1. Okay, enough of that French stuff. A recent link on Books Inq. reminded me of one of the funniest books I've ever read, the neat, smoothly vicious British satire from 1888 and 1889 called Diary of a Nobody by George Grossmith.
Diary, originally published as a serial in Punch Magazine, is the fictional record of a humble but optimistic middle-class man who keeps house in the suburbs north of London. The parody of his provincial mind has a sharp, bitter sense that may remind you of P. G. Wodehouse, Noel Coward, the Marx Brothers or Monty Python (it predates all of them). This excellent article about the book from the Dabbler draws an original analogy between the character of young Lupin Pooter, the rebellious son of our respectable diary-keeping hero, and the later character of Jimmy Porter, the Angry Young Man invented by John Osborne.
It's easy to draw connections from Charles Pooter. When I read Diary I always think of the beautiful songs Ray Davies wrote for the Kinks. The character that emerges from many of these Kinks songs is Pooter:
I like my football on a Saturday
Roast beef on Sunday -- all right!
1. This rather remarkable painting, titled Hansel and Gretel, was painted by Zelda Fitzgerald in 1947.
2. Speaking of difficult literary ex-wives: earlier this year I wrote an article about T. S. Eliot's Possum's Book of Practical Cats and the Broadway show Cats in which I suggested that the authors must have invented the character of Grizabella to represent Vivienne Eliot, the great poet and critic's first wife, whose life ended in a quiet mental institution. A strongly-worded comment has been posted to my blog article by an anonymous person who appears to be familiar with the T. S. Eliot estate. This person agrees with my conjecture about Grizabella, and points out that a controversy remains over the Eliot estate's attitude towards Vivienne Eliot's legacy. If you're interested in this topic, please read the long comment by "Coerulescent" and judge for yourself.
3. The Moth, an excellent literary storytelling revue, wanted to hear stories about "transformations". I don't think they could have chosen a much better participant for this challenge than Laura Albert, who delivered a moving piece about becoming and unbecoming J. T. Leroy, and about the ridiculous hassles that followed her "exposure". I'm proud to say I stood by Laura even when few others did. Congrats to Laura for finding her way back as a writer; watch the video!
1. Just Kids, Patti Smith's beguiling memoir of late 1960s New York, the Chelsea Hotel, Robert Mapplethorpe and the early 1970s St. Mark's Church punk poetry scene, has won the National Book Award! Quite impressive. I totally called this back in February, you know. The winner's circle above includes Jaimy Gordon, Terrance Hayes, Kathryn Erskine.
2. Doonesbury turns 40! I grew up with this comic strip. I used to especially love the counterculture literary references: Uncle Duke was Hunter S. Thompson, and several characters lived at the Walden Puddle Commune. (This was probably a reference not only to Thoreau's Walden but also to B. F. Skinner's then-fashionable Walden Two.)
Before I found out Patti won the National Book Award I was going to illustrate today's blog post with a picture I found of Zonker scuba-diving in Walden Puddle. The image is too good to waste, so here it is:
3. Michael Orthofer of the Complete Review has written a book, The Complete Review: Eleven Years, 2500 Reviews, A Site History, about his experience creating and maintaining that website and the accompanying blog Literary Saloon. I've read it, and it's a charming, candid look at the kinds of questions, decisions and private struggles that animate the life of a serious independent blogger.
1. After a whole lot of passionate (and incorrect) guessing, Mario Vargas Llosa has won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Literature (the dapper fellow above just announced it on a live webcast from Stockholm). I must admit that, while I once enjoyed hearing from this Peruvian novelist at a New York reading with Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, I don't know much about his work as a whole. I'm looking forward to learning more. And, yeah, I do wish Ngugi wa Thiong'o had taken it. Maybe next year.
2. A Ted Hughes poem dealing directly with his wife Sylvia Plath's suicide has been revealed for the first time.
3. I like Julie Taymor and I really like William Shakespeare's The Tempest, so I'm pretty psyched about a new Julie Taymor film of The Tempest, starring Helen Mirren as a female Prospero, along with the likes of Russell Brand and Alan Cumming in various roles.
Sometimes I feel lazy. Sometimes I don't have a whole blog post in me. Sometimes I just want to show you some literary links.
1. Documents newly discovered in Penzance, England (hidden perhaps by pirates?) indicate for the first time that Victor Hugo based his Hunchback of Notre Dame on a real hunchbacked sculptor hired to work on the great church's restoration. The documents describe a Monsieur Trajan, or Mon Le Bossu, as a "worthy, fatherly and amiable man" who did not like to socialize with the other restoration workers.
3. Oxford University Press wants you to adopt a word. They've got lots of unwanted words, and they'll all be put down if you don't.
I've read a lot of T. S. Eliot in my life, and I write about him rather often too. But I'd never seen the musical Cats, based on his whimsical late work Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, until last week when Caryn took me and my stepdaughter to see a regional production in Northern Virginia.
The fact that I've avoided this extremely popular musical for so long is especially surprising since I also enjoy the work of Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote Evita and, a real old favorite of mine, Jesus Christ Superstar. I suppose I was put off by the proposition of watching grown men and women writhe pretentiously in cat costumes while calling each other Rumpleteazer and Rum Tum Tugger. The play was aggressively marketed as a lush visual marvel when it originally opened in the early 1980s. I disdained it as a sort of feline "Nutcracker Suite" -- precious, pretty and not for me. I suspect that many other T. S. Eliot aficionados out there have avoided the show for the same reason.
