Posts Tagged ‘Jane Fonda’

Gore Vidal remembering Italo Calvino: “He was the only great writer of my time.”

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

Gore Vidal's magnificent Mediterranean digs – Calvino was a neighbor.

A few days ago I wrote about Italo Calvino.  I’ve so far neglected the death of Gore Vidal – so many have written so much already I didn’t feel I had anything substantive to add.

Since both writers have been on my mind, it was curious to see their names intertwined in a link (can’t even remember where) that revisited a New York Review of Books article, featuring Vidal’s 1985 recollection of Calvino’s burial in Italy – the two were, in fact, neighbors.

Europe regarded Calvino’s death as a calamity for culture. A literary critic, as opposed to theorist, wrote at length in Le Monde, while in Italy itself, each day for two weeks, bulletins from the hospital at Siena were published, and the whole country was suddenly united in its esteem not only for a great writer but for someone who reached not only primary school children through his collections of folk and fairy tales but, at one time or another, everyone else who reads.

He had first written about Calvino eleven years earlier, in an essay that included the passage: “Reading Calvino, I had the unnerving sense that I was also writing what he had written; thus does his art prove his case as writer and reader become one, or One.” The article caught Calvino’s attention, the two exchanged letters, and finally met.

En route to the burial sans ceremony at Castiglion della Pescáia, Vidal recalled:

As we drove north through the rain, I read Calvino’s last novel, Palomar. He had given it to me on November 28, 1983. I was chilled—and guilty—to read for the first time the inscription: “For Gore, these last meditations about Nature, Italo.” “Last” is a word artists should not easily use. What did this “last” mean? Latest? Or his last attempt to write about the phenomenal world? Or did he know, somehow, that he was in the process of “Learning to be dead,” the title of the book’s last chapter?

What greatness looks like.

What’s surprisingly moving in Vidal’s account is his obvious reverence for the Italian maestro, which assumes the usual form of embroidering a connection to make it more important, more real (“I hold Chichita’s hand a long moment,” he makes sure he tells us as he stands at the graveside with Calvino’s widow).  One would not have expected Vidal to expose himself that way, even inadvertently.  But humility is the sincerest and most difficult form of greatness.

That’s why it’s so dispiriting that Vidal’s fatal flaw persistently surfaces, the one that kept his own work from greatness: Vidal can’t resist the impulse to take an unnecessary and irrelevant swipe at those he holds in contempt, which is almost all of us.  For example, an almost random mention of meeting “the dread physical therapist Ms. Fonda Hayden,” which undermines the piece and should have met a sterner editorial pen.

He also laces his piece with taxonomies of middlebrow, highbrow, lowbrow, along with disdainful (and often unjust) comparisons of, for example, American ways with Continental ways – with the former always risible, provincial, gaffe-prone.  The inclusion of such remarks is predicated on the idea that we give a damn, and gives the impression that we earnestly seek his approval or want to be one of  the toffs.  We don’t. Where was the friend who could have told him these asides immeasurably weaken his writing?   

A more or less random example of passing insult:  “He wants us to see not only what he sees but what we may have missed by not looking with sufficient attention. It is no wonder that Galileo crops up in his writing. The received opinion of mankind over the centuries (which is what middlebrow is all about) was certain that the sun moved around the earth but to a divergent highbrow’s mind, Galileo’s or Calvino’s, it is plainly the other way around. Galileo applied the scientific methods of his day; Calvino used his imagination. Each either got it right; or assembled the data so that others could understand the phenomenon.

But I have seen “highbrows” hold remarkably conventional and conformist views, and I have encountered truly original and iconoclastic lowbrows.  So this isn’t a measure of anything except Vidal’s rather commonplace worship of “science.”

Here’s what Calvino does with related material, in the Charles Eliot Norton lectures that preoccupied him in his final months, and eventually became Six Memos for the Next Millenium:

Overambitious projects may be objectionable in many fields, but not in literature. Literature remains alive only if we set ourselves immeasurable goals, far beyond all hope of achievement. Only if poets and writers set themselves tasks that no one else dares imagine will literature continue to have a function. Since science has begun to distrust general explanations and solutions that are not sectorial and specialized, the grand challenge for literature is to be capable of weaving together the various branches of knowledge, the various “codes,” into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.

