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At the enchanted metropolitan twilight

Tuesday, 22 August, 2017 0 Comments

The annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby is underway and the glow from the beautiful metaphysics of Fitzgerald’s prose lights up the drawing-in evenings. A paragraph:

I began to like New York, the racy, adventurous feel of it at night and the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye. I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives, and no one would ever know or disapprove. Sometimes, in my mind, I followed them to their apartments on the corners of hidden streets, and they turned and smiled back at me before they faded through a door into warm darkness. At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others — poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows waiting until it was time for a solitary restaurant dinner — young clerks in the dusk, wasting the most poignant moments of night and life.

To his great credit, Jay McInerney has spent his life trying to emulate this and it’s not his fault that he has never matched it. But who has? With Gatsby, published 92 years ago, Fitzgerald achieved the miracle of sounding contemporary while appealing to an audience that had grown up reading Henry James. His genius is that the book continues to sound contemporary.

Fitzgerald wrote in the shadow of evil and no one who reads The Great Gatsby can put it down without feeling a sense of dread. Not just for those who would lose their fortunes in 1929, but for those who would be dragged into war in 1939. And as we get ready to mark the annual anniversary of the slaughter of 3,000 men and women in New York City by the 9/11 jihadists, his observation about “the most poignant moments of night and life” rings true across the decades.


The Camino of Gatsby

Monday, 21 August, 2017 0 Comments

The annual re-reading of The Great Gatsby is undertaken not just for the pleasure of rediscovering a classic. This tradition is also an occasion for learning about the persisting role of the masterpiece in modern culture. Take Camino Island, John Grisham’s latest thriller about stolen F. Scott Fitzgerald manuscripts, including Gatsby, and the workings of the literary black market.

The story begins with the theft of five of Fitzgerald’s manuscripts from the Firestone Library at Princeton University and it then moves to resort town on a Florida Island for clues about the heist. Although the FBI and agents working for Princeton’s insurance company are hunting the robbers, Grisham focuses on a novelist pursuing an independent investigation. Snippet:

The imposter borrowed the name of Neville Manchin, an actual professor of American literature at Portland State and soon-to-be doctoral student at Stanford. In his letter, on perfectly forged college stationery, “Professor Manchin” claimed to be a budding scholar of F. Scott Fitzgerald and was keen to see the great writer’s “manuscripts and papers” during a forthcoming trip to the East Coast. Camino Island The letter was addressed to Dr. Jeffrey Brown, Director of Manuscripts Division, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University. It arrived with a few others, was duly sorted and passed along, and eventually landed on the desk of Ed Folk, a career junior librarian whose task, among several other monotonous ones, was to verify the credentials of the person who wrote the letter.

Ed received several of these letters each week, all in many ways the same, all from self-proclaimed Fitzgerald buffs and experts, and even from the occasional true scholar. In the previous calendar year, Ed had cleared and logged in 190 of these people through the library. They came from all over the world and arrived wide-eyed and humbled, like pilgrims before a shrine. In his thirty-four years at the same desk, Ed had processed all of them. And, they were not going away. F. Scott Fitzgerald continued to fascinate. The traffic was as heavy now as it had been three decades earlier. These days, though, Ed was wondering what could possibly be left of the great writer’s life that had not been pored over, studied at great length, and written about. Not long ago, a true scholar told Ed that there were now at least a hundred books and over ten thousand published academic articles on Fitzgerald the man, the writer, his works, and his crazy wife.

And he drank himself to death at forty-four! What if he’d lived into old age and kept writing? Ed would need an assistant, maybe two, perhaps even an entire staff. But then Ed knew that an early death was often the key to later acclaim (not to mention greater royalties).


Gatsby and the greatest of all dreams

Sunday, 20 August, 2017 0 Comments

Our annual mid-August tradition of re-reading The Great Gatsby starts today. The custom began some 30 years ago during a magical mid-August holiday on what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York”. In nine short chapters, he captured an era and Long Island’s appeal for the hedonistic and the nostalgic. This paragraph is immortal:

“The old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

In the novel’s barely 50,000 words, Fitzgerald gave Americans an enduring meditation on their country’s most central ideas, visions and obsessions: the quest for a new life, the hunger for wealth and those “last and greatest of all human dreams.”


