September 21, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

We do onstage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance to somewhere else.

—from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

When the director Jean-Luc Godard died, an “assisted suicide,” five days after Queen Elizabeth’s monumental passing, I took a YouTube tour of the “most cinematic” images from his work. Accompanied by Georges Delarue’s warm, richly romantic soundtrack for Le mépris /Contempt (1963), the result was an uncharacteristically humane, borderline sentimental memorial for a director who set out to attack “all civilized values” in the 1968 Rolling Stones film One Plus One/Sympathy for the Devil. Godard’s version of doing “onstage the things that are supposed to happen off” was to punch the film’s English producer in the face onstage at the 1968 London Film Festival.

Stoppard’s Scoop

The onstage/offstage lines are spoken by the one of the players visiting Elsinore in Sir Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (Grove Press 1967). The notion of the play as a “scoop” came to mind  as I read Maureen Dowd’s September 7 New York Times profile of Stoppard, which opens with the teenage journalist who “loved wearing a mackintosh and flashing his press pass, operating in the spirit of a British contemporary, Nicholas Tomalin, who wrote: ‘The only qualities essential for real success in journalism are ratlike cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability.’ “

Call it what you will, a coup or a scoop, it took a world of cunning and more than a little literary ability to become the first playwright to claim the untold story between and behind the lines of two of the most fascinating and well-spoken minor characters in Shakespeare (although Gilbert and Sullivan had a shot in 1892 with a farce that ends with Rosencrantz marrying Ophelia). Hamlet’s Wittenberg classmates are clearly on a higher theatrical level than sycophants such as Osric of Elsinore (“Dost know this water-fly?”), who are mercilessly mocked, or slain onstage, like Goneril’s servant Oswald, his last words (“oh untimely death”) recorded for all time in the closing seconds of the Beatles’ “I am the Walrus.” Besides holding their own bantering with Hamlet as “the indifferent children of the earth” who live in “the secret parts of fortune,” they put in play phrases like “the shadow of a dream” and “a shadow’s shadow” that suggest how much there is to be imagined or discovered offstage. Jump ahead four centuries and Stoppard’s Guildenstern is speaking of the “half-lit, half-alive dawn” wherein a man was “just a hat and a cloak levitating in the  grey plume of his own breath.” more

September 14, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

I’m always collecting things. I don’t consider myself materialistic, but things do make me feel good. Reassured. It’s easier to know them than people, because objects accept you as you are.

—Bette Davis (1908-1989)

The mystery guest at Friday’s Friends and Foundation of the Library Book Sale might say the same for collecting books. Bette Davis’s first husband, Harmon “Oscar” Nelson, knew from experience. The stated reason for the divorce, according to the December 7, 1938 New York Times, was that she “read too much.” Nelson claimed that she read “to an unnecessary degree…. It was all very upsetting.” As for accepting her as she was, it was at his insistence that she had two abortions, which probably saved her career, as she admitted to Charlotte Chandler in the 1980s during interviews for The Girl Who Walked Home Alone: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography (Simon and Schuster 2006).

When Chandler asked Davis what she thought of the title, based on Groucho Marx’s reason for taking two girls to a party (“Because I hate to see a girl walk home alone”), she said, “Absolutely. I want that title. That’s me. That’s been the story of my life.” The “girl alone” title somewhat softens the image of Davis as the straight-talking cynic who says “What a dump,” as she surveys Joseph Cotton’s apartment in Beyond the Forest (1949) — the additional emphasis added by Elizabeth Taylor, who played Martha to Richard Burton’s George in the film of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1966). Bette desperately wanted to play Martha but the two-time Oscar winner who was once Hollywood’s top box office star couldn’t compete with the mid-sixties media magnitude of Dick and Liz. more

September 7, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Although Colm Tóibín is the featured reader in “The News from Dublin,” Friday’s Fund for Irish Studies event, the fact that he’s being introduced by Fintan O’Toole gave me this reading opportunity. For months now, my wife has been urging me to dig into We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Modern Ireland (Liveright), so last week I took her copy from a small shelf of “keepers” and have been reading it ever since.

Making Connections

Connection is the operative word in We Don’t Know Ourselves. As the author puts it, “The desire for connection was given meaning by the reality that there was still something to connect to, traditions of music and singing and storytelling and language that had their own highly distinctive texture.”

