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Tag: writing

Mailer on newsprint and newsprint on Boris Johnson

Monday, 24 June, 2019

A summer re-reading of The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer is especially relevant, considering what has happened to politics and the press and between the press and politics. The most recent example was provided at the weekend by the Guardian, which published the literal words spoken by Boris Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds in a late-night row in their own home, which it got from a recording made by a neighbour. This particular newspaper is now so determined to damage Johnson’s reputation during the Tory leadership contest that it will happily trash its own alleged commitment to ethical journalism and report verbatim an entirely private conversation. This is a new low for a low industry. Mailer:

“Centuries from now; the moral intelligence of another time may look in horror upon the history implanted into twentieth-century people by way of newsprint. A deadening of the collective brain has been one consequence. Another is the active warping of consciousness in any leader whose actions are consistently in the paper for he has been obliged to learn how to speak only in quotable and self-protective remarks.”

And who among us can deny that this has happened? As newsprint loses its power and presence, television has taken over the job of deadening the collective brain and that torch will, inevitably, be passed to social media. Many would argue that the toxic transition has already taken place.

By the way, Norman Mailer, to his credit, made no bones about his usage of “he” throughout The Spooky Art. In the preface, he writes: “By now, at least as many women as men are novelists, but the old habit of speaking of a writer as he persists. So, I’ve employed the masculine pronoun most of the time when making general remarks about writers. I do not know if the women who read this book will be all that inclined to forgive me, but the alternative was to edit many old remarks over into a style I cannot bear — the rhetorically hygienic politically correct.”

If there’s one reason to celebrate the late Norman Mailer, it’s that: his aversion to the rhetorically hygienic politically correct.


And there are gooseberries

Tuesday, 18 June, 2019

“Country life has its advantages,” he used to say. “You sit on the veranda drinking tea and your ducklings swim on the pond, and everything smells good… and there are gooseberries.” — Anton Chekhov, Gooseberries

Storyline: Ivan Ivanovich Chimsha-Gimalayski tells of how his brother Nikolai Ivanovich, a government official, becomes obsessed with the idea of returning to the countryside where the two of them had spent their happy childhood. The symbol of this obsession is a gooseberry bush. So, Nikolai buys a farm, plants gooseberry bushes, and when Ivan Ivanovich visits him he’s shocked so see this apparently happy man, now grossly obese, living in what he imagines to be his earthly paradise. Nikolai refers to himself as “We, noblemen” and expresses delight when his cook, as fat and pig-like as he is, arrives with a heaped plate of gooseberries. All this makes Ivan Ivanovich think about the nature of human happiness, which for him is the result of any happy man’s unawareness of how much grief and pain there is in the world.

Gooseberries


Mailer on the money

Tuesday, 11 June, 2019

A parable from The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by the late Norman Mailer:

“The story is that Robert Rauschenberg was once given the gift of a pastel from Willem de Kooning. Rauschenberg, with de Kooning’s permission, erased the pastel and then signed it ‘Pastel by de Kooning Erased by Robert Rauschenberg’, after which he sold it. The story bothered me. There was something profound there, but how to get a hold of it? Then it came to me: Rauschenberg was saying that the artist has the same right to print money as the financier: Money is nothing but authority imprinted upon emptiness.”

Willem de Kooning


Herman Wouk: Who wanted to unite Europe?

Saturday, 18 May, 2019

The author and screenwriter Herman Wouk has died at the age of 103. He was born in the Bronx on 27 May 1915 and passed away yesterday in Palm Springs. Wouk won the Pulitzer prize for fiction in 1951 with The Caine Mutiny and he topped the bestseller lists twenty years later with The Winds of War, which was made into a popular TV series in 1983. The novel begins six months before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Here, the character Natalie Jastrow speaks:

“I’m sorry. I’m impressed with Hitler’s ability to use socialist prattle when necessary, and then discard it. He uses doctrines as he uses money, to get things done. They’re expendable. He uses racism because that’s the pure distillate of German romantic egotism, just as Lenin used utopian Marxism because it appealed to Russia’s messianic streak. Hitler means to hammer out a united Europe… He understands them, and he may just succeed. A unified Europe must come. The medieval jigsaw of nations is obsolete. The balance of power is dangerous foolishness in the industrial age. It must all be thrown out. Somebody has to be ruthless enough to do it, since the peoples with their ancient hatreds will never do it themselves. It’s only Napoleon’s original vision, but he was a century ahead of his time.”

