I’m not really writing about Fitzgerald, but, in fact, he and Zelda make an appearance in The Paris Wife by Paula McLain, which I just finished, and they seem more interesting than the subject of the novel which is, of course, Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and by extension, Hemingway himself. I disagree with the author’s choice to use the first-person narrative to tell Hadley’s story, it comes across as unoriginal and banal, as if she took the known facts and connected them like a dot-to-dot drawing. I started to think, yes, Hemingway was a cad, but Hadley just isn’t that interesting; in fact, without her relationship with him, why would we care about her? By contrast, Nancy Horan’s Loving Frank, told in the third person, is both more nuanced and satisfying. McLain can write and there are some poignant moments as the marriage unravels (Pauline was quite a character!), but, on the whole, I couldn’t wait to get it over with. It felt to me as if the writer hit upon this great idea for a novel and then just went through the motions, not truly caring about her subject. Even Paris comes across as dull and uninviting. Enter the Fitzgeralds, with their brittle, bright spirits, adding some much-needed drama and intensity. The gatherings at Cap d’Antibe are well rendered, bringing to mind Tender is the Night. A recent New Yorker article by Giles Harvey (Cry Me A River, 032513 issue) details several recent tell-all memoirs by young published writers who went off the rails after early success. Harvey makes the point that this approach has actually led to renewed interest in and opportunities for these authors and adds that Fitzgerald tried the same tactic in 1936 when he wrote a personal essay, “The Crack-Up,” about his flagging career prospects. (Of course, Fitzgerald managed to confess his sorry state in a philosophical way, with an “urbane, self-inspecting tone,” a far cry from the contemporary examples). Within a year, he was invited to Hollywood to try, unsuccessfully as it turned out, his hand at screenwriting. Sad to think of Scott and Zelda so diminished, but the seeds of tragedy were there at Cap d’Antibes, as McLain is able to show in her novel. Perhaps she just chose the wrong subject for her talents?
This novel by Julie Orringer is gripping in an old-fashioned, George Eliot kind of way – a lot of characters that you begin to care about rather quickly begin rather quickly to get into difficult situations, namely World War II. The main character is a Jewish-Hungarian architect student studying in Paris who meets the love of his life, a woman 10 years his senior living in somewhat mysterious circumstances. The reader knows what is on the horizon, but the hero and his friends and family do not, of course. This agonizing suspense – don’t stay in Paris! Don’t go back to Hungary! – keeps the pages turning as the noose of anti-semitism tightens around the protagonists, with their hopes, dreams and expectations gradually diminishing until merely surviving is all that is left – and, of course, all do not. The author has a wonderful sense of place as I felt myself on the streets of Paris throughout the first half of the book and envisioning Budapest as it was in the second half; she also stays within the moment, within a very individual context, even as forces of hate and history are unfolding all around. This is a book that has stayed with me for weeks as I turn over the forces of circumstance, personality and luck that go into one person’s journey through life.
I’ve been planning to read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy left to me by my Father (philosophy being one of the interests we shared) and recommended by my nephew, the Philosophy major. On Brain Pickings today, I watched a fascinating video of a BBC interview with Russell which has me even more motivated to tackle this tome. I had some sense of Russell as a great thinker and philosopher, but was not clear about how radical he was for his time. I also got the impression of a great humanist and overall charming fellow. The interview is delightful and his message to all of us is profound and stirring.
Tony Horvitz mentions a poem by Melville as one of the reactions to Harper’s Ferry; I never realized that Herman Melville wrote poetry, but it seems that he wrote quite a lot of it! His poem about John Brown is so fitting, so chilling:
Hanging from the beam
Slowly swaying (such the law)
Gaunt the shadow on your green,
The cut is on the crown
(Lo, John Brown),
And the stabs shall heal no more.
Hidden in the cap
Is the anguish none can draw;
So your future veils its face,
But the streaming beard is shown
(Weird John Brown),
The meteor of the war.
I feel I should have linked to the Langston Hughes poem I referenced in my previous post which I found here: Rhapsody in Books – John Brown
The fanatical John Brown was a complex mixture, and Horwitz creates a nuanced portrait of a driven man who failed at everything except martyrdom. While waiting a month to be executed, he seemed finally content, the path of righteousness clear before him, and his message finally being heard and disseminated. Horwitz contends, and it seems to be true, that Brown’s failed raid was the flint that sparked the Civil War 18 months later. Horwitz describes a belated but powerful groundswell of support for Brown across the North which hardened the South’s sense of injustice and brought the idea of secession from the fringes to the mainstream. I have to say that Brown’s sacrifice of himself, most of his sons and followers, and his cold-blooded execution of farmers in Kansas was shocking, but not more shocking than the atrocities of slavery. It does make you think about terrorism in a slightly different way, and his willingness to die for the cause brought even theoretical and passivist Northern abolitionists out of the closet, so to speak.
