May 18, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

According to the first Princeton Companion (Princeton University Press, 1978), Woodrow Wilson “had a larger hand in the development of Princeton into a great university than any other man in the twentieth century. He left a vision of an institution dedicated both to things of the mind and the nation’s service, promoted a spirit of religious tolerance, and held up ideals of integrity and achievement that still inspire the Princeton community.”

In the words of The New Princeton Companion (Princeton University Press, 2022), “While many of Wilson’s accomplishments and ideas have had lasting beneficial impact, he was a divisive figure both during and after his Princeton presidency and his record of racist views and actions has deeply tarnished his legacy.” The trustees’ 2020 report concluded that the continued use of Wilson’s name on the University’s school of public affairs “impeded the school’s and the University’s capacity to pursue their missions.”

The Fountain’s Story

The Wilson article in Robert Durkee’s New Princeton Companion also mentions the 39-foot sculpture Double Sights, installed in the fall of 2019 on the plaza in front of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, formerly named for Wilson. Walter Hood’s sculpture is composed of “a slanted white column resting on a straight black column, both columns etched with quotes from Wilson,” along with quotes from contemporaries “who were critical of his views and policies, particularly as they related to race and gender.” The structure’s stated purpose is to educate the campus community “about both the positive and negative dimensions of Wilson’s legacy.” more

May 11, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“A cage went in search of a bird.”

  —Franz Kafka, Aphorism 16

In his introduction to The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (Princeton University Press $24.95), Reiner Stach tells readers they may “wind up in unfamiliar, sometimes inhospitable territory, which can then turn terribly beautiful.” Stach quotes the aphorism designated number 17 as one that Kafka might well have placed at the beginning “as the motto for the entire collection” —  “I have never been in this place before: breathing works differently, and a star shines next to the sun, more dazzlingly still.”

Words and Music

In the terminology of the recording studio, “A cage went in search of a bird,” Aphorism 16 (A16), is the master take “recorded on November 6, 1917,” with “A cage went to catch a bird” as the unused alternate. Discussing why “search” prevailed over “catch,” Stach suggests that rather than depriving “the bird of its freedom,” an “act of overpowering, with the cage as perpetrator and the bird as victim,” Kafka reworded the sentence so that the premise of a search “could be projected onto any number of social relationships.”

Recordings, master takes, alternate takes, words and music are on my mind after weeks reading Kafka’s Aphorisms and listening to Charlie Parker, the alto saxophonist the jazz world knows as Bird. The recording studio analogy to choosing “search” over “catch” doesn’t quite hold, since the commercial object is to both find and capture an audience. In the case of a player who brings you into the studio the way Parker does when he cuts a take short with a shout or a whistle, you save the alternate take as an example of the artist in the living moment, so that future listeners can compare it to the soaring and searching of the master take that has an effect comparable to Kafka’s A17 —  you’ve “never been in this place before,” your “breathing works differently, and a star shines next to the sun.”  more

May 4, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“The only way to even begin to understand language is to love it so much that we allow it to confound us and to torment us to the extent that it threatens to swallow us whole.”

I keep returning to that impassioned sentence from Jhumpa Lahiri’s Translating Myself and Others (Princeton University Press $21.95). The sense of spontaneous energy behind Lahiri’s use of the word “love” is in stunning contrast to the standard “I was struck by” or “I admired” used in other, earlier contexts; in one of the translations she quotes from, the word love is “merely ‘a container we stick everything into,’ a hollow place-holder that justified our behaviors and choices.” Here it comes across as fresh, reinvigorated, uncontained, unconditional, and even heroic, given the challenges she brings tumultuously into play.

The Cracked Kettle

Lahiri’s embattled devotion to language reminds me of Gustave Flaubert’s performance on a similar theme in Madame Bovary: “Human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to when we long to move the stars to pity.” In the original it’s “la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé ou nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.”

The English version has a Shakespearean kick that makes Flaubert’s mot-juste French appear unwieldy; but that’s how the words look on the page: say them aloud, and it’s another story, another song.

Looking in the Mirror

Lahiri says that “to translate is to look into a mirror and see someone other than yourself.” Even when you’re not the translator, you can imagine Constance Garnett’s bespectacled face in the mirror when reading Chekhov. You know and trust her, she’s given you the Russians, and in Chekhov’s stories and letters, which you come back to again and again, her translations bring you closer to him than any other. Of Garnett’s Turgenev, the first of the Russian giants she brought to English-speaking readers, Joseph Conrad said “Turgenev is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgenev.” Ernest Hemingway makes essentially the same point in A Moveable Feast. For him, the language of Tolstoy was the language of the Englishwoman who began to go blind while translating War and Peace. D. H. Lawrence recalls seeing her sitting in her garden “turning out reams of her marvelous translations from the Russian. She would finish a page, and throw it off on a pile on the floor without looking up, and start a new page. That pile would be this high — really, almost up to her knees, and all magical.” more

April 27, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“….nothing can be lost of the self, of a lifetime of bringing forth selves …”

—C.K. Williams (1937-2015)

April and poetry have been lovers since William Shakespeare accomplished the birth-death rhyme of the ages by entering and leaving the world on the 23rd day of the “cruelest” month. Another poet of the theater born in Shakespeare’s month is the subject of Alexis Greene’s biography Emily Mann: Rebel Artist of the American Theater (Applause $29.95). 

