Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

Tributes

Norman Mailer, Dead at 84

by Levi Asher on Saturday, November 10, 2007 08:24 am


Norman Mailer, himself a more memorable character than any of his fictional creations, has died in New York City at the age of 84.


Mailer popular first novel, The Naked and the Dead, was based on his experiences as a soldier on the Pacific front in World War II. A wild future lay ahead for the professional contrarian, who would go on to co-found the Village Voice, run for Mayor of New York City, stab his wife at a party, advocate for the parole of serial murderers with writing talent, and abandon the airy spheres of pure fiction to explore the lives of real life psychopaths like Gary Gilmore and Adolph Hitler in artful prose.

Here is Norman Mailer in a filmed fist-fight (a posture that suited him well) in 1970.

UPDATE: some nice words for Norman from Garth Risk Hallberg and Mark Sarvas.





Remembering Madeleine L’Engle

by Bill Ectric on Thursday, September 13, 2007 09:07 pm


I was approximately ten years old the first time I read Madeleine L'Engle, the award-winning author of over sixty books, including A Wrinkle In Time, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and A Wind In the Door, who died on September 6, 2007 in Goshen, Connecticut.

I'll never forget those simple drawings of an insect crawling on the fabric of Mrs. Who's white robe. It looked like an ant walking a string tightrope. In those days, my friends and I learned as much science from comic books as from textbooks. An arch-villain called "Mr. 103" could morph into any element on the periodic table (now we would call him "Mr. 117"). Superman's x-ray vision couldn't penetrate lead, same as real x-rays. If The Flash vibrated fast enough, he could slide his molecules around the particles of a solid wall and pass through to the other side without damaging the wall.

But, A Wrinkle In Time was not a comic book. This was a gripping science fiction novel written for kids like me. It drew me in with a classic "dark and stormy night" beginning and launched me, not only to another planet, but also to a new plane of reading.

"You see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "if a very small insect were to move from the section of skirt in Mrs. Who's right hand to that in her left, it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across."

Swiftly Mrs. Who brought her hands, still holding the skirt, together.

"Now, you see," Mrs. Whatsit said, "he would be there without the long trip. That is how we traveled."


The proverbial fold in the fabric of time: a sci-fi staple.

L'Engle was born in New York City on November 29, 1918. Her father, Charles Wadsworth Camp, was a writer and drama critic. Her mother, Madeleine Hall Barnett Camp, was a pianist. Madeleine began writing stories, poems, and journals at an early age. When she was twelve, she moved with her parents to the Swiss Alps. She later went to high school in Charleston, South Carolina and graduated from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts in 1941.

After college, L'Engle moved to Greenwich Village where she worked in the theater. In 1944, she wrote a play called 18 Washington Square South: A Comedy in One Act. She published her first novel, The Small Rain, in 1945, in which the "write what you know" ethic is quite evident. The events in the book are dramatized, but the main character, whose mother is a pianist, goes to a boarding school in Switzerland and later moves to Greenwich Village.

While she was an understudy in Anton Chekhov's play, The Cherry Orchard, she met her future husband, actor Hugh Franklin. They had a daughter and moved to Connecticut to live in a small farming village, where they bought and ran a general store for nine years. After their third child, the family moved back to the city so Hugh could pursue his acting career. In addition to writing and lecturing, Madeleine became the librarian for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

Hugh Franklin, perhaps best known as Dr. Charles Tyler on the television show All My Children, died of cancer in 1986. L'Engle said that writing and lecturing helped her cope with the sadness of losing her husband of forty years.

About a year ago, I wrote a letter to Madeleine L'Engle, asking her if she had ever read the works of Charles Hinton or Edwin Abbott, two authors who wrote about the fourth dimension in the late 1800's. I received a very pleasant letter back from her assistant, explaining that Madeleine was unable to answer inquiries due to her health. This gesture touched me. Even though Ms. L'Engle did not personally answer the letter, I believe it reflects on her generous nature that those close to her would take the time to do so.

Madeleine L'Engle is survived by children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, and countless thankful fans.

Here are some inspiring words from Madeleine L'Engle's acceptance speech upon receiving The Margaret Edwards Award (American Library Association Lifetime Achievement Award For Writing In The Field Of Young Adult Literature):

"So WRINKLE (in Time), when it was finally published in 1962, after two years of rejections, broke several current taboos. The protagonist was female, and one of the unwritten rules of science fiction was that the protagonist should be male. I'm a female. Why would I give all the best ideas to a male?