O’Toole makes his first connection in the first sentence of the first chapter, in which wedding photographs of his parents remind him “of a frontier town in an old western.” The film he has in mind is High Noon, where “a respectable wedding” is “threatened by the dangers of a frontier town.”

Why were American westerns “vastly popular in Ireland”? Because “they probably seemed like social realism. In economic terms, Ireland was a vast cattle ranch with a few cities and a lot of small provincial towns attached.” A study on economic development conducted by a New York firm  began with the line, “In the Irish economy, cattle is king.” O’Toole recalls: “In my childhood, it was not unusual to find a stray bullock grazing in the back garden.” His way of bringing everything together to make a point both playful and profound is evident in the conclusion of the chapter, “Comanche Country.” After contrasting the general perception of life in the country (“we were denizens of a no-man’s-land that was barely a place at all”) with the “grittiness and depth of history” in “the old city slums,” he writes: “But we drew our water instantly from taps and made it privately in a little indoor room with the door closed. That didn’t feel like Siberia, or the Wild West or Comanche country. It felt modern.”  more

August 31, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

We do not need Henry V, and he does not need us. Falstaff needs an audience, and never fails to find it.

—Harold Bloom (1930-2019)

King Henry V of England (1386-1422) died on this day, August 31, 600 years ago, and I’m writing about him because Shakespeare found enough in Henry’s sketchy history to create Falstaff and Prince Hal, later Henry of Monmouth, the warrior king immortalized in the 1599 play Henry V, titled The Life of Henry the Fifth in the First Folio.

An “Amiable Monster”

Although noted essayist and critic William Hazlitt  (1778-1830) gives Shakespeare credit for presenting Henry V as “the king of good fellows,” the honor is one he “scarcely deserves.” All we know of Henry, says Hazlitt, is that he was “fond of war and low company,” as well as being “careless, dissolute, and ambitious” and “determined to make war upon his neighbours.” Thus, “because his own title to the crown was doubtful, he laid claim to that of France.”

Pondering what there is to like about the man, Hazlitt turns again to Shakespeare’s play, where Henry is “a very amiable monster, a very splendid pageant. As we like to gaze at a panther or a young lion in their cages in the Tower, … so we take a very romantic, heroic, patriotic, and poetical delight in the boasts and feats of our younger Harry.”

Olivier’s “Henry V”

Hazlitt’s “amiable monster” was redeemed by Laurence Olivier’s performance in his film Henry V, which opened in the U.S. in the spring of 1946, a year and a half after its inspirational run in wartime England. Contrary to Hazlitt’s Henry declaring his resolution to bend France “to his awe, or break it all to pieces,” Olivier’s Henry declares his affection for Catherine of Valois in a spirited bilingual love scene. When Olivier was advised to film the picture in “battledress,” he said, “No, it’s got to be beautiful.” And it was. Reviewing the film in Time, James Agee called it one of the movies’ “rare great works of art,” brought to the screen “with such sweetness, vigor, insight, and beauty that it seemed to have been written yesterday.” more

August 24, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Balzac, of course, had said it all before.
—from Dividing Paris

On August 18, 1850, Honoré de Balzac died in “the very pretty little house” he’d made for himself in the portion of a mansion that had “escaped demolition.” Victor Hugo’s description of Balzac’s last residence could have come from the pages of Esther da Costa Meyer’s Dividing Paris: Urban Renewal and Social Inequality: 1852-1870 (Princeton University Press), where demolition is a fact of life.

Squalor and Splendor
The first reference to a specific work by Balzac in Dividing Paris concerns an area “vividly described” in Cousine Bette (1846), a section of the city “wiped out” so that Napoleon III’s prefect Georges-Eugène Haussmann “could build the Boulevard Malesherbes.”

