James Salter’s *Light Years*

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The recent Nick Paumgarten profile of James Salter in The New Yorker made me want to read his 1975 novel Light Years, which I’ve now done.  It’s a really beautiful novel that sometimes reads a bit like To the Lighthouse if it had been written by the Hemingway of A Moveable Feast… with a lot of explicit post-1960s sex. And a touch of, I don’t know, Joan Didion or maybe better Renata Adler. It’s a portrait of a happy marriage and then its dissolution. For the first half of the novel, I once in a while felt just a touch irritated by, or at least slightly resistant to, the novel’s luxuriating in all the sensuous, tactile, lavish detail of the Berlands’ envy-producing life in a farmhouse outside NYC. All the fabulous, drawn-out meals sometimes make you wonder, do these people ever just throw together a sandwich? And a few of the sex scenes made me giggle -e.g. when Nedra is described as moving “like some marvelous beast.” But when the marriage disintegrates and the house is eventually sold, that luxuriating feels, in retrospect, poignant and sad, and idealized in hindsight:

The feast was ended. Like the story he had read to them so many times, of the poor couple who were given three wishes and wasted them, he had not wanted enough. He saw that clearly. When all was said, he had wanted one thing, it was far too small: he had wanted to give them the happiest of homes.

He has a very distinctive, crystalline prose…  Gorgeous sentences, like a prose poem. I can see why (as the profile explains) so many contemporary novelists admire him.

Oh, this is too cool!

As part of James Salter month at the Paris Review, the journal’s blog has posted some of Salter’s notes and scribblings, documenting a little bit of his process coming up with the title for his 1975 novel Light Years: “At every magazine or publishing house, there’s always an editor or two with a knack for titles. But even so, rarely does one come in a flash of divine inspiration. There are iterations and themes and the same words written over and over. Here is a glimpse of what James Salter’s process was like with his 1975 novel Light Years…. Salter seems so close at points, circling back to light and years, sometimes on the same page but not always the same line, ranking his favorites and weighing the opinions of others.”

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Tortoise Years would have been kind of hilarious– but fitting (the novel contains a very poignant and symbolically resonant tortoise).

Finnish Sauna Bowdlerized!

Sarah brought home this book from our (great) local public library, the Monroe County Public Library:

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.13 PMFinnish Sauna by Allan Konya.  London: the Architectural Press, 1987. Selling for $64 and up on Amazon.  Here’s the sole review posted there (which a perfect 15 of 15 people found “helpful”):

Allan Konya has written the most complete text on the Finnish sauna, covering the broad spectrum from the origins and rituals (something often overlooked), design and construction, materials, siting and layout. Every facet of the subject is thoroughly covered in detail and one comes away feeling he has finally understood what it takes to make a “good” sauna. This book follows quite closely the earlier text; “The International Handbook of Finnish Sauna” written by Allan Konya and Alewyn Burger. Anyone interested in designing, building or using a sauna should try to locate this book. It is the “bible” of the Finnish Sauna and is far superior to any other text on the subject. I have designed and built several saunas and still find useful information and inspiration in this book.

Not entirely sure why it caught Sarah’s eye, but anyway, when she got it home she discovered something we both found hilarious: some reader has taken it upon themselves to render the book more American-family-friendly by censoring (or Bowdlerizing), with a black Sharpie, the book’s images of nude Finns lounging in saunas.

Here are some examples:

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Only a small amount of water should be thrown at a time!

Photo on 6-11-13 at 8.15 PMPhoto on 6-11-13 at 8.15 PM #2What is that?  Is she carrying a baguette?

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Wow, nothing made it but the legs on that second girl!

I hate to tell you, concerned library user circa 1988, but you have taken what was a wholesome guide to Finnish saunas and those who enjoy them, and turned it into a very kinky volume– these images have become so much more erotic, as it is now impossible not to imagine precisely what lies under the tantalizingly thorough black ink.

