"Situations have ended sad, relationships have all been bad
Mine have been like Verlaine and Rimbaud
But there's no way I can compare all them scenes to this affair
You're gonna make me lonesome when you go"
-- Bob Dylan, "Blood on the Tracks"
Congrats to everybody who knew the answer. Yes, as one deft commenter guessed, our wayward writers were French: they are Symbolist poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud, who were staying at a hotel overlooking Grand Place in the center of Bruxelles, Belgium in July 1873 when their relationship ended ugly.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, global activist and indie publisher extraordinaire, turns 90 years old today. Here's his Litkicks biography page, and here's the poem we've been running on this site for many years:
The pennycandystore beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom of that september afternoon A cat upon the counter moved among the licorice sticks and tootsie rolls and Oh Boy Gum Outside the leaves were falling as they died A wind had blown away the sun A girl ran in Her hair was rainy Her breasts were breathless in the little room Outside the leaves were falling and they cried Too soon! too soon!
The great folksinger Pete Seeger will also turn 90 on May 3, and New York City will celebrate him in big style on this date at Madison Square Garden featuring performers like Bruce Springsteen, Eddie Vedder, Arlo Guthrie, Dave Matthews and John Cougar Mellencamp. That's going to be some hootenanny birthday party. Pete Seeger and Lawrence Ferlinghetti are two American sages, feisty, stubborn and deeply politically engaged. What blacklisted Communist Pete Seeger and embattled Howl publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti had in common is that they both loved to fight for their causes. They both wore out their competition.
Diane Kurys has directed a film biography of rebellious French writer Francoise Sagan, titled simply Sagan. Perhaps inspired by the success of La Vie En Rose, a recent biopic of Edith Piaf, the new film stars Sylvie Testud (who played Piaf’s friend in La Vie en Rose), and follows the story of Francoise Sagan from the publication of her first book to her final days in Normandy.
Francoise Quoirez –- she took the nom de plume Sagan after the Princesse de Sagan, a character in Marcel Proust's A La Recherche du Temps Perdu –- grew up in a moneyed family, first in Lyon, and then in Paris. An indifferent student, she was nonetheless fascinated by literature. Her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, was published when she was barely nineteen years old. Bonjour Tristesse caused an immediate scandal in France, but despite the outrage of the bourgeoisie it climbed to the top of the bestseller lists. Sagan became a fixture on the French literary scene, known for her reckless lifestyle: drinking, drugs, fast sports cars, and gambling, and for her advocacy of sexual freedom in contrast to the traditional mores of France.
Every once in a while East Village poet Richard Hell gets invited to write for the New York Times Book Review, and when he does he usually shows the other critics how it's done. His unenthusiastic review of Edmund White's biography Rimbaud: The Double Life of a Rebel is witty, lush and elegant, especially when he ignores White's book and spins his own appreciations:
He learned very much from Baudelaire, and in many ways Baudelaire remains his master, but Baudelaire was a poet of ennui (and dreams), while Rimbaud reels with the most robust -- if often contemptuous -- vitality (and dreams).
Readers of Literary Kicks are familiar with the picture of French poet Paul Verlaine that decorates every page. The poet appears to be in a stupor. In front of him is a flagon of green liquid: absinthe. The very name implies decadence and depravity. We imagine artists and writers of the Belle Epoque in Paris, sitting in cafés, drinking absinthe, and perhaps having hallucinatory visions. We think of Van Gogh, a notorious absinthe drinker: did he cut off his ear while in the throes of the drink? Numerous famous paintings depict absinthe drinkers, often in sordid surroundings, such as "The Absinthe Drinker" by Edouard Manet. Adding even more to its sinister reputation is the fact that absinthe was once outlawed in France, most of Europe, and the United States.
A lot has been written about absinthe and its effects, but perhaps one of the most compelling descriptions is from Ernest Hemingway, also a noted absintheur . In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s protagonist Robert Jordan carries a leather-covered flask filled with absinthe. At a crucial point in the early part of the novel, he dips into his dwindling supply: "It was a milky yellow now with the water, and he hoped the gypsy would not take more than a swallow. There was very little of it left and one cup of it took the place of the evening papers, of all the old evenings in cafes, … of all the things he had enjoyed and forgotten and that came back to him when he tasted that opaque, bitter, tongue-numbing, brain-warming, stomach-warming, idea-changing, liquid alchemy."