Curious to read the passage mentioned, I found the most likely suspect 60 pages into my copy of the 1965 Penguin edition, in which Balzac describes a “conglomeration of houses … with decayed façades, … all that remains of an old quarter, in process of demolition since the day when Napoleon decided to complete the Louvre.” It’s “a sombre and deserted block, inhabited presumably by ghosts,” the houses “wrapped in the perpetual shadow cast by the high galleries of the Louvre, blackened on this side by the north wind.” What Balzac refers to as “these so-called dwellings” are “bounded by a swamp on the rue de Richelieu side, a sea of jostling broken paving stones towards the Tuileries, small plots and sinister hovels facing the galleries, and steppes of dressed stone and half-demolished ruins by the old Louvre.” In the spirit of Rabelais, Balzac imagines that “for nearly forty years the Louvre has been crying from the open mouths of all the gashed walls, the gaping windows, ‘Strike these excrescences from my face!’”


August 17, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Instructions for living a life:
   Pay attention.
   Be astonished.
   Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

When I saw Mary Oliver’s “Instructions” chalked on a stone bench in Princeton’s Marquand Park the other day, I was thinking about the signed copy of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1987) offered for sale at next month’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale.

What could be less astonishing than a 35-year-old ghostwritten bestseller by the former president? The only thing really worth paying attention to and telling about is that copies in the same or lesser condition as the library’s are selling online for $18,000 to $45,000. But when you think of it, isn’t the lure of large library book sales the possibility of being astonished? You go in hoping that the book of your wildest dreams will turn up, and sometimes it does. Or, better still, you find a treasure you didn’t even know you were looking for, which happened to me when I embarked on this column about a book I have no interest in. Rather than devote an entire article to The Art of the Deal, I thought of something my wife and I have been binging on, an astonishing television series about the Vikings, where I discovered, incredibly enough, a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot.  more

August 10, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

When I think about the people who have questioned my mother’s choice to have me the way she did, or the people who have asked me if I was ever angry with her, it’s easier than ever to answer no, rejecting the antiquated assumption that a real father is a necessary element in a real family.

—Nabil Ayers, from My Life in the Sunshine

Today I’m writing about three admirable single mothers I found in the memoirs of a president and two musicians. If you look online for novels or stories with a single mother as heroine, you’ll find depressing results, with cover images often featuring men out of Harlequin Romance fantasies.

I tried upping the word-choice ante to single mother protagonists in classic literature and came up with the likes of Medea and Mrs. Dashwood in Sense and Sensibility. Without doing any research on the subject, my first thought is of Eliza fleeing across the icy river with her infant son in Uncle Tom’s Cabin — which seems a fitting analogy for women dealing with a post Roe v. Wade reality.


In Dreams from My Father (1995), Barack Obama recalls going with his mother Ann and half-sister Maya to the film Black Orpheus, which Ann saw when she was 16, her first foreign movie and, as she told her children, “the most beautiful thing” she’d ever seen. Obama found the film patronizing, with its “black and brown Brazilians” singing and dancing “like carefree birds in colorful plumage,” but when he looked over at his mother, he was touched by the sight of her wistful face “lit by the blue glow of the screen.” In that moment he felt as if he were “being given a window into her heart, the unreflective heart of her youth,” a white middle-class girl from Kansas waking to  the promise of another world: “warm, sensual, exotic, different” — where she would meet, marry, and bear the child of an exchange student from Kenya.

The former president celebrated his 61st birthday last week by naming a new installation at the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago the Ann Dunham Water Garden. In a release, he pictures his mother, who died in 1995, “sitting on one of the benches on a nice summer afternoon, smiling and watching a bunch of kids running through the fountain,” which he thought “would capture who she was as well as just about anything else.” more

August 3, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

…nothing will cut New York but a diamond. It should be crystal in quality, sharp as the skyline and relentlessly true.

—Dawn Powell (1896-1965), from The Diaries

When Dawn Powell invited me to lunch, I had no idea that she was the author of a dozen novels. All I knew was that she’d just reviewed my first book in the New York Post under the head “Young But Not Beat.” I was 20. She was around 60. It wasn’t until the 1990s that her work would be revived by Tim Page, a heroic, obsessively devoted enthusiast, with help from Gore Vidal, Edmund Wilson, and, eventually, The Library of America.

At lunch that day, the real novelist at the table never said a word about herself or her work. She was wise, witty, and fun. We were dining in what was to me an intimidatingly classy French restaurant in midtown called L’Aiglon. I’d already been interviewed at the Algonquin and the Russian Tea Room, but this wasn’t an interview, this was a lunch date, and my experience with dates at French restaurants had not been happy. On both occasions, one in Paris the previous summer, I’d taken girls who knew more about wine and French cuisine than I did. There were embarrassing moments. 

