Archive for the ‘Authors’ Category

“Three Early Stories” by J.D. Salinger

Sunday, August 10th, 2014



“See if you can’t get something better on the radio! I mean who can dance to that stuff?”


The years from 1940, when he was 21, to 1948, when he was 29, were spent by J.D. Salinger as a novice writer on the make. He knocked out about two dozen short stories and was able to sell most of them, for good money, to popular magazines of the day. He dismissively referred to those magazines as “the slicks,” and he regarded his writings as apprentice work. Forgotten is what he wanted them to be. When an unauthorized edition of 22 of his early stories was released in book form in 1974, Salinger broke his long-standing silence. He called the New York Times to complain, saying, “I wrote them a long time ago, and I never had any intention of publishing them. I wanted them to die a perfectly natural death.” He was frank in self-judgment: “I’m not trying to hide the gaucheries of my youth. I just don’t think they’re worthy of publishing.”

Literary critics consider the early stories as preludes to Salinger’s mature output. The shift to a higher mastery — the emergence of that unmistakable Salinger voice — occurred in 1948. That was the year he entered into a committed, regular and productive relationship with The New Yorker. It lasted until 1965 and witnessed the creation of most all of the short stories the author later judged worthy for preservation in book form, in a volume titled Nine Stories. This period also produced four longer works chronicling the Glass family; these were collected in Franny and Zooey in 1961 and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction in 1963.

Until recently, the uncollected early stories have been available only in bootlegged or otherwise inconvenient forms. For example, there is set of online texts, in a format that not easy on the eyes, here.

But now  comes a slim, comfortable-in-the-hand volume of Three Early Stories issued, in apparent accord with copyright law, by the Devault-Graves Agency, Memphis, Tennessee (74 pages, published June 1, 2014). Like a minor spill escaping the pressured confines of a dam, this is a harbinger of a larger flow of uncollected and unpublished material we Salinger fans are eager to see released over the next few years.

A Small Sampling of Apprentice Work

The book opens with the author’s remarkably self-assured first published story, “The Young Folks” (1940). It recounts a minor episode in which two young adults fail to connect — something that was to become a signature Salinger interest. Next is “Go See Eddie” (also from 1940), an augury of the writer’s later fetishization of secrets. The book closes with a demonstration of Salinger’s sentimental edge, in “Once a Week Won’t Kill You” (1943), whose protagonist is about to leave his young wife for service in World War II. It addresses a condition described by Saul Bellow as being a “dangling man.” It happens to describe Salinger’s own status at the time that he wrote it.

Each of these three early stories is surprisingly brief, occupying on average a mere 11 pages in length. This is about one-third the length of the average story in Nine Stories. In fact, the shortest story in Nine Stories is twice the length of the longest of the Three Early Stories. To put this even more starkly, Nine Stories gives the reader nine times as much material as the combined word count of Three Early Stories. The slimness of the book is not evident at first glance. But when you hold the book open, you see that the text is printed on the right side only. Except for the ten full-page illustrations by Anna Rose Yoken, the pages on the left side of the opened book are blank.

What you get in Three Early Stories is a trio of sketches. Or think of them as hors d’oeuvres, never intended to be a fulfilling meal. Because of the modesty of their scope and their detachment from a major enterprise, these tales naturally encourage the reader to focus on their atmosphere and immediate effects.

Period Pieces with Undertones

I you’re like me you’ll quickly be reminded that the pre-war world Salinger depicts is a peculiar one, filled with quaint manners and voices, as different from our lives in the 21st century as are the diaphanous conversations and characters found in The Great Gatsby. Salinger’s characters often describe other people “swell” and “grand.” All too often they speak in italics. Their lives transpire indoors, which lends a “staginess” to the action. It occurred to me that what Salinger did was transfer to the written page the rhythms and gestures, both vocal and physical, of Broadway drawing-room comedies and dramas of the period.

I was struck by two things specially. One is that none of the three stories contains children. To a reader versed in Salinger’s world, their absence will may be keenly felt as a disappointment. The other surprise occurred when, in “The Young Folks,” I came across a sentence whose oddness seemed un-Salinger like. It’s at the point in the story when a young man and woman who have just met and are are getting to know each other get up from their chairs. Salinger writes: “They arose simultaneously. Edna was taller than Jameson and Jameson was shorter than Edna.” This threw me for a loop. Is this reciprocal statement just a clever way of underscoring the pair’s sort-of-unusual height relationship? Is it a flashy way of shifting perspective, allowing Edna to notice she is taller than the young man she’s been introduced to, while also allowing Jameson to notice he is shorter than the young woman? Is this edging toward being a bit “meta”?

