Before JFK was even a Congressman (or a war hero) and when Spencer Tracy was a top Hollywood star (a status that would last till the end of his life). Tracy was getting his copy of JFK’s book, Why England Slept, autographed. Very touching.
Currently reading Robert Caro’s books about Lyndon Johnson (link here to the first in the series). What a life; what a life force Johnson was. I’m laughing. I’m crying. I’m in awe of the good and the bad and the ugly and the beautiful of the man – the hate, the love, the pain, the whole damn thing.
Most of all, reading these books has confirmed to me something I’ve always thought: hippies are evil.
Update on my New Year’s Resolutions — yes, I am reading Finnegans Wake. And it ain’t no piece o’cake. Ulysses was rather easy to read, and not only by comparison. It was actually a linear story. Finnegans Wake is not and there is an awful lot of made-up language (puns, portmanteaux and the like) in it. Still, one can follow. Book One was easy. Book Two a good deal more opaque. Book Three I am finding readable and quite funny.
In fact, I would suggest the key to reading Finnegans Wake and not letting it intimidate or frustrate you is to simply realize it is comedy — dark, at times, slapstick, vulgar and, on occasion, deeply literary. It reads as if someone had written out their dreams upon waking.
It also helps to be half-Norwegian, or know something of Norway and its culture. References to Ibsen and Norwegian words are strewn throughout the book and the story features Norwegian characters, as well.
Finally, it helps to know the song (especially for Book One).
Many moons ago, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I went to Poland to visit a friend of mine. Her name was Eva (Ewa) and she had been a classmate of mine at the Sorbonne. We always got along well at school. But that all changed in Warsaw, when she asked me what I hoped to see in Poland. Well, I told her, Auschwitz, of course, and also the Warsaw Ghetto.
Her face fell. She informed me that the former Ghetto was now nothing more than a small plaque. Not interesting. Not worth it. She then said I should not go to Auschwitz. Why not, I asked. Because, she said, Poles died there too. By “Poles” she meant Catholics. She did not consider Polish Jews to be Poles. I was stunned. She went on to say that it was wrong to think it was mostly Jews who died in Auschwitz and that it was really all about the suffering of “real Poles” and so on. I was quite young and had never been exposed to this kind of revisionism and trivializing of the suffering of Jews. Now, sadly, it is old hat to me. But back then it was new and I was shocked.
I insisted, though, and I went to Auschwitz without Eva. She was mad. She was beyond mad. After I left Poland and went back to Paris our friendship was pretty much over. Once — when I had returned to Canada — she sent a Christmas card, but that was because she was trying to get information on how to immigrate to Canada. She had married a Lebanese man (another piece of the puzzle!), she wrote, and he spoke French so Canada would be perfect.
I could not help her and that was that. That trip to Poland was a disturbing experience for me. I was so naïve (now that I am less so, I hope I will be able to visit Auschwitz again). I regret that I did not call her out more. All I did was say, “Well, mostly Jews died there” and “I am going to visit, even if you don’t want to go with me.”
All of this has never left my memory (which is freakish) but it came back in even more vivid colours when I recently read these two books. The first is about a particularly odious Polish hate crime against Jews, the second is about the intense envy that feeds so much anti-Semitism.
Today we say “never forget” and “never again.” The problem is that so many who want it to happen again don’t care or will not admit that it happened in the first place.
Update: It occurs to me I should link here to one of my favourite novels, Peter Matthiessen’s In Paradise. It takes place in Auschwitz, though in the 1990s, and among its themes is Polish anti-Semitism.
Born on this day in 1449, Lorenzo de Medici, “Il Magnifico.” He wrote — among other things — the following words:
Quant’ e bella giovinezza,
Che si fugge tuttavia!
Chi vuol esser lieto, sia:
di doman non c’e certezza.
If you know any romance languages, you can probably figure that out, but just in case, it says (more or less), “How beautiful is youth (or how beautiful is it to be young)/which nevertheless disappears (runs away)/Be happy all who wish to be/of tomorrow there is no certainty.”
Basically, “enjoy life while you can.”
I am currently reading this book, from which I am learning a good deal. Tim Parks’ non-fiction are always terrific. (Not saying his novels aren’t terrific, I just haven’t read any of them — yet.)
Update: Ok, I just finished the afore-linked Tim Parks book and it includes his translation of the bit of poetry above. His translation is, obviously, better than mine. Here it is: How fine youth is/Though it flee away/Let he who wishes, enjoy/Nothing’s certain tomorrow.
I don’t usually do book recommendations on my site but today I will. I read insane amounts — mostly non-fiction but some fiction — and the fact that I am taking time to write about these two books tells you what they meant to me.
The books are Bettyville, by George Hodgman, and The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. In a way, they are similar: both stories about family, about the past, about loss and love and about being grateful in the present. But they are different, of course.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is drawn against the painful backdrop of the relentless (and seemingly endless) persecution of Jews in Europe, the sickness of the Holocaust, and also has a strong art history focus (something I really appreciated).
