Archives for October 2009
Goodness gracious, the dithering I’ve done since I wrote here that I’d only be reading Herman Melville in November. Melville’s an author (like Nabokov and Dickens) I’m always sort of in the midst of reading — which is why I initially thought he’d be a good choice. My affection for him felt big enough, burgeoning enough, that it could last out a month of one-on-one fidelity. Also, the writing itself is so varied, with so many moods and voices, that it wouldn’t be such a narrow diet. But no sooner had I stated publicly, “It’s Herman, nothing but Herman,” then I began to feel hollow the way you do when you’re telling a lie and panicked that I’d chosen wrong. I padded into the library, got one of his Library of America books off the shelf and opened it to a random page. It fell open to this passage from White-Jacket:
“The Sultan, Indiaman, from New York, and bound to Callao and Canton, sixty days out, all well. What frigate’s that?”
“The United States ship Neversink, homeward bound.”
“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!” yelled our enthusiastic countryman, transported with patriotism.
By this time the Sultan had swept past, but the Lieutenant of the Watch could not withhold a parting admonition.
“D’ye hear? You’d better take in some of your flying-kites there. Look out for Cape Horn!”
Christ, I thought, I’ll never make it. By Wednesday night I had decided on Nabokov instead, with a focus on the Russian novels (i.e., Invitation to a Beheading, The Gift, Laughter in the Dark, etc.). This would make a neat segue to reading Pushkin and Gogol in December (a Russian Soul odyssey), as well as allow for a day trip to The Original of Laura. Then yesterday it was Eudora Welty — a writer I’ve never read but always meant to. And so on … (The terrible thing: As tiresome as this recital is, it actually represents a radical condensation of interior vacillation.)
I’m now calmed down and it’s back to Melville (Herman, nothing but Herman). The proposed syllabus: Typee (first time); Redburn (partly read, loved, yet inexplicably abandoned halfway); Moby-Dick (a reread); and, time allowing, The Confidence-Man (first time), which makes an arc from the start of his writing to the near-end.
Two things that brought me back to Melville. First, this famous note from Hawthorne’s journals about a visit the two had in England*:
… on the intervening day, we took a pretty long walk together, and sat down in a hollow among the sand hills … and smoked a cigar. Melville, as he always does, began to reason of Providence and futurity, and of everything that lies beyond human ken, and informed me that he had “pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated;” but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists–and had persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before-in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other. If he were a religious man, he would be one of the most truly religious and reverential; he has a very high and noble nature, and better worth of immortality than most of us.
(Excerpt taken from Elizabeth Hardwick’s marvelous Penguin Life study.)
The second, if you can bear it, has to do with the opening of his story “The Paradise of Bachelors and the Tartarus of Maids,” which, as I’ve recalled it and let it play in my head, has gradually overridden the panic engendered by the White-Jacket passage. Here is how it starts:
It lies not far from Temple-Bar.
Going to it, by the usual way, is like stealing from a heated plain into some cool, deep glen, shady among harboring hills.
Sick with the din and soiled with the mud of Fleet Street — where the Benedick tradesmen are hurrying by, with ledger-lines ruled along their brows, thinking upon rise of bread and fall of babies — you adroitly turn a mystic corner — not a street — glide down a dim, monastic way flanked by dark, sedate, and solemn piles, and still wending on, give the whole care-worn world the slip, and, disentangled, stand beneath the quiet cloisters of the Paradise of Bachelors.
Sweet are the oases in Sahara; charming the isle-groves of August prairies; delectable pure faith amidst a thousand perfidies: but sweeter, still more charming, most delectable, the dreamy Paradise of Bachelors, found in the stony heart of stunning London.
In mild meditation pace the cloisters; take your pleasure, sip your leisure, in the garden waterward; go linger in the ancient library, go worship in the sculptured chapel: but little have you seen, just nothing do you know, not the sweet kernel have you tasted, till you dine among the banded Bachelors …
Read the rest here.
* Hawthorne’s journal also notes that Melville ” … arrived in Southport with the least little bit of a bundle, which, he told me, contained a night shirt and a tooth-brush. He is a person of very gentlemanly instincts in every respect, save that he is a little heterodox in the matter of clean linen.”
This was a good week on Broadway. David Cromer’s production of Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs and the new revival of Finian’s Rainbow, both of which I review in this morning’s Wall Street Journal, are exceptionally fine and persuasive mountings of deeply flawed shows. Here’s an excerpt.