There’s no turning away from the face on the cover of this book. Emily Mann is looking right at you, eye to eye, as if saying, “Get up on the stage. Show me what you’ve got. Transcend yourself. Give me a poem in 10 words. Amaze me! Bring me to tears. Make me laugh. Delight me. Do the impossible, the goal Faulkner set for writers: “Put the Lord’s Prayer on the head of a pin!”

C.K.’s Warbler

All I can do is offer a touch of the poet who introduced me to Emily Mann in 2007 and whose April 2016 memorial service was the occasion of a more meaningful meeting. In C.K. Williams’s poem “Garden,” which is posted for the world to read in a shady spot on the D&R Greenway’s Poetry Trail, something alights on the poet’s hand and, startled, he instinctively, inadvertently flinches it off only to see “a warbler, gray, black, yellow, in flight already away. / It stopped near me in a shrub, though, and waited, as though unstartled, as though unafraid, / as though to tell me my reflex of fear was no failure, that if I believed I had lost something, / I was wrong, because nothing can be lost, of the self, of a lifetime of bringing forth selves.” more

April 20, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

The way that history has taken has been so filthy, such a carrion-strewn path of lies and baseness, that no one need be ashamed of refusing to travel along it, even if it should lead to goals we might commend if reached by other paths.

   —Thomas Mann, from a letter (1938)

… grave, genial, aloof, a little shy still because of his English, [Mann] was silent most of the time: but his deep feeling in the reading of his paper on democracy impressed everyone: at one point he could hardly keep back his tears.

—Lewis Mumford (1940)

The passages above appear in Stanley Corngold’s The Mind in Exile: Thomas Mann in Princeton (Princeton University Press 2022). The first is from a letter Mann wrote on his September 1938 arrival in Princeton; the second is from an account of his appearance at the City of Man conference in Atlantic City, May 1940. I added this glimpse of Mann writing and speaking to supplement the cover image, shown here, in which he eyes the reader with a look that seems to say “Who are you, why are you here, and what do you want?”

What a contrast is the cover of The Magician, Colm Tóibín’s 2021 novel about Mann and his family — a treat for the eyes, the packaging bold and bright, with Mann nowhere to be seen, unless you count the dark figure in the foreground gazing at a Venetian fantasia, San Marco in a mist. The dust jacket hooks are all about Tóibín, “the bestselling author of The Master and Brooklyn, one of today’s most brilliant and beloved novelists.”

Unfortunately Tóibín ran into problems when attempting to “saturate himself in the dense intellectual world of Mann,” as D.T. Max reports in the September 20, 2021 New Yorker. Tóibín knew that he could “capture Mann’s erotic yearnings and his conflicts with his children; but could he make repartee about abstract ideas come alive on the page?” Apparently not. His editors told him that ideas “stopped the novel in its tracks,” and he agreed. more

April 13, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

I think of National Poetry Month as a celebration not only of poems on the printed page but of poetry in the largest sense, as a metaphor encompassing everything from a stunning sunset to the power of the human spirit mounted against a humanitarian crisis like the one consuming Ukraine. As it happens, Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), one of the foremost poets of the human spirit, was born an easy drive from the razed port city of Mariupol, where hundreds of men, women, and children perished during the bombing of the theater in which his plays were regularly performed.

Chekhov the Ventriloquist

A Washington Post story on the bombing of the Drama Theater of Mariupol imagines Chekhov weeping at the spectacle of such “savagery perpetuated in Russia’s name.” Uncle Vanya might weep but surely not Chekhov. I prefer to imagine him as an enlightened ventriloquist speaking furious, hard, enduringly relevant truths through characters like Dr. Astroff in Uncle Vanya. His speech in the first act could almost be shaped to fit the occasion, as if he were bravely tending to the survivors: “Such dirt there was, and smoke! Unspeakable! I slaved among those people all day, not a crumb passed my lips, but when I got home there was still no rest for me; a switchman was carried in from the railroad; I laid him on the operating table and he died in my arms under chloroform, and then my feelings that should have been deadened awoke again, my conscience tortured me as if I had killed the man. I sat down and closed my eyes … and thought: will our descendants two hundred years from now … remember to give us a kind word? No, they will forget.” more

April 6, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

My point of entry to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Oscar-winning picture Drive My Car was through the title, which his film shares with the opening track on Rubber Soul and the story by Haruki Murakami that opens his 2017 collection, Men Without Women. The Beatles connection continues in the next story, which begins and ends with a character who composes and sings deranged lyrics to “Yesterday.” The second track on Rubber Soul gave Murakami the title for his 1987 novel, Norwegian Wood, a book I look forward to reading, along with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which Patti Smith celebrates in her memoir M-Train.

