It’s completely meaningless to rate art. Is Picasso greater than Rembrandt? Beethoven than Mozart? Is Beethoven’s Fifth better than Beethoven’s Eroica? Pointless.
But there is a different question: faves. It’s possible to have favorites without making claims to supremacy. We all have them. Yes, they shift over the years: The older me appreciates different art and appreciates it in different ways than the young me did. But even day-to-day the favorites may change. Often my favorite symphony is the one I’m listening to at the moment.
Still, Top Ten lists will be made. Or Top Five, or Top 100. There’s no hope for it. It’s instinctive, built into our DNA. And so, I’ve put together my list of my Top Dozen favorite works of art — a baker’s dozen. Your mileage may vary. (For the ultimate list of lists, link here).
And so, here are my favorites, listed by genre. I’ve tried to narrow my choices to art I have experienced in person — paintings I have actually seen, dances I have attended, books I have read. Book reproductions or sound recordings don’t count. I have a lifetime of art-going and concert-attending, and so I may have access to more than the average bear. But I am well aware that there’s a whole lot more that I haven’t seen.
And by favorite, I don’t just mean something I like, but rather, something that has wormed into my very being and become a part of who I am, so that encountering it can explain to others a bit of who I am. It has been grafted into my personality.
This list is entirely personal, flexible and apologetically incomplete. Ask me again tomorrow and this could be a very different list.
Painting: None of these choices changes more often than painting. today’s favorite fades with tomorrow’s. I’ve simply come to love too many paintings to have a single choice. But today, I will go with Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. It was a painting I had wanted to see for years, and then got my chance when the Museum of Modern Art held a Pollock retrospective in 1998 and the elusive work was borrowed back from Australia, where it had sat for decades, out of the reach of us Northern Hemisphere shut-ins. Its appeal came from its elusiveness, for sure, but also for its unique place in Pollock’s catalog — more than just paint squiggles, it had the structure of the bars across its surface. I loved it in reproduction, but it bowled me over in person.
Alternate takes: Picasso’s Guernica; John Singleton Copley’s Watson and the Shark
Sculpture: I grew up visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York City as often as I could. I loved the place — and I mean loved. And deep in its bowels resided the giant Olmec head, chiseled from basalt (actually, the one in New York is a plaster copy, but I didn’t know that when I was 10 years old and rapt in wonder). In the darkened hall of the museum, the head seemed immense and the original weighs 20 tons. It impressed me no end and to this day, it is my favorite sculpture. No doubt there is other, more important sculpture elsewhere, but I have not been to Rome or Egypt to see them. I have spent considerable time in the Louvre in Paris and have several faves there, such as the Three Graces or the Winged Victory, but none has stuck in my psyche with quite the force of the Olmec head.
Alternate takes: Rodin’s Burghers of Calais; Louvre’s Three Graces
Architecture: As architecture critic for The Arizona Republic, I got to visit a lot of buildings, including most of the Frank Lloyd Wright sites in the U.S. (Wright was a longtime resident of Scottsdale, Ariz.) I was blown away by Taliesin in Wisconsin and his studio in Oak Park, Ill. But the building that struck me as most beautiful was Falling Water in Pennsylvania. Everything you have ever heard about it is true — about its siting in the woods over the waterfall; about how its interior is micromanaged by Wright’s designs; and (I’m one of the few who have been given access to this) the pathetic orphan of a bathroom hidden in the basement. Wright really didn’t like having to deal with kitchens or bathrooms.
Alternate takes: Chartres cathedral; George Washington Bridge
Orchestral music: this is the hardest category for me because I have so much music bottled up in the ol’ storage batteries, and faves change not only day to day, but hour to hour. But I studied Mozart’s Symphony in G-minor, K. 550, score in hand, for most of an entire semester in college and it is drilled into my memory so that I can hear the whole thing in my head, from beginning to end, even without the score. If ever a piece of music felt like home to me, it is Mozart’s 40th Symphony. Dissecting it has given me an approach to all other classical music.
Alternate takes: Mahler’s Symphony No. 3; Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring
Choral music: I’m not a religious man, and neither was Johannes Brahms, so his German Requiem can console my most grief-stricken moments in a way more devout music cannot. More than any other music, I go to the Deutsches Requiem for consolation and peace. Each year, on the anniversary of the death of my wife, I drive up the Blue Ridge Parkway, find a quiet forest road and park and listen to my Brahms and weep for my loss and for the loss all humankind must suffer.
Chamber music: I want so much to claim Schubert’s C-major String Quintet, for it is the deepest, most emotionally moving piece of chamber music in the repertoire. Yet, I cannot, as long as there is Schubert’s competing “Trout” Quintet, which must be the most ebullient, life-affirming piece of music ever written. One cannot come away from it not feeling — despite all the sorrows of the world — that life is pure joy. It is no end of astonishment for me that Schubert wrote both.
Alternate takes: Brahms Clarinet Quintet; Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2
Opera: Mozart’s most subversive opera wasn’t The Marriage of Figaro, which was often banned for making fun of the aristocracy, but rather Don Giovanni, with its lusty chorus of “Viva la libertad” and its turning topsy-turvy the villain-hero model. The Don is the life force embodied, for good and bad, and when he is threatened with hell, he laughs and refuses to recant, choosing damnation over hypocrisy. Its first act is the most completely flawless in all of opera history and despite the phony ending usually tacked-on to the second act, a model of moral complexity.
Alternate takes: Alban Berg’s Wozzeck; Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier
Dance: Of all the artforms, dance moves me the most. And I was extremely lucky, because when I became dance critic, Ballet Arizona was taken over by Ib Andersen, former star dancer for George Balanchine and brilliant choreographer himself. He staged many Balanchine ballets and I was hooked. I have now seen Balanchine’s Apollo four times, once by the New York City Ballet in Paris, and I cannot watch it now without welling up with emotion. I love dance and Apollo stands in for all of it.
Alternate takes: Ib Andersen’s choreography for Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet; Frances Smith Cohen’s choreography for Center Dance Ensemble’s Rite of Spring
Theater: Bad theater, or worse, mediocre theater can give the impression that live drama is hopelessly, well, theatrical. You know: dinner theater. But when it is done well, there is nothing that can match it, a lesson I learned by seeing the original Broadway production of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’ve now seen it — both parts together — four times and it destroys me every time. In great theater, you soon forget all the artifice and everything becomes immediate and real. Movies are great, but they can’t match the breathing now-ness of live theater.
Alternate takes: Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night; Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus
Film: There are films that are exciting, films that are visually beautiful, that are clever, that are cultural barometers, and there are films that are wise. Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu has informed my own life more than any other film I’ve seen. How can you beat Octave’s observation: “The terrible thing about life is that everybody has their reasons.” I will watch Rules of the Game over and over for the rest of my life. It is cinematic comfort food.
Alternative takes: Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev; Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal
Novel: Most books, you read once. If it’s a mystery, you have the killer caught; if it’s a Victorian saga, you get the heroine married. But some books you can read over and over and get intense pleasure from the language used and the perspective offered. For me, that book is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. I don’t always read the whole thing from beginning to end, but I bet I’ve read the first chapter, at least, a hundred times. Melville’s language has seeped into my own writing more than any other (for good or ill).
Alternative takes: James Joyce’s Ulysses; Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy
Poetry: I read a lot of poetry, mostly modern and contemporary, but the poem I go back to over and over, read out loud for the sound the words make in my mouth, proselytize to others and keep in my heart is Geoffrey Chaucer’s Trouthe. The antique language isn’t so hard, once you get used to it — sort of like listening to a working class Mancunian accent, or a Yorkshireman gabble — and once you’ve caught the knack of it, it’s like any other English. God, I love that poem. “The wrastling for the worlde axeth a fal.”
Alternative takes: Eliot’s Four Quartets; Pablo Neruda’s Odas Elementales
And the Number One, hors compétition and sans genre, is:
The north rose window, Chartres cathedral. As I have written many times, the north rose window is the single most beautiful human-made object I have ever seen. I am in awe of it. Reproduction cannot give you a sense of its glowing color and implied motion — it virtually spins (and I mean virtually literally). I can sit in its presence for an hour at a time.
Again, I am not making the claim that these are all the greatest works, although they may be, but that they, more than their compeers, have buried their way into my innermost being, where they reside as a permanent part of my unconscious. They are who I am.
We’re approaching a full year of pandemic lockdown, barely leaving the house except to restock the larder. But at least the house is full of books, music and DVDs. It would take more than a single year to run out.
