Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Favorite Sports Records

The twin explosions over the last twenty years of excessive media coverage on the one hand, and sophisticated statistical analysis on the other, have had the effect of rendering many of the most iconic old records and feats far less prominent in the average serious fan's psychological relation to whatever game is under consideration than they were formerly. Even into the 1970s and 80s books and articles about the greatest moments in sports focused on regular season games or minor tournaments/events/races in which records had been set, milestones reached, or some unusual feat accomplished, as much as playoff games or major championship contests. Tournaments and playoffs of course made up a much smaller portion of the season in most major sports than they do now, and as such the emphasis on them was not as all-consuming. There were also fewer teams and fewer players to follow in professional sports, and either no television or radio coverage or far less than than there is now, which made written accounts of games, and their statistics, the primary means of evaluating the lay of the season, and of history. Before television I presume following (and playing) college sports was more akin to following and playing high school sports is for most people. You might hear about guys or teams in other leagues or on the other side of the state who are supposed to be great but you only really know anything about the people your own team plays against (Of course now even all the top high school quarterbacks/point guards all over the country are great friends and text message each other constantly--I would prefer they didn't, but hey, we all have to think of and carry ourselves as professionals now). Again, written accounts of games most people had not seen made icons out of Red Grange, the Four Horseman, Wrong Way Riegels, and the rest of them. Also with regard to baseball especially there has been an increased sense that records dating from before integration in 1947 at least, if not some years after that, ought not to be considered legitimate, or perhaps even relevant, to the modern fan.

The first inkling I got that things had changed drastically was the relative lack of fanfare in 2004 when Ichiro Suzuki broke George Sisler's 84 year-old record of 257 hits in a season, which as an impressionable child had seemed to me one of the most awesome and unreachable records in the annals of the game, right up with Hack Wilson's 190 (since upgraded to 191) RBIs in 1930, or Chief Wilson's 36 triples in 1912. Guys like Pete Rose would hit (so it seemed) like maniacs all year and barely crack 210 hits. Rod Carew could only get to 239 when he hit .388 in 1977. When Wade Boggs had 240 hits and a .368 average in 1985 I thought at the time it was one of the most incredible statistical seasons I would ever see in my lifetime. By 2004, however, getting 262 hits in itself just wasn't that impressive to the sport's savviest analysts. Suzuki's chase for the record was generally not regarded as a major story in the media coverage that September, certainly in comparison with what it would have been at any other time in baseball history up to the last decade. He finished 7th in the MVP voting. 225 of the hits were singles, and he only drew 49 walks, which are the holy grail of the new statistical analysis, though if you get 262 hits 49 walks puts you on base 311 times which still gets your OBP over .400. He also only scored 101 runs despite all those times on base (On a side note, the all time record for runs in a season, 177 by Babe Ruth in 1920 or '21, or, if you want to go way back, 192 by Sliding Billy Hamilton in 1894, have not been approached in the last 70 years. The recent high is Jeff Bagwell with 152, in 2000.) (On another side note, the status of George Sisler, who finished with a .340 career average, hit over .400 twice, notched 2, 812 hits, and was frequently ranked as the 2nd greatest 1st baseman of all time behind Lou Gehrig even into the 70s, has also taken a battering in the post-Bill James consciousness revolution, to the point where he is now almost considered one of the more dubious players in the Hall of Fame. Sisler never walked much--his career high was 49--and he had poor power numbers apart from his 1919-22 peak when he hit lots of doubles and triples and 12-19 home runs a year. He had some kind of eye problem which caused him to miss the whole season in 1923 and which affected his power though he continued to rack up hits and hit .330 for another 7 or 8 years, though one of the points his detractors make is that in an 8 team league in a big-hitting area, this relegated him to being merely an average 1st baseman for the bulk of his career).

My favorite records tend to be those that have stood for a long time, seem perfectly possible to break under current conditions, and are indeed frequently challenged, but manage to hold. Some of them are:

Most Career Grand Slams: Lou Gehrig, 23. Manny Ramirez is currently 2nd all time with 21, and A-Rod is tied for 4th with 18, so the record is definitely under threat, but unlike most cumulative records, it is not inevitable that Manny Ramirez will hit those last 2 grand slams even if he remains a regular player for the next 5 years. The rest of the top 5 includes Eddie Murray (19), and Wille McCovey and Robin Ventura (!)(18), so the record as you can see has been much approached in modern times without falling.

Most Consecutive Wins, One Season, AL: 16, held by Walter Johnson (1912), Smoky Joe Wood (1912), Lefty Grove (1931) and Schoolboy Rowe (1934). I've always been fascinated by this record because it come up frequently in older books and oral histories of the eras concerned. It's a pretty modest total--by comparison the NL and overall record for a single season is 19 (and under current rules would be 20) and 24 over 2 seasons (by Carl Hubbell, the dominant pitcher in the NL of the 1930s, over Dizzy Dean in my opinion, whom it dismays me to see is being denigrated in some quarters as a second-rate Hall of Famer now--such people can have no proper sense of that era, I think!). The AL record over 2 seasons is just 17, I believe. But the single season 16 was a much celebrated one in 1912. Johnson set the mark early in the year and then when Wood got to 14 or so later in the summer the two had an immortal showdown at Fenway Park with Johnson 'defending' the record before an overflow crowd at Fenway Park--Wood won, I believe 1-0, though after tying the streak he lost a couple of games later. The famously temperamental Grove lost his bid for win #17 1-0 on a misplaced fly ball by a rookie and tore the locker room apart in a rage after the game. I don't remember any exciting stories connected with Schoolboy Rowe's streak, but he's made one of the quartet for 75 years now. This is an interesting record because somebody whips off 14 in a row every few years and 15 in a row about once a decade. Roger Clemens had several such streaks in his career, including one year, '98 I think, where he was on a 15 game run when the season ended.

Many Team Records are Highly Interesting. Derek Jeter got a lot of attention last summer when he broke the Yankees' all time hits record, which had been held by Lou Gehrig. It was only around 2,700, which is somewhat lower than I thought it would be considering the franchise's fabled history. The Detroit Tigers, for example, have had 3 players get more hits than that with them, as do the Pittsburgh Pirates (the Yankees do have 8 players over 2,000, though the Pirates do also). The A's all-time franchise leader going back to 1901 and covering Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Oakland is Bert Campaneris, with 1,882 (Bucketfoot Al Simmons is second, with 1,827). The Mets all-time leader is the career utility man Ed Kranepool (1,418), 230 hits clear of runner-up Cleon Jones. David Wright, who is still quite young, is currently in 10th place and 435 hits back, so he should break it within 3 years, but strange stuff happens to people with the Mets, I don't know. On the pitching side, the Red Sox all time record for wins is a pretty meager 192, shared by Roger Clemens and Cy Young. The dependable but never more than 4th starter Tim Wakefield is 3rd at 175 (He may have 10-13 more wins left in him, but at age 44 going into next season, 17 seems like a stretch). The Phillies meanwhile, who have been generally horrible through most of their history, boast 3 pitchers with 237 or more wins. One of the more impressive of these team records by the way is that Clemens also shares the Red Sox record for shutouts with Young, at 38, which though most of those came from 1986-92, is a remarkable number for a modern player. On the Yankee list for example, Whitey Ford and Red Ruffing are 1-2 in shutouts (as well as wins) with 45 and 40, while Andy Petitte, who is 3rd on the wins list, has a grand total of 3 shutouts in his entire Yankee career (among other notable recent--meaning in my lifetime--Yankees, Ron Guidry notched 26, Mike Mussina 8, and Roger Clemens, who won 93 games for the Yankees overall, 2). But I could go on with this forever.

Note on Joe DiMaggio's 56-game Hitting Streak. No one has really ever come close to breaking this record, and there doesn't seem to me any inherent reason why this should be so. DiMaggio himself also had a 61 game hitting streak in the minor leagues, which indicates to me that it is not that impossible of a feat; he was a great hitter, but there have certainly been other players with the ability to challenge the record. There is, or at least has been in the past, a certain sentiment I think against anybody really breaking the record; it is the only significant record I can think of that the beloved DiMaggio holds (his record of playing on 9 championship teams in a 13 year career is probably the highest championship percentage of all time, but Yogi Berra, in an 18-year career, was on 10 World Series winners), and of course he set in that halcyon summer of '41, the last summer, not of American innocence certainly, but definitely of an old and lost America that, however, fewer and fewer living people have any recollection of. The psychic power of the record should fade, all of the things that DiMaggio symbolizes will grow increasingly obscure and meaningless to most people, and somebody will make a run at the record unencumbered by all the emotional fan and media baggage that the record has held up to now.