The Cities Game

Finding Murakami in the environs of Hamaguchi was like discovering a thriving metropolis enroute to another, smaller, newer city. Now I’m heading down the road to a sprawling composite of Hamburg, Berlin, and Paris, Texas named Wim Wenders, which I first visited in his film The American Friend, released in 1979, the same year Murakami published his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. Somewhere in the same enormous state (think of Texas, Ohio and New Jersey all in one), you’ll find Jim Jarmusch Junction, mapped out somewhere between Hoboken, Memphis, and Paterson. more

March 30, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

It’s like inviting the audience to follow you, as though you’re walking through the back alleys of a city. You take unpredictable left and right turns and try and shake them off. Then you let them catch back up with you again.”

Those are Marlon Brando’s thoughts about acting, at least according to Jared Harris, who I recently followed through the radioactive back alleys of the HBO award-winning miniseries Chernobyl (2019), where Harris gives a Chekhovian performance as the steadfast, truth-seeking, truth-telling scientist Valery Legasov. I mention Chekhov because I think the author of Uncle Vanya would have admired the way Harris’s truth-to-power Legasov soldiers on against odds, a haggard, woebegone hero who stays the course all the way to an end of his own making. After sharing Brando’s view of acting with the New York Times, Harris admits that he, too, likes to throw the audience “off the track, all the time.”

At the Oscars

Thinking the back-alley theory of acting might be worth exploring in the aftermath of Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, I tried it out on Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as the mean, misogynistic rancher Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, for which Campion won the Best Director Oscar and Cumberbatch a Best Actor nomination. The back alley analogy made sense thanks to the way Cumberbatch’s unpredictability keeps shaking you off the track, so that when you finally arrive at his character’s shockingly sudden end, you’re left wondering where you were when whatever happened happened. more

March 23, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Once upon a time I was a regular gambler in the Bryn Mawr Book Sale casino. That was before Wellesley had a stake in the annual event at which book dealers come to play and pay, but not to deal.

In those days early birds would start lining up at the crack of dawn, primed for a shot at the most desirable items as soon as the doors opened. It’s all about getting there first when you know a volume marked $10 might be worth $100 to $500 or beyond. Or so it seemed until various digital devices took most of the guesswork out of the game. By that time I’d moved on, covering the sales as a member of the press, which allowed me a view of the virgin stock before it was ravaged by invading hordes of collectors and book hawks.

Imagining the Castle

Every now and then I miss the adrenaline rush of those charged early morning waits outside the entrance, caught up in the mystique of the book quest, a wayfarer at the gate of a vast imaginary encampment divided into covered markets of literature, art, history, science, mystery, fantasy, and volumes rare, old, and unusual.

At this moment in my reading life, the image of the wayfarer at the gate is derived from the opening chapter of Franz Kafka’s The Castle, where K., the Land Surveyor, first sees the Castle hill “veiled in mist and darkness.” A clearer view shows “a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two stories; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town.” As K. moves closer, “thinking of nothing else at all,” he’s “disappointed in the Castle,” which is, “after all, only a wretched-looking town, a huddle of village houses.”

Recalling images of his far-off home town, K. has an uneasy fascination with the Castle tower, which is “pierced by small windows that glittered in the sun — with a somewhat maniacal glitter — and topped by what looked like an attic, with battlements that were irregular, broken, fumbling, as if designed by the trembling or careless hand of a child, clearly outlined against the blue. It was as if a melancholy-mad tenant who ought to have been kept locked in the topmost chamber of his house had burst through the roof and lifted himself up to the gaze of the world.”

I penciled three exclamation points in the margin next to that passage in my copy of the novel. Rereading it, I think what impressed me was how “maniacal glitter” mocks the mystique of the quest, the wildness of the writing jumping out at you after a relatively restrained approach.  more

March 16, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

The sickness that comes like a thief in the night
The courage to rage ’gainst the dying of the light

—Keith Reid, from “Missing Persons”

On February 19, less than a year after the surprise appearance of Procol Harum’s EP “Missing Persons (Alive Forever)” and “War Is Not Healthy,” the group’s founding member, singer, composer, and pianist Gary Brooker died.

In his prime, Brooker’s voice was a life force of joyous gusto and soulful, free spirited passion. Fifty-five years this side of “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” one of the most spectacular instant-classic debut singles in rock history, the singer’s voice is closer to the “grainy, weathered-sounding” one described in the New York Times obituary, which gives a hint of Brooker’s genius, citing “a piano style steeped in gospel, classical music, blues and the British music hall,” and “songs that mixed pomp and whimsy, orchestral grandeur and rock drive.”