Now to learn more about the often-overlooked rituals of the Finnish sauna…

Marc Maron: Cats know more than we can understand

cat-Marc-Maron-Boomer-by-Dimitri-von-KleinMarc Maron with Boomer: [Photo by Dimitri von Klein from Catster]

I kind of wished I’d blogged about Marc Maron before he suddenly became ubiquitous… I’ve been listening to his podcast WTF (I get it on iTunes) occasionally but regularly for the past year or two.  I’m not sure what his secret is, but some of these conversations have been really memorable, so much so that I can remember where I was walking the dog or walking home as I listened to some of them. David Cross, Fiona Apple, Pamela Adlon, Mike White, John Oliver, Stephen Merchant, ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, Diablo Cody… I guess those are the ones I remember most vividly. Maron is an over-sharer, he’s self-laceratingly critical and confessional, smart but insecure about his knowledge & status, obviously needy and competitive, but not too aggressively so, melancholic, eager to connect… And he seems to bring out a similarly confessional, over-sharing spirit in his guests.  Part of it may simply be the podcast’s length and flexible structure — it’s an open-ended conversation (conducted in Maron’s garage studio, which is now immortalized in the opening credits of his t.v. show), and as far as I can tell, he’s not aiming for a particular length, so the exchange can go into some slow patches, and then can pick up or open out into something new. (For example, I was feeling disappointed by his Lucinda Williams podcast– he seemed nervous, and interrupted her too often — but then eventually she got into fascinating stories about life as a child with her bipolar, alcoholic mother.)  The Mike White conversation was especially great, with some pretty startling moments of self-revelation on White’s part (but I am a huge fan of his anyway- he’s the creator of Enlightened as well as movies like Chuck and Buck).

Btw, one tip — although I know this makes Maron mad: every podcast begins with about 10 minutes of him riffing and ranting and promoting Stamps.com, so if you mostly want to hear the interview, you need to fast-forward.  (There’s often good stuff in the rants, though!)

I also just read Maron’s memoir, Attempting Normal, which is good.  You have to have a certain degree of patience for incessant discussion about his grim-hotel-room (and other) masturbation habits — generally pretty amusing, though.  The book more or less tells the story of his comedy career, his two marriages, his career slide and serious depression that preceded his comeback that began with his beginning WTF.  It’s episodic, though, and many of the chapters are basically little mini-essays or fragments, some of them artfully constructed.  The chapter “the Clown and the Chair,” about the role played by a particular piece of thrift store furniture in the endgame of his second marriage, is excellent, for example.  I also really liked his discussions of the weird, exhausting, and often alienating life he led in the late 80s and 90s as a “road comic” playing casinos, restaurants, and small clubs, in his case mostly around New England. There’s an amazing story about a comedian, Frankie Bastille, who’s since died, who snorted heroin in the passenger seat as Maron drove them to a show out of town (Maron was opening); when they got to the club, Maron had to physically haul in the seemingly comatose Bastille, who then proceeded to deliver a killer show, and then nodded out again on heroin on the drive home.

One thing that struck me, and that I found refreshing, is the degree to which Maron is basically a male Crazy Cat Lady.  The chapter “Cats” explains how he acquired his collection of formerly feral pets; they come up repeatedly elsewhere, and the book ends with a moving tribute to Boomer, his favorite cat who disappeared right when Maron was beginning to tape his new IFC show, Maron. [That is Boomer in the photo above.]

Why he vanished just as my life was changing drastically demands interpretation. I am not religious or spiritual, but I am prone to connecting dots in equations so that they defy coincidence.  Someone suggested that maybe this was the end of our journey together, that he had taken me as far as he could and that it was time for him to move on. I like that angle….

If you are awake and alive, sadness is a fluctuating constant. Hope is fleeting, a decision you make out of faith, desire, or desperation. Cats know more than we can understand. I don’t care about biology or brain size.

Sniff…

So far I’ve seen two episodes of his new show, #3 and #4.  I give it a 7.5 so far… or maybe an 8… It’s good and smart in some ways, and funny, but he and his story feel a bit constrained by the scripted sitcom format, and a lot of it feels a bit like a slight variation on Curb Your Enthusiasm: needy, narcissistic comedian in L.A. playing a just slightly fictionalized version of himself.  Louie too, I guess (Maron and Louie C.K. are old friends; there’s an amazing conversation about how they had a falling out and kind of patched it up on Maron’s recent Fresh Air interview), but so far I don’t think Maron has managed to get to the kind of raw insight, formal innovations, and originality that Louie offers.

