Friday, August 31, 2012


Reading the other day the simultaneous obituaries of Phyllis Diller and Tony Scott has been revelatory. They turned out to be complementary articles serving as bookends for the taste of America or, if you prefer, its psyche.

Note some emerging deductions. Phyllis Diller’s success was based on self-mockery, whereas film director Scott’s was founded on male heroics that, against all odds, led to triumph. Two almost ironclad formulas, both based on lies.

Let’s start with Diller, i.e., ladies first, although her public image was that of a beleaguered average woman, not exactly a lady. As the New York Times obituary made clear, she underwent numerous surgeries to make herself look younger and better, but then exerted almost as much effort, e.g., her explosive Slovenly Peter hair, to make herself look ridiculous, which was the title of the parodic song (Eartha Kitt’s “Monotonous”) that more or less launched her career.

The idea was not to look better than the typical housewife, but, if anything, worse. That way female drudges viewing her would not be envious, as of the sexy Hollywood starlets, but pleasurably patronizing. “I look better than she does, and if only I bothered, which thank God I don’t, I could have the same career.” I firmly believe that looking worse than average helped also the success, among others, of Barbra Streisand and Liza Minnelli.

Sure, a Hedy Lamarr or Rita Hayworth made it on the sexy allure that secured the male vote. But the probably even more numerous female vote was grabbed by “I don’t envy anyone less attractive than me,” and so becoming reconciled to remaining a cook and child-bearer in prosaic households from coast to coast. Not longing or striving for cinematic stardom—or any other kind—becomes a virtue to be cherished.

But all the polymorphous surgery that Diller underwent does not negate my theory. Underneath the mask of less than ordinariness, it pays to be as desirable as possible so as to please a husband or lover. It is what really allows you to make a clown of yourself: the secret knowledge of being actually much superior to your image. It is rather like the principle by which an actor playing King Lear needs to be younger and stronger than the seeming dotard he portrays. Diller’s obit calls attention to, among other things, her good figure and cosmetically embellished nose.

So much for female fantasy; now what about the male counterpart? Well, that’s where the lone good man, who may or may not be also handsome, wins out against all odds, archetypically in a film such as “High Noon,” where Gary Cooper triumphs not only over assorted villains, but even over the total respectable citizenry that cravenly refuses to lend him a hand.

Yes, you say, but Cooper was also handsome. True, but not in the glamour-guy manner of a Robert Taylor or Tyrone Power, or even a sexy Clark Gable, humanized by his Obama ears. It was Cooper’s rugged virility and moral courage that clearly mattered more than sex appeal. Consider that even such an unsightly actor as Ernest Borgnine could find a not unpresentable female mate. You might even be as underprivileged as a Sammy Davis Jr. or an Anthony Quinn (remember his Mexican mother) and overcome being black or Hispanic.

Consider now Tony Scott’s favorite action hero, Tom Cruise. True, he looks good, but all you need is a picture of him and his wife, Katie Holmes, to see how much shorter he is. Besides, his real family name was Mapother, which could make anyone feel inferior. Anyway, more power to shorties.

But what about the glamorous Tony Curtis? Enough people knew that his real name was Bernard Schwartz, so more power to Jewish men. For that matter, no one could look more Jewish than Dustin Hoffman, who, on top of that, tends to come off as a smartass, and still ends up on top—even in female drag.

So here are keys to success for underachieving exteriors, male and female. Granted that they are not the only ones, and that they are not infallible. Ambition is also needed, and sticktoitiveness, some luck, and, most likely, impudence. But not everyone can claim those, and so for many people, perhaps most, the formula doesn’t work—proves a lie.

Do not, however, for all that, disregard it. It also thrives on mediocrity, which is the unfortunate downside of democracy. Just look at our successful politicians.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


Most things are either good or bad, but dreams, with fearful symmetry, manage to be both good and bad. Just about everyone has had good and bad ones, and since about a third of our days is spent on dream-producing sleep, dreams are worth a bit of scrutiny.

I wonder whether many can claim, as my wife does, waking up with total oblivion of having dreamt anything. That would seem to reduce such a large part of life to something rather wasteful. Couldn’t we just lie in bed or in a hammock and harbor pleasant daydreams for a couple of hours? Couldn’t reverie replace dream?

To be sure, we dream at our risk. Seldom are we more jubilant than when we wake up from a truly nasty nightmare. This could be anything from being stuck in some unknown, threatening part of town with the way home lost, to a devilishly unpleasant situation incurred by having done or said something unpardonable.