But it puts me in mind of the old cliche: What book would you take to a desert island? It’s a silly question, really. If you are stranded on a desert island, a source of fresh water is a need infinitely more immediate than a good read. But even if we take it as simply a trope, the answers people give are seldom very satisfying. Most list a book they enjoy, which is fine, except that you can only read most of those books once, maybe twice, before they grow stale.
No, the trick is to find a book that can reward multiple re-readings. And the same for “desert island music” or “desert island movies” (ignoring the problem of finding a DVD player in the middle of the Pacific, or the electrical outlet to plug it into.) Just picking favorites is a sucker’s game. How long would it take before listening to Stairway to Heaven for the hundredth or thousandth time to reduce you to a gibbering idiot?
So, I set to make a list of things that could reward many traversals. This is, of course, a game and is utterly meaningless — but then most fun is. I task each of you to find a list of your own of things you could stand listening to, re-reading, or re-watching for endless times. I’m going to present my choices as they would an awards show: nominees and winners.
Desert Island book
The sign of any good book is its re-readability. But even some of the best have just so much to offer. Madame Bovary is a great book, but once you’ve unwrapped its meaning, you are finished — unless you can read it in French and can unpack its verbal brilliance. I’ve seen many desert-island lists that offer things like Harry Potter books or Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. And no knock on them as good reads, they aren’t books you can marry for the long haul.
My nominees for Desert Island Book are:
—War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This may be the best novel I have ever read, full of people who are so real they seem not to be characters in a book, but transcriptions of life. I am in awe of this book.
—Moby Dick, by Herman Melville. This counts as my favorite book, and I have indeed re-read it many times — at least I’ve re-read the opening chapter, “Loomings,” scores of times. It was my original problem with the book. I loved Melville’s way with words so much, that each time I picked up the book, I’d start from the beginning, which made it a very long time before I ever actually finished the thing. When I pick it up again, I’ll start with “Call me Ishmael.” Again.
—Tristram Shandy, by Laurence Sterne. This is the funniest book I’ve ever read (pace P.G. Wodehouse), but funny books tend not to outlive their punchlines. You can only tell a joke once to the same audience. But Tristram Shandy isn’t a joke book, and its inhabitants are so ridiculously human and its wordplay so trippingly choreographed, that it never wears out for me.
—À la recherche du temps perdu, by Marcel Proust. This seems like the perfect choice for the desert island. First, it is exceedingly long — seven volumes and more than 4,000 pages. Second, it is filled with memorable people and discursive episodes that never seem to come to a final conclusion. It goes on. And on. The biggest problem with it, in English, is to find a decent translation that isn’t too Victorian sounding and stuffy, or too modern and chatty.
—Ulysses, by James Joyce. This is a book that not only can stand a re-reading, it requires it. No one can get it all in one go-through. Joyce’s prose, in those chapters that aren’t purposely difficult, is the most perfect prose I know in the English language. Its cadence is musical, its word-choice precise, its flavor yummy. And the difficult chapters — you know who you are — take parsing like so many physics formulae and can keep you fully occupied while you wait for a passing steamship.
And the award goes to:
Ulysses. It wins because it is in English to begin with. You can never be sure with Tolstoy or Proust, that you are getting what is in the original. They are always at a remove. Ulysses is your own tongue, taken to its stretching point. I can’t imagine, say, reading it in a French translation, or in Mandarin. It is not transmutable. And it can stand a lifetime of re-reading without ever being sucked dry.
Desert Island Music
This is the category that most exposes the problem. For most people, music means song, and no three-minute ditty can wear long enough to keep you going under the coconut tree. This isn’t a place for your favorite tune. This then requires something like classical music. But even most classical music can’t take the over-and-over again requirements of the island isolation. The obvious choice would be Beethoven’s Ninth, but really, you can only listen on special occasions. Over and over would be torture.
My nominees for Desert Island Music are:
—Quartet in C-minor, op. 131, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Really, any of the late quartets. But this is music so profound and so emotional that any barrier between the highest thought and deepest emotion is erased. They are the same thing. The C-minor quartet has six movements and each is distinct and each is a pool to dive deeply into.
—The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach. Thirty variations on a simple sarabande tune, arranged with a complex cleverness hard to credit. This is music to last a lifetime. Indeed, it was the first thing that pianist Glenn Gould ever recorded and the last thing. To paraphrase Sam Johnson, “To tire of the Goldbergs is to tire of the world.”
—Symphony No. 3 by Gustav Mahler. The composer said a symphony “should contain the world,” and no work more completely attempts this than Mahler’s Third, with a first movement that is longer than most full Haydn symphonies (“Pan Awakes: Summer Marches In”) and ends with an adagio just as long, which is built from a theme borrowed from Beethoven’s final string quartet and utters “What Love Tells Me.” I cannot hear the work without disintegrating into a puddle.
—The Passion According to St. Matthew, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach. This is the human condition in sound. All of it. No music I know of is more profound nor more emotionally direct. It lasts for nearly three hours and includes not only all the world, but heaven and hell, too. From the opening chorus, with three choirs and two orchestras, to the final “Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder,” which expresses infinite sorrow, this is music that shoots directly into the psyche and soul. It cannot be worn out.
—24 Preludes and Fugues, op. 87, by Dmitri Shostakovich. I considered Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier, but I already have Bach down twice. He is the obvious choice for desert island music, so rich is his music, but I also think of Shostakovich’s version, which is just as varied both technically and emotionally. I could live with this for a very long time.
And the winner is:
St. Matthew Passion. This is so all-encompassing, so complex technically, so disturbing emotionally, that I cannot bear to give it up. I am not religious and the doctrinal aspects of the story mean nothing to me, but the metaphorical import is overwhelming. This is what it means to be human. And what music!
Desert Island Film
Of course, the film you want on a desert island is a documentary about how to get off a desert island. And if you need a film you can watch over and over, I’ve proved already I can do that with the 1933 King Kong. I’ve watched it a thousand times since I was four years old. But that is not the kind of thing I mean, not what can sustain you through multiple dives into a film’s interior.
My nominees for Best Desert Island Film are:
—Rules of the Game, directed by Jean Renoir. La Règle du Jeu (1939), which many critics have called the best movie ever made, is certainly the most human, humane and forgiving film ever, while at the same time being satirical and biting about human foible and hypocrisy. Yes, it’s in French, with subtitles.
—La Dolce Vita, directed by Federico Fellini. The great 1960 Italian classic of the Roman “sweet life” in the postwar years shows us Marcello Rubini (Marcello Mastroianni) as he negotiates personal relationships, professional crises and spiritual doldrums. The meaning of the movie has been debated for 40 years. It has been seen as anti-Catholic and as a reactionary embrace of religion. It has been seen as an angry critique of modern life, but also a celebration of it. It has been called pornography, and also one of the most moral movies ever made. It’s rich enough to embrace many meanings. Fellini said he was not a judge, “but rather an accomplice.”
—Andrei Rublev, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky. If La Dolce Vita was ambiguous, Andrei Rublev is close to impenetrable. There is no slower film, outside Andy Warhol’s 8-hour-long Empire State Building. It is not so much a story as a dream, full of significance, but not explainable meaning. It is so unutterably beautiful it simply doesn’t matter what is happening on screen. I love this film. I don’t mean enjoy, I mean love.
—Fanny and Alexander, directed by Ingmar Bergman. Some films are art, some are great stories, some are deeply understanding. Fanny and Alexander is all three. It exists in multiple versions — a single one for movie houses at 188 minutes and a 312 minute version originally intended as a TV miniseries. I choose the longer version for my desert island. This is Bergman at his most human, least artsy and symbolic. It can engulf you.
—Dekalog, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski. Polish director Kieślowski made this 10-part film on the Ten Commandments, although not in any literal way. Each film is directed in a different style, and none is religious. The two best concern “Thou shalt not kill” and “not commit adultery,” Your heart will be wrenched from your chest and stomped upon.
And my choice is:
Rules of the Game. I cannot count the number of times I have watched this film. Not as many as King Kong, I guess, but close. And I know from experience it can hold up under uncounted viewings. There is plenty to enjoy from a filmmaking point of view, just as there is in Citizen Kane, but it is also a profoundly forgiving film — the single most important quality in a human life.
I have a few more categories, that I’ll suggest in abbreviated form. There you are on the desert island with a bookshelf and a DVD player. You can add a desert island opera, a desert island epic poem, a desert island play.