The Barcelona of Whit Stillman

Saturday, 19 August, 2017 0 Comments

The 1994 film Barcelona by Whit Stillman deals with the romantic and political adventures of two American cousins in Catalonia during what the director described as “the last decade of the Cold War”. The energy left over from the post-Franco revolution is being diverted into hostility to the US and it’s onto this dangerous stage that Fred (Chris Eigeman), a Navy officer on assignment from the visiting American fleet, strolls.

For the local intellectuals and wannabe terrorists, the supremely self-confident Fred is a symbol of all that’s wrong with “America Abroad”. He deflects their attacks, though, with fast talking and glib wit. Along the way, he entertains and infuriates his cousin Ted (Taylor Nichols), who works for a US corporation in Barcelona, and the two of them fall in love with the enormously attractive local women.

The clash between the Old World and the New World Order is played out on many levels in Barcelona. Ted dreams of big business and quotes management guru Peter Drucker, while Fred wants the infantile Marxists to get a life. The two characters resent the paranoid view of America that Europeans indulge in, but they also make use of the American stereotypes when circumstances dictate.

Whitman has an excellent feel for dialogue and in a film that is both hilariously funny and painfully accurate.

Ted: “I was trying to convince them to look at Americans in a new way and in one stupid move you confirmed their worst assumptions.”
Fred: “I did not confirm their worst assumptions…I am their worst assumption.”

Mira: “You can’t say Americans are not more violent than other people?”
Fred: “No?”
Mira: “All those people killed in shootings in America?”
Fred: “Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.”

On this day of mourning in Barcelona, it’s important to remember that the city has always provided a panorama for those who have sought to view themselves and the world through its magical lens.


Light in Barcelona

Friday, 18 August, 2017 0 Comments

Barcelona light

“Barcelona has always been more a city of capital and labor than of nobility and commoners; its democratic roots are old and run very deep. Its medieval charter of citizens’ rights, the Usatges, grew from a nucleus which antedated the Magna Carta by more than a hundred years. Its government, the Consell de Cent (Council of One Hundred), had been the oldest protodemocratic political body in Spain.” — Robert Hughes, Barcelona


Gin of the week: The Botanist

Thursday, 17 August, 2017 0 Comments

The very talented Robert Macfarlane is presently “Reader in Literature and the Geohumanities in the Faculty of English” at the University of Cambridge. He’s also a prolific tweeter of beautiful words and his pick yesterday, “islomania“, has proven to be hugely popular: “the condition of finding islands irresistibly, even obsessively, fascinating & appealing (Lawrence Durrell).”

For drinkers of single malt whisky, the Hebridean island of Islay is irresistibly, even obsessively, fascinating & appealing. The names on the bottles stimulate the palate: Ardbeg, Bruichladdich, Caol Ila and, of course, the mighty Laphroaig. But those canny distillers know which way the wind blows, which is why they’ve boarded the gin train, so to speak, with The Botanist.

This is a classically floral gin but with a character that evokes bogs, turf and Atlantic surf. The Joycean drinker would say that it reveals itself as a nostrilfill of meadowsweet, a tonguetaste of purity, a mouthfeel of spice markets and a throatfinish of agreeable astringency. Upon deeper reflection, there’s juniper, ginger, turmeric, citrus, orris root, coriander seed, cassia bark, rose, cucumber and blackcurranty things.

Botanist gin

Note: The Botanist is the fifth in a gin series that began with Blackwater No. 5, was followed by Friedrichs and continued with Dingle and Bulldog.


That’s All Right, Elvis

Wednesday, 16 August, 2017 0 Comments

The best serious book about rock ‘n’ roll takes its title from the last single Elvis Presley recorded for Sun Records. Mystery Train by Greil Marcus was published in 1975 and when the second edition came out he was asked to amend the chapter on Elvis by putting everything in the past tense but he refused, saying, “Elvis’ presence was so powerful, I felt he’s always in the present tense.”

Marcus bases his argument for the central place of rock ‘n’ roll in American culture on the “democratic assumption” that “Presley and Herman Melville are already cultural and political equals.” Melville wrote Typee, his first book, in the summer of 1845 and Elvis recorded his first single in July 1954. That’s All Right was originally performed by blues singer Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup and the Elvis version is as revolutionary as ever as we observe the 40th anniversary today of the death of The King.


