Tuesday, December 05, 2006

# 53 Pale Fire – Vladimir Nabokov

An executive at ESPN recently informed the centathlete that ESPN.com attracts approximately 20 million unique visitors per month. The centathlete knocked the mud out of his cleats, spat on the dugout steps, and grunted that he is a longtime member of that deep, deep team.

He did not add that he has never participated in one of the web site’s innumerable
polls nor its stats-driven fantasy sports competitions (“rotisserie baseball,” the first fantasy league, was created in 1979-1980 by Daniel Okrent—later the first public editor of The New York Times—and his friends who frequented the now-defunct New York City restaurant, La Rôtisserie Française). By refraining from such interactivity, the centathlete indulges his self-image as merely, ahem, a casual fan. Ahem.

Through its allure of vicarious, gladiatorial virility or, in the
words of Salon.com’s Cathy Young, “... a new Amazonian vision of womanhood that includes sweat and strength, competitiveness and even ferocity,” sports can eclipse virtually all other activities. This contemporary preeminence is not lost on Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political provocateur, as he recorded in Understanding Power:
“... I have the habit when I'm driving of turning on these radio call-in programs, and it's striking when you hear the ones about sports... First of all, the audience obviously is devoting an enormous amount of time to it all. But the more striking fact is, the callers have a tremendous amount of expertise, they have detailed knowledge of all kinds of things, they carry on these extremely complex discussions...”
In light of this keen grasp of the obvious, it’s clear that Noam-y don’t tailgate. Sports for Chomsky is another opiate, a tool of distraction foisted by the elite on the masses. He concluded:
“...And I suppose that's also one of the basic functions [sports] serves society in general: it occupies the populations, and it keeps them from trying to get involved with things that really matter. In fact, I presume that's part of the reason why spectator sports are supported to the degree they are by the dominant institutions.”
Point taken, as Dave Zirin
registered in The Nation:
“Chomsky correctly highlights how people use sports as a balm to protect themselves from the harsh realities of the world. He is also right that the intelligence and analysis many of us invest in sports far outstrips our dissecting of the broader world. It is truly amazing how we can be moved to fits of fury by a missed call or a blown play, but remain too under-confident to raise our voices in anger when we are laid off, lose our healthcare, or suffer the slings and arrows of everyday life in the United States.”
But Zirin proceeded to slap his hands on the hardwood, assume an aggressive man-to-man defensive crouch, intercept a cross-court pass, speed-dribble twice, and slam down two points for his fellow enthusiasts:
“The weakness in Chomsky's argument, however, is that it disregards how the very passion we invest in sports can transform it from a kind of mindless escape into a site of resistance. It can become an arena where the ideas of our society are not only presented but also challenged. Just as sports can reflect the dominant ideas of our society, [it] can also reflect struggle...”
Chomsky was also counterattacked, or just co-opted, in a cryptic manner by the
Cosmic Baseball Association, a fantasy “game of the imagination,” in which the linguist was a catcher/infielder for the Alphatown Ionians. (Years after his lunches at La Rôtisserie, Okrent became the owner of the now-deactivated Valhalla Minstrels.)

Even a drooling, supine, apolitical TV spectator recognizes that sports can occasionally stir the mental porridge and, gasp, educate. For example, a pro hockey goalie clued the centathlete into the proper identification of a certain Top 100 author.
Evgeni Nabokov’s surname is uttered “nuh-BAH-kahf” on ESPN and Hockey Night broadcasts in Canada.

Most Americans (and the British songster Sting, as
evidenced in The Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”), know the Russian novelist Vladimir Nabokov as “NAH-buh-koff.” The writer himself issued this rhyming verse to assist us butchers:

“The querulous gawk of

A heron at night
Prompts Nabokov
To write.”

He also stressed that his first name
sounds like “redeemer.” (In Cosmic Baseball, Nabokov pitched for Okrent’s Minstrels.)

Silicon Valley can lay some claims to both Nabokovs: Evgeni, the Kazakh native, minds the nets for the San Jose Sharks; Vladimir taught in 1941 at Stanford University in Palo Alto, where he lived on Sequoia Avenue.

By 1962, when he published Pale Fire, the author had moved to Switzerland’s
Montreux Palace Hotel, where he lived with his wife Vera until his death in 1977. They are both buried nearby.

Several years ago, the centathlete found himself at a summertime engagement party
north of Montreux in Basel, dining alfresco on grilled sausage, guardedly conversing with a group of Swiss physicians and their significant others, when Nabokov’s name somehow arose. After marveling at the author’s mastery of English prose despite his Russian upbringing, the centathlete was summarily notified by an orthopedist or otolaryngologist that Nabokov, as a child, had an English governess. A dollop of cultural literacy isn’t the best condiment for wurst.

In fact, Nabokov learned to
read English before Russian. He also became proficient in French at the hands of a French governess in St. Petersburg, where he lived with his family until 1917. His trilingualism would not have raised many eyebrows in Switzerland, where many speak, in addition to English, two or three of their four national languages: German, French and Italian (the fourth, Rumantsch, is not commonly employed).

Montreux is known internationally for its annual
jazz festival, begun in 1967. The city was central in music history when, on December 4, 1971, at the Montreux Casino, Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention were playing a concert and a fire erupted and devastated the building. The event was commemorated in the 1972 song “Smoke on the Water” by Deep Purple:

"We all came out to Montreux
On the Lake Geneva shoreline
To make records with a mobile
We didn't have much time
Frank Zappa and The Mothers
Were at the best place around
But some stupid with a flare gun
Burned the place to the ground

Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky
Smoke on the water..."

All of Zappa’s equipment was destroyed. Bad was followed by
worse:

“...six days later Zappa was pushed off-stage at London's Rainbow theatre, crushing his larynx (lowering his voice a third), damaging his spine and keeping him wheelchair-bound for the best part of a year.”

(According to the Cosmic Baseball Association, Frank Zappa played three seasons as an
outfielder for the Delta Dragons and the Paradise Pisces. In 1997 he posthumously owned the Franklinton Zappas.)

For the centathlete and many fans of 1970’s hard rock,
Deep Purple is linked with Jethro Tull on account of their frequent radio play on album-oriented rock stations, ubiquitous concert T-shirts, and ever-changing lineups. In 1996 Jethro Tull’s singer/flutist Ian Anderson performed on “Play, Minstrel, Play” by Blackmore’s Night, the renaissance-inspired project of Ritchie Blackmore, the former Deep Purple guitarist.

The 1971 Jethro Tull song “
Aqualung,” an AOR standard like “Smoke on the Water,” compassionately addressed a homeless man, as did 1991’s “Even Flow” by Pearl Jam, though the American band eschewed the mutating musical arrangement of the prior generation and maintained one tempo and consistent instrumentation.

