Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Darwyn Cooke (1962–2016)

What to say about Darwyn Cooke?

He's dead, and that is awful. That's the first thing, the reason I'm writing this. He was only fifty-four. Cancer. I can't imagine what his family and friends are going through. My heart aches for them.

For the rest of us, well, it's a version of that pain many of us felt recently when Prince died. The grief that can't help but be awkward because it's simultaneously real and attenuated--it's genuine grief felt about a person we knew only through their work. Yet . . . I have no qualms about calling it actual grief. We develop a relationship with the people who make the art we love, the art that gives our world so much of its depth and richness. The "they" whom we love may ultimately bear only a passing resemblance to the person grieved by friends and family, but if the art is genuine, there's nonetheless a reality there: the self bleeds through; the artist, if we take engage with them seriously, takes on a form and role not wholly dissimilar to that of once-close friends who are now distant, encountered mostly in virtual spaces. I have no trouble saying that I love, actually love, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Rex Stout, Barbara Pym, Henry James, Anthony Powell, and on and on. I wouldn't have wanted to spend a country weekend with Tolstoy, let alone be married to him, but lord, I love that man despite. It's real, and it is a powerful force in shaping the world--so much of it constructed, moment to moment, by my own reflections on it--in which I live and act every day. Darwyn Cooke made my life better, and I'm my grief that he won't be able to keep making beautiful, creative art is genuine.

I never met Darwyn Cooke. We exchanged e-mails a couple of times in the course of his work illustrating and designing the cover of my dreams for The Getaway Car. But mostly I knew him as any fan did: through his wonderful comics art and stories. Let's start with Parker.

In the fifty-plus years since Donald Westlake sat down at the typewriter and discovered Richard Stark's voice, there's been no one who translated Parker into a visual medium as effectively and faithfully as Cooke. His clean-lined midcentury style, redolent of both the silver age and, in its backgrounds, architecture, and use of watercolors, midcentury magazine illustration, put Parker squarely in his era. And Cooke's creativity in storytelling and narrative technique, which saw him combine panel-to-panel comics, fake magazine stories, cartoony comic strips, and more, enabled him to turn Stark's brilliantly clockwork plots into suspenseful pages.

At the same time, he captured an aspect of the Parker novels that is often overlooked: their humor. Richard Stark was Westlake's hardboiled voice, but like a recidivist criminal, he wasn't a man who could ever go wholly straight. I love these two panels from The Score on that front--we've all wanted to say this to Grofield at one point or another.

The Parker adaptations were wonderful. But they're not even Cooke's greatest achievement. I've been reading comics off and on for thirty years. I have a deep and abiding love for superheroes, and a considered awareness of what they can be at their best--and of what we all too often find ourselves accepting as good enough, through some mix of nostalgia and appreciation of comfort food. I'm the twelve-year-old boy who wore out issues of The Amazing Spider-Man with re-reading and can still access reverberations of those feelings, yet knows, to quote (let's imagine) Ben Grimm, that most of it ain't Proust.

The New Frontier, a six-issue miniseries written and drawn by Cooke and published by DC in 2004, is better than that. It's the best comic I've ever read. Hands down. In it, Cooke re-tells the story of DC's Silver Age--of the characters and the moment that people still think of when they hear "comic book" or "superhero," the birth of the Justice League and team-ups between Batman and Robin and Superman, Flash and Wonder Woman and Green Lantern and all.

Cooke does so in a visual style that honors, without wholly aping, the style of the 1950s comics he's drawing on--and setting it within the larger visual and design sensibility of the period. An attentive reader of The New Frontier stares at least as much at furniture and signage as at super-sculpted physiques.

This was a beautiful era visually, among the cherished remnants of which we live today, and Cooke gives us that almost casually throughout the series. But that's only part of his period aim. His larger point was to put these stories themselves, and the characters who powered them, into the actual context of their era.

Written out that way, it sounds like a terrible idea, a recipe for tendentious tales of nuclear fears and the Red Scare. In Cooke's hands, it becomes something different, something that feels honest and organic. Re-reading it now, it calls to mind the later seasons of Mad Men, when the writers had gotten past the first season's tendency to superciliously gawp at history and instead were telling actual stories of a time now lost--which enabled them to generate the only nostalgia that's not toxic: an honest, clear-eyed nostalgia, one that acknowledges that every passing of time entails loss, no matter how it's balanced by gains.