With Ukraine under attack and the pandemic still at large, Procol Harum’s characteristically enigmatic lyricist Keith Reid goes straight to the heart of the time in “Missing Persons” (“The sickness that comes like a thief in the night”) and again in lines like “War is not healthy for adults and children / It scars and it maims … It’s money in the pockets of the armament makers / It’s fame and it’s glory for the generals and dictators.”  more

March 9, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Longtime local resident, poet, novelist, Princeton professor emeritus, and renowned translator Edmund Keeley died at 94 on February 23, 2022, the day before the invasion of Ukraine, an event he’d surely have been moved to write about. In his last three poems, there are actually passages that speak to and underscore the images of uprooted lives that have dominated the news media ever since.

In “Pelion,” when Keeley imagines “the mystery ahead” and “the feeling that you’ll never know / What it is when its time has come,” the words about his own mortality can also be read into the plight of the Ukrainians, refugees of all ages peering into the unknown, especially the faces of children gazing out from train windows streaked with dirty rain, eyes lost in fear and wonder, like the brother and sister staring on either side of a Teddy bear with a plaid scarf around its neck.

One old man inside a westbound train, exhausted, deep in thought, brings to mind the passage in which Keeley recalls his own “greener days / When the sun slanted across the cobblestones,” to “clear the way” for a remembered “climb on Pelion,” and for thoughts echoed in the closing lines, “To feel that knowing how it ends / Would be nothing to remembering what it was.” more

March 2, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Through the closed door I can hear the muffled urgency of voices coming from the TV in the next room, where my wife is watching coverage of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. I’m reminded of “The Hearth,” a poem by C.K. Williams (1936-2015) that I first read two weeks before the invasion of Iraq and a year before I got to know the poet, whose grandparents came to America from Lvov (Lviv) and Kiev (Kyiv), both now major cities in Ukraine.

Contrary to the domestic tranquility usually associated with “hearth and home,” the fire Williams pokes at is “recalcitrant” and he’s “alone after the news on a bitter evening in the country,” troubled by thoughts of war and the “more than fear” he feels for his children and grandchildren. The fire “barely keeps the room warm,” and at the end, when he writes, “I stoke it again and crouch closer,” you’re in the chilly room with him, holding your hands toward the hearth.

“Dreaming About It”

As I imagine the impact Putin’s invasion would have on a poet with Ukrainian roots, I recall the extraordinary German film, The Lives of Others, a painfully resonant title now that the lives of Ukrainians have been uprooted and plunged into chaos.

Fifteen years ago this week my wife and I were at a packed Garden Theatre watching Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s Academy Award-winning picture, which is haunted and illuminated by Ulrich Mühe’s portrayal of a captain in the Stasi, the East German secret police.  more

February 23, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“K. was haunted by the feeling that he was losing himself or wandering  into a strange country …”

—Franz Kafka (1883-1924), from The Castle

Although I didn’t finish Kafka’s unfinished novel The Castle in time to meet the deadline for this article, I wasn’t about to rush through a long-delayed return visit to this “strange country.” Like Franz Schubert’s Unfinished, Franz Kafka’s Unfinished delivers the equivalent of a full symphony. For a start there’s the rollicking scherzo of the third chapter, where K., the unwanted Land Surveyor, feels that he “might die of strangeness” as he rolls around “for hours” on the floor of the Herrenhof with a barmaid named Frieda while “their hearts beat as one,” and you feel that, like K., you’ve strayed into a country “whose enchantment was such that one could only go on and on and lose oneself ….”

For company on the journey, I’ve been reading Martin Greenberg’s translation of Diaries 1914-1923, along with Kafka’s letters from the period when he was at work on a novel he had reason to believe would be his magnum opus. I’ve also been consulting Kafka: The Years of Insight, the third and final volume of Reiner Stach’s definitive biography, published in 2013 by Princeton University Press and insightfully translated by Princeton resident Shelley Frisch.

Breaking the News

Kafka began writing The Castle in or around January 1922, and gave it up in late August, breaking the news to his friend and executor Max Brod on September 11 of that year. As Stach phrases it, Brod “replied merrily that he could only regard Kafka’s message as ‘fabricated sensationalism’ “ and advised him “to write more about the matter at hand, ‘that is, about continuing on with work.’ “

Stach explains what Kafka was up against, having developed “a whole network of social relationships,” introducing “more and more characters” who all “have their own stories; they forge alliances and foster hostilities, despise or love one another,” and it was up to Kafka “to follow them through to the end and to tie them together plausibly.”  more

February 16, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Love that is singing: love’s old sweet song.”