"Another assumption was that science and fantasy don't mix. Why not? We live in a fantastic universe, and subatomic particles and quantum mechanics are even more fantastic than the macrocosm. Often the only way to look clearly at this extraordinary universe is through fantasy, fairy tale, myth. During the fifties Erich Fromm published a book called The Forgotten Language, in which he said that the only universal language which breaks across barriers of race, culture, time,is the language of fairy tale, fantasy, myth, parable, and that is why the same stories have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years."





Grace Paley Against Arcs

by Leora Skolkin_Smith on Thursday, August 23, 2007 11:04 am


[Writer Grace Paley died yesterday at the age of 84. I asked her close friend Leora Skolkin-Smith to share some thoughts on Grace's life and work this morning. -- Levi Asher]
* * * * *

Grace Paley was from a post-beat generation. One hears about Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg and Philip Roth -- all of whom were dear friends of Grace's. But there was also a strong female counterpoint to these writers. And Grace embodied it. We used to call her "headquarters" because she was the mother of our needy female selves. Heterosexual, a lover of men, she helped us say things which were "feminist" but not hateful of men. And we all needed her maternity so much.

Grace was spurned by generations before her. W. H. Auden was her greatest influence, as well as Joyce's Dubliners (some say she protrayed New York as Joyce had portrayed Dublin, full of multicultural genes and voices and irreverancies). She did not believe in pandering to the "major media", in comforting audiences, in writers becoming "stars" instead of truth-tellers. Writing was not there to make people feel good and sell copies. It was there as an expression of social and personal turmoil, as truth, and even as a disturbance in the skies -- dark, troubling, discomforting.

This is most missed in what we see today, from my standpoint and hers. We had talked often about when the shift into writing as a consumer-pleasing commodity happened. I don't know how to express this without seeming unkind to so many "current" writers, but Grace deeply resented the course writers who needed celebritization of their work were taking these days. Writing was truth. And truth was uncomfortable. And one didn't write for a "consumer", One wrote to live and breathe and because one had to. She was subversive, quietly on this point.

While people often think Grace was a "political writer", what she meant by this was well quoted in a New York Times article written a long time ago (I was with her while she was being interviewed):

Mrs. Paley -- who has made no secret of her support for the peace movement, opposition to the war in Vietnam and her progressive political views -- had come to some non-literary prominence as a member of various demonstrations. Some of the reviews took note of these involvements, and suggested they distracted her from concentrated literary effort, an accusation that irritated Mrs. Paley.

"It was ridiculous," she said. "I mean, in Europe, for a writer not to be political is peculiar, and in this country for a writer to be political is considered some sort of aberration, or time waste. I'm not writing a history of famous people. I am interested in a history of everyday life."


This is quintessential to an understanding of Grace, I think ...

Many other salient parts of her literary vision focused on "personal voice", the personal as it hits against the global canvas, the daily news reports. The personal, small voice of everyday, inconsequential, searching. Not famous and loud.

Artistically, I think there is no better example of Grace's literary theory than the desciption she used in a famous short story called "A Conversation with My Father". It was an anti-linear, anti-narrative-arc policy. She believed it was the dailiness of of ordinary interaction that made fiction, not contrived "arcs".

This, of course, spoke to so many us as women. We had been left out entirely of the tradition which was based on that all-prevalent Aristotlean "narrative arc" principle. A friend of mine and I used to laugh, asking "doesn't anybody see this is a male ejection theory of literature? Come on, an arc? It arcs and ...uh ... ejaculates after penetration?" For Grace, fiction could also be like a feminine sexual experience. She was very sexual about writing. We women, she used to say, have little, multiple spasms of pleasure and truth, very modest. Not arcs!

Of course, Grace loved men. And I do, too! The above isn't meant as a rejection of men. Both Grace and I married two first-class men, and have both been married to the same guys for over thirty-five years! So I always resented people labeling Grace Paley a "male-hater" She loved men and I think this set her apart from the bitterness you will opten find in other "feminist writers" of her generation. She once remarked: "Bitterness only comes when one doesn't take an action, if one didn't exercise choice. I walked out on my first marriage. I took an action and I feel in love again!" So she called herself an "activist"!

Here is her most famous description of an anti-arc narrative approach, told with her initimable sense of humor from "A Conversation With My Father:

'I would like you to write a simple story just once more,' he (my father) says, 'the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov, the kind you used to write. Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.' I say, 'Yes, why not? That's possible.' I want to please him, though I don't remember writing that way. I would like to try to tell such a story, if he means the kind that begins: 'There was a woman...' followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I've always despised, not for literary reasons, but because it takes all hope away. Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life."