I haven't even gotten to my favorite football records. Another post! This will close out the postings for 2009. I shattered my old record of number of posts by nearly 30, though the quality I feel was even more uneven than usual. I have even less time of late, with Christmas, etc, for writing, but hopefully now that vacation is over I can be back on a regular 2.4 postings a week schedule, at least until I go to Florida in February.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas With the Czech New Wave

Christmas is very busy this year, hence the paucity of new postings.

A few days ago for some reason I got excited about this subject. That excitement has been tempered by the unfortunate circumstance that I can't find any selections of my featured films which have English subtitles, along with the usual effects that the passing of a couple of days has on a momentary enthusiasm. I am going to go ahead with it anyway.

This is the opening of Closely Watched Trains. As noted earlier there are no subtitles, and the theme music/credits get cut off before they are finished. This is too bad, as this is one of my favorite openings to a movie of all time, right up there with The Third Man, which is the only other favorite I can think of offhand. It kind of comes out of nowhere while at the same time feeling and looking to me more like what what actual life really is than almost all of ordinary experience. The tone, the pace and the energy of the writing and action, as in most of the movies I like best, are such to depict a world I find interesting, perhaps such as I could see myself inhabiting with some degree of engagement. This movie of course is set during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, so I do not mean to intimate that I would have wanted to inhabit or enjoyed inhabiting that aspect, or really any other, of this depiction; only that certain of its attitudes and preoccupations strike me as being in some sympathy with what I might feel, or want to feel, in some instance myself.


This is the infamous stamping scene. As you can imagine, this girl is of the type of which most of my youthful dreams were made, only to find that her like, alas, is not so common in real life as in the movies.


Here is the beginning of another favorite, Loves of a Blonde, directed by Milos Forman, who later went on to achieve great success in Hollywood with such hits as Hair, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Amadeus, and The People Versus Larry Flynt. Like Closely Watched Trains, this film has a perfectly human-scale feel to it that is rare in movies. Now that I think of it, the very geography of that part of the world, both natural and man-made, tends to be almost uncannily human-scaled, certainly in comparison with the United States. The towns and cities, the landscape, the transport systems, when one is there, feel wholly the proper size for human use, certainly not larger. If you are a really gigantic mind or personality I suppose this would be brutally confining to you; of course most people are not. Another reason I feel an affinity with these films is that they are never quite wholly serious, in the way a heavy delving into the darkness of the human soul a la such Eastern Bloc contemporaries as Tarkovsky, or Wajda or Polanski would be. I know there are subtle and pointed commentaries on the system in them under the surface and all, but a sense of unconscious moral stridency or confidence is missing. The Czech people tend to strike outsiders as unusally amoral. It is not that they have no code of right and wrong, and certainly there are rules and customs that it is expected people will observe at a certain personal level, but on the biggest, potentially most dangerous and destructive questions, it is almost taken for granted that people will act as they please and as they are able, and not according to any universal code of justice. This is a weakness undoubtedly, though being honest about it makes for some interesting forays in the arts, moreso than either pretending to have ironclad moral convictions when one doesn't, or to have moral convictions the implications of which one doesn't understand.

This nicely-done and beautifully human-scaled scene is not one in which it is hard to figure out what is happening. In a capitalist system there is no way the table with the cute girls would be hanging out at this kind of low key party attended by lots of not so good-looking people. However under communism their options for more exclusive, higher end fun are severely curtailed, the authoritarian regime compels them to associate with and belong to groups which consist of large numbers of average to below-average looking people. From the point of view of a person for whom finding parties where it was even possible to sit and talk or dance with reasonably attractive girls was a handful of occasions in a lifetime kind of experience, this limited mobility system is awfully appealing.

This looks like it may have been filmed at the Lucerna Ballroom in Prague. I went to a dance there once. That was a great time, civilized, and many attractive women with recognizably human-scaled egos. Why in the world are such scenes so comparatively rare?

Friday, December 18, 2009

Willa Cather--My Antonia (1918) Part 1This is a real good one. If one is the type with whom reading carries some influence, and is suicidal or even just in an advanced state of despair about all aspects of existence, I would especially recommend it to him. This is as genuinely optimistic, as attuned to the rhythms of life, of people, of societies, as anything I have read in the last five years. I was completely taken in by its interpretation of the various phenomena it is concerned with. I would rate it as one of my ten favorites, maybe even one of my five favorites, of all American novels. If we lived in a country where a sense of such an idea as a national literature held a more prominent place in day to day life I would think it ought to be part of the collective memory of the educated portion of it at least (that's the country with 40+ million university graduates where Twilight novels comprise 16% of all book sales in the first quarter of this year. I don't like going off on Harold Bloomesque denunciations of the general public's infantilism, but that is really a sad statistic). This book is largely about the creation of the nation and citizenry that emerged around the turn of the twentieth century, of which the demographic that is depicted here often seems on the whole an awful lot stronger and surer of itself, not to mention more hopeful, than that which has succeeded them in the 21st. It has a lot in common actually with the Little House on the Prairie books; both convey a similar sense of exhiliration as something both widespread and frequently experienced--afforded, I presume, by the equally frequent, though never constant hardship that also accompanies pioneer life. I don't imagine I would have cared much for that sort of life myself, though most things of this sort are easier borne if you happen to be born into them. And I don't think I could dispute that I would be any worse of a person overall, body and spirit and mind, if I had had this upbringing, than I have turned out with the one I got.

Among other things, this book has helped immensely to shore up my faith, which had been waning I must admit, in the novel as a valuable human activity. For the recording of memory and human experience in all its most glorious minutiae it is perhaps the form that has been the best developed and most fruitfully employed, and I think this is pretty important; at any rate when done skillfully it is one of the things I derive most enjoyment from. One of the reasons for literature's being devalued is language's being devalued, or, what I suspect, people's unconsciousness of language's importance and possibilities. For the typical modern American, spoken and written English are so ubiquitous, expressions and speech patterns so standardized, that these possibilities, even language itself, are taken for granted. He fails to trace his unhappiness and frustration with life to his inadequate mastery of it; or perhaps it is only me who does this: for plenty of contemporary people have a very good and often delightful mastery of speech, writing, or, in some cases, both, and while many of these people perhaps consider themselves unhappy I don't see how they could be compared to a person who can't write or talk or think anything that is interesting. What is any human pain compared to that?

I think moving forward in my literary career I am probably going to have to ditch any idea of working in shorter mediums, or even writing shorter novels. I am too fond of my digressions and descriptive passages and lingering over my characters until the last possible moment. I think the form I should really concentrate on is the multivolume superwork published in 10-12 somewhat short novels over a 20 year period, in the tradition of Proust, of Powell, of Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, which is a book I am reading currently that is almost nothing but a recording of impressions, of snippets of conversations, of representative days chosen out of hundreds exactly the same, of views out windows and bus rides and feelings while smoking cigarettes. Almost nothing conventionally interesting ever happens in these books, but I find myself liking them a lot. Indeed, the author in many ways relates to the world and other people in a similar manner to myself, not that that is a compliment to her apart from her ability to write effectively about it. I would think myself to be more than usually well-suited to this kind of undertaking in other ways as well. I have literally nothing better to do with my time. I am patient almost to the point of absurdity. My familiarity with the peculiar characteristics and needs of the form as opposed to other literary options I think are pretty good. Since nothing ever happens to me, it seems likely I will live the 20-25 years necessary to see the project through to completion. Unlike poetry or the short story, the multivolume novel actually appears to favor people who never had much sex, either in quantity or with a much varied, let alone dizzying, array of partners (people who don't have much sex in their teens and early twenties have to burn off enormous amounts of energy, which many do by wandering about and observing minute details about all manner of things, for which knowledge one of the few uses is to stuff 3,000 page novel sequences with). In each of the books mentioned above the main character is always the author's self, and the vast majority of the volumes focus on the period of the author's youth and early adulthood up to 35-40 or so, with perhaps the final 1 and a half volumes (in Powell by far the weakest ones in the whole series) bringing the author into what is usually a modestly but not spectacularly successful middle age, which also sounds to be right in the range of my writerly strengths. It also appears one does not have to coneive of the whole saga before beginning. The first volume of Powell was published in 1951, while the last is clearly intended to be set in the hippie/free love era of the late 60s. Likewise Proust began writing his series of books in 1905, and much of the last volume is set during World War I. Getting the style and tone just right from the beginning in this kind of undertaking is everything of course. One must create an interest out of nothing, in a way. I think I could do that, with as much expanse as this form allows, by the fairly reasonable standard of the pre-internet age, though I accept now that that counts for little in the time in which we actually live.

In case you are wondering why I have two copies of My Antonia, my wife decided after we got to Florida that she should like me to recommend a book for her to read there, and I suggested this one; but not having anticipated to bring the copy we already had, we had to buy a second for the beach.



