Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Trevor Revisited

My first entry on William Trevor was last December when I began to savor his huge The Collected Stories (1992), but that was a thousand pages ago.I’m still reading the book!  His stories require close reading, even a second reading, as there is the story itself and then the meaning along with all the underlying emotions.  There are also the settings and cultural references, typically UK and Irish or along the Amalfi coast or Tuscany, that often requires some additional research by me.  The further he strays from London and its environs which I’m familiar with to a degree, the more demanding the task becomes.  What did we do before Google?

However in the end, it’s almost unnecessary to understand all those references as Trevor primarily deals with universal truths mostly borne by the experiences of everyday people.  As John Updike noted in his 1981 review of one of Trevor’s collections, “Mr. Trevor knows, and dramatizes, two principal truths about low life: it never utterly lies down, but persists in asserting claims and values of its own derivation; and it cannot be fenced off and disowned by the fortunate.” 

Trevor’s1989 interview in The Paris Review is very revealing (one of his rare interviews).  I was particularly struck by Trevor’s answer to the following question by the Interviewer, Mira Stout, as it reveals the mind of the writer:


I read somewhere that you describe yourself as a melancholic; how does this manifest itself? Is it a state, a temperament through which you write?


I don’t ever recall referring to myself as a melancholic—I would rephrase that, with the chicken farming too. A melancholic chicken farmer suggests suicide to me. I don’t think you can write fiction unless you know something about happiness, melancholy—almost everything that human nature touches. I doubt that an overwhelmingly jolly, optimistic person has ever been an artist of any sort. You are made melancholy, more than anything, by the struggle you have with words—the struggle you have with trying to express what sometimes resists expression. It can be a melancholy business. As a fiction writer, every time you go out into the day you’ve also got to experience the bleakness of night. If I were purely a melancholic I don’t think I’d write at all. I don’t think writers can allow themselves the luxury of being depressives for long. Writers are far less interesting than everyone would have them. They have typewriters and will travel. They sit at desks in a clerklike way. What may or may not be interesting is what we write. The same applies to any artist; we are the tools and instruments of our talent. We are outsiders; we have no place in society because society is what we’re watching, and dealing with. Other people make their way in the world. They climb up ladders and get to the top. They know ambition, they seek power. I certainly don’t have any ambitions, nor am I in the least interested in power. I don’t think fiction writers tend to be. Certainly not as a civil servant may be, or an engineer. Fiction writers don’t want in the same way; their needs are different. Personally, I like not being noticed. I like to hang about the shadows of the world both as a writer and as a person; I dislike limelight, and the center of things is a place to watch rather than become involved in. I dwell upon it rather than in it; I wonder about what occurs there and record what I see because that seems to be my role. I get matters down onto paper and impose a pattern, and all of that is a fairly ordinary activity, or so it seems to be. If I could analyze all this, if I could really talk about it, I don’t think I’d be writing at all. It’s invading the gray-haired woman, the child, the elderly man, that keeps me going and delights me; but I don’t know how I do it. And I believe that mystery is essential. Again, if you now ask me why, I won’t be able to tell you.

The heart of the interview, where he refers to fiction writers as “outsiders,” ones who have no place in society because society is what we’re watching” and that he “hang[s] about the shadows of the world, that he “likes to dwell upon it rather than in it,” can be seen in each and every one of his short stories. 

Here are widows and widowers, miscreants and innocents, the travails of the elderly juxtaposed to the innocence of youth, the dilemmas of the middle aged and the divorced, so often lonely people trying to connect with someone who is inappropriate, and people from all economic stations of life. His characters are victims of their own actions, sometimes “imagining” (the number of times Trevor says, “he [or] she imagined” is countless) different outcomes and different realities.  There is a Pinteresque quality to many of the stories, showing humanity, some humor, and a hint of the absurd.

We identify with his characters, perhaps their taking the wrong fork in the road as we might be prone to do, and the consequences of their actions.  He spotlights that inherent loneliness we sometimes feel at social gatherings, or in our everyday relationships.  The mistakes of our lives add up but so do our little victories, our justifications of our actions making things seem alright. 