Here now is an alternative set of lyrics for “Aqualung” that the centathlete composed in his head while
listening to his virtual IPOD, trundling and contemplating the course, the authors and the books:

Anti-hero schmuck-mensch
Blooming consciousness out from the trench
War is running hot and cold
Novel shrapnel piercing palace gold
(Centathlon)
Paris in the old sun
Boozing as the shadow motives run
(Centathlon)
Squandering the last buck
Liberty hangs on desperate rebels’ luck
(Centathlon)

One hundred tolls,
A century’s row of spires
Redefine
How conscience ought to sound.
Playful and sad
As we finger two proud bookends,
We shiver and we burn
With hyperlinks.
Movies dethroned
The say-so of the word,
Ironic and absurd seems
Authority.
‘Tathlon, your end
In a labyrinth of mazes--
The Exit sign sprayed over with a Yes.

Modernists dismember
The hypocrite in state,
Squirming still as
Science storms the morgue and
Chants its therapy.
And the body coughs up new breaths
That hadn’t been let out,
All the gases swirl like
Madness in the air.

(Cen-ta-th-lonnnnnnnnnn!)

Overlaying new lyrics on existing tunes has long been fashionable for
parody (à la Weird Al Yankovic, who cites Frank Zappa as an influence), for martial inspiration (ex. “Yankee Doodle Dandy” was a ditty in southern Europe in the 1400’s), for religious devotion (ex. Franz Schubert actually wrote “Ave Maria” for an excerpt from the poem "The Lady of the Lake" by Sir Walter Scott, which was translated into German by Adam Storck), and for other ostensibly good reasons.

John Shade, the poet of Pale Fire, would not have cared for “Aqualung” with the centathlete’s lyrics or in its original form; a stuffy codger who “loathes such things as jazz” (recalling the suave ‘80’s British trio,
Johnny Hates Jazz) surely would dislike crude hard rock.

Nabokov himself was no music lover, as he stated in a
1964 interview with Playboy:

“I have no ear for music, a shortcoming I deplore bitterly. When I attend a concert— which happens about once in five years—I endeavor gamely to follow the sequence and relationship of sounds but cannot keep it up for more than a few minutes. Visual impressions, reflections of hands in lacquered wood, a diligent bald spot over a fiddle, these take over, and soon I am bored beyond measure by the motions of the musicians. My knowledge of music is very slight; and I have a special reason for finding my ignorance and inability so sad, so unjust: There is a wonderful singer in my family—my own son. His great gifts, the rare beauty of his bass, and the promise of a splendid career—all this affects me deeply, and I feel a fool during a technical conversation among musicians. I am perfectly aware of the many parallels between the art forms of music and those of literature, especially in matters of structure, but what can I do if ear and brain refuse to cooperate? I have found a queer substitute for music in chess—more exactly, in the composing of chess problems.”

While he didn’t care for music, Nabokov did revel in rhythms and sounds: Pale Fire shows off a 999-line poem (also called “Pale Fire”) with rhymed
pentameter couplets, nestled like a near-flawless diamond among folds of velvet prose commentary.

Decidedly not for the careless reader, Pale Fire is a puzzle of linguistic, cultural and aesthetic pieces arrayed splendidly on various levels (the centathlete thinks of the tri-dimensional game of
Space Chess on Star Trek). Consider the following excerpt from the poem:

“...Its trivia create
A still life in her style: the paperweight
Of convex glass enclosing a lagoon.
The verse book open at the Index (Moon,
Moonrise, Moor, Moral), the forlorn guitar,
The human skull; and from the local Star
A curio: Red Sox Beat Yanks 5-4
On Chapman’s Homer
, thumbtacked to the door.”

The last line “combines popular and literary culture,” as
stated on GradeSaver.com. Nabokov’s Shade is punning on John Keats's poem "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer” via a newspaper headline about a home run by Ben Chapman, an actual pro baseball player from 1930-1946.

Daniel Okrent, Nabokov’s Cosmic Baseball general manager, would have been pleased with such a figurative strikeout from his pitcher and he likely would have egged on his
bench jockeys: “We want a batter, not a broken ladder!”

You can’t escape sports.


Coming soon...

Howards End

Friday, November 17, 2006

# 22 Appointment in Samarra – John O’Hara

In Iraq in early November 2006 at Forward Operating Base Brassfield-Mora (named after Specialists Artimus Brassfield and Jose Mora, who were killed in separate mortar attacks in October 2003) the U.S. military sponsored a dinner at which “key leaders in the Samarra area met…to discuss mutual interests and foster closer relations while working together to achieve stability in the region,” as stated judiciously for the record in Defend America.

Samarra, located 62 miles northwest of Baghdad in the
“Sunni Triangle,” has lacked stability for several years.

In February 2006 two men
blew up the golden dome of the al-Askari shrine, a Shia holy site of the tombs of Imam Ali al-Naqi and his son Imam Hasan al-Askari.

On November 30, 2003 U.S. forces
engaged in a firefight with guerillas in Samarra, and, “…claimed to have killed 54 attackers and captured eight others.” In the following days the accuracy of the death toll and the scope and nature of the conflict were widely disputed—one journalistic reexamination was entitled “Appointment in Samarra.”

This headline, like the title of John O’Hara’s 1934 novel, was appropriated from W. Somerset Maugham’s 1933 play,
Sheppey, in which the playwright retold an ancient fable about Death meeting a young servant, who futilely tries to escape his fate by fleeing Baghdad for Samarra. Maugham’s source was likely a translation of a ninth century Arabian Sufi story in Fudail ibn Ayad’s Hikayat-I-Naqshia; an earlier version appeared in the Babylonian Talmud.

O’Hara excerpted Maugham’s entire vignette as an epigraph because he thought it "fitted nicely into the inevitability of [the protagonist] Julian English's death,"
according to Bill Duryea of The St. Petersburg Times. Just four days after the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003, Duryea’s contemplation of the war, the Sufi tale and O’Hara’s novel still resonates:
“Reading that fable today, it's hard not to think of the fate that awaits American soldiers as they push through the Iraqi desert bound for Baghdad. So much is at stake -- the lives of soldiers and innocents, the future of a troubled region and the security of our own nation. We are riding to Samarra, among other places. It is not literature. It is not metaphor… A chain of events has begun and while it plays out we wonder what it is that we have set in motion. Is there an ineluctable fate that awaits us?”
Duryea further summarized O’Hara’s portrayal of “religious and ethnic bigotry” between Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Irish, Italians and other groups. More than three and a half years after his article, descendants of those American combatants are conducting, among other activities, dinner meetings to mediate between Sunnis and Shiites.

In alluding to “Julian’s downward spiral,” Duryea unwittingly evoked a Samarran landmark, the
spiral minaret of the Great Mosque. Metaphor, reality, observation and allusion continue to collide in Iraq.

O’Hara, like Maugham, was interested in the universality of the old tale, not the social or historical reality of Samarra, founded in 836 by the Abassid Caliph al-Mu'tasem Billah. He targeted primarily his hometown of Pottsville, PA, founded in 1806 by John Pott. “Gibbsville” stands in for Pottsville as the setting for Appointment in Samarra, several other novels and more than 50
short stories.