On the video below, Vidal says: “He was the only great writer of my time.”  This is a great video, thoroughly addictive.

Prime Time at Kepler’s: Jane Fonda is getting more out of life

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

Packing it in ... at the National Museum in Kraków

Several years ago in the National Museum of Kraków, I remember studying the Botticelli portrait of Giuliano de Medici, a historical figure previously unknown to me.  I was transfixed by the arrogant tilt of the head, the self-confident expression, the full possession of his black curls, his youth, and his virility.

Naturally, I wondered what became of him. What future was he blithely unaware of in this this portrait?  So I looked it up.

He was co-ruler of Florence in the 15th century, the “golden boy” – a handsome, athletic, renowned patron of the arts.  His illegitimate son by his mistress Fioretta Gorini, Giulio di Giuliano de Medici, became Pope Clement VII.

He was assassinated by a rival clan on 26 April, 1478, in the Duomo of Florence, killed by a sword wound to the head and was stabbed 19 times.

He was 25 years old.

They certainly knew how to pack it in back then.  But that got me to thinking about all those rulers and leaders and authors and statesman who were called cruel or neurotic or selfish or greedy.  Are they famous for traits they would have outgrown had they simply lived longer?

Remember, for example, when you judge Mr. Darcy harshly that he is a mere 28 years old, and Lizzie Bennett is just 20. Who among us does not regret being haughty, vain, or silly when they were Lydia Bennett‘s 15?  Most of us live it down.

This is a long way to coming around to Jane Fonda‘s appearance at Kepler’s last month.  She is still living down the ill-advised moment she climbed into the seat of an anti-aircraft gun in Hanoi in 1972.  She was 34.  All those workout videos and film cannot erase that indelible moment.  Should it?

And here she was a few feet in front of me. (Video below. The first with my Droid. I’ll get better. Really I will.) Now she’s 73 and peddling a book called Prime Time.  She’s a cheerleader for the Boomers.

And admittedly a good looking one, no matter how much surgery it took.  She was glossy and very thin under a bushel of hair and tinted glasses. As she donned her reading glasses, she said she had “lost eyesight but gained insight.”

The room seemed to be filled largely with Boomers.  She gave a shout-out to Laura Carstensen of Stanford’s Longevity Center, with whom she had been spending time during her swing through the Peninsula.

She touched on Carstensen’s main themes: we are, on average, living 34 years longer than earlier generations. What are we going to do with all the time?

“A third of how well we do aging is genetics.  Two-thirds is us and the decisions we make.”  Over time, she said, we have “less of an ego-stake in the outcomes.”  She also said, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

She began talking about sex for the elderly, getting a ripples of knowing, cougar-like chuckles from the audience.  She recommended computer dating.  “Over here! Help me, Jane!” one called out.  “Match me up, Jane!”

She had a piece of good advice for one of the few young women in the audience (it was almost entirely women): “It gets better,” she said. “Understand that ‘no’ is a complete sentence. Your body is yours. Honor it. Don’t let anyone make you feel bad about it.”

Who would she go back to in time to talk to?  “Jesus.”  Who besides Jesus. “Eleanor Roosevelt.”  I didn’t quite follow the line of thinking.

Someone asked her about becoming a Christian.  “It changed my life. It also ended my marriage [to Ted Turner].”

“It has given me a core, a center. …Once we understand spirit, we’re strong.”

She cited Viktor Frankl, and said that a key to living well and longer was “generativity” – a fancy word for sharing.  But if caritas is merely another form of self-improvement – is it love at all? Isn’t it simply something else we are doing for ourselvse?

I had never seen Kepler’s so crowded. The room was transfixed.  The crowd was well educated, well heeled, well groomed.  They had everything, and many of them didn’t seem to know it.  They wanted to know how to get more from their lives.

But isn’t there an age when we should simply be giving more?