Friday, 24 September 2010

Happy Birthday Fitz

Today is F. Scott Fitzgerald's 114th birthday, and in honor of the event, I want to take the opportunity to refute a story that has become accepted as truth but is in fact a complete myth, the idea that Hemingway told Fitz that the rich are only different from you and me because they have more money.

Here is what actually happened:

In 1926, Fitzgerald wrote a story called "The Rich Boy," which opens: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." The point of the story is to see how extreme wealth can ruin people (and if you think he's wrong, just think about Michael Jackson.)

Some years later, Hemingway was at a dinner with the editor he shared with Fitzgerald, Max Perkins, and an Irish writer named Mary Colum, a woman with a sharp wit. Hemingway said at the dinner: "I am getting to know the rich" (primarily by marrying them, but, hey, that's one way). Mary Colum said to him: "The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money."

In 1936, Fitzgerald published the Crack-Up essays in Esquire, and Hemingway took the opportunity to deride him in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", also published in Esquire later that year, as "poor Scott Fitzgerald," who was in "awe" of the rich and had written a story saying "the very rich are different from you and me," and how "someone" had told him, "Yes, they have more money."

Ever since, Hemingway has been credited with the line but it was used against him. We know this because soon after the dinner Perkins wrote a letter to a woman named Elizabeth Lemmon telling her what had been said at the dinner, because he thought Hemingway's behavior was beneath contempt. Some think Hemingway did it in part because he hated being bested by a woman; certainly his rivalry with Fitzgerald drove him to more and more malicious mythmaking.

The truth of this story can be found in most of the Hemingway biographies, as well as the letters and biography of Max Perkins, and of course the Fitzgerald biographies, for example here.

While I'm at it: no one who knew Fitzgerald well believed that he asked Hemingway to check out his, erm, manhood at a Parisian restaurant to make sure he was properly endowed, as Hemingway claimed in A Moveable Feast. This is pure Hemingway machismo, just the kind of pissing contest he loved to invent. It is just possible that Fitz might have done it if he were very drunk (which of course happened a lot), when he was capable of all kinds of outrageous behavior. But in general he was sexually somewhat prudish and homophobic. He was raised a Victorian after all. So it's possible, but unlikely.

Saturday, 31 July 2010

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition (Review)

Here is the full text of my review of A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition, which was cut for space. (Times 5 June 2010)