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The trouble with “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” in which Eugene Jerome (Noah Robbins), the author’s fictional mouthpiece, tells us how it felt to be a teenager in Brooklyn on the eve of World War II, is that it’s a slice of life with too much frosting on top. As always with Mr. Simon, the characters all talk like stand-up comics, frothing at the mouth with one-liners (“Her windows are so filthy, I thought she had black curtains hanging inside”) instead of letting laughter arise naturally from the situations in which they find themselves. Mr. Simon abruptly turns off the wisecrack tap in the second act, thereby signaling that he’s Getting Serious. For 20 minutes or so the squabbling members of the Jerome family lob grenades of pent-up rage and frustration at one another. Then they kiss, make up and send everybody home happy, save for those suckers who were briefly fooled into thinking that Mr. Simon’s bait-and-switch act is something other than a sentimental portrayal of the splendors and miseries of Jewish family life circa 1937.
What Mr. Cromer has done to “Brighton Beach Memoirs” is stage it for truth, not laughs, as if it were a play by Alan Ayckbourn–or Chekhov. Except for Mr. Robbins, whose squirmingly self-conscious speeches to the audience give him little choice but to be charming, nobody overeggs the pudding, nor is anyone too pretty or too cute. Dennis Boutsikaris and Laurie Metcalf, who play Eugene’s parents, carry themselves not like sitcom characters but human beings…
I’m not going to try to tell you that all this effort has turned “Brighton Beach Memoirs” into a theatrical masterpiece. It’s still a commercial comedy into which a freshening dollop of vinegar has been stirred. But by steering clear of coarse trickery, David Cromer has made the Jerome family seem immeasurably more real without diminishing the play’s still-considerable entertainment value….
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more musically satisfying Broadway show than “Finian’s Rainbow.” Not only is the Yip Harburg-Burton Lane score a string of flawlessly cut gems, but everyone involved with the production takes the songs seriously, performing them with love and sensitivity….
Unfortunately, there comes a time in “Finian’s Rainbow” when the actors stop singing and start talking, at which point it becomes excruciatingly clear that the book, by Harburg and Fred Saidy, is a heavy-handed mishmash of Irish whimsy-whamsy and smug sanctimony….
Go for the music. It’s worth it.
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Read the whole thing here.
Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View, a thirteen-part TV series about Western art and culture, first aired on the BBC in 1969 and on PBS a year later. The series was hugely popular in both countries. Today, however, it’s mostly forgotten save by specialists in TV history. A couple of weeks ago the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., hosted a panel discussion of Civilisation and its significance, but to date PBS has shown no interest in commemorating its fortieth anniversary.
In this week’s “Sightings” column for The Wall Street Journal I reflect on why Civilisation is no longer well remembered–and explain why many present-day intellectuals hold it in contempt. Pick up a copy of Saturday’s Journal and see what I have to say.
UPDATE: Read the whole thing here.
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The opening sequence of “The Skin of Our Teeth,” the first episode of Civilisation:
“If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics! Men without ambition! Jellyfish!”
Preston Sturges, screenplay for The Great McGinty
Here’s my list of recommended Broadway, off-Broadway, and out-of-town shows, updated weekly. In all cases, I gave these shows favorable reviews (if sometimes qualifiedly so) in The Wall Street Journal when they opened. For more information, click on the title.
Warning: Broadway shows marked with an asterisk were sold out, or nearly so, last week.
• Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps (comedy, G, suitable for bright children, closes Jan. 10, reviewed here)
• God of Carnage * (serious comedy, PG-13, adult subject matter, closes Jan. 3, reviewed here)
• Oleanna (drama, PG-13/R, adult subject matter, violence, reviewed here)
• South Pacific * (musical, G/PG-13, some sexual content, brilliantly staged but unsuitable for viewers acutely allergic to preachiness, reviewed here)
• A Steady Rain * (drama, R, totally unsuitable for children, closes Dec. 6, reviewed here)
• Superior Donuts (dark comedy, PG-13, violence, reviewed here)
• Avenue Q (musical, R, adult subject matter and one show-stopping scene of puppet-on-puppet sex, reviewed here)
• The Emperor Jones (drama, PG-13, contains racially sensitive language, extended through Dec. 6, reviewed here)
• The Fantasticks (musical, G, suitable for children capable of enjoying a love story, reviewed here)
• Our Town (drama, G, suitable for mature children, reviewed here)
“Encounters with the real, in particular what we really feel, are something we generally try to avoid. Art mediates the encounter, allowing us to get nearer to our longing and our loss, to risk more, to dare more.”
Jeanette Winterson, “In Praise of the Crack-Up” (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 17, 2009)
This weekend I realized how much my reading habits have come to resemble my Internet-surfing. I skip from book to book, dipping in, skimming and grazing, as if each book were an article I was reading online. If the book isn’t amazing, I rarely get past the first quarter — let alone finish it. Of course, at least once in a while, I’m abandoning the book out of shrewish old age. I have less patience for terrible books than I used to. But most of the time, I have to admit, it’s not the books that are bad, it’s me: I’ve become a terrible reader.
