March 31, 2015

Will Success `Contaminate' Me? (I'd love to find out.)

Tim Parks, who lives and teaches in Milan, wrote in TNYRB online (July 19, 2014 - a very nice bit I think you'd enjoy in full), about writers who seemed to purposely avoid writing what "their public" wanted them to write. "Joyce relentlessly made things more and more difficult for readers, as if success actually prevented him from producing more of the same, so determined was he to be nobody's servant. Hence the lucid and fluent Dubliners becomes the more difficult Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, then the far more difficult Ulysses, packed with passages that many felt were obscene, and finally, when that brought even more success, the completely indigestible Finnegans Wake. Joyce would read sections of his `Work in Progress' to friends to see how they responded; when he felt they had understood too easily, he would go make it more difficult."

I don't NOT understand, say, Joyce's seemingly self-defeating efforts, but I can't really put myself into that position - and not only because I've had basically no success as a writer of fiction. What I (think) I mean is, isn't it our nature to want to please others, particularly those others who "like" us, like what we do, want us to do more of it? If a crowd pays good money and goes to the trouble to see Bob Dylan in performance, don't the members of that crowd expect Bob to give them the stand-bys they love? They did, yes, so expect, then came his "electric" turn - call it, in context, his "Joycean turn," when he turned up the volume, first (I believe, though I don't remember for sure) in a concert in England, then at the Newport Jazz Festival, 1965 or so. In both places, he was jeered - but not nearly by so many as legend has it. (Levon Helm, the great drummer/singer for The Band, longtime Dylan back-up group, refused to go onstage with Dylan in England (I think), fearing a riot, or so I've read. Hmmm? I'm an old boy who loves Levon - "loved," that is.) Dylan was, and is, lauded, properly, for his courage, not only the courage in his music but his basically physical courage, facing angry fans and knowing before he faces them, that they'll likely be mean.

Artists get tired of performing the same tricks over and over again, and who can blame them? Well, lots of people seem able to blame them. Hey, what's the difference in going to Chili's, expecting to find that huge fried onion monstrosity on the menu, but finding instead that Chili's has cancelled it - drought, or something, and the price of onions, or the lack of availability, made the dish unprofitable? Tough! We want our onion!

That's a, well, a raw example, admittedly, very weak, in fact. So, maybe we look to Bill Murray, the SNL funny man who tried to go "legit" with Razor's Edge, and had a huge flop; looked to be the end of the line, was the truth of it. Murray, thanks largely to Wes Anderson's Rushmore, got back on track, and so long as he stays fairly close to funny, he's proved resilient. Think, more recently, of Ben Stiller, and his Walter Mitty debacle. Stiller is a success, so long as he does what he does best (in my view, whatever in the world that is). There are other, better, examples - and Parks has one, Samuel Beckett.

"Reading Beckett's letters after the first productions of Waiting for Godot, one has the impression of a man determined to deny fans and critics the profound significance they are convinced must lie behind the play. His increasingly cryptic later works look very much like a reaction against success, a determination not to let the public have its much craved symbolism to as he put it, "take away with a choc-ice at the end of the performance."

In brief, and summation, these artists (and so many others - most others, perhaps all others, whether they all appear to be making the effort or not) want to continue to grow, to not paint the same landscape twice, at least not the same landscape the same way they painted it first. Let's applaud them, because so long as they grow, we have a chance to grow with them. Remember? An earlier post: Ezra Pound's motto: "Make it new." New - duh - means life.

March 26, 2015

Literachoor

Coverage of a new biography of James Laughlin, founder and publisher of New Directions Press, in TNYRB includes this lamentation from Charles Simic, author of the piece: "Fifty years ago, when libraries on army posts in the United States and overseas were often as well stocked as small-town libraries, I came across a large collection of New Directions books in Toul, France, and over a period of fifteen months I got myself an education in modern literature no college course could equal."

How about that? Days gone by. Libraries now, small town and otherwise, very often cannot buy new books, and find it hard enough to stay open -- well, I'm not so sure about that. Many of the small towns with which I am familiar have, in the last several years, built new libraries, and stay awfully busy. I do believe, though, that most of their customers are either pre-school children, there for story hour, or old timers like me, retired, time on our hands, either living in that town or maybe (in the case of tourist places, or warmer climes) just holed up for the winter. We go to the library just to have something to do -- well, again, not exactly. We're accustomed to libraries, still feel they are necessary. I have friends who don't, if you can believe that.

James Laughlin was a scion of a wealthy family, who loved to write, to visit with writers, and who was intent on publishing fine literature -- "literachoor," as pronounced by his friend and sometime mentor, Ezra Pound: "Literachoor is news that stays news," Pound told him. Laughlin said he had known many "epic talkers" in his life, but that Pound was "the standard against whom all other talkers were to be measured." Laughlin, who battled with Pound over Pound's "fascist sympathies," nevertheless said: "I went to him with fairly conventional views about almost everything, and I left him with either very eccentric or radical views about everything -- views which have persisted with me to the present day."