The last episode, in which Maron decides to date “an age-appropriate woman” for once (i.e. not in her early/mid 20s), was seeming not-so-great to me, and then it took a twist and actually became much better than I expected. Maybe Maron is Marc Maron’s Lucky Louie and he needs to have this one cancelled and then regroup for his next great one. Or maybe this one will get better as it goes.

Elena Ferrante and the Novel of Female Rage

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I learned about Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, four of whose books are out in English translation on Europa Editions, from James Wood’s good piece on her work in the January 21, 2013 New Yorker.  That Wood is a fan makes me pretty sure that Ferrante’s work influenced his wife Claire Messud’s new novel The Woman Upstairs; I haven’t read that yet, but I’ve heard several interviews with Messud in which she explains her desire to write a novel in a voice of female rage, of a kind familiar from ranting-narrator books like Notes from Underground, but much less familiar in a woman’s voice.

Maybe or maybe not, but Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment is definitely a novel of female rage — and of female abjection, humiliation, disgust.  Wood writes that “the literary excitement of The Days of Abandonment lies in the picture it gives of a mind in emergency, at the very limits of coherence and decency, a mind that has become a battlefield between reason and insanity, survival and explosion.” The plot is simple: the narrator Olga, a 38 year-old woman, a mother of two young kids who had published one book in her 20s, but in recent years has more or less abandoned her vocation as a writer (this also reminiscent of the Messud novel’s themes), is suddenly left by her husband Mario with no real explanation.  Mario takes up with the 20 year-old daughter of a former close friend, and Olga is left alone with the kids and an unhappy German Shepherd, struggling to keep the household and her mental state in any kind of working order.

Most of the novel takes place in and around Olga’s increasingly claustrophobic apartment; the novel sometimes reminded of Roman Polanski’s great, disturbing psychological horror movie The Tenant. More to prove that she can than out of any real desire, Olga has a one-night stand with a kind but seedy downstairs classical musician, one of the greatest Really Bad Sex scenes I can recall. It’s very graphic, but what’s shockingly memorable are the embarrassing, intimate details of what goes down between them.  Bodily fluids of various kinds, not just sexual but also vomit and human and dog blood, spill out throughout the book, always emphasizing Olga’s sense of dismay and lack of control over the boundaries between herself and others, and her own inside and outside.

Women don’t often get to rant in novels, Messud has been commenting — and/but The Days of Abandonment is one long, sometimes unhinged, mesmerizing rant.  “Obscenity came to my lips naturally… As soon as I opened my mouth I felt the wish to mock, smear, defile Mario and his slut.”  She’s haunted by a childhood memory, recurring throughout the narrative, of a neighbor her mother had called the “poverella,” that “poor woman,” who was left by her husband and descended into despair, eventually drowning herself.

I haven’t really conveyed the ways the novel is, implausibly, also somewhat hilarious at times. Hard to take at moments — the plot involving the German Shepherd Otto is upsetting, for example — but a great read.  And not as much of a downer in the end as you fear.

I should also mention that Ferrante is an author of Thomas Pynchon-like mystery; her name is a pseudonym, and virtually nothing is known about her personally. Rumors apparently swirl about who she may really be. Must be hard these days to maintain that kind of secrecy.  Here’s a brief interview with her (conducted via email). And her 2008 NYT Op-Ed about the “stinking, polluted filth” of her hometown of Naples.

I want to read her most recent, My Brilliant Friend, apparently the first book in a trilogy.

Living, Loving, Partygoing with the Future Bible Heroes and Henry Green

It appears that the new Future Bible Heroes single, “Living, Loving, Partygoing,” is a tribute to the English modernist novelist Henry Green. And more specifically, to the Penguin edition that collects all three of those novels.  (Penguin is onto this.)

I’m not all that surprised that Stephin Merritt would be a Henry Green fan.  Perhaps his recent hearing problems/ tinnitus led him to the “odd, haunted, ambiguous” Green, who is famous for his Altman-esque overlapping conversations.  From a Paris Review interview with Terry Southern, “The Art of Fiction” #22, from 1958:

TERRY SOUTHERN: I’d like to ask you some questions now about the work itself. You’ve described your novels as “nonrepresentational.” I wonder if you’d mind defining that term?