Sometimes I sense the shadow of Thomas Hardy reading Trevor, Hardy’s sense of realism, even suffering. And a few stories slightly reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe, not that Trevor delves into horror, but there is a mysterious quality to many of his stories and tension. I also suspect he is a “fan” of A.J. Cronin, a popular English storyteller of the 1930’s and 40’s, who wrote in a similar style.  He mentions A.J. Cronin in a couple of stories and even one of his characters is named “Cronin.” I read Cronin’s The Citadel in high school, a book I read for pleasure, and remarkably it held my attention (at the time I read mostly science fiction for my pleasure reading).  Perhaps Cronin merits a revisit.  

Trevor’s stories take place in boarding schools, social gatherings, the office, small towns, dance ballrooms, and hotels and pensiones making them central scenes for these mostly melancholy, moving tales to play out.  Here he can observe his characters while he moves them about like pieces on a chessboard, his detailed descriptions always precise.  Humiliation seems to run through his stories as a leitmotif.

Interestingly he seems to find women, not the men, the most interesting subjects simply because, as he’s said, "I write out of curiosity more than anything else. That's why I write about women, because I'm not a woman and I don't know what it's like. The excitement of it is to know more about something that I'm not and can't be."

In spite of the foibles of his characters, Trevor mostly manages to demand our empathy for them.  We’ve all known people such as Trevor describes or recognize ourselves, sharing similar emotions. On the other hand, there are also hints of misanthropy, a sense that to be human is to be imperfect, even a species to be deplored.  Always, his stories are memorable and haunting, people who are as real as your best friend.  They are unforgettable.

I’m tempted to write about some of the specific stories in this collection, as I began to do in my last entry on Trevor, but to do so, without revealing key turns in character and plot is next to impossible.  A short story is not like a novel; it’s about (as Trevor said), a “glimpse” and to describe the glimpse is to, well, ruin another reader’s enjoyment of the story.  Perhaps I’ll visit some specific stories (trying to avoid spoilers) in this blog when I reread my so called favorite ones (there are many)

Suffice it to say, here is a writer you can read again and again. His stories provoke introspection and reflection.  He is certainly in the class (or the head of it) of the other great contemporary short story writers, Cheever, Updike, Carver, and Munro (and perhaps T.C. Boyle in that mix, the next contemporary short story writer on my list).  I’ve written a lot about writing in this blog, and my enjoyment of many great contemporary novelists and short story writers, but I can say that never have I been so profoundly moved and amazed by one short story collection, The Collected Works, by William Trevor (Penguin Books, 1992

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Hagelstein Bros., “Photographers of the Fine Arts and Manufacturers”

After coming across what I thought was the one and only extant catalogue Hagelstein Brothers ever issued, another one materialized thanks to a bookseller in Vancouver, WA., the very knowledgeable Kol Shaver of Zephyr Used & Rare Books. 

This one is an earlier catalogue --issued circa 1925.   No doubt it was assembled by my grandfather and amazing that ninety years later it wound up in his grandson's possession.  I was acutely aware of family hands across time while unwrapping the package after I had ordered the catalogue.  Could he have imagined something like the Internet which makes these connections possible? 

Clearly, the firm had left its portrait photography behind, soon after departing its original studio at 142 Bowery and moved to 100 Fifth Avenue in approximately 1915, where it was to remain until the early 1980s at which time its penthouse location became prohibitively expensive.  It was then my father and uncle moved the entire operation to Long Island City and to oversee the company’s demise only a few years later.

Would my father, grandfather, or great-grandfather recognize those buildings today, with 142 Bowery and 100 Fifth Avenue becoming gentrified?  At least the 20 story 100 Fifth Avenue, built in 1906, is still recognizable, although repurposed for high end businesses with “new, modern lobbies that create an edgy, innovative look designed to appeal to a new generation of corporate entrepreneurs.”  The building’s French Gothic fa├žade remains.

Alas, 142 Bowery, the birthplace of the photography studio, was recently sold with its sister building 140 Bowery, for $22 million!!!  The plan is to tear them down, probably to create high-end condos.  These are among the few remaining Federal period buildings in the area. 

