Wednesday, December 17, 2014

It’s Love – It’s Christmas

We’ve all heard just about every Christmas carol or song ever written, but here’s a rarely performed one composed by the great jazz pianist Bill Evans.  It’s quite beautiful and in the Evans’ mode.  What makes it particularly unusual for Evans – aside from the lightness of the piece – is he wrote the lyrics for it, something he rarely did.  He once said “I never listen to lyrics.  I’m seldom conscious of them at all.  The vocalist might as well be a horn as far as I’m concerned.”  But I guess it was the spirit of the season which led him to write lyrics for his own Christmas song.

It’s Love – It’s Christmas
Dancing to the music low,
The world covered white with snow;
A kiss……..
That won’t let go.
It’s love, it’s Christmas.
Jack Frost
Painting window panes,
A sleigh, Santa at the reins;
A fire, candy canes,
It’s love, it’s Christmas.
Lovers watching a star,
Their dreams so near yet so far;
It’s love, the spirit of Christmas.
© 1991 Ludlow Music, Inc.

Although the reflection on the piano might belie a Floridian presence of Jack Frost, I offer my own recording of Evans' lighthearted Christmas piece, and as we’re taking time off for the holiday, a happy and healthy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Stoner Redux

Recently Mary sent me a New Yorker article by Tim Kreider, The Greatest American Novel You've Never Heard Of  (published last October) as a wake-up call to read John Williams’ Stoner. 

The book had been rediscovered abroad, and brought back into print by the New York Review of Books.  One of my favorite UK novelists, Ian McEwan, has championed the book across the pond when interviewed for an article; Literature needs more Lazarus miracles like Stoner

It was republished with an insightful essay by John McGahern who, sadly, died at about the time of this paperback edition was published (2006).  The author of Stoner, John Williams, died in 1994, never to see his greatest work become critically acclaimed.

When Mary sent me the New Yorker link, I immediately ordered the book, although I was continuing to read William Trevor’s short stories, so many of them and so delightful, that it will be on my reading plate for some time to come.  So the intention was to put Stoner in my reading queue which is building, and building.  But when the novel arrived, the New Yorker article kept reverberating, and I was fascinated by the cover of the paperback (apparently you CAN tell a good book by its cover!) and I found myself putting it at the top of the queue and, ultimately, interrupting reading the Trevor collection.

One of the points made in the New Yorker article is somewhat inexplicable to me: Despite its pellucid prose, “Stoner” isn’t an easy book to read—not because it’s dense or abstruse but because it’s so painful. I had to stop reading it for a year or two, near the middle of the book….  Yes, it is painful at times, but much of Dickens and Hardy can be painful too but still compulsively readable.   How anyone could put this compelling novel aside is bewildering.  The author of Stoner articulated the very reasons I “fell in love” with the protagonist.  John Williams was once interviewed and said:

I think he's a real hero. A lot of people who have read the novel think that Stoner had such a sad and bad life. I think he had a very good life. He had a better life than most people do, certainly. He was doing what he wanted to do, he had some feeling for what he was doing, he had some sense of the importance of the job he was doing. He was a witness to values that are important ... The important thing in the novel to me is Stoner's sense of a job.  Teaching to him is a job-a job in the good and honorable sense of the word. His job gave him a particular kind of identity and made him what he was ... It's the love of the thing that's essential. And if you love something, you're going to understand it. And if you understand it, you're going to learn a lot. The lack of that love defines a bad teacher ... You never know all the results of what you do. I think it all boils down to what I was trying to get at in Stoner. You've got to keep the faith. The important thing is to keep the tradition going, because the tradition is civilization.

The essence of the story is about a man who grew up working with his parents on their farm.  The time is before the onset of WW I.  He knew nothing else but scratching out life from the fields, his worn hands those of a laborer.  It was hard work and there were diminishing returns from the land so when his father heard about the state college having a program to study Agriculture, so he sent his only son there, with the hope he would emerge with new techniques which would lessen their burdened lives. But William Stoner would never return to his former life, becoming instead a teacher of English. 