The Caine Mutiny was made into a hit film in 1954 and Humphrey Bogart gave one of his finest performances as the paranoid Captain Queeg. The author knew whereof he spoke. He enlisted in the US naval reserve in 1942 and served in the Pacific aboard destroyer-minesweepers.

Herman Wouk Apart from epic historical novels of family and war, Herman Wouk’s literary output was devoted to an understanding of Judaism, especially the American Jewish experience. His religion was central to his work.

“Religious people tend to encounter, among those who are not, a cemented certainty that belief in God is a crutch for the weak and fearful. It would be just as silly to assert that disbelief in God is a crutch for the immoral and the ill-read.” — Herman Wouk, This is My God: A Guidebook to Judaism


White I

Monday, 6 May, 2019

Our posts this week will be devoted to White, the latest book by Bret Easton Ellis, the author of Less Than Zero, American Psycho and Lunar Park, to mention just three of his best-selling novels. Talking about the act of writing was something he always avoided, Ellis says in White, “because part of the process was still mysterious to readers, with a kind of secret glamour that added to the excitement with which books were once received, whether negatively or positively.” White is not a novel, however, “because novels don’t engage with the public on that level anymore.”

Ellis says he’d “wistfully noted the overall lack of enthusiasm for the big American literary novels” back in the autumn of 2012, but he felt it wasn’t worth worrying about. “It’s only a fact, just as the notion of the great American studio movie or the great American band had become a smaller, narrower idea.” Then, he hits his stride. Snippet:

“Everything has been degraded by what the sensory overload and the supposed freedom-of-choice-technology has brought to us, and, in short, by the democratization of the arts. I started feeling the need to work my way through this transition — to move from the analog world in which I used to write and publish novels into the digital world we live in now (through podcasting, creating a web series, engaging on social media) even though I never thought there was any correlation between the two.”

Tomorrow, here, Ellis on the value of growing up in world where there were no helicopter parents versus today’s world where children refuse “to grow the fuck up.”

White


The ideal adjectives

Sunday, 10 February, 2019

Observe how waxworks, chagrined and awakened are used here:

1. “From that year on, Martin developed a passion for trains, travels, distant lights, the heartrending wails of locomotives in the dark of night and the waxworks vividness of local stations passing by.”

2. “…the country coolness of the rooms, so keenly perceptible after the outdoor heat; a fat bumblebee knocking against the ceiling with a chagrined droning; the paws of the fir trees against the blue of the sky…”

3. “A wave would swell, boil with foam, and topple rotundly, spreading and running up on the shingle. Then, unable to hold fast, it would slip back to the grumbling of awakened pebbles.”

And the writer? He lost everything he had, not once, but twice when he was forced to flee from two of the 20th century’s most wicked tyrants. And although the magical sentences above were written in English, it was not his first language.

The author was Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov and the sentences are from Glory.


William Trevor: Last Stories

Monday, 14 January, 2019

January is a series of long nights and it’s an ideal month for reading some of those Christmas-present books. First up, from the house of the Donnellys, is William Trevor: Last Stories. The first of the last is titled The Piano Teacher’s Pupil and it contains all the wistfulness that marked Trevor’s storytelling. Snippet:

“Miss Nightingale’s other pupils came and went also, but among them only the boy never requested a different day, a different time. No note was ever brought by him, no excuse ever trotted out, no nuisance unrecognized for what it was. Graham talked about his pets to delay his unpractised piece. Diana wept. Corin’s fingers hurt, Angela gave up.”

The life of the lonely Miss Nightingale is coloured by loss and regret, but she loved and was loved once, and one great pupil compensates for so many disappointments.

The late William Trevor was born in 1928 in Mitchelstown, County Cork, Ireland, and his home could do with a decent coat of paint in 2019.

