Archives for November 2005
– Tennessee Williams’ weekly share in 1945 of the box-office receipts from The Glass Menagerie: $1,000
– The same amount in today’s dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $10,504.82
(Source: Donald Spoto, The Kindness of Strangers)
“It makes me very aware of my wasted life as an artist; I should have chucked security and settled for Bohemianism in which my talents might have flowered more originally. Perhaps wife and child and the desire for roots have been a mistake. I should have given an adventurous Lear by now and invented a clown. Ah well. What I have is a dear good wife, a dear good son and a house with views of rolling downs, trees, grass, and open skies. And a pretty good collection of books.”
Alec Guinness (diary entry, Jan. 1, 1981)
What’s that you say? You could really stand to read just one more review of John Banville’s Booker-winning novel The Sea? Well, you’re in luck. I threw my two cents into that crowded field in last Sunday’s Baltimore Sun.
I found the book lovely and absorbing, but its denouement deflating:
It takes a sure hand and an absolutely arresting style to make this sort of highly interior, small-scale fiction compelling. Banville, his sentences strikingly visual and perfectly tuned, is more than equal to the challenge. Moreover, the character in whose mind we spend the whole of this short novel is neither remarkable nor likable. Having made the climb to the middle class, Max is a bit of a snob. He is comically self-absorbed, squeamish and habitually condescending to women. The book doesn’t invite us to identify with him, so when his interior monologue hits a nerve, it has to do with the truly universal aspects of human experience – vanity, ambivalence about mortality, awe of the natural world, romantic and sexual infatuation.
In a sense, despite its narrow point of view and mundane subject matter, burrowing psychological fiction like this is more ambitious than fiction with a wider lens. For most of The Sea, Banville succeeds brilliantly at making quite gripping reading out of the dwindling, ordinary life of an ordinary man. The drabness of Max’s present existence is offset by the heady, luminous quality of his memories. The day he kissed Chloe Grace “had been sombre and wet and hung with big-bellied clouds when we were going into the picture-house in what had still been afternoon and now at evening was all tawny sunlight and raked shadows, the scrub grass dripping with jewels and a red sail-boat out on the bay turning its prow and setting off toward the horizon’s already dusk-blue distances.”
Of course, everyone’s memories seem splendid and suggestive to them, and for most of the novel it doesn’t appear that Banville is making any special claims for the extraordinariness of Max’s past, however much the character may be rapt at the ongoing slide show in his head.
At the end of the book, however, we learn that the memories Max has immersed himself in are part of an extraordinary story indeed. Secrets are revealed, and The Sea snaps into focus as a very different book than it had appeared to be, a book with a twist and a scandal at its core. To my mind, it becomes a lesser one: no less intelligent and skillful, but less moving and ambitious than when it was apparently scrutinizing mundane experience.
But still well worth reading. This line, quoted earlier in my review, was one that particularly interested me: “Memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still.” Although this seems to be intended in part as a reflection of the protagonist’s vocation as an art historian–of Bonnard specifically, with his sensual stolen domestic moments–it’s close to my experience, too, of very intense memories. They’re snapshots, frozen motion. I loved the rich texture of the ordinary in this novel, and wished that Banville had been content to convey that. The mystery unveiled at the end felt distinctly superfluous.
Joseph Epstein has published a sharply negative reconsideration of the criticism of Edmund Wilson (whom he once admired) in the December issue of Commentary. The essay isn’t yet posted on the Web, but it doesn’t matter, because I don’t want to talk about Wilson. Instead, I’m interested in the following passage:
One of the advantages artists have over critics is that they can be nearly complete damn fools and still produce interesting and important, even lasting, art. Critics are not permitted such large margins of stupidity. It matters that they get things right; their opinions, which is all they chiefly have, are crucial.
These three sentences need a certain amount of unpacking. For starters, they contain a planted axiom–critics aren’t artists–which some readers will find controversial. Not me, though I think criticism can be artful, and should be. Nothing is more tiresome than a badly written review of a well-written book. In general, though, it seems to me self-evident that criticism normally derives its meaning and significance from the works of art about which the critic writes. It doesn’t stand alone. Great art, by contrast, always stands alone, in the sense that it contains within itself all the information necessary for it to be meaningfully experienced. You’ll get more out of All the King’s Men if you know who Huey Long was, but you don’t have to know anything about him–or Robert Penn Warren–to grasp the point of the novel, or be moved by it, just as you don’t have to know anything about Mozart to appreciate the G Minor Symphony.
Having said this, I’m not entirely sure I agree with Epstein when he suggests that the most important thing about criticism is that it “get things right.” Of course it’s desirable to be right, and I don’t see how it’s possible to take seriously a critic who’s wrong about most things. Nevertheless, I’m uneasy with the notion that “getting things right” is the ultimate test of a critic’s worth, just as I’m not entirely willing to go along with the notion that criticism isn’t art. George Bernard Shaw and Virgil Thomson, the two greatest music critics of modern times, got all sorts of things wrong, but even at their most willful they never failed to be both interesting and artful. I’d rather read Thomson on, say, Paul Hindemith (whom he completely misunderstood) than Olin Downes on anything, even though Downes was more likely than Thomson to be “right” on any given subject. The trouble with Thomson is that he was violently prejudiced and thus unreliable. The trouble with Downes is that he was boring. Whom would you rather read?