Here the exterior story and the inner story run parallel but at odds with one another.  His life is besieged by an unhappy marriage, isolation from his wife Edith and daughter Grace, and plagued by an enemy in his English Dept, its Chairman, Lomax (as evil a character towards Stoner as Claggart was to Melville’s Billy Budd), and by Lomax’s favorite student, Walker, who Stoner thinks unworthy of becoming a teacher.   He argues this with his one friend, the Dean, Gordon Finch, “it would be a disaster to let him [Walker] in a classroom…..if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as….the only hope is to keep him out.”  But Finch is also now part of the real world and he has become increasingly removed from Stoner.  Then finally the real love of his life materializes, Katherine, a student, but ultimately it is to be a love denied.  Meanwhile his inner life is blossoming, finding in literature a certain kind of perfect harmony and tranquility. 

Both the New Yorker article and the Introduction to the NYRB edition quote the same nearly opening lines as I bracketed in pencil in the book.  It sets the tone and the themes like a piece of sculpture captures the essence of its subject.  It foreshadows the very end at the beginning, unusual for opening lines: An occasional student who comes across the name may wonder idly who William Stoner was, but he seldom pursues his curiosity beyond a casual question. Stoner’s colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers.

His discovery of the love of learning and literature comes at the end of his college years (he thought of the years before, the distant years with his parents on the farm, and of the deadness from which he had been miraculously revived). And he comes to his profession almost by accident, his mentor, Professor Sloane saying “but don’t you know, Mr. Stoner?...Don’t you understand about yourself yet?  You’re going to be a teacher.” Suddenly Sloan seemed very distant, and the walls of the office receded.  Stoner felt himself suspended in the wide air, and he heard his voice ask, “Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Sloane said softly.
“How can you tell? How can you be sure?”
“It’s love, Mr. Stoner,” Sloane said cheerfully. “You are in love.  It’s as simple as that.”

The joys of learning, teaching, moving forward in intellectual endeavors, counter balance worldly affairs.  The University is a refuge from life itself.  And then he finally discovers he is indeed a teacher: The love of literature, of language, of the mystery of the mind and heart showing themselves in the minute, strange, and unexpected combinations of letters and words, in the blackest and coldest print - the love which he had hidden as if it were illicit and dangerous, he began to display, tentatively at first, and then boldly, and then proudly…..He felt himself at last beginning to be a teacher, which was simply a man to whom his book is true, to whom is given a dignity of art that has little to do with his foolishness or weakness or inadequacy as a man. It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.         

However, his personal life is not what he imagined it would be.  Edith, his wife, is reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda (and as the New Yorker article astutely observes, you could almost describe [Stoner] as an anti-“Gatsby”).  Edith is unstable, almost child-like, and like Zelda ultimately tries to find some self identity in the arts.  They are totally estranged from each other, although living under the same roof. As one would imagine, their daughter, Grace, is impacted by this, ultimately getting pregnant to escape their home, moving to St. Louis, her husband (who she marries after she finds she’s pregnant) dying in WW II  (in fact, the novel bridges WW I and WW II).  She remains more or less in a trance, answering most questions Stoner asks with “it doesn’t matter,” over and over again, perhaps homage to Melville’s Bartelby similarly saying “I prefer not to.”  She becomes an alcoholic.

The absolutely exquisite, compact writing is what makes this novel great.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, where we come from and where we go during this brief encounter with life resonates in the pages.  Shadows, light, darkness, death, and nature figure prominently in the narrative, particularly the farmers’ fields Stoner comes from. Here he is burying his father:  They buried his father in a small plot on the outskirts of Booneville, and William returned to the farm with his mother.  That night he could not sleep. He dressed and walked into the field that his father had worked year after year, to the end that he now had found. He tried to remember his father, but the face that he had known in his youth would not come to him. He knelt in the field and took a dry clod of earth in his hand. He broke it and watched the grains, dark in the moonlight, crumble and flow through his fingers. He brushed his hand on his trouser leg and got up and went back to the house. He did not sleep; he lay on the bed and looked out the single window until the dawn came, until there were no shadows upon the land, until it stretched gray and barren and infinite before him.

After his mother dies, he lays her beside his father, and probably this is where the novel’s prose is bleakest, but rings so true. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbed.  Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives, and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them.  Slowly the damp and rot would infest the pine boxes which held their bodies, and slowly it would touch their flesh, and finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances.  And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.

But counterbalancing the dark aspects of life pushing Stoner along (sometimes the reader wondering whether he is a participant in his choices), is Stoner’s euphoric discovery that his choices are one of the mind, not in day to day living:  But choices is what excited him in his work, such as when he was planning his own book, an esoteric study of the English Renaissance.  He was in the stage of his planning his study, and it was that stage which gave him the most pleasure – the selection among alternative approaches, the rejection of certain strategies, the mysteries and uncertainties that lay in unexplored possibilities, the consequences of choice….The possibilities he could see so exhilarated him that he could not keep still.