GREEN: “Nonrepresentational” was meant to represent a picture which was not a photograph, nor a painting on a photograph, nor, in dialogue, a tape recording. For instance, the very deaf, as I am, hear the most astounding things all round them which have not in fact been said. This enlivens my replies until, through mishearing, a new level of communication is reached. My characters misunderstand each other more than people do in real life, yet they do so less than I. Thus, when writing, I “represent” very closely what I see (and I’m not seeing so well now) and what I hear (which is little) but I say it is “nonrepresentational” because it is not necessarily what others see and hear.

Another good moment from this interview occurs when Southern asks how Green came to the plot/story for Loving:

I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.

I’ve kind of been waiting for the ripples from Downton Abbey-mania to reach Green. Henry Green Revival!

Merritt’s lyrics seem less faithful to than perhaps generally inspired by the mood of Green’s novels, e.g.: “At Mink Stole’s birthday/ in gay Provincetown/ I came to DJ/ and left with the clown.”

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Amis’s The Green Man: Fawlty Towers meets The Turn of the Screw

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The great New York Review of Books Classics series has a new edition out of Kingsley Amis’s 1969 The Green Man.

It is a strange book.  Imagine a cross between Fawlty Towers, a nudge-nudge swinging circa 1970 English sex farce, and James’ The Turn of the Screw interlaced with a matrix of references to English folklore and anthropology.  One in which the narrator’s quest to get to the bottom of the haunting of his hotel by a malignant 17th-century ghost is presented as not-necessarily more urgent than his well-thought-through (if ultimately not fully successful) plan to convince his wife and mistress to participate in a threesome with him. The novel’s narrator Maurice Allington is the Basil Fawlty figure, a witty alcoholic who runs a B&B-style hotel in the English countryside.  Kingsley cleverly updates James’ novella (among other classic ghost stories) by rendering his narrator’s heavy drinking and tendency to black out and, perhaps, experience hallucinations as a source of ambiguity about the strange phenomena he starts to see around his hotel: strange men and women coming up the stairs and appearing in the window, and a very creepy Wicker Man-esque primaeval forest creature comprised of branches and plants.  Or rather, we ourselves don’t really doubt that something supernatural is occurring, but Allingham’s reputation among his family and friends is such that no one takes him too seriously when he seems to be seeing things.

If you’ve read Lucky Jim you know that Amis can be hilarious; Allington is an extremely mordant, amusingly cranky and misanthropic narrator.  Here’s a favorite passage:

I missed out the artichoke, a dish I have always tended to despise on biological grounds. I used to say that a man with a weight problem should eat nothing else, since after each meal he would be left with fewer calories in him than he had burnt up in the toil of disentangling from the bloody things what shreds of nourishment they contained.  I would speculate that a really small man, one compelled by his size to eat with a frequency distantly comparable to that of the shrew or the mole, would soon die of starvation and/or exhaustion if locked up in a warehouse full of artichokes, and sooner still if compelled besides to go through the rigmarole of dunking each leaf in vinaigrette.  But I did not go into any of this now, partly because Joyce, who liked every edible thing and artichokes particularly, always came back with the accusation that I hated food.

This is true enough.  For me, food only interrupts everything while people eat it and sit around waiting for more of it to be served, but also casts a spell of vacancy before and after.  No other sensual activity must take place at a set time to be enjoyed by anybody at all, or comes up so inexorably and so often.  Some of the stuff I can stand.  Fruit slides down, bread soon goes to nothing, and all pungent swallowables have a value of their own that transcends mere food.  As for the rest of it, chewing away at the vile texture of meat, pulling bones out out of tasteless mouthfuls of fish or emcompassing the sheer nullity of vegetables is not my idea of a treat. At least sex does not demand a simultaneoius outflow of talk, and drink needs no mastication.

A truly committed alcoholic’s theory of food and eating.

