Review: My Face for the World to See by Alfred Hayes

Book cover of the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

Cover for the NYRB edition of My Face for the World to See

The narrator of Alfred Hayes’ novel works in Hollywood. That is all we know. He is semi-separated from his wife; he lives alone for months at a time in L.A. and for months in New York with his wife, though his marriage, from his perspective,  is a failed and sad relationship.

In fact, the narrator finds his life and work as a failure. He sees no value in the work he does, although, as he says, the studio pays him handsomely. (He states that he is a “writher” rather than a “writer.”) He condescendingly (and somewhat snobbishly) observes the people around him, their vanities and egos, their manipulating and positioning, their theatrics and ambitions.

At a party one night, the narrator–bored with this gathering at an expensive beach house–steps outside for a smoke and sees a young woman walk into the sea. When she goes under, he rescues her and resuscitates her. And thus begins a relationship that he did not want to happen. That the woman is disturbed is revealed gradually, and she is much more than simply a young girl with unrealized Hollywood dreams.

Initially, it is her cynicism towards the business, towards love and towards life that draws him to her, that allows himself to give in to what he is also trying to hold back from. And as the two become more closely entwined–and as more of her anxieties are displayed–it becomes apparent that the two of them are very similar, a realization that is devastating to the narrator. In truth, it may be that it is the narrator whose face is now “for the world to see.”

The narrator’s deliberate and reflective thinking, his cool, detached observations, his knowing emotional cover-up, all work to create a modern anti-hero, an existentialist who is “forced” to live and work in a world that celebrates the superficial and is built basically on the dissemination of lies. It is a taut and harrowing read, a tale of self-discovery, acceptance, and angst.

My Face for the World to See was originally published in 1958. At the time, Hayes was more known as a scriptwriter. He had twice been nominated for an Oscar, had written successful screenplays for films directed by Fritz Lang, John Huston, and Fred Zinnemann, and also wrote many pieces for television including Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone.  As a novelist, he was most celebrated for The Girl on the Via Flaminia,  and as a poet, for “Joe Hill” which was later put to music and became an anthem for workers’ rights. (Joan Baez famously sang it at Woodstock. See below.)

The New York Review of Books re-issued My Face for the World to See in 2013, with an introduction by the film critic, David Thomson.  But this novel is by no means a Hollywood novel. Apart from the brief description of the initial party where the narrator rescues the suicidal young woman, there is no glamor, no behind the scenes peeks, no tabloid scandals. There is simply a couple of apartments and the narrator’s self-examination and his lover’s revealed past.  It is discrete yet raw, fast-paced yet thoughtful.  It is memorable novel that deserves this re-issue.

And here’s a treat. A sweetly innocent Joan Baez singing Alfred Hayes’ “Joe Hill” at Woodstock. Enjoy:

 

Book Review: The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

In 2006, with the release of Christine Falls, the Booker-Prize-winning novelist John Banville began publishing “crime fiction” under the pen name Benjamin Black.  Like his “literary novels,” these crime novels are psychologically astute, intensely plotted, and keenly aware of language.The Black-Eyed Blonde

With The Black-Eyed Blonde, however, Banville decided to try something new:  to write a novel using Raymond Chandler’s most famous private detective, Philip Marlowe.

While Chandler’s fiction is read and esteemed, and his influence on detective fiction in particular and American literature in general widely acknowledged, his detective’s presence is mostly ingrained in the American consciousness through film and television.  There have been several television series featuring the L.A. detective and many movies.  Dick Powell and Robert Mitchum both played Marlowe, and successfully, but undoubtedly, the most iconic incarnation of Phillip Marlowe is that played by Humphrey Bogart. So pervasive are the film renditions of Chandler’s L.A., that I found myself casting the characters while reading The Black-Eyed Blonde.  Sure enough there was a role for all the usual suspects: there is a creepy, effeminate Peter Lorre type, an enormous, gang-lord Sydney Greenstreet, a fetching Lauren Bacall character, and, of course, there is Bogart as Marlowe.