I fondly remember working at 100 Fifth Avenue as a teenager during the summers, the office, the shipping room, the studio, the black and white and color darkrooms, and the printing facilities for producing mostly glossies used for salesmen’s samples. After its success as a portrait photography studio, it reinvented itself as a “Fine Arts” photography studio.  This came on the heels of the success in being the official photographer of the 1913 Armory Show which brought Modern Art to America.

I think Kol was delighted to find the information I had posted and naturally a potential buyer for this 1925 catalogue.  He also suspected I would be the kind of buyer who would treat it with the proper reverence.   As he said, “bravo for being able to purchase and preserve it, as far too many of these catalogues are being taken apart and pieced about by eBay sellers, and other photographic purveyors.”  Spoken as a true antiquarian, he later added: “I feel like I’m in a constant race with those breaking up these wonderful artifacts, and archives.”

My ultimate intention is to donate them to a museum photographic collection, so they can no longer be pulled apart and are available to researchers for years to come.  They are both in excellent condition.  The catalogue which I previously wrote about might be the more interesting one because of its diversity, although this catalogue, which specifically covers only fine furniture, might be more revealing of the times, the roaring twenties, perhaps the furniture of the Great Gatsby (the novel was written at about the same time as the catalogue).  Zephyr’s description of the furniture pictured here is impeccable, so I quote it in its entirety:
[JAZZ AGE FURNITURE -- PHOTO CATALOGUE]. [HAGELSTEIN, Harry P.] [Excellent salesman sample photo catalogue with over 100 original silver gelatin photos of quality furnishings for 1920s New York homes, most of them with measurements and product number in lower fore-edge].  [New York: Hagelstein Brothers Photographers, ca. 1925].  Oblong 4to. 11.5 x 8.25 in. 117 original silver gelatin photos, mounted on linen hinges, most w/ product number and negative number in upper, or lower margins, many with pencil annotations on versos. Contemporary simulated black leather post-binder, screw posts at gutter margin, rounded corners, gilt stamping of Photographers studio on front pastedown (slight shelfwear), NF copy.

First edition of this lavishly illustrated Jazz Age furniture catalogue, filled with original photographs of styles inspired by designs from Sheraton, Heppelwhite, Chippendale, Renaissance Revival, Jacobean Style, and many others. Although unidentified, the broad product line, the quality of the furniture, the available styles, and even some of the product numbers are identical to the furniture produced by Berkey & Gay who during the Roaring 20s were one of the largest manufacturers of fine furniture in the world. Berkey & Gay concentrated on Elizabethan, Renaissance, some American Revival Federalist Styles, and even English Regency, during this era, incorporating a wide variety of woods, and especially dark mahoganies and walnuts.

This is a large catalogue with more than 100 prints, so I include representative samples of them here, in the order in which they appear.  Perhaps another catalogue will turn up; I doubt it.  All in all, it’s a remarkable history of a studio which was established the year after the end of the civil war by my great grandfather and his brother and ended 120 years later when my father died and my Uncle Philip could no longer carry the business forward.  It evolved from portrait photography, to photography of fine arts and furniture, to what it later billed itself as “commercial and illustrative photography.” 

In photographing the contents of this 1925 catalogue I did not unfasten the pages in an effort to avoid any damage, so some of the photos might seem slightly distorted.  I’m hoping the New York Public Library Photographic Collection or a similar repository will accept this and the other Hagelstein Brothers materials I have in my possession once I have them organized so they may be viewed there for generations to come.

Monday, May 25, 2015

The House I Live In

I’ve written several pieces over the years about Memorial Day, a day of remembrance of the men and women who have given their very lives to preserve the democracy envisioned by our founding forefathers.  Too often we take this day for granted and I have a visceral abhorrence of making this day one of “Memorial Day sales.” 
Although my father did not die when he fought in WW II, he reluctantly talked about buddies who did.  I cannot help but think of him on this day and Veterans Day, just an average “Joe” who found himself in the maelstrom of the times, and did his best transitioning from a civilian to becoming a member of the armed forces, stationed in Europe until he returned home in 1945.

