Posts Tagged ‘Lionel Trilling’

Auden in the footlights: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead”

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012
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Julian Fleisher as George Davis, Kristen Sieh as Carson McCullers, Stephanie Hayes as Erika Mann, and Erik Lochtefeld as W.H. Auden (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I’m a fan of New York City’s Public Theater, so I was especially cheered to read about its new world première musical February House this month.  How could one not be chuffed about a play that focuses on W.H. Audens house at 7 Middagh Street, and the miscellany of writers, composers, and artists it attracted for housemates?

I read about the production not in a New York paper – at least not initially – but rather in Jim Holt‘s charming post in the London Review of Books blog:

As a young man

Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it ‘February House’, because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. … Other than that, however, they seem to have had little in common except a commitment to their art and to not ever being bored. Cocaine is snorted in “February House”; bedbugs are extravagantly shuddered over; a good deal of whiskey is poured.

The LRB piece dwells on Auden’s mysterious connection with the number 7 and his grubby living habits throughout his life.  In a later residence, writes Holt, “So squalid was everything in the dusty, cold and bottle-strewn loft that [Igor] Stravinsky later told Edmund Wilson that Auden was ‘the dirtiest man I have ever liked’.”

Wish I could be in New York City to see the production (music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, based on a book by Seth Bockley.) I’ll have to settle for Dwight Garner‘s description in the New York Times:

They had both.

Sparks fly early and often. When Auden pretentiously blurts to McCullers that “I am a thinking-sensation artist in the Jungian sense, whereas you are clearly a feeling-intuitive type,” she takes out a flask, eyeballs him as if were a space alien, and says: “Uh huh. Gin?”

Auden seemed to enjoy McCullers’s impudence. He is, after all, the man who said, “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”

Auden and McCullers are a pure and defiant literary odd couple. Both stoke your imagination in February House, in part because of their youth, in part because both wrestle with where their obligations to art end and their obligations to politics begin. They are increasingly obsessed with what Lionel Trilling, in “The Liberal Imagination,” called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”

One quibble though, the NYT piece refers to “something once said about Pauline Kael and The New Yorker magazine: She gave it sex, and it gave her class.” The comment (as his hyperlink hints) was said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (using him and he rather than it) – and it was famously said by Katherine Hepburn.

His closing quote, however, is undisputed Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.”

Nabokov on Lolita: “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.”

Monday, February 27th, 2012
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I had never heard Vladimir Nabokov speak, until I ran across this video while reading up my post a few days ago. In this late-1950s video, Nabokov discusses his novel Lolita – or appears to – with an unnamed moderator and the critic and author Lionel Trilling. I suspect much of what he’s saying is a leg-pull. If these comments and questions are typical of the kinds of interviews he faced, it’s no wonder he skived off to Switzerland with the cash he made on the appalling film version of Lolita with Sue Lyon.  (And the comments on the youtube video are a good indication of why he stayed.)

I learned a few things from these videos: According to Mr. Nabokov, I am a philistine.  I confess that I am, on occasion, “a user of cozies” – tea cozies, anyway.  Who knew it was so easy? On those who think his book is about sex? “But maybe they think in clichés. For them sex is so well-defined there’s a gap between it and love. They don’t know what love is, and perhaps they don’t know what sex is, either.” What does it all mean? “I leave the field of ideas to Dr. [Albert] Schweitzer and Dr. Zhivago.” He doesn’t miss a chance to get in a dig at Boris Pasternak.

Postscript on 3/8:  The Book Haven attracts a very broad readership, but never before have we attracted a fan from the tea cozy world.  This from a reader who identifies himself/herself only as FlockofTeaCosy: “This video is from Close Up, a CBC programme from the 1950s, and Nabokov is being interviewed by Trilling and Canadian author Pierre Berton.” There you have it. The name of the third man in the clips.  (And check out the avant-garde tea cozies here.) And from one of our more usual readers, Elena Danielson, “I think Nabokov would approve of your tea cozies – but not of Pasternak.” See their comments below.

Saul Bellow: “The name of the game is Give All.”

Saturday, November 27th, 2010
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A few days ago, I posted an excerpt from Saul Bellow: Letters — an epistle from Saul Bellow to Leon Wieseltier, on the subject of Hannah Arendt.