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Humphrey Bogart as Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep

Banville himself is certainly aware of the hold that film has on the literary characters and early in the book he gives a winking nod to Bogart. Marlowe is sitting in the offices of a fancy country-club. There are cigars and brandy, chintz armchairs and fine china. Marlowe says:

“At that point, I wouldn’t have been surprised if some fruity type in white shorts and a blazer had come bounding through the door, inquiring with a lisp if anyone was for tennis.”

This is Banville’s joke, and nod to Bogart.  Before he played tough guys in film, Bogart played in drawing-room comedies on Broadway. A long-lived story is that Bogart’s first professional line as an actor was as a young dandy, bouncing onto stage with his tennis whites and tennis racquet and inquiring “Tennis, anyone?”  That Bogart also had a slight lisp, makes Banville’s nod even more on target.

But The Black-Eyed Blonde is not a film, it is a novel, and a highly readable one at that. The title is one of several possibilities that Raymond Chandler had filed away and which Banville received permission to use from The Raymond Chandler Estate.  From there, somehow, Banville began channeling Chandler, because what he has created is an exceptional mirroring of Chandler’s style: the rapid-fire dialogue, the lyrical similes, and the sprawling, frenetic plot and subplots.

The plot is typical: the eponymous blonde, Clare Cavendish, enters Marlowe’s office and hires him to find a “friend”  who has gone missing.  When Marlowe discovers that the friend was killed and cremated two months earlier but that Cavendish had seen him just a few days ago, things get complicated.  There are betrayals, murders, cover-ups, flirtations, and deceptions.  And throughout it Marlowe maintains a strict code of honor–the characteristic that always set Marlowe apart from the rest. He protects his clients’ confidences, he takes no joy in the violence that is visited upon the deserving, he cannot be bought no matter what the price, and, while he can empathize with those on both sides of the law, he believes in justice.  It is this chivalric honor that became the hallmark of the American noir hero.

But always, when reading Chandler–and now Banville posing as Chandler–the story seems secondary.  It is the evocation of 1930s-40s Los Angeles, the elaborate metaphors (“He smelled like an over large man who had lain in the bath too long.”), the snappy dialogue that conjures up an entire world–a fictional world, perhaps, but one that we are very familiar with through both reading and film. And with The Black-Eyed Blonde, Banville re-captures that world perfectly,  note for note.

The Black-Eyed Blonde is a fun, a quick, and a memorable read.

 

The Getty Museum, Los Angeles– “a work of art with a museum inside”

20130716-223355.jpgWhen I think of art museums, I think of urban spaces. In my experience, most large cities ensconce their major museums within the city landscape itself.  And often times, the buildings themselves are as impressive as the art they house: the majesty of the Louvre, the edgy hipness of the MOMA, the serenity of the capital’s Hirschhorn, the classical grandeur of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, the modernity of the Tate. Yet, again, each is an urban creation, set upon city streets.

The Getty Center of Los Angeles, however, is something wonderfully different. To get there one must drive–as one always must in Los Angeles–along some congested stretch of highway ( the 405) and pull into a car park. From there you take a tram car 900 feet up a mountain and when you disembark at the mountaintop, you feel you have arrived on Olympus itself.

A sculpture "running" next to the tram car

A sculpture “running” next to the tram car

The museum is open-aired. As you move from wing to wing, from gallery to gallery, you walk into the California sunlight–the San Bernadino and San Gabriel Mountains stretching out to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, the blue sky all around you. The buildings are constructed in beautiful white block with striated stone quarried in Israel and Italy that mutates in color from brown to gold to sandstone in the changing light. Large panels of glass and open-air passageways further blur the distinction between outside and in. As one museum docent said, “People come here with the idea that they’re going to a museum with works of art on the inside, but they’re really visiting a work of art with a museum inside.”