An art form that puts it all together in one package, opera would be an excellent way to spend your island time. But again, we have to consider which opera can stand multiple viewings, that has multiple meanings or interpretations. We all love La Boheme, but there is only so much there under the hood. And Wagner would just wear us out. We are down to Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect choice, but I’m going with my favorite:
Don Giovanni, by W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Is it a comedy? Is it a tragedy? Is it a dramedy? Whatever it is, it is filled with real people doing things real people do (aside from talking to statues and falling into hell, that is) and with some of the best music Mozart ever wrote. Fin ch’han dal vino…
There is not a wide field to choose from, and how can you pick among the Iliad, the Odyssey, Dante’s Commedia, or Milton’s Paradise Lost? (Notice, I did not include Vergil. Dull stuff). Nor can I pick an Icelandic saga or a Medieval droner, like Parzival or the Nibelungenlied. I’ve tried slogging my way through Tasso and Ariosto, but get dragged down in slow motion. There is just one for me, and I re-read it every year:
The Iliad, by Homer. How can the first entry in the Western canon still be the best? Nothing beats Homer. His imagination is immense, from the largest cosmic scene to the fingernail of a flea, it is all encompassing, and moves with the instantaneity of movie cutting from the one to the other. Actually, if I had to leave behind novel, music, film and everything else, and had only one companion with me, it would be the Iliad.
What do you mean “live theater?” We’re on a desert island. But, if I can imagine a DVD player and an electric socket on the bare sand, I can imagine a stage play. This is all theoretical anyway, remember?
Angels in America, by Tony Kushner. Without doubt the greatest thing I’ve ever seen on the live stage is the original New York production of Angels in America — both parts. It is overwhelming, and will demonstrate to anyone who hasn’t had the experience yet, that live theater is unmatchable by seeing the same thing on PBS Live From Lincoln Center or even in Mike Nichols’ filmed version. Wow. And I’ve seen some great Shakespeare live, even by the Royal Shakespeare Company. Angels rules.
And so, we’ve turned an isolated desert island into a library, concert hall, movie house, opera house and legitimate stage. Far from being solitary, we’re crowded. Pandemic be damned.
If you are what you read, then I’m confused. A lawyer’s shelves are filled with law books; a doctor’s with medical journals. Tolkien’s shelves were chock with Old- and Middle-English. I look through mine and find no common theme.
To search for myself among my books, I ventured to take a single shelf and look at its contents to see if they were in any way a mirror in which I could discover my own physiognomy. I didn’t want to pick a shelf that was organized. I have cookbooks here, poetry there, a rack or three of Latin and Greek translations over there. There is one section of all of D.H. Lawrence, another of Henry Miller. Elsewhere, there are art books and Hindu literature. There are sections of history and others of Peterson guides. But in the bedroom, beside the bed, is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that collects the odds and ends that I have been gathering and not yet classified, or not returned, after reading, to their rightful homes. I picked a single layer of that literary cake and investigated what I found there. Make of them what you will.
Starting at one end of the shelf:
—The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Vol. VI – 1665, edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews, University of California Press, 1972
One of the great horndogs of all times, Samuel Pepys kept a diary, in a peculiar sort of shorthand, from 1660 to 1669 and records much of historical significance, including the Great Fire of London of 1666 and the Great Plague of 1665-66.
“But, Lord! how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the ’Change. Jealous of every door that one sees shut up, lest it should be the plague; and about us two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.”
— Diary, Aug. 16, 1665
A few days later, on Aug. 22: “I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead bodye therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it — but only set a watch there day and night, that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing — this disease making us more cruel to one another than we are to dogs.”
The volume on my shelf covers only 1665, but I have collections that cover the sense of it all. And the overriding sense you get of our Mr. Pepys is a man concerned with money and business, the conduct of government, dinners with fellow bureaucrats, the love he felt for his wife, and the frequent copulations he maintained with his maid, his friends’ maids, their wives, daughters, and the fishmonger’s wives and daughters. How he had time for business and government sometimes seems a marvel. How many times does he write about seeing his maid at the scullery, bent over the dishes, and he lifts her skirts and has his way while she wipes the platters.
One day, he was surprised by his wife as he sat with the maid on his lap. He writes that his wife “coming up suddenly, did find me embracing the girl with my hand under her coats; and indeed, I was with my hand in her cunny. I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also…” They had to fire the poor maid, but that didn’t stop Pepys from continuing to see her.
—The Orange Fairy Book, edited by Andrew Lang, Dover Publications, 1968
I used to own all of Lang’s Fairy books, in all colors. But I gave most of them away to my granddaughters when they were still wee bairns. I don’t think they ever really took to them — the books had no touchscreens. The Orange Fairy Book is the only one I can find now. I loved them more for the line-drawing illustrations than the text by such artists as Howard Pyle and H.J. Ford. I didn’t discover these fairy tales until I was in my 20s. My childhood had no such fantasy — when I was maybe 10 years old, I remember telling my parents I didn’t like fiction because “I don’t want to read anything that isn’t true.” I wuz a idjut. But in my 20s, I came across Lang in used book stores and collected as many colors as I could. He published 12 books, with different colors. The Blue Fairy Book and the Red were my favorites, they were also the first published. They contain some of the more familiar Grimms’ tales, Arabian Nights stories and Norwegian folktales.
The Orange Fairy Book widens the scope to African tales and some from India, in addition to the European stories usually found. It was the third from the last entry into Lang’s series and was published in 1906. After it came Olive and Lilac. My original discovery of them came at a time when Bruno Bettelheim’s book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, was current — before he was found largely to be a fraud. But his central point, that fairy tales helped guide a child through the development of mind and personality, still seems accurate. I feel disadvantaged, at least a little, by not having them as a part of my childhood.
The series was published in beautifully designed paperbacks by Dover Publications, the golden treasury of lost books that became my source for so many of the books that guided my intellectual development, from Through the Alimentary Canal With Gun and Camera to Design of Active Site-Directed Irreversible Enzyme Inhibitors and Edwin Abbott’s Flatland. Dover now stays in business selling upper-grade coloring books, kiddie stickers and “thrift editions” of classics in the public domain. You can still purchase Lang’s Fairy Books from Dover.
—The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway, Scribner Classics, 1996
Other than the short stories, which are often marvelous, The Sun Also Rises is the only Hemingway I can abide. I reread it every few years and enjoy the hell out of it. I did read Death in the Afternoon a couple of years ago and enjoyed that, too, although in a sort of ironic way, as if it were a parody of the man.
“There are only two proper ways to kill bulls with the sword and muleta… A great killer must love to kill; unless he feels it is the best thing he can do, unless he is conscious of its dignity and feels that it is its own reward, he will be incapable of the abnegation that is necessary in real killing. The truly great killer must have a sense of honor and a sense of glory far beyond that of the ordinary bullfighter.”
I learned more about bullfighting than I ever hoped to. I remember as a kid when local TV in New York used to show Mexican bullfights — they didn’t kill the bulls in Mexico. Stations were really hurting for things to broadcast in those early years. They also ran a bunch of jai-alai. And the Saturday Night Fights, with Bill Stern. But I’m getting off point. I also have a fat book of his wartime journalism, Byline: Ernest Hemingway, which is “damn good reporting,” as he might have characterized it. And even in the books I can’t get through, I still find sentences and paragraphs of tremendous power and grace. He was a great writer who wrote bad books.
But Sun Also Rises has all the fizz and punch that Hemingway is famous for, but before he became Papa — or what I call “Ham-ingway.” The Sun’s excesses feel like a document of its post-war times. Later Hemingway feels like a document of his own almost comic and self-regarding toxic masculinity (perfectly skewered in Woody Allen’s film, Midnight in Paris). I have three copies of Sun in the house. I still have the old Scribner paperback that I first read some 40 years ago; then there is the one from this shelf. But I recently bought the new Hemingway Library Edition, with early drafts and deleted chapters and with a foreword by Patrick Hemingway. These last two are both beautiful book designs and immaculately printed.
—I Kid You Not, Jack Paar with John Reddy, Little, Brown and Co., 1960
Before there was Stephen Colbert, before there was David Letterman, before Johnny Carson, there was Jack Paar. He ran The Tonight Show on NBC from 1957 to 1962. He was a squirrelly man with a labile mind, but maybe a bit touchy. In his autobiography, named for his catchphrase, I Kid You Not, his co-author describes him: “Explaining Jack Paar is not easy. He is the world’s tallest elf. He is a paradox and meeting him can be like smoking a filter-tip firecracker … a man whose tranquilizer has been spiked … a tendency to make sudden U-turns in tunnels … broods over the fact that the Indians always lose in TV Westerns … as unrehearsed as a hiccup.”