That tug, the pull of the imperfect past, is powerful in The New Frontier. We feel the energy, hope, and technocratic drive of postwar America, even as we acknowledge its darker side.

At the same time, Cooke avoided two major contemporary pitfalls, darkness and irony. His Silver Age is beset by actual problems, the Cold War being the source of most of them. But the tone of the comic is light and hopeful: these are superheroes, people who can do things we can only imagine--and the whole point of imagining them in the first place is to give us people to look up to, to trust in, to thrill to. Cooke lets them be heroes. And he also lets the relative simplicity of the era remain untroubled. Look at this full page, where Robin meets Batman for the first time.

That's powerful earnestness, and Cooke is letting it stand. Throughout the series, he shows us the 1950s inflected by our own time-shifted understanding, but at the same time he lets the era be itself, with nearly all its relative innocence. These are that rare thing: comics that adults and kids can enjoy alike. It's a genuinely thrilling, exhilarating series.

Nearly seventy years after the creation of Superman, sixty-five since Batman, and half a century after the creation of the Justice League, who would have thought there would be anything new to say? There will always be new adventures, of course; that's the beauty of mythological-style characters and serial narrative. But who could have imagined that there would be anything to say, especially looking backwards, that feels as fundamental as what Cooke created in re-telling the story of these heroes? With due deference to the giants, not just from DC but from Marvel and indies, on whose shoulders it was built, The New Frontier is the greatest comics series ever written.

Rest in peace, Darwyn Cooke. You made something truly special, and we'll never forget it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Bakewell on Montaigne

I'm currently reading Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist Cafe, an account for the smart generalist of the roots, thought, and key figures of existentialism. I'm not deep enough into it to share anything more detailed than good impressions thus far: if the existentialists interest you at all, it's probably worth taking a look.

What brings me here today--breaking an irritatingly long work-driven hiatus--however, is what I found when I pulled Bakewell's book off my shelf: the handful of pages that I tore out of the galley of her excellent book on Montaigne, How to Live, after I read it in 2013. Torn-out pages, you gasp? I had a reason: I read the book while traveling in Japan, and I was carrying so many books that I was ready to lighten my load any way possible--including throwing out the galley after I'd read it. But . . . what was I to do about the pages I'd dog-eared to share with you folks later? Rip!

So here, four years, a change of address, and another trip to Japan later, they are. First, there's this, from a section that compares Stoics and Epicureans, emphasizing their interest in thought experiments that involved imagining the last day of your life:
Some Stoics even acted out these "last moment" experiments with props and a supporting cast. Seneca wrote of a wealthy man called Pacuvius, who conducted a full-scale funeral ceremony for himself every day, ending with a feast after which he would have himself carried from the table to his bed on a bier while all the guests and servants intoned, "He has lived his life, he has lived his life."
Which, we can all surely agree, seems a bit much.

Though if we're honest can we say that's any worse--for the servants, at least--than this silliness?
[Montaigne] was so determined to get to the bottom even of a phenomenon that was normally lost by definition--sleep--that he had a long-suffering servant wake him regularly in the middle of the night in the hope of catching a glimpse of his own unconsciousness as it left him.
Then there's this, on Montaigne's dislike of small talk:
As well as banishing formal etiquette, Montaigne discouraged tedious small talk. Self-conscious solo performances bored him too. Some of his friends could keep a group rapt for hours with anecdotes, but Montaigne preferred a natural give and take. At official dinners away from home, where the talk was merely conventional, his attention would wander; if someone suddenly addressed him, he would often make inappropriate replies, "unworthy of a child." He regretted this for easy conversation in trivial situations was valuable: it opened the path to deeper relationships, and to the more pleasant evenings where one could joke and laugh at ease.
While I am frustrated by small talk in theory, Montaigne here hits upon one of the reasons I admire those who do it well: it puts others at ease, and it begins the labor of opening a space of comfort in which, down the line, we might place more meaningful conversation. Sports and the weather have been the first steps in many a friendship.

In the following passage Bakewell identifies one of the most lasting, important aspects of Montaigne's genius: his "sense of how one could survive public catastrophe without losing one's self-respect":
Long after the sixteenth-century Stoic Montaigne was forgotten, readers in troubled times continued to think of him as a role model. His Essays offered practical wisdom on questions such as how to face up to intimidation, and how to reconcile the conflicting demands of openness and security. . . . Just as you could seek mercy from an enemy forthfrghtly, without compromising yourself, or defend your property by electing to leave it undefended, so you could get through an inhumane war by remaining human.
Throughout the twentieth century, Bakewell points out, readers--Stefan Zweig one of the most prominent among them--found in Montaigne a shelter and a guide, a reminder that troubled times pass, and that extremism is always best opposed by openness and moderation.