The novel definitely feels somewhat dated or at least of its moment in its unapologetic sexual objectification of women.  It might be possible to explain this away as an effect of an ethically unreliable narrator whose attitudes towards women we are not invited to share — Allington does eventually get a kind of comeuppance and enlightenment — but you have to be able to deal with a lot of verbal ogling and the long-range planning of the intended threesome, etc.

What seems unique about The Green Man is the intertwining of its humor and supernatural horror.  It actually is kind of scary which seems a tough trick to pull off in the midst of all the dirty-old-man-innkeeper humor. Kingsley also offers some surprising and cool metaphysical developments late in the novel that you don’t see coming.

Oh wow — here’s an old paperback edition, from a t.v. adaptation?

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Keeping it classy!  Relieved we can’t see the guy’s body. That is definitely something I’d be embarrassed to be seen reading on a bus.

And another, a cool one:

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‘I Will Ruin Him’: James Lasdun’s memoir of being stalked

0224-Bradfield-articleLargeillustration from NYT Book review

James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked is a creepy and compelling story of a teacher-student relationship gone bad, a memoir of being stalked, and an investigation into reputation and identity within 21st-century internet culture.  It also touches on other topics including contemporary Jewishness, Israel, and anti-semitism, and a son’s reflection on his relationship with and to a famous father (Lasdun’s father was the architect Denys Lasdun who designed the Royal National Theater in London among other prominent structures).

The Chronicle of Higher Ed ran an excerpt from the book a while ago and I sometimes felt that this narrative’s proper length may have been somewhere between that short piece and this full-length book.  Still, it is gripping and smart throughout, with a canny self-awareness about this story’s resonance with a long literary history of Gothic doppelgangers and mysteriously implacable enemies (I thought of, e.g., William Godwin’s Caleb Williams and Nabokov’s Lolita among other such tales).  The title of the excerpt, “‘I Will Ruin Him’: How it Feels to be Stalked” evokes one of Lasdun’s major themes: the vulnerability of reputation and personal identity today, its susceptibility to “ruin” through online means.  I thought also of the recent story (which on reading, prompted me to go through the minor hassle of setting up two-factor authorization for my Gmail account; you should probably do it too) by journalist Mat Honan that begins, “In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook.”

I personally do find it terrifying to reflect on how easily a determined, malicious enemy — or random hacker — can target you and wreak very serious havoc on your life.  Lasdun’s story is one of a personal encounter that goes wrong, but part of the takeaway from his story is the ease with which anyone can today do you harm through digital means.  There are a lot of Iagos out there on laptops and smartphones.

The book ends with the situation unresolved: his stalker, Nasreen, is still hounding him, posting invented accusations on online sites (she claims Lasdun raped, abused, and manipulated her in countless other ways, including plagiarizing her writing and stealing her work), emailing employers and colleagues, and so on.  It’s irresistible to look for possible signs of her activity out there now that the book has been published.  For example, there’s this recent Amazon review: “This was such a boring book. It was awful. I can’t believe this guy teaches writing…and no, this is not Nasreen writing (although your paranoid and egotistical self will probably think it is).”

And I found this one fascinating:

As a recovering stalker, this has changed my life,March 13, 2013

By Buckshot – See all my reviews

I was never as menacing or hateful as Nasreen, I never was talked to by the police or given any threats about legal action, and I never smeared my professor’s name, but in most other ways, this story is shockingly parallel to my life experience. The stalking took place in Western NY with my creative writing professor, between the years of 2007 to (well, today I had to send him a blurb about this book as a goodbye). That’s several years of unwanted emails. Which, like Nasreen’s, came in ‘fevers’ between silences. Sometimes addressing him like an ‘ever-dependable mentor’ and sometimes in a phase of hyperbolic disgust, sprinkled throughout with coherence and self-reflexive apologies, even humor. I relate to Nasreen so deeply, her existence gives me some strange relief. The author treats the subject with the respect and humanity that I always hoped I would be seen with. The increases in frequency of these unwanted emails correlates to times in my life that are more stressful and filled with doubt, as they probably did for Nasreen. The chasm between how I seem in real life (coy, near-mute, clumsy) with how I am in the emails is similarly jarring. For christsake I even used to use the phrase, “intimacy terrorist.” At times, I thought this book was written under a false identity of my professor. He kept a solid silence up, that confuses me to this day, but reading this book I think I understand what it’s like from the other side, and I don’t want to inflict that on anyone. I don’t want to be pathological. Again, I was never as extreme or punitive as Nareen, but the frequency and intensity of my emails are similar, and the origins and reasons for the attachment, nearly exact.