Considered a consummate “natural storyteller” and a practitioner of
social realism, O’Hara sought to faithfully depict his neighbors, warts and all. He is Pottsville’s famous literary son and the subject of ongoing tours and events. Yuengling Brewery (Yuengling is German meaning 'Young Man' and is pronounced Ying-Ling), founded in 1829 and the oldest American brewery, produces bottles that are Pottsville’s portable, potable standard-bearers. At one time the O’Hara family lived in a home owned by the Yuengling family.

With typical incisiveness, the narrator of Appointment in Samarra notes:
“In a town the size of Gibbsville—24,032, estimated 1930 census—the children of the rich live within two or three squares of the children of the parents who are not rich, not even by Gibbsville standards. This makes for a spurious democracy…”
This description mirrored the facts of
Pottsville, which now has a population of about 15,000 and is no longer a coal-region boomtown. Another writer, in a review of a biography of O’Hara, expanded:
“Pottsville still teemed during O’Hara’s youth. With an ethnic diversity including Pennsylvania-Dutch farmers, Irish and Welsh coal miners, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Swedes, and the predominantly Anglo-Saxon, Protestant aristocracy of bankers and managers thriving on the anthracite industry, the town was a treasury of class distinctions and yet small enough, at around twenty-five thousand, so that everybody rubbed elbows. A doctor and his eldest son sampled this society at every stratum, and the odd democracy of Prohibition mingled gangsters and molls with the country-club set, of which the O’Haras, though Irish, were dancing, horse-riding members.”
The reviewer was the novelist John Updike, a fellow Pennsylvanian
from Shillington, a 38-mile drive from Pottsville. A literary social realist himself, Updike used “Brewer” and “Olinger” as stand-ins for Reading and Shillington in many books. Updike has been a staff member at and frequent contributor to The New Yorker; he noted that O’Hara holds the record for published pieces there.

The only tedious sections—they’re scarce and brief—of Appointment in Samarra occur in O’Hara’s cataloguing of the logistics and financing of Julian English’s employer, a
Cadillac dealership. A paragraph including “Number of cars sold in 1930; our cut on new cars sold; gas and oil profit 1930…” immerses the reader in English’s world and mindset, but the impatient reader quickly gets the drift and jumps to the punch line relating the hero’s distress: “I have to have five thousand dollars.”

The centathlete recalls passages more elaborate, more technical, even more skippable on the same topic in Updike’s Rabbit is Rich, as Rabbit Angstrom profits from and wrestles with his
Toyota dealership. (He also recalls an interminable chapter on the operations of a Newark, NJ glove manufacturer in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral.) Such faithful renderings reflect a certain understandable authorial insistence on and attention to detail, but they unfailingly move the centathlete to turn the page hastily—hey, he hasn’t owned a car in 18 years.

O’Hara’s literary realism was forged when he worked as a
reporter for the Pottsville Journal from 1924-1926 and subsequently as a rewrite man, radio columnist and movie critic for New York City periodicals. As you might expect from an ace journalist, he does dialogue superbly. He “plays the angles” (originally a squash term referring to a tricky shot that is difficult to return) in exchanges that expertly convey, among other sentiments, sarcasm, despair, intimacy and jealousy. For example, consider when Caroline, having decided to divorce Julian, seeks out her mother for advice and consolation:
“‘I’m sorry, I just came here because I had to speak to somebody and I didn’t want to talk to somebody that’d blab it all over.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘Yes, I’m serious.’
‘But are you? Are you serious, Caroline? That’s a very serious thing, when people start talking about a divorce. We’ve never had a divorce in our family, and I don’t think there was ever one in Julian’s family either. What is it?’
‘I’m just fed up. I’m sick and tired and miserable. I’m just so miserable and unhappy. I’m so unhappy, Mother, I don’t care if I die.’
‘Die, dear? Are you pregnant? Are you, dear?
You could be wrong, you know. It might just be the strain, Christmas.’ She got up and sat beside Caroline. ‘Come here, dear. Tell me about it. Mother wants to hear all about it.’
‘Caroline wants to cry,’ said Caroline, and laughed.”
What an ear! The unbridged generation gap on display at a time of crisis, the conflict between propriety and health, the self-conscious infantilization—drama on the page can’t get much better.

An artistic forebear to Updike, O’Hara was also an immediate successor to F. Scott Fitzgerald— in fact, O’Hara has been called a “seamy Fitzgerald,” a characterization that can be seen in both a positive and negative light according to taste—as evidenced in Appointment in Samarra, which works within the context of
Prohibition (1920-1933), jazz, adultery, organized crime, social climbing and class conflict. All those elements also coalesce in The Great Gatsby, published in 1925.

Imagine The Great Gatsby written in the omniscient third person—what would be different? In narrating from Nick Carraway’s limited perspective, Fitzgerald clouded the facts of Jay Gatsby’s background and downfall, creating a myth of the tragic Self-Made Man trying to get The Girl.

O’Hara, the former reporter, did not aspire to make myths. According to the
Penn State Library, he “...emphasized complete objectivity in his books, writing frankly about the materialistic aspirations and sexual exploits of his characters.” In only one short section of Appointment in Samarra he employs the first person, giving voice to Caroline. The switch enhances the overall verisimilitude and visceral momentum of the unfolding action rather than complicates the plot through ambiguity and uncertainty.

How can we view the contrast in narrative technique between the “best” books of two Irish-American writers who were both famously obsessed with status and wealth in their fiction and their actual lives?

On the grand scale, the Great Depression began in 1929-1930, halfway between the publications and, also, divergent Americas. The cautionary strain in The Great Gatsby (ex. Carraway’s damning appraisal of the Buchanans as people who break things) is poignant and powerful beyond the damage done to certain characters because the American ship in 1925 continues to sail on an exuberantly high tide. Dreams, innuendoes, lies, and misunderstandings, the true subjects of that novel, themselves project an aura and smog so suitable for a mythologizer instead of a reporter.

After the Depression began in 1929-1930, the weather dried up and most boats were grounded. Even O’Hara’s prosperous characters, such as Julian English, demonstrate anxiety from the economic drought. English will die, we know from the beginning, and life for others will carry on, but only in a compromised, tenuous condition.

On the personal scale, it’s helpful to consider Princeton. Fitzgerald attended Princeton University (though he didn’t graduate) and belonged to
Cottage Club, one of the social-eating institutions he wrote about in This Side of Paradise. O’Hara died and is buried in Princeton.

O’Hara was unable to attend Yale University as he planned, or any other college, due to his father’s premature death; he carried a chip on his shoulder the rest of his life. Brendan Gill
observed, "People used to make fun of [it], but it was never a joke to O'Hara. It seemed... that there wasn't anything he didn't know about in regard to college and prep-school matters."

After Princeton, Fitzgerald for some time hobnobbed with high society in New York and Europe. O’Hara was more of a professional writer and less of a socialite. He set his fiction in less rarefied environs; Gibbsville is patently less cosmopolitan than Fitzgerald’s West and East Egg and New York City—and more representative of the country’s general climate and downsized dreamscape.

