"...a white wedge of face, with two burning black eyes..."
In 1959, William Maxwell and his wife Emmy attended the filming of 74-year-old Isak Dinesen reading one of her short stories, which he described in a letter to Eudora Welty:
For nearly four hours we listened to that story, and looked at that extraordinary face, without for one second tiring of either one. And you could look because she never looked back. She looked at the camera as if it loved to hear stories more than anything in this world, and I certainly hope it did. She was able to repeat and recapture phrasing, cadences, pitch of voice, even fleeting experiences, time after time, as if she were an actress. She did not even look tired, until it was all, at last, over, and then suddenly when I turned around, she was sitting, in that black fur coat, but rather longhaired, not caracul or Persian lamb or anything ordinary, with a black chiffon scarf over her head, leaving a white wedge of face, with two burning black eyes in it, and the whole body in the posture of exhaustion.
Maxwell was quite taken with Dinesen - he mentions being struck by her black eyes more than once - and later writes, quite poignantly, "It is several years too late to be her friend, but it is not too late to remember what she is like, as long as I live."
Maxwell was a marvelous, elegant letter-writer - I'd love to know if he wrote that paragraph above in one take, or if he wrote drafts of it before coming up with the final version. Welty's letters, by contrast, are casual and folksy, and often tinged with longing and sadness. Reading their letters is really making me want to read more of their books.
(Excerpt from What There Is to Say We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell.)
"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias." - Oscar Wilde
"A novelist looks for the stories that haven’t been told." - John Boyne
Though Julie grew up Catholic, and Maddie goes to Catholic high school, I grew up Lutheran (none of us are religious now) and have only looked on the Catholic Church with a sort of distant fascination. Of course, given the rampant child abuse there that has been revealed over the last few decades, I'm glad to have had that distance during my youth. But my fascination remains for this oddly ritualistic, almost anachronistic institution and the treacherous tightrope it walks as it struggles for relevance in modern, rational society while still maintaining its traditions.
To cite just the most recent examples of my interest: I've just added Boyne's previous novel, A History of Loneliness, to my list, I'm reading Frank McCourt (for whom the church seems to have never been far away), and last night we watched the final episode of The Young Pope, which was excellent - weird, but excellent.
"Some had given up the pint entirely and they were the worst..."
In his second memoir, 'Tis, Frank McCourt again remembers his childhood in Limerick, Ireland:
I'd see people at Mass on Sunday morning where a whisper would run through the church when someone with a hunger weakness would collapse in the pew and have to be carried outside by men from the back of the church who'd tell everyone, Stand back, stand back, for the lovea Jaysus, can't you see she's gasping for the air, and I wanted to be a man like that telling people stand back because that gave you the right to stay outside till the Mass was over and you could go off to the pub which is why you were standing in the back with all the other men in the first place. Men who didn't drink always knelt right up there by the altar to show how good they were and how they didn't care if the pubs stayed closed till Doomsday. They knew the responses to the Mass better than anyone and they'd be blessing themselves and standing and kneeling and sighing over their prayers as if they felt the pain of Our Lord more than the rest of the congregation. Some had given up the pint entirely and they were the worst, always preaching the evil of the pint and looking down on the ones still in the grip as if they were on the right track to heaven. They acted as if God Himself would turn His back on a man drinking the pint when everyone knew you'd rarely hear a priest up in the pulpit denounce the pint or the men who drank it.
The reason being, of course, that the priests probably enjoyed a good pint just as much as the worst of the sinners. Laughing with the sinners instead of crying with the saints, to paraphrase Billy Joel.
Like much of the English-speaking world, I read Angela's Ashes years ago, but don't remember much of it, other than the vivid scene(s) of his father finally coming home on payday, roaring drunk after spending his entire paycheck, rousting the children out of bed and demanding they sing Irish patriotic songs. 'Tis is that book's followup (McCourt published a third, Teacher Man, before he passed away in 2009) which focuses on McCourt's immigration to America.
'Tis has been on my shelf for years and I finally cracked it open this week. I like it so far, but I might have to switch to a different edition. My edition is the mass-market paperback, which has a tiny font that's a strain to read even with my glasses on, and especially just before bed when my eyes are at their most tired.