And it is his love of his work, in spite of the slings and arrows dealt by his exterior life, which grows and grows in the novel.  He stands up for academic integrity, at a great cost to himself, but on his death bed has his doubts about the meaning of it all: He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance.  And what else? he thought. What else?

It is a remarkable novel, doubly remarkable that it went unnoticed for so long.  As the New Yorker article points out, so was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates.  The latter I discovered for myself (and reprinted when it was long out of print). 

 John Williams' Stoner can easily stand besides Yates’ work as one of the more important American novels of the 20th century.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Family Scars Emerge in My Old Lady at Dramaworks

I had thought that the Plantagenet family from last year’s Dramaworks’ production of Lion in Winter took the prize as the quintessential dysfunctional family.  Move over, My Old Lady has come to town with two adult children tormented by the past and Mommy (the Old Lady) and Daddy (the recently deceased Max) are to blame.  As the saying goes, you are only as sick as your secrets and it would take a Jacques Cousteau diving bell to plumb the depths of the ones in this play.  But this production comes with a bonus: it features the reigning royalty of theatre with six decades of experience on the stage, Estelle Parsons. 

My Old Lady is a very dark comedy, a slice of life that borders on Ibsenesque realism with some Woody Allen thrown in.  It certainly has all the elements of dramatic tension, but they are not slam dunk moments, and with much of the action (the secrets) having already taken place in the past it requires the actors to give their all to bring the play to life.  The entire first act consists of expository vignettes to set the stage for the more dramatic-packed second act.

Perhaps if all playwrights had an opportunity to constantly revisit their plays, they too would change elements as Israel Horovitz has done with the new Dramaworks production.  He’s close to the play having recently directed a film version which has led him to readdress aspects of the stage version as well (he perceives the Dramaworks’ version as being “slimmer and sleeker”).  Having never seen the play, neither when it opened in 2002, nor any subsequent productions, and having purposely stayed away from the film before seeing the Dramaworks production, it was tabula rasa for me.  However, earlier this year I saw Horovitz interviewed on the Dramaworks stage, an impressive, prolific playwright with an engaging personality.

The afternoon before the evening’s first preview performance, we attended Dramaworks’ version of lunch and learn where everyone was in attendance, the actors Estelle Parsons, Angelica Page and Tim Altmeyer, the director William Hayes, and the playwright himself, Israel Horovitz. The actors and the playwright have been involved with the Actors Studio for years, so there was a playful give and take in the lively discussion, with many anecdotes about them working together in the past.  Ms. Parsons said she wanted to do the play because it was set in another culture and that she was particularly drawn to the subject matter – “the terrible affect of duplicity and deception in marriage having an impact on the children” as she put it.

Horovitz is the most produced American playwright in France and he said that is a partial reason why he wanted to write a play set there-- as homage to the French for widely accepting his works. 

Estelle Parsons and Angelica Page have worked together three times before – each time Ms. Page playing her daughter (most recently in the touring production of August: Osage County) and Tim Altmeyer previously worked with Ms. Parsons in a Horton Foote play. 

William Hayes, the director (and Producing Artistic Director of Dramaworks) related that the version we were about to see had been changed (again) by Horovitz and will become the basis for a new printed edition of the play.

The play’s anti-hero Mathias Gold finds himself with a strange inheritance – his remote, unloving father, Max, has left most of his fortune to charity and, mysteriously (but perhaps for a good reason as we find out later) bequeathed to his only surviving son an apartment in Paris, one that is subject to the unique French “viager “contract, a detail of which Mathias is at first unaware 

Mathias believes the apartment will be the ticket to bail him out of a life of divorces and unpublished novels (three each!) and debt.  He plans to sell it at once but after making the trip to France spending his last remaining funds on his airline ticket and with only a knapsack of his worldly belongings, he finds out there are those strings attached: the previous owner, Mathilde Girard, who sold the apartment to Mathias’ father, has a life-long lease to occupy the apartment and, to make matters worse for Mathias, not only is he now penniless, with not even airfare back home, but he is responsible for the expenses of the apartment, and can’t sell it until Mathilde dies. Although 92 years old, she’s feisty enough to live another decade. 