—James Joyce, from Ulysses

When Lata Mangeshkar died in Mumbai at 92 a little over a week ago, some obits referred to her as a “playback singer.” The headline in The New York Times came closer to the truth with “Bollywood’s Most Beloved Voice.” She’s often been called “the Nightingale of India,” which suggests the wonder of Lata only if you think of the nightingale in Keats’s Ode “pouring forth thy soul abroad in such an ecstasy!” Lata pours her spirit into kohl-eyed, sari-clad, ankle-braceleted barefoot females coyly, kinkily, saucily dancing or emoting to the tune of spectacularly frenzied orchestras of violins, sitars, and electric guitars creating symphonic extravaganzas of joy and pain.

Singing Love

In the aftermath of Valentine’s Day I’ve been listening to Lata on an album from 1957, Modern Motion Picture Music of India, a 12-inch “High Fidelity” Capitol LP “recorded in Calcutta.” The songs are from two films, Nagin, “a romantic story in the classic Romeo and Juliet tradition” about two young lovers “who belong to rival, hostile tribes of snake charmers.” The other film tells the story of the title character, Anarkali, “an attractive dancing girl” who “falls in love with the son and heir of the Emperor Akbar, a romance that began in the wilderness, flourished briefly, and eventually ended with the death of the young beauty.”

You get a sense of the high-flown, love-driven lyric content of the music from samples in the liner notes. In the first song from Nagin, “the girl sings emotionally, suffering from a separation and calling her lover. My world is hollow without you … life has become an ocean of sorrow.” Another song “ponders why providence should give love, then snatch it away.” In a “happy and rhythmic song,” the girl sings, “Let me go, my beloved. I will meet you again but I dare not stay any longer or the gossips will taint my good reputation.” In the last song, the lovers are together again as the girl sings, “I come to you breaking all my bonds and all my dear ties. What I have lost I feel not, for I’ve found a new world of love that fills my life with a thrill of joy and ecstasy.”  more

February 9, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Would you let Shakespeare and Company have the honor of bringing out your Ulysses?

—Sylvia Beach (1887-1962) to James Joyce (1882-1941)

The dates on James Joyce’s grave are 1882-1941, not 1887-1941 as they appeared in last week’s book review. By the time I noticed the error, it was too late to do anything but correct it on the website. After searching an extensive online list of people born in 1887 just now, I found Sylvia Beach, who not only published Ulysses but is buried in the Presbyterian cemetery in Princeton a short distance from Sylvia Beach Way, which runs behind the public library. Although this explanation for the accidental transmigration of birth years makes a kind of incestuous Joycean sense, I wrote most of the column before I figured it out, so I’m staying with the idea that in the world of Ulysses, mystery is a theme, a poem, and a fact of life, the more mysterious the better. Hence the return of Joyce’s “man in the macintosh.”

Hearing Joyce

Last Wednesday, on Joyce’s 140th birthday, still smarting from the 1887 mishap, I slid a CD into the car stereo and listened to Joyce reading from the “Anna Livia Plurabelle” chapter of Finnegan’s Wake. Five times I heard the nine-minute recital, five Anna Livias for each year mistakenly added to Joyce’s birth date. I drove to the lake, around town, to Kingston, and played the last two Hail Anna Livias during the longer drive to and from Hillsborough, all the while with Joyce’s melodious voice softly, swiftly singing the song of the rivers. more

February 2, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Documenting the birth of Ulysses in James Joyce (1959), Richard Ellman suggests that the day of publication “was becoming, in Joyce’s superstitious mind, talismanic.” If anything, there was more of the manic than talismanic in Joyce’s insistence that his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, absolutely had to coincide with the birth of his creation. As the day approached, he fired off letters and telegrams and made frantic phone calls to Sylvia Beach, his publisher (formerly of Library Place in Princeton), and to Maurice Darantière, the printer, who was based some 300 kilometers from Paris in Dijon.

On February 1, Darantière said that the package would “surely arrive by noon of the next day.” Pressed by Joyce, who claimed to be in “a state of energetic prostration,” Miss Beach told the printer that this method “was too uncertain,” and so Darantière made heroic haste, personally bringing the precious package to the conductor on the Dijon-Paris express, who delivered it into the midwife’s hands early on the talismanic morning, whereupon she rushed the newborn by cab to its proud parent.