I found the book recently in a library sales shelf and picked it up for a dollar, thinking I would weave nostalgia over my childhood television past. And let’s be honest, this is no Great Gatsby — it is a fairly standard celebrity book, full of potted anecdotes and famous names. Still, fairly entertaining for all that.
“I once asked Zsa Zsa if she thought love was important. ‘Yas, I theenk luff is the most imbortant theeng in a vooman’s life,’ she said throatily. ‘A vooman should keep on marrying and marrying until she finds luff.’”
Most of the book consists of a set-up paragraph, explaining a situation, followed by a punchline, either by Paar, or more often quoted from Charley Weaver, Alexander King, Genevieve or Oscar Levant. Paar had a stable of guest-star conversationalists and unlike today’s late night, which is an endless series of stars huckstering their latest project, Paar’s guests actually engaged in conversation.
Sometimes, a book just breezes by without a thought in its head — or mine.
—Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine, Emily Bernard, Alfred A. Knopf, 2019
I heard Emily Bernard speaking on C-Span and found her mesmerizing. There are two main aspects to her book, both entirely engaging. The most obvious is her discussion of race. She grew up in the South, got her Ph.D. from Yale, married a white man from the North, adopted two babies from Ethiopia and teaches in New England, so, with all this input, there is not a single or blindered approach to her subject, but a willingness to see from all points of view. There is not a droplet of cant in her thinking or writing, but the honest thoughts of a sensitive individual.
The other is the story of her stabbing. She was attacked by a stranger, a white man, with a knife. He was a schizophrenic, acting on impulse and he attacked six other people in that coffee shop. “I was not stabbed because I was black, but I have always viewed the violence I survived as a metaphor for the violent encounter that has generally characterized American race relations. … There was no connection between us … yet we were suddenly and irreparably bound by a knife, an attachment that cost us both: him, his freedom; me, my wholeness.”
It is a book beautifully written. Its prose is both clean and evocative. I don’t believe I found a single cliche in its 223 pages.
—The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion, Alfred A. Knopf, 2005
When my wife died, three years ago, I was buried in a paralyzing grief. We had been together 35 years and, as far as either of was concerned, we were a single entity. Didion’s book was recommended to me and I dived in.
It is, of course, well written — it is Didion, after all — and it is affecting. I felt a definite kinship with her. If you have lost someone that close, it is like a soldier having been through a war and knowing only those who have shared the experience can genuinely understand. You can appreciate the sympathy of friends, but you know they are outside the event. I got letters and e-mails from one dear friend who had lost a lifetime companion, and even when she didn’t address the loss directly, there was a tacit understanding. Those letters meant more to me than any other kind words.
But, having read Didion, I had to say that my experience was different from hers. The “magical thinking” she writes about is the feeling that, even though she knows consciously that her husband is dead, there was an autonomic expectation that he might suddenly come through the door: The space of the real world, and the inner space of the mind were out of synch.
But for me, when I witnessed the life cease being generated by my wife’s ailing body, she simply was no more. The instant she stopped breathing, her skin began to cool under my touch; the flame was extinguished, and I never had even the unconscious hope that it had all been a dream, and that maybe she was still alive. No. Gone. Ewig… Ewig… Ewig.
A Night at the Opera: An Irreverent Guide to the Plots, the Singers, the Composers, the Recordings, Sir Denis Forman, Random House, 1994
My brother- and sister-in-law are crazy about opera. When I visit them, we often watch DVDs of them, and usually the operas few others appreciate, such as Wozzeck, The Cunning Little Vixen, or The Love for Three Oranges. I used to be an opera critic for my newspaper (I was critic for a lot of things — born a critic, not made one). And they gave me this book, which is a comic look at all the repertoire operas. This is not a book you read cover to cover, but dip into for a good laugh and a bit of insight.
“Death is extremely common [in opera] and has an almost universal characteristic unknown in our world, namely… the doomed person suffers a compulsion to sing. There are few known cases in [opera] where death has occurred without an aria, or at least a cavatina, being delivered… The period [of death] can last for up to a whole act. Not even decapitation can ensure an aria-free death, since the victim is likely to seize any opportunity to break into song on the way to the block.”
I used to own Milton Cross’s Complete Stories of the Great Operas in a beat-up and yellow-paged copy that I used for reference when I was writing. Nowadays, all those reference books that crowded my carrel at the newspaper have been replaced with Wikipedia at my fingertips. And the sodden reverence that Cross brought to the genre has been happily exchanged for Sir Denis’s leavening.
The book is 955 pages long, so I can’t claim to have finished it, or that I ever will. But I have read all of my favorite operas and Gesamptkunstwerks and had a good yuk.
—And Then You’re Dead: What Really Happens If You Get Swallowed by a Whale, Are Shot from a Cannon, or Go Barreling Over Niagara…, Cody Cassidy and Paul Doherty, Ph.D., Penguin Books, 2017
There are so many ways to die, outside of mortal illness or gunshot wounds. And this book, with a chromed edge of irony, recounts some of the more notable. If you are ever curious about what would happen if you were swallowed by a whale, shot from a cannon or go barreling over Niagara Falls, then even the title of the book should pull you in.
Each of 45 chapters begins with “What would happen if…” If you were buried alive; if you were hit by a meteorite; if your elevator cable broke; if you were sacrificed in a volcano; if you ate as many cookies as Cookie Monster. (On that last, many things might kill you. “After 60-some cookies, the gaseous side effects of digestion might push the pressure of your stomach beyond its physical capacity. It could explode violently and distribute its fatal chocolate chip cookie content throughout your innards. In other words, death by burping.”}
This is clearly a great book for bathroom reading: short, punchy chapters. Like eating potato chips, reading just one will be a problem. Also: Comes with scientific footnotes to witness for the authors’ predictions.
—Latest Reading, Clive James, Yale University Press, 2015
Clive James knew he was dying when he compiled Latest Readings. He was diagnosed with terminal leukemia in 2010 and decided to spend his remaining time reading and rereading. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.”
If that sounds like a downer, then you haven’t read Clive James. A more irrepressible mind and curiosity would be hard to come by. This book came out in 2015 and he died in 2019, which means he had a good nine years of reading to pursue. Having announced his impending demise in 2010, he admitted at the time of this book an embarrassment at still being alive. He described himself as “near to death but thankful for life.” And after his Latest Readings, he still had seven more books to publish, one called Sentenced to Life.
He was a major wit (he described the muscled-up Arnold Schwarzenegger as looking like a “brown condom filled with walnuts”) and could toss off the bon mot as flippantly as Oscar Levant or Dorothy Parker.
One essay is specifically “On Wit,” and discusses the ability of Abba Eban to say much with little. He quotes Eban on another politician, “He is a man of few words, but they were enough to express his range of ideas,” and “Yasser Arafat never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”
In his essay on early Hemingway, he says of The Sun Also Rises, “In the book, scarcely anybody is old enough to have a past. They live in the present moment because they are young, and have to. So they pretend to be experienced.” There is a second essay, later on, called “Hemingway at the End,” which begins:
“Starting with Carlos Baker’s pioneering biography in 1969, called simply Hemingway, I have spent a good part of my adult life reading books about Ernest Hemingway and I don’t want to die among a heap of them, but they keep getting into the house.”
I miss James. He’s one of those writers who, even when I disagree with him violently, I still enjoy reading. Luckily, he’s all over YouTube.
—Selected Writing of Herman Melville: Complete Short Stories; Typee; Billy Budd, Foretopman, Herman Melville, Random House Modern Library, 1952
I have always been attracted to writers word by word and sentence by sentence. There are wonderful writers whose prose is clear as water and you never notice it flowing by with hardly a gurgle. They tell their stories and you turn the pages, delighted to find out what happens next. I remember being in a bookstore once and picking up James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific. I had always avoided him, thinking he was a talented hack who pumped out books as thick as phonebooks. I thought I might read a page or two to get the flavor of his writing, but only a few moments later, I realized I was 30 pages in and had to stop because the store was closing. I was completely immersed in the story and unaware I was actually reading.
Melville is not like that. You chew on each tasty word and dine on his sentences. I fell in love with Moby Dick, but had the hardest time finishing it, not because I became bored, but because every time I picked up the book anew, I started from the beginning again. “Call me Ishmael.” I must have read “Loomings” more than a hundred times.