O’Hara’s work was far more popular in its time than was Fitzgerald’s, and it sold well throughout his life, a fact he was by no means ashamed of. He
told his audience in 1967, "...you must not expect modesty from me. I am just as aware as anyone else that my books have sold something like 15 million copies, and I could not have attained that circulation if I had not been readable."

Through Appointment in Samarra and his other novels and short stories, O’Hara practiced “non-judgmental, unhysterical” (the adjectives of a Village Voice reviewer) literary accounting that is notable for its repression of authorial bias and ego. As the comments from 1967 suggest, such repression did not translate into real life.

The centathlete can’t help observing that O’Hara possessed a trait common, perhaps endemic, to other first-rate realistic-journalistic novelists such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe: first-rate hubris. O’Hara affirmed forever his robust self-appraisal by writing the epitaph for his own
gravestone:

“Better than anyone else he told the truth about his time. He was a professional. He wrote honestly and well.”

We read this well after his last appointment in Princeton, recently after many others’ last appointments in Iraq, and before our own.



Coming soon…

Howards End



Wednesday, November 08, 2006

# 42 Deliverance – James Dickey

On the first day of a college lecture course devoted to Dante’s Inferno, the professor observed that modern classics such as James Dickey’s Deliverance, published in 1970, are unavoidably read with the seminal Italian masterpiece in mind.

Parallels and allusions come to mind readily (SparkNotes offers at least one essay on this subject.) In the novel four “middle-aged, responsible” Atlantans set out for a weekend outdoors in rural Georgia; Dante’s narrator, at age 35, “the
midway of this mortal life,” finds himself in a dark wood. The canoe trip in Deliverance becomes a journey like Dante’s through Hell. The sodomy scene in the backwoods evokes those sinners placed in the Seventh Circle (sodomy was seen as “violence against nature”). The “deliverance” desired is equated early by Dickey’s narrator, Ed Gentry, with “another life,” but the events that follow affirm religious connotations of rescue from evil, and of salvation.

Thanks largely to the 1972
movie written also by Dickey and directed by John Boorman, Deliverance is most remembered for two scenes: the “Dueling Banjos” face-off between the hillbilly boy and Gentry’s fellow city slicker, Drew Ballinger, who actually plays a guitar (Dickey himself was an accomplished guitarist); and the previously mentioned violent act. A certain bit of the victim’s improvised dialogue (it doesn’t appear in the novel) resounds in our culture perversely yet comically, as indicated in a web search. Of course the book offers much more in both plot and technique, as its dramatic tension and lyrical description entwine around the reader, tighten, and then ease.

The primacy of depictions of evil in the public’s consciousness has affected Dante’s work as well as Dickey’s. Inferno has always been the most read and studied canticle of the trifold Commedia; the subsequent Purgatorio and Paradiso have held relatively meager appeal. For a reader, moviegoer or TV watcher, Billy Joel’s lusty
claim, “sinners are much more fun,” is patently confirmed by any villain-stocked soap opera, though there’s little fun on display in Inferno and Deliverance.

The cover of the
Delta edition of Deliverance features a yellow triangle that reinforces the canoers’ profound, allegorical descent into danger and evil, while exploiting ancient geometric symbology: “The downward pointing triangle…is the symbol of water (as it flows downward), the grace of heaven, and the womb.”

The graphic triangle also suggests the arrowhead that Gentry fatefully employs. Early in the narrative Gentry establishes that he is an amateur archer who admires the skill of his friend Lewis Medlock with a
recurve bow.

Medlock initiates and organizes the canoe trip, inspiring, peeving and daunting his three friends with his virility and recklessness. In an
interview with The Paris Review, Dickey noted that Medlock “…is a survival freak who is a nut on special disciplines, such as archery, canoeing, and so on.”

Medlock tells Gentry that on his property he, “…had an air-raid shelter built…with double doors and stocks of bouillon and bully beef for a couple of years.” He adds that he would rather try to cope in the wilderness after society has broken down: “You know I’d go up in those hills, and I believe I’d make out where many another wouldn’t.”

For an elder MTV viewer, an air-raid shelter inevitably cues up the
video for Donald Fagen’s “New Frontier.” A crooner/keyboardist who shaped the music of the 70’s as did Billy Joel, Fagen was riffing on the structure his own father built and he explored while growing up in New Jersey.

The centathlete has never set foot in such a shelter, but he did crouch against the wall with hands behind his head for air-raid drills in elementary school. He recalls
fallout shelter signs and their symbols that were obscure to a youngster: three yellow downward pointing triangles. Today’s students don’t practice those drills, and those signs are now just Cold War kitsch.

Evanescent pop-culture iconography appears in Deliverance. As Gentry drives into the country he sees
Clabber Girl and Black Draught signs. The centathlete was unfamiliar with this baking powder and laxative syrup and their advertisements; he was reminded of several other Southern goods he became aware of only as an adult. In Knoxville, TN, after lunch, an acquaintance announced his craving for a Little Debbie, MoonPie or GooGoo Cluster. The centathlete, no stranger to sweets and snack cakes, expressed his ignorance of all three desserts and was subsequently treated to samples, which he was instructed to wash down with an RC Cola. A shrill sugar high ensued.

Other regions claim their own treats. On Long Island the centathlete would sometimes help a friend with his newspaper route. Afterward, bikes were ridden to the deli for a
Drake’s Coffee Cake (essentially unknown in the South) and a Yoo-hoo. Despite their love for that chocolate-flavored soft drink—according to the manufacturer, Yoo-hoo is “definitely not considered a flavored milk” but “it does contain certain ingredients from milk - specifically, dairy whey and non-fat milk”—certain thirsty youngsters felt cheated by the 11-ounce cans and they suspected corporate stinginess. Sunkist and other sodas deemed nearly as suitable for accompanying a coffee cake all delivered 12 ounces of beverage. (In the late 1950’s James Dickey was an advertising executive whose accounts included Coca-Cola.)

Yoo-hoo was endorsed for years by
Yogi Berra, the New York Yankee who participated in 14 World Series for 10 winners, both Major League Baseball records. The centathlete was far too young to have seen Berra catch a game, but he sensed his own Yankee-hood that day in Knoxville as he ripped open his Little Debbies for the first and only time.

The first and only time the centathlete went whitewater rafting was on a river near Lake Tahoe during a bachelor party weekend. That event, though undeniably enjoyable (and delightfully commemorated by a purchased photo of the grinning and grimacing dudes paddling through the rapids), was far tamer than the canoe trip in Deliverance.

Dickey waxed sympathetic about his weekend warriors, stating, “My men are decent guys… Suburban people, especially these fellows, are supposed to go out there and look at nature a little bit…have fun before it all disappears.”

He expounded on his dramatic treatment of their journey through Hell:
“I’ll tell you what I really tried to do in Deliverance. My story is simple: there are bad people, monsters among us. Deliverance is really a novel about how decent men kill, and the fact that they get away with it raises a lot of questions about staying within the law—whether decent people have the right go outside the law when they’re encountering human monsters. I wrote Deliverance as a story where under the conditions of extreme violence people find out things about themselves that they would have no other means of knowing. The late John Berryman…said that it bothered him more than anything else that a man could live in this culture all his life without knowing whether he’s a coward or not. I think it’s necessary to know.”
Having briefly mined symbols and themes, we now return to that college professor who mentioned Deliverance simply as an aside as he proceeded over the semester to pedagogically reduce and amplify the beauty and meanings of Inferno.