A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition
Review by Sarah Churchwell
A Moveable Feast, first published in 1964, three years after Ernest Hemingway committed suicide, opens with a Preface stating: “For reasons sufficient to the writer, many places, people, observations and impressions have been left out of this book. Some were secrets and someone were known by everyone.” Thirty-five years later, Hemingway’s grandson Seán has published what he calls the “Restored Edition” of A Moveable Feast, including exactly those observations and impressions that were left out of the original.
The justification for this decision is that the omissions in the original were not, in fact, “the writer’s,” but rather, the posthumous editor’s. And she just happened to be the writer’s fourth wife, Mary. Given that the memoir tells the story of Hemingway’s Edenic years in Paris in the early 1920s with his first wife, Hadley, and ends with his leaving her for his second wife, Pauline, it is just possible that Mary wasn’t entirely impartial. Unfortunately, neither is Seán—as he is none other than Pauline’s grandson, and has put this “restored” memoir together with the stated intention of correcting its representation of her.
This has provoked some predictable criticism—but the irony is that the restored edition adds little about Pauline, and some of it is even more critical than in the original. Seán claims in his preface that the new book will show how much Hemingway loved Pauline; instead it shows that at the end of his life he remembered a mixture of love, happiness, and unhappiness in a marriage that lasted for thirteen years. This wouldn’t seem to require much proof.
Seán’s preface repeats twice in two pages that “Hemingway thought of his relationship with Pauline as a beginning, not an ending.” In fact, what the draft shows is Hemingway saying that the story of Pauline is properly the beginning of the next book: “I wrote it and I left it out. It is intact and it starts another book”. In other words, the defense of Pauline on display here is that Hemingway intended to write another book about her, but this isn’t it.
The restored version includes drafts, sketches and “fragments” of drafts that the original Feast omitted, but which have long been available to scholars; it re-arranges some sections, but it excises nothing from the original. Instead, it returns to the historical record the (undeniable) fact that A Moveable Feast was very much unfinished when Hemingway died. The resulting book is a looser, baggier, open-ended Feast—rather like a postmodern version of a modernist classic.
For the first two-thirds, one needs to remember the original well to register most of the changes. For example, “A Strange Enough Ending” tells of the end of Hemingway’s friendship with Gertrude Stein. In the original, he attributes it solely to inadvertently overhearing an unpleasant exchange between Stein and her “friend” Alice B. Toklas (speaking “as I had never heard one person speak to another; never, anywhere, ever”), which so shocks tough-guy Hemingway that he ends the friendship. The restored version adds a little fillip, which frankly sounds much more like Hemingway, attributing the break to Stein’s literary jealousy: “It never occurred to me until many years later that anyone could hate anyone because they had learned to write conversation from that novel that started off with the quotation from the garage keeper”—that is, the famous statement, “You are all a lost generation” that Hemingway used as an epigraph for The Sun Also Rises.
The new version adds a few other occasional sentences, including two moments of jarring prolepsis: Pauline suddenly appears at the races in “The End of an Avocation” (a chapter primarily featuring Hadley), and Hemingway later remarks that Hadley remarried “and is happy and deserves it.” But the main alteration to the original is sequencing: a few chapters are switched around at the beginning, some long passages are shifted from one chapter to another, and the three famous sketches of F. Scott Fitzgerald are moved to the end of the Paris sketches. This means that the book “proper” doesn’t conclude with the deservedly famous closure of “this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy,” but with Hemingway’s jealous and petty erasure of Fitzgerald at the end of “A Matter of Measurements,” which concludes with the bartender at the Paris Ritz knowing Hemingway well but never having heard of Fitzgerald.
Only in the last 50 pages do we get substantially new material (with the exception of “The Pilot Fish and the Rich,” the story of the breakdown of Hemingway and Hadley’s marriage, which has been moved here). This final section is, by any standard, less successful artistically, although it is of biographical interest. It also demonstrates a fair amount about Hemingway’s writing processes—and despair—toward the end. What it doesn’t demonstrate is any great shift in attitude to Pauline, which was supposed to be the volume’s raison d’être. In fact, it includes many draft passages calling Hadley the “heroine” of the book, and Pauline “relentless” in her pursuit of the married Hemingway.
Some of the new sketches are amusing, but pure fiction masquerading as fact, as in “The Education of Mr. Bumby,” an undated anecdote purporting to relate the disapproval Hemingway’s young son, Bumby, felt for Fitzgerald’s inability to hold his drink: “A man should first learn to control himself,” Bumby states. “I thought I could make an example.” This is all very amusing: but Bumby was born in October, 1923 and the Hemingways divorced in January, 1927, Hadley taking custody of their son. Hemingway's friendship with Fitzgerald deteriorated after 1926, and he saw his son intermittently after the divorce; if this episode is supposed to have taken place during his marriage to Hadley than Bumby was no older than three, which makes it a trifle implausible, to say the least. Other sketches are less amusing, if probably more accurate: one is called “On Writing in the First Person,” but written in the second person; “Secret Pleasures” anticipates the posthumously published Garden of Eden with its hair fetish, secret language, and erotic pleasure in twinning—and its mawkish self-indulgence.
In the final “Fragments,” which offers a series of draft efforts at explaining what the memoir is about, Hemingway explains: “This is about the first part of Paris …that we knew and loved and worked in. That Paris you could never put into a single book and I have tried to write by the old rule that how good a book is should be judged by the man who writes it by the excellence of the material that he eliminates.” Judged by these new inclusions, the material originally omitted was not excellent. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth reading, or that this isn’t a valuable book for “aficionados” of Hemingway. Seán believes this edition offers a “truer representation of the book my grandfather intended to publish.” But does it? In 1960, Hemingway asked his friend A.E. Hotchner to deliver a manuscript of Feast to Scribner’s; both Hotchner and Scribner’s have angrily denounced the restored edition, insisting that the original is the draft Hemingway delivered. What they neglected to mention is that three months before he died, Hemingway wrote to Scribner saying that the manuscript as it stood was unfair to both of his first two wives, and to Fitzgerald. The letter declares that the manuscript "is not to be published the way it is and it has no end". But Hemingway also added in this letter that he felt unable to fix it, as everything he had done since, he contended, made the book even worse. And it is those "worse" drafts that Seán has included and published as the "restored" A Moveable Feast. In the end, the only way in which this is a “truer” Feast is that it has no end.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Review of JD Salinger: A Life Raised High, by Kenneth Slawenski

First published in The New Statesman, 24 April 2010, in abbreviated form, here is the uncut review:

The one thing virtually everyone knows about J. D. Salinger is that his reclusiveness was both combative and controlling, and he absolutely didn’t want anyone else to write about him. It is, perhaps, a worrying sign when a biographer’s failure to respect his subject’s most fundamental wish creates no discernible cognitive dissonance. In this, the first—but not, one presumes, the last—biography to be published since Salinger’s death earlier this year, Kenneth Slawenski has produced an earnest, well-meaning account which is accurate as far as it goes, but doesn’t go anywhere near far enough.

