Showing posts with label Blake Bailey. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blake Bailey. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Goodbye, Philip Roth

I feel as if I have lost a good friend, similar to the way I felt when John Updike died now more than nine years ago.  I grieved then and I grieve now.  These are the two towering writers of my lifetime and no one, for me at least, will even begin to approach them.  They were not only the most prolific writers of our era, but were the most perceptive observers of our cultural scene, now turning into a cultural wasteland.   And they spoke personally to me in ways other writers often have as well, but never with such fecundity.

Roth was ten years older than I am (and Updike was about the same number of years older than I was when he died), a coincidence which does not fail to strike a looming chord in me.  I’ve read everything by Updike and most by Roth, noting a couple of his novels still on my “to read” shelf. 

One of my earliest entries in this blog cited the importance of both Updike and Roth to me.  Here’s just a part of what I said about Roth, still relevant today:

Where Updike awakens the Calvinist background of my early years and the suburban existence of my later life, Roth explores the “Jewishness” of my New York City years. I’ve long felt his American Pastoral is one of the great novels of the 20th century,

The novel made me relive those Vietnam years of the 60’s and the social upheavals of the times. It is a novel in the negative universe of Updike’s Rabbit, in that the main character is also a former high school star athlete, but from the inner city, one who in his attempt to create the “perfect life” of the American dream, an American pastoral, finds his daughter caught up in Weather Underground violence as he also helplessly witnesses the destruction of his once beloved inner-city Newark in the 1970s. An American Dream turned American Nightmare, capturing exactly the way I felt at the time.

Several years ago Roth declared that he would not be writing any more fiction; believing that he had given all he had (and he did), recognizing that his creative and physical powers were declining.  Consequently I decided to reread his first major work, Goodbye, Columbus . It had been “merely” 50 years since I first read it.  This is some of what I said after the second reading:

It was a very different experience reading the book as a septuagenarian.  I see Roth as a young colt writing this novella, exploring themes that would develop over the next fifty plus years, with clear signs of the literary thoroughbred he would become.  Certainly the work foreshadows my favorite Roth work, American Pastoral.  Nonetheless, it was somewhat painful reading his youthful work, bringing up issues of my own formative years that were submerged long ago, ones I was hardly conscious of when I first read the book, crazy families’ impact on their children, the first real romantic love, and youth’s obliviousness that old age would one day arrive.  And true to Roth, it is a very funny work as well.

The title symbolizes the soon-to-be-lost youth of Brenda's brother, as he is about to be married (like me, at an early age), but still a boy, dreaming of his basketball days at Ohio State, listening to an old radio broadcast of the big game which begins: "The place, the banks of the Oentangy."  My friend Bruce and I spent part of the summer at Ohio State University in Columbus as representatives to the National Student Association from our university.  It was a different world from New York, indeed, but we, like the youth of Roth’s first major work, were ready to be swept along into the stream of life as if it was endless.

Coincidentally that same entry covers another book I read at the same time, Tom Wolfe’s journalistic masterpiece, The Right Stuff.  I had read most of Wolfe’s fiction.  We mourned the death of Tom Wolfe only a week before Roth’s.

A few years after Roth decided to stop writing fiction he gave an interview, one of his few in his later years, where he commented on that decision:  It is now truly a great relief, something close to a sublime experience, to have nothing more to worry about than death. 

Indeed, the few slender novels he produced towards the end of his writing life are ruminations about death.  They are hard to read and yet mesmerizing, a phase of life for which we are all preparing. I quoted parts of that interview in this entry. Now a great voice has been silenced, but what he had to say will live into the future of American fiction and thought.

There is another coincidence to his death yesterday.  The day before my wife, Ann, met someone who revealed he was a childhood friend of Philip Roth.  How the conversation turned to Philip Roth was preternatural.  She told him how much I (and she) admire Roth.  He suggested we talk and provided his email contact.  I wrote him a long, chatty email suggesting we meet, maybe over lunch, as I’d love to hear about him as he was then.  That was yesterday, the day Roth died.  I grieve for his childhood friend and for us all.  There will never be another like him.

Fortunately Blake Bailey who wrote two superb literary biographies, one on John Cheever and the other on Richard Yates, has been working with Philip Roth on his life's story, with unfettered access to Roth’s papers, friends, and relatives.  This authorized biography will be the final chapter of a remarkable literary life.