Part of that openness comes down to a willingness to accept that one's own knowledge has limits--as in this passage, which Bakewell glosses nicely:
"If others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off--though I don't know."

That final coda--"though I don't know"--is pure Montaigne. One must imagine it appended, in spirit, to almost everything he ever wrote. His whole philosophy is captured in this paragraph. Yes, he says, we are foolish, but we cannot be any other way so we may as well relax and live with it.
Indeed. And it's better to live with it alongside Montaigne than without him. If you've only read some Montaigne, or none, or even if you'd already count yourself a fan, I heartily recommend How to Live: it transformed me from an occasional thoughtless dipper-into the Essays to someone who finds them endlessly readable and--perhaps more important--thinkable, and Montaigne himself from some forbidding, white-ruffed figure from the distant past into someone with whom I feel we're having a conversation. It's a remarkable achievement.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

He Knew He Was Right

"I do not know that in any literary effort I ever fell more completely short of my own intention than in this story."

That's Anthony Trollope, writing in his autobiography about his 1867 novel He Knew He Was Right. Given how prolific Trollope was, that's surely sufficient reason to stay away from it, right? I'm here to tell you otherwise.

Here's how Trollope frames his failed intention:
It was my purpose to create sympathy for the unfortunate man who, while endeavouring to do his duty to all around him, should be led constantly astray by his unwillingness to submit his own judgment to the opinion of others. The man is made to be unfortunate enough, and the evil which he does is apparent. So far I did not fail, but the sympathy has not been created yet. I look upon the story as being nearly altogether bad. It is redeemed by certain scenes in the house and vicinity of an old maid in Exeter. But a novel which in its main parts is bad cannot, in truth, be redeemed by the vitality of subordinate characters.
He's right--to a point. Louis Trevelyan, the gentleman whose prideful obstinacy and jealousy of his wife (whom he puts away from him over unfounded fears of infidelity) set the events of the book in motion, never garners more than our incidental sympathy. He is almost bereft of compelling qualities or congeniality, and the changes his character undergoes are all significantly for the worse: stubbornness becomes mania as self-inflicted emotional wounds become septic. Yet even as we can't quite sympathize with him, his decline nonetheless manages to take on a genuinely tragic hue. There's an fatal inexorability to the novel that feels more like the work of Hardy than Trollope, and it generates its own fascination, fascination that adheres to Trevelyan. Trollope may have failed to achieve his specific goal, but that goal seems secondary, inessential, when considered alongside the story he ended up telling.

Even leaving aside Trevelyan, however, the book is worth reading, if for no other reason than to remind yourself that no male Victorian novelist wrote about women with anything like the seriousness, care, and honesty of Trollope. And while Trevelyan may not command our sympathy, the women who orbit him--his estranged wife, her sister, and some friends--certainly do. More than anything else, He Knew He Was Right is an examination, and indictment, of the place of women in Victorian society, and of the severe limits that placed on their choices.

I'll share just a couple of examples. This one comes soon after an intelligent and attractive, but poor, young woman has realized that she'll soon be asked for her hand by a young clergyman . . . who could not be more dull, and whom everyone assumes she'll accept:
Was it then really written in the book of the Fates that she, Dorothy Stanbury was to become Mrs. Gibson? Poor Dorothy began to feel that she was called upon to exercise an amount of thought and personal decision to which she had not been accustomed. Hitherto, in the things which she had done, or left undone, she had received instructions which she could obey. . . . But when she was told that she was to marry Mr. Gibson, it did seem to her to be necessary to do something more than obey. Did she love Mr. Gibson? She tried hard to teach herself to think that she might learn to love him. He was a nice-looking man enough, with sandy hair, and a head rather bald, with thin lips, and a narrow nose, who certainly did preach drawling sermons; but of whom everybody said that he was a very excellent clergyman. He had a house and an income, and all Exeter had long since decided that he was a man who would certainly marry. He was one of those men of whom it may be said that they have no possible claim to remain unmarried. He was fair game, and unless he surrendered himself to be bagged before long, would subject himself to just and loud complaint. The Misses Frenches had been aware of him, and had thought to make sure of him among them. . . . That Dorothy herself should have any doubt as to accepting Mr. Gibson, was an idea that never occurred to them. But Dorothy had her doubts. When she came to think of it, she remembered that she had never as yet spoken a word to Mr. Gibson, beyond such trifling remarks as are made over a tea-table. She might learn to love him, but she did not think that she loved him as yet.
For as much as Trollope deploys the metaphor of the hunt with the Gibson as the game, he also lets Dorothy feel the panic of the hunted as well. This, he says, is what it feels like to be cut out from the herd by the eye of the predator--and, worse, to be told you mustn't fight it.