Brown said himself that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood,” and it is hard to see how slavery would have ended without the dreadful conflagration of the Civil War, which his actions may have hastened. This book was not as entertaining as “Confederates in the Attic,” but it added to my knowledge of the intellectual climate and political power-structure in the country before the Civil War. In fact, I think I might have liked it better if it was about all of the pre Civil War factors leading up to the shots fired at Fort Sumter, a kind of “Proud Tower,” for that event. Horwitz added a fascinating literary footnote: Lewis Leary, one of Brown’s doomed followers, left behind a wife, Mary, who remarried and became Mary Langston. She raised her grandson, Langston Hughes, on stories of the raid. His poem, “October 16, 1859″ begins: “Perhaps you will remember John Brown…”
I read The Art of Fielding, which all the book groups seem to be reading these days. I nearly gave up in the initial chapters where Henry, by a series of fortuitous, and not entirely believable, events and circumstances is brought to Westish College to invigorate their baseball team with his skill as a shortstop. I was about to give up until the statue of Melville was mentioned, and the reason why the baseball team is named “The Harpooners” was revealed. Apparently, Melville visited the Great Lakes at one point in his post-writerly life (after the failure of Moby Dick, he spent some 30 years as a Customs inspector). I found myself invigorated by this literary link and gradually got interested in the characters.
The Melville connection was tenuous and not fully explored, which was too bad. I had expected more, but in the end I got interested in Henry, the syndrome that undermined him as a player, and his gradual healing and emergence from despair. A lot of the other plotlines felt contrived, especially the one between Pella and her father, and the decision to dig up his body: weird, tacked on and unearned sensationalism! It was news to this reader that Affenlight loved the sea that much. And there was really no parallel to Emerson digging up his wife’s body. It just didn’t fit. That said, the writing was good, and on the whole the book was enjoyable. I did like it more than I thought I would.
Given that “The Lee Shore” was mentioned as Affenlight’s favorite chapter of MD, I wanted to follow up on that reference, and in doing so, found The Big Read - Moby Dick read aloud in its entirety by 130 plus different narrators. I went straight to Chapter 23 and had a listen. It’s another of those extended metaphors, this “six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” If we had had some earlier premonition of Guert’s love of the sea, this would have worked, ie, “the land seems scorching to his feet,” or was it there and I missed it? In any case, the chapter was a good choice. I liked the analogy between the efforts of a boat to ride out a gale at sea, rather than be driven onto the rocks and that of the mind to maintain its freedom:
all deep earnest thinking is but the intrepid effort of the soul to keep the open independence of her sea; while the wildest winds of heaven and earth conspire to cast her on the treacherous, slavish shore!
I also liked that Affenlight’s last meal was Chowder – that being one of the great chapters of MD!
A few years ago, I finally read Moby Dick, finding it funny, tedious, strange, bewildering, annoying and occasionally profound. As I mentioned in a previous post, the first three chapters are a delight. After that, the pace slackens a bit, but not alarmingly so. Then there are some stretches where the reader is becalmed in a limitless sea, awaiting a breath of sense to move the plot along (a friend of mine literally flies into a rage at the mention of “The Folios,” the chapter wherein Melville categorizes whales, while in my opinion “Stubb’s Supper” is an abomination). Still. We press on.
Recently, I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s panegyric to Melville’s novel, Why Read Moby Dick. It is not surprising that Philbrick would feel the need to publish such a work, but why is it needed? Has anyone written “Why Read Ulysses?” or why read, fill in the blank of any classic you choose? Yet, in this case, it does seem warranted. Perhaps it is the circumstances of Melville’s life as a writer, his difficulties and insecurities, the lack of critical acclaim for a work into which he poured everything and for which he expected nothing but praise. I remember coming away with a horror of the butchery of whaling, faithfully recounted in every particular by the author; an appreciation of Melville’s knowledge of the sea and the seafaring life; and a respect for his vision of humanity, but also feeling by the end that I too had been a long time at sea and happy to return. Philbrick claims that he has read the book aloud many times, recommending that method of accessing Melville’s prose, so I decided to try an audio version for my long commutes to and from work. After 6 weeks, I ran out of renewals and had reached Chapter 66, “The Shark Massacre,” just a little over half-way home. The truth is, I was not sorry to surrender the packet of 19 CDs and pick up something different to enliven my driving time. For one thing, I was not a fan of the narrator. His voice detracted from the prose and distracted my listening ear. But, I now feel somewhat dissatisfied and disinclined to stop. We had just reached the rather horrendous, yet horribly compelling chapters where the first whale is captured and killed. The grim “cutting in” where the whale is rendered on the deck of the ship was Melville showing the civilized world just how they got the oil to light their lamps. It’s rather like Michael Pollan describing for us where our plastic wrapped chicken parts come from.
For profundity, as promised above, the chapter entitled “The Line” cannot be beat. Here Melville describes in great detail how the line that connects boat to harpoon and ultimately to the whale is brought forward from its tub at the rear of the boat to the bow and back again so that each oarsman is looped by a line that can at any moment be stretched taut by the might of a 3 ton leviathan.
the whale-line folds the whole boat in its complicated coils, twisting and writhing around it in almost every direction. All the
oarsmen are involved in its perilous contortions; so that to the timid eye of the landsman, they seem as Indian jugglers, with the deadliest
snakes sportively festooning their limbs…..the six men composing the crew pull into the jaws of death, with a halter around every neck, as you may say
This passage wonderfully sets up the soon-to-come episode when a whale is struck, the line whizzing out like taut lightning and the boat bucketing behind the surging beast through a foaming sea. But before that, Melville adds a philosophical note:
But why say more? All men live enveloped in whale-lines. All are born with halters round their
necks; but it is only when caught in the swift, sudden turn of death, that mortals realize the silent, subtle, ever-present perils of life.
And why read Moby Dick? That is why.