Complicating the plot is Mathilde’s daughter Chloe, an unmarried and unhappy schoolteacher, who vehemently disagrees with her mother’s decision to allow Mathias to live in the apartment. (Mathilde has accepted Mathias’ gold watch, the only other bequest of his father except for a few French books as payment for his obligatory 2,400 Euro monthly obligation.)  Now, they’re all roommates! And you have all the elements to turn this play into a character study the cast and director can sink their teeth into.

Mathias is an existential mess, a man who has created his own life defining predicament, constantly railing at his father for crippling him.  He is certainly not “a force of nature” as Mathilde described his father.  And now he is mired in the lives of these two women, one an old bohemian and the other just another dependent still living with her mother.  Where are the adult people in this drama other than Mathilde?  Are they going to blame their parents (his father and her mother) for their misfortunes into perpetuity (or at least throughout the play)?  In that respect they have a lot in common and it makes the feisty old lady the real hero in the play, one who has lived life on her own terms, not her parents’ or society’s.

While the play is riveting at times, it can be tedious hearing the retrospective ranting of “the children.”  Furthermore, to pull off some kind of satisfactory denouement is difficult.  I know how the first draft of this play ended (very differently which would have left the audience in a black hole).  I have no idea about the other versions, but clearly Horovitz was reaching for a more positive conclusion, although to me it felt somewhat contrived. 

So perhaps in an imperfect play the acting becomes particularly important, with Estelle Parsons anchoring it steadfastly.  Her voice alone stands out, all knowing, and in spite of her 92 years (Ms. Parsons is actually in her late 80’s), she is sharp, intelligent, and will not allow “the children” to run fully amuck when she’s on stage.  She ambles with a cane from time to time back and forth on stage, but mostly settles in a chair, stage center, and she is indeed the center of the play, the “kids” whirling around her, satellites in her gravitas. 

Perhaps the most difficult role is Mathias’. He is on stage most of the time. How do you warm up to a loose cannon, a down on his luck, self pitying, sometimes pathetic, immature and self absorbed character with a penchant for the ultimate truth serum, booze. He’s drunk at least half the time on stage.  Even though he does indeed wear the scars of his childhood, some very horrific ones, there are times you want to reach out and smack him and say, get over yourself! 

Thankfully, we have an actor with the ability to deliver such a performance without totally alienating his audience, Tim Altmeyer.  He has to carry the load of discontent in the play, his body language expressing much of his unhappiness, flaying his arms, delivering such lines as “If you don’t laugh you cry – it’s a Jewish thing.”  And that is what makes Altmeyer’s fine performance; you either laugh with him or cry for him.  He is a loveable loser but as Mathilde so pointedly puts it in the first act, “How did you get to be 53 and have nothing to show for it?”

The equally difficult role of Chloe falls to Angelica Page.  Although on stage less than the other two actors, she has to express her more subliminal anger and this comes through her rigid demeanor and facial expressions.  Mathias and Chloe are birds of a feather but during the second act they find the enmity they originally felt towards one another was misplaced.  Let’s both blame the parents! 

Page carries her repressed anger to the point of sometimes delivering her lines in a way that the audience has difficulty hearing all the words.  In particular there is one brief monologue she utters mostly with her back to the audience upstage looking at the garden outside the apartment’s window.  “What did she say?” the audience was left wondering. However, I saw the first preview and many elements are still subject to change until the opening, so perhaps this staging has already been rectified.

Overall the production is what one has come to expect from Dramaworks, professional in every respect.  The set design by K. April Soroko, who is making her debut at the theatre company, creates the illusion that it goes beyond the room, a very substantive Parisian apartment, with the romantic feeling of the park in the background thanks to the lighting design by Ron Burns.  The sound design by Rick Szczublewski is an important element, providing a kind of French cafe music during interludes, adding to the flavor of the production.  Director Bill Hayes moves things along at a lively pace.

