July 21, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Ernest Hemingway began The Sun Also Rises (1926) on his 26th birthday, July 21, 1925. “Everybody my age had written a novel,” he told the Paris Review’s George Plimpton, “and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph.” He finished the first draft exactly six weeks later in Paris.

I came back to Hemingway’s “Lost Generation” novel by way of John McPhee’s April 19, 2021 piece in the New Yorker (“Tabula Rasa: Volume Two”). Referring to a passage in which the protagonist Jake Barnes and his pal Bill Gorton are walking “across a meadow and through rising woods and across high open fields and down to a stream,” McPhee, who turned 90 on March 8, observes how “each successive sentence, in stairstep form, contains something of its predecessor and something new — repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing, like fracture zones on the bed of the ocean. It is not unaffective. It is lyrical.” Years later when he was teaching his Princeton course in creative non-fiction, McPhee assigned the passage to writing students, “asking if they could see a way to shorten it without damaging the repetition.”

Don’t Touch a Word

Reading the opening chapters of The Sun Also Rises for the first time in decades, I was surprised to find evidence of the “elephantine facetiousness” Scott Fitzgerald pointed out in the ten-page-long handwritten letter he sent to Hemingway in the spring of 1926. I was 16 when I first read the book, although “read” isn’t the word for it. I drank it down like an underage drinker on a binge.

Three years later I opened A Farewell to Arms (1929) to one of the most celebrated examples of Hemingway’s “repeating, advancing, repeating, advancing” don’t- touch-a-word-of-it prose topography:  more

July 14, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It all comes down to the map shown on this page. As soon as I saw it, I was hooked. I’d say it was love at first sight, no, that’s too easy, but what else can you call it when your first view of a book is an inviting gateway that rouses something deep inside you, something truly special, something at the heart of who you are and how you see the world? All the better when the book is about a perilous journey undertaken by the one figure in American history who loomed above the miasma of fact sheets and data-to-be-memorized.

My first encounter with the Liberty Bell, at 12, was not particularly memorable. A few days later when my father took me to Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., I was moved, fascinated, and remain haunted to this day by the photographs of the gallows and the hooded bodies of the four conspirators executed on July 7, 1865. As you read Ted Widmer’s Lincoln on the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020), the real-life equivalent of Chekhov’s metaphorical gun is always waiting in the wings, the gun you know will be fired in the last act by an actor who played the crookback king in Shakespeare’s Richard III, one of the numerous plays Lincoln could quote by heart.

Thanks to the map, I was drawn into Widmer’s book before I read a word. There’s a hint of a board game quest in the way the colorful lay-out puts Lincoln’s Odyssey in play, from Springfield to the goal of Washington and inauguration, a route twisted in tangents because of assassination conspiracies brewing in Baltimore, thus Poe’s raven perched on the letter B.

And thanks to my search for an online image of the map, I landed on the April 2020 CUNY Book Beat website and a quote by Ted Widmer that communicates an enthusiasm that can be felt throughout the narrative: “It’s the story of thirteen days in the life of Lincoln. He’s been elected president, the South is seceding, Washington is falling apart and somehow out of all of this chaos he’s got to get on a train, go two thousand miles, meet millions of Americans and try to avoid an assassination attempt. . . .  It’s not just to save the North, it’s to save the entire country, the United States of America, the most successful democracy on earth . . . It felt to me like something out of Greek mythology or any of the old epics from a lot of different civilizations where someone has to fight against terrible odds, almost as if the gods are against him to get to his destination to fulfill his quest. It felt bigger than a story out of American history to me.” more

July 7, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Unquestionably, Western man though he be, and Kentuckian by birth, President Lincoln is the essential representative of all Yankees, and the veritable specimen, physically, of what the world seems determined to regard as our characteristic qualities.

—Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864)

I finished Ted Widmer’s Lincoln On the Verge: Thirteen Days to Washington (Simon & Schuster paperback 2020) on the verge of America’s 245th Independence Day and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 217th birthday.

I was enroute to an unqualified appreciation of Widmer’s book when he brought Nathaniel Hawthorne on board his roundabout journey to Lincoln’s inauguration (1,904 miles, 18 different railway lines, at least 100 speeches, and thousands of handshakes). Hawthorne enters the narrative by way of three quotations in the first 105 pages. Discussing the South’s refusal to accept the reality of Lincoln’s election — for “many Southerners ‘Lincoln was not only unlikable, he was unthinkable.’ ” — Widmer introduces the author of The Scarlet Letter (1850) as “a specialist in fantasy” whose “creative powers simply shut down when he tried to imagine a Lincoln presidency.” Reading that comment with the train-in-motion metaphor in mind was like hitting a rough stretch of poorly maintained track — a giant of American literature was being cast as a genre writer, a mere “specialist.” The rough stretch continued with the thirdhand patchwork paraphrase from Carl Sandburg in James R. Mellon’s The Face of Lincoln (1980): “It was the‘strangest’ thing, Hawthorne wrote, and a true measure of the ‘jumble’ of the times, that Lincoln, ‘out of so many millions,’ had prevailed. He was ‘unlooked for,’ ‘unselected by any intelligible process,’ and ‘unknown’ even to ‘those who chose him.’ How could such a nonentity [Widmer’s term] have found a way to ‘fling his lank personality into the chair of state?’ ” While I didn’t doubt that Hawthorne would have been astonished by Lincoln’s election, I found it hard to believe that his “creative powers” could be shut down by a “nonentity.”

Hawthorne’s next appearance came with a turn of the page to a section headed “Secessia,” after a term he would eventually apply to the Confederate States — in Widmer’s words, “as good a name as any for a place that often seemed to be a state of mind as much as a working government.” At this point it’s worth mentioning that Widmer’s stated source was Hawthorne’s long, controversial article in the July 1862 Atlantic, “Chiefly About War Matters,” which includes an in-person view of Lincoln so irreverent (“the homeliest man I ever saw, yet by no means repulsive or disagreeable”) that the article was published anonymously, “By a Peaceable Man,” and even then partially censored by the editors.  more

June 30, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Friday Night Lights is that it is painfully, breathtakingly realistic and yet also exists as some sort of platonic ideal of what human beings can be ….