Well, with regard to the actual book, what can I say. We know from the very first paragraph, as the train from the east rolls across miles of wheat fields, that we are in classic America, before the landscape and everything else was ruined by sprawl (there were people denouncing the ravaging of the landscape by settlement, industry, railroads, etc, before 1945, but most writers, including me, seem to attribute the major damage to the national soul to have been inflicted in the developments since that time). The life years of the children in this story are approximately those of my great-great grandparents, of none of whom anybody I ever knew remembered anything; so it is in human terms getting to be kind of a long time ago.

p. 27--"All the years that have passed have not dimmed my memory of that first glorious autumn." I still have similar feelings of my own about the first autumn I was in Portland (Me), back in 1986. Nothing of great moment actually occurred, but for a sixteen year old who was really not progressing in any direction where he was the sense of having escaped, and to a beautiful, in certain ways civilized city with a history and civic spirit, where he was able once more to feel possibilities to exist for himself, made for a very intensely lived couple of months. Many times I have started novels or long stories about this general period, though none have come off right and all have been quickly abandoned. In the last few years, with the aid of my wife and other sober, clear-viewed adults, I have also come to see that the place of my imagination was far grander than the actual place ever was, and to temper some of the more extravagant sentiments I had cultivated. Still, the effect of the original impressions remains a powerful, and on the whole benign force in my life, and I still think there is a story of some kind in it.

Folksy anecdotes: I can't include them all. I liked the story about the Mormons scattering the sunflower seeds on their route across the plains so that the next summer their followers would know the way they had taken.

p. 28 "Trees were so rare in that country, and they had to make such a hard fight to grow, that we used to feel anxious about them, and visit them as if they were persons." These are such simple sentiments and images, but I think they are so beautiful. Think not that these pioneers were wholly depraved and evil people.

p. 30 "Russia seemed to me more remote than any other country--farther away than China, almost as far as the North Pole." To me Russia always seemed much farther than the North Pole. Half of the Arctic Ocean, at least, was ours--well, Canada's, but, you know what I mean. Russia was absolutely forbidden and foreboding territory to my childish mind, that if one were to be somehow dropped into the midst of it it would be impossible to get out of, and you would be captured and tormented and generally made very unhappy forever. This is how I used to feel about all the countries in the Soviet sphere when I was eight. I was totally afraid of them.

Reading this book the physical and temperamental differences between individuals before mass culture began forming everyone more or less from a similar cast is especially striking. The impression is that people are by nature intended to be more unique in contrast with other humans than we give them credit for being.

It is indicated that back in the day immigrants to the U.S. were allowed to bring certain kinds of guns, especially for hunting, with them from the old country. I am guessing this is not still the case today.


Not My Picture. Willa Cather once resided in this building "in the east Village near the West 4th st stop" (as did Richard Wright 33 years or so later). This does look like it would be a pretty awesome street to live and smoke cigarettes and hang out in the window and do writing on. Yeah, man. Yeah.

I'm beat, man. I'll try again in a few days. Between Christmas and everybody being out of school for two weeks, this means no writing time whatsoever until I've already been up for 14 hours and am exhausted. Maybe I get 1 post in this week and 1 next. I know I just need to go to bed early and get up at 3am and be one of those kinds of writers doing a strict daily quota from 3 to 6, and success will be inevitable. I think I might be one of those people who is actually afraid of success, though. It doesn't fit in with my long-developed persona. I mean, you want to talk about a guy being out of his comfort zone? That's the prospect of me enjoying success.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

This Month's Movies: Pixote (1981); Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1931)

Pixote is a highly acclaimed movie about the hard lives of street kids in Brazil's two megacities which used actual slum children as actors a la The Bicycle Thief and Slumdog Millionaire. It may be the most depressing film I have ever seen. It is so sordid it makes the likes of Taxi Driver look like a picaresque romp. Child rape, sodomy, prostitution, a relentless stream of repulsive, thoroughly evil adults with no redeeming qualities whatsoever, callous, sloppy murders, ugly people, ugly rooms, hideous scenarios, everything coarse and hopeless. I get that that is the point, that the viewer is supposed to emerge angry and indignant at the conditions in which children are allowed to exist, as well as confronted with the appalling depth of his own neglect and ignorance and what these have wrought. It is no surprise that Pauline Kael and her fellow champions of the provocative, get-up-in-your-bourgeois-grill style of filmmaking thought this movie was excellent and had a lot of important things to say, which I guess it did, but this style doesn't seem for whatever reasons to work much on me. I mean, look, I think the bureaus of local leadership, the national government, the international community, interested third parties with good ideas, whoever, should devote much greater degrees of effort and brainpower to alleviate the horrible circumstances in which these people live (how to do this sort of thing on a large scale is not my--or apparently anyone else's--area of expertise; I would be inclined to impose fairly extreme socialist measures, I suspect), but the movie did not do anything to make me strongly identify with the humanity with these people in any way. It was like watching a freak/horror show.

The only other movie that comes to mind as possibly challenging this one for disturbing scenes and a bleak vision of human nature is the 1966 Soviet masterpiece Andrei Rublev, which however has several advantages over Pixote, being beautifully, stunningly filmed as well as written at a noticeably higher level of both skill and general cultural literacy. I am sure it must rank among the 20 greatest movies ever made. That said, it has some of the most truly gruesome and horrifying sequences ever put on film. It is set in 15th century Russia, and just imagining how cold one must have been for pretty much the whole of one's life is unsettling enough. Then there is your lord to deal with. Then bandits come. Then the Mongol army rolls into town. None of which situations are resolved in what we would consider an enlightened manner. Andrei Rublev however balances its depictions of brutal, awful humanity somewhat by juxtaposing against them the ennobling, insistent presences of real art, and by association, religion. Being Russian, there is no claim being put forth, I don't think, that art and other impulses towards beauty will ever be triumphant in human life; if there is a message, it is simply to witness that they are there, that they exert a powerful if not conquering pull, and that they are rather inexplicable. That this sense is what the filmmaker is getting at I find to be conveyed very convincingly. At any rate, it is a must-see film.

I've Lost the Picture of Miriam Hopkins and Mr Hyde Already?

There have been a lot of versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but it seems to be pretty widely agreed upon that the 1931 version starring a young and quite handsome Frederic March is the best one. This is a very good movie, in many ways surprisingly so. It has some edge to it that I was not anticipating. Like Andrei Rublev, it tempers its descents into depravity by appealing to some of mankind's noble, or at least nobly-intentioned pursuits, in this case science and music. Also like Andrei Rublev, these disciplines prove no match among men against the frenzy induced by lust. This film was made a couple of years before the infamous code which regulated film content until the late 60s was put into effect, so it is much more explicit with regard to sex than one is accustomed to find in old films. The way Dr Jekyll (the 'e' is long in this movie) is scarcely able to conceal or contain his lusts and the fervency of his desire even before he transforms into Hyde is absolutely striking in its bald directness, as is the irrepressible violence of the Hyde character when he comes in. I was impressed with this.



Sunday, December 13, 2009

On Writing Publicly For Reasons Other Than Money

I don't know whether or not offering one's scribblings to the world free of charge is contemptible, as some maintain, though I doubt that anyone, other than perhaps Plato, Montaigne, and the authors of the New Testament ever set out to write a book or any other attempt at literature with no idea of profiting by it in some way. If nothing else, being paid for the work, or even having it acknowledged by someone who is himself paid, legitimizes it in a way that nothing else can. Some people go further and consider that writing is a skill, and as with any other skill, if one does it well it is too valuable to be given away freely, if for no better reason than that it contributes to an environment where it becomes more difficult for committed professionals to make a living commensurate in respectability to their desserts. I almost wholly agree with this from the point of view of the person of talent, and the ability to coerce payment out of people for such talents as one has. The problem is that more and more people either have no talents, or skills, possessing any value, and many who do simply haven't the understanding of how to make people give them money for them. In this scenario having such an attitude really limits the number of acceptable adult pursuits one can share with other people. Still, I largely accede to this; I do and say very little among other people. People do not think that I ever properly tried to make anything of myself but during the apparently utterly wasted years between age 24 and 32 or so I really was trying very seriously to make myself into an author, in which enterprise I not only failed, but did so at the expense of developing any other useful abilities. Compounded by the further mistake of isolating myself more or less wholly apart from other people like me, the result is the perfect disaster one sees today. Thus at the same time, this variety of writing and thinking which I produce being the only thing I know how to produce in this world, I find that to keep going on I must make a gesture at turning out some kind of copy, publishing such things as I can, as if asserting that I have a function in life, though if a function implies something essential one does well and for which he is paid, this is obviously a great lie.