Before I ever finished Moby Dick, I read Israel Potter, Typee, Omoo and The Confidence Man. But what I kept coming back to, over and over, was this Modern Library edition of his selected writings: The Piazza Tales; Billy Budd and Typee. If given the chance, I will read I and My Chimney out loud at a dinner party. The Encantadas enchanted me; Benito Cereno moved me; Bartleby — Ah humanity.
Melville’s prose is thicker than Southern chicken gravy. It always had a spice of irony in it. It can be comic; it can be tragic. Often both. The sentences can be long as freight trains or short as shunting boxcars. There is always a slightly distracted sensibility behind them.
“When I removed into the country, it was to occupy an old-fashioned farm-house, which had no piazza — a deficiency the more regretted, because not only did I like piazzas, as somehow combining the coziness of in-doors with the freedom of out-doors, and it is so pleasant to inspect your thermometer there, but the country round about was such a picture that in berry time no boy climbs hill or crosses vale without coming upon easels planted in every nook, and sun-burnt painters painting there. A very paradise of painters.”
Melville breaks every one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, especially the part about avoiding “hooptedoodle.” Everything Leonard denounces is every reason I love reading. And Melville is the absolute emperor of hooptedoodle. Sometimes, we never ever get to the point.
—Classical Persian Literature, A.J. Arberry, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1967
Sometimes, you are moving through the used bookstore too fast. It is a vast buffet of things you want to grab and take home. And sometimes, you grab a title you don’t take enough time to read carefully. I was visiting brother- and sister-in-law and went to a used bookstore the size of a Safeway. I saw a book spine with “Classical Persian Literature” on it and scooped it up. It was only when I got home that I discovered there was precious little classical Persian literature in it, but was, instead, a dry history of Persian literature.
I’m sure it is a wonderful history, and will let me know the minute differences between 13th century and 14th century writings from Iran. But the prose has all the dust of scholarship about it. I have not been able to crack into it; it pushes me away. I wanted poetry and I got bricks. I’m sure, also, that Mr. Arthur John Arberry was quite knowledgable, probably one of the world leaders. But I keep this volume around purely as a non-chemical soporific.
—A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of this Choicest Writings, H.L. Mencken, Vintage Books, 1982
Henry Louis Mencken was an often detestable human being, with gender and racial views bordering on the rabid. But he wrote like a dream. I envy his style like few others, and will gobble up anything I can find that he published.
I have all six volumes of his aptly titled Prejudices, and all three of his autobiographies, to say nothing of the hefty three volumes of The American Language and I have devoured them like peanut-butter cups. When I couldn’t get enough Mencken, having finished all these, I asked Amazon for a copy of his 1949 anthology, A Mencken Chrestomathy. Unfortunately, a good deal of it is reprinted from the Prejudices and memoirs, but enough is new that the book kept me amused for a week or more. And I can dip back in for a recharge at any time. They are all eminently re-readable.
“The suicide rate, so I am told by an intelligent mortician, is going up. It is good news to his profession, which has been badly used of late by the progress of medical science, and scarcely less so by the rise of cut-throat, go-getting competition within its own ranks. It is also good news to those romantic optimists who like to believe that the human race is capable of rational acts. What could be more logical than suicide? What could be more preposterous than keeping alive?”
And the next essay, he continues: “I see nothing mysterious about these suicides. The impulse to self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time of other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living. I was myself spared the intellectual humiliations of a college education, but during my late teens, with the enlightening gradually dawning within me, I more than once concluded that death was preferable to life. At that age the sense of humor is in a low state. Later on, by the mysterious working of God’s providence, it usually recovers.”
Reading Mencken is a mix of smiles and winces. A clever turn of phrase here, a rolling diatribe careening along like a freight train, a panegyric or philippic — then, you bump up against some gratuitous generalization about “the negroes” or “the Jews,” and you pull up short. These were common prejudices at the time, but they sour the tongue now.
You are forced to remember that Mencken also argued for the American acceptance of Jewish refugees in the years before WWII, and lashed out at lynchings and bigotry, apparently not noticing the beam in his own eye. In addition, he had close friendships with both African-Americans and Jews. It was only in the abstract he denigrated them, not that such makes it acceptable.
Mencken also disapproved of democracy. In this, he seems prescient. “As democracy is perfected, the office [of the presidency] represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”
—High Tide in Tucson: Essays From Now or Never, Barbara Kingsolver, Harper Collins, 1995
The most recent book I’ve finished is Kingsolver’s collection of essays, mixing science and autobiography and more than anything, common sense written with aromatic and redolent words. My first ex-wife found it a few months ago in a used bookstore and bought it for me, thinking I might enjoy it. She was right.
I confess I have not read any of Kingsolver’s fiction. I’m a bit slow on keeping up with contemporary novels — I’m still too often stuck on Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne — but these essays are infectiously written.
“I have been gone from Kentucky a long time. Twenty years have done to my hill accent what the washing machine does to my jeans: take out the color and starch, so gradually that I never marked the loss. Something like that has happened to my memories, too, particularly of the places and people I can’t go back and visit because they are gone. The ancient brick building that was my grade school, for example, and both my grandfathers. They’re snapshots of memory for me now, of equivocal focus, loaded with emotion, undisturbed by anyone else’s idea of the truth. The schoolhouse’s plaster ceilings are charted with craters like maps of the moon and likely to crash down without warning. The windows are watery, bubbly glass reinforced with chicken wire. The weary wooden staircases, worn shiny smooth in a path up their middles, wind up to an unknown place overhead where the heavy-footed eighth graders changing classes were called ‘the mules’ by my first-grade teacher, and believing her, I pictured their sharp hooves on the linoleum.”
Over and over Kingsolver metamorphoses physical objects into emotion — not overt, heart-on-sleeve, but recollection, affection, loss — and makes the persuasive case that emotion is more central to being human than paltry thought. Or rather, that when seen properly, thought and emotion are the very same thing.
—Paradise Lost: An Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism — A Norton Critical Edition, John Milton, edited by Scott Elledge, W.W. Norton, 1975
I’m afraid people look at me funny when I tell them how much I enjoy reading Milton. They scrunch their eyes and wonder if they should step back slowly. But Milton is wonderful; he is fun. And he tells a whopping good yarn.
I have four copies of Paradise Lost. The first is a compact blue Oxford Standard Authors edition from 1925. When my girlfriend-at-the-time and I decided to hike the Appalachian Trail in the early 1970s, it was this Milton I tossed into my knapsack for the trip. Yes, I took Milton to the woods. Then there is the larger paperback with the famous Gustave Doré illustrations. And a two-volume complete Milton in a presentation set from 1848, bound in leather, that was a birthday present from my late espoused saint. And then, there is this Norton Critical Edition paperback that I keep near my bed. Its advantage is the explanatory footnotes at the bottom of each page. Some pages have more note than text. I am a little put off that these notes are designed for students and that those students need to be told that “cherub” is singular of “cherubim” or that “pernicious” means “destructive.”
When I read Milton, I hear in my mind’s ear the same rich and thunderous diapason I hear in J.S. Bach’s organ music. Whole rolling chords and pedal tones. Politicians often attempt rhetorical speech in order to sound more impressive and authoritative, but they always sound phony and pompous, like Foghorn Leghorn. But Milton is the real thing: Language with the weight of 2000 years of background. Yes, he treats English as a baby brother to Latin and does damage to standard grammar to contort his sentence structure. But in return, he gets a language more powerful than any poet before or since.
“Him the Almighty Power/ Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky/ With hideous ruin and combustion down/ To bottomless perdition, there to dwell/ In adamantine chains and penal fire,/ Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.”
How can you not love such language: “Round he throws his baleful eyes.”
Perhaps it actually helps that I have no dogs in this fight. I am not a Christian. I can read the Iliad with pleasure and not believe in the Olympians; I can read the Mahabharata without thinking that Krishna or Ganesh are real. The myth of Paradise Lost is compelling, even without being dogma.
—-The Mystery of Georges Simenon: A Biography, Fenton Bresler, Stein and Day, 1985
Georges Simenon was the creator of Inspector Maigret, but the real mystery is how he managed to write so many books, while also diddling so many women. He wrote nearly 500 novels, some whipped off in as short a time as a week. He could, when deadline pressed, write 60 pages a day. The women are not accurately counted.
Seventy-five of those novels and 28 short stories feature Inspector Jules Maigret, the pipe smoking and uxorious chief of the Paris Police Judiciaire. The books have been made into many movies and TV series, including 52 episodes for French television starring Bruno Cremer and a dozen in English starring Michael Gambon. I have seen them all; I am a Maigret addict. I have also read handfuls of the books, too. They read fast and rivetingly.