  —Will Leitch, introducing A Friday Night Lights Companion

When Peter Berg pitched Friday Night Lights to NBC executives in 2006, he accentuated the negative: “I want to build up this all-American quarterback, this hero. This wonderful, beautiful kid with his entire future ahead of him …. And he’s going to break his neck in the first game. We’re going to create this iconic American hero, and we’re going to demolish him.”

Berg is quoted in “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Couldn’t Lose” (a variation on the Dillon, Texas Panthers’ pregame mantra “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose”), an oral history compiled by Robert Mays on grantland.com and posted July 28, 2011. Mays describes the series as the “story of a high school football coach from Dillon, whose improbable victories mirrored those of the critically beloved — but disastrously rated — show itself. In an era when sports television was supposedly at its nadir, when elite storytelling was supposedly only the work of prestige outlets like HBO and AMC, Friday Night Lights (FNL) emerged as the quintessential show about American spirit and uplift at a time when the moral and economic bedrock of our Country seemed most in doubt.”

That was “our Country” a decade ago.  more

June 23, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

There’s been a heap of Juneteenths before this one and I tell you there’ll be a heap more before we’re truly free!

—from Juneteenth

Unable to find a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Juneteenth (Modern Library 1999) on short notice, I’ve been reading an excerpt reprinted in Living with Music: Ralph Ellison’s Jazz Writings (Modern Library 2001), edited by Robert O’Meally. According to O’Meally’s note, the piece in question (“Keep to the Rhythm”) was first published in 1969 as “Juneteenth,” a section from “Ellison’s forthcoming novel.” Given the fact that the novel didn’t actually “come forth” until 1999, five years after the author’s death and 47 years after the publication of Invisible Man, one of the great 20th century American novels, this has to be among the most famously delayed follow-ups in American literature, along with the still-unpublished Glass family saga J.D. Salinger was working on for the last 40 years of his life.

Promised and Delayed

Last week Juneteenth was declared a federal holiday, a long-time-coming recognition of the occasion already celebrated as Jubilee Day or Black Independence Day two and a half years before the Texas liberation of June 19, 1865. As poet Kevin Young points out in a guest essay (“Our Freedom Is America’s Freedom”) in Sunday’s New York Times, Juneteenth and other emancipation holidays commemorate “both the promise of freedom and its delay.” In Young’s words, “The lesson of Juneteenth is both of celebration and expectation, of freedom deferred but still sought and of the freedoms to come.”

Young’s piece begins by citing the music of Frankie Beverly and Maze as “one of the things Black people have enjoyed that white folks don’t know about.” Follow the Times’ YouTube link and you find that the group’s song “Before I Let Go” has had 36,926,680 views, compared to 44,104 views of 52-year-old Ralph Ellison (1913-1994) in a 1966 documentary reading the Juneteenth sermon from his work in progress. more

June 16, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Begin the day at a simple gravestone in the Princeton cemetery, SYLVIA BEACH 1887-1962. From there it’s only a stone’s throw to Sylvia Beach Way, the lane that runs behind the Sands library building, one of Princeton’s most popular dropping-off, picking-up spots. Across town is Library Place, where Sylvia and her family lived before she moved to Paris and opened Shakespeare and Company in 1920; in her eponymous memoir, she wonders if the name of the street influenced her choice of a career in the book business. Her father Sylvester Beach (Princeton Class of 1876) was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, where, according to Sylvia’s friend Annis Stockton, the horses of Washington’s staff had once munched their oats in the pews, a tidbit the author of Ulysses would have appreciated.

A Funny Little Publisher

When James Joyce despaired of ever finding a place for Ulysses, which had been preemptively banned in the English-speaking countries, Sylvia Beach asked him if he would let Shakespeare and Company “have the honor” of bringing his book out. He accepted the offer “immediately and joyfully.” Describing the moment, Beach admits thinking it “rash of him to entrust his great Ulysses to such a funny little publisher.” As Joyce’s wish was to have the first copy off the press on his 40th birthday, February 2, 1922, she promised to make that happen. When the printer, who was located 300-plus kilometers from Paris, said that it couldn’t be done, she insisted otherwise. Came the day, she received a telegram telling her to meet the 7 a.m. express from Dijon, which she did, her heart “going like the locomotive” as the train “came slowly to a standstill and I saw the conductor getting off, holding a parcel and looking around for someone – me.” Soon she was ringing the doorbell at the Joyces’ and handing the author “Copy No. 1 of Ulysses.” more

June 9, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

…. and they rode up smiling Prospect Avenue, through the gay crowd, to have tea at Cottage.

—from This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940)

I’m walking up Prospect Avenue. On my right is the apartment building at 120 where Dream Songs poet John Berryman was fixated on Don Giovanni in the summer of 1947. Up the street on the other side is the Cottage Club, the site of the spring 1920 honeymoon revels of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, during which Zelda “turned cartwheels down Prospect,” according to Fitzgerald’s biographer Andrew Turnbull. Thinking of all the characters, poets and players, outsiders and insiders who have walked and dreamed and cartwheeled up and down that illustrious thoroughfare, including T.S. Eliot, I’m having “such a vision of the street as the street hardly understands.”

“Paradise” and the Garden

I went to Prospect Avenue last week for a first-hand look at the three Victorian houses slated for demolition as part of the University’s vision of the street that the petitioners of Save Prospect Now (SPN) are hard put to understand. As  much as I sympathize with SPN’s resistance to the plan, I’m taking advantage of the occasion to write a belated centenary celebration of Scott Fitzgerald’s prose poem to Princeton, This Side of Paradise, and Princeton’s Garden Theatre, both of which made their debut in 1920, the novel in May, the theatre in September. The first film I saw at the Garden some 50 years later was a revival of MGM’s Grand Hotel (1932). It’s been even longer since I read This Side of Paradise. I have to handle my copy with care; the pages of the 35-cent Dell paperback are yellowed and flaking, and no wonder; it’s copyrighted 1948, in the name of Zelda Fitzgerald, who died that year in a fire at Highland hospital in Asheville, N.C. more

June 2, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Not Kafka again!” says my wife when I mention my plans for this week’s column. It’s true. I find his presence everywhere, most recently haunting an article in the front section of Friday’s New York Times about the reopening of The Vessel, “the labyrinth of staircases at Hudson Yards that closed four months ago after several people killed themselves there.” Related Companies, the developer, “had put measures in place to reduce the risk of suicides” among visitors to the “150-foot spiraling sculpture,” with its “154 interconnecting flights of stairs and 80 landings.”