I didn't know about it when I was coming out of college, or maybe it didn't exist. But going to New York and latching onto one of those writers' sweatshops like Gawker or working on Henry Louis Gates's Encyclopedia Africana (most of the writers for which were young postgraduate white people) was the kind of thing I ought to have done, to be around people in the field, to get some credentials, and to be in an exciting place with some kind of concrete purpose. Except for the part about being in the exciting place, my conception of the world and of literature did not operate in this way at the time. Hacking away in a sweatshop would have diverted time away from working on serious masterpieces that already existed within me more than half-formed. Writing for ephemeral forms--magazines, textbooks, web sites--was not real writing, its practitioners not real writers, the world in which I imagined them to inhabit not the world I imagined myself to inhabit. Of course I never talked to anyone about any of this. I didn't trust anyone to help me, to make the possibility of going to New York or some other cultural mecca and making something of myself there seem plausible. No, I should have first to have done something spectacular, burst fully-realized upon the scene and give people no choice but to collapse and grovel before my genius and superiority. I could not imagine being successful in any other terms.

I Like the Feeling I Get in Reading about the Current Brooklyn-Centered Literary & Artistic Scene. I know I shouldn't, because the people involved aren't particularly tough or edgy--whimsical I think is the common word--and I think they are supposed to be spoiled and overly cushioned against real hardship to boot, but I actually think it is a positive development that some incurably soft young people with decent educations and good, heavily results-oriented work ethics, and who even seem to at least be nice to each other are back in New York. I think a lot of good will come out of it. Perhaps not anything brilliant--that will be in the ensuing generation, if we are lucky--but obviously enough people are hungry for this kind of atmosphere of artistic energy and feeling, which New York has the environment, the history, the geography, the institutions and so on to support in people without a Herculean effort on their part, as to have made something happen which from afar looks very appealing, the kind of scene I have always wanted to belong to. In my dream I could have a girlfriend, or even several of them, like one of the erstwhile queens of this scene, the "microcelebrity" Emily Gould, who actually seems like a pretty awful person, but on whom, or rather on the type of woman of which she is representative, I have a ridiculous crush. Everything about her triggers in me an odd sense that her type is the epitome of something vital I missed in my life, as the kind of girlfriend everybody I aspire to be like has more or less continually, and eventually learns to master, which seems to be essential in the development of the genuinely good male writer. Many of the other Brooklyn women one reads about, or reads, or sees in the various videos that circulate on the internet, as belonging to this scene, also look to be of the kind I was forever seeking. I am probably projecting Dorothy Parkeresque qualities, and those of the women who populate her stories, on these people where it is not really merited, but they at least seem to be conscious, to be alert to the existence of those kinds of possibilities, and have the personal desirability to make that alertness interesting, which combination I have not seen happening to such a decent-sized extent in a while.

I have a friend, an old classmate--several, actually, but I am thinking of one in particular--who has managed to avert the constrictions of marriage and children and corporate servitude and lives in Brooklyn among this very scene, apparently surviving as a musician, taking part in lots of nightlife and other cultural activities, maintaining hundreds of friendships with unusual, intelligent people, and enjoying lots of 20-something female company, cut from friendlier and better-looking cloth than that even of the frequently disagreeable Emily Gould cloth I was aspiring to. While various women with a vested interest in keeping my eyes and the eyes of men like me focused firmly straight ahead, and not noticing the freedom and energy and fun others are still able to enjoy insist that I am better than men like my friend, that such ought to grow up, etc, that partying and having relations with 23 year old women actually indicates somehow that he is a loser, he is something of a heroic figure to me. He has escaped all of that, and found a sliver of life, and one far more interesting than that in which the vast majority of men are doomed to inhabit, where he thrives at probably close to 90-95% of his absolute social potential (whereas I operate at approximately 9% of my own). He has transformed and transcended such doom as awaited him in a thousand different places. It is one of the more inspiring stories I know.


I was going to address America's political divisions, the demoralization of the citizenry, the wars, and the Tiger Woods situation, but I am going to have to shelve those for another time, if ever. I am very busy, especially with Christmas coming up, and I almost never get to write at this time.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Lady Oracle--Part II

Chapter 20. After two years of marriage, somewhere around 1966-1968, Joan and Arthur still have no sink, and Arthur has not yet deigned to get a job. My impression is that smart women don't put up with this kind of lifestyle anymore. Life would be potentially more interesting for me if more of them did, but that is no consideration of anybody's.

The construction of the part detailing the curiosities of the little district (Toronto hipster scene), finding the dead dog, etc, I seem to have thought was well done. It gave the book 'dimension', I wrote. Though in all seriousness, is it really credible that Margaret Atwood was ever a hipster, or hung out much among them? To me, crashing/penetrating these kinds of scenes are like pushing against the very limits of human possibility. I don't understand how some people can just get in and make themselves accepted in these circles and remain enshrined for the rest of their lives while others can never convince anybody that they have any part of the soul of a bohemian.

p.248 "When Women's Lib had appeared, Marlene had dismissed it as bourgeois; now she was a convert." I can see how that would have been confusing at the time.

p.254--"Byron, I remember, had kept a pet bear in his rooms and drunk wine from a skull." Yes, of course you did. For many years I thought Byron should be just about everyone's hero, science geniuses and people of that ilk included, because it seemed to me he had mastered every aspect of human existence that mattered in modern life, and then left it off carelessly, more or less in disdain, while still in the full throes of his powers and superiority, both of intellect and spirit, over other humans. His seemed to me the most ideal life accessible to people who were incapable of religious serenity or profound philosophical cogitation. I am of late less inclined to this opinion, since it seems to steer one towards a nihilistic attitude towards life, and this is generally not considered to be acceptable. No one else is as pleasing or convincing to me in his self-expression that I have discovered yet as old Byron seems to have been however.

p. 259--"He goes to all the parties, he goes to every party he can get into." Why not. Back then parties were actually fun.

p.264--"He'd heard from one of his friends, also a concrete artist, that if you got a string of Christmas tree lights, plugged it in, unscrewed one of the lights, and stuck your finger in the socket at the moment of ejaculation, not only you but your partner would have the greatest orgasm in the world." This is stupid, but it did inspire me to ask how people had so much time away from jobs and spouses and other people back in the day to conduct sexual affairs and still be home before midnight. Though I am sure it isn't true, my impression is that people were much hornier, certainly more openly so, in the 60s and 70s than they are now. There were, percentage wise, far more people of rutting age, socio-economically the middle class at least was far more equal, and I would say that given the lower numbers both of obese people and people adopting really unnatural appearances--cosmetic surgery, extreme levels of exercising, whatever people are doing with facial make-up and hair so as to only remotely resemble human beings--there were far more attractive people around to awaken and flame one's desires than there are in the ordinary person's life today.

p.273--"The television set had vertical on the lower third of the screen..." Hey, I remember that.

p. 289--"He hated celebrities, he felt they diminshed him." Contemporary celebrities tend to be so ridiculous that they don't in themselves diminish anybody. The people with relentless drive, self-confidence, and ambition for the sake of ambition are what is diminishing me. Where does this belief that one is a winner, that one can do whatever he wants, and that one deserves all of the top prizes to be claimed in life all of the time and in perpetuity, come from?

p.310--"I was feeling marooned; the impulse to send out messages, in bottles or not, grew every day. I am still alive." That is the whole and only object of this blog at this point.

Italians are depicted in this as utterly ruthless people, not just the mafiosi but more or less everybody. Are they still like this? The conventional wisdom is that they have gone completely soft, at least morally, like every other western country.

I like the conceit of the structure here, having the romance novels, with all their absurdity, parallel her own life. I ought to come up with some kind of clever device like that for my own next book. p. 338 "Mr Morgan looked serious and responsible; he was having the time of his life, he was important at last, he was acting out his own fantasy." Mr Morgan witnessed what he believed to be a tragic drowning, thus earning the attention of the police and the newspapers. I cannot imagine what I would do if I ever became convinced I was genuinely important. I don't think it's likely to happen.
Excerpt

I am not going to do this very often, but I think the site needs a little more stylized, fictive content on it.

"I had an unusual day today," Erlsegaard said. "At moments it was among the happiest I have ever known, though nothing that happened is uncommon in normal human experience. I felt a distance between myself and the mundanities of ordinary existence. I felt elevated. I felt distinguished. I felt our city was as important and beautiful as any in the world when one had the time to go about and look at it calmly. It is hard for me to understand why we can't become one of those cities by which outsiders are humbled and awed. Why our minds are not more often concentrated to those finest points at which human life is only ever worth living, as they seem to be, or have been, in those other places."

"All this occurred to you this morning walking through the back alleys of Fairmount?"