In Tim Page’s edition of The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965 (Steerforth Press 1995), where our luncheon is briefly noted, I’m “a bright, alert lad” who “knew Classic Comics by heart at age of 10.” Such was my contribution to the conversation. Nothing of my excitement about the novel I was writing in a top-floor room at the Players Club or about my Midwesterner’s love for New York, which, as it turns out, I shared with her. I could have talked about how, despite my heavy-handed trashing of the Beats, I loved On the Road, but I was tongue-tied. She’d actually liked my travesties of Ginsberg, my “excellent beat poems are fresh and vivid.” I already knew paragraphs of her review by heart, like the one about how the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, wild orgies on beer, and romantic dreams “would be almost too juvenile” except for the way I grew up with my novel “until at the end you see a young, rich talent come into bloom.” I was “a young man of feeling with an eagerness for experience” — and the best I could do was talk about knowing Classic Comics by heart when I was 10? more

July 27, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Sun, sun, sun, here it comes

—The Beatles, “Here Comes the Sun”

And here comes the air-conditioning. I’ve already got the ceiling fan going. We’ve had central air for 30 years now and we never take it for granted. I spent nine summers in New York without it. In the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Summer in the City,” the back of your neck gets “dirty and gritty,” and “people looking half dead” are walking on a sidewalk “hotter than a match head.” The song says it’s a pity that city days can’t be like city nights, dancing away the heat. I say day or night, New York was never more grittily, intimately, crazily itself than in the hot, humid core of an un-airconditioned summer of reading and sweating, breathing it all in because it was part of being one with the city. And in your teens and early twenties New York summer nights were fine for walking down Greenwich Avenue for a midnight hamburger at the White Tower or all the way up Seventh or Sixth Avenue to wander around Times Square feeling the flash and crackle of the big signs, the back of your neck not hot and gritty but cool and sweaty damp, standing outside the Metropole watching Cozy Cole and his band blowing the blues away on the stand behind the bar.

Reading City Heat

Summer afternoons reading Wolfe, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Salinger, pairing heat and fiction, I merged my sweet, sweltering city with the mid-1920s New York summer of The Great Gatsby, which I first read in a muggy second-floor room with windows open on Waverly Place. Jay Gatsby comes across cool and freshly conceived in contrast to the “deep summer” of the central chapter, where after referring to how in “this heat every extra gesture was an affront to the common store of life,” Fitzgerald offers a “room, shadowed well with awnings, … dark and cool,” where “Daisy and Jordan lay upon an enormous couch, like silver idols weighing down their own white dresses against the singing breeze of the fans.”

Years later in the front room of a second-floor brownstone oven on West 87th, when I wasn’t watching kids on the street below at play in the gush of the open fire hydrant, I was living in the post-war Manhattan summer of J.D. Salinger’s Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters, where “the heat of the afternoon was, to say the least, oppressive,” as the cab carrying the missing groom’s brother Buddy Glass and the chain-smoking Matron of Honor (“I’m so hot I could die!”) moved west, “directly, as it were, into the open furnace of the late-afternoon sky.”  more

July 20, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Like Shakespeare, Austen invented us. Because we are Austen’s children, we behold and confront our own anguish and our own fantasies in her novels.

–Harold Bloom (1930-2019)

Pointing out how “the strong selves” of Jane Austen’s heroines attest to her “reserves of power,” Bloom imagines that “had she not died so soon, she would have been capable of creating a Shakespearean diversity of persons, despite her narrowly limited social range of representation.”