Post Script:
Among the tributes published in the New York Times on Roth was one which quoted a paragraph from American Pastoral.  I remember reading this exact paragraph out loud to my wife when I first read it.  Great literature captures universality.  My father was not Jewish but this could mostly apply to him, as it could to almost anyone “for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between” and whose “most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything.”  Here’s what Roth wrote:
Mr. Levov was one of those slum-reared Jewish fathers whose rough-hewn, undereducated perspective goaded a whole generation of striving, college-educated Jewish sons: a father for whom everything is an unshakable duty, for whom there is a right way and a wrong way and nothing in between, a father whose compound of ambitions, biases and beliefs is so unruffled by careful thinking that he isn’t as easy to escape from as he seems. Limited men with limitless energy; men quick to be friendly and quick to be fed up; men for whom the most serious thing in life is to keep going despite everything. And we were their sons. It was our job to love them.

And as readers it is our job to love Philip Roth and remember him always.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Oh What A Paradise It Could Be

I can't put Oh What A Paradise It Seems back onto our bookshelf, for a second time in my life, without saying something about it, what John Cheever has meant to me, and the catalyst the monumental biography by Blake Bailey, Cheever: A Life, has played in this mix.

It is unusual for us to have two copies of the same book and only one such title resides alongside our two different bedsides, here at our home in Florida and on our boat in Connecticut, The Stories of John Cheever.  Before I retired, I used to carry it on any business trip that involved an airport or a hotel.  It was my "get out of jail free" card. In case of any delay, that book was my reclamation, picking out a short story that was ideal to fill in the time, and as I had read them all before, nonetheless always finding some new meaning or just again enjoying Cheever's charmed lyricism.  Cheever was the master short story writer and that is his genre.  His novels, although a pleasure to read, never seemed to measure up to the "reread test." Until recently.

I had read his last novel Oh What A Paradise It Seems when it was first published in the early 1980s.  At the time I was a forty years old.  I hadn't known of Cheever's illness then but probably thought of him as "old man" and the work seemed to me at the time to be disoriented and sad.  But Bailey's biography led me to reread the work and today, from the prospective being not only an older man myself, even older than Cheever when he died, it seems prophetic and profound.  It is a poignant work, clearly written by a man who knew he was dying and knew he would write little afterwards.  And writing to Cheever was like breathing.

I feel Cheever's pain rereading the work, even his personal pain of being so conflicted over his bisexuality, and his failing sexual powers, and the macro-pain of his knowing he was leaving a planet that at times was such a paradise, but one which also seemed to be slouching towards a hellish environmental ruin.

The story is less important to me than the feeling it leaves me with -- almost one of regret.  It is sad to bear witness, as does Cheever in the novel, to an overpopulated, hyperkinetic, media-obsessed society, seemingly hell-bent on environmental self destruction.  This is a far cry from the suburbia normally associated with Cheever's work.  Yet there is always hope and Cheever leaves us with that sense.

Cheever's favorite image, that of rain, begins the novel...

"This is a story to be read in bed in an old house on a rainy night."
The protagonist, Lemuel Sears is skating on the pond in his old village, where his daughter now lives.  (Cheever was separated from his place of boyhood for most of his life, the Quincy, MA area, and he was returned there to be buried.)  The setting of the mythical "sleepy village" of Janice of the novel must be very similar to where he was born. This beautiful passage denotes his "homecoming:" "Swinging down a long stretch of black ice gave Sears a sense of homecoming.  at long last, at the end of a cold, long journey, he was returning to a place where his name was known and loved and lamps burned in the rooms and fires of the hearth.  It seemed to Sears that all the skaters moved over the ice with the happy conviction that they were on their way home. Home might be an empty room and an empty bed to many of them, including Sears, but swinging over the black ice convinced Sears that he was on his way home. Someone more skeptical might point out that this illuminated how ephemeral is our illusion of homecoming."

But the characters seem lost, homeless, nomads in the modern world.  Harold Chisholm is one such character:

"Nothing waited for him in his apartment. There was no woman, no man, no dog, no cat, and his answering tape would likely be empty and the neighborhood where he lived had become so anonymous and transient that there were no waiters or shopkeepers or bartenders who would greet him. He turned on the radio but all the music he seemed able to get was disco music, and disco music from those discos that had been closed the year before the year before last for drug pushing or nonpayment of income tax. He seemed to be searching for the memory of some place, some evidence of the fact that he had once been able to put himself into a supremely creative touch with his world and his kind. He longed for this as if it were some country which he had been forced to leave."