In Praise of Elizabeth Murray

by Levi Asher on Friday, August 17, 2007 07:13 am


1. A great contemporary artist, Elizabeth Murray, died this week. Her work was bold and aggressively dynamic, and she was completely comfortable with bright color, compositional chaos and pop culture references. In this sense, it makes sense that she was married to the poet and gadfly Bob Holman, who is also comfortable with these three things. It's through Bob that I once met Elizabeth Murray.

It was at a big pre-opening party/reading in April 2002 for Bob's then-brand-new Bowery Poetry Club. I was introduced to Elizabeth but I didn't know she was the well-known modern artist. I chatted with her for about fifteen pleasant minutes about the Lower East Side, spoken-word poetry, the Off-Off-Broadway drama scene in the 70's. She mentioned that she did some painting, and I remarked that I sometimes dabbled in painting myself. It was about two hours later that somebody mentioned to me that Elizabeth was Elizabeth Murray.

Judging from my one encounter, she was as vivid as her canvases. And if you look at her canvases you'll know that that's very vivid. Our thoughts are with Elizabeth's whole family, and Bob and all their children, in this sad time.

2. Poet Liam Rector has also died. Syntax of Things shares a poem.

3. A new DVD release of Jerry Aronson's great Beat Generation documentary The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg features a whole lot of good things on a second disc. Highlights include video from a memorial at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine featuring Ed Sanders (carrying his original paperback of Howl), Bob Rosenthal, Anne Waldman and a great, moving performance by Patti Smith reciting to the chiming tones of Philip Glass. You know I recently complained about a sup-par Patti gig, but this is Patti like she oughta be. Overall, I think the Allen Ginsberg memorial I attended in 1997 at St. Mark's Church was less rehearsed and therefore better, but all of these events are good enough for posterity.

Other special features in this new release include interviews with William S. Burroughs, Ken Kesey, Peter Hale and many others. But the main reason to buy this movie remains the main feature, which tells the story of Allen's extremely odd childhood and life. Ginsberg's life was an uncompromised inspiration; he even had a great death scene, surrounded by friends and Buddhist rituals. This film tells the whole story.

4. Amber Simmons has something to say on A List Apart about a particular type of writing: the often banal "copy" writing required for any type of website. Web writing doesn't have to be anorexic.

5. William Safire better watch out. The Oxford University Press is muscling in on his turf with columns by linguists and etymologists like Ben Zimmer, here analyzing the origin of "mob".

6. This is a noteworthy newsy bit about a book that tells toddlers how not to be gay even though they were molested by their uncle (via Maud). But what really makes me like this piece is the closer line: "What ever happened to One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish?" Exactly what we were wondering.

7. No WAY! According to Lux Lotus, the award-winning Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie will finally be available in bookstores, and Adichie will be appearing at an "Upstairs in the Square" event with Katherine Lanpher and Craig Finn on September 13. I'll be there to enjoy.

8. The Sundance Channel just ran the old movie version of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. I'd seen it a long time ago but wanted a fresh look. The verdict? Despite the well-known pattern of awful movies based on Kurt Vonnegut's books, this isn't bad at all. Check it out if you get a chance.





Dwayne Hoover Redux

by Levi Asher on Friday, April 20, 2007 08:01 am


1. The Litblog Co-op has announced its Spring 2006 READ THIS! selection: a book of surrealist short stories called Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead by Alan DeNiro. We'll be discussing this book, as well as two other Spring 2006 nominees, Marshall Klimasewiski's The Cottagers and Mark Binelli's Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die in the next three weeks. THEN, I am very excited about the Summer 2006 READ THIS! nominations, because I have chosen one of the three books. You'll have to wait in suspense for my choice to be revealed, which will occur once the Spring festivities are complete.

2. I'm looking forward to next week's PEN World Voices festival in New York City. Here's the very impressive schedule of events.

3. Here's a fascinating Salon piece by Robert Marshall on the once popular and still legendary Carlos Castaneda, whose publishers are still in a bizarre state of denial over the fact that his stories were not true.

4.
Scott Esposito on Cynthia Ozick on James Wood (and on the lit-crit landscape in general).

5. Via Variation, an appealing trailer for the upcoming movie version of an Ian McEwan book I liked very much, Atonement. I hope this movie is as good as it should be, and I will certainly be reviewing it in these pages come opening day.