"You can't force a boat through it."
Chicago tour guides often marvel at the epic engineering feat of the late 19th Century that reversed the course of the Chicago River, diverting its noxious flow away from Lake Michigan (the city's source of drinking water). But what those guides never tell you is where all of that sewage went. In short, it was flushed down the I&M Canal and the Des Plaines River, to Joliet.
The water is nastier here than it is in Chicago. They have as much sewage there, but the putrefaction is well under way when it gets down here. Down on Lake Joliet it is thick; you can’t force a boat through it.
Thank goodness for modern sewage treatment technology.
"May we all feel that swirl of brilliance once in a while."
Cardboard Gods author Josh Wilker, on trying to write a novel in his limited spare time:
Writing is not like I thought it would be when I was a youth high on marijuana and reading On the Road. You never get lifted up into some kind of ecstasy. No, you have to just fucking sit down and insist on a reality, again and again.
I admire how he was able to connect obscure 1970s pitcher Doug Konieczny and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. I've reconnected with Wilker's blog only recently, shortly after looking through my old baseball cards with Maddie, who seemed to enjoy the experience despite having almost zero interest in baseball. I suppose baseball cards can be of interest even to non-fans, from an aesthetic standpoint and the way that the cards are a tiny, succinct biographical capsule of the lives of long-forgotten people. I think Wilker probably feels this way, too. I'm going to hunt down his book.
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction, true and false, no longer exists.” – Hannah Arendt
With the already-widely-read 1984 shooting up the bestseller charts, I can't help wondering if It Can't Happen Here and The Plot Against America will enjoy similar revivals. I'd say Roth is the much better bet - he's still alive and popular, which is far more than can be said for Sinclair Lewis.
"...ordinary pavements trod by real boots..."
Sinclair Lewis, from his 1930 acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature:
My university days at Yale were undistinguished save for contributions to the Yale Literary Magazine. It may be interesting to say that these contributions were most of them reeking with a banal romanticism; that an author who was later to try to present ordinary pavements trod by real boots should through university days have written nearly always of Guinevere and Lancelot - of weary bitterns among sad Irish reeds - of story-book castles with troubadours vastly indulging in wine, a commodity of which the author was singularly ignorant. What the moral is, I do not know. Whether imaginary castles at nineteen lead always to the sidewalks of Main Street at thirty-five, and whether the process might be reversed, and whether either of them is desirable, I leave to psychologists.
All writers have to start somewhere. And from that starting point, Lewis traveled farther than most.
"We'd get sick on too many cookies, but ever so much sicker on no cookies at all." - Sinclair Lewis (born on this date in 1885)
Grand and humble
I love this undated photograph of the Stratford Hotel, on Michigan Avenue in Chicago, but only partly for the hotel's 19th Century grandeur. What really strikes me is the tiny white storefront at the far left, which is dwarfed by the surrounding structures. I can't tell what the building was, but I'd guess it was a cigar shop or newsstand, even though the hotel would surely have had both of those amenities within its own building.
The photo is taken from Chicago at the Turn of the Century in Photographs: 122 Historic Views from the Collections of the Chicago Historical Society, edited by Larry Viskochil.
"If you have to ask..."
In my great friend Ben Tanzer's latest, Be Cool, ("a memoir (sort of)"), he remembers (or imagines?) an early teenaged makeout session at a party, with a cheerleader whom he barely knows.
I started to obsess.
Was I going too fast or too slow?
Should I take out the condom that was slowly melting in my wallet from lack of use while I still could?
Were we supposed to take off all our clothes first?
Do I ask about any of this?
"Should I get a condom out?" I finally and breathlessly asked, looking at her in a panic.
Rhonda pushed me off of her and left the room.
I never spoke to her again.
I spoke to Joe, though.
"If you have to ask," he said, shaking his head, "you should always assume the answer is no."
(Joe is an older classmate, friend and mentor to the narrator.)
I'd like to smile knowingly and say, "Hey, we've all been there" but, quite frankly, I was nowhere near there as a high schooler. Different zip code, state, country, continent...