On a darker note, each reader must decide for themselves whether to forgive some off-putting elements such as a languorous air of privilege among the dramatis personæ, and the author’s focus on male leads who are moody and irritable. If you’re familiar with Salinger’s biography you know he was not particularly kind to women, and your may detect in these early stories a foul odor of misogyny in the treatment of the female leads. Salinger delights in dissecting characters who are snobbish, phony, petty, none-to-bright, and of dubious morals.

That Salinger Style

The reader familiar with the arc of Salinger’s writing will recognize in Three Early Stories other elements of his style that will reappear, in glorious form, in his later works. Three Early Stories, small though it may be, provides an opportunity to confirm what Ian Hamilton wrote in In Search of J.D. Salinger, A Biography about the importance of these early exercises: “[They] had taught him to handle the mechanics of narrative with a technician’s self-assurance.”

Sure enough, from the very start the guy had the goods. You may be taken with the wizardly way Salinger propels his narratives through dialog — arch, well-honed, slangy and character-defining. The most radical honing occurs when Salinger chooses to withhold from the reader one-half of the conversation — is there another author who can match Salinger’s clever presentations of just one side of a telephone cal (a structure not coincidentally exploited by stand-up comics from Bob Newhart to Ellen DeGeneres)? (The “reveals” in the plot are carefully placed (so don’t drop your attention; when reading “The Young Folks,” for example, remember to count the cigarettes). His use of “misdirection” means you may be surprised in a good way.

Then there are the habits and idiosyncrasies we’re used to if we’ve devoured the books from Catcher in the Rye through to Seymour: An Introduction. Here they are in their earliest incarnations. Characters yawn in each of the three early stories. They bite their fingernails. Everyone smokes cigarettes pretty much all the time, and the many rituals tied to that habit are meticulously observed. Relationships, whether they are between young singles on the prowl (The Young Folks), or between brother and sister (Go See Eddie), or between a young married couple (Once a Week Won’t Kill You), are fraught with insincerities and disappointments. Human beings are “bored or apprehensive, annoyed or resigned.” Their typical reaction is . . . to try to get something better on the radio. Yet in the final story, written at the time when World War II was intensifying its brutal course, Salinger introduces more consequential themes: irretrievable loss, remembrance, caring.



Final note: Salinger never liked the illustrations magazine editors sometimes attached to his early stories in the slicks. It was shabby interference with his work, he felt, and it was one more reason he yearned for the respectful editorial hand at The New Yorker. One wonders what he would have thought of the illustrations by Anna Rose Yoken found in Three Early Stories. Ron Charles, editor of the Washington Post’s Book World, doesn’t seem concerned about this disrespect. I don’t see any value in the illustrations, several of which are too cutesy for my taste, others tone-deaf to the text. A striking error appears in her picture of the standing figures of Edna and Jameson on page 14 of “The Young Folks.” Yoken shows Edna as several inches shorter than Jameson, subscribing to the conventional girl-boy relationship. The question is, what parts of Salinger’s description on page 13 — “Edna was taller than Jameson and Jameson was shorter than Edna”  — did Yoken fail to understand? Or was this an act of willful defiance on the part of the artist against the author? Or a simple oversight and “oops”-worthy mistake we all make? And why was this error not caught by the editors prior to publication?


Art and Commerce

Sunday, January 19th, 2014


Well worth a read is a piece by Holland Cotter in the New York Times entitled “Lost in the Gallery-Industrial Complex.”

The “art industry” is the term Cotter uses to describe “the nexus of high-price galleries, auction houses and collectors who control an art market renowned for its funny-money practices.” The art world, in his view, “basically functions as a labor source, supplying the industry with product, services and exotic color.” The article is illustrated with a number of photos. Among them is a photo of the scene at Christie’s during the November auction of Francis Bacon’s “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” which sold for $142.8 million (Christie’s Images, via Associated Press):



That the art industry provides support to a global ruling class is a reality Hollywood is happy to buy into. To illustrate this phenomenon, consider next month’s theatrical release of a re-make of Paul Verhoeven’s memorable “RoboCop” (1987). The website for the new version describes its plot:

“In RoboCop, the year is 2028 and multinational conglomerate OmniCorp is at the center of robot technology. Overseas, their drones have been used by the military for years—and it’s meant billions for OmniCorp’s bottom line. Now OmniCorp wants to bring their controversial technology to the home front. […] OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer. OmniCorp envisions a RoboCop in every city and even more billions for their shareholders.”