Wallace Fowlie was a remarkable teacher of more than 6,000 students during a career that spanned seven decades. An expert in French and, to a lesser extent, Italian literature, he
published more than 50 books of translations, criticism, memoirs, poetry, and a novel. During his final years he taught a cycle of three courses: Dante’s Inferno, the French symbolist poets, and Proust.

The number three, which the triangle realizes in space, has gleamed with mystical import for many cultures. For Greeks and Romans it
symbolized among other things, “completeness in narrative time (beginning, middle, end).” Deliverance is structured as a Before, During and After, indicative of the archetypal, heroic, transforming voyage.

For Catholics, three represents the Holy Trinity. In the Commedia, Dante practiced “triadomania” (which we might term an artistic fetish for the number three) on several levels, according to Thomas Bergin, as cited by another
lecturer.

The centathlete recalls a typical Wallace Fowlie lesson as divinely threefold. First, the professor read from Inferno in the original Italian, exhibiting the poem’s sonic excellence. Second, he illuminated several motifs and details of the particular canto. Third, he related an anecdote from personal experience in which the masterpiece resonated (ex. He dined with an Italian nobleman who said he was directly descended from a pope damned by Dante). This last stage, the connection between classic literature and everyday life, made Fowlie’s lessons especially engaging and enlightening.

A cohesive, brief biography is not readily available on the Internet, so the centathlete cobbled together the following
curriculum vitae (Latin for “the course of one’s life”) based on Fowlie’s own Journal of Rehearsals, Stephen Martin’s article, “A Catholic Presence: Duke’s Wallace Fowlie,” and other sources. Here then, with apologies for any errors (which will be corrected), is a digested biography of Wallace Fowlie, posted on his birthday:

1908
Born November 8 in Brookline, MA, a suburb of Boston.
1920
In the 7th Grade takes Introductory French, beginning a lifelong love affair and career.
1922
At age 13 attends a lecture in Boston by the French poet,
Paul Claudel, a subject of future literary studies.
1927
Enters Harvard University in the second semester after a long illness.
1928
At age 19, before his junior year, travels to France for the first of at least 20 times throughout his life.
Early 1930’s
Undertakes graduate studies at Harvard. Professors include T.S. Eliot.
1934
In Paris meets with novelist
Andre Gide to discuss Ernest Psichari and other French and American writers.
1935
Begins teaching French at Bennington College in Vermont.
1936
Receives Ph.D. from Harvard.
Late 1930’s
In Iowa meets Robert Penn Warren, American poet and novelist, for the first time, beginning a long friendship. Converts to Catholicism (having been raised Baptist) while teaching at Bennington.
1941
Becomes assistant professor of French at Yale University.
1943
Publishes an article on Narcissus in the
surrealist journal View. Receives complimentary letter from American novelist Henry Miller. Their correspondence lasts until 1972.
1944
Miller visits New Haven and stays with Fowlie.
1950
Returns to Bennington as head of French department and simultaneously begins teaching at The New School in New York where one student, Barney Rosset, had recently purchased
Grove Press.
1953
In Paris sees one of the first productions of En attendant Godot, a play by Samuel Beckett, and urges Rosset to buy its publishing rights (as well those for plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean Genet, though these two were ignored). Rosset’s own
account of this “discovery” of Godot differs somewhat; attesting that he brought the French text to Fowlie, who read it and confirmed its greatness. Rosset acquires the rights for Waiting for Godot and becomes the playwright’s longtime publisher and agent in America.
1962
Becomes professor of French at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
1964
Becomes professor of French at Duke University.
1966
Translates and publishes the complete works of French poet Arthur Rimbaud.
1968
Receives a letter from Jim Morrison expressing gratitude for the Rimbaud translation: “I am a rock singer and your book travels around with me.”
1968
Named James B. Duke Professor of French.
1975
Publishes Letters of Henry Miller and Wallace Fowlie: 1943-1972.
1992
Retires from teaching.
1993
At age 85 publishes a critical
comparison of Rimbaud and Morrison.
1998
Dies August 15 in Durham, NC.

Fowlie purposefully exemplified an interdependent devotion to literature and religion in the manner of Dante Alighieri and T.S. Eliot (who according to Roger Kimball
wrote, “If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes.”). His conversion in adulthood to Catholicism is reminiscent of Eliot’s conversion in his late 30’s to Anglicanism. The centathlete recalls remarks on this latter event at a class conducted by Julian Thompson, an English professor of Literature at Oxford University, who rhetorically posed the question that if Eliot had wanted to authentically commit or re-commit himself to Tradition, should he have converted to Catholicism, the Mother Church, instead?

The centathlete won’t play
Monday morning quarterback regarding another’s Ash Wednesday, nor argue here with notions of Paradise or deliverance. However, to indulge the reader’s enduring preference for evil, crime and torture, he offers his conception of Hell: he is strapped to a chair like Alex in A Clockwork Orange with eyes held open, forced for eternity to watch reruns, co-hosted by Chevy Chase and Donald Trump, of the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, as the infernal hi-fi loops Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love.”


Coming soon…

Howards End
Appointment in Samarra

Thursday, October 26, 2006

# 8 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler

In his conclusion to Walden, Henry David Thoreau mused,
“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”
This description of individualism has morphed and shrunk: we now
say, “He marches to the beat of his own drum,” about a creative character who doesn’t follow societal or group norms.

Thoreau himself was such a character, as was Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born author of Darkness at Noon. Published in 1940, this anti-Stalinist novel, in which a political prisoner is compelled to confess bogus counterrevolutionary crimes, is in some ways a companion to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Each an
autodidact, Thoreau and Koestler produced politically conscious literary works that were—and continue to be—internationally influential, and then largely abandoned such endeavors to engage in wide-ranging scientific inquiries. (Each experienced name reversal: the former was born “David Henry”; the latter was born “Kösztler Artúr”—Hungarian surnames traditionally come first).

The now common insertion of “marching” into Thoreau’s pacific phrasing emphasizes drumming’s military aspect. Today's thinkers and leaders still mull over the conception of ideological stepping to a normative rhythm. The present Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, listed this quote in his
“Rules,” which were publicized in The Wall Street Journal: “’History marches to the drum of a clear idea.’ -- W.H. Auden.”

In Africa drumming has for ages
contributed to the “emotional and spiritual preparedness of the population for battle.” In Europe and North America drums signaled troop movements and, before and between battles, instilled uniform precision. This last purpose was fussed over by a Founding Control Freak, George Washington, during the Revolutionary War in 1777:
“The drums and fifes of each are to be collected in the center of it; and a tune for the quick step played, but with such moderation, that the men may step to it with ease; and without dancing along and totally disregarding the music, as too often has been the case.”
Koestler was intimately familiar with the drums of war across Europe during the 1930’s and 1940’s. We might describe him, with Washington’s accompanying fifes in our ears, as both a
whistleblower and a pied piper. As the former, he was from 1931-1938 a Communist until, after witnessing abuse, corruption and death, he turned avidly anti-Communist—Darkness at Noon is one resulting product. As the latter, he called a variety of tunes, years before many others would follow, on topics such as parapsychology, creativity, euthanasia, globalism, and nuclear disarmament.