"Some of it only occurred to me just now." Erlsegaard rose to a sitting position, with his back against the bathtub and his knees up. "You remember that old lady who spoke at school about St Petersburg and the beauties and profundities one's mind absorbed as a child there, the sensibilities bespoke in the placement of the stones in the walls and the layout and activity of the streets? And of course how we in our lives are ever cut off from this subtle, essential--and yes, sometimes dark humanity, because its presence has been eradicated, sanitized if you will, from our experience?"

"I do. Though I haven't thought about it since around the time we started drinking that night. I remember thinking that even if she had a point, it doesn't seem to be doing her much good. The old bag. What were we supposed to do exactly, be ashamed? You and I, Erlsegaard? I know other people were duly ashamed and suicidal; but the masses and big business and all that, which is all all these people are ever really talking about, all they care about, will never be tormented by how puny and ignorant they are the way these old intellectuals want them to. It's only you who believe it, Erlsegaard. It's only you who thinks art and philosophy and cathedrals and great cities and beautiful girls don't belong to you as much as anybody else. That you don't deserve to show your face around them. Old Germans and Russians, they'll never give you credit for understanding anything. Oh, and those Austro-Hungarians, they're the worst. That's the only satisfaction they have in this country, finding suckers like us, who give them the benefit of the doubt they've got something to tell us. I wouldn't take them all that seriously."

"I am skeptical you know about anybody who believes the last golden age happened to take place wherever it was they happened to be when they were twenty-two. Who ever recognized a golden age, in philosophy anyway, to have risen up when he was in his fifties? And suddenly all that essential humanity these places had, dies the moment it comes among us, can have no meaninful influence whatsoever? I want to know, if Petersburg and Berlin were such fruitful soil for men's brains, how could they have become so unbearable and impossible to live in? Of course, that is probably the whole secret, the necessity of ideological and personal tension that is only good so far as it is a matter of life and death. The pattern does seem to repeat itself in all the most genius-crossed societies. Nonetheless I am sure I have had glimpses of all these tantalizing possibilities and truths here. I'm sure I have had one today. Why wouldn't our winter air and light direct the mind's eye to those possibilities just as much as the beating sun and desert winds do for the Mediterranean peoples?"

"Perhaps. But then again, it's taken you twenty-five--what are you now, twenty-six? Jesus, Erlsegaard, you're getting old!--twenty-six years of looking and how many dozens of people whom you want to be like telling you what to look for just to get to this point of thinking you see what they knew they were seeing as children. They were just smart children who happened to live in a world more casually literate and replete with the conviction that the greatest existential dramas and advancements of the day were emanating from it alone than ours is, all of which no doubt makes a heavy impression on children. And now they've ended up somewhere comparatively peaceful and uninterested in philosophy, so they wince at all our pursuits, only no one except a few earnest students and social outcasts are impressed. I think that even if we have no secrets of our own to discover, future high civilizations will be mining us for material like crazy. I do wish I knew what they will find of importance. All will not be lost, anyway. But for ourselves, we can start by learning not to become impotent at the slightest suggestion that Genius might be in the room."

Friday, December 04, 2009

College Football Season Recap

Having gone to a college where football and other classic American team sports are not played against other schools at any level, where there are no fraternities, no real exclusive clubs or parties, no gambling rings, no waiting lists, and no classes with 500 people in them, and having for myriad reasons neglected to attend graduate school, I often feel when around other adults who did not go where I did that I never really quite went to "college" at all. Thus when fall comes around and football season and all its attendant rituals are celebrated in their various forms at beautiful campuses all across this land, I always feel a little left out of a great tribal party, though as it is a party I would only like to have attended as a true B.M.O.C., a position which it is highly unlikely I would ever have attained to anywhere, I cannot lament it much. It is however a means of maintaining a psychic connection with much of the rest of the country, which in the remote area, especially with regard to big-time football, where I live can sometimes be a difficult thing to do.

That said, I don't have time to actually watch games, or even highlight shows. My following of the game consists mainly of reading internet columnists. I have never, for example, seen Tim Tebow, the University Florida demigod whose final home game last weekend had fans lined up for hours beforehand hoping to touch him as he entered the stadium, play football. This level of emotion which has accompanied the whole of his final season has nonetheless made him a compelling story to me. Tebow of course is not merely famous for being the spectacular quarterback of a team that has lost 1 game in the last 2 years. He spent much, if not most of his youth in the third world with his Christian missionary parents, where he reportedly did an extraordinary amount of good laboring unceasingly with an infectious spirit, quoting liberally from the Bible, some in the world's worst hellholes. Perhaps most incredibly, he has claimed publicly at least to be saving himself sexually for marriage (if this last tidbit is true, I would have to think he will be sorely regretting taking this stance 20 years from now, but I of course am most familiar with Vatican II era Catholic morality, such that I am pretty sure no one in the domestic Church hierarchy expects the quarterback at Notre Dame to practice abstinence, nor that any holder of that position should volunteer himself to commit to do so). Such relentless greatness has, over the last three and a half years since Tebow burst upon the scene, strained the abilities of the typical college football pundit and fan alike to comprehend, so that both the praise and hatred/envy directed his way at this late point in his career have long since tended towards the ridiculous and the faintly creepy. Fortunately unlike the pros, where superstar worship goes on for decades and sometimes never ends at all, everybody has to move on from college, usually at the height, or very near it, of their greatness. Player statistics in college football don't really tell one a lot more than a few years after the fact. More than other sports, its legends are largely in the moment type of phenomena, a feeling one is inspired with. Even some people who don't move on, like Joe Paterno, whom I will get to momentarily, seem in some essentially way to be ever fading, ever more ghostly, still realized fully only back in 1973 or so, such that the current person appearing publicly as Joe Paterno is not at all the same, does not inspire the same emotional response that this 1973 self would, and once did. Tebow will fade too, probably he will already seem to be fading if not in this weekend's SEC Title Game, then assuredly by his Bowl Game he won't be recognizably himself anymore. This is what made the spectacle of people wanting to touch him so interesting to me. (Note--Florida was rolled by Alabama in the SEC title game and will be relegated to the Sugar Bowl, still a major New Year's Day bowl at least, but not as big a national event as it would have been in the 70s and 80s. Tebow's aura will be diminished by the time this game takes place.)

I concede that the SEC is probably the best conference, but it is also the most ridiculous in many ways. Most of the fan bases are outsizedly jealous of whomever is currently winning, and want to fire their coaches all the time after a 7-5 season even if the guy has been a proven winner for years. These same people are all very adamant about the conference's superiority, which people outside the region generally concede but don't really care that much about. Nobody in the Northeast at least that I am aware of dreams about playing football in the SEC. There is also a lot of pride among the fans of this conference regarding the beauty of their women, which is admirable, though it runs into such insistence of their superiority to those of other regions that anyone who claimed to be partial to the girls at say, Minnesota, has to have his masculinity called into question, as to be annoying. I would suppose the Pac-10, definitely the California and Arizona schools, to be more than competitive even from an objective point of view, but in any event southern belles and their wiles and requirements, marvelous as they are, are not to everyone's ultimate taste, and I find that they tend to leave me cold. When I was in Prague there was a foursome of Vanderbilt sorority girls in the program with which we had gone over, and certainly they were very attractive, and they were smart enough, and though at first they were a little spoiled they even came around to slumming it (a little) in the dingy Czech bars and such which one has to do, but they could not desist from purring and manipulating and cruelty and backstabbing and all of this kind of over the top drama whenever men were around; admittedly I was nothing to them but whereas in other circumstances this would have only served to fire my feelings anyway, the mindset of these girls was so alien to me I could really feel nothing in the way of my usual longing where they were concerned.

The one SEC team that I think does need to fire its coach is Georgia. The level of abuse and humiliation that their rivalry with Florida has attained, to the point that even though they are already losing 49-10 they are afraid of fighting back or responding to the egregious insults continually flung their way by everybody connected with Florida for fear that something worse will be done to them on the field is too much to be endured.

My favorite SEC story is about the time former Mississippi State coach Jackie Sherrill tried to fire his team up by castrating a bull in the locker room before a big game. If I'm sitting in there watching this I don't even know what I would be thinking. You've got to say something funny but what would it be?