And so it is no surprise that, in two trailers for the film, we see Omnicorp’s headquarters to be the natural owner of trophy art work:



“Here” by Wislawa Szymborska

Saturday, December 21st, 2013



The slimmest of slim volumes of poetry, “Here” by Wislawa Szymborska contains 27 pieces for our delectation. The page count is 84, half filled with the poems in the original Polish language and half in fine translations by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.  The book was published in English just two years prior to the poet’s death at age 88 in 2012.

The writer and critic Adam Gopnik says the effect of a typical Szymborska poem is like encountering a “happy collaboration between Ogden Nash and Emily Dickinson.” Gopnik’s one word for her work is “charming.”

Through the lens of “Here” I see things differently. Although consistent with her body of work, there’s something especially attractive about these late-in-life poems. The word I myself would attach to the dominant strain in these poems is “whimsical” — playfully quaint and fanciful, especially in an appealing way. In choosing that word I also have in mind the phenomena of “whims,” those odd ideas that take over the brain and imagination very suddenly.

So Szymborska begins a poem with the question, “Me — a teenager?” and speculates what it would be like to meet her own seventy-year-younger self. (For a similar conceit, deftly executed, check out the YouTube video, here.) Then she begins another poem by blurting out, “Why not, let’s take the Foraminifera” — and proceeds to wonder whether those tiny limestone-shelled sea creatures were/are, ultimately, dead/alive. Later, confident that nothing’s lost by revealing the name of the game, she titles a new poem, “Thoughts That Visit Me On Busy Streets.”

Szymborska and Frank O’Hara could have been pals.

This may sound odd, but instead of Nash and Dickinson, the voice I hear in “Here” is a kindred spirit to the sharpest of our contemporary stand-up comedians, the men and women who mix biting social/political commentary with quotidian observational humor, acolytes of the late George Carlin, not just on subjects of pain, death, and war, but in the category of material Carlin called “the little world.”

Among Szymborska’s favorite words are “astonish” and its variants, applied to this world, this life.

Astonishments are what she itemizes in the poem whose title she also attached to the volume as a whole: “Here.” One of its 51 lines is a neat summary of the whole poem: “Life on Earth is quite a bargain.” Like a Philadelphia attorney she argues the case point by point. Her brief includes this deadpan observation —


“Like nowhere else, or almost nowhere,
you’re given your own torso here,
equipped with the accessories required
for adding your own children to the rest.
Not to mention arms, legs, and astounded head.”


The American comic and actor Louis C.K. occupies the same ground, albeit more profanely. Here’s an observation he makes in his 2013 comedy album. “Oh My God,” —


“I like life. I like it. I feel that even if it ends up being short, I got lucky to have it.
Because life is an amazing gift when you think about what you get with a basic life.
Here’s your boiler-plate deal with life — this is “basic cable, what you get when you get life:
You get to be on earth.
First of all, Oh my God, what a location! …
You get to [#%@!]; that’s part of the deal.
Where else are you going to get that deal?”


By the end of her life Szymborska had armed herself with a ready answer to the rude question many interviewers posed: Why have you written so few poems? She replied:

“A poem written in the evening is read again in the morning. It does not always survive.”

Now, once you’ve read “Here” or another collection of her work, your perception is likely change in a way that allows you to understand how Szymborskiac this seemingly tossed-off response is. It reveals one writer’s writing habits, of course. But listen to it again. How much contingency it contains, how much a reminder of love (passion expecting to last … ) and death ( … yet only to disappear).


[Note: A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.]

“Vlad” by Carlos Fuentes

Sunday, November 24th, 2013



Count Vladimir Radu of Wallachia — Vlad the Impaler, scourge of fifteenth-century Central Europe — comes to contemporary Mexico City to settle down and resume the terrors necessary to sustain his eternal life.

If at first that premise sounds to you like a pitch made by a desperate screenwriter to a bunch of schlock-meister cable network execs, don’t be misled. In the hands of a purposeful writer like Carlos Fuentes, an author of broad perspective and fluent literary skills, the conventional story line of vampire genre fiction mutates into a compelling allegory. The result is sly — and deadly serious.

What Fuentes cares about is the unnervingly wayward state of our moral condition. I suspect he approached the writing of this book as an experiment testing whether, through the aura of the Devil, his message of warning could be freshly conveyed. I, for one, think Fuentes achieved his goal.