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“Air” by Aristide Maillol

Sculptures both modern and contemporary are scattered throughout the grounds, so as you move from a special exhibition on Renaissance gardens to the Getty’s renowned permanent photography collection you must walk past Giocometti and Magritte and Henry Moore as well as Barbara Hepworth, Aristide Maillol and Charles Day.

Boy with a Frog, by Alexander Day

“Boy with a Frog” by Charles Day

Torso of a woman by Rene Magritte

“Delusions of Grandeur” by Rene Magritte

The holdings –and the special exhibits–that the Getty museum houses are world-class and extraordinary. From Van Gogh’s Irises to Mapplethorpe’s photos, from Titian to Rembrandt to Monet, the Getty is a magnificent collection.

But I could spend the entire day there and never walk inside.

by the way…

In case I didn’t say, there is also extraordinary art inside:

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“Specimen (after Durer)” by John Baldessari

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Book Review: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz–“learning what I do not know”

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

Standard Station, 1966, Ed Ruscha. (Park West Gallery)

RuschasLAMITI received a book about six months ago as a gift: Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles by Alexandra Schwartz.  At first I thought it was a travel guide, for I was headed to L.A. a few weeks later and I just assumed it was a book detailing the more out-of-the-way spaces to see.  Except that it was much too nice a book for a mere travel guide: small and compact with fine paper, hard-board covers and peppered with illustrations. I put it aside to read it at another time. (I have since spilled an entire cup of coffee on it in a place where food and drink was forbidden. Deserved bad karma!)

Anyway, boy was I wrong about the travel guide…and ignorant of an artist and a whole school of painting.

I had been completely unaware of Ed Ruscha–and of Los Angeles art.  And I was not alone. In fact, much of the book’s focus is how the Los Angeles’ school of Pop Art has always played the poor sister to New York’s more celebrated school.  And yet, unlike many cultural movements in which a western migration can honestly be traced, Pop Art in America seems not to have originated on the East Coast and worked its way across to California. Apparently, according to Schwartz, Pop Art seems to have arisen simultaneously in various parts of the country, reacting to and inspired by the same cultural influences.

In 1962, the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles mounted an exhibit entitled “The New Painting of Common Objects.” The British critic, Lawrence Alloway–the man who coined the term “Pop Art”–cites it as being the first exhibit of American Pop Art.  In fact, the gallery–and its curator Walter Hopps–was the first to exhibit Warhol’s iconic Campbell Soup Can–arguably, the defining image of Pop Art–two months before it was shown in New York.  The list of artists at “The New Painting of Common Objects” exhibit included Lichtenstein, Dine and Warhol from the East Coast, Phillip Hefferton and Robert Dowd from the Mid-West, and Edward Ruscha, Joseph Goode and Wayne Thiebaud from the West. It was the nation’s introduction to Pop and a major stroke for the establishment of Pop Art in the country. This, and the fact that the respected art magazine ArtForum had its offices above the Ferus Gallery where the show was staged, would seem enough to move the spotlight onto the Los Angeles’ art world, but it wasn’t.  But New York is much too big a player. (Ultimately ArtForum moved there, as well.)

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966. Photo: CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ed Ruscha in front of Noise, 1966.
Photo: 2004 CHRISTINA KOCI HERNANDEZ for San Francisco Chronicle

Ruscha hit the L.A. scene young, having hitchhiked in from Oklahoma at the age of nineteen. He enrolled in what is now the California Institute of Arts and afterwards worked–like his contemporary Warhol–in advertising.   And like Warhol, his collages, his word-art, the signage and everyday objects, and his photographs greatly showed the influenced that advertising had on him.

Ruscha’s work is vibrant and fun, enigmatic and engaging, uncluttered and beguiling. Besides his artwork, he has created numerous books and films, and often collaborates with artists, writers and publishing houses on lay-out and cover designs. He still works and lives in Southern California.

To be truthful, the book, Ed Ruscha’s Los Angeles itself, however is a bit heavy going and academic at times. (It was published by MIT and was originally Schwartz’s doctoral dissertation). But nevertheless, it is a wonderful introduction to Ruscha’s art.