Austen (1775-1817) died in Winchester 205 years ago Monday, July 18. Two years later, in August 1819, John Keats (1795-1821) arrived in that “exceeding pleasant town,” where he took daily walks, admired “the beauty of the season,” took advantage of the library, and composed “To Autumn,” his “perfect poem,” according to Harold Bloom, and the “most perfect shorter poem in the English language.” In the introduction to Bloom’s updated Modern Critical Views edition of Keats (Chelsea House, 2007), he finds the poem’s “definitive vision” all the more “remarkable for the faint presence of the shadows of the poet’s hell that the poem tries to exclude.”  more

July 13, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Half a year into his presidency, on July 2, 1961, John F. Kennedy released a statement on the death of Ernest Hemingway. After mentioning the Nobel Prize-winning author’s “impact on the emotions and attitudes of the American people” and how he had “almost singlehandedly transformed the literature and the ways of thought of men and women in every country in the world,” Kennedy declared that Hemingway “ended his life as he began it — in the heartland of America to which he brought renown and from which he drew his art.” 

The connection between Hemingway and Kennedy is sealed not only by the presence of the writer’s papers and effects at the Kennedy Presidential Library but by the fact that both men died of gun shots to the head, the writer by his own hand, the president less than three years later by the hand of an assassin.

Why This Image?

The first time I saw the cover of Ernest Hemingway: Artifacts from a Life (Scribner 2018), I wanted to put it aside, out of sight. It troubled me, made me uneasy, the underlying question being not what did this man create but what happened to him? Instead of a more characteristic photograph that makes you think of his best work, you’re met with a strikingly uncharacteristic, undated, uncredited photograph that appears to come from the 1930s when he  was actually on his way to fame and fortune, having already produced the first stories, The Sun Also Rises, and A Farewell to Arms.

Given what you know and value of Hemingway at his best, the more you see of this deeply unhappy face, the more it moves you. What is he trying to say? What is he afraid of? Who or what is he mourning? That baleful stare won’t let you go, there’s no denying it, no looking away. Round and round you go asking  yourself unanswerable questions until you feel like Nick Adams at the end of “The Killers,” fretting over the impending fate of a doomed man and being told “You better not think about it.”


July 6, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Key West (Philosopher Pirate),” the widely acclaimed last track on Bob Dylan’s 2020 album Rough and Rowdy Ways, sent me back to the New York chapter of his memoir Chronicles (2004).

Titled “The Lost Land,” the chapter ends in a Greenwich Village coffee shop where “the waitress at the lunch counter wore a close-fitting suede blouse” that “outlined the well-rounded lines of her body. She had blue-black hair and piercing blue eyes, clear stenciled eyebrows. I was wishing she’d pin a rose on me. She poured the steaming coffee and I turned back towards the street window. The whole city was dangling in front of my nose.” Dylan’s sudden, seemingly impulsive reference to the rose is a whimsical touch of style, like a tip of the derby from Chaplin’s tramp, and the rhyming of rose and nose suggests a song in the making he knows is out there waiting to be found and finished: “I had a vivid idea where everything was. The future was nothing to worry about.” The last word of the chapter’s boyish, wide-eyed last sentence  completes the rhyme: “It was awfully close.”

I think of the waitress and the rose whenever I hear songs like “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Tangled Up in Blue,” or lines from “Key West” like “Fly around my Pretty Little Miss / I don’t love nobody — gimme a kiss.” Or “Make me invisible, like the wind” from “Mother of Muses.”

“Feeling Wondrous”

Another place “Key West” sent me was Van Morrison’s Belfast, an easy move along the glowing dial from station WBD to WVAN, from the philosopher pirate searching for “love and inspiration” on that pirate radio station to the kid growing up on Hyndford Street, where you “could feel the silence on long summer nights as the wireless played Radio Luxembourg, jazz and blues,” which leaves you “feeling wondrous and lit up inside with a sense of everlasting life.”  more

June 29, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

The ‘watering down,’ if any, did not come from my aspergillum.

—Vladimir Nabokov, in the Playboy interview

Who else but a high priest of language could anoint the tired old term “watered down” with an implement for sprinkling holy water? Would the average Playboy reader of January 1964 reach for the nearest dictionary or keep reading? In the easy access world of June 2022, I unmasked the elusive aspergillum with a click of an iMac mouse.

This was Nabokov’s way of elaborately denying responsibility for “watering down” the central relationship in Stanley Kubrick’s film of Lolita (1962), the novel’s 12-year-old nymphet having been transformed into a 15-year-old blonde who looked 17. Asked if he was satisfied with the final product, Nabokov deemed the movie “absolutely first-rate,” adding that the “four main actors deserve the very highest praise,” and pointing out that he’d had “nothing to do with the actual production.” more

June 22, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“Garland’s rendition of this marvelous torch-song, in its visual and vocal subtlety and dynamic power, is the greatest piece of popular singing I know.”