From the very start of “Vlad” the Devil’s infiltration is felt. Page by page small stitches are added to the story’s fabric, new notes of dread harbored in a word, a phrase, a gesture, an observation.

The first chapter introduces us to an aged attorney who heads a politically connected firm where the narrator, also an attorney, is employed. This old “holy terror” is a man of “moral flexibility” who comes from “obscure origins.” He has “slithered” from one presidential administration to the next, growing in power while displaying “superficial courtesy and empty praise.” He behavior is always accompanied by an “ironic smile.” Later, in the fourth of 14 short chapters, when Count Vladimir Radu himself is introduced to us (“All my friends call me Vlad,” he says), the narrator’s reaction is simply this: “He looked like a ridiculous marionette.” This blithe judgment is soon replaced by chilling discoveries about Vlad’s mission, with terrible consequences for the narrator, his wife, and daughter.

It’s no surprise that, at bottom, Fuentes is a moralist. He views our day and age as an arena in which it’s easy to find ageless signs of evil. “In this world we all use each other,” says Vlad; “some of us win, others lose. Accept this.” The novel shows how evil insinuates itself into the work environment, corrupts professional duties, and sunders the most intimate of family relationships. In every sphere of life, Fuentes wants us to understand, the temptations of the Devil and his minions are here to provoke the fall of men and the malfunctioning of society. On the horizon is the ultimate horror: “The unyielding desire of Vlad the Impaler: to translate his cruel political power into cruel supernatural power; to rule not only over his time, but over eternity.”

In the last chapter of the book the narrator recounts his final confrontation with Vlad. It ends with him turning his back on the vampire, and then listening:

“… a sacred voice, hidden until that moment, whispered into my ear, from within my soul, that the secret of the world is that it’s unfinished, because God himself is unfinished. Perhaps, like the vampuire, God is a nocturnal and mysterious being who has not yet manifested or understood Himself, and that is why he needs us. To live so that God doesn’t die. To carry on living the unfinished work of a yearning God.”

Although the novel is dark, Fuentes does not forget to give expression to his lyrical talents. In the middle of an evening conversation at the decaying mansion of his boss, the narrator pauses to notice how “the light from the burning logs played on our faces like murky remains of sunlight.” A tender recollection of the loss of a child is delivered in heart-breaking language. It ends with a cadence: “This absence that is a presence. This silence that seeks voice. This portrait forever trapped in childhood …”

Adding seasoning to the swiftly told story of “Vlad” are Fuentes’ signature interests in issues of social class and politics. One theme I found thought-provoking is the notion that honest work is the most effective antidote to evil. Yet as with any such prescription, this guidance comes with bad side effects. I suspect Fuentes, when introducing the idea, may have had in mind the contrary opinion of the Mexican-born early Marxist, Paul Lafargue, who in his 1883 treatise, “The Right to Be Lazy,” declared the work ethic to be a vampire sucking the blood of modern society.

A final mention should be made of the prominence of attorneys in this tale. They — and by extension the legal system — are repeated targets of Fuentes’ satire (“the lawyer never spoke without a specific ulterior motive”). “Vlad” would make a great gift for your favorite, or better still, the least favorite — attorney in your life.


[Note: An abbreviated version of this book review appears on Amazon, here.]

“In Praise of Reading and Fiction” by Mario Vargas Llosa

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013



The other day at the World Bank InfoShop I bought two remaindered copies of “In Praise of Reading and Fiction,” Mario Vargas Llosa’s 2010 Nobel lecture. It occupies 38 pages of this ultra-slim volume.

The text is available free online at “The Official Website of the Nobel Prize,” here. A video of Vargas Llosa reading the essay in Spanish before an audience at the Swedish Academy in Stockholm on December 7, 2010, can be found here.  His reading lasts 54 minutes.

Why then buy the book?

For me the book’s smallness suggests a gesture, so the best answer may be to give it as a gift — on the birthday of a reader friend, or at a house-warming for that bright looking couple who’s moved next door, or to someone you care about who’s recovering from illness or setback.

It also occurs to me the book may be useful if you happen to be suffering from a condition I call “reader’s block” (a sibling to enervating “writer’s block”). This is when you feel like you will never again be able to muster the energy to sit for longer than an hour, quietly and attentively, occupying your hands and eyes with one of those wonderful objects known as books. Here is an engaging lecture by a worldly writer; it may just be the ticket for a short trip back to your love of reading.