At least for me, for whom he was a completely new name. And one that I am enjoying discovering.

“Always learning, even if it’s simply that I do not know.”

Book Review: Ask the Dust–Los Angeles, Obsession, and William Butler Yeats

Ask the dust

Ask the dust 3

ask the dust 4One of those weird coincidences: I began reading John Fante’s 1938 novel Ask the Dust late this past Tuesday night. I didn’t get far–maybe three chapters–but the story of a young writer who had moved to L.A. from Colorado had grabbed me. Wednesday morning, I wake up early, check my messages and e-mails and a few blogs that I read. One of them–francescannotwrite–has a picture of the Disney Concert Hall at the top and a quote from Fante’s novel: “Los Angeles, come to me as I have come to you.” (Besides the weird coincidence of the novel, I also had, just a few weeks back, put the Disney Concert Hall on my computer as its wallpaper.) The blog-post offered some examples of the novel’s humor, its brief passages of romance, and its overall feeling of gloom. And then it segued into some extraordinary pictures of Vietnam.

Anyway, so I finish the novel and it was a good read, although one that left a few questions unanswered. Episodes where the act of writing were described were particularly memorable, for it is hard to put down on paper the art of ART. Most times, it comes off as stagy and overly dramatic. But the scenes where Fante gives us two or three paragraphs of Arturo Bandini in a “creative” groove are fun to read. For instance, here is Bandini–having sold two short stories for a handsome price–sitting down to begin his novel:

Out of my desperation, it came, an idea, my first sound idea, the first in my entire life, full-bodied and clean and strong, line after line, page after page. … I tried it and it moved easily. But it was not thinking, not cogitation. It simply moved of its own accord, spurted out like blood. This was it. I had it a last. Here I go, leave me be, oh boy do I love it. … big fat words, little fat words, big thin words, whee whee whee.

But primarily, Ask the Dust is about obsession. The hero, Arturo Bandini, self-conscious of his Italian heritage and full of fluctuating self hate, falls madly in love with Camilla Lopez, a Mexican waitress at a cheap coffee shop. The entire novel, his writing, his day to day living, his memories of home become wrapped around her–or around deliberately hating her. For the relationship is a strange sado/masochistic thing that yo-yos between love and hate, between tenderness and violence, but that never vascillates in its obsession. Camilla too has her obsessions and it is the thrust of the novel that they are not the same as Arturo’s.

I have always been attracted to obsession. I remember reading the novel Damage by Josephine Hart in one sitting and being floored by the destructive obsession of its characters. (I can still remember cancelling a lunch appointment because of my emotional exhaustion. The film version, by the way, tries, but does not do it justice.)

But mainly I think of obsession as a good thing…as a passion that forms and defines you. And in this I turn to Yeats. My favorite Yeats’ poem is “The Song of Wandering Aengus.” The poem tells of discovering a great passion…and of following it throughout one’s life. There is a sadness in it, but one tinged with hope, colored with the concept that chasing the obsession is more important than actually attaining it.yeats3

The Song of Wandering Aengus

by W. B. Yeats

WENT out to the hazel wood,
Because a fire was in my head,
And cut and peeled a hazel wand,
And hooked a berry to a thread;
And when white moths were on the wing,
And moth-like stars were flickering out,
I dropped the berry in a stream
And caught a little silver trout.
When I had laid it on the floor
I went to blow the fire a-flame,
But something rustled on the floor,
And some one called me by my name:
It had become a glimmering girl
With apple blossom in her hair
Who called me by my name and ran
And faded through the brightening air.
Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

And this is how, John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust leaves us. His Mexican girl has “faded through the brightening air” and, while he chases her through the foreboding desert, he is left to use her image, her memories, and his pain to create his next novel, to fashion his next work of art.

And so for something different on this snowy March day, here is a clip of the singer Christy Moore doing his version of Yeats’ poem. It never fails to bring a tear to my eye: