nearly 15-page-long bibliography, with web icons interspersed throughout the text highlighting links to pronuclear public relations videos, press conferences, music videos, extensive footage from anti-nuclear demonstrations and rallies, plus color photos on a companion website. more
It was around this time half a century ago that people began to suspect the Beatles of being the creation of supernatural forces. Had they signed a pact with Lucifer? The “more popular than Jesus” frenzy that led to the burning of their records in crazy America demonstrated that, yes, they were unthinkably, absurdly big. The “Paul McCartney is dead” madness caught fire for the same reason. Nothing less than mysterious death or divinity could explain the phenomenon; the resulting paranoia of disbelief had reached the “who really wrote Shakespeare?” level. All this cosmic commotion and they had yet to astonish the world with albums like Revolver and Sgt. Pepper and singles like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “I am the Walrus,” and “Hey Jude.”
“Tomorrow Never Knows”
Fifty years ago today, April 6, 1966, when the Beatles began recording Revolver in EMI’s Studio Three at Abbey Road, a tall, elegantly handsome gentleman with no evident resemblance to Mephistopheles, and no pact signed in blood in his pocket, guided John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr to the top of Mt. Revolver. more
Head of MI-5 Sir Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) with his most trusted asset Ruth Evershed (Nicola Walker)
“Hold the right thought,” my father used to tell me. That dated variation of “Look on the bright side” didn’t count for much on the morning of September 11, 2001. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Brussels, we’re better off turning to Shakespeare. more
Ultimately we read in order to strengthen the self. — Harold Bloom
Like it or not, there will always be a market for self-help books. While readers whose lives have been enhanced by poetry and literature tend to patronize that seemingly inexhaustible genre, anything worth reading could be studied and enjoyed under the same heading. Taking the idea to the most enlightened extreme, it’s fair to say that that a wealth of “self-help” books will be on the tables at Princeton Day School between Friday, March 25 and Tuesday, March 29 at the Bryn Mawr-Wellesley Book Sale.
In an interview on bookbrowse.com about his book How to Read and Why (Scribner Touchstone 2001), Harold Bloom mentions being deluged with mail from people saying how pleased they are that he’s “writing about literature for the common reader.” As a result, he became aware of a need that he felt “highly qualified and highly driven to meet” for “a self-help book, indeed, an inspiration book, which would not only encourage solitary readers of all kinds all over the world to go on reading for themselves, but also support them in their voyages of self-discovery through reading.”
When asked how reading great literature can provide an alternative to the sort of self-help books that top the best-seller lists, Bloom singles out the stories of Chekhov because they have “the uncanny faculty, rather like Shakespeare in that regard, to persuade the reader that certain truths about himself or herself, which are totally authentic, totally real are being demonstrated for the very first time.” It’s not that either author “created those truths,” but that “without the assistance of Shakespeare and Chekhov, we might never be able to see what is really there.” more
Here’s a trivia question from left field: what do Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth, C.K. Williams, Stephen Crane, Paul Simon, Sarah Vaughan, Chris Christie, Jerry Lewis, and Percy Shelley’s grandfather have in common?
Answer: they were all born in Newark.
So was Leslie Fiedler, author of the landmark study Love and Death in the American Novel. In his essay, “Whatever Happened to Jerry Lewis?” from Murray Pomerance’s anthology Enfant Terrible! Jerry Lewis in American Film (NYU Press), Fielder recalls once working in a shoe store side by side with “a crew of losers,” one of whom was Danny Levitch, who happened to be Jerry (Levitch) Lewis’s father. Fiedler recalls that although Levitch was constantly boasting about his “rosy prospects in the theater,” he always seemed to end up working as an extra salesman. Fiedler thinks that the father’s habitual failure “must have haunted Jerry and fueled in him a relentless desire to succeed.”
In 1945, Jerry Lewis, who turns 90 today, was 19, living in Newark with “a very pregnant wife” and earning $135 on “a good week” in various Manhattan night clubs; his act was to make funny faces while lip-synching along with photograph records. more
From a gang land point of view, it makes more sense to put a body in the Pine Barrens than in the Hudson River. — John McPhee
I’m beginning a column about Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) with a quote from John McPhee to note the fact that yesterday, March 8, the author of The Pine Barrens celebrated his 85th birthday. While it may be difficult to imagine two writers with less in common, I have no doubt that McPhee could sit down tomorrow, do a month of research, and produce an essay or even a book that would stand as the go-to work about pulp fiction, the mass market paperback revolution, the McCarthy Era, and the author of Kiss Me, Deadly, who once admitted he’s not sure which side of midnight 1918 he was born on (he went with March 9).