Drumming isn’t always militaristic; it can be
communicative, and therefore consciousness-raising, or ritualistic and hedonistic, and therefore ecstasy-inducing. One insightful artist encapsulated all these senses while entertaining, confronting and educating contemporary America. Chuck D, the stentorian MC-activist for the hip-hop group Public Enemy, famously intoned “The rhythm, the rebel,” as he launched into “Rebel Without a Pause.” The phrase has become a ubiquitous tagline.

The best drummer the centathlete has ever seen live is
Jeff “Tain” Watts; the first time with Wynton Marsalis in West Palm Beach, the second with Branford Marsalis in Boston. A jazz virtuoso, Watts can cook and swing up-tempo, and he can gracefully punctuate a ballad. During one soft, slow number, the centathlete watched him tap up and down the cymbal stands as well as the sides, rather than the skins, of his drums.

Tapping plays a large role in Darkness at Noon. The political prisoners, unable to speak to each other, communicate throughout the narrative by tapping in code on the walls. One man refuses to divulge his name and is referred to as “Rip Van Winkle.”

Watts
related the origin of his nickname:
JTW: (Laughing) I know. I was in Florida with Wynton. We were driving rental cars from West Palm Beach to Miami and Kenny Kirkland and I were in a car. We drove through one of those outdoor safari things with the drugged up animals, bears and lions and stuff like that. We left there and went past a gas station and it was called Chieftain Gas. And he said, "Chief Tain, oh, Jeff Tain, that's going to be your name." And I was like, "Sure, right." And the rest is that's it.
Watts played with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland until the latter two joined
Sting for his initial solo albums after the break-up of The Police. Sting is a significant proponent of some of Arthur Koestler’s ideas.

The fourth Police album was inspired by and named after the 1967 Koestler
book, The Ghost in the Machine, which posited that man has a primitive, animalistic brain as well as an advanced, noble brain. As a result of intensified evolution, man has become automated; the detachment of and conflict between his two brains causes violence and war (ex. The Police’s “Demolition Man”). Koestler proposed a “peace pill” or other preventive medicine as the only hope against ongoing destruction.

Koestler became
aware of his musical influence:
"Look at this. Did you ever see a magazine called the New Musical Express? It turns out there is a pop group called The Police - I don't know why they are called that, presumably to distinguish them from the punks - and they've made an album of my essay "The Ghost in the Machine." I didn't know anything about it until my clipping agency sent me a review of the record."
In fact, Sting’s interest in Koestler wasn’t gratuitous or momentary; he wasn’t just making use of an idiosyncratic vocabulary to craft and enhance his pop songs. Consider these comments from an
interview in 1994, 13 years after “The Ghost in the Machine” was recorded, about Amazonian culture:
STING: I think the tendency for us in the West to call such lifestyles primitive, it isn't...couldn't be further from the truth if anything. We're more primitive than they are, in that they know exactly where every artifact in their lives comes from; every tree, where the furniture comes from; every blade of grass; they're responsible for their environment. We, on the other hand, have no idea where this plastic came from, or even how it is made; we have no idea; no. We don't know where the wood came from or the leather for this chair. So we're not as responsible. We tend to be irresponsible and therefore rather primitive.
This is a regurgitation of Koestler’s following
passage:
“Modern man lives isolated in his artificial environment, not because the artificial is evil as such, but because of his lack of comprehension of the forces which make it work - of the principles which relate his gadgets to the forces of nature, to the universal order. It is not central heating which makes his existence ‘unnatural,’ but his refusal to take an interest in the principles behind it. By being entirely dependent on science, yet closing his mind to it, he leads the life of an urban barbarian.”
Sting and The Police were not the only intellectual rock band, just as Koestler was not the only former British novelist (Koestler became a British citizen in 1948) who explored psychopharmacology and post-war society. Jim Morrison named his band “The Doors” after the 1954 book,
The Doors of Perception, by Aldous Huxley.

Whereas Huxley took mescaline and then praised its religious and mystical effects, Koestler took LSD in experiments at Harvard (under Timothy Leary’s direction) and at the University of Michigan, and then
disparaged its benefits:
"I profoundly admire Aldous Huxley, both for his philosophy and uncompromising sincerity. But I disagree with his advocacy of 'the chemical opening of doors into the Other World', and with his belief that drugs can procure 'what Catholic theologians call a gratuitous grace'. Chemically induced hallucinations, delusions and raptures may be frightening or wonderfully gratifying; in either case they are in the nature of confidence tricks played on one's own nervous system."
Before he tripped on acid, Koestler traveled to diverse locales. In the 1920’s, as a Zionist, he worked on a kibbutz in Palestine. In 1931, as a journalist in Germany, he flew on the
Graf Zeppelin expedition of the North Pole.

In 1932, as a Communist in the Soviet Union, he met the American poet, Langston Hughes, as
detailed in The Harvard Crimson:

“Hughes and Koestler met by chance in Ashkhabad in 1932, and it is interesting to compare their accounts of the weeks they spent together in Russian Central Asia. Koestler had come to inspect the accomplishments of the Soviet Five Year Plan in backward areas such as Ashkhabad, while Hughes was enjoying a free vacation at the expense of the Russians after the movie he had come to Russia to make had turned into a fiasco…

“’As I lay on the sheetless bed,’ Koestler writes in The Invisible Writing—‘enveloped by gloom and stench, counting the familiar stains on the wall which crushed bed-bugs leave behind, I heard the sound of a gramophone in the next room.’ It was Hughes, playing Sophie Tucker on his phonograph, not bothering to notice the dirt. While Koestler was disgusted by the filth and unsanitary living habits, and only briefly amused by a local purge trial, Hughes was enjoying lavish Turk hospitality and occasionally reading the voluminous notes Koestler took each day. What Koestler found most everywhere failed to meet his expectations, and Hughes, having none, was mostly satisfied.


”When Koestler described those days in 1953, he apologized, ‘I found it impossible to revive the naive enthusiasm of the period.’ This was not Hughes' way. His enthusiasm stayed fresh because it was for people and things, not ideas, which date faster. While he protested violently against the Scottsboro decision and later against Franco's bombing of Madrid, his protest was not a Party member's but always that of an individual. As he was convinced by the discovery of a swank little restaurant in Tashkent: ‘The system under which the successful live—left or right, capitalist or communist—did not seem to make much difference to that group of people, in every city around the globe, who managed by hook or crook to live well.’”

Langston Hughes was a jazz lover and is now a hip-hop icon, recalling earlier tangents to Tain Watts and Chuck D. Koestler’s influence on music, aside from Sting, is spotty, though his theories crop up in manga and many other cultural forums.