Of course Thomson wasn’t just a critic, he was also a composer, and I think that makes a difference, though I’d be hard pressed to say exactly what it is. It’s easier to explain in the case of Shaw, who was, like him or not (and I don’t), an imaginative writer of high style and memorable personality. These things cannot be separated: a memorable personality is the enabling condition of a great style. We read Shaw’s music criticism for what it tells us about music, but it’s no less worth reading for what it tells us about Shaw.
This is part of what I was getting at in the last chapter of The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken:
He was, of course, something more than a memorable stylist, if something less than a truly wise man. Daniel Aaron speaks of “the great comic writer who as time passes will be remembered less for what he said than how he said it,” but the fact remains that his charm is inseparable from his habits of thought. However perverse or excessive his underlying ideas may be, they retain much of their impelling force. One cannot help being impressed by the stubborn way in which Mencken the self-made philosopher grapples, in his unpretentious, take-no-prisoners way, with the permanent things: the limits of art, the rule of law, the meaning of life. The simplicity, one comes to realize, is inseparable from the message. In Mencken, style and content are one, and the resulting alloy is more than merely individual: it is a matchlessly exact expression of the American temper.
That’s where the art comes in. If you can write like Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, and if you have a personality as interesting as theirs, you don’t have to be “right” in order to be taken seriously as a critic. You are, in fact, an artist–a personal essayist whose subject matter is art.
But what about the rest of us? I can turn a pretty phrase, but I’m not nearly as stylish a writer as Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, or as interesting a personality. Hence I’m obliged to attend more closely to the pedestrian virtues, the first of which is being right. Maybe that’s what Epstein meant. Anybody who thinks he’s as good as Mencken or Shaw or Thomson, after all, is probably delusional. Of course you might be that good–but you’d better not count on it. I sure don’t.
I doubt that many people under the age of forty remember Victor Borge, the comedian-pianist who died in 2000 at the miraculous age of ninety-one. He was a star for a very long time, first on radio, then TV, and Comedy in Music, his 1953 one-man show, ran for 849 consecutive performances on Broadway, a record which so far as I know remains unbroken. From there he went on the road and stayed there, giving sixty-odd concerts in the season before his death. Borge spent his old age basically doing Comedy in Music over and over again, which never seemed to bother anybody. I reviewed it twice for the Kansas City Star in the Seventies, and loved it both times. His Danish-accented delivery was so droll and his timing so devastatingly exact that even the most familiar of his charming classical-music spoofs somehow remained fresh, as you can see by watching any of the various videos of his act.
It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when so popular a comedian started out as a serious musician, much less one who became popular by making witty fun of the classics. Such a thing could only have happened in the days when America’s middlebrow culture was still intact and at the height of its influence. Back then the mass media, especially TV, went out of their way to introduce ordinary people to classical music and encouraged them to take it seriously–which didn’t mean they couldn’t laugh at it, too, as Borge proved whenever he sat down to play.
Borge’s act resembled a straight piano recital gone wrong. He’d start to play a familiar piece like Clair de lune or the “Moonlight” Sonata, then swerve off in some improbable-sounding direction, never getting around to finishing what he started. Yet he was clearly an accomplished pianist, though few of his latter-day fans had any idea how good he’d been (he studied with Egon Petri, Busoni’s greatest pupil). He usually made a point of playing a piece from start to finish toward the end of every concert, and I remember how delighted I was each time I heard him ripple through one of Ignaz Friedman’s bittersweet Viennese-waltz arrangements, which he played with a deceptively nonchalant old-world panache that never failed to leave me longing for an encore. Alas, he never obliged, and in later years I found myself wondering whether he’d really been quite so fine as my memory told me.
This story has a happy ending. I saw Borge on an old What’s My Line? episode the other day, which inspired me to look him up on the Web. Within a few clicks I’d made my way to a YouTube video consisting of unpublished recordings on which he tcan be heard playing (surprise) Friedman waltzes. Nowadays I know a whole lot more about golden-age piano playing now than I did back in the Seventies. Among other things, I’ve gotten to know Friedman’s own recordings, including his marvelously mercurial performances of three of the same waltz arrangements that Borge liked to play. Could he possibly have been up to the standard set by Friedman? I played the video with some trepidation, only to discover that my youthful ear hadn’t played me false: Borge, it turns out, could play with the utmost stylishness and sensitivity whenever it suited him to do so. You’ll never hear more elegant piano playing–not even from Ignaz Friedman himself.
I can’t tell you how glad I am to know that. It would have been too sad to find out long after the fact that Victor Borge’s playing had been no better than adequate. Life is hard enough without having to suffer purely gratuitous disillusionments. What joy, then, to discover that some things in this world really are as good as they’re cracked up to be.
– Commissioning fee paid to Martha Graham by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University in 1946 for choreographing Cave of the Heart: $500
– The same amount in today’s dollars, courtesy of Inflation Calculator: $5,134.32
(Source: Barbara B. Heyman, Samuel Barber)
“The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.”
Oscar Wilde, letter to the editor of the Scots Observer (1890)