They aren’t really mysteries, though. In most, the reader learns fairly early who the culprits are and the books have their raison d’etre in the finely drawn character studies of their dramatis personae. They really are novels more than your standard mysteries. No suspects are gathered in the last chapter while the detective unmasks the villain. And, indeed, Simenon has written many non-Maigret novels, also with their catchy populations.
“They do not contain much spine-chilling suspense,” writes biographer Fenton Bresler. “They are dark, taut studies of human beings pushed to the limit of their characters, explored with such deep instinctive knowledge of human nature that they have become part of the syllabus of university examinations, and post-graduate students write learned theses devoted to them.”
“Yet, for all their sombre value and consummate craftsmanship, they have nearly all been written at breakneck speed in not much more than a week — with, at the end, a compulsive need to indulge in a veritable orgy of sexual activity as ‘a necessary hygienic measure,’ It is here, with sex, that we have our first inkling that the ‘phenomenon’ is also a mystery and the story of Simenon’s own life is as dark and compelling as any of his novels — if only we can get at the truth.”
—Look Homeward, Angel: A Story of the Buried Life, Thomas Wolfe, Random House Modern Library, 1929
Asheville, North Carolina, is in the Blue Ridge Mountains and about 10 miles to the east, the escarpment drops off to the flatlands. The way up the hill from Old Fort to Asheville is now Interstate 40, an artery which runs from Wilmington, N.C., to Barstow, Calif. In North Carolina it runs from the Atlantic Coastal Plain through the Piedmont, with Greensboro and Winston-Salem, and past Asheville to the Smoky Mountains before hitting Tennessee near Dollywood. But before the Interstate, the looping way up the hill was a gravel road that roughly parallels the old railroad line. In 1880, William Oliver Wolfe took a stage coach up the hill to Asheville to set up his stonecutting business.
His son, Thomas, fictionalized that trip in the opening chapter of his novel, Look Homeward, Angel, published in 1929. In the novel, Old Fort becomes Old Stockade and Asheville becomes Altamont. His fictionalized father, Oliver Gant, gets into a coach that climbs its way up the face of the Blue Ridge. “His destination was the little town of Altamont, 24 miles away beyond the rim of the great outer wall of the hills. As the horses strained slowly up the mountain road Oliver’s spirit lifted a little. It was a gray-golden day in late October, bright and windy. There was a sharp bite and sparkle in the mountain air; The range soared above him, close, immense, clean, and barren. The trees rose gaunt and stark: They were almost leafless. The sky was full of windy white rags of cloud; a thick blade of mist washed slowly around the rampart of a mountain.
“Below him a mountain stream foamed down its rocky bed, and he could see little dots of men laying the track that would coil across the hill toward Altamont. Then the sweating team lipped the gulch of the mountain and, among soaring and lordly ranges that melted away in purple mist, they began the slow descent toward the high plateau on which the town of Altamont was built.”
I have driven that same road many times, avoiding the interstate as less interesting. The railroad that was being constructed while Oliver rode the coach, is now finished and it loops up in switchbacks mostly parallel to the gravel road. You see it peeking through the trees here and there. And I have driven it in October when the season matches that of the book. There is something uncanny about seeing fiction turned palpable, about driving through the trees as if you were driving through prose.
—Persian and Chinese Letters, Charles Louis, Baron de Montesquieu, translated by John Davidson; and The Citizen of the World, Oliver Goldsmith, M Walter Dunne, 1901
I have always loved old books. The letterpress text is textural, embedded into the paper and you can run your finger over the words and feel the bumpiness. There is the smell of the old paper itself. And title pages often have border designs in colored ink, or engraved scrolls. In the older books, there are those long “S” figures that each looks like an “F.” The volumes are beautiful objects, well worthy beyond their content.
I own several books from before 1750 and more from the 19th century, including my trusty History of the Earth and Animated Nature, by Oliver Goldsmith (my copy is from 1825). And there is a History of Redemption on a Plan Entirely Original Exhibiting the Gradual Discovery and Accomplishment of the Divine Purposes in the Salvation of Man; Including a Comprehensive View of Church History and the Fulfilment of Scripture Prophecies by “the late reverend Jonathan Edwards” from 1793, with its stretched leather binding still intact. (They loved long titles back then; it’s part of their charm.) And there is a complete reprint of Addison and Steeles Spectator from around the time of the American Revolution (it is falling apart and missing its title page, but the latest date mentioned in it is 1776). I love them all.
Goldsmith also wrote a satire on English society and culture called The Citizen of the World, purportedly a series of letters written by a Chinese visitor, Lien Chi, who is mystified at some of the British habits and mores he found. Goldsmith’s book was inspired by a similar one by Baron de Montesquieu, called the Persian Letters, from 1721, in which two fictional Persians leave their seraglio to travel through France and send back letters describing what they found.
“Coffee is very much used in Paris; there are a great many public houses where it may be had. In some of these they meet to gossip, in others to play at chess. There is one where the coffee is prepared in such a way that it makes those who drink it witty: At least, there is not a single soul who on quitting the house does not believe himself four times wittier than when he entered it.”
My volume is a translation and reprint from 1901, and a so-called “de Luxe Edition, printed by M. Walter Dunne, Publisher, Washington & London. It isn’t the greatest reading, but it is a handsome volume.
—The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov, Vladimir Nabokov, Alfred A. Knopf, 1995
Some time ago, on a vacation trip, I came across a copy of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. It was all there was to read where we were staying and I admit to being somewhat embarrassed to read a book about a pedophile, and worse, from his self-justifying point of view, but I also have to admit, it was the best-written book I had come across in ages. The writing was singular; verbal fireworks. I have never come across anything like it. The simple act of reading was fun. There is no other word for it. It was a delight to move from one word to the next, each brighter and crisper and more ironically charged than the last. Lolita is a great book. Not that I want anyone to catch me reading it.
I later picked up his autobiography, Speak, Memory, and loved it, too, although it didn’t have the crashing verbal tides of Lolita. Still, it was compelling.
And so, I found this giant, thick, heavy compilation of Nabokov’s short stories. At 660 pages, it contains 65 stories, some written in English, some translated from Russian. I have admired the spine of this book on my shelf for some time, but found it daunting to pull out and open up.
“The name of the planet, presuming it has already received one, is immaterial. At its most favorable opposition, it may very well be separated from the earth by only as many miles as there are years between last Friday and the rise of the Himalayas — a million times the reader’s average age. In the telescopic field of one’s fancy, through the prism of one’s tears, any particularities it presents should be no more striking than those of existing planets. A rosy globe, marbled with dusky blotches, it is one of the countless objects diligently revolving in the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”
How can any scrupulous writer not admit to being in awe of a phrase like, “the infinite and gratuitous awfulness of fluid space.”? Or, “the telescopic field of one’s fancy” and “the prism of one’s tears.”?
Perhaps one day, I will work up the gumption to tackle the whole book. After all, I made it through Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. This should be child’s play in comparison.
And so, I think over what I have excavated from this layered wooden trove and wonder anew: Who is this who drew magnetically such a heterogeneous collection of mental filings. Spiegel im Spiegel.
Opera has an ABC. They are Aida, Boheme and Carmen. No regional opera company ever went broke programming these blockbusters. They are all extremely popular and well-known.
Carmen, especially. Perhaps too well known.
We all know that the gypsy Carmen seduces the not-too-bright army corporal, Don Jose, and then dumps him for the flashy matador Escamillo. Death ensues while crowds cheer in the bull ring.
We hum along with the tunes: the habanera, the toreador song, the boys mocking the soldiers and their tune. The suite from the score was once one of the most programmed pieces of light classical music, rivaling Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite and Grieg’s Peer Gynt. One of Sir Thomas Beecham’s “lollipops.”
The opera comes from a novella written in 1845 by the French Romantic author Prosper Merimee. And like a movie made from a book, a few things are changed for the sake of drama.
Here are some things you probably don’t know about Georges Bizet’s Carmen:
1. Bizet’s librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy, gave their bullfighter a major promotion. In Merimee’s book, he is not the noble matador, but a mere picador, a stripling named Lucas.
2. The famous Habanera (“L’amour est un oiseau rebelle“) was an afterthought.
The mezzo hired to sing the part of Carmen didn’t like the aria Bizet had first written. He tried 10 times to come up with something, eventually writing the single most famous tune from the opera. Or did he? Turns out, he stole the melody from an earlier tune, called El Arreglito, by Sebastian Yradier who had only recently died. Yes, Bizet plagiarized the melody. When the score to Carmen was published, Bizet had to add a note acknowledging his source.