I wrote about Notre Dame about this same time last year and my take on them is still pretty much the same. I still think they just need to get a more solid, thorough coach, and they will be able to go 9-3, 10-2 on a regular basis with an occasional run at a top 5 record. This idea that they have to abandon all hint of academic standards and load up on speedy thugs, I presume black ones, is overrated. Most of the teams they lost to this year were not recruiting powerhouses loaded up with this raw talent that is supposedly inaccessible to Notre Dame. Half of them probably have a whiter team than Notre Dame does. Stanford almost certainly draws from a similar academic/talent pool as ND, other than that they have a slight advantage being in California. Navy I would assume has far more stringent academic requirements than ND, and they have beaten them 2 of the last 3 years. Connecticut is a second rank Big East team recruiting primarily in the supposedly talent deficient Northeast, where even the black people for some reason are slower than they are in the south. Penn State's talent level is not considered to be all that high (or fast) compared with elite teams, and while they were called out for playing a schedule loaded with patsies this year in going 10-2, if they had played Notre Dame's supposedly more challenging schedule, I am sure they would have gone at least 9-3, if not equaled the 10-2 record. Penn State hammered the two common opponents they played, Michigan and Michigan State, while ND lost to the 1st (a team that proceeded to go 1-7 in the supposedly weak Big 10) and squeaked by the 2nd in a somewhat miraculous finish. I suspect PSU would have taken UConn and Navy at home as well. The Notre Dame situation is not that dire. I don't understand why they shouldn't be able to put together a solid team even with all of their restrictions. Winning national championships always involves a degree of luck. One doesn't have to be absolutely the best team in the country, but building up a good record and having things fall your way sometimes will do the trick, other years you can go undefeated even through your bowl game and not win the title (Joe Paterno has done this 4 times at Penn State, including 1973, when Notre Dame was awarded the title, and back to back years in 1968 and 1969!).

West Coast Football. If I have ever been jealous of any league, far from it being the SEC, it is the Pac-10, especially the California schools. I know California has lost some of its allure as the promised land in recent years, but to a child of the 70s and early 80s it was the place where everybody was better looking, healthier, happier and better at sports than those of us stuck back in the cold gray east, and USC, UCLA, Stanford, etc, symbolize a kind of sporting collegiate glamour that only the Ivy League could really have had here but which they had given up by the time I came along. Stanford made a splash of course by having the first really good white running back at a major school in at least 20 years. I didn't see him play, but he gashed USC and Notre Dame, as well as Oregon, Cal (Berkeley) and numerous other heavyweights, which gets people's attention.

Not exactly West Coast, but I had always thought BYU and Utah were more or less the same kind of school, Utah kids were maybe a little less pristine but still adhered to the basic philosophy (a lot of the Utah players in football and basketball seem to be Mormons, as pretty much all BYU players are). Apparently the two schools really hate each other; some of the comments that came out in the aftermath of this year's game (won by BYU) revealed a level of real animosity as high as anything else I saw coming out this year anywhere in the country, Alabama-Auburn included (though departed Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis's accusation that married USC coach Pete Carroll was shacking up in Malibu with a grad student added some much needed spice to that rivalry).

I written a little about Penn State, which is my team, in various places above. They should have played a tougher non-conference schedule, at least one, if not two, legitimate teams, but 6-2 in the Big Ten is a respectable season, considering that their coach is 82 years old. The other teams in the league have got to be a little bit embarrassed that they're getting schooled by a guy who got his job: two years after Ara Parseghian, who has been retired for 35 years, took over at Notre Dame; five years before Alabama fielded its first black player; three years before legendary coach Bo Schembechler, who has been dead for about a decade, got hired at Michigan. Joe Paterno briefly accepted an offer to coach the New England Patriots in 1973, but changed his mind a day or two later. The idea of Joe being a pro coach now seems ludicrous but at the time he was probably the best college coach in the country, as noted earlier PSU went undefeated 3 times in 6 years, going 62-6 over the span between 1968-73, finishing 2nd, 2nd, and 5th (!) in the final rankings in those undefeated seasons. I don't remember those teams as I was born in 1970 but when I was growing up he was considered the most competent public figure working in the state of Pennsylvania by a fairly wide margin. And he's still there! And he has no plans to step down.

This is off topic, but as proof that I really never watch television, how could I have missed this?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Margaret Atwood--Lady Oracle (1976)--Part 1 This was actually a pretty good book. It had important themes--secrets of inner life, the constant presence and influence of the past, the random nature of major life-changing events--that it explored better than most books do. There was a lot about sex in the book, and I don't understand sex, especially the special relationship to it and needs that women have, so I don't quite know what to make of all that. But on the whole it's an impressive and worthwhile book. I don't think I had ever read a Canadian book with a regular Canadian setting before either, so that was also a plus. I had read the Handmaid's Tale once, and that was so bad, and I had seen Margaret Atwood give interviews on television and she was so blah and smug and generally unappealing, confirming all the worst fears about the Canadian intelligentsia that the conservative media has aroused in us, that I was not looking forward to reading this at all; but I was pleasantly surprised.

When I finished I went back and read the first chapter, and the book being written in a way that chronologically it starts nearly at the end and jumps all over the place in the course of the writing, it was clear that if I had read it through again I would have understood a lot more clearly what was happening as I went along. While I liked the book however, life is short, and I am not ready to commit myself to reading Margaret Atwood novels through twice at the outset at the present time.

In the interest of speeding along my reviews, I am really going to try to cut down my observations and quotations to a sampling of the things I found most amusing. I am hoping this will be more successful and satisfactory for all involved.

p.9--a reference to the sternness of the Queen (we all know which queen is meant). I have the impression that Canadians think about the Queen a lot more than they would want to let on to outsiders.

pp. 10-11--Her descriptions of ordinary events are a little too clinical, lacking in any magic, for my general taste. She betrays a concern with the importance of female hair: "hair in the female was regarded as more important than either talent or the lack of it." Margaret Atwood herself has woefully bad hair. Hmm...

p.13--(don't worry, I don't have a note on every page) She is annoying me with her condescension towards the collection of paintings of Roman tourist sites. You aren't cool, you Canadian wannabe!, I write in a pique of emotion. In short, her stand-in character (who later however is developed into someone more plausibly cool) is living the Bourgeois Surrender fantasy (writing, travelling, expat living) and showing why it shouldn't be done.

p. 18--"he liked mixing me up." On the first reading I mistook this for a reference to a dominant man who casually toyed with women, and went on a rampage about how men of the intellectual type were so docile, lifeless and unexacting now. It was later revealed that while this man had certain old fashioned expectations of ruling over and being catered to by his women, he was not so gifted at bringing these expectations wholly to bear. On the same page I noted that the author/stand in went on to further abuse married life. 'Isn't it the women who want it? I asked despairingly, thinking men can hardly be blamed for failing in a situation most are instinctively reluctant to commit themselves to.

p. 43--elementary school dance recital. Joan (the author's stand-in I presume) was fat as a child. "The finished and costumed girls were standing against the wall so as not to damage themselves, inert as temple sacrifices." Good image. The mother removes fatty, who looks ridiculous in her tutu, from the recital to spare the child (and presumably herself) humiliation. Contrast with today's methods. Also the other adults are totally unmoved by fatty's crying (episode presumably would have taken place late 1940s or so). This type of pitiful loser story was popular in the 1970s. I absorbed it whole hog and incorporated its ethos into most of my own writing. Unfortunately, at least in the form in which I present it, it is out of fashion now.

p. 89--"There were two other fat girls in the school." Great sentence.

p. 103--Somebody quotes from an Arthur Hugh Clough poem. I don't know much about Clough as a writer but his friend Matthew Arnold's elegy for him "Thyrsis" is one of my four or five favorite poems of all time. Really beautiful.

p. 127--Later, as a young woman living in Toronto's bohemian community amongst struggling and generally unsuccesful young male writers and activists, Joan becomes, unbeknownst to her friends, a successful Romance novelist. The sample passages from these novels that appear in the story are actually some of the best things in the book: "She rose from her chair and shrank back against the shelves of fine leather-bound books, each with Redmond's family crest stamped in gold on the spine...Charlotte pulled away, seeking wildly for some object with which to defend herself. She seized a weighty copy of Boswell's Life of Johnson (The things that titillate us!--ed.)...He was not the first importunate nobleman she'd had to fend off, and it was not her fault she was young and pretty."

p. 136--Back in childhood. Her father was a doctor who was emotionally cold and distant. She had no idea how great his being a doctor was until she went to his office one day. She had thought him just another bourgeois loser before that: "He looked much more impressive than he ever had at home, he looked like someone with power." Still, at the end, he was "a man in a cage, like most men". Thank you sweetheart.

pp. 146, 155, 157--Back to young adulthood, now in England, where she meets the exiled Polish count, who, characteristic of the melancholy nature of his race, offers the following observation: "I later found that almost anyone would tell you you were wise if you confessed you had no talent." The exiled Polish count also makes a living by writing romance novels (also under a pseudonym; is this really the case, that lots of sophisticated bohemians are making a killing secretly writing romance novels?); it is he who gets Joan into the profession. His method of writing approximates the fantasy I imagined my own life would be like at this point back when I was twenty-five: "...chain-smoking Gauloises...and drinking one glass of tawny port per evening." I've had a bottle of port in my liquor cabinet for several years that I break out on occasion but it's really sweet and I don't particularly like it. More on the Polish count, of whom you can see I am somewhat fond: "Anyone from across the Atlantic Ocean was a kind of savage to him, and even the English were questionable, they were too far west." Did I mention that he relieved the Joan character of her virginity? She was around 18 or 19, and he was in his 50s at least. I have to believe intelligent women undervalued by the men their own age especially must get something in the long term out of these affairs with older men of experience, (not to mention the rejuvenation and good it does the men), if approached in a sensible spirit on both sides.

pp. 166-7--Joan fantasizes about various communist dictators, especially Chairman Mao. Yikes! "I thought of Castro as a tiger in bed...with those cigars and that beard...But Mao was my favorite, you could tell he liked to eat. I pictured him wolfing down huge Chinese meals...happy children climbing all over him...he wrote poetry, he had fun...I liked to think about him in the bathtub, all covered with soap...beaming away and very appreciative, while some adoring female--me!--scrubbed his back." O.K.