Later, Trollope gets even more explicit about the limitations placed on women. Nora, a young woman who has decided to marry a man of limited means, finds herself looking for a home to bridge the brief gap between when her parents are departing England for their colonial home and when her future husband will likely be able to welcome her into his. This causes no end of consternation, as one option after another turns out to be unworkable. Finally, in a discussion with her parents and sisters, Nora is fed up:
"If papa will allow me something ever so small, and will trust me, I will live alone in lodgings," said Nora.

"It is the maddest thing I ever heard," said Sir Marmaduke.

"Who would take care of you, Nora?" asked Lady Rowley.

"And who would walk about with you?" said Lucy.

"I don't see how it would be possible to live alone like that," said Sophie.

"Nobody would take care of me, and nobody would walk about with me, and I could live alone very well," said Nora. "I don't see why a young woman is to be supposed to be so absolutely helpless as all that comes to."
Nora's response is so simple, so sensible, that reading it today is almost painful. Of course she could do what she says--everything we know about her to that point has established her independence and strength. But . . . nice girls don't do that. They can't.

As much as anything else I've read in a long time, that scene sent me into the past, recent and distant both. I remember being 18, then 22, and the excitement that came with striking out on my own. And I remember the rush of freedom that came with realizing that I could pay my bills myself by working in a shop. Imagine knowing deep in your bones that you could do those things . . . and being bluntly forbidden. Then think on the vast, incalculable waste to intellectual, cultural, and economic life of a society that controls and relegates women like that. A century and a half on, from the viewpoint of our still imperfect society, it's staggering--and it's too Trollope's credit that he saw it, and built a novel around it.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Trollope and the day job

The 930 pages of Anthony Trollope's He Knew He Was Right contain a lot of letters. It was a letter-writing culture, after all, and, given the option, what author who cares about plot wouldn't make as much use of the convenience of letters as possible?

With Trollope, though, we can always amuse ourselves by thinking that there might be more going on. Trollope, after all, spent years working for the post office. And in this novel, he tips the knowledgeable reader a quick wink:
Miss Stanbury carried her letter all the way to the chief post-office in the city, having no faith whatever in those little subsidiary receiving houses which are established in different parts of the city. As for the iron pillar boxes which had been erected of late years for the receipt of letters, one of which,--a most hateful thing to her,--stood almost close to her own front door, she had not the faintest belief that any letter put into one of them would ever reach its destination. She could not understand why people should not walk with their letters to a respectable post-office instead of chucking them into an iron stump,--as she called it,--out in the street with nobody to look after it. Positive orders had been given that no letter from her house should ever be put into the iron post.
Trollope, famously, invented that hated pillar box.

T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, did Miss Stanbury one better--this story comes from The New Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, related by William Empson:
There was a party (I forget everybody else in the room) where Eliot broke into some chatter about a letter being misunderstood. "Ah, letters," he said, rather as if they were some rare kind of bird. "I had to look into the question of letters at one time. I found that the mistake . . . that most people make . . . about letters, is that after writing their letters, carefully they go out, and look for a pillar-box. I found that it is very much better, after giving one's attention to composing a letter, to . . . pop it into the fire." This kind of thing was a little unnerving, because one did not know how tragically it ought to be taken; it was clearly not to be taken as a flippancy.
Letters never sent would do fine for a novel, but I suspect Eliot's method is a bit too arid for actual life.