3. The first recording of Carmen (1908) was sung in German. “Liebe ist wie ein wilder Vogel.” Oy.
4. More than 60 films have been made of the story. Oddly, the first 17 were silent films. Silent opera is rather like dancing on the radio. That list of silent films includes one by Cecil B. DeMille, from 1915, which was based on the original novel because the producers didn’t want to pay the rights to the opera and chose the public-domain novel instead. They then changed the book’s plot to match the opera’s. Among the silent Carmens were Theda Bara (1915, directed by Raoul Walsh), Pola Negri (1918, directed by Ernst Lubitsch) and Delores Del Rio (1927, also directed by Walsh).
5. Recent Carmens tend to stretch the story or the music. Like Beyonce in Carmen: A Hip Hopera (2001), or the 1983 Carlos Saura masterpiece, which turns it into a flamenco dance. Also on the list: Carmen on Ice (1990); Karmen Gei (2001), which sets the story in Senegal; Carmen Jones (1954), with Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte; and most recently the powerful South African township version, U-Carmen eKhayalitsha. Check it out on DVD.
These are questions that don’t get asked often enough when we discuss such inflammatory issues as government funding of the arts and humanities.
To many people, culture simply means a lot of wealthy people going to the opera and sitting through a hare-brained story in a language they don’t understand while listening to a soprano shriek so loud their elbows go numb.
Or it means drinking bad white wine from a plastic champagne glass at an art gallery opening or long, dense scholarly papers deconstructing Little Red Riding Hood as a text about the patriarchal hegemony.
We too often talk about culture as if it meant only evenings in the theater and long Russian novels.
But what would happen if all these so-called ”high” arts suddenly disappeared? Do we actually need them?
To understand the answer, we need to understand what culture is. Culture is broader than just the arts.
It’s what you eat for breakfast and whether your trousers have cuffs. It is who you are allowed to marry and what happens to your body when you die.
Culture is the set of rules — mostly in the form of traditions — by which society runs.
It is the software for our social lives.
In fact, far from being a luxury, culture is something you cannot live without. It is religion, art, laws, ethics, history and even our clothing.
Culture is who we are.
And who we are at this moment: No culture is static. It is an evolving thing — to keep up with the computer metaphor, there are constant upgrades. Culture 2.7 gives way to Culture 3.0, as the circumstances of our lives and our cultural needs change. The culture of the clipper ship means little on a jumbo jet.
Yet, although culture changes, it is inherently conservative. It changes very slowly. Nobody wants to get caught with a beta version of untested software.
Patterns from our ancestors persist in our lives. We enter the jumbo jet from the left side because our great-grandfathers wore their swords on their left sides and consequently mounted their horses from the left, to avoid entangling their swords.
You can see the history of aviation change from the stirrup on the left side of a World War I biplane to the door on a 747.
And how many children today play with ”choo-choo trains,” although not even their parents ever lived in a world with steam locomotives?
The patterns stick with us even when they no longer make sense.
But culture does change. The three-minute song remains the cultural pattern, although Dinah Shore has given way to Taylor Swift.
Songs from our agricultural past, lauding springtime and the moon, make little sense to our urban present, where nocturnal lighting is more likely neon. So we change. Slowly.
And where does cultural change come from? More often than not, from the arts.
The arts try out possible ideas onstage to see if they might make sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But the best minds and imaginations give it their best.
That is why we think of theater as ”culture.” Or literature, or painting.
Yes, there are some people who want to keep their old software version, and some who want to return to earlier versions. But culture cannot stand still.
Therefore, we need to be on the lookout for meaningful directions to go in. Art is our investigation of our values, testing them and throwing out some and reinforcing others.
Without art, culture ossifies and the people become emotionally and spiritually dead. So, if we mean to maintain a vital culture, we must support the best in the arts.
There is another computer saying: GIGO — garbage in, garbage out. In other words, if we don’t care for the changes in our culture, we are likely to wind up with the lowest common denominator. We are likely to wind up with nothing more than Duck Dynasty and microwave pizza.
The two people sitting next to us at the opera were Rowlandson caricatures.
She was mid-60ish, tarted up in black lace, false lashes and a push-up bra. He was roughly the same age but grotesquely obese, with a beach-ball belly that shined shirt-white from the bottom of his vest to the top of his trousers. His belt was lost to sight under the roll of gut.
Worse, stale cigarette fumes soaked out of every fiber of his suit.
The two had arrived late; the lights already had dimmed for La Boheme, but the music hadn’t begun. The two tripped their way over toes and bounced off knees along the row.
It is all too common a sight at the symphony or opera. The wife drags the businessman husband out for a night of culture. He usually falls asleep by the third movement or second act.
Only this husband’s cough kept him awake. This wasn’t the polite, dry ”ahem” in the throat that is universal ambient noise at a concert. It was a huge, wretching, sputum-gargling chest-cough that boiled over every 30 seconds or so for the first two acts.
Between the noisome miasma of tobacco and the noisy expectoration of gooey bronchi, I came to loathe this man. He was ruining Puccini.
At each intermission, the two left the hall, coming back with a renewed halo of smoke.
By the third act, the man began another obnoxious behavior that normally makes me fume: He began singing along, under his breath. Normally, I say, but strangely not this time. Instead, I found his singing curiously touching. Philistine or no, his humming told me he was making a connection with the music.
It also became obvious that he knew the opera quite well and that, in fact, he had it memorized.
It also amused me that it was only Mimi’s part that he sang, and it made me wonder about him. Perhaps he identified with Mimi, perhaps he loved deeply, perhaps he was dying, perhaps he dressed up in women’s clothes at home.
Whatever it was, it made me like him, in an odd, repellent sort of way.
When the drama was over and Mimi was dead and resurrected for applause, I could hear him critique the performance for his wife, ranking it among the Bohemes he had heard, pointing out its strengths and its failings (every opera production has both). It was a crudely objective- sounding set of judgments he pronounced, like the faux-scholarly recording reviews in Fanfare.
And I realized that for many men, this passing of judgment is their way of admitting they were moved.
And he became all the more human to me for that.
Among the morals in this parable is that everyone finds sustenance in art. My tussive businessman may not care a whit for Picasso or Brecht, but this Puccini lit his candle. Another may despise Puccini and find life’s breath in Thomas Mann or Jimi Hendrix. It even may be found for some in black velvet Elvis paintings.
It is not the particulars that count, but that there is something in art that is needed to sustain human life.
We live two lives. Everyone does, although we seldom acknowledge it.
The first is the life we know daily, the ordinary life filled with people and things. It is the life of work and fast foods, traffic and journalism. It is a loud, swarming stage, with 7 billion competing egos jostling for their air.
In such a life, it is easy to become submerged, easy to lose our way. The demands of survival and success blind us to the larger, more important issues.
Which is why that second life is so very important. That is the life we recognize when we are alone at night under the starry sky. In this second life, the 7 billion disappear, and we are conscious of only two players: ourselves and the universe — the single, moving, conscious point on the infinite ground.
We become aware in a way we cannot during busier times, that the universe we live in is intensely beautiful and awesome and is driven by a power we cannot conceive of — and what is more, we are a part of it and have been given the chance to participate.
In the first life, we are never more than an extra in a crowd scene, but in the second life, we are each the protagonist in our own autobiography.
Or more exactly, we are each the hero of our own existence.
It is this second life that animates one of the most extraordinary works of art ever conceived, one so huge, multifarious, demanding and overwhelming, that only a few people are willing to invest themselves in it. Those who do, tend to become unbearable to those who have not. They become Wagnerites.
In one way of looking at it, the history of art is a vast pendulum that swings back and forth between works created out of the friction between peoples, on a personal, familial, tribal or national level. The individual and his place among human society. The other extreme is art that examines the individual and his place in nature and the universe. We move from Alexander Pope to William Wordsworth, from The Marriage of Figaro to the Symphonie Fantastique. One shouldn’t have to choose, but the fact is, one’s Zeitgeist chooses for you which paradigm will be most valued during your lifetime.
It is this second life that animates Richard Wagner’s 15-hour quartet of music dramas, The Ring of the Nibelungs. The massive theater-and-music work tells the story of the creation and death of the universe, and the human actions that animate it. If you are looking for a concise story with a coherent plot, turn instead to Bizet or Puccini; Wagner focuses directly on that inner life that pivots under the constellations.
