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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

My First Great Teacher - Pablo Casals

I am a man first, an artist second. As a man, my first
obligation is to the welfare of my fellow men. I will endeavor to
meet this obligation through music--the means which God
has given me--since it transcends language, politics
and national boundaries. My contribution to world peace
may be small, but at least I will have given all I can to an ideal
I hold sacred. -- Pablo Casals.

There is, of course, no substitute for work. I myself
practice constantly, as I have all of my life. I have been
told I play the cello with the ease of a bird flying.
I do not know with how much effort a bird learns to fly,
but I do know what effort has gone into my cello.
What seems ease of performance comes from the greatest labor.
-- Pablo Casals.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Writing: An After-Life Activity

"Writing is a bad whore," my good friend and former professor at the university said in the middle of our dinner discussion regarding, what else, writing. "She's a bad whore that one day gives you all you want, and the next day makes you beg for the most simple pleasures." It wasn't the wine, as he was only one glass down, nor was it intellectual bravado. It sounded to us (and with 'us' I mean the throes of former students who showed up to pay tribute to him with this dinner) as if he had been possessed by the ghost of Ernest Hemingway--the terse, muscular, allegorical statement... the purposeful indictment and even the ad hominem "whore" seemed carefully chosen.

The former students present were a motley crew of former English majors, some of us stayed in academia, others went to law school, other sought riches on Wall Street, and yet the most adventurous of us had gone to teach English overseas. To some extent, we had all remained writers, either professionally or in the form of personal journaling. It was the richness of our experience with Professor M. that plagued us (in a good way) to continue writing after school ended and lives taken us to wondrous places. "One has to bite down hard," he continued, "bite hard and not let go. If anyone would have told me I'd be where I am right now I would have slapped them with the powerful writing hand, to leave a mark of unwritten thoughts in his or her cheek." He paused and looked down, a gesture that allowed some of us to look at each other and inquire, with facial expressions right out of a silent film, whether or not we should allow him to continue. I began to feel a tinge of guilt--I had organized this gathering without even checking to see the professor's condition. I had also counted with having his faithful wife of 62 years Berta here, but was to find out during my first steps to planning this dinner "celebration" that she had passed away two years ago. I began to sweat and wondered where the speech would go next. "As for the people who criticized me then, as they probably still do now, I just want to say that writing..." Here he paused as if about to vomit; no doubt, he was thinking of people that made him sick. I wondered whether I should stand up and help him from the podium, but I decided against it. "Those who criticized my writing, those who lynched me year after year, can only guess what all of us," at this he waved his hand around to the expanse of the hotel ballroom, "what all of us know first hand: That nothing remains of us, and when we leave, we take that good for nothing whore with us to the other life; the after-life where we hope we can continue writing. They'll never know what we did here, what I did here. They were too busy shoving shit up each other's asses to know what real writing can achieve." I went to stand up but Richard (a former student of Professor M. from back in the 1970s) held me down. "Let the old man finish it out," he said, "it's going to get better, I assure you." With "better" I assumed Richard meant that eventually the professor would settle down on a narrative form and engage us with more focus than ad lib. It was not to be. It seems "better" for Richard meant more non sequitorial rant.

The professor continued with another salvo of distaste against his former colleagues, administrators, fellow writers, lovers and friends alike, near and not-so-near family, the government, and finally the Catholic church, which he credited with being the single most damaging institution in human civilization,"outside of the Nazi regime," he cared to qualified. He ended on a good note, however, in mentioning that the only thing that had given him meaning throughout life, to both him and Berta, were the many students whom he had loved and cared for. Professor M.'s sincerity was more than palpable. "In the middle of what appears to you as life today," he declared, "you will find that only through writing can you leave a trace behind. To those who tell you that leaving a trace is not important," (no doubt this was a stab at the late Dr. Lehann Munn, philosophy professor at the university and one of his main archrivals), "tell them that not even all of that Kierkegaardian bullshit can save them now." Someone began to clap and the thunderous applause that followed didn't let up even when I tried to say a few words as I handed Dr. M. a plaque from his grateful students. He had always reminded us in class never to write down what we did not mean. Here we were honoring him and he turned it all around and honored us with his last lesson. He died two days later from a massive stroke.

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Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Desperately Seeking Ms. Sally Bowles

If it seems like I am engaging on an Isherwood month-long, binge-reading, I would like to clarify that (in no uncertain terms) I plead guilty to said "crime." The difference, however, is the fact that I am digesting my binge completely (thank you very much), and that the clarity of the prose is the main culprit for my excesses. I simply cannot put the book down. It's the kind of book you want to have last forever--sort of the "why did James Baldwin had to go out and die and not write any more books" feeling. Good books like Isherwood's "The Berlin Stories" should last forever, not in the sense of returning to it a few years later but rather a lifelong, never ending string of prose and characters that live as long as we do. Okay, I realize I am asking for an impossibility, and, as the wise man once said, nothing good lasts forever, but the mere idea and the perfectibility of it is so amazing it might drive the sane and religious to make a deal with Satan. I know I exaggerate. What I don't exaggerate (nor do I apologize for) is Isherwood's perfect weaving of a yarn so true to life I am tempted to go on a hobo-like search for Sally Bowles and forget I have a real life with real responsibilities.