On the other hand, how depressing to wake up from winning a coveted prize, having enjoyed perfect sex, or accomplishing some other resounding success, to mere indifferent reality. It’s almost as bad as losing one’s wallet.

I doubt whether many of us share Hamlet’s fear of bad dreams tormenting us after our demise; compared to global warming, hellfire seems like much less of a menace. A more serious problem may be what’s implied in the epigraph to Yeats’s 1914 collection of poems, “In Dreams Begins Responsibility.” Aside from anything else, this was responsible for an entire collection of Delmore Schwartz’s poems, with a slight variant of that for title.

Responsibility to what or to whom? Yeats attributes the saying to an “Old Play.” But as a note to the putatively definitive edition of Yeats’s works (Macmillan, 1989) has it, “The source . . . has not yet been traced: it may well have been written by Yeats, possibly with the assistance of Ezra Pound.” If no source could be found in 75 years, it stands to reason that there is none. I fully believe that it is the concoction of those young tricksters Willy and Ez, and that the chief responsibility for, if not to it, is the Freudian id, even if Freud himself has become suspect nowadays.

Artists, in a roundabout way, are responsible to dreams. None more so than the lusty Renaissance friar Francesco Colonna, the more than likely author of that wonderful incunabulum Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, published in 1499 by the great Venetian house of Aldus Manutius. An article in the Times of May 26, 2004, by Dinitia Smith, begins, “It has been called the most beautiful book in the world, and the most unreadable. Its hero has sex with buildings. It also has a nearly unpronounceable title . . . [which] can be translated as ‘the struggle for love in a dream.’” Or, alternatively, “the strife of love in a dream.” There are about 260 copies in existence, one of them in the Princeton library. Its very illustrations, 174 woodcuts, are an utter delight. But the text is a problem.

The entire long book is a dream, containing further dreams within dreams. It is the story of one Poliphilo, who dreams of his beloved, the nymph Polia, and journeys in constant search of the elusive one. Well, not entirely constant, for Poliphilo may be translated both as lover of Polia and lover of many. He adores fulsomely also architecture, sculptures, gardens, goldsmith’s works, inscriptions on tombstones, music, pageantry, ritual, and colorful fabrics (especially when worn by nymphs). As his modern English translator, the marvelously named Joscelyn Godwin, puts it, he is in love, above all, with Antiquity.

And what language! Greek, Latin, and Italian, with a sprinkling of Hebrew and Arabic. No wonder that the first complete English translation, by the valiant Godwin, did not appear until 1999. As exquisitely published (I own it) by Thames & Hudson in smaller format than the original, it comes to 476 pages with all the illustrations, helpful appendices, plus ten excellent pages of introduction. Erotic as all get-out, but, alas, a mere dream.

A Times article of July 24, 2012, by Jennifer Schuessler, reports on a session at the Rare Books School of the University of Virginia, where bibliophiles shouted out in triumph, “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499!” As the article tells us, if the school had a football team, that might be its rallying cry. Spectacular if hard reading, it ends with Poliphilo finally snatching Polia, only to wake up from a dream.

Dreams, to be sure, have been a paramount staple of literature, at the very least since Moses in the bible.  They figure prominently in the fictions of ancient Greece and Rome, and have gone on and on ever since. One of my favorites is Arthur Schnitzler’s 1931 Traumnovelle (Dream Novella), which begat Stanley Kubrick’s unfortunate Eyes Wide Shut.

In English fiction, early examples are Langland’s Piers Plowman (boring as hell) and several delightful works by Chaucer, who derived some of them from the 13th-century French Roman de la Rose, a part of which he translated. J. A. Cuddon, in his invaluable Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, cites among major specimens Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Keats’s revised Hyperion, the Alice in Wonderland books, and remarks that Finnegans Wake “has also been taken as a kind of cosmic dream.”

On screen, dreams do not register notably—they blend in almost imperceptibly—but on stage they have an illustrious history. They are memorable as the dream ballets in various musicals, notably Agnes De Mille’s for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Albertina Rasch’s for Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark. But they also score heavily in plays by James Barrie (especially Dear Brutus) and Philip Barry (Hotel Universe).

However, I am not trying to write a history or catalogue raisonné of onstage dreams. And I don’t want to peddle mine, for nothing is more boring than one’s dreams to other people. But let me, against my better judgment, relate one of my own.