Reading McPhee, who grew up in Princeton, you are in the company of a renowned master of non-fiction prose. Reading Spillane, who grew up in Elizabeth and made his fortune writing about the world of buried bodies, you are partaking of an experience that has been compared to eating take-out fried chicken. He himself once used a beloved American snack to tease “those big-shot writers” who “could never dig the fact that there are more salted peanuts consumed than caviar.” Besides creating Mike Hammer, the last word in brutal, sex-crazed private eyes, Spillane sold the equivalent of 200 million packs of “salted peanuts” worldwide, and as of 1980, seven of the top 10 all-time fiction best-sellers in America were written by him. more
“London, Waterloo Bridge” by Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)
To D.H. Lawrence, who died on March 2,1930 at 45, a “painted landscape is the background with the real subject left out.” It’s also where “the English exist and hold their own.”
Clearly, this is a novelist speaking, as well as a poet, philosopher, essayist in many realms, revolutionary, and a painter for whom landscape is the “background to an intenser vision of life.”
Some Serious Fun
As I make my way to the Princeton University Art Museum, I imagine Lawrence by my side looking the way he did to the doctor he hosted for tea and toast only weeks before he died, “a colorful figure with bright blue coat, red hair and beard and lively blue eyes” who “made the toast himself treating the operation as though it were a serious matter and at the same time great fun” — which is how I’d like to treat the subject of this column and the current exhibit, “Pastures Green & Dark Satanic Mills: The British Passion for Landscape.” more
“She’s a gutsy girl,” says Jennifer Jason Leigh. “A little bit of an animal.” Leigh’s talking about Daisy Domergue, the character she plays in Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, a supporting role that has brought her an Oscar nomination, the first of her long career. Even if she wins, it won’t excuse the Academy’s failure 20 years ago to recognize her once-in-a-lifetime performance as Sadie Flood in Georgia (1995), a film written by Leigh’s mother Barbara Turner and directed by Ulu Grosbard.
In a featurette about The Hateful Eight, producer Stacy Sher says of Daisy, “She’ll try anything, she’ll push it all the way, she’s crazy like a fox: you don’t know if you should feel sorry for her, you don’t know if you should despise her.” According to co-star Walton Goggins, “Jennifer just takes it to a place where we’re all looking at each other, did you see that? did you see what she did with that?” more
I fell in love with Shakespeare watching Richard Burton play Hamlet. If there was a specific moment when I “lost my heart” (you could as easily say “found my heart”), it came in the scene where Hamlet tells the players to “speak the speech” the way he pronounces it, and “to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature.”
In an essay about his youthful love of the plays, William Dean Howells recalls feeling that “in his great heart” Shakespeare “had room for a boy willing absolutely to lose himself in him, and be as one of his creations.” I was in my early 20s when Hamlet’s rousing speech to the players brought me into Shakespeare’s “great heart” and made me feel that the man who wrote the play was in the room speaking directly to his creations. more
Thoughts of Valentine’s Day bring back a song I knew by heart when I was growing up. No wonder, the way my parents kept playing Nat King Cole’s recording of “Nature Boy.” They were addicted to it; so was everyone; the whole country was enthralled by the “strange enchanted boy who wandered very far, very far over land and sea.” The voice was already a pleasant part of our family’s life because of Cole’s “Christmas Song.” Now the same warm smooth deeply familiar voice that sang of chestnuts and yuletide carols and mistletoe was making me feel things I’d never felt before, exciting my imagination with dreams of distant lands and magic days, with a message about loving and being loved that was more appealing than the lessons I learned in school. more
“A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again.” That’s James Joyce’s snow, falling outside a Dublin hotel room, the first notes of the sublime last movement of his long story “The Dead.” Snow is also falling on the nameless lovesick wanderer in Franz Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise (Winter Journey).