I made a trip to the Maison de la Poesie in Paris on a recent evening to see a staging of Arthur Rimbaud’s prose poem Une Saison en Enfer (A Season in Hell). The performance room was in the basement, down a steep flight of stairs. It was like a catacomb, with bare stone walls and a stone floor: a fitting place to stage this work. The set was simple: a large metal cross, a table laid as if for Communion, with a loaf of bread, a glass of wine, and two candles. A blood red carpet covered the floor. The director/actor, Nazim Boudjenah, sat to the side, eyes closed, dressed in white.
Within the time frame of this comic book's mystery plot, Gertrude Stein will meet and fall in love with a feisty ragamuffin named Alice Tolkas, Picasso will paint his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, and Picasso and Braque will invent cubism. In fact, all of these things did happen in 1907, and Bertozzi clearly knows his stuff. He threads many "art history" lessons into this tale, and correctly describes the way Pablo Picasso profited from Georges Braque's idea for a drawing style that depicted any number of possible perspectives instead of a single perspective. (Picasso, on the other hand, emphasized cubism as a form of zen-like minimalism, and also as a primitivist homage to his beloved African masks). Bertozzi also convincingly depicts the ongoing beef between the Cubists and the Fauvists, though he is probably unfair to the worthy Fauvist Henri Matisse, who comes off as a sourpuss.
The glue that holds this artwork together is a murder plot involving the blue-skinned spirit of a dead Tahitian woman, brought to Paris by Paul Gauguin, who leaps into paintings and dwells inside the canvases (the elderly Gauguin, it turns out, is dwelling sadly inside a canvas too) while she waits for the chance to jump out and kill people. A special kind of blue absinthe from a country called "Lysurgia" allows the cubists and poets at the Paris salon to jump inside canvases too, and eventually they must chase the murderer inside this absinthe-soaked realm. I like the obviously symbolic and heavily metaphysical plot okay, I guess -- it reminds me of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Code, which also posits an aesthetic movement as the catalyst for a misguided serial murderer. But I like this book best for its earthbound scenes, its clever, perceptive depiction of a group of young Modernists working in a creative white heat.
Pablo Picasso is the book's best character, a hilarious irrepressible egotist who paints buck naked and goes around shouting in a mangled Spanish/French: "Are you creetic? You talk sheet of me?"
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi gets a strong "buy" recommendation from LitKicks.
John Osborne, the subject of a new biography by John Heilpern, has never been a household name on my side of the Atlantic Ocean. But they knew him well in England in the 1950's, when he and Kingsley Amis (father of our Martin) and Harold Pinter and many others bandied around London as The Angry Young Men, a close match to the Beat Generation writers in America, as well as the cafe-haunting Existentialists of Paris. But the fad of the Angry Young Men of London quickly fizzled out, and John Osborne's subsequent career deserves to be considered on its own terms.
His signature work is Look Back in Anger, which opened in 1956 and gave the "Angry Young Men" their name. It's the story of a fuming, flannel-shirt wearing London bloke named Jimmy who slaves away at a candy stand all day and plays hot trad jazz saxophone all night. He's married to a lively young woman, but he's too brutal and impulsive to keep her love or, ultimately, her respect. Which is okay with him, because he's more interested in her prim, conceited best friend, who drives him crazy much the same way Blanche DuBois drove Stanley Kowalski crazy in A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, the film version of this play shows Richard Burton at his most Brando-esque as the rambunctious Jimmy (it also features Claire Bloom, Philip Roth's future wife, ex-wife and harshest critic as Jimmy's romantic nemesis, Helena Charles).
Unlike some of his Beat Generation counterparts in America, John Osbourne chose not to continue to milk the "crazy youth" image, but instead turned to the story of an aging, sad music hall singer for his next hit play, The Entertainer. This can be enjoyed in a canonical film version starring Joan Plowright and the great Laurence Olivier, who turns this movie into such a deeply personal statement that many viewers will forget John Osborne (or anybody other than Laurence Olivier) had anything to do with it.
Osborne withdrew further from modern times with his next big success, Luther, a biographical study of the German founder of Protestant Christianity, which opened in London in 1961. Osborne clearly related to the iconoclastic Martin Luther, whose boiling sense of permanent rage recalls the cruel saxophone-wielding Jimmy of Look Back in Anger. (Luther can also be enjoyed in a good 1973 film starring Stacy Keach).
Unfortunately, in his private life John Osborne all too frequently resembled the growling mad, self-pitying male heroes who graced his most successful plays. John Osborne's literary career was a proud one, but those who know him well speak of a personality marred by fame, self-doubt and selfish impulsiveness.