Not wanting to introduce any spoilers about the ending, I’ll instead paraphrase one of the concluding lines: “Life is just less terrible” (than the alternative).  And I found myself thinking of the great Sondheim song from Into the Woods, “Children Will Listen,” certainly the other message dominating the work. All in all, a must see play.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Trevor’s Little People

I’ve just begun to plow through William Trevor’s massive The Collected Stories, a treasure house of some eighty five short stories, all 1,250 pages of them.  One can appreciate why he has been called one of the greatest UK short story writers. They are masterful stories and although my preference for American literature had – until now -- overridden my desire to read Trevor, I knew Updike had a high regard for his work (and Trevor reciprocated his admiration for Updike’s).  It took the mention of a Trevor short story in an Ian McEwen novel, Sweet Tooth, to remind me that there is a world of literature out there I haven’t yet uncovered and as I’m trying to write some of my own short stories, I picked up this gem from one of Amazon’s partners for less than a buck plus shipping.  An incredible bargain, if you have the strength to hold book, especially when reading in bed, a habit I’ve developed in the quiet of the night.  But this 2 plus lb book requires support on a pillow on my stomach as I read in bed!  Sometimes, as much as I enjoy reading at that particular time, I find myself falling asleep with my glasses on, still holding the book on the pillow, my wife finally turning off the light, removing the book from my sleeping hands, marking the page, and removing my glasses. 

It’ll be some time before I’m “finished” with these stories (other than for reasons of occasionally falling asleep!).  First, they are to be savored and thought about.  It’s not a fast read, particularly for someone who is trying to better understand the short story craft and is taking notes here and there.  Some stories are best appreciated when reread as well. Furthermore, I have other things to read so I’ll put this down from time to time to get to those other works, novels generally.  And of course, there is life to attend to.  Reading is what is left over to do after a busy day.  Therefore, these early comments on what I’ve read thus far.

How do I possibly categorize these stories?  As Updike had his characters -- such as The Maples --- mostly modeled after friends and family, highly educated, upper middle class folk with an excessive libido, Trevor has his “little people,” people eking out a life in the UK after WW II, some of whom have allowed their fantasy lives to take over, living with illusions frequently to the very end of the story, ones of which they may not even be aware.  It leaves the reader with a sense of wonder, about human nature, about the miracle of day to day existence in general.  How do we all get by, burdened by the past or by expectations?  Trevor once defined the short story as ''an art of the glimpse,'' whose ''strength lies in what it leaves out.”  It’s the reader’s job to fill in the latter.

Many of the characters begin at one level of a story, exemplary folk in the reader’s mind, only to have life take them down a peg or two, then three, to the end of the story.   One such story, “The General’s Day,” concerns a retired General, well known in his town, who leaves his housekeeper during the day to explore the town, usually with fantasies of meeting a younger woman, or seeing friends (who assiduously avoid him), meanwhile suspecting his housekeeper of stealing from him or secretly imbibing his liquor.  And yet he goes off, and not everything goes as he’s imagined.  But there is the past to cling to, as do many of Trevor’s characters, along with their hopes.  Here’s just a piece of Trevor’s prose which makes this point:

The General walked on, his thoughts rambling.  He thought of the past; of specific days, of moments of shame or pride in his life.  The past was his hunting ground; from it came his pleasure and a good deal of everything else.  Yet he was not proof against the moment he lived in. The present could snarl at him; could drown his memories so completely that when they surfaced again they were like the burnt tips of matches floating on a puddle, finished and done with.  He walked through the summery day, puzzled that all this should be so.

Not wanting to give away spoilers, it’s hard to go on with this story gem.  Suffice it to say, the General’s day ends not as he hoped, but apparently as it always has, and the reader observes human nature stripped threadbare.  In fact, if anything characterizes Trevor’s stories, it is his unrelenting dissection of lives, bit by bit, getting to core truths, ones not evident at the beginning. 

Thus far my favorite story is “In at the Birth” but to try to analyze it or say anything about it is just to spoil another reader's enjoyment of the story.  But I will say it is constructed with such care that the outcome, surreal in many respects, is still in keeping with Trevor’s love of his “little people.”   Meanwhile, I still have scores of his stories to read and perhaps I’ll revisit Trevor in these “pages” sometime again in the future.  Must confess, the sheer bulk of the collection starts to make sense reading on a Kindle, something I have resisted, not because I am a Luddite, but I’ve been a book person all my life (personally and professionally).  

I remember commuting to my first publishing job in 1964 from Brooklyn to Manhattan on the BMT.  As any veteran “strap-holder” will know, it took a certain skill to hold on with one hand, and read a paperback book with the other, turning the pages with that one hand.  It’s a skill that is not applicable to this book!  Nonetheless, The Collected Stories of William Trevor is highly recommended if you like the genre.  

PS  Trevor is "revisited" in this entry