Friday, April 01, 2016

On Widmerpool and Ted Cruz

Those of you who are my Twitter friends may have already seen this--and at least some of it is rooted in writing I've done here already--but I thought it was nonetheless worth sharing a Twitter essay I embarked on the other night, prompted by New York Times columnist Russ Douthat's comparison of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz to Anthony Powell's character Kenneth Widmerpool. I'll be curious to hear what you folks think of the linkage.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Journeying with Maqroll

The past week has seemed determined to demonstrate all the fickleness of Chicago spring weather: from a visually impressive but ultimately ineffective snowstorm Thursday night to bright sun and shirtsleeve weather this morning . . . which was overtaken midday by drizzly rains that, in a reverse of the cold rains of autumn, brought up from the pavements and easements not the smell of must and decay but of dirt in its richness. Chaucer was right:
When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March's drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.
I will be doing just that soon, heading off on an intercontinental voyage. And the combination of the unsettled weather and the impending trip sent me today to a book I'd long kept in reserve: the last novella by Alvaro Mutis relating the adventures of Maqroll the Gaviero. I've read 600 pages of stories about Maqroll, and I would gladly read 600, or even 6,000, more. Alas, all that is left unread is this final story, 100 pages of world-weary, fatalistic, foredoomed, yet beautiful, engaging, even magical travels. I've written about Maqroll before--if you've not read him, this post is probably the closest I've come to a good introduction. Here's how I put it on first reading Mutis's stories nearly eight years ago:
I have spent the weekend under Alvaro Mutis's spell. Some ingredients are familiar from other sources: the demimonde of the world's merchant marine; the shady, half-glimpsed characters in Conrad who gather around Marlowe as he tells another tale; the dirty dealings we'd discover if Signor Ferrari allowed us into the back room at the Blue Parrot; the ever-present ladies, lovely and dark, and their ever-present secrets; all washed with a stately imperturbability reminiscent of Borges. Other components are less familiar: inland seas and towns and rivers and wharves and estuaries that we will never see in reality, whose names-- festooned with diacritics and full of meaning for the multilingual--are redolent with mystery and, more important, distance. In Maqroll's desultory, disastrous adventures, Mutis offers us the drama of Indiana Jones and the splendor of the Arabian Nights--but tarnished by reality, screened through a personality and an odd semi-realism that translates the exoticism of those tales into the ennui of a world that is winding down.
Tonight's story, Triptych on Sea and Land, begins promisingly, with the narrator running into a friend who has recently run into Maqroll (whom he knew of from the narrator's books):
With the first glass of rum the conversation began to flow between these two old veterans of life's adventures and narrow escapes, and the ancient craft of human tenderness.
Maqroll starts to talk of the cats of Istanbul (which, as any visitor to that city can tell you, are one of its most distinctive features):
"The cats of Istanbul," explained the Gaviero, "possess absolute wisdom. They exercise complete control over the life of the city, but they are so prudent and secretive that the inhabitants are still not aware of the fact."
Maqroll tells of two cats he sees every time he arrives in Istanbul, who answer to the names he has given them:
It would take too long to enumerate all the hidden corners these two friends have revealed to me, but each is intimately related to the history of Byzantium. I can tell you some of them: the place where Andronicus Commnenus was tortured, where the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus, fell dead; the house in which Empress Zoe was possessed by a Saxon who had been ordered to put out her eyes; the site where the monks of the Holy Trinity defined the doctrine that cannot be named and cut out one another's tongues so the secret would never be revealed; where Constantine Copronymus spent a night of penance for having harbored impure desires for his mother's body; where German mercenaries took the secret vow that bound them to their gods; the mooring of the first Venetian trireme that brought the algid plagues. And I could list many other places that shelter the hidden soul of the city and were shown to me by my two feline companions.
That passage hints at one of the essential pleasures of the Maqroll stories: the Gaviero and his companions tell their stories in such a way as to suggest that for every story we hear, there are countless more still to be told. Everything and every person in Mutis's world is worn and hard-traveled; each of those miles would offer up a story if only we had time to listen to them all.

I was thinking along those lines after reading the passage above, so I was pleased to find an echo of it later when I flipped to Francisco Goldman's introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Mutis's tales, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. Goldman writes:
All of Alvaro's friends know that he speaks of Maqroll the Gaviero as of a living person, whom he sometimes has news of, sometimes not. "He accompanies me," Mutis told me last year, "but we are no longer side by side, but face to face. So Maqroll doesn't surprise me too much, but he does torment me and keep me company. He is more and more himself, and less my creation, because of course, as I write novels, I load him up with experiences of actions and places which I don't know but which he of course does. And so he has become a person with whom I must be cautious."
What better companion could I have for the final days before a long journey?

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Virginia Woolf takes criticism from E. M. Forster

I've read a lot of Virginia Woolf's letters and essays, but until this week I'd not spent any time with her diary. Now, having done so even to the smallest extent, I see that I'll have to make time to read through those many volumes eventually, too. Woolf is such an astute thinker and clear writer that almost any topic becomes interesting when it crosses her attention; merely flipping through what's available on Google Book Search (drawing on my typical keywords for that activity: lost, bookshelves, nonsense, drunk, hungover, party, forgotten) brought up a number of memorable passages.

