I love you in a place where there’s no space and time.
I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine.
Leon Russell “A Song for You”
Click here: This was what it once was all about…A Song for You
I love you in a place where there’s no space and time.
I love you for my life, you are a friend of mine.
Leon Russell “A Song for You”
Click here: This was what it once was all about…A Song for You
In the May 17th issue of The London Review of Books, the historian Michael Wood asked this question about two current jazz biopics–Miles Ahead and Born to be Blue:
“Why can’t we see early success as anything other than a burden?”
While he was talking about Miles Davis and Chet Baker, the subjects of the two films he was reviewing, there are scores of others to whom we can reference.
And probably no greater example is that of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Always with high ambitions, Fitzgerald burst onto and into the literary scene in 1920 when he was merely 23 years old with his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. The first printing sold out in three days, but more importantly it allowed him to marry Zelda Sayer–who a year earlier had broken off their engagement when she considered he couldn’t support her in the style she was used to. They married a week after publication.
The Fitzgeralds’s fame was as pyrotechnic as the ‘twenties themselves. More than the fact that Fitzgerald’s stories were regularly appearing in the Saturday Evening Post and Collier’s (and were providing Scott with a very handsome income), their lives were the stuff of tabloids and gossip, of excess and extravagance.
He was the King of “the Jazz Age” (a term that he coined) and Zelda was the Queen of the Flappers. Their escapades in New York, in Paris, in Rome, in the South of France were the stuff of legend. They burned brightly and largely.
In deed and in myth, the Fitzgeralds put the “roaring” into the “Roarin’ Twenties.”
But then like the decade itself, it all came to a crashing halt. Each of Fitzgerald’s subsequent novels were less and less successful. The Great Gatsby garnered little critical or commercial attention and Tender is the Night even less so. Beset by financial problems–exacerbated by his alcoholism, deteriorating health, and Zelda’s mental instability–Fitzgerald focused on writing “commercial stories” for the drying-up magazine market. Ultimately he headed to Hollywood, contracted to write screenplays for MGM.
And it is here, just as he is about to leave for the West Coast, that Stewart O’Nan picks him up in West of Sunset, a poignant re-telling of Fitzgerald’s last three years.
It would not be a spoiler to say that the main character–F.Scott Fitzgerald–dies in the end. At 44 years of age. Nor to say that Dorothy Parker has the best lines (e.g. “She’s slept with everyone in Hollywood except Lassie.”) This is all common knowledge or is expected by anyone slightly aware of the literary world of the 20s and 30s.
But what is not commonly realized or considered or witnessed is the emotional pain, the loss of confidence and the genuine anguish that Fitzgerald suffered in those final three years of his life. This we glean from reading West of Sunset. In O’Nan’s novel we see a Fitzgerald struggling financially–his wife’s sanitarium fees and his daughter’s tuition are constants–as well as struggling with the seeming inanity of Hollywood productions and his own demons. Getting a “screen-credit” is essential and far too often projects are cancelled, rewritten beyond recognition, or given to another writer–writers that a once confident Fitzgerald had looked down upon at the height of his career. (Ultimately, he ended up with only one screen credit.)
At first, I felt that O’Nan was taking the easy road. Characters such as Hemingway and Bogart, both who enter the story early–are overlarge and don’t need much development. But they get it anyway. Bogart proves to be a good friend though an enabler to Fitzgerald’s alcoholism. (Despite Fitzgerald’s having split Bogart’s lip in a fight long before the book begins.) And Hemingway, enters the story early, asks a favor of Fitzgerald, and disappears, though never quite gone from Fitzgerald’s mind. We see the struggling and “washed-up” Fitzgerald, often wondering about Hemingway’s reaction to something he did or did not, to his successes and his screw-ups. The Hemingways and Bogarts, the Shirley Temples and Joan Crawfords, the Selzniks, Mankiewiczes, and Mayers, they are all extras, mere shades flitting by as Fitzgerald battles against the currents of rejection, failure, physical weakness and his past. Even Sheilah Graham, the strongest and most able of those around him, could not get close enough to save him from himself.
I anticipated –and enjoyed–the Hollywood gossip and the “inside” view of the golden days of the big studios, but what O’Nan has done so well in West of Sunset was to capture Fitzgerald as he struggled to deal with his wife Zelda’s madness, his daughter’s growing independence, his love affair with Sheilah Graham, and his debilitating alcoholism. (It seems every time that Fitzgerald leaves Hollywood to visit Zelda back East, he returns either sick or beaten-up as a result of his excesses.)
In the end, the novel is not solely about a famous American artist who burned out and died early. That story is almost hackneyed. (Take your pick, David Foster Wallace, Robert Bolaño, John Kennedy Toole. The list goes on for much too long.) Instead, it is a moving portrait of a man, a talented man, trying to keep his head above water while the world–and the fading hope of the American Dream– keeps dragging him under.
At times, O’Nan’s prose is evocative of Fitzgerald at his very best. The keen observations, the golden descriptions, the accurate judgement is richly reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s writing. But O’Nan is no mere parodist, and West of Sunset is not a pastische. It is a wonderful novel–it would have been wonderful even if we didn’t know the protagonist so well. As the writer George Saunders described the book, it is “one brilliant American writer meditating on another.” And that is very true. O’Nan’s West of Sunset is intelligent, imaginative and thought-provoking. It is a novel that echoes in one’s mind over and over again.
• • • • • • •
This spring I have thought a lot about F. Scott Fitzgerald. I have taught Gatsby in three separate courses, I have read Fitzgerald’s notebooks written during the last years of his life, and I have read Stewart O’Nan’s West of Sunset. (This all sounds more deliberate than it actually was–more coincidence than good planning.)
So much has Fitzgerald and Zelda and Sheila Graham, and Gatsby and Daisy and Nick Carraway been on my mind these days, that I have come to see our spring itself as a mirror of Fitzgerald’s career. Spring 2016 started out unseasonably warm in March, with records high temps, middled off in April, and has been abysmally cold and wet through most of May. It has followed the arc of Fitzgerald’s life.
However, the exception is that after his death, both he and his works have skyrocketed in estimation and entered the pantheon of American Literature.
Who knows what this summer will bring.
“Then the big elm shot up ahead, lying in wait for them at the bend of the road, and he said between his teeth: ‘We can fetch it; I know we can fetch it–‘”
Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome
On two separate occasions, my friend Jim has stopped the car on the way to dropping me off at the train station to finish listening to Neil Young’s “Country Girl.” For him, he remembers a particular girlfriend who broke up with him oddly and for whom this song is a reminder. For me, I remember hitchhiking across Canada, sitting on the floor of a Winnipeg record store (Winnipeg was where Neil was born) and copying down the chords from a fake book. For both of us, the song is a lot more than just music and lyrics.
Jim and I often do this. The “where” and “when” of a song, the lives we were leading, the dreams we were having, the people we were hanging with, are as much a part of a song than any of its recordable parts. And for each of us, those elements are different and recall a thousand different memories.
This is the basis of Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mixed Tape. Sheffield–a writer for Rolling Stone–writes about his late wife and himself through the skeleton of different mixed tapes. The sub-title of the book is Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, and this is exactly it: the life of a man and the life of the woman he loved told through the soundtrack of their lives. And, for some of us, it is our lives as well.
Sheffield starts off going through his dead wife Renee’s belongings and discovering several of her mixed tapes, spending a sad night listening to the first one–The Smiths, Pavement, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Morrissey, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boy George among them–commenting on her choices and their lives together when she made them. He talks about the various types of mixed tapes: the Party Tape, the “I Want You” tape, the “We’re Doing It” tape, the Road Tape, the “You Broke My Heart and Made Me Cry” tape, the Walking Tape, the Washing the Dishes tape. etc. From here he sets up his frame work–the tapes of our lives are the record of of our lives.
And so he begins. He starts by dissecting his own tapes, chronologically starting from a mixed tape he made as a thirteen-year old for an 8th-grade dance through his first romance and subsequent break up to his meeting Renee, their courtship and marriage, her sudden death and his struggles to continue on afterwards. It is poignant and wise writing about love and loss and survival.
Many of the bands I had never heard of–both he and his wife were music writers–but the pure affection and excitement that these two shared for new and old music was infectious. He was an Irish-Catholic boy from Boston who grew up on Led Zeppelin, the J. Giles Band, and Aerosmith; she, an Appalachian girl from West Virginia as familiar with George Jones and Hank Williams as she was with the punk bands she adored. Together they made a likeable pair. And their knowledge and love for music is wide and inclusive.
Sheffield met his wife in 1989 and she died in 1997. Their relationship lasted most of the 1990s and this is where Sheffield the music critic is at his best. His analysis of that decade, where the music was going and what it was doing is trenchant: he understands the phenomenon of Kurt Cobain, the importance of female empowerment in 90s’ music, the resurgence of guitar bands. (His discussion of Cobain’s late music/performances as the plights and pleas of a pained husband is unique and insightful and bittersweet.)
The naturally shy Sheffield–understandably–reverts into himself after his wife’s death. He is more and more asocial, awkward and uncomfortable. He writes eloquently about the pain of loss, of the condition of “widow-hood,” of unexpected kindness, and of the haunting of the past. Sadly, music–which once was his buoy in life–is pulling him down, especially the music that he and Renee had shared. In the end, however, it is music that pulls him together as well. He moves out of the south and to New York City, he reconnects with friends, makes new friends, and–of course–starts seeing and listening to new bands.
Love is a Mixed Tape was recommended to me by a friend, Brendan McLaughlin. Brendan was born in the mid-80’s, not long before Sheffield and his wife first met. He is connected much more closely to the music than I am, and I am sure that he recognized a lot more of the bands and songs cited than I did. But that is the great thing about Sheffield’s memoir: you don’t have to be completely tuned into what he is listening to, just to what he is saying.
And what he says is true.
“Most people miss their whole lives, you know. Listen, life isn’t when you are standing on top of a mountain looking at a sunset. Life isn’t waiting at the altar or the moment your child is born or that time you were swimming in a deep water and a dolphin came up alongside you. These are fragments. Ten or twelve grains of sand spread throughout your entire existence. These are not life. Life is brushing your teeth or making a sandwich or watching the news or waiting for the bus. Or walking. Every day, thousands of tiny events happen and if you’re not watching, if you’re not careful, if you don’t capture them and make them count, your could miss it.
You could miss your whole life.”
Toni Jordan, Addition
(as quoted in Literary Jukebox)
Julian Barnes latest work is a slim, tripartite volume that encompasses a 19th century history of ballooning and the beginnings of portrait photography, a semi-fictional account of the love affair between an English “balloonatic” and the divine Sarah Bernhardt, and a searingly honest examination of the author’s own grief upon the loss of his wife, Pat Kavanagh, in 2008.
As always, Barnes writing is careful, thoughtful, and precise. His insight into the heights of ballooning and its accompanying crashes, the flights of romance and the desperation of rejection, and the comfort of love and the devastation of its loss are intelligent, beautiful, and memorable. It is the type of book that one reads with a pencil nearby so to copy the phrases that so often hit their marks squarely.
In the first section, “The Sin of Height,” Barnes describes the flights of three different balloonists over the course of nineteen years–all of the passengers whose paths cross at times throughout the years. The first is Nadar the French photographer, whose balloon basket carried a developing lab and who was one of the first to ever give us aerial photographs, albeit very vague and poor ones. (moving from Nadar’s early aerial photographs to the Earthrise photos that were taken on the first trip to the moon a century later, Barnes writes beautifully about our tiny planet, swirling with gasses and storms and blue beauty.)
Nadar did however go on to be a great portrait photographer, and his photographs of the actress Sarah Bernhardt are the first we have of her. She too is one of the balloonists that Barnes features. The third balloonist, Fred Burnaby is a English military man–a member of the Royal Horse Guard–an adventurer, and a noted bohemian. It is a history that captures the excitement and controversy of the modern age–encapsulated by the birth of photography, electricity, and aviation. Victor Hugo believed that flight would bring about democracy while Balzac believed that photography steals a layer of the sitter’s persona.
It is Burnaby’s romance with Sarah Bernhardt that makes up the second section, “On the Level.” Reading like part of a novel, this section depicts Burnaby–very much a man of the world–now very much in love and very articulate about how he feels. He is aware of the dizzying heights to which Bernhardt has taken him, and, as a ballonist, he is always aware of the heights from which he will fall when she releases him. His dispassionate accounting of his heartbreak, his pain, his desolation is telling, but despite the level-headedness of his account we never doubt the intensity of the love that he experienced.
But it is the third and longest section–“The Loss of Depth”–that is the most moving, that often feels like a punch in the heart. For in it, Barnes examines his own grief upon losing his wife. “Thirty-seven days from diagnosis to death” is the quickness with which this blow was dealt, and Barnes delineates his pain, his grief, his loneliness with extraordinary honesty and bravery and clarity. It is a exceptional feat, this incise, self-examination of utter loss, put down in words.
While the section surprises us, coming as it does after the previous two sections, in a way he was preparing us for it as well. Burnaby’s meditation on the loss of love, the discussion of crashing being part of the risk of rising, the uxorious care that Nadar took of his stroke-stricken wife, all these point to the marriage of Barnes and Pat Kavanagh.
He discusses the reactions of those he knows, the kind but often inept remarks that friends attempt, the plans they suggest to help him “through it.” He discusses his daily patterns, emptied now of half the players. He considers suicide, but checks that because if his wife lives in his memory, killing himself would be killing her a second time. He examines the Orpheus legend and takes refuge in meaningless soccer games and overly-emotional opera. And through this all he continues to miss his wife terribly and daily, and the pain of her absence seems never to go away.
But at no times is this meditation maudlin. Indeed, I found myself thinking what a wonderful thing this would have been if he could have shown it to his wife when she was alive. But then, he wouldn’t have had the wrenching grief that allowed him to write it.
Levels of Life is more than a beautiful book. It is powerful and loving. Intelligent and thoughtful. Honest and real. Perhaps after reading it, we should then ask our partners to read it as well, to let them know now what they mean to each of us and how their absence would affect us.
“Sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, the Walt Whitman
Award is given annually to the winner of an open competition
among American poets who have not yet published a book of poems.”
Each year the Academy of American Poets sends its members a copy of that year’s winning volume. This year the title was Black Aperture by Matt Rasmussen. And if good poetry is meant to rattle in your head, nestle there a while in the corners of your mind, and then come unbeckoned to the forefront of your consciousness, then Rasmussen’s poems pass the test and the Academy made an excellent choice.
Within the collection, there are poems about deer hunting and bird hunting: “when cleaning a grouse,/puncture the crop/to release the scent/of fresh clover.” (from “O”). There are poems that re-imagine the creation:
The animals gathered
and having cried enough
would never again.
God knew he had
asked too much. He threw himself
into the sun and burnt
into white ash. It fell
from the sky and covered
the mountains. The animal
who named everything
called it snow. (from “And God Said”)
And there are poems about poetry itself: “Through the mirror, it saw a house/of air falling inward. The poem heard/the poet calling and jumped.” (from “I am not a poem”)
But the overriding theme is the suicide of a brother.
There are three separate poems called “After Suicide” and one poem, “Reverse Suicide,” which takes the events in reverse to when both the speaker and his dead brother are once again raking and bagging leaves. In truth, the majority of poems take this momentous act as its subject. And those that don’t address it specifically are tinged with the shadow of it, a shadow that hovers over every poem.
Yet the poetry is not maudlin or morbid. It is, in fact, a source of liberation, as the speaker attempts to clarify through language both the act and his reactions, both his grief and his understanding of it, both his dead brother and his relationship with him.
Midway through the book, Ramussen places a poem called “Chekhov’s Gun.” Chekhov’s theory is that if a loaded gun appears in a play in Act 1, it must be fired by Act 5. Rasmussen begs to differ:
Nothing ever absolutely has to happen. The gun
doesn’t have to be fired. When our hero sits
on the edge of his bed contemplating the pistol
on his nightstand, you have to believe he might
not use it. … (from Chekhov’s Gun”)
It is a clever argument within the Black Aperture, because that gun–not only loaded but already fired–is present from the very beginning of the collection. The possibility of “not firing” that he posits in the Chekhov poem, is no longer a possibility. The speaker circles the once possible act of not-firing, while coming to grips with the already accomplished fact. That he does so with clarity, compassion, understanding and brilliance raises Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture from a mere elegy for a dead brother into something much more universal and accessible to us all.
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