No need to reference Kafka in the article, he’s there. He can also be read into baseball (K the symbol for a strikeout), and the current conspiracy-theory twilight zone of American politics. The first place I look when I need close-up one-on-one Kafka, however, is in my copy of Diaries 1914-1923, edited by his friend Max Brod. Say you’re reading around in the summer of 1917, you’ve been trying to find words for the sound the Brood X cicadas are making in the summer of 2021, and you land on a single line set apart from the surrounding entries:

“The alarm trumpets of the void.”

Does it come close to the surreal magnitude of a sound so monstrously impending that you seem to be seeing what you’re hearing? Close enough I think. In German, it’s Die alarmtrumpeten der Leere. The translator of this edition of Diaries is listed as Martin Greenberg, “with the assistance of Hannah Arendt.” Where does the line come from? It might be a fragment from a work in progress such as “In the Penal Colony” or “The Great Wall of China.” Whoever, however, wherever, all I know is Kafka pitched another K, a nasty slider that just caught the outside corner of the strike zone. more

May 26, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Close your eyes. Pretend you’re 10 years old. Playing. Just playing.

—from Friday Night Lights

Mostly what I did growing up was bide my time.

—Bob Dylan, from Chronicles

Picture two people in a pasture with some cows, a line of pink light balanced on the horizon. Move in closer and you see a high school football coach and his wife. The toxic spillover of a train derailment and an explosion has cost the coach home field advantage, an absolute necessity for the upcoming game that will decide whether his team goes to the state finals. He’s refused the emergency option of a big stadium with all the amenities, an offer tainted by big money, bribery, and corruption. Mainly, he knows what home field means. So, two days before the game, he decides to convert the pasture into a makeshift stadium, with arc lights, stands, scoreboard, end zones, goal posts, everything. Clearly an impossibility, but he’s a determined man. His wife has doubts and questions. “Where would people park? And how would you put lights in here?” Coach says he doesn’t know, doesn’t care. When a cow moos, he takes it as a show of support. “All I’m tryin’ to do,” he says, and suddenly he knows what he wants to say, it’s what the moment’s all about, the heart of the matter. “Come here,” he says. When she’s within whispering distance, he holds her face in both hands, tells her to close her eyes and pretend she’s 10 years old. Just playing. Just playing….

What Hit Home

Playing! That’s the word that hit home for me and brought back the essence of play, as in playing ball, 10 years old, me and my friends, as it was and seemed it would surely always be, just us, no adults, no coaches, no parents, no pressure (no cows). Just kids having fun, with a football in fall, a baseball in summer, using scuffed up, grass-stained balls and a few Louisville Sluggers with black friction tape around the handles and nothing but the rough sketch of an infield to play on in a onetime pasture with an old barn at one end and on the bluff beyond it the Illinois Central railroad tracks. We were still playing in the fading daylight right up to the moment parents called or whistled us home. That was before the adult-monitored, organized competition of Babe Ruth or Little League, or in high school, where, if you were lucky you had a coach like the one in Peter Berg’s series Friday Night Lights (2006-2011).  more

May 19, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Now you see in Hip Talk, they call William Shakespeare “Willie the Shake!” You know why they call him “Willie the Shake!” Because, HE SHOOK EVERYBODY!

—Lord Buckley (1906-1960)

There was a time long long ago when I thought the best thing that ever happened to Shakespeare was Marlon Brando. Even as Elvis was singing “Heartbreak Hotel,” high school kids in southern Indiana forced to memorize “Friends, Romans, and Countrymen” could take heart from Brando’s presence in MGM’s Julius Caesar. Or you could listen to Lord Buckley’s album Hipsters and read his version of the speech, “Hipsters, Flipsters, and Finger-Poppin’ Daddies,” in the City Lights paperback Hiparama of the Classics.

Enter/Exit Norman Lloyd

Me, I had to wait until James Shapiro put Lord Buckley’s rendition of Antony’s funeral oration into his anthology, Shakespeare in America, which was published by The Library of America in 2014, the Bard’s  450th anniversary.

In November of that year, Norman Lloyd celebrated his 100th birthday. If you’ve heard of him, it’s most likely because he died last week at 106, remembered in the New York Times obituary as “the young actor” who moved audiences as Cinna the poet in Orson Welles’s 1937 fascist production of Julius Caesar, which Welles subtitled The Death of a Dictator. I recognized the man in the Times photograph as the title character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), described in the obit as “the chilly fascist sympathizer who had kept audiences on the edge of their seats as he dangled from the Statue of Liberty.” He didn’t just dangle, he fell, the sleeve of his jacket tearing as Robert Cummings tried to pull him to safety. The mother  of all vertigo paranoia is Hitchcock’s shot of Lloyd falling to his death. Thus, the young actor, who “died” at the hands of a jackbooted Nazi mob in a modern-day Caesar and five years later as a Nazi agent, outlived everyone involved in both productions. He and Welles, who died in 1985, were both 22 when Lloyd’s onstage murder stopped the show at the Mercury Theatre.

What made Cinna’s fatal misadventure in Act 3 a show-stopping sensation? Introducing Stanley Whipple’s New York World-Telegram review in Shakespeare in America, Shapiro notes that while Welles drastically cut Shakespeare’s text, “his focus on fascism and mob violence led him to stage in full, for the first time in America, the scene in which Cinna the Poet is attacked … by the kind of mob that gives you a Hitler or Mussolini.” According to Lloyd himself in a July 2014 interview on eatdrinkfilms.com, “the show stopped for about three minutes. The audience stopped it with applause” because it showed them “what fascism was; rather than an intellectual approach, you saw a physical one.” The immediacy of the act electrified the audience. Said Lloyd, “In 1937, Hitler was in power and the Germans were killing people on the street. If your name was Jewish, you were gone. I wanted that, so I said to Orson, ‘This is just a guy who gives the wrong name.’ “ In the play all Cinna can say, over and over, is “I’m Cinna, the poet,” not the Cinna implicated in Caesar’s assassination.