2. It's very weird that attempted Times Square terrorist Faisal Shahzad left a DVD of the anomie-striven movie Up In The Air to be found in his home. Novelist Walter Kirn, who we recently interviewed about the film of his book, wrote this on Twitter: "times sq. bomber leaving behind copy of 'up in the air' reminds me of chapman, lennon's killer, and catcher in the rye. icky feeling now."
1. Natalie Merchant has recorded a double album, Leave Your Sleep, containing her own musical settings of classic poems by Mervyn Peake, Gerard Manley Hopkins, e. e. cummings, Charles Causley, Rachel Field, Robert Graves, Edward Lear, Jack Prelutsky, Arthur Macy, Ogden Nash, Charles E. Carryl, Nathalia Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson and Christina Rossetti. I haven't heard it yet but definitely want to. Natalie will be at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in New York City on April 14 for a talk with Katherine Lanpher.
Jay McInerney impresses me today. I didn't know if he had the cojones to give a trendy "serious novel" like Joshua Ferris's The Unnamed a bad review, but apparently he does. Maybe my concern that we'd have to spend this entire decade hearing about the genius of Joshua Ferris was misplaced; the novel has gotten mediocre reviews in Chicago and Washington DC as well. Sometimes the lit-crit establishment is better at spotting fakes than I expect.
Speaking of Joshua Ferris's new novel, this weekend's New York Times Book Review features a very good endpaper essay by Jennifer Schuessler about the meaning, history and brain science of boredom. I'm intrigued to learn that:
The Oxford English Dictionary’s first recorded use of "to bore" dates to a 1768 letter by the Earl of Carlisle, mentioning his "Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen." "Bores," meaning boring things, arrived soon after, followed by human bores.
The spirit of William Safire lives on. But I wish the essay drilled deeper (thank you) into the multiple meanings of "bore", which now signifies a dull emptiness but must have originally been meant to connote not only the emptiness left behind by being "bored" but also the sharp and invasive act of "boring" itself. Can you bore without being sharp? Is it more boring to be bored, or to have been bored, to have been left an empty hole? Anyway, this essay is not boring.
Okay, but what are we going to do about this crushing meme -- so ridiculously prevalent among senior journalists and pessimistic creative folk these days -- about the rise of the Internet spelling the end of all other creative forms? Several months ago, Philip Roth declared that no more novels will be written in 25 years. Today's Book Review gives us this paragraph in Charles Isherwood review of Kenneth Turan's Free For All, an oral history of the career of Joseph Papp:
And in the years since Papp's death, it has become clear that he was not just a major cultural force in New York in the second half of the 20th century; he was probably the last cultural game-changer America will ever know to make his name exclusively in theater. Papp's may not be "the greatest theater story ever told," although the huckster in him would appreciate the hyperbole, but it may well prove to be the last great theater story ever told, at least in this country.
Why? Have they shut Broadway down? Nobody told me! Last I heard, you still couldn't get good seats to Billy Elliot. What on earth would give Christopher Isherwood the idea that popular interest in modern theatre is waning at all, or that somebody in this still-thriving field might not equal or surpass Joseph Papp's achievement in the eternities to come?
It's that meme. And here it is again in this weekend's Book Review, in Neil Genzlinger piece on David Thomson's The Moment of "Psycho":
Maybe alongside all the groundbreaking that Thomson attributes to “Psycho” there is room for a companion theory about the film: that it was the last movie about which a book like "The Moment of 'Psycho'" could be written.
Haven't their been any great, amazing, groundbreaking, thoroughly original movies since 1960? I can name about 100. Some psychologist really ought to come up with a theory as to why so many cultural commentators need to believe that their favorite art forms are in death throes, that the future cannot possibly be as good as the past. My guess: it's only a sign that these cultural commentators have run out of mojo, have allowed their own imaginations to wither away.
Some of my literary/blogger friends have taken to tweeting their literary links. Not me -- I'm holding out for the blog format, just like McSweeney's is holding out for newspapers. Here's another roundup involving great writers and other finds ...
1. Nature magazine goes way back.
2. Orhan Pamuk's real-life Museum of Innocence.
3. The many facets of Roberto Bolano.
4. The many quirks of William Golding, who originally wanted Simon the Christ symbol to actually witness the arrival of God in his great Lord of the Flies.
5. PopMatters interviews Nicholson Baker.
6. Gregory Maguire, whose Wicked novel is much better than the Broadway musical created from it, joins in on an open publishing experiment.
7. Holocaust victim Horst Rosenthal had the idea for Maus before Art Spiegelman.
8. Jessa Crispin tells it like it is.
9. I had no idea that Stanley Kubrick got "Daisy" from a real singing computer.
10. In my opinion Nick Cave sang the best "Stagger Lee".
11. Bill Ectric presents an excerpt from Tamper.
12. Probably inspired by Clarence Clemens's enjoyable and funny new book Big Man, Bruce Springsteen may write an autobiography. All the newspapers are blubbering about the size of his advance, but why shouldn't he get $10 million? He's that good, and I would love to read this book.