Vargas Llosa touches intelligently upon a wide range of subjects, and he does so in a straightforward, one might say earnest, fashion. The author’s thesis is a bold one: “Thanks to literature,” he asserts, “civilization is now less cruel than when storytellers began to humanize life with their fables.”

He talks freely about literature, of course (among the American writers he praises are Melville and Arthur Miller), but also about politics, including his path from Marxist to democrat and liberal; about the people and culture of Peru, the country of “every blood”; and about his debt to France, where he learned how literature truly “is as much a calling as it is a discipline, a job, an obstinacy.” He talks about his love for his patient wife, and about his personal journey as an author, frequently interrupted by the “vertigo” that begins to seize him whenever a gestating novel “takes shape and begins to live a life of its own.” He amusingly recounts how, at age 70, he became a stage actor.

Most humbly he begins and closes the lecture with reminiscences of childhood, what he calls the time of “dreaming, reading, and writing.” When I read these passages I was reminded of a remark Albert Camus made in his maturity, a statement I’ve long been fond of:

“A man’s work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened.”

Surely Vargas Llosa possesses a kindred spirit. He recalls:

“My mother told me the first things I wrote were continuations of the stories I read [about the Three Muskateers, Captain Nemo, Jean Valjean, among others] because it made me sad when they concluded, or because I wanted to change their endings. And perhaps this is what I have spent my life doing without realizing it: prolonging in time, as I grew, matured and aged, the stories that filled my childhood with exaltation and adventure.”


Why are publishers pseudo-soiling their new book jackets?

Friday, October 4th, 2013

A couple of years ago I noticed a flurry of books, written by and about women, whose covers featured images of women in a strange pose: turning aside and away, showing not their faces but their backs to the potential reader. See examples here.

Now another strange phenomenon has appeared: book covers or jackets with a worn, “distressed” look, as if their designers wanted to pre-deliver the tatters and soiling that come from handling a cherished volume over a long period of time.

Examples include a new paperback edition of Gertrude Stein’s Paris France (with subtle age-staining applied front and back); a soon to be released novel by Daniel Alarcón (with similar pseudo-soiling of its cover, simulating the residue of sweaty palms); and that new biography of J.D.Salinger (with pretend nicks and creases fondly recalling your own well-worn copy of Catcher in the Rye).

Set these books on your coffee table, and your “I-much-prefer-used-bookstores” bona fides won’t be questioned.





On the tables at Costco, 9-27-2013 . . .


The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013



If you knew ahead of time that a novel you planned to read would become one of your favorite books, would you set aside the time needed to complete it in one sitting?

That’s something to consider when picking up Simon Van Booy’s THE ILLUSION OF SEPARATENESS.

Fortunately, while the book is dense with plot and packed with fully-realized characters, its 200-page length and Van Booy’s fluid prose assure that the goal of a “one-day read” can easily be met.

In its opening chapters the novel plants a series of mysteries about the origins and destinies of a varied set of men and women. Much to the reader’s pleasure, revelations begin to emerge about a third of the way into the book and continue up to its final page. The astute reader will likely guess many of the secret connections among the persons portrayed and solve the puzzle of several who-is-savior-to-whom vignettes. Still, it is a thrill to follow the author’s path as he locks these intricate relationships into place.

The non-chronological presentation of personal histories and incidents, covering a time period from World War II to the present day, is smoothly executed. So too are the literary elements. Descriptions of poetic brevity abound. A character watches a river at night and describes it as “a cool muscle.” Another recalls how, at a lively restaurant, a line of arriving cars “held life in the haunches of their gleaming coats.” Elsewhere, dawn is said to bring “the outlines of things coming–a world drawn fresh from the memory of yesterday.”

The reader is bathed in recurring motifs — of flowers, birds-in-hand, mouths, beating hearts, the sundering of bodies, and conjectures about how each personally important place was different in times gone by (“Our house was once a flock of trees in the wilderness”). You encounter earthly paradox: “Some days the sky was so clear, it was like staring into darkness.” You come across countless references to rain, as in this example which illustrates Van Booy’s animist and anthropomorphizing bent:

“Rain says everything we cannot say to one another. It is an ancient sound that willed all life into being, but fell so long upon nothing.”

At its root, the book’s wisdom is that of religious teaching: “For a long time now,” one of the principle characters reflects, “he has been aware that anyone in the world could be his mother, or his father, or his brother or sister. He realized this early on, and realized too that their lives were merely its conditions. The truth is closer than thought and lies buried in what we already know.”

Or, as another character says: We must remember each of us is “part of someone else’s story.”


This review appears on Amazon here.