6. Other movie news: Jindabyne is based on Raymond Carver's story "So Much Water So Close To Home". And there's apparently going to be a movie about a sans-serif font, Helvetica (more about it here and here). The film's director is Gary Hustwit, who was also the founder of the now-defunct but still memorable downtown New York publishing company Incommunicado Press.

As design-minded LitKicks readers will have noticed, I am personally very fond of Helvetica, which you can spot in numerous places on this site. In my opinion, a song needs drums and bass, an omelet needs eggs and cheese, and a webpage needs Helvetica and Trebuchet MS. Does this mean I'm going to rush out and see Hustwit's film? No, but I'm amused that it exists.

7. Steal This Wiki.

8. Champion has a point here. Enough with these titles.

9. A whole lot of Charles Bukowski manuscripts and memorabilia are up for sale at an upcoming auction. Whether you are wont to wield a paddle or not, it's worthwhile just looking through this extensive and well-illustrated online catalog.

10. What more can be said about Kurt Vonnegut? I've got a few shovelfulls more to throw.

• Here is a blogger tribute put together by Simon Owens of Bloggasm (I am one of the contributors).

• Fox News, still grumpy after being awakened from their dream of a successful Bush/Cheney presidency, has seen fit to disrespect Kurt Vonnegut at the time of his death, and both CJR Daily and Galley Cat are talking back.

• Via Syntax, here's a site called Vonnegut's Asshole, created by Eric Spitznagel

• As my own perverse tribute, it has occurred to me to list four bad movies that have been based on good Kurt Vonnegut novels: Slapstick, Breakfast of Champions, Slaughterhouse-Five, Mother Night. Amazingly, each of these films flopped upon release, giving Kurt Vonnegut perhaps the worst record for book-to-movie translations in all of modern literature. Somebody should really make terrible movies of Cat's Cradle and God Bless You Mr. Rosewater to complete the set. And if we wait around long enough, I have a feeling somebody will.

• Has anybody else been thinking about Dwayne Hoover this week? This character goes on a murderous rampage at the climax of Breakfast of Champions, possessed by the belief that everybody around him is a brainless automaton, that he is the only living, feeling person in the world. Seems to be a lot of that going around these days.





Kurt Vonnegut’s Message: You’ve Got To Be Kind

by Levi Asher on Thursday, April 12, 2007 07:03 am




Kurt Vonnegut, whose enjoyably experimental novels vastly increased my appetite for literature when I was a kid, has died at the age of 84.

A thoroughly political and philosophical writer, Kurt Vonnegut argued zealously for the place of human kindness amid the crushing tumult of modern life. His literary expressions of this messsage were sometimes simple, sometimes repetitive -- not because his intellect was limited, but because his conviction on this point was massive. "There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.'"

Who knows whether or not the Vonnegut Message was crystallized during the firebombing of Dresden, Germany during World War II, which he witnessed and wrote about in Slaughterhouse-Five? This coincidence of history gave him a personal vision of all-consuming hell on earth. The surreal horror of Dresden must have been magnified by the fact that Vonnegut was a German-American held as prisoner by enemy Germans underneath the city as it burned (he worked out many of his contradictory feelings about war, about violence, about human stupidity in novels like Mother Night, Cat's Cradle and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater).

My first favorite Vonnegut novel was Breakfast of Champions, in which a cloddish car dealer named Dwayne Hoover becomes convinced that other humans have no feelings, that he is the only sentient being on earth. This book exemplifies Vonnegut's freewheeling and highly personal prose style, complete (in this case) with childish illustrations designed to puncture any sense of pretension or grandeur regarding the novel form.

Another early favorite of mine was Welcome to the Monkey House, a highly accessible collection of stories. The title story involves a monkey in a zoo whose scandalous sexual behavior shocks a prudish parent.

Slapstick is considered "late-period" Vonnegut and is often not listed among his best books, but this sad apocalyptic satire has always stuck with me. In a decimated future Earth, survivors desperately try to reconnect with the distant human capacity for love by forming into arbitrary "tribes" with names like Oyster, Hollyhock, Daffodil, Amoeba, Beryllium, Watermelon, Chickadee, Helium and Strawberry. If you meet someone who belongs to the same tribe, you're supposed to be nice to that person.

Close Slapstick, and we're back in reality, where humanity divides itself into tribes called American, Mexican, French, Russian, Chinese, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Sunni, Shiite, Liberal, Conservative. The slapstick is all around us. The master satirist is gone, and the player piano plays on.