John Osborne died in 1994. He was married five times, and was said to have had a cruel and terrible relationship with his daughter. In his personal decline, the angry Brit does resemble his flannel-shirt wearing American counterpart, Jack Kerouac. Neither were ready for the ravages of literary fame.
2. Then there's Jeff Bryant of Syntax of Things, who must be hooked into some secret private Google or something, because he always seems to get the alert before I do. He knew about DeLillo's Game Six a month before anyone else, and he got the scoop on the new Bukowski movie about six months ago before anybody else (actually, where the hell is this movie?). Of interest today: the London house where Symbolist poets Verlaine and Rimbaud gamboled and frolicked happily together when they weren't busy shooting each other is in jeopardy. Bob Dylan and Patti Smith are joining the effort to preserve this landmark, and we are glad to hear this. But somebody should have rung up Richard Hell.
3. The multi-day 2006 People's Poetry Gathering looks like it will be an amazing event. The broad lineup includes Robert Bly (whose poetry comes alive in performance), Miguel Algarin, Kewulay Kamara, Bob Holman, Galway Kinnell, Black 47 and many others.
4. A minor miracle recently occured on cable television. The BookTV network ran a show that featured a literary author whose latest book was not a biography of a dead President and did not involve a dead President in any way. I know what you're thinking: that's crazy -- but it actually happened. Norman Mailer was the author, and he appeared in a videotaped interview with his son, the wonderfully named John Buffalo Mailer, who seems to be stirring to follow in the old man's footsteps.
5. This is the best ode to spring I'm likely to read this year. Reclaim life! Eat jelly beans ...
If more writers could write like Richard Hell, I'd be a happier man.
Hell doesn't write very much, or very often. He'll give us one new book of poetry or a slim paperback novel every few years. Godlike, his first novel since 1997's superb Go Now, is an absolute pleasure and a perfect distillation of this unique author's talents.
Godlike purports to be the scribblings of a middle-aged poet named Paul Vaughn who sits in a mental hospital reminiscing about a younger poet named R. T. Wode, but it becomes quickly apparent that Hell is basing the story on the real-life relationship between two 19th Century French poets, Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud. He tells the tale with a light, glancing touch. Imagine if Jim Jarmusch made a movie about Verlaine and Rimbaud, and you get the idea. The Vaughn/Verlaine character also resembles Richard Hell himself, and the story is updated to Lower East Side New York City circa 1971.
But enough about the plot, because when Hell writes I only care about the sentences. I couldn't get through half a page without pausing for a big smile or a grateful sigh of recognition. Hell's writing is pointed, sharp, like a junkyard of broken glass. Surprising connections abound, celebrating random oddness, reaching for beauty or truth:
To give offense was his mission, his meaning ... People say James Dean was the same way, mean and arrogant and competitive. And I remember having this revelation watching Bette Davis on-screen one time. That everything that was magnificent about her in the movie would be impossibly obnoxious in the same room with you ...
Nixon the opposite of Dylan, right? Does that make them creators of each other? What would you do with that? Was there anywhere to go with that? Dylan's name looked like Dylan too ... They both have hanging noses and tense mouths. Richard Nixon -- cross-eyed, his tight downturned lips where the spit leaks out at the corners. What if you switched their names?
Why are soap containers so beautiful? The packaging, I mean. Brillo, Ivory, Tide, Comet. It can't be a coincidence. But the thing I really love to see, that gladdens my heart, is a thick stand of empty two-liter generic soda bottles pressed against each other on the floor. The soft gleanings, the complexity of the light, the humility, the blue labels, the uniform bottle shape in the random blob of the clustering ...
Snot is white blood cells that've died fighting germs.
Some writers are dull at heart, and mask their dullness with literary complexity and intellectual obscurity. I don't like writers like that. Hell is my kind of writer; his sentences are rational, direct, clear as water. It's the ideas behind the words that stand surreal and gather poetic mystery.
Like Paul Verlaine himself, Richard Hell suffuses his writings with images of filth and depravity but expresses, through it all, a surprisingly affirmative and affectionate view of life. As the pages of Godlike progress, we know that Vaughn will have to shoot Wode (without seriously injuring him), that Vaughn will go to prison and that Wode will disappear, reemerge and die. After this all plays out, Vaughn tells us the difference between Wode and himself, which is the difference between Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine:
He looked at emotions as a scientist, but there are things I know more about than he did. I know that love is real."
I think this is also the difference between hundreds of mediocre writers and Richard Hell, a great modern transgressive poet and author who writes about nothing but the joy of our world, and of life.