Of course, my attraction to Sally Bowles is deeply rooted in an admitted obsession with 1920s glamor, style and the characteristic "Vamp," of whom so much has been written. I know "The Berlin Stories" take place in 1930s Germany, just about the same time the Nazi machine is about to take power, yet my imagination still takes me back to the Jazz Age, and all the complexity that entails. Christopher and Sally become close after Sally's break up with a man who "betrays" her for a woman "more his type." The character of Sally Bowles, immortalized on the silver screen by Liza Minnelli in "Cabaret," is a new generation vamp, but lacking the social graces of her 1920s counterparts. She is crude, somewhat ignorant and rough in all the key edges. But what she lacks in graces she more than makes up in her ability to survive day after day, month after month, rolling along with relationships with men who see her as little more than a mid-level whore. Of course, the character of Sally in the book is miles away from the one Minnelli brought to life, but the realism, the palpable humanism of womanhood she presents is beyond characterization. When Sally pairs up with Christopher, they go out on adventures in this underworld setting. One of the first experiences together was that of coming across a gentleman whose habit with money fitted Sally's ambitions perfectly. Sally allows Christopher in on the action, actually asking him to not try too hard, lest they come across as gold-diggers. The carelessness of the aforementioned dandy, sugar-daddy (call him what you may) leads to promises of making Sally a big star, the greatest actress that ever lived. Yet, for all the talk, the plans do not materialize, and the day Sally and Christopher go to the hotel to meet with their beneficiary, they discovered him gone without notice. Instead of being entirely disappointed, Sally jokes with Christopher about how terrible they were as gold-diggers. Yet, this does not stop Sally from dreaming and weaving Christopher in her dreams of fame and glory: "We talked continually about wealth, fame, huge contracts for Sally, record-breaking sales for the novels I should one day write. 'I think,' said Sally, 'it must be marvelous to be a novelist. You're frightfully dreamy and unpractical and un-businesslike, and people imagine they can fairly swindle you as much as they want--and then you sit down and write a book about them which fairly shows them what swine they all are, and it's the most terrific success and you make pots of money." Personally, this passage exemplifies situations I have been with, and it is the reason why it's the only underlined passage I've scratch on the book. Yet, Christopher realizes that as long as he doesn't write the novels, all they do is talk. Action is needed, but the complications of exile life take its toll on both of them, and dreams are not fulfilled.

I am in the last straight away part of the book, nearly 100 pages from the end. As I said earlier, could we ever have a narrative that never ends? Could we allow the supreme authors of our day to live forever (John Updike, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, etc.)? All good things must come to an end... and so will this wonderful book.

I have little idea of what I am going to be reading next. Lately, I have been devoting more time to writing than reading (and teaching four upper level college classes is also taking a chunk of my time to do either). I am divided but I must get on with it... October and November will be busy reading times for me. In October, Isherwood's diaries (Vol.2) comes out and then the month after that Paul Auster's new novel, "Sunset Park."

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

In Praise of Jonathan Franzen (and the Valiant Vanguard of Literary Fiction)

Yes, he is the one that landed a powerful right hook to Oprah's jaw and lived to tell about it. Time Magazine calls him "The Great American Novelist." Mr. Franzen's books are engaging and ambitious beyond anything else in pop culture. I have to admit purchasing "The Corrections" a few years back, second hand, and still have not read it. I have, however, read his non-fiction ("How to Be Alone" and "The Discomfort Zone") and find it to be among the top among contemporary writers. What really gets lost in all of this praise is the fact that Mr. Franzen, almost single-handedly, is keeping literary fiction in the forefront of American mainstream media. Yes, he's made up with Oprah, luckily for all of us in her last season as a literary taste indicator and book mogul. Literary fiction--for the lack of a better definition--is that fiction that doesn't sell, is not consistently at the top of the NYT bestselling list, and does not create a super star novelist like John Grisham, or Dan Brown. What literary fiction will do for you, however, is help you find universal themes that apply to a plurality of issues in your personal life. Yes, it doesn't sell (and I really commend Time Magazine for describing Mr. Franzen's work the way they did on their cover) but literary fiction speaks to all of us, not just readers of mysteries or techno thrillers, or religious detectivesque pseudo-epics. It's as a simple as this: if you want to read books that knock your socks off again and again but you don't want to go back to the Classics because they caused permanent damage to you in high school, here's a short list of contemporary writers that do not negotiate their genre.

1--The Great White Jewish One: PAUL AUSTER

2--Haruki Murakami

3--The Late David Foster Wallace

4--Joyce Carol Oates

5--The Late (I canonized him with the Nobel Prize for Literature because I couldn't find anyone more deserving in the last 20 years than him, yet he never even make the short list)....
John Updike

6--Nicholson Baker

7--Thomas Pynchon

And of course, Mr. Jonathan Franzen. God bless you, Mr. Franzen, wherever you may be or go, for sweating out your new masterpiece "Freedom" at a time when the meaning of the title is not lost to all of us who commune with literary fiction.

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