The one I'll share today is from the end of October, 1919, right after the publication of her second novel, Night and Day. On October 30, she writes a bit about the response from friends and relatives:
If I could treat myself professionally as a subject for analysis I could make an interesting story of the past few days, of my vicissitudes about N. and D. After Clive’s letter came Nessa’s--unstinted praise; on top of that Lytton’s: enthusiastic praise; a grand triumph, a classic; and so on. Violet’s sentence of eulogy followed; and then, yesterday morning, this line from Morgan [Forster] “I like it less than The Voyage Out.” Though he spoke also of great admiration nand had read in haste and proposed re-reading, this rubbed out all the pleasure of the rest. Yes, but to continue. About 3 in the afternoon I felt happier and easier on account of his blame than on account of the others’ praise--as if one were in the human atmosphere again, after a blissful roll among elastic clouds and cushiony downs. Yet I suppose I value Morgan’s opinion as much as any.
I'm interested by her turn to a metaphor when she talks of taking Forster's criticism on board: it brought her down to earth, where we belong, but she won't pretend that being in the clouds hadn't been "blissful."

By the next day, she had already come to terms with it:
The doubt about Morgan and N. and D. Is removed; I understand why he likes it less than V.O.; and, in understanding, see that it is not a criticism to discourage. Perhaps intelligent criticism never is.
She goes on to lay out her understanding of his criticism: Night and Day is too formal for him, and "none of the characters . . . is lovable." Forster, she writes, "requires, a far greater degree of lovability in the characters." It's a need that a reader can sense animating Forster's own work--he generally seems to want us not just to care about, but to like his characters.

In coming to terms with his criticism, Woolf acknowledges both its validity and its fundamental inappropriateness: Forster had looked for a different book than what she'd written. But, a critic herself and an incredibly perceptive reader, Woolf refuses to let herself dismiss Forster wholly; you sense that this thought will stay lodged somewhere in her creative brain, the grain of sand that might later help form a pearl. She concludes the entry, not with condemnation, but with praise:
Morgan has the artist’s mind; he says the simple things that clever people don’t say; I find him the best of critics for that reason.
Few writers have ever read as well as Woolf; I wonder how many took criticism like as well as this?

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Let's wallow in the overripe and baroque for a bit, shall we?

At the library the other day in search of a volume of Aubrey Beardsley's letters, I stumbled across a book on Aubrey from 1928 by a friend and near-contemporary, Haldane McFall. The title page, below, will give you a sense of the lush production of this volume, redolent of an earlier, more bountiful age of publishing.

I'm sure I won't do anything more than dip into the book--for what genre holds up less well than instant biography? But I thought you might appreciate the breathless, dramatic tone of McFall's foreword nonetheless. Here's how he opens the book:
About the mid-July of 1894, a bust of Keats had been unveiled in Hampstead Church--the gift of the American admirers of the dead poet, who had been born to a livery-stable keeper at the Swan and Hoop on the Pavement at Finsbury a hundred years gone by--and there had foregathered within the church on the hill for the occasion the literary and artistic world of the 'nineties. As the congregation came pouring pitof the church doors, a slender, gaunt young man broke away from the throng, and, hurrying across the graveyard, stumbled and lurched awkwardly over the green mounds of the sleeping dead. This stooping, dandified being was evidently intent on taking a short-cut out of God's acre. There was something strangely fantastic in the ungainly efforts at a dignified wayfaring over the mound-encumbered ground by the loose-limbed, lank figure so immaculately dressed in black cut-away coat and silk hat, who carried his lemon-yellow kid gloves in his long white hands, his lean wrist showing naked beyond his cuffs, his pallid, cadaverous face grimly set on avoiding falling over the embarrassing mounds that tripped his feet. He took off his hat to some lady who called to him, showing his "tortoiseshell" coloured hair, smoothed down and plastered over his forehead in a "quiff" almost to his eyes--then he stumbled on again. He stooped and stumbled so much and so awkwardly amongst the sleeping dead that I judged him short-sighted; but was mistaken--he was fighting for breath. It was Aubrey Beardsley.
Not a bad way to begin a biography, no?