Jamie Quatro & George Meredith: Hiding the Skeleton

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Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More seems like the 2013 version of Ben Lerner’s hilarious & super-smart 2011 Leaving the Atocha Stationa first-book fiction breakout on a small press (Lerner’s was published by the really indie Coffee House press; Quarto’s is on Grove, so maybe not exactly the same thing) that gets rave reviews from James Wood in the New Yorker, the NY Times, and cascading ripples of underdog-new-author-loving accolades from that point on.

Quatro’s stories are really good.  They’re all set in the town of Lookout Mountain on the Georgia-Tennessee border, which on first blush sounds like a too-picturesque invented setting but turns out to be where Quatro actually lives.  (Her husband seems to be a business professor at the (Presbyterian) Covenant College in Lookout Mt.)

The one that seems to have received the most attention is “Decomposition: A Primer for Promiscuous Housewives.” This is a disconcertingly realist-allegorical account of a married woman’s adultery in which, following her confession to her husband and breaking off of the affair, her lover’s slowly decaying corpse manifests in the marital bed.  She zips up the body in a sleeping bag and hides it in an old playpen in the basement, disguised under piles of junk.  Finally she brings her husband down to look at the hidden corpse, which starts to scream at her and call her a whore.

My theory is that Quatro (who started but did not finish the PhD program in English at Princeton, specializing in British Romantic poetry) is drawing on George Meredith’s great 1862 sonnet sequence “Modern Love,” especially its famous section 2 in which the miserable, adulterous couple play “hiding the skeleton” in their performance of a happy marriage:

AT dinner she is hostess, I am host.

Went the feast ever cheerfuller? She keeps

The topic over intellectual deeps

In buoyancy afloat. They see no ghost.

With sparkling surface-eyes we ply the ball:

It is in truth a most contagious game;

HIDING THE SKELETON shall be its name.

Such play as this the devils might appall!

But here ’s the greater wonder; in that we,

Enamor’d of our acting and our wits,

Admire each other like true hypocrites.

Warm-lighted glances, Love’s Ephemeræ,

Shoot gayly o’er the dishes and the wine.

We waken envy of our happy lot.

Fast, sweet, and golden, shows our marriage-knot.

Dear guests, you now have seen Love’s corpse-light shine!

There’s a new Yale UP edition of the poem (and a bunch of other Meredith poetry) reviewed (somewhat nastily to its editors) by Helen Vendler in a recent New Republic.

I Want to Show You More has various enjoyable & surprising things about it, including that it is (a) immersed in matters of religion; not only are many of its characters church-goers but several stories (like “the Anointing” and “Demolition”) are centrally about faith in different ways and (b) it’s unusually filthy/pervy by prestigious-short-story standards. In “Decomposition,” for example, one manifestation of the adulterous woman’s ill ease (with her lover in the basement) is that she “grow[s] desperate, watch[es] Asian breast massage how-to videos on YouTube with links to girl-on-girl porn.”  I wonder what the folks at Covenant College think of all this.

*Any relation to Suzi Quatro a.k.a. “Pinky” Tuscadero on Happy Days?  Weirdly conceivable but probably too good to be true.

Our love is alive, and so we begin

Foolishly laying our hearts on the table

Stumblin’ in

Our love is a flame, burning within

Now and then firelight will catch us

Stumblin’ in

Stumblin’ in

Stumblin’ in

I actually always thought it was “our love is a lie”… which I thought was kind of hard-hitting for that kind of song.