The Pattern Day in Ballylanders

Tuesday, 15 August, 2017 0 Comments

Today is the Pattern Day as the 15th of August is still called in some parts of rural Ireland. Despite all the signs of the country’s secularization, people will journey the “holy well” in Ballylanders for the Pattern observances that echo a disappeared world and this brings us to The Irish Countryman, a book that allows us to contrast the Ireland of today with that of 80 years ago.

When the young Harvard-trained anthropologist Conrad Arensberg arrived in Ireland in 1935, he was a man with a plan. “Like Caesar we divide our Gaul,” he wrote and proceeded to treat the country as four regions, more spiritual than geographical. The first was “the seat of an age-old tradition, of the remains of a once brilliant Celtic civilization.” The second was one “some among the nationalists dislike” because “It is the Ireland of the merry and happy-go-lucky present” that revealed a “talkative, mercurial, witty people.” Arensberg’s third Ireland was a “grimmer land”:

“It is a sober, hard-working land of minute towns and small farms upon a soil not always grateful. It is a land of hard realities. This Ireland is subject to hot flashes of anger and dispute which throw into relief deep-lying hatreds and fierce loyalties… This is the Ireland of bitter economic fate and political unrest. Much of this can be laid at England’s door, but not all.”

The anthropologist’s fourth Ireland was “the land of the devout, where word and deed breathe a religious fervour which most of us have forgotten. This is the land of holy wells and pilgrimages and roadside shrines… To many of us, perhaps a paradox lies here. Fierce love of political liberty goes hand in hand with a deep devotion to the most authoritarian of Christian creeds.”

Conrad Arensberg was not the only visitor to be perplexed by a country where “a puritanical morality” coexisted with “the hilarity of the race meeting.” That was then. Or was it? In the 80 years since he explored Ireland, the country has moved from being a rural to an urban society, from an agrarian to a post-industrial economy. As a result, those “doing the rounds” of the holy well in the Ballylanders graveyard today will be accompanied by a soundscape of mumbled prayers and purring smartphones. Conrad Arensberg would not have been surprised, though, because as he wrote in the conclusion of The Irish Countryman, “the chief expression of traditional social life is calling the countrymen together through a whole countryside for a re-enactment, both solemn and gay, of their sentiments about their fellows and about their view of life and death and destiny.”

Getting ready for the Pattern


The road-side dog

Monday, 14 August, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 2004, Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet, writer, translator, diplomat and Nobel Literature Prize winner, died in Kraków. He spent his life crossing borders and he wrote about the cruelty and beauty of this world in a language that ranged from the furious to the elegiac:

“I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back. The bucket was required for the horses to drink from. I traveled through a country of hills and pine groves that gave way to woodlands where swirls of smoke hovered over the roofs of houses, as if they were on fire, for they were chimneyless cabins; I crossed districts of fields and lakes. It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their rein, and wait until, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor house in it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night — I don’t know where it came from — in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.”

Coppers


The young Elvis

Sunday, 13 August, 2017 0 Comments

On Thursday, the world will mark the 40th anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, “the King”. To get us ready for this memorable occasion, Vintage Everyday has assembled “20 Rare and Fascinating Vintage Photos of Elvis Presley As a Child and Teenager from the 1930s and ’40s.” They offer a glimpse of life in Tupelo, Mississippi, before the Presley family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee. It was there, in July 1954, in the offices of Sun Records, that Elvis recorded a blues song by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup, That’s All Right. The rest is rock ‘n roll.

Gladys, Elvis and Vernon Presley, 1937.


Monteverdi at 450

Saturday, 12 August, 2017 0 Comments

L’incoronazione di Poppea (“The Coronation of Poppaea”) is an opera by Claudio Monteverdi, who was born 450 years ago this year. First performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1643 carnival season, it describes how Poppaea, a courtesan in the service of the emperor Nero, achieves her ambition to be crowned empress. The coronation scene concludes with the Pur ti miro duet performed here by the French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky and the Spanish soprano Núria Rial.