The decadent atmosphere of the '90s emerges more clearly in the prose of the end of the foreword:
We ought to realise that even as Beardsley, by light of his candles, wrought his art, the skeleton leered like an evil ghoul out of the shadows of his room. . . . Beardsley knew he was a doomed man even on the threshold of manhood; and he strove with feverish intensity to get a lifetime into each twelve-month. He knew that for him there would be few to-morrows--he knew that he had little to which to look forward, and had best live his life to-day. And he lived it like one possessed.

The letters, meanwhile, seem, on quick perusal, to be mostly depressing: Beardsley refers constantly to his coughs and hemorrhages, to the extent that you find yourself giving thanks for the tuberculosis vaccine. But once in a while there's a detail that calls the era to life, like this one, from a letter to Andre Raffalovich of March 18, 1897:
You have never told me, dear Andre, of the progress of your hand, and how long black silk bandages were necessary.
What was the injury? Did it heal? Who knows? But what better image of the darker, night-time life of the 1890s could we have than that of an injured hand bandaged not with cotton or wool, but with pure black silk?

Monday, February 29, 2016

London, fog, cities, winter's melancholy

I spent some time Sunday flipping through Cyril Connolly's journals, which offered up some nicely Twitter-length stray thoughts:
Idleness only a coarse name for my infinite capacity for living in the present.

Never has there existed so large a mass of floating appreciation willing to be mis-directed as to-day.

Told Noel I exist only to celebrate my sense of guilt.

What kind of cure is writing? Give me the disease any day.

Abroad at least I am interesting to myself, in London I wasn't even that.

To love life is to have the curiosity to search for the occasions when life is lovable—or rather the enterprise to create them. In London they are damn few.
It's those last two that bring me here tonight. Connolly had a grumpily schizophrenic relationship to London. To take but the most extreme example, here is a diary entry from 1928:
One cannot really love London. It is disappointing in every way. A foggy, dead-alive city, like a dying ant-heap.
A mere month later, however, the city's Cupid had struck again:
A wild month, intoxication of London as before.
{For more on this front, you can check out this old post.}

The reference to fog led me to pull down from my shelves a recent book that I'd only flipped through: Christine L. Corton's London Fog: The Biography. Sadly, Connolly doesn't make the index, but Corton does have some interesting observations about how writers of his period saw the fog:
In the Victorian era London fog had been linked to crime, immorality, transgression, and despair, but the association of fog with death in the minds of so many writers in the interwar years is notable.
You can see how both conceptions worked for their eras--the Victorians worried about the upheavals of urbanization and the constantly denied proximity of the desperate poor, while the interwar writers, even those young enough to have escaped service in World War I, were shadowed by its vast losses. One veteran, Corton writes, said that "walking through no-man's land was like walking through a fog." She quotes Henry Green, from Party-Going:
Humming, he likened what he saw to being dead and thought of himself as a ghost driving through streets of the living, this darkness or that veil between him and what he saw a difference between being alive and death.
Even now, however, long after the fog has been conquered (though the air of the Thames Valley remains noticeably lacking in freshness), London in the wrong season--in the drizzly heart of winter--can be a gloomy, dispiriting place. But is the problem peculiar to London, or is it a quality of cities in general, when we approach them at the wrong season of the calendar or the heart? Here's Connolly again, from his journal for 1928:
(1) Always to express your depression in appropriate surroundings--e. g. to avoid London whose gloom is squalid, and which, consequently, squalidifies and degrades the form of depression by introducing an element of despair and futility not proper to the natural melancholy of a historic sense linked by self-dramatisation with a love of beauty. In general, if the surroundings are depressing, feel depressed--the chief cure for depression, drink, is unreliable, it removes the symptoms without curing, it staunches a mood rather than heals it, a piece of premature midwifery instead of letting nature take its way--often too, it intensifies the gloom.

(2) The other cure, people, is equally unreliable. People with a greater vitality than one's own will jar, unless they are so well known that one is not ashamed to be dumb among them--or else so exhilarating to one's snobbery that one forgets everything else in the desire to shine (see drunkenness). People especially with sad voices, sex repressions, or little ambition are usually more depressing than soothing to a melancholy man--contrive instead to make surroundings suit your mood, when the melancholy vanishes as gently as a boil under a hot poultice.
Here at the Leap Day whimper-end of winter, what are cities but people and squalor? A month from now, when grass is peeking green and trees are budding, the city--London, Chicago, New York, wherever--will seem a wonderful place, Dr. Johnson's own patented cure for melancholy. But today, even the even-keeled among us could be forgiven for feeling a bit of the undertow Connolly describes so well.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