E. Howard Hunt, Novelist

by Levi Asher on Tuesday, January 23, 2007 08:02 pm


A novelist named E. Howard Hunt died today. Of course, E. Howard Hunt won't go down in history as a novelist, despite the fact that Amazon lists six (6!) pages of spy thrillers and non-fiction books he wrote, like Maelstrom, a potboiler from 1948. Howard Hunt will be remembered because he, along with G. Gordon Liddy, planned and executed the break-in at the Watergate national democratic headquarters in 1972 that eventually brought down the Nixon Presidency.

E. Howard Hunt, a dapper but dour CIA agent, lived an interesting life. The fight against Communism was his obsession, and in this capacity he holds the remarkable distinction of being involved in not one but two (2) major failures of American politics, having also played a leadership role in the disastrous anti-Castro Cuban invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Looking back, it's fairly clear that he should have stuck to writing novels. But history had its way with him, and today we can only reflect on his death.

How were his novels? I've looked at his later ones but none caught my interest; I'd love to look at one of his earlier pulp-style novels but you can't even find a title with a cover image on ALibris's long list of his books. The earliest one appears to be called East of Farewell, published in 1942 -- if anybody out there has read any of these books, please share your observations by posting a comment below.

Only in the ancient Hindu sense of all-universe acceptance can I say that I think E. Howard Hunt was a good man. But he did America a big favor in the summer of 1972: he got caught. As anybody who's read All The President's Men knows, he and Liddy were across the street at the Howard Johnson hotel watching with binoculars as the police burst in on the spies, and one of the men arrested had E. Howard Hunt's name and phone number at the White House listed in the phone book in his pocket. Thus did a President fall.

Coincidentally, Howard Hunt died on a day when Watergate is on many people's minds. If you haven't been paying attention, Dick Cheney's former chief of staff Lewis Libby is on trial for obstruction of justice in a case related to the pre-war search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Libby's defense is pointing a finger at President Bush's close advisor Karl Rove, and it's all starting to remind me of those good old days of John Dean, Bob Haldeman and ... E. Howard Hunt.

Farewell to a hard-working American patriot and writer, E. Howard Hunt.






Leslie Harpold, Original Blogger

by Levi Asher on Thursday, December 14, 2006 02:19 pm


Leslie Harpold, a widely loved blogger and internet artist, died of bronchitis last week. Leslie was known for sites like Smug.com, an early proto-blog, and her other past projects included Hoopla.com and MotherFucker.com (I don't think she ever did anything with this domain name, but she was very proud to have owned it). In July of 1999 I invited Leslie to read at the Literary Kicks Summer Poetry Happening at the Bitter End in New York City, and I've just uploaded a video of her touching and funny performance, which you can view after the jump below.

She's reading a story called "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall", which is about her mother, her birth father, her love of symmetry, her knowledge of skin coloring and her skill at strip poker. I had to butcher the original video a bit to get it through YouTube's ten minute time limit, but you can view the full text here.



I got to know Leslie better in 2002 when we spent a year together working on the relaunch of an ambitious fine arts site. Our office was on the sixth-floor of an old Chelsea building with an endlessly broken elevator, and Leslie hated those stairs. I wish I had gotten to know her better; she was the chief designer and I was the chief techie, and we were often too busy to talk about anything but work. Here are a few things I remember:

• I won't say she was always in a good mood, but I will say she was always in a friendly mood. She was a people person, a good listener and a good talker.

• She once showed me a bunch of pictures of where she grew up, somewhere in the Appalachian mountain country. I don't remember if she was offended by the term "hillbilly" or not, but Leslie definitely came from deep country roots.

• As a web designer, she had a fabulous client list, and I always had a feeling the clients she didn't talk about were more interesting than the ones she did. I remember her talking about hanging out with Tony Hawk and Steve Burns (the original Steve from "Blue's Clues", who I later met).

• One day she came in to work raving about the movie Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. I remember her practically commanding me to go out and see it immediately. I felt guilty that I didn't and still haven't, but she raved about it so much that every time I hear of the movie I think of her.

• She was a natural onstage (as you can tell by listening to the crowd reaction in the video above). She also joined me for a post-September-11-themed poetry reading at a deserted theater in the Lower East Side in March 2002; this show had a smaller audience but she was a pleasure to listen to.

If you knew Leslie, the video above may bring back nice memories. If you didn't, I think you might enjoy her short story, "Princess Winter Spring Summer Fall".