The Man in the Macintosh

Several decades after Joyce’s death on January 13, 1941, I spent the better part of a rainy summer afternoon in Zurich searching for his grave. Ellman’s transformative biography had only just been published and nobody knew where he was buried. One person said, “You mean the English writer?” Finally, a girl in a bookshop told me to take the tram to Fluntern Kirche and look for the zoo. I found the graveyard but couldn’t find the grave. I was drenched and about to give up when a man in a macintosh appeared out of the dense mist. Complaining in heavily accented English about the “foul weather,” he showed me the way to number 1449 and vanished, leaving me to stare at a flat black tombstone, engraved James Joyce, 1882-1941. That was it. No flowers (they’d have been drowned), no sign of wife Nora and son Giorgio, who in time would be buried nearby. For now, the father of Ulysses was on his own.  more

January 26, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

They know that Hamlet and Lear are gay;
Gaiety transfiguring all that dread.
All men have aimed at, found and lost;
Black out; Heaven blazing into the head …

—W.B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Imagine writing a novel about the survivors of a plague that kills 99.9 percent of the world’s population. Let’s say things are going well, the end’s almost in sight when a real-life pandemic begins producing an alarmingly high death toll. As the numbers climb into the millions, you’re distracted by the ongoing event, the way it may conflict with or affect your concept, not to mention your own well-being, plus the pressure from a publisher looking to rush a sure bestseller into print.

Now imagine playing the starring role in a television series based on a novel about the survivors of a plague that kills 99.9 percent of the world’s population. You’re just beginning to get to know your character when the real-life pandemic of 2020 halts production, puts you in lockdown isolation for months, after which filming resumes in another, supposedly safer country, where you remain until production wraps in early 2021. And then, even as you’re doing pre-release interviews, new variants like Delta and Omicron are making you wonder if the world might be gravitating toward a virus no less unthinkable, and oh, here’s a new film, a silly but scary dystopian satire called Don’t Look Up coming along just in time to put a funhouse focus on life on earth as the environmental doomsday clock keeps moving toward high noon.

The novelist Emily St. John Mandel avoided the first what-if scenario by finishing her book Station Eleven in 2014. The actress Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire) had to deal with, live through, and somehow successfully transcend the real-life challenges of the second scenario. more

January 19, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.”

—Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

“With knowledge you can grasp tight a belief: that you  can be better, that the world can be better. With that, you can claim hope.”

—Sidney Poitier (1927-2022)

Accompanying NPR’s complete transcript of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech is a photograph showing King inside the Lincoln Memorial with a dozen unidentified men that the caption describes as “civil rights leaders.” The group posed at the base of the statue present a mélange of facial expressions frozen in the moment, some appropriately somber and pensive, others abstracted, edgy, uncomfortable. The most relaxed person in the picture would seem to be King himself. The sternest, strangest expression, however, is Abraham Lincoln’s. Probably I’m reading the troubles of the present day into that gaze, but in King’s birthday week, January 2022, it’s as if Lincoln were staring past the “dream” into the “urgency of the moment.”

Poitier and King

Martin Luther King Jr. was 34 in the photograph taken at the memorial on August 28, 1963. At around the same age, Sidney Poitier was coming into his own as an actor. I’ve been reading his book, The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography (HarperSanFrancisco 2000) and watching film clips on the time machine jukebox of YouTube. I’d forgotten the power of his presence, his extraordinary intensity. Hauled into the office of the small town sheriff played by Rod Steiger in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night, he commands the scene simply by standing there staring while Steiger outdoes himself performing a Method actor bigot. The Black Philadelphia homicide cop Virgil Tibbs regards this performative display as if Steiger were auditioning for a part in Poitier’s film. Made four years after the “I Have a Dream” speech, Heat of the Night won the Best Picture Oscar at the 1968 Academy Awards, with Steiger winning the award for Best Actor (Poitier had won the Best Actor Oscar in 1963 for Lilies of the Field). The awards ceremony had to be moved to April 10, 1968 from April 8, the day King was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.  more

January 12, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

O what an account I could give you of the Bay of Naples if I could once more feel myself a Citizen of this world — I feel a spirit in my Brain would lay it forth pleasantly.”

—John Keats, from one of his last letters

In virtually every episode of Gomorrah, the Italian series about organized crime in Naples, currently streaming on HBO Max, there are glimpses of the setting that Keats, dying at 25, longed to put into words.

I found some words that accord with my general impression of Gomorrah — “I dream of a darkness darker than black” — in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine (“The Capitol Police and the Scars of Jan. 6”). The quote comes from the journal of an officer who “felt himself  spiraling downward in the days following the attack.”

Curious but Wary

For years my wife and I had been curious about but wary of Gomorrah, which debuted on Sundance in 2014. So we kept our distance, under a self-imposed form of protective custody. And now we’re paying HBO Max to be sucked into the vortex of a kill-or-be-killed, no-light-at-the-end-of-the tunnel, “darker-than-black” viewing experience.