A friend and his date join me on a visit to the New York Times. I am trying to sell an article to my editor there, David Kelly. It is about the Sokols, the Slavic version of Boy Scouts. They have a spiffy uniform and (who wouldn’t want it?) a feather in their caps. Sokol means falcon, and one of Janáček’s most wonderful works, the Sinfonietta, was composed for the Czech Sokols.

I have my canny friend with me to help effectuate the sale of what I have titled “Czeducation,” and we approach the Times modestly through the basement. We there pick up as guide a very young editor or perhaps intern, unkempt and pimply. We ascend to a kind of antechamber whose steep, towering walls suggest an expressionist drama with scenery by Gordon Craig, where others too are waiting. There is a huge, Kafkaesque portal through which we glimpse only emptiness. No trace of Kelly or any other editor.

I take a few steps in, but return hastily, pointing out that I have not yet written a word of my article. I am not even sure that the Sokols still exist—perhaps the only one is our beloved comedienne Marilyn Sokol. Never mind; I can always try to sell the idea. But no; suddenly all of us are on a sort of fun-fair train, hurtling downward. We whoosh past another doorway to the Times, labeled quizzically—what?

I wake up trying vainly to recall that curious superscription. It puts me in mind of the frustrating last sentence of the Hypnerotomachia: “I awoke and emerged with a start from my dream, saying with a sigh: ‘Farewell, then, Polia.’”

Thursday, August 2, 2012


Of all Anglophone writers only Shakespeare has been more written about than James Joyce, and Shakespeare has three-and-a-half centuries on him. Of all modern writers, not only in English, Joyce is probably the most innovative, evocative, and influential. He has had, and still has, numerous followers, some acknowledged, some not, and not a few imitators despite his inimitability. To the huge corpus of Joyceana, now add the apt biography by Gordon Bowker, titled simply James Joyce.

At nearly 600 riveting pages, it is long, but not overlong. Until now, the conceivably definitive biography was Richard Ellmann’s 1982 revision of his remarkable 1959 James Joyce. At almost 900 large, closely packed pages, it remains a cornerstone for all subsequent writings about Joyce. But thirty years since have yielded further revelations, which Bowker, experienced author of three earlier biographies (of Orwell, Durrell, and Malcolm Lowry) has made productive use of.

Bowker’s opus is not primarily a critical biography, in that it refrains from being judgmental even about such lesser efforts as Joyce’s only play, the Ibsenite Exiles, or detailed in its praise of such an early masterpiece as the story “The Dead” and the moving late poem “Ecce Puer.” It offers sufficient accounts of what Joyce’s various works are about, but is primarily interested in the particulars of the life. And what a life it was!

There are easier—which is to say shorter—approaches to Joyce. Harry Levin’s James Joyce: A Critical Introduction remains the best concise evaluation of the writer and man. For those seeking a terse account of the life, Edna O’Brien’s James Joyce will do the job. For those wishing strictly literary criticism, John Gross’s James Joyce is recommended. But for readers who want both in sufficient and up-to-date detail, nothing beats Bowker’s book published here by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and last year in England by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Outstanding about Bowker are his judiciousness and readability on top of thorough research. For more academic—or just more curious—readers there is another forte: relating every step of the way the life to the work. This makes particular sense for Joyce, an extraordinarily biographical and autobiographical fictionist. His plots rely almost exclusively on what he called his epiphanies, a term for events experienced, and conversations participated in or overheard, that lent themselves to
pungent fictional use.

So, reading Bowker, we learn again and again and usually with precise page references, how an incident was exploited in the fictions—and how a person (real name and basic biographical data) became so-and-so in the writings (fictional name and bit of plot summary). For anyone willing and able to follow up on these references, Bowker’s book becomes a paradigm of how brilliant fictional strategy works up bits of reality, how genius transfigures the givens of life.

Especially interesting in this respect is how religion and sexuality figure in Joyce’s life and work. Bowker makes clear how Joyce consciously rejected the strict Roman Catholicism in which he was brought up by family and educated by Jesuits, while instinctively still indulging in much churchgoing, ostensibly only because of enjoyment of the ritual and music involved.

Music indeed, given Joyce’s fine tenor voice, almost leading to a career in music, and love of singing and dancing, which he reveled in with the slightest excuse (parties, literary gatherings, mere dinners with friends) or even without. He could accompany his singing on the piano, and would dance with (usually male) friends in the most exuberant, almost orgiastic fashion.