And in its 100 short pages we circle back to water and its primordial symbolism to Cheever:

"Now and then the voice of the brook was louder than Chisholm's voice. A trout stream in a forest, a traverse of potable water, seemed for Sears to be the bridge that spans the mysterious abyss between our spiritual and our carnal selves. How contemptible this made his panic about his own contamination. When he was young, brooks had seemed to speak to him in the tongues of men and angels. Now that he was an old man who spoke five or six languages-all of them poorly-the sound of water seemed to be the language of his nativity, some tongue he had spoken before his birth. Soft and loud, high and low, the sound of water reminded him of eavesdropping in some other room than where the party was."

Cheever died only a few short months after its publication.  Yet, his love of life always shines through as in the lyricism of one of the concluding paragraphs:

"The sky was clear that morning and there might still have been stars although he saw none.  The thought of stars contributed to the power of his feeling, What moved him was a sense of those worlds around us, our knowledge however imperfect of their nature, our sense of their possessing some grain of our past and of our lives to come, It was that most powerful sense of our being alive on the planet. It was that most powerful sense of how singular, in the vastness of creation, is the richness of our opportunity. The sense of that hour was of an exquisite privilege, the great benefice of living here and renewing ourselves with love, What a paradise it seemed!"

I would like to remember Cheever for the beauty he captured in his writings, and as opening day approaches -- with the impending cry of "play ball!" -- I will revisit his short story, "National Pastime," of which I am fortunate enough to have a limited edition, signed by Cheever, something to be cherished. It tells a story, in a small way similar to my boyhood -- when I pursued baseball without much help of my own father who was either bogged down by his troubled marriage or by his photography business.  As Cheever puts it, "the feeling that I could not assume my responsibilities as a baseball player without some help from him was deep, as if parental love and baseball were both national pastimes."

Friday, December 28, 2012

Went to a Garden Party

Ann and I celebrated my 70th birthday on a cruise with our two sons, Chris and Jon, the first time we've been together for such an extended period since they were kids.  But families find a way of settling into a familiar groove, wondering what the years have really done to us all (as a family) other than just growing older.  In this regard I quote Robert Mazzocco's poignant poem about families.  In many ways it describes my relationship with my parents more than our sons' relationship with us, but the echoes of the poem reverberate through generations, indeed, "dynasties" in their own way...


 Family voices: you still can hear them,
 ever so dimly, there in your own voice:
 your father’s voice, even your mother’s voice.

 The older we get,
 the more you’ll hear them,
 though no one else does.

 Just as you still can see them, all over
 your body, though, of course, no one else must:
 family scars and family kisses.

Copyright © by Robert Mazzocco

This was brought home even more vividly by my reading during this time, particularly the two literary biographies, Hemingway's Boat, and Cheever, A Life.  More on them later.

The trip itself was a Caribbean cruise.  Ann and I have been on many before, but not with both our boys. This particular one was on Royal Caribbean's 'Vision of the Seas', an older ship, a little tired, but nicely laid out and with the bonus of a relatively quiet solarium, adults only, where I could alternatively read, and swim in their salt water pool, while Jon and Ann engaged in a battle of Scrabble and Chris worked on his laptop (new job, one he loves). The other bonus was having a balcony from which we could watch port arrivals and departures, and where I could while away more reading time, listening to the seas breaking against the hull.  Early mornings I would get up to the fitness center to compete for space on one of the treadmills and stationary bikes, endeavoring to offset some of the food intake.  The cuisine happened to be good, better than we expected for such a cruise.  The trick was to avoid the bread and minimize the desserts.

But the best feature of the cruise itself was the itinerary, two days at sea and then a new port every five days, St. Croix, St. Maarten, Dominica, Antigua, and St. Kitts.  We had been to all before, except Dominica.