In 1937, as a reporter in the Spanish Civil War, Koestler was captured by Franco’s forces. He expected execution and was
jailed in Seville.

The centathlete once visited that elegant city. On an August night he and a friend attended an expansive outdoor festival on the city’s outskirts. Several bands were playing simultaneously on stages positioned among dozens of stalls serving drinks and food. (One hospitable bartender gave the centathlete, because he was a New Yorker, a beer on the house—it was the only time in his life anywhere such identification got him a freebie. He will return to Spain someday.)

A group similar to
The Gipsy Kings played on one stage. The throng of hundreds became one canal of flamenco dancers; the women upraised their arms, pivoted and stomped, and the men clapped. Everyone knew the words, the steps and the rhythm. A Sevillana said the song was probably two hundred years old. The centathlete felt immersed in vibrant tradition.

Caught up in the moment, he clapped along—but only for a few seconds, as his hands were slapped down because he was hopelessly off-beat and disturbing the nearest dance. Sometimes you shouldn’t clap to the beat of your own drum…

Back to Koestler’s twists and turns. During World War II he was interned for several months in France because he was Jewish. He fled to England and then, after the war, returned to Paris, associating
very closely with Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. From 1948-1950 he worked with the CIA and British Intelligence to promote anti-Communism among American and European intellectuals.

Now a disquieting note. A 1998
biographical study alleged that Koestler beat and raped several female acquaintances during the 1950’s, which was subsequently disputed somewhat by a friend of Koestler yet confirmed by one of the victims in her autobiography. These unproven, previously unrevealed crimes apparently took place in a European milieu of celebrity, power politics and libertinism. Koestler never learned of or had to defend himself against the charges, as he committed suicide with his wife (he was terminally ill yet she was healthy) in the manner he had advocated for years, in 1983.

A more recent celebrity, Mike Tyson, still
maintains his innocence for the rape for which he was imprisoned from 1992 to 1995. The centathlete attended Tyson’s first appearance on David Letterman’s Late Show in 1986; the boxer, who had yet to become heavyweight champion, was so timid and soft-spoken that the audience could barely hear him.

Tyson carried the scars of a turbulent, violent
childhood on his rocket-ride to fame and fortune. Koestler, in his early adulthood, witnessed political purges and occupied a veritable death row before he was idolized. History was forced on these very different, overly forceful, historic men.

The centathlon presents books, authors, ideas and actions. This particular running of the course might have been envisioned as a romp among columns and statues—the noble and the ideal of the last century—but even a cursory inspection of such figures reveals smears of mud on the marble. Life and Literature exalt and denigrate each other, making the course ahead even more real.



Coming soon…

Howards End
Appointment in Samarra

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Centathlon vs. Centathlon

The centathlete has marveled for years that Everyone has seen The Usual Suspects, The Shawshank Redemption, Clerks and Scarface, though none were initial blockbusters. If the post-post-modern brain is a computer, these movies are preinstalled, bundled programs in the operating system.

These programs are used as frequently as Microsoft Word. Snippets of dialogue such as
“Say hello to my li’l frien’!,” pop up in everyday conversations, eliciting communal enthusiasm. American cineplexes have spawned new memeplexes.

The transfer of these codes, the download of these programs, apparently takes place privately more than publicly. The average American sees
five movies in a theater per year, plus an untold number at home (the annual average of 1,456 hours of TV-watching, four hours per day, no doubt includes dozens of movies, if not more).

In comparison, the average American reads three books per year. 47% of Americans
read literature of any kind, down from 56% 20 years prior.

If you’re like the centathlete, coming across numbers in successive paragraphs makes you antsy, if not woozy. So, in a desperate attempt to be “
moved by statistics” à la George Bernard Shaw, in this case about books and movies, the spreadsheet-challenged centathlete opened a little-used program tucked away in his gray matter.

As his cerebellum creaked, he coaxed the microprocessor to import data (for kicks the centathlete likes to utter that word with the pinched, neutered tone of an antique cyborg—“day-ta”). The Modern Library Top 100 Novels migrated first and subsequently appeared in a primitive, chronological array:

Decade* Number of Top 100 Novels
1900-1909 14
1910-1919 9
1920-1929 16
1930-1939 18
1940-1949 12
1950-1959 12
1960-1969 11
1970-1979 7
1980-1989 1
1990-1999 0
* Programming note: the several series of novels that appear as one entry on the list are placed according to the year the final installment was published.

The
annus mirabilis of the centathlon was 1934, which saw the publication of six Top 100 novels, as well as the second book of the Studs Lonigan trilogy. No other year had more than three.

The weight toward the first half of the century is immediately notable (69), as is the paucity of books from the last 30 years (8). 1983’s Ironweed is the most recent list member. Is the centathlon essentially a multi-dig archeological study?

If you’ve written a novel and would like it to be acclaimed by serious critics, it’s best to be dead; only ten Top 100 authors are living. If you’re not so fortunate, you must be mature; Salman Rushdie (#90), age 59, is the youngest of the survivors.

Were novels better way back when? Should we sing
“Those Were the Days” like Archie and Edith Bunker? Maybe we should—as a child the centathlete thought the opening line, rendered Jabberwockyian by the actors’ Queens accents, was, “By the wigglin’ milliplay.”

Of course, a book is made great as it is reread by many, which requires time passing. And no doubt the authors and scholars who submitted their choices to The Modern Library were themselves experienced and mature in aggregate.

The centathlete has always preferred the novels of people older than he, without fully understanding why. For an explanation, he turns to an
interview with Martin Amis, the eminent novelist and son of another eminent novelist, Kingsley Amis:
“On the whole, you resist the younger writers. It's partly because with the older ones time has had a chance to separate the less excellent. With the young ones it's a bit of a lucky dip, isn't it? Who knows which ones will stay the distance? And there must be other causes for this reluctance. My father once said, and said it well, I think, that the trouble with younger writers is that they're telling you, "It's not like that anymore. It's like this now." Which of course you're very reluctant to hear, and maybe it's worse when it's your own son telling you, too.”
Authority looms over Amis’s dichotomy: “it was like this” vs. “it’s like this now.” Reading an older author is like taking instruction from a parent or an older teacher, manager or officer. This is natural when you’re in the bloom of youth or starting a new job; the lessons and perspective you receive are understood to empower you to forge ahead within a healthy or successful framework.

But what happens when you reach a Certain Age and that manager is ten or twenty years younger? A new framework is implicitly erected. Insight and innovation trump experience.

The centathlete reads the odd novel by a younger writer—a David Mitchell, a Zadie Smith, a Jonathan Safran Foer—more for courage than for education. Content and style both seem bold, if not audacious. There’s a shock to the system in finding an edifying tale dramatizing the coping with 9/11 (Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) or projecting a futuristic clone-exploiting Korean society (Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas), or one weaving a finely threaded multi-culti tapestry (Smith’s On Beauty).

Time flies or crawls; the younger innovators inevitably proliferate and the aging reader is left to assess his or her own authority in the continuum of storytelling: It was like this, it is like this, it will be like this.