“The Connoisseur” by Evan S. Connell

Wednesday, July 31st, 2013



The dictionary tells us that the word “connoisseur” derives from the Old French “conoisseor” — meaning a judge or a person well versed in anything. The term can be traced back even further to the Latin “cognoscere” — to know. Knowing this, it should be no surprise that from the hands of a modern writer, one skilled in social satire and irony, a book entitled “The Connoisseur” will explore the question of how we, poor modern men, struggle to know. And so in what on the surface appears to be a novel of manners, Evan S. Connell sets his protagonist, the middle-aged insurance executive Muhlbach, on a quest for authenticity, exploring depths beneath the surface.

The Connoisseur is a short novel containing finely delineated characters and clean and clear prose. But there is little or no story to speak of. We follow the seemingly directionless path of a lonely widower in mid-life crisis. In the opening chapter he is suddenly captured by the siren call of a piece of ancient sculpture he finds in a care-worn shop while on a business trip to New Mexico. It is a terra-cotta seated figurine of a Mayan dignitary, likely from the Island of Jaina, Mexico, Classic Period, 600-900 AD.

The paucity of plot and the specialization of the subject matter explains why many, maybe even most, readers will come away from the book disappointed.

There are some, however, who will be enlivened. This group includes readers intrigued by art history — here, pre-Columbian sculpture — and by the art trade. In a series of vignettes Connell examines the art world in all of its variety, from experts to charlatans, from rude wheeler-dealers to the most sophisticated purveyors. Muhlbach labels this world “a pastiche of aesthetics, art and commerce.” In a narrow sense, then, the book is about the education of a new collector.

The book is even richer for a still smaller, self-selected cadre of readers — the sort who, having finished the novel, will keep it on a shelf reserved for books they already know they’ll want to re-visit in future. There are those who, for personal reasons, seek to understand the psychology of collecting and the psychology of collectors. These are the readers who, if they turn back to the Epigraph Connell chose for “The Connoisseur” —  a line of Thomas Aquinas defining beauty, “Id quod visum placet” — will nod in sympathy, since for them this is a book which, being read, pleases.


A version of this review appears on Amazon, here.


On re-reading “The Great Gatsby”

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2013



As I write this post, “The Great Gatsby” ranks as #6 among all books Amazon’s best seller list. Ever since reading the book became a mandatory right of passage in most American high schools, it has remained a perennial best seller (and a fixture on Amazon’s Top 100 Books list), but the reason for the current heightened interest is the release of a new filmed version by Baz Luhrmann. Readers have been posting reviews of the book on Amazon at a frantic rate in recent weeks. A new statement of praise, or sometimes a discordant note, appears just about every two hours around the clock. Most of these amateur reviewers identify themselves as re-readers.

Me, too.

My thoughts?

It’s not The Great American Novel. That laurel ought to be reserved for a novel of largeness and sprawl — a book that’s brawny, not slender; loud, not languid. There are candidates other than “Gatsby” that have a superior claim on the label.

It was Hemingway’s opinion that “all modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” What Hemingway didn’t realize when he rendered that judgment in 1934 was that “The Great Gatsby,” which had been released less than a decade before to positive critical reaction but disappointing sales, was even then steadily gaining an appreciative audience among common readers. And for later generations of writers, the book was about to exert an influence far beyond its weight class.

When I opened up “The Great Gatsby” once again, this time in middle age, I was impressed by how securely the novel belongs to the ongoing current of American literature. With the assistance of related sources of commentary on the novel, I also came to understand just how seriously the well-read Fitzgerald took literature’s calling and his own role within its tradition.

T.S. Eliot’s influence on the author of The Great Gatsby

Fitzgerald, I learned, was a self-described “enthusiastic worshipper” of T.S. Eliot. He referred to Eliot as “the greatest of living poets” when inscribing a presentation copy of “Gatsby” to him in 1925:



The respect was mutual. After reading “Gatsby,” Eliot wrote Fitzgerald to say the novel “seems to me to be the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James.”

I was struck on several occasions by how much of Nick Carraway’s character and behavior fits the mold of the narrator of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Nick is glad to be of use to Daisy and Gatsby. His attachment to Gatsby may well be described as that of an attendant Lord, whose actions are deferential, politic, cautious, a bit obtuse. In the end Nick recognizes himself as, perhaps, the Fool. There are details in the novel that borrow generously from the poem. For example, when observing feminine beauty, Nick is as attentive to slender, languidly-posed ladies as his English counterpart. Compare Prufrock (“I have known the arms already, known them all–arms that are braceleted and white and bare [but in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]”) with Nick’s observation of Myrtle’s sister Catherine, whose “bracelets jingled up and down upon her arms”).