So we set out for the Ft. Lauderdale Port Everglades Pier in high spirits co-mingled with a bit of apprehension about celebrating my 70th birthday this way, only to arrive on the ship with the shocking news of the Newtown, CT tragedy that morning.  Such heartbreak to begin our 10 day holiday.  And it hit so close to our previous home in Weston, a familiar territory as we lived only about a dozen miles from Newtown for 25 years, knew people there, particularly employees of my publishing company.  But no matter where this insane act might have taken place, it just underscored the abysmal record we have as a nation, a popular culture that is consumed by violence -- just look at the best-selling video games and some of the compost concocted by Hollywood -- and the Eleventh Commandment (in the form of the 2nd Amendment) -- promoted by the NRA and the like.  Hey, I want to carry a Bazooka, it's my right!  How many of these disasters do we have to live through before banning military style weaponry?  I have no pollyanna notion that this solves the problem, as no doubt the most violent criminal elements will find anything they want, but over time it will make it more difficult for the casual crazy to get his hands on such a weapon.  The absurdity of arming guards in schools to ward off those with arms might be a short term deterrent, but not a solution, although the gun makers might be delighted --  let's have a shoot out at the O.K. Corral Public School!

Colorado had reiterated the right to bear arms in public places.  That got them the movie theater shooting.

Thus, it was on such a down note that we sailed out of Ft. Lauderdale.  Twenty four hours later, on my actual birthday, we were now attempting to move into full cruise mode and try to temporarily leave the world's troubles behind for a few days. After dinner and a celebratory birthday cake, too sinful for words, we decided to attend that evening's entertainment.  What an ironic twist that on this night, my actual 70th birthday, the show in the ship's Masquerade Theater, was "Ricky Nelson Remembered"

performed by Ricky's twin sons, Gunnar and Matthew Nelson.

How appropriate, one of my boyhood idols, being honored by his two sons, on my birthday with my two sons, pictured here on the ship:

and here when Chris had his 16th birthday:

I asked them whether they had ever heard of the Ozzie and Harriet Show (of course not) and I tried to explain something about that early TV feel-good sitcom -- covering a real family -- and the rise of the youngest son, Ricky, to become the first TV-made rock star.  I was a teenager at the time, going through my "Elvis" stage, although the rockabilly songs of Carl Perkins and  Gene Vincent appealed to me more.  Ricky's songs were cut more from that mold and so he was put on my hit list for some precious 45's which I played in my attic bedroom to drown out my parents.  I entitled this blog entry "Garden Party" as it is a song that resonates more for me in retirement than when he sang it for the simple reason that "you see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself," one of the main reasons I write this blog.

After two days at sea, we arrived at our first port, St. Croix, an island we vacationed on 36 years ago when Jonathan was only 3 months old.  This is not the kind of island one wants to visit on a cruise ship for one day, and I suppose the same could be said for the other islands on the itinerary other than Dominica, it's capital, Roseau, being right at the dock (which only accommodates one ship, thankfully, and is very walkable.

In Dominica our mission was to get away from the ubiquitous shops that populate the immediate area where the ships dock at every island (in fact, in some places, that's all you can walk to) and as soon as we emerged from that area it was a different world.  Although mostly impoverished as are so many of the islands and although we walked through some very rundown areas, the people were extremely friendly.   

It is an island I would like to spend some more time on, nicknamed the "Nature Isle of the Caribbean" for its pristine beauty   

Our immediate goal was to find the island's Botanical Gardens, which we did and enjoyed the tropical flora and fauna, particularly the Spiny Bamboo House which rises cathedral like.  The tenacity of how things grow in the tropics was underscored by an African baobab tree that was felled by Hurricane David in 1979 on top of a school bus and today,  crushed bus and tree branch are still there for all to marvel over, and have been left untouched with the tree still stubbornly alive and well.

Returning to the ship we walked many side roads with various local scenes.

The boys went on while Ann and I lingered on the grounds of the pretty public library finding, eureka!, free Wi-Fi there.  Armed with our iPhones we caught up on some email, me in a few minutes, Ann (with many more friends than I) more than a few minutes.  Meanwhile, I decided to explore the inside of the library.  After all, my publishing company focused on the library market, but mostly the university level, but it's always fun to visit a library in another land, in this case a remote Caribbean island with just a few rooms of books. 

Inside, every shelf was populated by well arranged books, but, more importantly, nearly every chair was occupied by a reader. This is a library that still focuses on the printed word, not electronic delivery.  I began to peruse the reference shelves curious whether they included any of the books I published.  To my delight one of the first titles my eyes fell on was our edition of Tom Inge's 2 Volume, Handbook of American Popular Culture and even more satisfying after examining the copies was to see they've been heavily used over the years. This was sort of the full circle for me as I remember proposing the reference book program that was aimed at public libraries in the mid 1970s and in fact, this Handbook had been on the list of specific titles to be developed and it was published in 1978.  There I was on the island of Dominica 34 years later holding in my hand the result of that idea and having the satisfaction that it had been used so many times by the good people of the island.