A second notice written by Whipple during the opening week refers to “the trance” the play induced among theatregoers. The “tragedy of Cinna the Poet” is singled out as “a triumph for the direction of Mr. Welles and the playing of Norman Lloyd.” Whipple’s account focuses on “the slender figure of the poet” confronted by “a little knot of man hunters  obviously trying to mop up the conspirators.” To their questions, he keeps mildly repeating the words “I am Cinna the poet” and “handing out his scribblings with polite bewilderment, to prove his identity.” As he starts to move free, another group of men blocks his way. Then another, and another. “Around him is a small ring of light, and in the shadows an ever-tightening, pincer-like mass movement. Then in one awful moment of madness the jaws of the mob come together on him and he is swallowed up and rushed into black oblivion.” Clearly still seeing and feeling the moment, Whipple takes a breath and concludes: “Mr. Lloyd’s gently comic bewilderment, his pathetic innocence and the crushing climax as the human juggernaut rolls down upon him make this one of the most dynamic scenes in today’s theater.”  more

May 12, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

—Newton Minow

Sixty years ago on Sunday, May 9, 1961, newly appointed F.C.C. Chairman Newton Minow labeled television “a vast wasteland” in an address to the National Association of Broadcasters. After suggesting that “when television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better,” he asserted that “when television is bad, nothing is worse.” His litany of negatives included “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom.”

If you’re wondering what Minow would make of today’s non-stop, everything-you-desire-is-endlessly-available wonder/wasteland, he’s here to tell us, at age 95, and according to news.wttw.com in Chicago, he thinks that the expanding of viewing choices has “contributed to the deep divisions in our country.” As a result, no surprise, the most important issue today is “deciding what is a fact.”

Speaking of Facts

A few weeks ago I referred to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Better Call Saul as “a great American film,” as if my opinion had some basis in fact. Writing at Oscar time, when American films are the center of the universe, I was speaking in extremes to make a point. Yes, it’s an outstanding series, it’s American, and it’s a film, but it’s also a five-season 50-episode saga with a sixth and final season yet to come. Sometimes I have to temper my enthusiasm to avoid sounding like a glorified blurb writer or a publicist with delusions of grandeur, not unlike Saul Goodman himself.

Another factor that would have sounded fantastically futuristic when Minow made his wasteland speech is the freedom to binge that allows me (and my wife) to speed through an entire five-season series in under two weeks. By so doing, we’re violating the real-life viewing experience of audiences that may have had to wait a year or longer for a new season. Meanwhile, it’s hard to keep a spillover of excitement from driving a written response, especially if you’re still feeling the wind of the binge at your back. more

May 5, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught.

—Satyajit Ray (1921-1992), on American films

Sunday, May 2, marked the 100th birthday of the Indian film director Satyajit Ray, who was presented with an honorary Oscar at the 1992 Academy Awards “in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”

Videotaped as he lay in a Calcutta hospital three weeks before his death, the golden statuette clutched in one hand, Ray’s acceptance speech was direct, open, and down to earth, in contrast to the lofty rhetoric of the citation: “When I was a small, small school boy, I was terribly interested in the cinema. Became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin. Got a reply, was delighted. Wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn’t get a reply. Then of course, I got interested in the cinema as an art form, and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing Double Indemnity. He didn’t reply either. Well, there you are. I have learned everything I’ve learned about the craft of cinema from the making of American films. I’ve been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught.”

The Only Truth 

Last week the New York Times brought images from India’s pandemic nightmare to the breakfast table, vistas of funeral pyres burning in New Delhi and headlines like “Death Is the Only Truth” over Aman Sethi’s April 30 account of the mass cremations in Ghazipur. At the same time, my wife and I were watching the life and death truths at the heart of Ray’s Apu Trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1957), and The World of Apu/Apur Sansa (1959), films of which Ray’s fellow director Akira Kurosawa has said, “Not to have seen the cinema of Satyajit Ray means existing in the world without seeing the sun or the moon.” more

April 28, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

You could say that growing up with the Princeton Record Exchange sealed my son’s fate. I can still see him sitting on the floor, plowing through the $1.99 bargain bins at the back of the legendary store’s first location on Nassau between Chambers and Bank streets. When Prex was two years old in 1982, Ben had just turned six, and there he was, hunkered down picking out albums that would be recycled over the years as his taste began to shift from mainstream pop to power pop to metal to psych to prog, and on and on into the most exotic, obscure, and farflung reaches of the rock and roll universe.

“Little Red Corvette”

The first record Ben actually owned was Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” purchased on his birthday from a startled sales clerk at Titles Unlimited, who wanted to know if the little kid in the stroller knew what the song was about. I put him off, not ready to delve into the philosophical depths of a five-year-old’s careless infatuation with lyrics like “a pocketful of horses, Trojans some of them used,” “a body like yours oughta be in jail,” and “your little red love machine.” Not only were the words hilarious, he liked the way they fit the music, and they were fun to dance to.

From early on, as soon as Ben heard a lyric, he knew it cold. Call it a gift or a curse, this is true today, on his 45th birthday. He still delights in reciting lyrics like Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park,” in which the singer goes from being “pressed in love’s hot, fevered iron like a striped pair of pants” to “the sweet green icing flowing down” because “someone left the cake out in the rain.”  more

April 21, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Describing the long strange trip behind the making of Best Picture nominee Sound of Metal, director Darius Marder tells screendaily.com, “Hollywood didn’t want to hear about two things — heavy metal and deaf people. Hollywood loves to pat itself on the back for representing this, that, or the other, but when you’re trying to do it, man, it got no love. It was the end of a conversation before it even began.”

Seventy-six years ago, after seeing a rough cut of Johnny Belinda, Warner Bros. boss Jack Warner reportedly told  the film’s director, Jean Negulesco, “We invented talking pictures, and you make a picture about a deaf and dumb girl!’’ The girl was played by Jane Wyman, whose Best Actress Oscar was among 12 Academy Award nominations Warner was referring to when he phoned Negulesco afterward and said, “Well, kid, we did it again! Next time we do a picture we’re gonna get fourteen nominations!”  As Neguelsco points out in The Celluloid Muse: Hollywood Directors Speak, this cozy familial  “we” came in spite of the fact that Warner had fired the director when he was about to shoot the film’s last scene.

Extending the Ending

Sound of Metal is the only film among this year’s nominees I wish I could have seen in a theater. The last scene channels the “this-is-the-way-the-world-ends” last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” except for ending not with a whimper but with the distorted cacophony of a church tower bell beating out the hour. A cinematic experience that began with a crash-bang full-force fury of heavy-metal drumming ends with the drummer, Ruben Stone (Riz Ahmed) sitting on a bench listening to the dissonant fragments of a world of shattered sound, in which the bell in the tower he’s glaring at delivers one slow soggy heavy blow after another, splash-bang-crash, splash-bang-crash, as if the bell ringer were producing a sick-joke mockery of Ruben’s former occupation. You’re watching with him, in his head, when he puts an end to the charade by detaching himself from the super expensive cochlear implants, plunging himself, his surroundings, and the film into silence.

This is an ending that belongs in a theater. It needs to resonate; it’s too large for a living room. And how would an audience of in-the-moment witnesses react to the film’s protagonist taking matters into his own hands and shutting off the sound? After being shocked, disabled, humbled, enlightened, confused, and challenged by the storyline, Ruben takes full possession of the film, it’s all his now, as he makes the final move. The audience knows he’s got another life waiting in America, a community, and a culture, and it’s likely that as the significance of the moment sinks in, there would have been applause, perhaps cheers.  more

April 14, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine! You can’t conceive what I’m capable of!  I’m so far beyond you, I’m like a god in human clothing! Lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips!

—from Better Call Saul, Season 5

Better Call Zeus is more like it. In fact that passionate utterance comes from the owner of a Suzuki Esteem named Jimmy (“S’all good, man!”) McGill, who is at a transformative breaking point not unlike the Shazam moment where Billy Batson becomes Captain Marvel.

So, you may be thinking Saul Goodman of the lightning bolts is either a Shakespearean actor in rehearsal or a deranged black comedy superhero out of the Marvel comics universe, surely not a shyster lawyer with a University of American Samoa law degree (by mail) driving a vehicular alter ego of a color somewhere between a “yellow matter custard I-am-the-Walrus” shade of yellow and the Crime and Punishment yellow symbolic of corruption, dilapidation, decay, and soulsick decadence. And don’t forget the slightly unhinged strip of chrome on the passenger side, just down from the blood-red rear door that suggests the work of a body shop mechanic with delusions of abstract expressionist grandeur.

Every time Jimmy speeds off on another mission, the camera makes sure you get a clear view of the word ESTEEM to the right of the New Mexico Land of Enchantment license plate. And every time you see that word you’re reminded of how brilliantly far the show’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, have gone — the proverbial extra mile — to put their hero behind the wheel of the perfect car for a driver on his way to the far side of “esteem” as Saul Goodman, a Friend of the Cartel.

Jimmy’s 1998 Esteem takes a hit almost as soon as he puts it in motion in the series pilot when an insurance-scamming skateboarder tumbles accidentally on purpose over the hood and smashes the window. Amazingly, the Little Yellow Car That Could almost makes it to the end of Season 5 (spoiler alert) as Jimmy/Saul drives it to the Mexican border. You could say that when the Esteem goes literally over the edge — it’s goodbye Jimmy, hello Saul. more

April 7, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

The greatest art never loses its mystery. The better we know hers, the more dreamlike and sensational it seems.

—Gary Giddins on Billie Holiday (1915-1959)

It’s Opening Day at the Great American Ballpark. So begins a fresh, new, hopefully complete season after the travesty of 2020. At first glance there was a touch of poetry in that combination, the idea of a sports venue that hadn’t been branded by a corporation; alas, the home field of the Cincinnati Reds bears the name of The Great American Insurance Company.

But then the visiting St. Louis Cardinals, the team I’ve followed almost all my life, play their home games on the site of a slave market in a stadium built and named for a beer baron.    

I’m not complaining, not after watching Major League baseball played with real people in the stands. Never mind that the crowd amounts to only 20 percent of capacity, these living breathing yelling drinking eating fans are a joy to behold after last year’s cardboard facsimiles, with crowd noise Muzak piped in at peak moments in the action.

I’d like to think the upside of that surreal season was that it refreshed our appreciation of the game, the moral being “You don’t know what you’ve got until you almost lose it.”   

The same story was played out at the same time when America almost lost itself; now democracy is starting a new season, with the MLB commissioner pulling this year’s All Star Game out of Atlanta as a rebuke to Georgia’s recently passed voter suppression bill. Remember the way the Republican secretary of state stood fast against the gangster tactics of an unhinged president? Remember the 1919 Black Sox scandal?  It’s as if a right-handed reliever named Raffensperger refused to throw the game, striking out the side in the bottom of the ninth, thus validating the playing-by-the-rules ideal shared by baseball fans bound by a love of the game, whatever their team or party. Except that fans of the Great Lie booed, threw things, and stormed the field of broken dreams screaming “Kill the umpire!”  more

March 31, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Marvell is the most enigmatic, unclassifiable, and unaffiliated major poet in the language.

—Harold Bloom

Now let us sport us while we may…

—Andrew Marvell (1621-1679)

   No man is an island entire of itself …

—John Donne (1572-1631) 

In October 1966, Ray Davies and the Kinks recorded my theme song for the day, “Too Much On My Mind,” which makes a surprising but perfectly natural appearance a decade later in The American Friend (1977) by the German director Wim Wenders. At the time of the filming, Wenders told an interviewer that rock and roll had “saved” him: “It gave me the idea of finding out about life. It led me to everything; it led me to film-making.” Because of rock Wenders started to think of creativity “as having something to do with joy: the idea of having a right to enjoy something.” That’s a striking admission from someone who grew up in postwar Germany; instead of the burden of guilt, angst, and negativity: enjoying the right to find joy in creation.

It’s not that I mind having too much on my mind every week. Far from it. Witness the crowd of epigraphs at the top. I could have added a dozen more, including all of Andrew Marvell’s irresistible seize-the-day and see-the- world-and-die seduction song “To His Coy Mistress,” one of those poems it’s hard to stop reading. One sip of this salty Margarita and you’re off to the races with the world and time like the wind at your back, the notion of maidenly coyness the salt on the rim of the glass. Try not feeling happily drunk reading a line like “our long love’s day.” Then to go from that to the sweeping geographical audacity of the coy mistress finding rubies by the Ganges while the love-crazed poet from Hull sings a lusty far-reaching complaint beside his own hometown Humber (was Humbert Humbert here?). Then a take-no-prisoners love song pitch for all time, “I would love you ten years before the Flood.” Who cares what happens after the Flood? And the casual beauty of “And you should if you please refuse” with the not so casual “until the Conversion of the Jews.” Another one-two punch follows, the time-wise, “My vegetable Love should grow / Vaster than Empires, and more slow.” How slow? At this point a poet writing in the 1660s, his poetry unpublished in his time, casts his line and lands the last, July 29, 1997 entry, in the journal of William S. Burroughs two days before his death in Lawrence, Kansas, where a low-rent midnight movie called Carnival of Souls had been filmed in the early 1960s around the time Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was being served up to the world.

Too much on my mind, for sure. Like Ray’s song says, “It seems there’s more to life than just to live it.”  more

March 24, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Earth, you darling, I will! Oh, believe me, you need
your Springs no longer to win me: a single one,
just one, is already more than my blood can endure!

—from Duino Elegies

I walked into Labyrinth Books last week looking for nothing in particular and walked out with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (Norton Library 1963). Later the same day I read the first four of the 10 elegies aloud to myself, softly, just above a whisper, with the rain gently falling in the background.

In an essay from his 2012 collection In Time, C.K. Williams agrees with “the many readers” who consider Duino Elegies “the greatest single poem of the twentieth century.” Rilke named the work for Duino Castle, near Trieste, where he began the first elegy in 1912 after a stormy walk along the bastions with the Adriatic Sea “raging two hundred feet below.” According to J.B. Leishman’s introduction, Rilke heard the first line in the wind: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?” In the translation by Leishman and Stephen Spender: “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?”

Something like the unsettling pleasure of reading Rilke soft and low in rainy day serenity is in the music of the first stanza: “For Beauty’s nothing / but beginning of Terror we’re still just able to bear, / and why we adore it so is because it serenely / disdains to destroy us.”

In his essay, Williams finds Duino Elegies “simply gigantic: inexhaustible.” If he were alive again and sitting across from me at this moment celebrating the poem’s “superabundant being,” he’d be smiling, leaning forward, delighting in a poet who could write “Earth, you darling, I will,” as if the Earth had just proposed marriage. The pleasure of this imagined moment is the feeling that two poets are face to face with you saying, “Look, I am living.” And so they are. more

March 17, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.

—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Reading that quote from a 1930 letter from Einstein to his son Eduard, I had an absurd early-20th-century vision of myself delivering Town Topics on a bicycle. Even more absurd, my route comprised the two streets we lived on during our first decade in Princeton. In reality, this would mean riding a bicycle across town from Patton Avenue to Hodge Road. Every Wednesday. While there have been times when I needed to do the honors for our current street, that was from a car. What makes the old-fashioned paper route-on-a-bicycle idea truly ridiculous is that I never met a bike I liked, and vice-versa. I honestly never really wanted or needed one, and was rarely comfortable my few times in the saddle.

Anyway, here we go. Patton Avenue, our first Princeton street, was named for the 13th president of the University, Frances Landey Patton (1843-1932), who during the Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1896 made it official, declaring that the College of New Jersey would “in all future time be known as Princeton University.’’

We lived on the top two floors of a half-stucco, half-shingled house built in the 1920s. The terror of even the bravest of paper boys, a gigantic Irish wolfhound named Troika occupied the first floor, along with his master, a stage technician at McCarter. At a yard sale advertised in Town Topics we got to know the couple next door, who performed as a duo called Smile. The wife gave piano lessons to Stalin’s granddaughter, but that’s another story I’ve told more than once before.

The most striking feature of our stretch of Patton Avenue were the sycamore trees whose roots turned the sidewalks into hazards for kids who ran before they looked, not to mention aged, bicycle-riding newsboys attempting to toss Wednesday’s paper onto porches and driveways without losing the all-important life-balance stated in Einstein’s theory.  more

March 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

It is shuddersome and sinister. About it hovers the grisly something which we all fear in the dark but dare not define.

—James Huneker on Chopin’s Prelude No. 2

When a film is called Night of the Living Dead, you know what to expect. Same with The Walking Dead. Given the Hitchcock brand and half a century of shower-slaughter word of mouth, you know where you’re headed with Psycho.

Carnival of Souls is another matter. The film’s title alone has intriguing possibilities, with room for whatever or whoever you want to bring to the dance, if you don’t mind fox-trotting or waltzing to sinister organ music reminiscent of NBC’s Inner Sanctum, the old time radio precursor to The Twilight Zone. The horror movie genre it has been consigned to is less interesting to me than the title’s suggestion of a gathering of souls. In my preferred vision of the carnival, the doors are open to great souls like Kafka and Chopin, whose 211th birthday was March 1.

Keeping in mind the rhetoric Chopin’s sometimes “shuddersome and sinister” music has attracted — the “affinities with the darkling conceptions” of Poe and Coleridge in the Scherzo in C-sharp minor that James Huneker likens to “some fantastic, sombre pile of disordered farouche architecture” about which “hovers perpetual night and the unspeakable and despairing things that live in the night” — I’ve been thinking a lot about Carnival of Souls and its protagonist, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss). Having survived an accident in which two friends drowned, Mary moves from Lawrence, Kansas, to Salt Lake City, where she has a job as a church organist. She’s in a department store buying a new dress when suddenly the world goes silent, sales people and other customers no longer see her, she can’t hear them, they can’t hear her, and after escaping outside she’s still in the silent spell until a bird’s song brings the real world back to life for her. 

Going directly from that nightmare to the church organ,  she begins to rehearse, but the sounds she’s producing soon veer into dissonance and discord that she’s helpless to control, it’s as if her hands have taken on a spasmodic life of their own, crawling and creeping over the keys, and when two large hands reach out of nowhere to cover hers, you think at first they belong to the ghoulish figure that’s been stalking her. But no, it’s the appalled minister putting a stop to the profane uproar before pompously firing her on the spot. A day ago he’d praised her playing, telling her to put her soul into it, and so she has but it’s not her soul.

The sequence takes only four of the film’s 80 minutes, and I’ve seen it several times on YouTube, trying to imagine the impact on the minister had certain portions of Chopin’s B flat minor sonata been translated into the language of the pipe organ, a sonata that Schumann says “begins and ends … with dissonances, through dissonances, and in dissonances,” not to mention “the brief, astonishing finale, a coda to the famous marche funebre suggesting that the departing mourners were swept away by a tornado.”    Scarily akin to the sight of Mary’s hands is a fellow pianist and composer’s account of Chopin at the piano: “It was an astonishing sight to see one of his little hands reach out and cover a third of the key-board. It was like the mouth of a serpent about to swallow a rabbit. In reality, Chopin was made of rubber.”

The first piece I associated with Mary’s trauma was the Polonaise fantasie in A flat major that Franz Liszt described in an 1852 monograph as “an elegiac tristesse … punctuated by startled movements, melancholic smiles, unexpected jolts, pauses full of tremors, like those felt by somebody caught in an ambush, surrounded on all sides.” To a critic of the period, “the piano speaks here in a language not previously known.” When he was working on the Polonaise, Chopin himself admitted he didn’t know what to title it until the end, confessing, “I’d like to finish something that I don’t yet know what to call.” He completed it in August 1846, three years before his death. more

March 3, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Imagine this scene from a gone world: a live event is underway at San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore. The owner is reciting a passage from Americus: Book 1 (New Directions 2004). It’s the summer of 2004, you can hear fog horns and there’s a North Beach mist steaming the windows. Projected on the wall next to Lawrence Ferlinghetti as he reads is the final moment of the silent film that gave the store its name.

Make this an audience for the ages, a gathering worthy of the poet publisher of City Lights whose subject is the “eternal dialogue echoing through the centuries of all the voices that ever sang or wrote.” Everyone’s feeling the “maze and amaze of life” when Chaplin gazes into the astonished eyes of the once-blind flower girl the moment she realizes that the rich handsome benefactor she’s imagined is a pathetic little tramp. He’s gone to great and hilariously exhausting lengths raising money to help pay for the operation that restored her sight and all he’s got to show for it is the flower she has just gently, sweetly, patronizingly bestowed on him, and yet he’s smiling as he holds the flower to his face, using it to hide the wretched, Chaplinesque wonder of a smile that made Einstein weep, a smile in synch with the words the white-bearded 84-year-old poet is reciting, “a sound of weeping beyond reason, a pianist playing in the ruins of Prague, a London fog.”

In his brief preface to the 60th anniversary edition of Pictures of the Gone World (City Lights 1955), Ferlinghetti remembers “the unique San Francisco consciousness of the 1950s” and the “freshness of perception that only young eyes have in the dandelion bloom of youth.” At the moment I’m thinking of 1958 when the then-39-year-old clean-shaven Ferlinghetti was a few blocks away reading from A Coney Island of the Mind (New Directions 1958), with the Cellar Jazz Quintet. I’m realizing that I never felt as close to the man or his poetry as I do now that he’s “no longer with us.”

“A State of Change”

In his brief preface to “Oral Messages,” Part 2 of Coney Island of the Mind, Ferlinghetti advises the reader that the poems “were conceived specifically for jazz accompaniment … rather than written for the printed page. As a result of continued experimental live readings, they are still in a state of change.” Going to Ferlinghetti after last week’s bicentenary celebration of Keats is like moving from one live performance to another.  more

February 24, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

“Portrait of John Keats on his death-bed in Rome,” by Joseph Severn

Though a quarrel in the Streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine; the commonest Man shows a grace in his quarrel.

—John Keats (1795-1821)

Why begin a column about friendship, love, death, and poetry with reference to the positive energies displayed in a street quarrel? You might also question the timing of a tribute to the poet of “beauty and truth” and “fellowship divine” when America is still living in the shadow of the monumental lie that led to the January 6th insurrection, not to mention the monumental truth that more Americans have died of the coronavirus in the past year than in two world wars and Vietnam. 

The fact of the moment is that snow is falling, again, as I write, and that John Keats died in Rome 200 years ago yesterday. And the monumentally unfactual word that comes to mind when watching fresh fallen snow is poetry. If you take some liberties with Keats’s theory that the poet is the most unpoetical of God’s creatures, with no self, foul or fair, no identity, “continually in for and filling some other Body,” sun, moon, sea, then it’s easy to say the poet is the snow, that it’s freshly fallen Keats giving grace and mystery to the day.

Five hours later the morning’s poetry has turned to slush and I’m reading “Bright Star,” one of the last poems the unpoetical poet ever completed, a sonnet that begins over our prosaic heads, poetical to a faretheewell, so sculpted and lofty, with “Eremite” pulled out of the poet’s grab bag to rhyme with “night,” and the poetry of falling snow reduced to “a new soft-fallen mask” to rhyme with “task.” But all the pomp and circumstance vanishes when the poet comes down to earth with the “soft fall and swell” of his fair love’s breast, “Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath, / And so live ever — or else swoon to death.”

So ends Jane Campion’s biopic Bright Star (2009), the film and the poem’s last words both beautifully, brokenly uttered by Keats’s grieving Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) as she walks into the snowy dusk on Hampstead Heath. Reading about the poet’s last hours in Robert Gittings’s acclaimed 1968 biography, I was reminded of the most striking scene in the film — the moment Fanny is told of Keats’s death. Rushing from the parlor to the stairs, she holds the bannister for support, she’s lost, she’s falling, turning one way, then another, groping with her hands, helplessly pleading, supplicating, suffocated, bent double, brought to her knees, jabbing one hand toward her chest, calling for help, choking, “I can’t breathe!” Only when she’s being held and lifted and sustained by her mother does the wrenching visceral misery of the seizure begin to resemble an actor’s performative hysteria, except that by now the force of the fit has generated so much breathless momentum there’s no relief until the abrupt cut to the next scene. Seconds later she’s a lone figure walking on the snowclad heath, whispering the sonnet so thoughtfully, so tenderly, that even the rhetorical formality of the opening lines live with love as the poet becomes star, night, nature, snow, human shores, mountains and moors. more

February 17, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

But we loved with a love that was more than love.