Those were different times from the shadow wars of terrorism we live with today..  The entire nation was drawn into the war.  Hollywood films of those years walked the fine line between propaganda and the literal truth.  I find myself drawn to them on Turner Classic Movies this weekend, just to get a sense of what my father and millions of men and women like him had to endure.  And what it was like on the home front.  I vaguely remember the days when my father was gone.  My great-grandmother would take me in my stroller to Jamaica Avenue to buy groceries.  There were no shopping malls, mega-stores.  Those were neighborhood stores and everyone knew your name.  My mother lived with her parents and her grandmother, waiting for the safe return of my father.  I don’t remember that day, but somehow I felt his absence.

I’ve taken many photographs of our flag over the years, having a 25 foot high flagpole in our own courtyard.  After 20 years the pulley wheel on top froze and I was no longer able to raise our flag.  The flagpole is too high for a ladder and I had to bring in a bucket truck to replace the pulley, this time with a revolving one so the flag can move more easily with the wind.  Coincidentally only days after repairing the flag pole there was a full moon.  I took this photograph, hoping to post it today.

One of the movies made during the war was a 10 minute short, “The House I Live In” staring Frank Sinatra in which he sings the song of the same title.  It encapsulates those times and it is not a song one hears very often.  I made a home piano recording of it trying out a new recording device, the TASCAM DR-05, a step up from the one I’ve used before, but complicated to use.  Therefore, it is a work in progress.  Nonetheless I post it here, and the words to the song follow.

Let us remember.

What is America to me?

A name, a map, or a flag I see?

A certain word, "democracy"?

What is America to me?

The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street

The grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet

The children in the playground, the faces that I see

All races and religions, that's America to me

The place I work in, the worker by my side

The little town or city where my people lived and died

The "howdy" and the handshake, the air of feeling free

And the right to speak my mind out, that's America to me

The things I see about me, the big things and the small

The little corner newsstand and the house a mile tall

The wedding in the churchyard, the laughter and the tears

The dream that's been a-growin' for a hundred and fifty years

The town I live in, the street, the house, the room

The pavement of the city, or a garden all in bloom

The church, the school, the clubhouse, the millions lights I see

But especially the people

That's America to me

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Lady Day Sings and Laments at Dramaworks

The Dramaworks season has ended but on a sad and powerfully striking note.  You’re not in West Palm Beach, but at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in Philly in 1959, a kind of seedy place, emblematic of the tail end of Billie Holiday’s life.  A lonely table is in front of the bar, her audience disappearing, along with her cabaret license consigning her to gigs outside of some of the famous places and large audiences she commanded in her past.  This gig is at Dramaworks, the stage having been transformed into this south side Philly night club, the “small house” side of the club, where the locals perform, not the main stage.  Satellite lights hang over the stage as well as the first few rows of the audience while red velour padded walls float behind the performers.  Perhaps “Mad Men “came here when in Philly on business, downing a few during those late night performances.   Dramaworks has created the perfect time machine and the only thing missing from the ambiance of this place are the cocktail waitresses serving the audience and cigarette smoke heavily hanging in the air.

But we’ve come here to see Billie Holiday, or more precisely a dramatic impression of her, not an impersonation.  Tracey Conyer Lee channels Billie’s story, pain, and songs during this 80 minute, intermissionless performance.  She is an experienced actress, not a cabaret singer, although one would not know that from this evocative portrayal.  She is true to a remark once made by Billie herself: “If you copy, it means you're working without any real feeling. No two people on earth are alike, and it's got to be that way in music or it isn't music.”  During this performance we are convinced it is Billie mournfully singing to us, truthfully talking to us. She follows what Billie says in the play: “I’ve got to sing what I feel.”

Tracey Conyer Lee’s ability to pull off a legitimate gig must be credited in part to her highly experienced and extraordinarily talented piano accompanist, Brian P. Whitted who also plays the role of Billie’s manager, Jimmy Powers.  He is the musical director of the show, and is ably assisted by Phil McArthur on the bass.   There is the easy give and take between Billie and Jimmy on stage – mostly by eye contact, so typical of the cabaret scene and perhaps more typical of Billie’s routine at the end of her life.  She needed to connect on all levels.