Nick’s perambulation of Manhattan in Chapter 3 (“At the enchanted metropolitan twilight I felt a haunting loneliness sometimes, and felt it in others–poor young clerks who loitered in front of windows”) is a variation on Prufrock’s penchant for wandering at dusk through narrow streets to watch lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.

Prufrock’s seaside romantic fantasy (“I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each”) becomes Nick’s street-side daydream (“I liked to walk up Fifth Avenue and pick out romantic women from the crowd and imagine that in a few minutes I was going to enter into their lives”). These yearnings are unrequited. The mermaids will not sing to Prufrock, and Nick’s girls are equally elusive as they “faded through a door into warm darkness.”

So too does Fitzgerald’s animistic description of the breeze blowing through the sitting room of the Buchanan mansion in Chapter 1, and its gentle demise (“the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor”) appear to repeat the journey — and to adopt the anthropomorphic tenor — of Eliot’s fog and smoke that licked its tongue into the corners of the evening, slipped by the terrace … and curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

In Chapter 2 Fitzgerald identifies the Valley of Ashes past Flushing as the waste land — the very title Eliot gave to what would become his most celebrated poem. Eliot finished “The Waste Land” in 1922, the year in which the events described in Gatsby take place.

If Fitzgerald’s prose can be said to converse with his poetic contemporaries, the lasting glory of his prose is its power to continue the conversation with later generations of literary lions. “Gatsby,” it seems to me, has become for American writers a primary source, an unavoidably inspiring voice.

Williams, Miller, Updike, Salinger

When Daisy castigates Tom as “a brute of a man, a great, big, hulking physical specimen,” chances are good the reader will conjure up the showdowns between Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski. When Nick, organizing the funeral, despairs over the coldheartedness of Gatsby’s friends and hangers-on (Nick’s devastating two words are: “Nobody came.”), the reader may be  reminded of Willy Loman’s widow, Linda, during the Requiem scene that ends “Death of a Salesman,” as she expresses her pained confusion: “Why didn’t anybody come? Where are all the people he knew? Maybe they blame him.”

With alchemical dexterity Fitzgerald, in the opening chapter of “Gatsby,” transforms a ringing telephone into a living character capable of disordering a marriage — an audacity John Updike pays homage to in his short story of adultery, “Your Lover Just Called,” collected in “Museums & Women and Other Stories” (1972).

I was frankly surprised by the evident ties between “Gatsby” (1925) and another landmark in American writing that debuted a generation or so later — “The Catcher in the Rye” (1952).  When speaking about American voices and memorable narrators, literary critics love to cite Holden Caulfield and Huckleberry Finn. The reader is introduced to those two indelible characters as they pursue a wayward path toward maturity, shedding innocence along the way. Yet I find there is also a kinship between Holden and Nick Carraway. Although Nick is older (29 going on 30 over the course of the story he narrates), he is in many ways just as unanchored as Holden, or Huck for that matter. Each is a person whose education is not yet complete, a persona still in formation.

Both “Catcher” and “Gatsby” use the framing device of a narrator who has escaped the scene of an intensely personal experience. What Nick describes as his own “riotous excursions with privileged glimpses into the human heart” during the summer of 1922 could, with some tailoring, fit the days Holden describes for us (what he calls “this madman stuff that happened to me around last Christmas”). Both characters are now recovering from trauma and are relaying their tales from a safely distant post. Notably, in Baz Lurhmann’s re-telling, Nick has not returned home to the middle west (as in the novel) but instead finds himself, like Holden, in a California sanitarium.

Holden (in Chapter 24) and Nick (after the drunken party in Chapter 2) recount enigmatic but sexually-charged incidents with older men. Both Holden and Nick, toward the end of their stories, engage in small, symbolic acts to rid their world of indecency: Holden erases an obscene graffiti in the stairwell of his sister Phoebe’s school; Nick scrapes away an obscene word a truant scrawled on the steps of his friend Gatsby’s mansion.

More than nostalgia: “the colossal vitality of illusion”

My appreciation of Fitzgerald’s novel has been abetted by reading letters to and from the author, collected in the “Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald” (1980), edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Margaret M. Duggan. In a 1925 letter to Scott, Roger Burlingame, an editor at Scribners and fellow novelist, observed:

“Someone once said that the thing that was common to all real works of art was a nostalgic quality, often indefinable, not specific. If that is so then The Great Gatsby if surely one because it makes me want to be back somewhere as much, I think, as anything I’ve ever read.”