We finished Season 2 on January 6. The images replayed on the first anniversary of the attack on the Capitol made it clear that no amount of simulated murder and mayhem, however brilliantly shot and graphically executed, could compare with the shocking spectacle of a real-life insurrection, and for all the staged shootings, beatings, throat-slashings and other innumerable acts of violence in Gomorrah nothing could match the glaring intensity of the moment a young cop is crushed by the roaring, pounding mob, pinned against a door frame, screaming in pain, crying out in agony. The real thing is very hard to watch. You have to look away even now, when you know the officer in question survived.  more

January 5, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

According to Merriam-Webster, the “full definition” of anomaly is “something different, abnormal, peculiar, or not easily classified.” My first column of 2022 brings together Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, a 72-page novella published in 1877, with Hervé Le Tellier’s The Anomaly, a 389-page novel published last year. By definition, then, Flight 22, Paris to Princeton, will be an anomaly about an anomaly, fueled by the fact that the only thing these two enterprises appear to have in common is that both were translated from the French and are landing on the same page at the same time.

No Comparison

Le Tellier’s novel begins, “It’s not the killing, that’s not the thing.” The speaker is a passenger on Air France Flight 006, a hired assassin “who builds his life on other people’s deaths.”

Flaubert’s novella begins, “Madame Aubain’s servant Félicité was the envy of the ladies of Pont-l’Évêque for half a century.”

When I first read that sentence, I was a college sophomore on the rebound from Madame Bovary. So I put the book aside, figuring that the life of a servant in the provinces could not compare with the story of a star-crossed adulteress. 145 years from takeoff, A Simple Heart has arrived. The question now is how can it compare with a literary mystery timed for the misinformational, confrontational turbulence of the current Omicron moment, on the eve of the first anniversary of the January 6 assault on democracy? more

December 29, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Flaubert

The news isn’t just breaking, it’s running wild.” So began my June 3, 2020 column on Allen Ginsberg’s birthday. That was then. The belief that literature, inspired acting, poetry, and music is always timely, always worthy of interest, has been the motive force driving these pieces week after week, year after year. When terrorists attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January 2015, I brought in Victor Hugo, Baudelaire, and Daumier; when they shot up the Bataclan that November, I connected by way of Henry Miller, Rimbaud, and the Velvet Underground. Four years later when Notre Dame was burning, I brought Balzac, Swinburne, Hugo, and the Mueller Report on board.

Three Giants at 200

I’m setting the last column of 2021 in Paris because three bicentenary literary giants — Feodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881), Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), and Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) — were there at roughly the same time, in summer-fall 1862. Since there’s no evidence I can find that the author of Crime and Punishment got together with the author of The Flowers of Evil, or with the author of Madame Bovary, I’m bringing them together with the help of quotations, observations, and occasional imaginary conversations, thanks in part to The Arcades Project (Harvard 2002), the compendium Walter Benjamin mined from the printed depths of 19th-century Paris. The 1,070-page volume is described in the translators’ foreword as the “blue-print for an unimaginably massive and labyrinthine architecture, a dream city, in effect.” more

December 22, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

“Ah, Shakespeare, Shakespeare! … The great maestro of the human heart!”

—Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)

Verdi is so quoted in Saturday’s New York Times under the banner headline “’Hail, Shakespeare’ Resonates Across Italy,” for an article on the opera house opening nights of Macbeth, Falstaff, Othello, and Julius Caesar in Milan, Florence, Naples, and Rome.

Above the headline is a lurid panoramic backdrop from David Livermore’s production of Verdi’s Macbeth at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Shown in the foreground, a scattered crowd of people in modern dress appear to be waiting for something to happen, like a chorus of citizens anticipating a cue, seemingly unaware of the fantastical urban inferno looming behind them. It’s as if the set designer is trying to visually evoke Harold Bloom’s vision of Macbeth’s “power of contamination.” In the opening chapter of his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom refers to Shakespeare’s “pervasive presence in the most unlikely contexts: here, there, and everywhere at once. He is a system of northern lights, an aurora borealis visible where most of us will never go. Libraries and playhouses (and cinemas) cannot contain him; he has become a spirit or ‘spell of light,’ almost too vast to comprehend.”

Comic Relief

Shakespeare shows up again in Sunday’s Arts and Leisure section in the form of an immense, darkly foreboding two-page ad for The Tragedy of Macbeth, “written for the screen and directed by Joel Coen.” Looking to keep things cheerful with Christmas only three days away, I went right to the knocking at the gate in Act Two and the Porter’s moment in the spotlight, which Bloom notes as “the first and only comedy allowed in this drama.” Here Shakespeare introduces “a healing touch of nature where Macbeth has intimidated us with the preternatural, and with the Macbeths’ mutual phantasmagoria of murder and power.”  more

December 15, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I was fortunate enough to meet him and chat about songwriting.”

— Paul McCartney

They changed my life.” That was my response to an email from a friend asking: “So the Beatles trump Sondheim?” She was referring to my reviews of Get Back, the book and the film, written at a time when the cultural media was dominated by tributes and remembrances in the aftermath of the composer’s death. I explained that Sondheim’s work was virtually unknown to me, while I’d been living in the music of the Beatles since the mid-1960s. But “changed my life” was too easy to say, too facile, and my friend was uneasy using “trump” (“can we still use that word?”), a verb I’ve been avoiding for the past five years.