Richard Hell: Cold, angry days on the houseboat

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I had Richard Hell and the Voidoids’ Blank Generation and Destiny Street in high school and although those were never albums I listened to from start to end a whole lot, I’ve always really loved a few of Hell’s songs: e.g. “Time” (“Only time can write a song that’s really really real”), “Love Comes in Spurts,” “Kid With the Replaceable Head,” and “Blank Generation.”  He was a bit of a punk-rock Zelig: a founding member of the great Television before his high school buddy Tom Verlaine kicked him out; briefly in Johnny Thunders’ Heartbreakers after the breakup of the New York Dolls; slept with Nancy Spungeon for a while before she got involved with Sid Vicious; opened for the Clash with the Voidoids in Britain in 1977.  That year Time dubbed him “the demon-eyed New Yorker who could become the Mick Jagger of punk” (it didn’t quite work out that way). I don’t think I had really known this, but Hell’s memoir (I Dreamed I was a Very Clean Tramp) makes a convincing case that when Malcolm McLaren spent a while hanging around NYC in 1974-5, he admired Hell’s style — his good looks in torn leather jacket, the safety pins, spiky hair, aggressively graphic hand-printed text on t-shirts, a Situationist-influenced collage aesthetic — and that when he couldn’t recruit Hell to form his own band, McLaren just appropriated the look and gave it to the Sex Pistols. (Hell admits to spending some time feeling frustrated about his unacknowledged role as the originator of punk’s signature style, but seems Zen about it now.)

Robert Christgau claims that with the memoir Hell equals or exceeds Patti Smith’s achievement in the National Book Award-winning Just Kids.  I definitely disagree; overall I found I Dreamed I Was a Very Clean Tramp hit or miss. It has some great stories to tell, but eventually it devolves into a dispiriting narrative of heroin addiction, reflexive promiscuity, and missed opportunities– somewhat redeemed by the awareness that Hell eventually got clean and turned into an apparently healthy person.

Some examples:

Our record company was another source of disgust and disappointment.

Later, as the monotony and discomfort of the tour became more and more horrible, the great [Clash friend/ roadie] Roadent introduced me to his antidote for ennui — self-inflicted cigarette burns.  It worked and I still have the cherished memory on my left forearm.

Jake did a creative thing for us in London by renting a houseboat on the Thames, off Cheyne Walk, for the band to live in.  But it turned out not to be a good idea to cram us all into a tight space.  By the end of the first three days I was junk-sick and irritable… My hopelessness grew… It got labyrinthetically self-repellant… The entire… tour was just a stretched-out version of those first few cold, angry, nauseated days on the houseboat.

Some friend or editor also really should have gotten Hell to ease off on of the punk-groupie sex stories, which also get monotonous and depressing. He indulges too much in plain old objectification of the array of women who pass through his various fleabag Lower East Side bedrooms. “Although he’s self-deprecating about it of course,” Christgau writes (unfortunately), “Hell was New York punk’s great ladies’ man.”  Sabel Starr is one example of his conquests.  “Sabel was fifteen (Johnny [Thunders] was nineteen) when they met and she was already notorious as an L.A. groupie.  Word was she’d slept with Iggie Pop was she was thirteen… She always had the cheeriest healthy smile.  The smile was real — happy and friendly.  Everything about her was real.  She was heroic.  At least from the point of view of a musician she liked.  She truly lived for fun and joy, and the thing that was the most joyous of all to her was to make a meaningful rock musician happy.  That was her mission, the way someone else might join the Peace Corps.  Instead of digging wells and planting crops and offering medical care, she provided pretty and entertaining companionship, astute and sincere encouragement, favorite drugs, and magnificent blow jobs…. She was a soulful, sane, self-aware sweetheart of a committed groupie.”

Eww. As he comments at one point, while on coke his “brain and cock were one”… and he was high most of the time in the late 70s and early-mid 80s.

Hell is a pretty smart guy, one of the better-read and more intellectual of the punk generation (he always saw himself as a writer/artist who happened to decide to make music for a while), and there are some good/fun things about the book… he knew everyone in those days, and it’s fascinating to see the emergence of punk from the perspectives of one of its conceptual architects.