De Waal is English, but a descendant of the (originally Russian) Ephrussi family, for a time on a par with the Rothschilds (even related by marriage to them) in terms of wealth and influence in parts of Europe. Proust’s Swann is said to have been based on Charles Ephrussi.
When de Waal inherits some “netsuke” from a favorite relative (he represents the fifth generation of his family to inherit them), he decides to trace their journey, which includes stops in Paris and Japan and Vienna. And it is truly something, particularly when you discover how the netsuke escaped being stolen by the Nazis, while pretty much all the rest of the Ephrussi art was taken.
In some ways, the book reminded me of the brilliant movie, “Woman in Gold”, though the former unfolds over a much longer period of time.
Bettyville is, on the surface, a memoir with less grandeur, but Hodgman’s portrait of his mother, Betty, is mighty grand. My own mom died, just short of her 93rd birthday, last year, and I saw so much of her in Betty. Same generation, same decency, work ethic, wit, and a similar stubborn dance with declining independence. The same good, strong people.
Hodgman is a successful editor and writer who, after growing up in Missouri in the ’60s and ’70s as a clever — though struggling and often bullied — gay kid, moved to New York. Along with an enviable career, he got into drugs, went into rehab, had some dysfunctional relationships, all of which he writes about with tremendous humor and no self-pity.
When his mother began fading, he moved back, initially to find someone else to care for her, but then decided to see her home, as he says, himself. In the process he finds “home”, in a manner. It is certainly touching to see him discover Missouri — fly-over country — as an adult, after having felt out of place so often as a kid and teenager. Honestly, I laughed, I laughed so hard I cried, and I just plain cried.
Read them both!
Very important. From last year but truly timeless.
I’ve often thought of my experience of adulthood thus far as one of incrementally discovering that there’s no institution, or walk of life, in which everybody isn’t just winging it. Growing up, I assumed that the newspaper on the breakfast table must be assembled by people who truly knew what they were doing; then I got a job at a newspaper. Unconsciously, I transferred my assumptions of competence to (among others) people who worked in government. Then I got to know a few people who did – and who’d admit, after a pint or two, that their jobs involved staggering from crisis to crisis, concocting credible-sounding policies in cars en route to press conferences, exactly as portrayed in The Thick of It.
By the way, the author of this column wrote this very helpful book — I read it shortly after my brother died and it did indeed allow me to do just as its title suggests.
Or Thomas Cromwell versus Thomas More.
After having read — and enjoyed — the Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall books, I became insanely addicted to the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of the same. It was almost a retro historical drama, like something one would have seen in the 1970s, which I think was very much its strength. A stranger-than-fiction plot, brilliantly staged, written and acted.
It’s a measure of the genius of Mark Rylance, the extraordinary actor (how have I never heard of or seen him before?) who brings self-serving machinator and yet strangely-likable lawyer/fixer/son-of-a-blacksmith Thomas Cromwell to full life, that by the end of the six hours I had a teeny crush on him. What a (not handsome) face! He can convey more with a slight smile/smirk, than one ever cares to know – as good as acting gets. His Cromwell is self-serving, yes, but also sympathetic, intelligent and possessed of some moral boundaries (though he pushes at those a bit).
And it’s a measure of Claire Foy’s talent that, after watching her turn as the mean-spirited Anne Boleyn for six weeks, your heart aches for her as she quiveringly prepares to be parted from her head.
And Damian Lewis as Henry VIII? He comes very close to usurping my previous favorite screen Henry VIII, Robert Shaw. I say “close” because his Henry is far more cruel than Shaw’s interpretation, so it’s hard to feel affection for him (as I did for Shaw’s Henry). Of course, the script played a part in that.
Which brings us to A Man for all Seasons. I have always loved this movie. But it’s interesting because in Wolf Hall, Thomas More is a preening, morally superior hypocrite, a man who tortures “heretics” (apparently enjoying it) and acts all snooty toward the Cromwells of the world, the sons of blacksmiths. It is hard to believe that the More of Wolf Hall believes that the devil deserves benefit of law, though at the end, when he is beheaded, one admires (as in A Man for all Seasons) his powerful faith and his unwillingness to deny it in order to save his earthly life.
And where Wolf Hall makes you care about Cromwell, the Leo McKern Cromwell of A Man for all Seasons is not someone for whom you develop any feeling. The character is not given the depth he is in Wolf Hall, which focusses on Cromwell’s private life (including much loss) and makes his ability to survive (up to a point) at a merciless royal court the centre of the tale.
So what can we learn from this?
That we should learn history from books, many books, and just enjoy movies and TV for what they are — movies and TV (nothing wrong with that, either). Speaking of, off to read this now.
I was thinking about pigeons and it brought to mind this great quote from a book I read a few years back. The book is Masks in a Pageant — and I highly recommend it — by the great American journalist William Allen White. The quote follows:
The thrush, the oriole, the bird of paradise, are esteemed by society, while the unlovely hell-diver is despised. Nature has no favorites. All her creatures are equally beloved; in God’s kingdom all the subjects are of royal blood. The earthworm is as useful as the lion; the amoeba has full fellowship with man.