—Douglas McVay, from The Musical Film

If there’s a torch in “The Man That Got Away,” which Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin composed expressly for Judy Garland in A Star Is Born, it’s the one she carries up the mountain of the performance, and you go with her. She’s giving everything she has to the song, pushing aside invisible obstacles, then beckoning to the nearest musician, as if to call him up beside her, but then pushing him away, suddenly reaching for the heavens with her right arm to sing “It’s all a crazy game!” By then her voice is everywhere and everything and “game” could stand for life, death, art, love. But you’re up there with her, you who gloomed into the theater, a zombie at 22, alone in New York after a traumatic summer. In the span of a few minutes, she’s changed the world, you’re alive again, and you feel like shouting your thanks. By all rights the people around you should be standing, cheering, but it’s just you and her, you’re hers, and an hour or so later, you stagger out of the movie into the night thinking Judy Garland Judy Garland Judy Garland. The film you just saw is seven years old. You’ve seen a revival. That’s what they call it, you think, you who have been revived.

Time magazine called A Star Is Born “just about the finest one-woman show in movie history,” while Sight and Sound’s Penelope Houston found “the special fascination of Judy Garland’s playing” in “the way it somehow contrives to bypass technique: the control seems a little less than complete and the emotion comes through, as it were, neat. In this incandescent performance, the actress seems to be playing on her nerves; she cannot but strike at ours.”

After giving A Star Is Born almost 20 pages of his 164-page survey of the American musical from 1927 to 1966, McVay makes a prodigious apology: “I have dwelt on this film at such length because I consider it to be not only clearly the greatest musical picture I have ever seen, but the greatest picture of any kind I have ever seen” The level of praise reflects the critical excitement the film received on its release in September 1954. Within a month, however, the Warner executives made drastic cuts in the running time, thus, as McVay admits, the greatest picture he ever saw was the version from which 45 minutes had been deleted, the same one that viewers, myself included, had to make do with until the 1983 restoration.  more

June 15, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Will you still be sending me a valentine?
Birthday greetings, bottle of wine?”

—from The Lyrics

Paul McCartney, who wrote “When I’m Sixty-Four” when he was “twenty-four-ish,” will be 80, that’s e-i-g-h-t-y, this Saturday, June 18, 2022.

Recalling one of his best-known songs in The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present (Liveright 2021), which includes 154 first-person commentaries that poet Paul Muldoon compiled and edited from 50 hours of conversation, McCartney says he’d already worked out the melody by the time he “was about sixteen; it was one of my little party pieces, and when we were on the lookout for songs for The Beatles, I thought it would be quite good to put words to it. The melody itself has something of a music hall feel.”

With Muldoon on board, you’ve got the makings of a music hall act of sorts (McCartney & Muldoon), with Muldoon, a songwriter himself, making sure the commentary brings in the lady who played piano at old people’s homes and hoped Mr. McCartney didn’t mind that she’d updated the song to “When I’m Eighty-Four …. Sometimes even “When I’m Ninety-Four.”  more

June 8, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Do you want to feel how it feels?”

—Kate Bush, from “Running Up That Hill”

Three days after the May 24 Uvalde, Texas, school shooting, Matt and Ross Duffer’s Stranger Things 4 opened with a jarring series of shots showing the bloodied bodies of children. Rather than cut the sequence, which is flashed back to in subsequent episodes, Netflix covers the coincidence with an advisory, noting that the season was  filmed a year ago, and that, “given the recent tragic shooting,” viewers may find the opening scene “distressing.” Then: “We are deeply saddened by this unspeakable violence, and our hearts go out to every family mourning a loved one.”

The placement makes it possible to relate “unspeakable violence” to both the show and the massacre. However you read it, that’s not a good way to begin the fourth season of a school-centered show, especially not a season as wildly, graphically, and sometimes gratuitously violent as this one. The formulaic statement only sharpens the focus on this season’s excesses and the relative absence of the humor and character and other qualities that made Stranger Things special.