He observes interestingly at one point that “the British punk culture also seemed strangely asexual.  There were some classic teenage sexpectations among stray members of bands, but for the most part the relations between the boys and the girls seemed infantile, like prepubescent.  People kidded and cuddled and might even share beds, but it seemed to be in bad form to regard one another as sexual prospects.”  The book brought out the prude in me: I kept thinking, “stop doing drugs and chasing groupies, focus on your opportunities.”  Punk saw itself as an alternative to the excesses of 1970s rock and roll culture, but people like Hell got caught up in an arty downtown version of those same excesses, to the point of sleeping with the very same groupies.  Although he definitely gets the problem of drug addiction, it doesn’t seem to occur to him that there might have been something valuable in a (relative) prudishness and “asexuality” in the London scene, which may have helped to prevent punk from reverting into just a new form of rock and roll.  (Just read this Bookforum review which comments of Hell, “he’s a scumbag with an intimate, articulate understanding of scumbag psychology.”)

The “clean”/chaste vs dirty/ “tramp[y]” [vis. the book's title] dichotomy may also relate to Hell’s complicated feelings towards Tom Verlaine, who is the closest this book comes to the Robert Mapplethorpe of Smith’s Kids — e.g. the roommate/ best buddy/ co-conspirator from the early days.  Hell still seems to feel rejected by and angry at Verlaine to some degree, perhaps in part because of Verlaine’s aloof, un-rock-and-roll fastidiousness: he didn’t do drugs, didn’t hang out much, and you don’t hear a lot about his girlfriends.  I guess he just dedicated all his energy to making genius music… (Although to be fair, Verlaine does sound as if he could be a pain in the neck, a bit of a control-freak J. Mascis type, with Hell as the bewildered/rejected Lou Barlow).

But then, I was always much more of a bookish Verlaine than a bad-boy Hell type (sans any musical talent), personally.

*Amour* and *I Married You for Happiness*

Amour

Coincidentally (I think) I happened to be reading Lily Tuck’s novel I Married You For Happiness when I saw Michael Haneke’s Amour at the IU Cinema– both of which are about an elderly, long-married spouse’s response to the death of his/her partner.  You probably know about Amour.  The donnée of Tuck’s novel is a bit different; at its onset, the narrator Nina is at the bedside of her husband, who after going upstairs to take a quick nap, has died suddenly; the novel plays out in that night, as she stays by his corpse, thinking back over memories from their marriage.  As its title suggests, I Married You For Happiness is less about the death than about the marriage, and I found it to be a moving and engaging portrait of a not-untroubled long-term relationship as it spools out over decades.  They meet at a cafe in Paris where she is reading an avant-garde French novel by Natalie Saurraute (which hints at Tuck’s aesthetic program). Theirs is a C.P. Snow two-cultures kind of marriage, she a painter, he a mathematician, and one of its concerns is the way two people with different ways of thinking, kinds of mind, and perspectives can form a life together.  In this it reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s portrait of a somewhat incompatible yin/yang marriage in the Ramsays:

Whenever she "thought of his work" she always saw clearly before 
her a large kitchen table. It was Andrew's doing. She asked him 
what his father's books were about. "Subject and object and the 
nature of reality," Andrew had said. And when she said Heavens, 
she had no notion what that meant. "Think of a kitchen table then," 
he told her, "when you're not there."

So now she always saw, when she thought of Mr. Ramsay's work, 
a scrubbed kitchen table.

Nina is a bit Mrs Ramsay-like in her bemused attitude to her abstractly-thinking husband’s worldview.  Although in other ways she, as an artist, more resembles Mrs. Ramsay’s protege Lily, the painter (Lily Tuck/ Lily Briscoe?).

I am a longtime Haneke fan (I’ve seen most of his films, I think — my favorite is probably Caché; I can never bring myself to watch either version of Funny Games), and I found Amour brilliant and/but hard to watch in some respects.  I read one review that asserted that it is “not a depressing movie” and in fact that it would be a good choice for a couple to go see on Valentine’s Day.  It’s true that it’s a notably realist and unsentimental depiction of long-term commitment– one that considers what the phrase “’till death do us part” might really mean in practice.  Not sure I’d really recommend it for date night, though.  One friend saw it at a different showing at the IU Cinema during which she reports various audience members were crying, one woman doing so throughout the entire film and, at one climactic moment (you can probably guess which if you’ve seen it), shouting out loudly “no!”  My friend says she actually kind of wished she’d seen it on DVD at home, as the emotion in the audience was a bit overpowering.

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