Crack the neck, keep the blood flowing upward. Books thus processed, the next data migration took place: the American Film Institute’s
100 Best American movies of the century. Watching all these movies would constitute a centathlon, although a less rigorous one than the book-reading course—a Little Junior to the Big Papa. Another primitive chronology appeared:

Decade Number of Top 100 Movies
1900-1909 0
1910-1919 1
1920-1929 2
1930-1939 15
1940-1949 12
1950-1959 20
1960-1969 18
1970-1979 18
1980-1989 6
1990-1999 8

For an art form that began around
1895, it’s not surprising that 70 of these celebrated movies came out in the last half-century. With regard to years, 1939 claims 5 releases, although it was not as remarkable as 1934 was for publishing; both 1951 and 1969 claim 4 releases, and 6 other years claim 3.

The recent drop-off is not as steep as it was in the first, book-related list, suggesting that cinematic greatness remains a contemporary phenomenon. Perhaps the AFI keeps the truly “Modern Library.”

Whirrrr, the microprocessor strains. The screen flickers, the program lurches. The centathlete twitches. Gotta go deep, while there’s time.

As if it were an all-in-one
Ginsu, Jack LaLanne Juicer and Ronco Rotisserie, the program sliced, diced, liquefied and roasted these rival centathlons. In seconds (or perhaps a week had passed) an odd-looking casserole-file opened, steamy and aromatic. Five—or six—of the Top 100 novels were made into Top 100 movies:

The Grapes of Wrath
The Maltese Falcon
A Clockwork Orange
From Here to Eternity
An American Tragedy
(retitled A Place in the Sun)
* Heart of Darkness could be included with this bunch, as it was retold in Apocalypse Now.

This cross-reference shows that great books can be made into great movies and that the inverse process has yet to be successfully demonstrated. Johnny Carson
quipped about the relationship between the two genres:
“There was this billy goat at a movie studio who found and ate a can of film. When a nanny asked him how he liked it, he said, ‘It was all right but I liked the book better.’"
(“Ho ho ho!” Ed McMahon likely chortled.)

This “joke” plays on the accepted wisdom that a movie can’t do a book justice. While limping along resolutely, the centathlete has not seen a goat of either sex. The reference evokes the corny folksiness of Carson’s humor (the recollection of which always cues McMahon’s sycophantic buffoonery).

To be candid, the book-oriented centathlon has also seemed at times to be corny, outmoded, directed backwards into a time when stories and life lessons were experienced differently. Yep, movies and TV shows generate more interest and
discussion than books, bumming out lots of readers.

The centathlete (sniffle, sniffle), a page-turning minority member, can get glum because reading great books is waning, and nobody… WAIT! Or in the words of Lee Corso—former college roommate of
Burt Reynolds and current college football guru—Not so fast, my friend!

Reading is still Big Fun. “Only 1 percent of
respondents admitted to cracking a book—and liking it—in 1948. But today, that number has leapt to 12 percent,” according to a report in The Christian Science Monitor. Moreover, thanks in large part to Oprah, more people than ever are sharing the reading experience through book clubs, which now total more than 500,000.

Hope springs eternal (or at least for the time being) for the novel! It seems academics have always kept the faith that literature matters as much if not more than cinema, as Jesper Juul, a scholar of computer/video games, incidentally
noted, “In literary theory, it has always been presupposed that one has read perhaps 1000 books and seen a 1000 movies.”

The centathlete has to chuckle: only a literary theorist would give books such numerical weight in the face of contemporary leisure habits.

In
Half-Real, his book about video games (the average adult man plays 7.6 hours per week and the average adult woman 7.4 hours per week), Juul discusses his subjects’ incorporation of a fictional world, the essence of literature and cinema, with real, “fixed” rules, the essence of traditional card and board games.

The
first video game appeared in either 1958 or 1962; there are already many distinct types, as there are different types of books and movies. Juul notes,
“…The Sims mirrors the appearance of the realistic novel of the late nineteenth century, when, broadly speaking, novels began to describe everyday life rather than heroes and dramatic events. Art forms develop in part by shifting emphasis: The details of everyday life can be interesting; painting does not have to represent anything; rhythm can be as important as melody. Video games develop the same
way.”
Let’s add Reality TV to the pile of developing art. The show Survivor, like The Sims, combines rules and fiction—and viewers can’t get enough Tribal Council. The metastasis of such programming (Road Rules, Big Brother, The Apprentice, etc.) suggests that rules themselves have become a significant aesthetic dynamic in today’s fiction.

The centathlete recalls the 1996 flick, Scream, in which this dynamic was
explicitly dramatized:

Randy: There are certain RULES that one must abide by in order to successfully survive a horror movie. For instance, number one: you can never have sex. [crowd boos]

Randy: BIG NO NO! BIG NO NO! Sex equals death, okay? Number two: you can never drink or do drugs. [crowd cheers and raises their bottles]
Randy: The sin factor! It's a sin. It's an extension of number one. And number three: never, ever, ever under any circumstances say, "I'll be right back." Because you won't be back.
Stu: I'm gettin' another beer, you want one?
Randy: Yeah, sure.
Stu: I'll be right back. [crowd cheers]
Randy: See, you push the laws and you end up dead. Okay, I'll see you in the kitchen with a knife.

And most of them do end up dead (making any novelists among them more eligible for the Modern Library’s next Top 100). The next year saw Scream 2, which continued to
emphasize rules:

Randy: [from the trailer] There are certain rules that one must abide by in order to create a successful sequel. Number one: the body count is always bigger. Number two: the death scenes are always much more elaborate - more blood, more gore - *carnage candy*. And number three: never, ever, under any circumstances, assume the killer is dead.

Reality TV and video games, due to their nature, in fact surpass the Scream movies in this emphasis and artistic manipulation. The
introduction or substantial variation of rules with each season is crucial to the enjoyment of shows like Survivor, as it is for each upgrade of games like The Sims. Once the game begins, the contestants animatedly debate the rules’ merits and discuss their strategic responses to them. The presentation of these discussions is an expected component of a Reality TV narrative. The perpetual, accelerated evolution and dramatization of rules indicates that they are not so “fixed,” complicating the “real” aspect of the game world.

What does this mean for literature? Many novels, such as The Da Vinci Code, approach cinema in narrative style and sensibility. The centathlete notes but has not read examples of the
increasingly popular literary subgenre, the novel based on a video game. These books appear to superimpose character development through the depiction of the “inner life,” that traditionally novelistic attribute, on icons of the newer, interactive medium.

Who will cross in the other direction? The future, ambitiously literary author will be tempted to approach the video game experience stylistically, with creative rule-making as important as characterization. It will be like this…

Now, if we re-sort all this data in order to—whirrrrrrrrrr. Freeze. The program craps out, the hardware shuts down. Agh, it’s just as well.

A few simple statistics can move you to giddiness and delusions of foresight. The centathlete gives the final word to Benjamin Disraeli via the always
quotable Mark Twain, who may never have seen a movie and definitely never played Space Invaders:

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics."


Coming soon…



Howards End
Appointment in Samarra