The first, most obvious reason: Online reading has trained my eyes to be more peripatetic on the page. The favored online writing style is zippy and fast – you get the takeway even as your attention is skittering away, onto the next link. The other night as I was reading, I noticed my eyes were shifting up and down the page, instead of left to right, a sign that I read more on a monitor most days than on a page, but also a symptom that I was out of condition for any sort of complicated sentence: “Where’s your kicker, Henry James? Your bullets? Your boldfaced exclamations?” And my brain was roving around just as much as my gaze was: mentally rummaging in the kitchen cupboards (chips?), wondering if I had any new email (probably not), and brooding on my petty jealousies and everyday activities (endless).
The above has been well recorded in many places. With the next, I wonder if it’s strictly personal, or if others of you have noticed this about yourselves too. It’s the observation that the Internet for all its virtues — and let me interject here and say that I love the Internet, some of my best friends are the Internet, etc. — has given me an overly inflated sense of my own ability to learn and appreciate new things. I’ve always liked to read several books at once (do you want to read a book about volcanoes tonight, or a novel? Who knows? Better have them both with you!), but this weekend I counted and I had some twenty books in different stages of being read around the house, ones I felt I couldn’t bear to return to the library or put back on their proper shelves because “I’m reading it.” I’ve fallen into the habit of bringing a stack of three to four into bed with me at night — picking them up from around the house as I turn off lights like a grocery shopper ambling through the produce section picking whatever pretty fruit strikes the fancy. On the one hand, thus has it always been — people who like books will have books in their bed, will have far more books on their reading list than they will ever finish, etc. On the other, I think when you casually read a couple hundred little news items, interesting posts and articles online in day, it get frightfully easy to carry a glib sense of engagement away with you from the computer — to want to click along to the next book whenever you’re bored. And on some deeper level, I wonder if the Internet with its ready and immediate access to anything I want to know, has given me a false sense that I’m capable of knowing it, i.e., that I can suck in all that knowledge like Evil Willow draining books at the magic shop. Even as my reading habits have gotten sloppier, have I come to think I’m someone who’s capable of reading three or four books before bed? That I’ll wake up and suddenly be the man who knew everything? Put another way: If the Internet is infinite, has it made me forget that I’m finite?
Again, none of these are new habits of mind, but they feel exaggerated by my Internet use. So it’s with sorrow but determination that I announce I’m signing off of it forever. Ha ha, just kidding! But what I am doing is orchestrating a new reading regime, a sort of course correction, to make myself a better reader offline. I’ve used this system in the past when I felt like my Gemini brain had gotten disorderly, and it’s worked well. It’s to read one author and one author only for a month. No leaping around within the oeuvre, either. It’s one book at a time. Front to back. After a lot of thought and vacillation, I’ve decided November is Herman Melville month. Nothing but Herman until December.* So good-bye, Orlando, Lolly Willowes, Daniel Deronda, and Oryx and Crake; goodbye, Werner Herzog in Brazil and fascinating academic book about Russian Byronism; goodbye, Rebecca Solnit and Randall Jarrell; good-bye, promising if potentially infuriating book** about Charlotte and Emily Bronte’s Belgian school essays; good-bye I Lost It At The Movies; and even you, Nabby, good-bye. You’re all wonderful, but I will see you later.
* Allowable exceptions: My bookclub book for this month, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided; the rest of Sarah Hrdy’s Mother Nature (I’m almost through!); and any research books for the novel. But with the latter the same one at a time rule applies.
** Complete non sequitur but: I’ve noticed this trend among Bronte scholars to be snide about Charlotte, as if in order to properly appreciate Emily (or even Anne or Branwell) it were somehow necessary to knock Charlotte down several pegs. Juliet Barker, author of an otherwise excellent biography, I’m looking at you. And Elizabeth Hardwick, you too (except I love you so I’m not looking that hard). This makes me furious. Some day, I tell you … well, I’ll storm into a Bronte Society Meeting and create quite a scene.
UPDATE: Oh, the Internet. No sooner did I prepare this post then I saw The Elegant Variation has started a discussion on this same topic, using this essay by David Ulin as a jumping-off point.
Duke Ellington plays Billy Strayhorn’s “Isfahan” in 1965, with Johnny Hodges on alto saxophone:
(This is the latest in a weekly series of arts-related videos that appear in this space each Wednesday.)
“I can’t think of anything more exciting than going to bed with a half-finished paragraph.”
Eric Hoffer, in conversation with Eric Sevareid (The Passionate State of Mind: Eric Hoffer, CBS, Sept. 19, 1967)