I make a reference to a passage back in Canada about girls doling themselves out which obviously fascinated me, but I can't find where it was now, what precisely it referred to, or whether it was something that would ever have applied to me in any conceivable hypothetical situation.

p. 174--"When I reached the flat, the Indian radical was sitting cross-legged on the floor, explaining to Arthur, who was on the sofa, that if he had sexual intercourse too much he would weaken his spirit and thereby his mind, and would become politically useless." This would only ever apply to lesser (beta) males. As long as you don't get emotional about it you can have sex five times a day and be politically stronger than all the same people you were always stronger than.

p. 194--"I wanted him to stay with me, and the alternative he was proposing was a trip to Northern British Columbia to work in an asbestos mine." The romantic interest by the way has shifted from the Polish count to a young impassioned Communist type (talk about a breed that has died out more or less utterly). This guy's instincts for not fawning over women, etc, are not bad, but in the end he has a couple of downfalls that he cannot overcome, the first being that he is never successful in anything, and the second that he is not sexually exciting in the way which the times (i.e. the 60s) required people to be (indeed he is quite boring). So he gets thrown over.

We are more than halfway through the book so I think this will get done in 2 parts easy.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Literature--Real Literature--is Still a Man's Game.

The expression 'man' here refers more to certain qualities of hardness, pitilessness and such that I, who lack them, tend to think of as extreme masculine characteristics. There are certainly plenty of women who have them in one degree or another. The great delusion of so many is that the fields of genuine literature and the other arts are some kind of refuge for soft, sensitive people, a cheap and painless route to the acceptance and esteem they have always craved but never merited. Such beauty as exists in life and art largely depend on the extent to which it rewards hardness and rigor and punishes softness and laziness...

I Am Not Going to Presume to Give Financial Advice But...

I am not the first person to notice this, but it has always struck me as an especial peculiarity of American life that in certain areas the more spectacular the problems of one's own making that one has at least temporarily escaped, the more credibility one has in guiding others away from or out of the same pitballs. Thus it is considered reasonable to hire or anoint people who have had the most extreme problems with drugs themselves to counsel others on the best ways to avoid or overcome similar habits, as opposed to someone who never had such problems in the first place. Likewise there is an American mutation of Christianity in which the extent of sin in which the preacher wallowed in the days before he developed a greater intimacy with Jesus is a far greater selling point with potential congregates than the rigor of his theological training. Of late we have seen the rise of the Dave Ramsey/Suze Orman style financial guru who once had six figure credit card debt but now earn fortunes browbeating the hapless middle and lower middle classes with such brilliant insights as "don't buy the plasma TV if you can't do it in cash". One thing most of these pop money managers seem to be in agreement about is that spending any more money on education than the minimal amount necessary to get certified in some kind of practical skill leading to an immediate upgrade in pay is a cardinal sin. This assumes an attitude towards education of course that I know a lot of people have, but which is a symptom of a wider trend among a lot of middle class non-Jewish whites that I can't see not having increasingly unhappy consequences for them as a group moving on through the next fifty years or so.

It seems to me that families and groups who expend a large percentage of their resources and energy on education for their younger members--a population in which certain foreign and, in our country, foreign-born groups are disproportionately represented--are thriving comparatively well, and in institutions and fields that increasingly seem to be failing to engage or develop the talents of the native born. I do not downplay the expense involved even in obtaining decent schooling (or the ridicule that some fortunate and superbrilliant members of the creative and intellectual elite have the luxury of pouring out on formal schooling), but if it is one's primary commitment, I think it is not yet so far beyond the reach of even the moderately ambitious or talented (and certainly not of the indisputably so). The amount of student loan debt people have now, especially when combined with the dissatisfaction so many express with the results of their educations, is a concern. Still, though I can't find the figures readily, the last report on the subject I read indicated that the schools with the highest rate of loan defaults by far were places like cosmetology schools and community colleges which one assumes tended to attract more people with a pretty desultory approach to education and finances than would be regarded as normal by the well-meaning and not so well-meaning factions of the establishment. The $50,000 a year private colleges much ridiculed by the pop financial advisors had comparatively low rates of student loan default. I suspect this may be because they take more concern not to bury their students with cruel levels of debt than what frankly seem to me to be the somewhat shady operations at the fringes of the education complex. As to whether the expensive private colleges are too much of a burden on the students' parents, assuming they have the resources to pay for them, is of course something they have to decide. I confess that because I am only partially well-educated myself, I tend to believe there is some great secret or nirvana that having more through knowledge, accomplishments, talents, exclusively super-intelligent friends, co-workers and family members, etc, will bring you that must make life something spectacular on a day to day basis, and without which it is rather dull, so my instinct is to overspend on things like schools, which are the best access to the secrets that seem to be available, to see what it is there. Other people obviously do not feel this emptiness within them and don't need the psychic healing that such tokens of experience may or may not bring.

I got a little off course there. I still think it is a concern that so many mainstream white Americans are becoming turned off or disillusioned by the education system, to the point in many instances of abandoning it intellectually if not literally. Jews, Indians, Chinese, Koreans, do not seem to suffer this kind of disillusionment in anywhere near comparable numbers. Why? Some will say it is because they are inherently smarter, but even if this is so, among gentile whites the really smart people have often been among the most likely to be disillusioned/dissatisfied and to rebel in some way, which does not seem to be on the whole the case among these other groups (obviously there are exceptions to every generality).

Given that it has been a long time since I have posted and I don't have a lot of open hours for posting in my immediate future I am going to put this up and use the rest of the material I had for this post later on.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

10 Best Literary Adaptations

This subject sort of suggested itself in the last question of the nerd survey I took a couple of posts ago. It is a natural blog post. I have also not looked at anyone else's list on the same topic, so this will be pretty much straight from my active memory. I have made a rule that I have to have actually read the book for the movie to be included, which is why some obvious choices may not appear. #10-Ulysses (1967) I've always thought this film was underrated. It appears to have been made on a budget of about $100. The characters walk around Dublin in their Joycean costumes while 1960s street markings and shopfronts and heavy auto traffic in the distance are in plain view. I like the effect this makes though. It is kind of surreal. I'm surprised something like it isn't tried more often. This surrealness in an odd way gives the impression of being in the spirit of the novel, which was, and still is, widely considered to be unfilmable, though I think this movie proves that between all the real landmarks and places, and espisodes in those places, referred to and the thread of a genuine underlying story (Molly Bloom's adultery) to follow, it is actually filmable to a decent degree.

#9--Goodbye, Mr Chips (1939) Some might contend that the book on which this story was based is not properly literature, but the story is iconic, it primarily came to the consciousness of the world via the printed page, and it has enough of a literary sensibility about it that I am inclined to count it. The sentimental and whimsical works of James Hilton (he also wrote Shangri-La) and old Hollywood were destined to attract each other. The film has an excellent, intelligent cast, who, along with the director and other contributors to the film, grasped the spirit of the material but were able to treat it (the spirit) seriously, which is the secret of most successful literary adaptations.

#8--Hamlet (1948) I haven't seen the (4 hour+) Kenneth Branagh Hamlet, which a lot of people like, and I haven't seen the Olivier Henry V or Richard III which are also much loved, which leaves this for the moment as my favorite Shakespeare film adaptation. I'm kind of a Hamlet person by nature anyway, but the combination of the sort of atmosperically dreary postwar setting with the black and white cinematography is an especially good combination for this particular set of actors and this particular play.

#7-Tom Jones (1963) A lot of people like to rag on this movie, but I think it's pretty good. Tom Jones is a 1,000 page novel with one of the most complicated, albeit brilliant, plots of all time, and there is no way to make a two hour movie of it except as a kind of lively collage of character sketches, impressions, elaborate renderings of particular scenes (such as the fox hunt), and so on.