Ironically, in today's Internet world, such a Handbook would be unpublishable, except electronically, and maybe the search engines would even obviate that. 

Back on the ship, we continued over the next couple of days to the remaining ports, Antigua and St. Kitts, which Ann and I had visited before but, for our son, Jonathan, they represented the 100th and 101st country in his itinerant life, intent on seeing all countries in the world by the time he's my age.  I believe he'll do it.

As I've written many times before, the best part of cruising (for me) is the time I have to read (why is being home more time consuming than traveling?).  And what struck me from my reading as I was traveling with my family?  Each family has its unique story.  This cruise I devoured Hemingway's Boat by Paul Hendrickson, and I'm about 2/3 of the way through Cheever, A Life, by Blake Bailey who I think is emerging as the preeminent literary biographer.  He brought Yates to life, and now Cheever.

Amazing to read about Hemingway and Cheever, so different in their writing and how they approached life and, yet again, such dysfunctional family lives (not as bad as Yates who led a depressed life in addition to being a drunk like Cheever)  And for me amazing, the crisscrossing of aspects of their lives and mine, not that I'm a literary anything, but places and cultural commonalities galore.

The focus of Hendrikson's biography is indeed Hemingway's boat, a 1934 38 foot Wheeler, made in my old stomping grounds of Brooklyn, NY, named "Pilar' of Key West.  It had a 75 HP Chrysler reduction gear engine and a 40 HP Lycoming straight drive for trolling.  He could run the boat at 16 knots with both engines (although that was rare).  Ironically, the dimensions of his boat are about the same as mine.  The 'Swept Away' is also 38 feet, holds about the same amount of fuel (330 gallons vs. 'Pilar's 300 gallons) and the same amount of fresh water, 100 gallons.

But of course "Hem" fished the boat and fished it hard, off of Cuba and Bimini in the Bahamas.  The entire biography circles around the boat, the manufacturer, and the mates who ran the boat.  It is more about his life and times than his writing.

The Cheever biography is as much about his writing as the man itself.  His life was one of self doubt, always seeking approbation, unsure of his sexuality, and like Yates, one that gradually became consumed by alcoholism.  During WW II he was in the infantry and was a week from being shipped off to Europe when he landed an assignment with the Signal Corps writing documentary films, ironically the same branch of the service as my father and Cheever's "office" was in Astoria, Queens, the same place my father's business landed before it was forced to close its doors.  Most men from Cheever's unit were shipped off a week later and died on Utah beach, the same destiny that would have befallen him. Lucky for him and us or we would not have most of the short stories (and all of the novels) from one of most important writers.

Cheever is closely identified with the New Yorker school of writing as was his younger contemporary (and rival) John Updike, probably the most important American writer of the late 20th century along with Philip Roth.  Updike and Cheever while respecting one another, kept an eye out for the other as well, particularly Cheever who felt inferior in many ways to Updike, particularly because of his younger colleague's Harvard education (Cheever went to the school of hard knocks as did Richard Yates).  While the careers of Cheever and Updike were constantly crisscrossing, Yates was an outsider, never achieving the distinction of a New Yorker published short story. 

Between the two biographies, I read another novel by Louis Begley who is beginning to impress me as the next great American writer, but at the age of 79, he might not have enough time to establish an even greater reputation since switching his profession from the law to creative writing.  After the Schmidt trilogy, I wanted to know more about the man, and chose his very autobiographical Matters of Honor in which his persona is occupied by two characters, Henry White, a Polish-Jewish refugee who was hidden as a child during World War II, with his mother and father, and therefore survived, who becomes an international attorney, and Sam Standish, the narrator, who becomes an author.  Of course, Begley is both people and it is interesting how he orchestrates many characters in the novel in this coming of age story, from Henry and Sam being Harvard roommates in the 1950s and then their rise to the pinnacle of their careers later in life.  Begley's struggle with anti-Semitism and the meaning of friendship constantly surfaces.  This is the work of a mature novelist in every way.

So I shared my 70th birthday with my family and some of my favorite authors.  My Garden Party was swell.