Stochastic Bookmark

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4.3.09

reading behind the lines

It seems like everybody loves a backstory. This week's New Yorker has Updike on Cheever (and over at the NYTimes blogs Cavett on both on Cavett) and DTMax on DFWallace; the latter, in the entanglement of life and style, reminds of Clive James on F.Scott Fitzgerald in Cultural Amnesia, which prompted me to read The Crack-Up, Edmund Wilson's compilation of FSF's essays, notebook fragments, and letters from the descent (a history in which the first act was farce, the second tragedy); Clive concludes, "... there is a principle that can't be taught in creative writing class and is hard enough to teach in the regular English faculty, but it's worth a try: his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment. He always wrote that way, even when, by his own later standards, he could as yet hardly write at all. He could still write that way when death was at his shoulder. He wrote that way because he was that way: the style was the man." Nonetheless, I found The Crack-Up but a footnote on the man, placing him more among his peers than among his words. Not that there aren't gems among the essays and fragments ("A girl who could send tear-stained telegrams" will be updated by e-mail). Another thought: will The Pale King be DFW's The Last Tycoon?

Another writer's early self-chronicle, Heinrich Heine's Travel Pictures (trans Peter Wortsman) was wonderfully wicked, traversing the Harz Mountains, the North Sea and Lucca only incidentally for more incisive observations. Heine was my first exposure to lyric poetry (courtesy of Untermeyer's translation in Heritage Press, as part of my extracurricular primary education) so it was surprising to me that the lyric note could be so well maintained against high irony.

Which leads me to poetry I'd almost forgotten was on the shelf, Virginia Hamilton Adair's Ants on the Melon: A Collection of Poems; Alice Quinn had put her on the radar, but it took a reminder from Oliver Sacks in TED Q&A to reopen my eyes:

There was a fine poet called Virginia Adair.
She published a lot as a young woman
But then became a teacher of English.

But then she lost her vision
And started hallucinating in her 80s
And this started up her poetic voice again.

And she published her first book of poems
When she was 83. So she was able to use
Her Charles Bonnet hallucinations
Very creatively—

Quite a lot of her poems are about
The amazing cascade of images
Which would rush through her mind.


Quite a lot of her poems aren't, and her poetic voice was never stilled, it was just that publication was by the by. The selection reflects a life long pondered and wondered at, the writing technically sure, simple and direct, a sense of which can be bracketed by an early and a late poem, the latter the last of the book (in the section "Make Light of Darkness"), both of which appeared in the NYTimes, though in separate articles:

Railway Tempo

Now vanish, nameless village, tossed
Into the oblivion of our wake.

Swiftly, the high road that we crossed
And blotted out, the lake, the thickets,
And the wide meadow, for our sake
—We being arbiters of time
Whose end is punched on one-way tickets—
These idle images must recede
Beyond our sphere of plush and grime.

For we, the here and now, command
Collapse to follow our fierce speed,
And only the final town to stand.

Take My Hand, Anna K.

My mother wept in church, Episcopalian;
Over her far-off town the sun shone bright.
Her New York City child, I felt an alien.
Coming to a crossing the train cried in the night.

My only home is in the poems I write
Who now am exiled by my failing sight.
Words vanish like a flock of birds in flight.
Coming to a crossing the train cries in the night.

Here end my tracks of passion, reason, rhyme
Before the terminal rush and roar of light,
All go together under the wheels of Time.
Coming to a crossing the train cries in the night.


It is in the writing that the writer's life resides, but it's the backstory that seems to bring visitors in train.

5 Comments:

Blogger Andrew said...

The essays in "The Crack-Up," even more than Gatsby, may be what's made Scott immortal. Let's face it, literary quality alone isn't enough to secure readers beyond a writer's time. The legend of Scott and Zelda attracts more readers today than Edmund Wilson. Fitzgerald's choice of fun now, pay later compares with Wilde's decision to take Queensberry to court and then, refusing to learn from that disaster, deciding to remain in London rather than board Frank Harris's borrowed yacht to Dieppe. It's a prurient world, but the rewards can be big when the writer cries "uncle," whether it's in "De Profundis," "Reading Jail" or the pages of Esquire.

16/3/09 12:05  
Blogger Perezoso said...

his disaster robbed us of more books as wonderful as The Great Gatsby and Tender is the Night, but we wouldn't have those if he hadn't been like that. Fitzgerald's prose style can be called ravishing because it brings anguish with its enchantment.

Gatsby was a great book--not so sure about TITN. Gatsby ravished, usually (that is, the novel did; the Ho-wood/Redfern epic was ok HBO product, but tame). FSF's vision more tragic and ugly than most consumers realize. FSFSpeak seems analogous to like Ellington's music: at first it may sound like speakeasy party music with a few chromatic sections. After a few listenings, you perceive the noir and Dantean elements.

FSF's short stoires
(the Babylon revisited stuff) seem nearly more effective than the novels in terms of, shall we say, evoking that sort of noir jazz (I wager Ray Chandler read FSF up and down, at least for form)--some of the beat kiddies were aware of FSF vision, apparently.

TITN featured FSF
's complex, ornate prose (perhaps a bit too much), but tended towards melodrama, I thought.

18/3/09 14:40  
Blogger Andrew said...

"FSFSpeak seems analogous to like Ellington's music: at first it may sound like speakeasy party music with a few chromatic sections. After a few listenings, you perceive the noir and Dantean elements."

This fascinates me. As a Yank with an urban background, Ellington always seemed to me a genius at conveying the peculiar light and shadow of the city. Noir without the cop or detective -- just the femme fatale. Dante? I'm lost there.


Reread a number of the stories this winter for the first time in many years and, concocted strictly for the magazine trade, they made me sad. I'd rather he had paid his bills by straight-up crime than have spent his writing time, his emotions, his talent on these things.

Rereading TITN, though, I was struck by how brilliant it really is -- what did Scott say about his feelings toward the two? I think he was right.



I think Chandler did speak very highly of Scott, but only re: Gatsby.

19/3/09 17:48  
Blogger JAbel said...

In fact Fitzgerald's short stories are for the most part short versions of his novels.I reread the reissue of his collected short stories in Jan-Feb for the first time since 1973-74 and junior-senior year of high school and while they wern't the dreamy romantic package I recall then they were in fact even better with age.There are a few misses but overall they are a brilliant record of a master the like of we shall never see again.

20/3/09 02:38  
Blogger Perezoso said...

Noir without the cop or detective -- just the femme fatale. Dante? I'm lost there.

Noir itself does not lack a certain macabre aspect, really, does it? Or grotesque, perhaps. No deep metaphysical point, merely that FSF was not just producing boilerplate realism.

That's what bugged me about the Redford flick: everything was so clean, perfect. In the novel, even when Carroway describing Gatsby in his mansion, with the Buchanans, etc. put a certain odd spin on things. The scenes with the ash heaps, Dr. Meck., the mechanic and slut wife, also quite dark and morbid. I thought the movie worked only in scenes with the mechanic and slut (played by Karen Black). Dern/Farrow were OK, but also sort of tame--tho' Mia does Daisy the WASP bimbo pretty well.

Buchanan seemed like a Andrew Carnegie or Goering sort in the book. (same with short stories---human-monsters--the wimmen especially. Tisiphones). FSF's about the nightmare, er day-mare. Chandler also has that, but perhaps not quite the moralist that FSF was. In Chandler's LA--that of Farewell my Lovely or Big Sleep-- the hints of social-realist heroics, the irony, or implied marxism have been erased: all black hats, however trite that seems. Nadaland--except for Marlow, perhaps.

20/3/09 14:17  

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