This movie gets extra credit for having Susannah York, who is such a babe to me at this time (early-mid 60s) as Sophie Western, Tom Jones's ultimate girlfriend. Like a number of the beautiful British women of this era--Shirley Anne Field, Charlotte Rampling, Edna O'Brien (who I know was Irish but the effect was similar) myriad Beatle and other rock star girlfriends--she did not age in a way that I would call graceful. The tumult of the late 60s and early 70s seems to have contributed to these women developing what I consider rather hard and unappealing looks by the time they were in their mid-30s, which is an age at which plenty of women are still plenty attractive without having totally compromised their principles or otherwise lobotomized themselves. The spirit of the time however was equally opposed to conceding anything to convention, including what some might call wisdom, the effect of which I think shows in the faces of the people who indulged in the ethos of that period the fullest.


#6-A Christmas Carol (1951 & 1984) I include both the Alastair Sim version and the later George C Scott version since I like them both. Also the later version is similar enough to the earlier that it seems to have been based on it (there is also the Muppets' Christmas Carol with Michael Caine as Scrooge and Kermit the Frog as Bob Crachit, which isn't bad either). The '51 is usually considered the classic, but having been made in the height of the austerity period it is a little spare in some of the warmer and more exuberant party scenes, which I like in the '84. Most Dickens adaptations I find disappointing. I haven't seen the Lean Great Expectations and Oliver Twist from the 40s, which are supposed to be the best ones (I have seen Oliver! the musical, but it didn't really do it for me). The Dickens mindset or attitude is one that many people feel and think they understand, but it seems to be hard to convey it if one is not actually Dickens, on film or in performance or critical analysis or otherwise. With The Christmas Carol I suspect the story is enough that filmmakers and actors are more easily able to give themselves up to it and let themselves be guided by it than they are comfortable doing with the other books.
#5-A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) I wrote about this fairly recently. One feels that it captures where American writing and its relation to other artistic forms and movements was at in 1951 as well as any film ever made, and that that vision has held up pretty well going on 60 years later.

#4-The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) This represents an important strain of American literature (and life) that is more or less dead now, the novel of midwestern small-town aristocracies, their business interests, social ambitions, etc, between the Civil War and World War II, which events correlate exactly with the rise and decline of this kind of town and economic order. As I noted once on this blog, I live in the ruins of this sort of town, in a mansion (now divided into 3 units) that was built and lived in by one of the former local magnates who are usually major figures in this genre of novels. This movie gets what was appealing and stifling about that world pretty well (Orson Welles I believe came from such a midwestern town himself), as well as grasping its role, again for better and worse, in the rise of the modern American behemoth that had really begun to come into view in something like its accurate shape in the decades following World War I.

Booth Tarkington was a good novelist. I suspect his esteem plummeted due to the double blow of the ascendance of modernism, which essentially set itself up in opposition to writers like Booth Tarkington, and the fact that whenever a black character enters the narrative, usually as some kind of hapless servant, he does not, shall we say, rise to the occasion that a proper humanity would require he should. F Scott Fitzgerald to be frank has a similar problem, but the number of pages marred by it are somewhat lower in his books than in Tarkington's, and then Fitzgerald is still a good and interesting enough writer to important contemporary readers that he is cut a lot more slack. I will assert that Tarkington is a better novelist than Arnold Bennett, who is sort of his English counterpart, both having a similar provincial bent and relation to modernism. My impression is that Bennett's status has been a bit on the mend in recent years.


#3--Dr Zhivago (1966) Both the movie and book have been declining in esteem in recent years, why I am not sure. Perhaps they were both overcelebrated at the times that they came out. Still, I don't see a whole lot of stuff coming out in the years since that is so appreciably better as to make these laughable now, as some seem to consider. The novel, at least in the old translation, reads very much like a classic (19th-century) Russian novel, set in only slightly recognizably more recent times. I thought there was a lot of interest in it, particularly the descriptions of the general shutting down of the ordinary functioning of society during the revolution--the cropfields overrun with millions of rats and other vermin, the trains sitting buried immobile under mounds of unplowed snow--especially as many people predict we are headed for an analogous type of societal collapse in this country within the next few years. Considering that the manuscript had to be smuggled out of the Soviet Union, and the author subsequently awarded the Nobel Prize (which he was not allowed to accept) as much for infuriating the Soviet authorities as for the quality of the book, it did not strike me as particularly subversive or condemnatory. Doubtless there are lot of hard judgements cast and truths revealed in the book too subtle for outsiders, especially those from cultures with low levels of intellectual refinement, to perceive, but at the same time it is a marvel to an American that the political leadership in other countries feels compelled to acknowledge artists and intellectuals who criticize them, in effect dealing with them as equals, or at least as humans, rather than just ignore or laugh at them.

The movie is actually very similar in tone to the book, again as it reads in English, and reproduces the plot quite faithfully as well. There is surprisingly little, narrative-wise, that gets left out. And yes, it is a very fanciful, Americanized (or maybe Britishized) vision of Russia, but I give it credit at least for making it a good one. If you're going to fancify, go all the way with it.

#2--A Room With a View (1988) In case you were wondering, my ranking is not necessarily in order of what is the best movie overall, but what is the best adaptation, in my opinion, of the book. In this instance the movie and the book are so nearly identical that I am inclined to say that the movie is actually better. I always thought Forster was quite a bit overrated as a novelist, but I may be influenced in this by the apparent ease with which he translates to film (Howard's End may also be more effective as a film than as a novel) and fairly easily digestible film at that. The Merchant and Ivory team take a lot of hits from sophisticates for their upper class Anglophilic porn movies, but in Forster at least they found a subject perfectly suited to their peculiar talents (I also thought the film of Remains of the Day seemed well-done; I haven't read that book however). You can see them get into trouble when they try to take on Henry James, though in this they are not alone. Indeed the evidence would suggest that the great unfilmable classic author is not Joyce or Sterne or Fielding, but Henry James, the odd fascination with adapting whom has sabotaged, or at least tied up for several years to no good end more than one career (maybe Spike Jonze's next assignment should be The Ambassadors). Why are people fascinated by these projects? One mistake is taking the approach that a Henry James movie should be at all a costume drama. Being a character in a Henry James novel is like being in one of those poker games with a $50,000 minimum bet rule: it can be taken for granted that you are in the top 1/10th of 1% in wealth and wear fabulous clothes. The distinctions between characters are almost entirely in their degree of mental refinement and development, their perception of these vis-a-vis the others, and their peculiar and often trivial petty resentments and grievances. In other words, things which are very difficult to convey on film. There is no mincing Cecil or strapping George or hormonally aroused Lucy in a Henry James novel to save the cinematic day. That said, one Henry James novel which seems to me like it might make a decent movie is the early The American. It has a Parisian setting, some over-the-top snooty French aristocrats (the sort who insist that the actual head of the French State is Louis XVIII's doddering great-great nephew who lives in the country and spends all his time hunting grouse), filthy rich naive Americans who have yet to become fully internalized psychologically. It could work I think since danger of the temptation to extreme earnestness combined with faulty understanding of the material would be less than usual.
I was once watching this movie with a group of (surprisingly manly) male friends when an aggressive man who happened to make one of the party turned violently to me and demanded "Do you like her?" referring to the lovely star Helena Bonham Carter, who plays Lucy Honeychurch. Stunned out of my customary hemming and hawing and qualifying by the urgency of the question I simply blurted out "Yes!" with a burst of some feeling.

#1--Pride and Prejudice (1992) There are a lot of Jane Austen adaptations, most of which are OK, some of which are unbearable, but this 5 hour miniseries is the champion of them all (though I do think Colin Firth is too much of a pussy to be a convincing Mr D'Arcy, the consensus is otherwise). A good Jane Austen movie has above all else to properly appreciate the humor and spirited exchanges of intellect in the dialogue, and most of the people in this version seem to get that. The costumes, furnishings, and so on also feel to me to be accurate based on my readings in her books. As such they are unobtusive in the movie, so that they seem wholly natural to the characters moving about in them. Also I have one of those special loves such as one can only feel towards a very few distant and uattainable women for the girl who plays Elizabeth Bennett in this. Her name is Jennifer Ehle, and she is actually an American to boot. She also was born the exact same week I was (she is older by a couple of days) So I think between astrological and various other shared generational cohort experiences, we must have a great deal in common.
Honorable mention: My favorite costume drama of all time is probably Barry Lyndon, but I have never read the book on which that is based. Similarly I have never read, I must admit, the book of Lolita, which isn't supposed to resemble the Kubrick movie anyway, though that is also one of my favorites. When I made the list I forgot about the excellent film productions of Shaw and O'Neill plays, i.e. Pygmalion, Major Barbara and A Long Day's Journey Into Night, which are akin to A Streetcar Named Desire in being fairly contemporaneous with the original productions, featuring actors who had done the roles on stage, etc. I'm not sure where I would have slipped them in.