Though I make a point of listening to Schubert and reading Joyce every year at this time, I’ve never brought them together in the same column — under the same roof of the same imaginary inn, as it were, the short plump bespectacled composer at the piano accompanying the tall, thin, bespectacled Irish tenor whose singing voice was “clarion clear” according to Oliver St. John Gogarty, otherwise known as “stately plump Buck Mulligan” in the opening sentence of Joyce’s Ulysses. Given the preoccupation with songs and singers in Joyce’s life and work, it’s not all that unlikely a pairing, allowing for a little poetic license in the matter of time and space. True, Schubert was born in Vienna on January 31, 1797, Joyce 85 years and 1300 miles away in Dublin on February 2, 1882, but online the distances and years disappear in “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” their “wayward and flickering existence” sensed but not apprehended by Joyce’s Gabriel Conroy seconds before he turns to the window and sees the snow “falling obliquely against the lamplight.” more
Stirred from sleep by the sound of something large and loud moving in the night, I thought at first that someone was moaning. Really. It was like the sound of a giant enduring a massively bad dream. We were three hours into the Sunday morning after Saturday’s snowfall but our block-long cul de sac was not under attack; we were being rescued, liberated. Seen from the bedroom window, the larger of the two machines had an unreal immensity that made our little street resemble a road in the Caucasus. No wonder, I’d been reading Chekhov at bedtime after a long afternoon watching Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s mesmerizing Chekhovian epic, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia. more
If someone in the strange sad days since January 10 were to ask what David Bowie means to me, I’d say two words, Hunky Dory. From all that I’ve read online since the ongoing event of his death, I’m not alone in thinking Bowie’s fourth LP is his best, not an album so much as the creation of a mood, a state of mind my wife and I associate with the best, brightest moments of the 1970s. We lived in the music much as we lived in our consciousness of England and our two years in Bristol, the city we came to know and love. The songs from that haunting, stirring, and most companionable of records evoke the country of Shakespeare and Chaplin, of Hampstead Heath and Kate Bush’s “old river poet” the Thames. Much more than a none-too-sturdy piece of black vinyl, Hunky Dory was a very special, pleasant place to be for a father, mother, and the child who was born five years after its 1971 release and who, on hearing the news of the death of his “biggest hero” four decades later, said “It’s like losing a member of the family.”
While the tracks we found most fascinating and challenging were “Life on Mars,” “Oh You Pretty Things,” “Quicksand,” and “The Bewley Brothers,” the song that we felt closest to as a family (we and no doubt thousands if not millions of other families) was “Kooks,” which may be the most charming thing Bowie ever wrote. more
Let’s say I’m sitting on a bench in Central Park thinking about long-ago weekend afternoons playing catch with Florence Victor, a tall, lean, motor-mouth poet with long black hair tied back in a pony tail, who stopped talking only when she was throwing the ball and did she throw it, crack! every time it hit my mitt. Being truly, proudly, deeply neurotic, she was usually talking about her various ailments and anxieties, which tended to be interchangeable with her poetry.
So as I’m sitting there smiling, remembering how Florence and I sometimes kept the ball flying between us until twilight and beyond, along comes this tall guy in a hoodie with a camera in his hand, asking if he can take my picture. Ordinarily I’d say “no thanks” and find another bench, but since this is an imaginary encounter I know right away that this guy is Brandon Stanton whose book Humans of New York: Stories has been my constant companion, along with the fiction of Chekhov, ever since the new year began. In fact, the more I read the two together, the more I realize how many subtle unexpected things the humans of New York have in common with the humans of late 19th-century Russia. Before he can get started, I explain that his book was a party gift from a friend at work. “It’s addictive,” I tell him. “It lights me up every time I look inside.” more
His fearless inventions … quest after the entirety of life: he will include every emotion, every bit of evidence that has a natural claim on our attention. Contemporary life is so rich and vivid in his poetry that by contrast many of the movies and poems we are used to seem pale, spaced-out and insipid. – Robert Pinsky on C.K. Williams
In the special December 27 poetry issue of the N.Y. Times Book Review (NYTBR), after admitting that the Times “has not always treated poets well,” John Williams quotes an unsigned review from 1860 faulting Walt Whitman for seeing “nothing vulgar in that which is commonly regarded as the grossest obscenity.” Whitman is also upbraided for rejecting “the laws of conventionality so completely as to become repulsive,” although it’s noted that on occasion “a gleam of the true poetic fire shines out of the mass of his rubbish.”
Reviewing C.K. Williams’s Selected Later Poems (Farrar, Straus & Giroux $30) in the same issue, Katy Lederer finds “visceral discomfort … — a sense a human boundary has been knowingly traversed, an intimacy exploited” through “intrusions into others’ private lives” that “feel less acquisitive than desperate.” Williams, who died September 20, is also cited for “subject matter” that “could be pedestrian and at times vulgar,” giving “the impression of a writer” who is “spiritually off-balance.” more