Yet there is so much more that is durable about “Gatsby” than mere nostalgia, or why would its final sentence (“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”) have become indelibly linked to our vision of America? One of the pleasures of re-reading the novel is to discover how carefully, how relentlessly, the author prepares us for that final revelation.

From the beginning the seeds are planted with rueful words about “the abortive sorrows and short-winded elations of men” (p. 8). Then come the author’s tossed off psychological insights about his main characters. Tom, for example, is “forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.”

Hints of the what will become the ultimate phraseology (borne back, past, beat on) start to appear. At the riotous party in Chapter 3 (p. 48), “girls were swooning backward playfully  into men’s arms […] knowing that someone would arrest their falls — but no one swooned backward on Gatsby.” Gatsby declares: “I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before” (p. 99). Later, when the principal characters assemble at the Buchanan mansion on a sultry afternoon, Daisy’s voice “struggled on through the heat, beating against it” (p. 106). An hour later, the cast of five reassemble in a steaming Manhattan hotel room. Gatsby realizes he is losing Daisy, “and only the dead dream fought on as the afternoon slipped away, trying to touch what was no longer tangible, struggling […] toward that lost voice across the room.” (p. 120). Still later, as Nick and Jordan drive back to Long Island, a single sentence breaks off to becomes a separate paragraph:

“So we drove on toward death through the cooling twilight.”

The tragic power of receding time is alluded to yet again when Gatsby, on the day of his death, tells Nick the history of his relationship with Daisy. After returning from the war, Gatsby learns Daisy has married Tom, yet he is compelled to take a “miserable but irresistible” journey to Louisville, the city where the two first met:

“[Gatsby] stretched out his hand desperately as if to snatch only a wisp of air, to save a fragment of the spot she had made lovely for him. But it was all going by too fast now for his blurred eyes and he knew that he had lost that part of it, the freshest and the best, forever.” (p. 135)

The adjective you most frequently encounter in the text? Romantic and its variants.


“One sun rose on us today”

Monday, January 21st, 2013


Richard Blanco’s Inauguration Poem, “One Today,” is a fine poem, and it was well read by the author earlier today. The text of the poem is here; video of the author’s reading, here.

As he recited the work, Blanco made a few minor emendations to the text, some of which I suspect arose spontaneously as he gave voice to freshly written, newly memorized words.

For example, “pencil-yellow school buses” on the page became “the pencil-yellow school buses” when spoken, not so much out of intention as from the involuntary sway of vocalization. The natural urge to add emphasis most likely accounts for the written words “but always — home” becoming the spoken “but always, always — home.”

Certainly a more conscious amendment was made to the first of the personal references that appear throughout the poem. Early on Blanco mentions the legacy of his mother who worked in a grocery store “so I could write this poem.” Standing at the podium this afternoon, Blanco added, “so I could write this poem for all of us today.”

At another point he cleanly made a one word substitution, which I believe represented a thoughtful change. In the poem’s initial stanza the image of “a story told by our silent gestures moving behind windows” was improved, subtly, by replacing “behind” with the word “across.” The logic of this edit may have been the pull of consistency. Since the noun “gestures” implies movement, and “moving” is, well, moving, inserting a more dynamic preposition (across) feels right.

Others who have thought about the poem are praising it as simple and direct, not knotty, not abstruse, conventional; a little bit Whitmanesque. See comments here, herehere, and here.

In reading the poem I was struck by how smoothly Blanco introduces a major theme of the work — out of many people we are one. Note, for example, his selection of geographical features. Those introduced in the first stanza — the Smokies, Great Lakes, Great Plains, Rockies — are all of English (Anglo) origin. Blanco soon turns from grand spaces to a domestic and human scale, examining the actual lives and activities of real Americans. These anecdotal sections culminate in his listing of salutations, in a variety of voices: “hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días in the language my mother taught me.” What Blanco is doing is tuning our ear to a wider spectrum. When, in the seventh stanza, he returns to American geography, he is now free to select examples that sit differently on the tongue and in the ear — the Appalachians and Sierras, the Mississippi and Colorado. It will dawn of the aware reader or listener that these are are American Indian and Spanish names. As for the Spanish ones, listen to the author pronouncing these titles with proud, lilting rolled-R’s.

The poet, who likes to say he was “made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to America,” today helped us rediscover, however modestly, the character of America.