Ezra Pound: "Make it new."

In the last post, I would have written that Dylan's noirish video, and the song he sings in it, is basically a satirical take-off on one of the songs on his new album, "In the Shadows." That's what I would have written, had I known it. The song is from Denis and Adair, and I'm indebted to a reader of this blog for bringing me up to speed. Again, let me mention that great line (even though I know now that it's not one of Bob's): "The sun didn't come up with the dawn." I think that, as soon as I get a little time, I'll write me a line or two like that.

It will be a few days, however. We leave EARLY manana, and after a roundabout trip, will get to Portland probably on Sunday night. We'll be there a couple of months. I'll be in touch. Ouch! Withdrawal pains, I bet.

March 25, 2015

Dylan

Just the other day, a reader and friend sent a link to a YouTube video I sort of ho-hummed pulled up...and came away from it with one more of Bob Dylan's spectacular lines (is he plagued by these lines, overcome by them, punished by them?). In the video, a sort of noir-ish black-and-white little film about a relationship gone bad, Dylan's music is overlayed. It's a song I've never heard before. I have no idea what its title could be. But remember that this is a video story of a bad day, bad things have happened. Dylan sings, "the sun didn't rise with the dawn." That's simply wonderful. Now, if you think you've heard or read that line someplace before, keep it to yourself. I am not interested. Bob Dylan, man, we're talking the greatest. I've read that, as a young man just starting out in the Big Apple, he would sit on the floor of a grungy apartment surrounded by torn-out pages of magazines, strips of lineage from poetry, photographs, and, smoking both cigarettes and dope incessantly, write these great songs. An image, just an image, I guess, would send him off and running.

Now, accompanying his accolades at the Grammys--and his speech! Bring it! Bob does not quit.--I recently read, somewhere, dadgummit, I do not remember where, this: "Music has been liberated from the cumbersome world of material objects, and many people, perhaps especially Dylan's fans, retain a body memory of the feeling of holding in their laps a heavy stack of LPs. In those days, records often came with lyrics printed on the sleeve, as well as liner notes, a mature genre to themselves, now all but forgotten. So, one's encounter with music was often a literary experience, an experience of reading and listening simulataneously. The discrepancies between page and voice were meaningful, and it was the fan's job to articulate those meanings...the holiness of records, the care expected when we handle them, their transformative presence--beyond all but the most special books--in a room...And yet there is something touching, even intimate, about reading these lyrics as poetry, a feeling of being alone with Dylan as no fan has been since his earliest concerts on MacDougal Street...his voice, insisting on the words over the tunes."

Oh, now I remember. Dan Chaisson in The New York Review of Books, and I was happy to see a poet/poetry critic write the review--of the publication of all of Dylan's songs and lyrics--since Dylan is not only our (in my objective and learned view) finest and most inventive poet, but also deserving of inclusion in TNYRB.

I'm with you, Bob. Let's hang in there--all along the watchtower.

March 23, 2015

OK. That First Paragraph

Last post, I mentioned Erik Larson talking about the great first paragraph of Barbara Tuchman's "The Guns of August," a 1962 popular (which means less than rigorous--stuff, in other words, you and I might be able to read) history of WWI, the War to End All Wars, the Great War, uh, the FIRST of an awful lot of wars, and clearly very heated warm-ups for more wars to come. Here it is: "So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and green and blue and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens--four dowager and three regnant--and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again."

Not bad. Pretty good work. And reading it makes me think of other great openings, both paragraphs and first sentences (an obsession of mine), as in "Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice." Man! Let's get GOING, huh? Imagine that boy's life. He must have lived it well.

It's not a first graf, but it's not bad--the third graf in Hemingway's GREAT story, "Soldier's Home:" "By the time Krebs returned to his home town in Oklahoma the greeting of heroes was over. He came back much too late. The men from the town who had been drafted had all been welcomed elaborately on their return. There had been a great deal of hysteria. Now the reaction had set in. People seemed to think it was rather ridiculous for Krebs to be getting back so late, years after the war was over." Tells the story, don't you think? Poor old Krebs is headed for nothing good, and nobody could care. Not even in Oklahoma.

I'm NOT mentioning "Call me Ishmael," from 1851. Marquez's first sentence was published in 1967, BTW (there I go again), and he still had a lot left in the tank. He wound up sunk in Alzheimer's in Mexico City, taken care of and protected by his wife and son. He had a great life, and deserved every bit of it, including the punch in the eye from--was it Carlos Fuentes or, no, the--that's it--great Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, who, the "skinny" has it, punched Garcia Marquez out because GM was having an affair with MVL's wife. I do NOT believe it. I can, however, tell you without a smidgen of doubt that Richard Ford spat in the face of Colson Whitehead, as gratitude for a review of some book or other of Ford's. Bam! Bam! We're badass writers, Colson. Gon' kick yore ass, just because.