William Trevor


All the Pretty Horses

Monday, 10 September, 2018

Pretty Scarteen horse

“They rode out along the fenceline and across the open pastureland. The leather creaked in the morning cold. They pushed the horses into a lope. The lights fell away behind them. They rode out on the high prairie where they slowed the horses to a walk and the stars swarmed around them out of the blackness. They heard somewhere in that tenantless night a bell that tolled and ceased where no bell was and they rode out on the round dais of the earth which alone was dark and no light to it and which carried their figures and bore them up into the swarming stars so that they rode not under but among them and they rode at once jaunty and circumspect, like thieves newly loosed in that dark electric, like young thieves in a glowing orchard, loosely jacketed against the cold and ten thousand worlds for the choosing.” — Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses


We would all have had one more

Monday, 27 August, 2018

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul Minnesota on 24 September 1896. He went to Princeton, and afterwards joined the US Army. He was only 22 years old when he wrote his first novel: This Side of Paradise. It was a huge success and Fitzgerald was subsequently declared “the voice of the Jazz Age.” He was the writer who lived it, studied it, drank it and described it in “real time.” An era had found its lyricist.

Despite Prohibition, everyone was having one more. People wanted to celebrate and be celebrated, which is why The Great Gatsby was not well received. The reviews were sour. Gatsby painted a picture of a dizzying Jazz Age that was turning and turning in a widening gyre. The centre could not hold, it suggested. And, sure enough, a decade after This Side of Paradise was published, it all came crashing down on Wall Street. In 1931, Fitzgerald wrote an elegiac essay titled “Echoes of the Jazz Age” about that lost world, the faint melodies of which still signalled from beyond the ruins. Snippet:

“A young Minnesotan who seemed to have had nothing to do with his generation did a heroic thing, and for a moment people set down their glasses in country clubs and speakeasies and thought of their old best dreams. Maybe there was a way out by flying, maybe our restless blood could find frontiers in the illimitable air. But by that time we were all pretty well committed; and the Jazz Age continued; we would all have one more.”

In June 1940, fifteen years after Gatsby was published, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a poignant letter to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribners:

“Would the 25-cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye — or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? Would a popular reissue in that series with a preface not by me but by one of its admirers — I can maybe pick one — make it a favorite with classrooms, profs, lovers of English prose — anybody? But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much!”

F. Scott Fitzgerald died on 21 December 1940 aged 44 — so young and so unjustly after having given so much so early. Posthumously, Gatsby was crowned his masterpiece. Tomorrow, here, a favourite glimpse of its metropolitan twilight.

F. Scott Fitzgerald


Diarist of the day: Barbara Pym

Saturday, 11 August, 2018

“Visit to Jane Austen’s house?I put my hand down on Jane’s desk and bring it up covered with dust. Oh that some of her genius might rub off on me! One would have imagined the devoted female custodian going round with her duster at least every other day.” Barbara Pym, 11 August 1943

The English writer Barbara Pym died of breast cancer, aged 66, on 11 January 1980. Her sister Hilary continued to promote her work, and helped set up the Barbara Pym Society in 1993.


Remembering Tom Wolfe

Thursday, 31 May, 2018

It’s been over two weeks since the white-suited heart of the New Journalism stopped beating and there’s still no comment from Deray McKesson. For those not familiar with the name, McKesson is a “full-time activist” and the most public face of the Black Lives movement. As Ben Shapiro put it: “Deray McKesson, who has made his name urging on riots in Ferguson and Baltimore while accomplishing nothing of note for black people. McKesson fancies himself a deep racial thinker, and the media have taken him at his word.” His word is often like this: “People have been voting since the civil rights movement & we are still here.”

Anyway, back in March 2016, BuzzFeed ran a story headlined: DeRay McKesson To Hold Fundraiser At Banker’s Manhattan Home. McKesson was speaking in Upper West Side pad of Ted Dreyfus, a former Citibank executive, who has also worked for the Clinton Foundation, and that brings us to Tom Wolfe.

Nostalgie de la boue is a 19th-century French term that means “nostalgia for the mud,” and its white guilt connotation was leveraged by Tom Wolfe in one of the all-time great piece of modern journalism. Published by New York magazine in June 1970 and titled Radical Chic it captured the craziness of those times perfectly.