Reviewing the Review: May 21 2006 (and a Tribute to Richard P. Brickner)

by Levi Asher on Sunday, May 21, 2006 08:33 pm


The New York Times Book Review has clearly aimed to make a big statement with its Top 25 Books of the Last 25 Years list, which it leaked to the blogs ten days ago in preparation for its publication today. Like many, I find this list highly disappointing (and so does Joyce Carol Oates). I don't want to pound on a deceased ungulate mammal, so let me just say that if these were the best 25 books of the last 25 years I wouldn't be interested in enough in contemporary literature to be running this website right now. I nominate New York Trilogy by Paul Auster, The World According to Garp by John Irving, The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker and Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. I'm quite sure that both John Updike and Philip Roth did their best work before 1980, and the only title on my list that appears on the Times list is Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver.

Enough, enough, enough about this list. This week's entire Book Review is devoted to literary fiction, and Rachel Donadio's endpaper ties everything together with a serious and informative examination of the business outlook for literary fiction today. Her opening paragraph wastes no time:

The pride and joy of publishing, literary fiction has always been wonderfully ill suited to the very industry that sustains it. Like an elegant but impoverished aristocrat married to a nouveau riche spouse, it has long been subsidized by mass-market fiction and by nonfiction ripped from the headlines. One supplies the cachet, the others the cash.

This is a hell of an important topic, and I'm glad Donadio is addressing it. But I start resenting her defeatist conclusions from Sentence One. The inability of book publishers to monetize literary fiction is "wonderful"? No, actually, this represents a major wasted business opportunity and Rachel, you're fired.

I absolutely refuse to believe that book publishers can't find a way to turn larger profits with the great literary fiction that abounds in our time. Are there any innovative thinkers out there? The film industry and music industry manage to adjust to new pricing models constantly, but major book industry executives will stand at their podiums at trade shows and declare that the $25 hardcover is the only format they can possibly use when breaking new authors. And they wonder why they can't sell more than 19,000 copies of Benjamin Kunkel's Indecision (have they noticed that young people do not like hardcover books?).

One hundred years ago the Ottoman Empire was known as the "Sick Man of Europe". Today, book publishing is the sick child of mass media, and maybe that's why loyal readers like me feel a bit disgusted when the book industry pats itself on the back too loudly.

* * * * *

All of the above took on a new perspective for me after I put away the Book Review and idly flipped to the Metro Section to find, on page 39, an obituary for novelist Richard P. Brickner. Richard Brickner, a former writing teacher of mine, died at the age of 72 in New York City, where he had lived his entire life.

Richard Brickner was the best writing teacher I ever had and a very big inspiration to me. In fact, I attended his writing workshop at the New School five semesters in a row. He had many repeat students, which is a testament to his skill as a teacher and his popularity with his students.

Richard Brickner spent his life on the outer fringe of literary fame and fortune. Fiction was his passion (Henry James and Isaac Babel were his heroes), but ironically his most successful book, My Second Twenty Years was a factual memoir of his struggle to live a normal life in New York City (and maintain romantic relationships with women) after being massively injured in a car accident at the age of twenty. It's a powerful book, but I like his operatic-themed love story Tickets (life imitates Puccini) better.

Brickner wrote novels the way he got into taxicabs -- slowly and with great difficulty -- and during the two and a half years I studied with him he was working on his magnum opus, After She Left, about a brilliant but naive young woman who is pursued by many men and ends up making the worst possible choice. The book was designed to be a modern retelling of Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, which Brickner considered the best novel ever written. In fact, understanding the parallel with the James novel was key to understanding this book, but in the end Brickner was a victim of his own subtlety, because, unlike the authors of Ahab's Wife or March or The Hours, Brickner did not make the literary parallel obvious. The book got tepid reviews in the New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, and it did not seem that any of the reviewers caught on to the Henry James connection at all.

After She Left was Richard Brickner's last novel, and a disappointing ending to a once-promising literary career. But this writer's greatest legacy must be the thousands and thousands of students he inspired at the New School and City College of New York. If I had to put his writing advice into a single sentence, it would be this: "Come on, you can do better than that." I was very lucky to have learned from this man.






The Long Boat

by Levi Asher on Monday, May 15, 2006 10:12 pm


American poet Stanley Kunitz died on Sunday, May 14, at his home in New York City. The former United States Poet Laureate was 100 years old at the time of his death, but he had never slowed down his active literary life. He'd spent his final years delivering powerful poetry readings to wildly appreciative audiences.

Kunitz was born in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was known for a cool and unpretentious lyrical style with a soft-spoken speculative touch.

The Long Boat
by Stanley Kunitz

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.





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