Fairly recently, a friend in Portland went OFF on Shirley Hazzard's "The Great Fire." He said, "From the first sentence, I was gone." I'd never read Hazzard, so I got "The Great Fire," and while I was at it, picked up her "Greene in Capri," a memoir of her time(s) in Capri with the novelist Graham Greene, who BTW (dadgummit!) wrote just two pages a day, which added up to a novel every two years. He was not an entirely pleasant person, and, in fact, if he hadn't ducked out when he did, I'd get him by the short hairs and give him the old heave-ho my ownself. But, here is that first sentence, which, in my view, is even better, if we include the entire first graf: "Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation. There were thuds, hoots, whistles, and the shrieks of late arrivals. From a megaphone announcements were incomprehensible in American and Japanese. Before the train had moved at all, the platform faces receded into the expression of those who remain." Not bad, "those who remain," huh? I'm grateful to my friend for turning me onto this novel, which I'm a third of the way into, and ready for more.

One day, I'll let you in on a really awesome first sentence, first graf, or so...when I've come up with it.

March 21, 2015

Rereading with Erik Larson

Non-fiction writer Erik Larson was recently featured in an interesting "By the Book" column in The New York Times. Among other questions, Larson, author most recently of "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania," was asked if he liked to reread. He said, "I love to reread." Asked what he reread (rered?), he said, "I often return to Doctorow's `Ragtime' (which I, too, did, during one of the classes in the MFA program at Portland State, and found it more enjoyable the second time around); Barbara Tuchman's `Guns of August''--that amazing first paragraph (hmmm? I'll look that one up and let you know; I've never read Tuchman); Capote's `In Cold Blood' (I've reread this one, and am glad I did, and would not mind doing it again); Steven Millhauser's `Martin Dressler' (haven't read it; I have a little trouble, reading Millhauser, so I may not get around to this one, even for a first read); Hemingway's `In Our Time' (and it so happens that I have that one right on my desk, referring to it regularly, and invariably profitably); Alice Adams's `Caroline's Daughters' (also one of my wife's favorites--me? Like Clint Eastwood, I never heard of it); Annie Proulx's `The Shipping News'--far and away Annie's best, in my estimation); Elmore Leonard's `LaBrava' (I'm afraid I've not been able to become a real Leonard fan, though a couple of his that were made into movies might be winners; the movies sure were: "3:10 to Yuma," "Get Shorty"); and Richard Ford's `Independence Day' (a great collection, but I've not reread it). But always, always, always I go back to Hammett's `The Maltese Falcon,' easily my single most favorite novel (as it is the favorite, or right up there near the top of favorites, of two of my mentors from the MFA program; you should, if you haven't, try it--or REtry it, to stay in context)."

Larson, BTW and FYI (there I go again), keeps a book full of photographs of miniature dioramas of bloody crime scenes on his shelves, which was a gift from a friend, AND reads "The Night Before Christmas" to his family every Christmas Eve.

I, too, have profited from rereading, though I have in the past not done that much of it, feeling that I have so much that I've not read, but should read. On the other hand, I have, over the past few years, come to realize that, well, let's put it this way: what difference does it make? I've read, and marveled at, say, Franzen's "The Corrections," so, rather than take on "Freedom," which I have no doubt I'd like and admire, but also have no doubt could not out-pace "The Corrections," why not dip back into Hemingway, or, as I've done at least twice, reread "Crime and Punishment?" There may be a right answer, and if there is, tell me.

A note, regarding the last post, about great sportswriters: a constant, and sharp-eyed, reader, wrote to ask how I could leave out Jim Murray, the late LA Times star sportswriter? I was not making a list of my favorites, but had I been, Murray would have been on it. As you may know, he went blind in his last years, but continued to write, albeit--and understandably--at a lessened output. My reader told me of one great Murray line that I'd never read. Writing about the Indianapolis 500, he wrote: "Gentlemen, start your coffins." (I was, and am, confused, however. My reader who wrote said Murray had been asked to be the official guest starter at the race, and SAID that line at the start. I can't imagine he did that, and I probably misunderstood the correspondent's intent. Whatever, the fact remains that Murray, in his line of work, was a man among boys. And I'm grateful to the reader for bringing him, again, to my attention.)

March 18, 2015

Here Sports Comes to Save the Day!

I don't always, but often I will turn to the Sports Page as an antidote to, say, reading about General Petraeus' "slap on the wrist" for giving classified documents, just, as Mick Jagger so eloquently puts it--still--"trying to make some girl," while Manning is in jail for, what, life? and Snowden is in hiding in Russia for, yes! revealing to We The People classified documents because they believed they were doing it for their country. Now that I've also ruined your day, I'll step up to the rescue and turn us all to the Sports Page for a little spiritual rejuvenation.

W.C. Heinz was a great journalist, among the finest of war correspondents, and when he returned from WWII, big papers offered him basically any job he wanted, figuring he'd likely opt for D.C., covering--well, Heinz was ahead of that game, and knew what game really mattered. He began writing sports, and wrote it for a long, long time, and all that time better than pretty much anyone else was writing it, or had written it in the past, and for sure since.

Now, The Library of America has come out with "The Top of His Game," a splendid (or so I've read; I have yet to see the book) collection of his splendid sports coverage, among which are wonderful little bits like this, from an encounter with one of baseball's memorable characters, St. Louis Cardinals third baseman Pepper Martin, explaining his theory involving the old hidden ball trick, Martin's version based on the baking of a piecrust ball: "You throw the piecrust ball to the pitcher. The runner sees it and steps off the bag. You tag him with the real ball, and meantime the pitcher eats the piecrust so there's no evidence." Is that killer or what? It's just an example of why baseball has all the interesting characters, while football and basketball are simply exhibitions of brute strength and amazing athletic ability, performed by Olympian physical specimens, many of whom can barely talk.

Or, say, Heinz's report of one specific instance of horse racing's dirty secret, when horses break their legs and are quickly put down: "That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault." Oh, brother, is that a heart-stopper? Horse racing, like (historically, though not anymore) boxing and baseball, had the colorful characters to go along with the awesome performances, making a novelistically inclined writer's job, not easier exactly, just more fun--and more fun to read about.

Now? Money and politics have shed a dark downpour on the world of sports. Rarely (I'm trying to think of one) will we read about off-the-wall behavior, unless it's drug-inspired. The media has surely been as responsible as anything else, and that's too bad. The "characters" in the press today have no sense of humor, are there because they've been caught for the third time driving drunk, or they've cold-cocked their wives, or, hey, even killed a few people. But...

Wait! That's not why I turn to the Sports Page! I look in that section to read Red Smith, Ring Lardner, Grantland Rice, and W.C. Heinz. If I wanted grimness, I'd read the rest of the Petraeus story.

March 16, 2015

Harper Lee and The Ongoing Saga of Scout

So, following my recent post, concerning the furor over the coming publication of a new novel by Harper Lee, in which I came out on the side of "it would be wiser not to publish," the State of Alabama, via both its Human Resources Department and the Alabama Securities Commission, investigated, interviewing Ms. Lee. While HR is still turning the subject this way and that, the ASC terminated its investigation, following an interview in which, ASC said, "Ms. Lee is lucid in every way, her care is excellent, and she made it very clear she wants the book to be published." All right!

The novel, "Go Set A Watchman," was written before "To Kill A Mockingbird," I think (though I'm not entirely clear about the sequence). There was to be a "bridge" novel between the two, but it was never written. The agent added that, contrary to early reports, "Go Set A Watchman" had not been rejected. Ms. Lee, he said, thought the manuscript had been long lost and/or destroyed, and, he said, "was overjoyed that it was found last August, and that it will be published." In July, the continuing saga of Scout and Atticus and the others will hit the stores - 2 million print run!

The anonymous complaint charged "elder abuse," claiming that Ms. Lee (Nelle is her official first name) was not receiving competent care, and was, in fact, less than in charge of her mental faculties. Her agent, dismissing the complaint as being "as shameful as it is sad," said that, on the contrary, he and she had had conversations over the last few years, in which all sorts of subjects were intelligently discussed, and that she had definite opinions about all matter of topics, including politics (wish I'd been a fly on that wall). He said her decision to long ago remove herself from the hustle and bustle of day-to-day society should be respected. "I think her last session with the press was in 1964."

And he said that her only "health" problems were: hard of hearing, macular degeneration, which, he said, "is common for someone in her late 80's." She is 88.

So, there we have it! Let's expect the best in July, let's hope for the best for Atticus and Scout, AND let's hope, too, that Harper Lee's predictions for the "evolvement" of the South prove at least fairly close to reality.

ON ANOTHER SUBJECT: My last post, about Andrea Barrett, mentioned the importance of "whose story is it?" I should have at least been thorough enough to briefly describe the Genesis of that question. Because Andrea was working on a historical novel ("a" historical or "an" historical?), she had read three or four, perhaps even five, accounts from different people involved in the same event, and not all the accounts meshed. So, the question was begged: "Whose story is it?" She had to decide who her narrator would be, the point of view character.