2666 on stage

Roberto Bolaño's posthumously published novel 2666 is more than 900 pages long, and it's broken up into five individual books that are only tangentially interrelated. In a sense, each of the five books is a standalone novel, though some characters—and, more importantly, many themes—recur. And, like nearly all Bolaño's works, it adamantly refuses to resolve neatly, either at the level of the individual book or as a complete novel. When I reviewed it for the Seminary Coop bookstore back in 2008, I wrote,
We close the book wrung out, strained, confused. And what are we left with? What, after all, is this novel? On the one hand it is, as I’ve described above, an investigation of violence, and specifically of male violence, bound up as it often is with another primal force, sex; it is about the hiding places we offer for savagery within our societies and ourselves, the veneer of civilization that only hides the horror because we are complicit in its deceit. And, like The Savage Detectives, it is about the tenuousness of human life—about how the only thing we can be sure of is that all those we love will some day disappear, and whether it’s into the wider world or into the void we may never even learn.
How could this giant, deliberately shaggy mess of a book possibly be staged? That was the question Robert Falls and Seth Bockley took upon themselves when the Goodman Theatre committed to making the attempt, and the result, playing now, is, if imperfect, nonetheless an astonishing piece of theater, one that does honor to the book and to the essence of Bolaño's bleak, horror-filled, yet powerfully vibrant vision. The staging is inventive, the performances remarkable, and the whole an unforgettable night of theater.

To squeeze 900 pages into even the five-and-a-half hours the play runs of course requires pruning and alteration, and much is lost. Some of the losses are simply a result of the shift in form: the most compelling of the novel's five books, "The Part About Amalfitano," which offers an excruciating close look at the mind of an academic and father who is slowly losing his sanity—and fighting tenaciously to hold onto it long enough to get his reckless teenage daughter to safety away from the violence of their hometown of Santa Teresa—can only be approximated onstage. Even remarkable performances by Henry Godinez as Amalfitano and Alejandra Escalante as his daughter can't overcome the fact that in shifting from prose to stage necessarily costs their story a level of intimacy and access.

Other losses are understandable, if nonetheless painful. The greatest of those for me was the removal of the more cryptic, hermetic aspect of Bolaño's story. The novel is full of references—to nightmares, shipwrecks, deserts, and, especially, to the unexplained mystical year of 2666 toward which all things seem in some vague way to be tending, perhaps catastrophically—that tie it in overt and oblique ways to the rest of Bolaño's oeuvre, and give the violence that suffuses the book a near-mythological, fatalistic tinge. Though the staging does a remarkable job of replicating that atmosphere of inescapable doom, I missed the more mystical element, such a fundamental part of Bolaño's obscure cosmography.

At the same time, the staging of the novel improves it in unexpected ways. The most straightforward comes with the third book, "The Part about Fate." It's the least successful in the novel, primarily, I suspect, because it deals with two things—crime fiction and African American culture—that are in themselves incredibly potent and distinctive, and Bolaño seems less sure-footed with both than he is, say, with tales of Mexican bohemians or the tropes of horror. But on stage, that book comes to life, told through a mix of film footage (some of it flat-out frightening) and live action. Whereas African American reporter-turned-unexpected-detective Oscar Fate never quite convinces on the page, when we see him portrayed on stage by Eric Lynch, we buy him completely. And from there, we begin to buy the framework of his obsessive, wayward investigation.

More impressive than that, however, was the way that the compression of the story for the stage—the fact that it's experienced in less than six hours rather than in the week or more of reading the novel—enabled me to see linkages and themes and recurrences that had previously passed me by. I thought I knew the novel well, but as I watched the play, I felt that, perhaps for the first time, I was beginning to understand how Bolaño intended the pieces to fit together, how he meant for his ideas to ripple through the whole, reflecting and amplifying one another as the contexts changed. And it was an effect that was enhanced by the standard theater technique of having actors double roles. Seeing the same face and body in a wholly different situation, acting and talking differently but confronting remarkably similar problems of human violence and death, in scene after scene had a powerful effect.

I can't imagine going into the show having not read the book. But for someone who has, and to whom Bolaño's work speaks, I can't imagine missing it. I came out of it, well, like I came out of the novel: wrung out, strained, confused. But also exhilarated, and incredibly glad people had been willing to take a dare this big, and that I'd been there to watch it.