Building to an Ending

In an interview about ST 2 on, Matt Duffer shared his thoughts on the future of the series. Speaking of “the shows that we really look up to,” Duffer said Breaking Bad was his favorite because “it feels like it was never treading water … like it built to an ending that was very much intended from the beginning. It feels like a very, very complete show, and it just nailed the landing, so that’s the goal and the hope, and it’s really, really difficult. But hopefully we get there.”

Perhaps the fear of “treading water” explains why the Duffers are piling the action on in the new season, as if desperate to cover every base, every horror, every action sequence, every character, with the result that episodes go on too long, the first seven running for nine hours total.  more

June 1, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

Ho for Kansas, land that restores us
When houses choke us, and great books bore us!”

—Vachel Lindsay, from “The Santa Fe Trail”

The singing poet had a special place in his heart for the Sunflower State. Early in “Walking into Kansas,” the third chapter of Adventures While Preaching the Gospel of Beauty (1914), Vachel Lindsay writes: “I have crossed the mystic border. I have left Earth. I have entered Wonderland. Though I am still east of the geographical center of the United States, in every spiritual sense I am in the West. This morning I passed the stone mile-post that marks the beginning of Kansas.”

Lindsay dates his crossing June 14, 1912. L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz had been published in 1900. In those days it wasn’t “What’s the matter with Kansas?” Kansas was the state of the open road, the place to go “when houses choke us, and great books bore us.” more

May 25, 2022

By Stuart Mitchner

“Good bookstores reflect a Whitmanian sense of self: they contain multitudes.”

—from In Praise of Good Bookstores

I found Jeff Deutsch’s In Praise of Good Bookstores (Princeton University Press $19.95) under Business & Career (341.45) at the Princeton Public Library. Which is why I almost didn’t find it. I had to ask a librarian for help. I can see why a book about bookstores by a man who runs one could end up in that Dewey Decimal dead zone, but Deutsch’s deceptively small volume is much too multitudinous to be squeezed into 341.45. While it’s true that you’ll pick up some information about managing Chicago’s Seminary Co-op, a vast bookstore with an imposing reputation, you don’t have to read far to know you’ve entered a wondrous realm on the far side of “business and career,” a bookstore utopia where the dead speak to the living in a society Deutsch has woven together with thoughts on books and life and the life in books, from Petrach to Pound, Epicurus to Emerson, Calvino to Conrad, and on beyond the beyond.

The Dylan-Whitman Matrix

Whenever I’m in the vicinity of Memorial Day, I run into Bob Dylan, born May 24, and Walt Whitman, born May 31, a liaison Dylan exploited in “I Contain Multitudes,” the first song on his album Rough and Rowdy Ways. Deutsch offers a line from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road” to describe what happens when bookstore browsers surprise themselves, finding “just the sort of book they were hoping for”: “Something there is in the float of the sight of things that provokes it out of the soul.” Whitman’s thought needs more than one reading. The way it’s phrased is so striking, you can imagine it haunting the room at the Chelsea Hotel as Dylan was composing “Visions of Johanna,” and you wonder if it might have provoked something “out of the soul” of Robert Frost when he wrote “Mending Wall” (“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall / That sends the frozen ground-swell under it” ).

Another line from Whitman by way of Deutsch that led me straight to Dylan stresses the importance of taking “a more active approach to reading,” meaning that the reader has “to do something for himself, must be on the alert, must himself or herself construct indeed the poem, argument, history, metaphysical essay” (or in Dylan’s case, song or memoir) providing “the start or framework.” It’s not that “the book needs so much to be the complete thing, but the reader of the book.”

Dylan provides a demonstration in his freewheeling autobiography Chronicles: Volume One, where his version of a “good bookstore” is the voluminous library of the Greenwich Village couple he was living with at the time. He describes “a dark cavern with a  floor-to ceiling library…. The place had an overpowering presence of literature…. There were all kinds of things in here, books on typography, epigraphy, philosophy, political ideologies. The stuff that could make you bugged-eyed. Books like Fox’s Book of Martyrs, The Twelve Caesars, Tacitus lectures and letters to Brutus. Pericles’ Ideal State of Democracy, Thucydides’ The Athenian General a narrative which would give you chills…. It’s like nothing has changed from his time to mine.” more

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