Word choice is on my mind at the moment because I’m reading Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions (Scarecrow Press 2005), a series of his conversations with Library of Congress music specialist Mark Eden Horowitz. And now that I think of it, the theatre, which had also been “virtually unknown” to me when Sondheim was making his name there, had as much to do with changing my life as the Fab Four. It happened during Ray Bolger’s captivating song and dance sing-along show-stopper, “Once in Love With Amy,” at the St. James Theatre. The show was Where’s Charlie?, and I’d just turned 10. A few years later, I saw Gertrude Lawrence and Yul Brynner in The King and I and had the good fortune to be in the house when Shirley MacLaine made her the-star-broke-a-leg debut at a matinee of The Pajama Game.

More to the point, after seeing the original Broadway production of West Side Story, I lived in the cast album, singing along with and without it for years. I had no idea at the time that the lyrics playing on the soundtrack of my life — “Somewhere,” “Maria,” “Tonight,” “America,” and the others — had been written by someone named Stephen Sondheim. Yet it seems that the lines I knew by heart are the ones he said he’s “embarrassed by” in a February 2020 interview on 60 Minutes. As an example, he cites the duet “Tonight.” When Tony sings, “Today the world was just an address, a place for me to live in,” Sondheim thinks it sounds like this “street kid” has been “reading too much.” He then goes on to admit “that’s not true for a lot of people who find it a very good line and enjoy it.” But “if I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t write that line …. I know better now.”

Although the musicological terminology in Sondheim’s conversations with Horowitz can be hard to follow, it’s offset by the composer’s personable, down to earth way of expressing himself: “When I feel I’m getting stale,” he says, “I go into sharp keys because they’re so foreign and scary.” Asked about the small red arrows on a manuscript, he explains that it signifies “what I like … after I’ve written down as many ideas as I can, and I feel as though I’m ready to give birth, I’ll go back over it and decide what it is I really want to remember and try to preserve.” more

December 8, 2021

The Beatles’ rooftop concert in London, 1969. (Wikipedia)

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is an energy field, a bunch of molecules. And these particular molecules formed to make these four guys, who then formed this band called the Beatles and did all that work. I have to think there was something metaphysical. Something alchemic. Something that must be thought of as magic — with a k.”

—Paul McCartney, from a 2007 interview

I’ve just “come down” from Get Back, the film — I say “come down” because I was up on the Apple rooftop four floors above Savile Row for the grand finale with the particular molecules formed to make John, Paul, George, and Ringo.

Up on the roof I could almost feel the January chill along with a mildly exhilarating touch of vertigo as I gazed out over the chimneys and steeples of London’s West End. Down in the cozy confines of the basement studio, it was all I could do to keep from reaching through the fourth wall to pick up the 55-year-old McVittie’s chocolate biscuit on Ringo’s plate, or maybe it was George’s, so dense was the molecular haze, what with all the cigarette smoke. Six-plus hours immersed in the energy field of the Beatles making music and my attention rarely wavered; it was that compelling. My wife watched the entire epic with me, and though she yawned at times, and came near dozing, she enjoyed highlights like Paul and John’s zitheresque take on “The Third Man Theme,” performed for the benefit of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, said to be Orson Welles’s natural son. more

December 1, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

“Though I don’t pretend to understand what makes these four rather odd-looking boys so fascinating to so many scores of millions of people, I admit that I feel a certain mindless joy stealing over me as they caper about uttering sounds.”

So says Brendan Gill in his review of A Hard Day’s Night in the August 22, 1964 New Yorker. As an example of mindless joy, he mentions “a lady of indubitable intelligence” who told him that the Beatles “make her happy in the very same way that butterflies do; she wouldn’t be surprised if, in a previous incarnation, the Beatles had been butterflies.” A more mindfully memorable response came from the Village Voice’s Andrew Sarris, who dubbed A Hard Day’s Night “the Citizen Kane of juke box musicals.”

Another Beatles Landmark

Fifty-seven years later here they are again alive and well in The Beatles Get Back, which could be called the Citizen Kane of rock documentaries. Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson has carved a landmark out of 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio, much of it transcriptions of conversations among the Beatles during the making of the album that would be released more than a year later as Let It Be. While I have yet to see Jackson’s three-act epic, I’ve been enjoying the book (Callaway Arts & Entertainment $60). It’s a massive volume, 250-plus pages brimming with digitally scanned and restored frames from the original footage, along with photography by Linda McCartney and Ethan A. Russell. By far the book’s most fascinating feature is the in-the-moment sensation of “being there.” Reviewing Get Back in Variety, Chris Willman was impressed by how much of the dialogue “reads like it could be adaptable into an off-Broadway play, full of dark comedy and rich insight about what can and can’t emerge out of ego and compromise among longtime partners approaching a crossroads.”  more