That is why so many people love his music, and why just as many hate it. The Ring is populated with gods and heroes. La Boheme is populated with people. La Boheme is — on the surface, at least — about the first life; The Ring is unapologetically about the second.
There is, in some cultures, the idea of ”The Long Man,” that is, the individual seen as the summation of history: ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny — the one life contains all life.
So that Wagner’s retelling of all of history is also the birth and death of each individual consciousness.
Das Rheingold, the first of the four operas, begins with Eden, a perfect paradise in which the creatures who inhabit it are perpetually in touch with the radiance of nature. The beginning of the opera — and of the cycle — is unprecedented in music history.
It begins with the watery creation of the world, and the composer wrote it in the key of E-flat. The opening of the first of the Ring operas is one of the most astonishing stretches of music in all of history. Wagner holds onto a single E-flat major chord for a full four-and-a-half minutes — 136 bars, longer than some Mozart symphony movements. That is an eternity in music without a change.
It begins in the basses with a deep fundamental note, which breaks slowly into a rising arpeggio on the E-flat chord and slowly speeds up to a crescendo of runs and arpeggios — an immense pile of busy-ness, but without any of the forward sense of motion that harmonic progression provides.
In this, Wagner has provided a musical metaphor of the Hindu concept of maya, or illusion. He had been reading Indian philosophy — albeit in the very German version of Schopenhauer — and his illustration of the idea is perhaps the clearest in art.
Before consciousness, it is said, the mind is like a placid lake reflecting the sky perfectly. But such a state is impossible, for a breeze is inevitable, and it breaks up the surface into ripples and waves, and the sky — eternity — is then reflected individually in every wavelet. Such is creation in Hindu philosophy, where we are all fragmented into individuals by the accident of the animating wind. But the fragmentation is an illusion — maya. The busy play of the world is just a trick; eternity itself is unchanged.
So Wagner shows the indestructible and unmoving E-flat spinning out into a busy surge of notes, building the world into existence.
The idea came to Wagner while he was drowsing, dreaming he had fallen into a rushing stream of water.
”The rushing sound formed itself in my brain into a musical sound, the chord of E-flat major, which continually re-echoed in broken forms,” he wrote. ”These broken chords seemed to be melodic passages of increasing motion, yet the pure triad of E-flat never changed, but seemed by its continuance to impart infinite significance to the element in which I was sinking.
”I awoke in sudden terror from my doze, feeling as though the waves were rushing high above my head. I at once recognized that the orchestral overture to the Rheingold, which must long have lain latent within me, though it had been unable to find definite form, had at last been revealed to me. I then quickly realized my own nature; the stream of life was not to flow to me from without, but from within.”
“Within” — That’s the second life.
In one of the most prodigious imaginative feats in history, Wagner then managed to create most of the remaining 15 hours of music in his Ring from the initial 4 1/2 minutes of arpeggio — fragmenting it further, turning it upside down and inside out, to generate most of the melodic ideas in his epic.
So that, just as all scales and harmony in Western music are generated through overtones of the fundamental bass note, so all of Wagner’s universe likewise grows from that one, deep vibration.
That “radiance of nature” is also the gold at the bottom of the Rhine river. The three nixies who ”guard” the gold sing its glories.
It is the ”visionary gleam” of childhood that Wordsworth elegized in his Intimations ode.
It is Nature, unsullied by greed and striving, which is the philosophical ground of The Ring. And it is Nature that is disturbed by the theft of the gold by a dwarf, who gives up any hope of love in order to possess the treasure and its power.
So, love and power are the two poles of the moral universe in The Ring, and they play out against each other for the remaining three operas.
And in the end, the gods die and the world is engulfed in fire and flood. All that survives, at the final notes of the fourth opera, Goetterdaemerung, is the high, hanging violin melody that we have come, in all those hours of music, to associate with the redemptive power of love. It is the final word on life, history and the cosmos, and just as the world is destroyed it provides the hope of the next creation, just as our children provide a hope against our own deaths.
This is more than an entertainment: Wagner is trying to say something genuine about existence and to the extent we are open to his music and ideas, we will value them.
In the second life we all lead, the same two forces play out: career versus family, law versus justice, greed versus generosity, selfishness versus universal love. In each case, the first binds us in pain and frustration and the second redeems us through a connection to the transcendent.
Such an ambitious aim in art is held in great suspicion these days, where too easy a transcendence turns quickly into sentimentality. And a great deal of what followed Wagner is mawkish. We are much more comfortable now with a skeptical irony. After all, Wagner’s grandiosity fed into the rise of Nazism in Germany. Wagner was, after all, Hitler’s favorite composer.
(Wagner, himself, was an awful man. A ridiculous anti-Semite, a ruthless user of women and patrons, and more than comfortable living the high life on other peoples’ money. Take my word, you wouldn’t have liked him.)
But Hitler looked for the Germanness in The Ring and ignored the humanness. The narrowness of his ideology is the very thing Wotan, the chief god in the operas, comes slowly to understand is the cause of human misery.
We are all, if we are truly sentient beings, on something like Wotan’s learning curve.
There is a great deal in The Ring. It is the single most compendious work of art in European history. Wagner manages to take on rapacious capitalism, national identity, Schopenhauer, Hinduism, mythology and the role of the artist, among other things. There are as many interpretations of The Ring as there are hearers. And that is as it should be.
There are Freudian interpretations, Jungian ones, Marxist readings and neo-Feminist glosses.
Yet, it all comes down, in the end, to an awakened awareness of our second life.
The Ring has its faults; it is not a perfect work of art. It is sometimes dull for stretches as bits of plot are rehashed. Like Rossini said, there are some great moments and some tedious quarter-hours.
And in some sense, it is quite silly to take all this seriously. With its dragons and horn-helmeted Valkyries, its gods and dwarfs — to say nothing of its 200-pound sopranos — it can be hard to see past the adult fairy tale aspect. To some, it is as tedious as a musical version of Tolkien.
Yet, the music itself, underlying and amplifying the experience of The Ring, reawakens in us our awareness of our second life, which is ultimately the source of all that is good in life for ourselves and those we love.
Finally, as the critic Longinus says, all great works of art are flawed and we should always prefer flawed greatness to perfect mediocrity.
And make no mistake, The Ring is truly great.
A SHORT RETELLING OF THE RING — SO FAR
Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen is a four-opera monument to myth, history and psychology. First performed in 1876, The Ring was designed to be played on consecutive days as a single, 15-hour unit, broken up into these four operas, or ”music dramas” as Wagner called them:
Das Rheingold — In this prelude to the main story, Wotan, the chief of the Viking gods, gains and loses the gold stolen from the Rhine River. The gold confers power on its possessor; unfortunately, it has been cursed and it also confers death. To retrieve the gold for himself, Wotan concocts an elaborate scheme, which plays out in the subsequent operas.
Die Walkuere — Because he is bound by his own laws not to get the gold himself, Wotan fathers a hero, Siegmund, to do it for him. Siegmund falls in love with his own sister, Sieglinde, and Wotan, again bound by law, is forced to kill Siegmund, but Wotan’s daughter, Brunnhilde — who is a Valkyrie, or divine warrior maiden — saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. For her disobedience, Wotan puts Brunnhilde to sleep on a mountain surrounded by fire.
Siegfried — Sieglinde’s child, Siegfried, is raised in the forest by a dwarf. The hero kills the dragon that guards the gold and climbs the mountain and awakens Brunnhilde. Wotan’s plan seems to be working, except that Siegfried isn’t really interested in the gold.
Goetterdaemmerung — The title translates as ”The Twilight of the Gods” and shows the sad end of Wotan’s plan. Siegfried is drugged by the evil half-dwarf Hagen — who also wants the gold — so that he forgets Brunnhilde and plans to marry Hagen’s sister. Brunnhilde feels betrayed and joins with Hagen to kill Siegfried. When she realizes that Siegfried had been tricked, she sings one of the most difficult 20 minutes in opera, and in remorse for her part in the murder, rides her horse into the hero’s funeral pyre, igniting the final conflagration that destroys both the world and the gods. Wotan’s plan has failed, but Wotan has achieved something more valuable than the gold: Wisdom. As the opera closes, hints of the redemptive power of love suggest that the world can start over again with a fresh beginning.
To unify the sprawling story, Wagner used repeated musical phrases — called leitmotivs, or leading musical ideas — and developed them symphonically over the 15 hours. The music expresses the emotions and thoughts of the characters — sometimes hidden — and the music changes as the characters grow and the plot thickens, helping the audience keep track of what is happening.