Background: The scene that Wolfe so (in)famously depicted took place in the Manhattan apartment of Leonard Bernstein. The legendary conductor, composer and Democratic Party supporter assembled many of his wealthy friends to meet members of the Black Panthers to discuss how they could help their cause. Black Panther The director Otto Preminger was there and so, too, was the TV reporter Barbara Walters. With their armchair agitation and high fashion, they were, in Wolfe’s eyes, the “radical chic” pursuing revolutionary ends for social reasons. Snippet:

“One rule is that nostalgie de la boue – i.e., the styles of romantic, raw-vital, Low Rent primitives – are good; and middle class, whether black or white, is bad. Therefore, Radical Chic invariably favors radicals who seem primitive, exotic and romantic, such as the grape workers, who are not merely radical and ‘of the soil,’ but also Latin; the Panthers, with their leather pieces, Afros, shades, and shoot-outs; and the Red Indians, who, of course, had always seemed primitive, exotic and romantic. At the outset, at least, all three groups had something else to recommend them, as well: they were headquartered 3,000 miles away from the East Side of Manhattan, in places like Delano (the grape workers), Oakland (the Panthers) and Arizona and New Mexico (the Indians). They weren’t likely to become too much… underfoot, as it were. Exotic, Romantic, Far Off… as we shall soon see, other favorite creatures of Radical Chic had the same attractive qualities; namely, the ocelots, jaguars, cheetahs and Somali leopards.

When Time magazine later interviewed a minister of the Black Panthers about Bernstein’s party, the official said of Wolfe: “You mean that dirty, blatant, lying, racist dog who wrote that fascist disgusting thing in New York magazine?”

Nothing that Time or BuzzFeed has ever done could match the music and madness that Tom Wolfe put down on paper in 1970:

Quat is trying to steer the whole thing away — but suddenly Otto Preminger speaks up from the sofa where he’s sitting, also just a couple of feet from Cox:

“He used von important vord” — then he looks at Cox — “you said zis is de most repressive country in de vorld. I dun’t beleef zat.”

Cox says, “Let me answer the question —”

Lenny breaks in: “When you say ‘capitalist’ in that pejorative tone, it reminds me of Stokely. When you read Stokely’s statement in The New York Review of Books, there’s only one place where he says what he really means, and that’s way down in paragraph 28 or something, and you realize he is talking about setting up a socialist government —”

Preminger is still talking to Cox: “Do you mean dat zis government is more repressive zan de government of Nigeria?”

“I don’t know anything about the government of Nigeria,” says Cox. “Let me answer the question —”

“You dun’t eefen listen to de kvestion,” says Preminger. “How can you answer de kvestion?”

“Let me answer the question,” Cox says, and he says to Lenny: “We believe that the government is obligated to give every man employment or a guaranteed income . . . see . . . but if the white businessman will not give full employment, then the means of production should be taken from the businessman and placed in the community, with the people.”

Lenny says: “How? I dig it! But how?”

“Right on!” Someone in the back digs it, too.

“Right on!”

Julie Belafonte pipes up: “That’s a very difficult question!”

“You can’t blueprint the future,” says Cox.

“You mean you’re just going to wing it?” says Lenny.

“Like . . . this is what we want, man,” says Cox, “we want the same thing as you, we want peace. We want to come home at night and be with the family . . . and turn on the TV . . . and smoke a little weed . . . you know? . . . and get a little high . . . you dig? . . . and we’d like to get into that bag, like anybody else. But we can’t do that . . . see . . . because if they send in the pigs to rip us off and brutalize our families, then we have to fight.”

“I couldn’t agree with you more!” says Lenny. “But what do you do—”

Cox says: “We think that this country is going more and more toward fascism to oppress those people who have the will to fight back —”

“I agree with you one hundred percent!” says Lenny. “But you’re putting it in defensive terms, and don’t you really mean it in offensive terms —”

“That’s the language of the oppressor,” says Cox. “As soon as —”

“Dat’s not —” says Preminger.

“Let me finish!” says Cox. “As a Black Panther, you get used to —”

“Dat’s not —”

“Let me finish! As a Black Panther, you learn that language is used as an instrument of control, and —”

“He doesn’t mean dat!”

“Let me finish!”

RIP, Tom Wolfe.