—Edgar Allan Poe, from “Annabel Lee”

This post-Valentine’s Day adventure was launched by a letter I found in Horace Wyndam’s The Magnificent Montez: From Courtesan to Convert (Hutchinson 1935). Written in the revolutionary year of 1848 — from King Ludwig I of Bavaria to the woman he made the Countess of Landsfeld, alias Lola Montez, who was born Eliza Rosanna Gilbert in County Sligo, Ireland, on February 17, 1821 — the letter begins:

“Oh, my Lolita! A ray of sunshine at the break of day! A stream of light in an obscured sky! Hope ever causes chords long forgotten to resound, and existence becomes once again pleasant as of yore. Such were the feelings which animated me during that night of happiness when, thanks to you alone, everything was sheer joy. Thy spirit lifted up mine out of sadness; never did an intoxication equal the one I then felt!”

After shooting the king’s translator, flash forward to mid-20th-century America and read the opening lines of The Confession of a White Widowed Male:

“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul, Lo-lee-ta …. She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four foot ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”

I’ve been here before. Last fall I cushioned the loss of Prof. Nabokov’s former student, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, with a visit to The Annotated Lolita, in which another of his former students, Alfred Appel Jr., devotes almost five pages of commentary to the novel’s opening paragraph. Appel gives special attention to Humbert’s fixation with Poe’s “Annabel Lee,” from whom neither angels nor demons can “dissever” the poet’s soul (“But we loved with a love that was more than love”). While the line “Lola in slacks” prompts a reference to Marlene Dietrich’s Lola in von Sternberg’s film The Blue Angel, there’s no mention of the living, breathing Lola Montez who inspired Ludwig’s cri de coeur. The deposed monarch was writing from a villa on the Riviera while his lovely Lola was in England being denounced by the London papers as “Bavaria’s famous strumpet,” “the notorious courtesan” blamed for “the sanguinary and destructive conduct of the Munich mob.” more

February 10, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

Looking out the back window Monday afternoon I saw three deer in the snow behind the big black boulder, our piece of the Princeton Ridge. Led by a stag with a classic set of antlers, they were there and gone in the space of a minute. Something in that snow scene, the sudden wonder of it, resonated with my thoughts about Wardell Gray, whose 100th birthday is this Saturday, February 13.

At that moment I was thinking someone should write a song for Wardell, something like “Percy’s Song” by Bob Dylan, the Fairport Convention cover, with Sandy Denny singing her heart out (“Turn turn turn again, turn turn to the rain and the wind”), infusing the words with so much passion and warmth that the monstrous injustice of the story makes you feel uplifted and brought down at the same time. But Wardell’s tale is deeper and darker than that. Dylan could write another song in the same key, or maybe something righteously outraged like “Hurricane.” For a kinder, gentler version with an edge, you could look to Stew, who wrote a lovely tribute to Thelonious Monk for his group the Negro Problem. Or better yet, something along the melodic lines of “Nature Boy” as rendered by Nat King Cole in 1948, the year Wardell came into his own as the star tenor sax soloist with Benny Goodman and then Count Basie, with his epic solos on “The King” and “Little Pony.”

Thanks in great part to the national exposure that came from playing with Goodman, Wardell jumped from nowhere to fourth place in the tenor sax division of the 1948 Metronome poll. To understand why Lester Young “gave a blanket endorsement” of Gray when asked who the best tenor man of the new generation was, all you have to do is listen to the Goodman small group performing “Mary’s Idea,” a nice, genteel, crisply swinging little number — until a tenor sax life-force blazes through the tidy chamber-music table setting and takes everything to another level. What you’re hearing is the epitome of the late Whitney Balliet’s phrase for jazz, “the sound of surprise” — joyous energy, moving fast and fluid, full of life and love in the playing.

Whether he was playing or speaking, Wardell Gray was one of the most articulate jazz musicians of his time, Black or white. Along with his interest in serious literature, classical music, ballet, gourmet cooking, leftwing politics, and existential philosophy, he belonged to the NAACP at a time when the group was considered radical enough to assure him a place in the files of the FBI. He was also devoted to his wife and stepdaughter, writing in one of his last letters that he looked forward to the three of them “working hard, studying, going to school, perfecting ourselves for one another.” Half a year later on the opening night of the first mixed-race night club in Las Vegas, his body was found in a drainage ditch on the outskirts of town. Though drugs were involved and foul play was ruled out after an abbreviated investigation, the circumstances were mysterious enough to inspire Bill Moody’s 1995 detective novel, Death of a Tenor Man.  more

February 3, 2021

By Stuart Mitchner

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.

—James Joyce, from The Dead

The snow began falling late afternoon Sunday, January 31, Franz Schubert’s birthday. The snow is still on the ground today, James Joyce’s birthday, and I’m still in a Schubert state of mind. At the tipping point of the year, Vienna and Dublin seem to move closer, side by side on the same map, snow falling on the Danube and the Bog of Allen and softly falling on “the churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.”

By now, it’s clear that Monday’s snow will still be with us on Wednesday, February 3, which happens to be Felix Mendelssohn’s birthday. Since Schubert and Joyce are “family” compared to Mendelssohn, I began to give myself a crash course on his life and work last week. Then came the snow.

A Schubertian Mood

Decades ago when I shared M.B. Goffstein’s A Little Schubert with my 3-year-old son, I knew less about Schubert than I do about Mendelssohn. Goffstein sets the scene in “a cold and snowy town called Vienna,” creating a Schubertian mood with her drawing of the composer, “a short fat young man with a small round nose, round eyeglasses and curly hair” who “lived in a bare little room without a fire. …Every morning he sat at a little table and wrote music as fast as it came into his head.” Whether you’re 3 or 43, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the shoes, spectacles, and tiny frockcoat of the elfin composer who heard music when his friends heard nothing, music that no one had ever heard before, “so much music he could not possibly remember it all,” music he was “so very busy writing down, he did not mind his bare room or his shabby clothes. But when the cold made his fingers ache, and he almost could not write his music, Franz Schubert got up, “clapped his hands and stamped his feet,” making “his shabby coattails fly as he danced to keep warm.”

Attached to the back of the book was an envelope containing a plastic disc of the five “Noble Waltzes” that “Franz Schubert wrote down in his little room in Vienna around one hundred fifty years ago” (that was in 1972, so by now it’s around two hundred). The waltzes led to the purchase of a three-LP set of Schubert’s piano waltzes, followed by string quartets and quintets, piano sonatas and symphonies, fantasies and impromptus, and thousands of songs. Early on, we had family birthday celebrations complete with a cake, with “Happy Birthday Franz Schubert” in chocolate icing letters, along with a yellow bird on a branch and some bars of edible music. more