The playwright, Lanie Robertson, opens Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill with a typical cabaret intro, a jazz piece played just by Whitted (Jimmie Powers) and McArthur before Powers introduces Billie.  You immediately know you are in the hands of a great jazz pianist and accompanist.  Once introduced, Billy sings a couple of straight up pieces before beginning to tell her story, addressing the audience, looking back at Powers from time to time, looking for his approbation as well.  Once she begins her story between songs, she strolls over to the bar for a drink, or two, then more, until the show, her songs and conversation become darker, a little more rambling, when suddenly she desperately needs to take a break  backstage, Powers covering for her with another solo.  When she finally reappears, her left elbow length glove is rolled down, bruises and track marks visible.

At this point she dons her trademark gardenia, but she is now out of control, her songs disjointed, her accompanists trying to follow and fill in.  It is simply a bravura performance by Tracey Conyer Lee, holding the audience spellbound.  Yet at all times she manages to convey a dignity that comes from true art.  As she says repeatedly in the show, even as she self destructs on stage, “singing is living to me.”  And then summing up her life as a singer, “but they won’t let me.”  

There are 14 songs in the show, with the dirge like “Strange Fruit” commanding a hushed sadness.  Her iconic “God Bless the Child” is included, as well as one of my favorites – one I play on the piano with some frequency – “Don’t Explain,” for which she wrote the music. (“God Bless the Child” was also written by her but “Strange Fruit” was not although she adopted it as her own – one does not think of the song without thinking of Billie Holiday.)  But many of the songs are ones I’ve rarely heard her sing, such as “Crazy He Calls Me” which in part she sings, very appropriately, to Powers.  She gives a tribute to Bessie Smith singing “Pig Foot (And a Bottle of Beer).”  And believe me, Tracy Conyer Lee belts it out!

Small ensemble plays like this might seem simple to put together, especially with its reliance on primarily one character.  But as J. Barry Lewis, Dramaworks experienced director explained, to pull off an evening like this requires a subtle “emotional layering” from the main character which is an extremely challenging job.  Each element, the movements, the lighting, the stage design have to be just about perfect to make the play transparent, becoming a night back in the 1950s, one in which Billie Holiday reconciles herself to the consequences of both victimization and poor choices in her personal life.  Jim Crow laws impacted her ability to perform in the south.  And then there were her own personal tragedies, being raped as a child of 10, obsessed with her first husband, Jimmy Monroe, known as “Sonny” (sometimes addressing Powers as “Sonny” as the play devolves) who turned her on to heroin early in her career.  After doing a year of jail time and losing her cabaret license, she was exiled from the big city night clubs, and ultimately consigned to gigs at out of the way places. As she says in the play, “I used to tell everybody when I die I don't care if I go to Heaven or Hell long's it ain't in Philly.” 

We see her  grateful to be performing anywhere, just months before the end of her life, standing there in her trademark white dress, a vision designed and created by Leslye Menshouse, with  her signature gardenia, a light in the darkest days of her life.  Particularly painful is when she laments about always wanting to have a little home, children, and to experience the simple joys of cooking.  At the heart of it all she is an artist and the Dramaworks team captures the moment.

Mr. Lewis is assisted by the rest of his able team of technicians.  The lighting design by Kirk Bookman is especially important in this play, a spotlight on Lady Day as she sings, stage lighting changing colors to suit the song such as dappled blue when she sings the iconic “God Bless the Child.” His focus spot on her and then diminishing in size to her face and then fade out at the end, the level of her voice in sync, is the perfect ending.  The scenic design by Jeff Cowie captures that late 50’s lounge feeling inside a large oval construct and the sound design by Richard Szczublewski completes the illusion.

As Billie once commented, “There's no damn business like show business - you have to smile to keep from throwing up.”  However, this is one performance not to be missed, a fitting end to Dramaworks’ season.  The person sitting next to me said she saw the recent NYC production of the play with Audra McDonald and Dramaworks exceeded that production in every respect.  I believe it.