And what sexuality: Joyce was both masochist and fetishist. The latter in his fixation on female underwear, often urging his wife Nora to purchase and wear sexy drawers. The former in fantasies of, and generally unheeded solicitings for, flogging by Nora, and perhaps also in using and encouraging obscene and scatological language in his letters and fictions, often asking that it be aggressively directed at himself.

Three further fascinating aspects of Joyce emerge. One is Joyce the egoist and rebel who exiles himself from an Ireland that imposed unacceptable restrictions on his ego. Thus we find him with Nora—and later their children, Giorgio and Lucia—steadily changing habitats in Italy, Switzerland, and France, mostly but not exclusively in Trieste, Zurich and Paris. An excellent—indeed fanatical—linguist, he profited from commanding the requisite foreign as well as classical languages, not to mention other, not particularly needed ones. All grist for his existential and literary mills.

Next, Joyce’s ability to acquire and maintain (despite invariable fallings out) many important and useful friendships, in spite of extreme egoistic obsession with his work and personal pursuits. Impractical in many ways, especially in his love of luxury despite minimal earnings as a writer and English teacher, Joyce found his hurtful disregard for others not preventing his living off various patrons. Or, rather, patronesses, such as the French booksellers and publishers Sylvia Beach and Adrienne Monnier, the American magazine editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, and affluent ladies such as Edith Rockefeller McCormick and, above all, Harriet Shaw Weaver, who alone contributed monies that today would correspond to over a million dollars.

Thirdly, there is Joyce’s struggle for survival amid serious financial straits, sometimes even grinding poverty, whenever gifts or profuse borrowing proved unavailable. There was also the unemployability, as during a failed attempt at banking in Rome, or problems with puritanical institutions of learning, and scarcity of private pupils, though some proved slavishly devoted and variously generous.

Bowker is almost too zealous in reporting every aspect of Joyce’s finances, very often gravely limited by the obtuseness or cowardice of publishers, the almost inconceivable scrutiny and frustration by all sorts of censorship, real or merely putative, and terrible health handicaps, ranging from poor eyesight verging on blindness to raging stomach disorders.

Bowker has further strengths, such as a dry wit that complements Joyce’s own, frequently and hilariously quoted. Also keen psychological insight into such matters as Joyce’s stupendous love-hate for his native Dublin—actually more love than hate, albeit not reciprocated until very late in his life, which ended prematurely just short of his 59th birthday.

He is also scrupulous in documenting Joyce’s tragic relationship with his gifted but demented daughter Lucia, whom he adored, protected and on whose upkeep he spent his frequently scant and desperately needed money, despite her terrifying rebuffs and even physical assaults on her mother.

But Joyce’s entire life, deftly evoked by Bowker, is heroic in his grapplings with landlords, strings of contradictory and confusing doctors, endless relocations, and often noble but exhausting excesses, such as the sixteen years spent on writing his final work, the gigantic but rebus-like antinovel Finnegans Wake. Its perennial and fascinating challenges to elucidation very nearly subvert the well-deserved fame and influence of his epochal masterpiece, Ulysses, largely “acclaimed [Bowker writes] as the greatest novel of the twentieth century.”

Only slightly offputting are Bowker’s admittedly rare lapses of grammar, easily forgivable among so many virtues. I conclude quoting part of a long, characteristic paragraph, displaying not only delightful fluency, but also the fine ability to summarize, a sovereign gift in a biographer.

“[Joyce] passed through phases of Jesuitical piety, Parnellite nationalism, anti-bourgois and anticlerical rebellion, socialism, intellectual aloofness and Ibsenite devotion. He was altar boy, classroom joker, young know-all, great operatic tenor manqué, a carousing ‘medics’ pal,’ a patron of brothels, poete maudit, exile, prurient lover, writer of licentious letters, ‘undiscovered genius,’ fond father, failed businessman, temporary bank clerk, original language teacher, eccentric dancer, blind Dante, fighter against censorship and literary piracy, lyrical poet, opera buff,  brave experimental writer of prodigious virtuosity and, finally, ‘acclaimed genius.’ But he was other things, too.”

Bowker neatly encapsulates those other things as well, but I don’t want to overwhelm you, though I must mention Joyce’s “help [to] those who were threatened with Nazi persecution.” Sundry plays and films have been based on Joyce’s writings, understandably without doing full justice to them. What might be interesting would be a movie about this astonishing life, if only a great enough cineast and actor could be found. Meanwhile I warmly suggest your reading Bowker’s spellbinding biography.