I didn’t know till I was tipped off by Robert Hamerton-Kelly at lunch yesterday that Wieseltier had already reviewed the letters in the New York Times a few days earlier. The long, ebullient review of a friend by a friend praises the author’s “stunning, almost baffling plenitude”:

“Bellow’s letters are — as anybody who corresponded with him must have expected them to be, and here I must disclose, or confess, or boast, that the volume includes also some gorgeous letters to me, written in the fullness of our friendship decades ago, when we used to worry over metaphysics and the novel as we chopped wood — one of Bellow’s greatest books. [Editor] Benjamin Taylor records that it contains only two-fifths of what Bellow called his ‘epistling,’ but its riches are nonetheless immense. Taylor has selected and edited and annotated these letters with exquisite judgment and care. This is an elegantissimo book. Our literature’s debt to Taylor, if our culture still cares, is considerable.”

More excerpts, in case you missed it:

“In recent years, Bellow has been venerated primarily for his laughter and his language. His British admirers in particular, orphaned by the dreariness of their own postwar fiction and in abject (and rather boring) envy of American energy, have remade Bellow according to their need: a comic writer, a high mocker and essentially a stylist. There is some truth, obviously, to this worship of his ebullience, of the libertine vigor of his voice. Of all modern writers, Bellow somehow managed to combine intellectuality and vitality without compromising either of the indispensable terms. The life-force never deserted him, even as it was always attended by interpretation. The unruliness of existence was Bellow’s lasting theme; but while he studied it, he never quite ordered it. In his fiction and in his life, he seemed to believe in the fecundity of disorder.

“Yet something is missing from the chortling celebration of Bellovian jollity, and that is its foundation in gloom. ‘Bitter melancholy’ is ‘one of my specialties,’ he tells Edward Shils in 1962. About ‘the power to despair,’ he writes to a friend in 1961 that ‘having myself felt it, known it, bathed in it, my native and temperamental impulse is to return to sanity in the form of laughter.’ The letters show a man constantly wresting high spirits from low, and forbidding himself ‘the newest wrinkle in anguish.’ The charming and gregarious writer feels ‘almost astrally alone, but still “I’m out for sursum corda. Lift up the heart.’ … There is an almost erotic charge to Bellow’s endless affirmations; they are so affecting because they are so willed. Since they are deeply reflective, they do not seem merely manic. ‘Really,’ he writes to Lionel Trilling in 1952, ‘things are now what they always were, and to be disappointed in them is extremely shallow. We may not be strong enough to live in the present. But to be disappointed in it!'” …

“Bellow liked to scoff at serious people, but he never left their company. He, too, always had something urgent to say. … The view of Bellow as primarily a stylist, the pleasure-seeking reading of Bellow, the cult of his sentences, is inadequate. His manner was rougher and more controversial, stubbornly animated by ultimate questions, motivated by mind, an intervention in society as well as in literature. Even greater than how he said what he said was what he had to say. His writings, these letters included, are efforts in explanation, or in the hunger for explanation. He did not compose manifestoes or programs, and he despised ideologies — Norman Mailer is ‘such an ideologist,’ whereas ‘I do everything the hard way’; but his ridicule of intellectuals never led Bellow, as it did some of his contemporaries, to the barbarities of anti-intellectualism. …”

“One marvels for many reasons at the man who wrote these letters, but for no reason more than that he was a free man. I do not refer merely to his rebelliousness and his restlessness, to his ‘jail-breaking spirit.’ He is beset by cares and obligations; his friends die and die and die … but nothing ever robs him of the free and unfettered use of his powers. ‘A language is a spiritual mansion from which no one can evict us,’ and in that palace Bellow was sovereign. ‘The only sure cure is to write a book,’ he advises Alice Adams. Only time, and the accidental ingestion of a poison fish in the tropics in 1994, dims him. Otherwise, for the duration of the long and unsinkable life chronicled in these pages, he is a large man growing larger, a spirit expanding, an unabating lightstorm, and ‘the name of the game is Give All.’ He never loses his constancy of purpose. In the penultimate letter in this volume, in the winter of 2002, he sums himself up for a distant relative in a casual Abschied: ‘Actually, I’ve never stopped looking for the real thing; and often I find the real thing. To fall into despair is just a high-class way of turning into a dope. I choose to laugh, and laugh at myself no less than at others.'”

Postscript from the “Great Minds Think Alike” Dept.:  Over at Anecdotal Evidence today, Patrick Kurp also has a post inspired by Wieseltier’s review of Bellow — it’s here.