A devoted fan, Slawenski maintains a Salinger website and has spent seven years painstakingly putting together this life. Unsurprisingly, as the biography was researched and written while Salinger was still alive, it received the cooperation of neither the author nor his estate. As a result, Salinger’s own words are minimal and there are no photographs at all; even the jacket cover is a penciled imitation of Salinger’s famous author photograph from the 1950s, a middling likeness at best. And unfortunately, this is one book that can be judged by its cover.

Slawenski has assembled a fair amount of data into a coherent narrative. He is especially successful at marshalling information about Salinger’s service in the Second World War, and his relationship with The New Yorker. But information is not the same thing as wisdom, and the facts of Salinger’s life before he became a recluse in the early to mid 1960s are better known than some might think: born into an upwardly mobile Jewish family in New York City, on New Year’s Day 1919; sent to Valley Forge school in Pennsylvania, which would later be immortalized as Pencey Prep in The Catcher in the Rye; the early ambitions to write, before serving overseas in the Second World War. Slawenski is at his best narrating Salinger’s combat experience, but even there his imagination often fails. For example, Salinger was clearly traumatized by the war: he served at D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge; he was there when Dachau and its satellite camps were liberated. (In a touching detail, Slawenski notes that Salinger carried early drafts of Catcher in the Rye with him throughout the war.) He suggests (like Ian Hamilton before him) that Salinger suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome: on V-E Day Salinger “spent the day alone, sitting on his bed, staring at a .45 pistol clutched in his hands. What would it feel like, he wondered, were he to fire the gun through his left palm. … The scene is a macabre one,” Slawenski concludes lamely, “and speaks powerfully of Salinger’s feelings of estrangement and imbalance after the war.” Quite.

The psychological effects of combat may be elusive, but Slawenski is also baffled by Salinger’s relationship to his work. Although he repeats that the young Salinger was always “ambitious,” he thinks that “Salinger’s tendency to ridicule his own works is something of a mystery.” Actually, it was de rigeur for any writer of Salinger’s generation with serious literary aspirations to disparage work sold to the commercial “slick” magazines (Salinger’s idol Fitzgerald did it routinely). He finds it equally “mysterious” that Salinger ever sold a story to Hollywood—before concluding that the “there can be only one explanation … his ambition had imbedded itself so deeply as to become a reflex.” How is reflexive, embedded ambition different from the ordinary kind? There is, actually, another explanation: perhaps Salinger wanted to make some money—and disavowed this desire, after earning enough that he could afford to. Salinger’s intense need for absolute control over his work did not only have artistic consequences, in other words: it had financial ones, too.

Readers who are curious about Salinger’s life can learn some salient facts from this book. But readers who are curious about Salinger’s writing should read it, rather than Slawenski’s numbingly reverential paraphrases. He greatly overstates Salinger’s genius: Franny and Zooey is far from “universally regarded as a masterpiece,” and The Catcher in the Rye is only “the most completely stream-of-consciousness experience offered by American literature” if we don’t count William Faulkner—or Jack Kerouac, or Henry James.

What genius Salinger did possess is inextricable from his tone, which at its best was pitch-perfect. The Salinger who emerges from this book is utterly humorless, but Salinger’s comedy is central to his work—and its popularity. The deservedly classic “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” for example, only transcends sentimentality because it so gracefully blends sardonic irony with a teasing sendup of Esmé’s solemnities. But Slawenski seems tone-deaf: “In writing for Esmé with Love and Squalor” it was necessary for Salinger to reach back into the events of his own past. That this story was written by a veteran who suffered the same traumatic stress as those the narrative addresses gives ‘For Esmé’ a certain moral authority.” Maybe—but moral authority is the least of that story’s virtues.

Any literary biographer who asserts flatly that “the aim of fiction is the re-creation of realism” has a fairly impoverished idea of his subject. Although he acknowledges that it’s a “mistake” to assume that Salinger’s writing is autobiographical, Slawenski also informs us that it’s “inconceivable” that Salinger could have altered the facts in a story he wrote based on an Austrian family he knew; because they die in a concentration camp in the story, they must have died in real life. He then proceeds to treat this speculation as fact—because he finds it inconceivable that a fiction writer might have employed fiction.

This is not what one might call a “critical biography.” It takes Slawenski 240 pages to admit that Salinger might be a trifle “controlling.” He sees no problem, either in literary or biographical terms, with Salinger’s near-obsessive penchant for saintly children as symbols of prelapsarian purity. Even Salinger’s reclusiveness was, to Slawenski, little more than an unfortunate accident, mostly caused by people pestering him. When Salinger took the writer Ian Hamilton to court, Slawenski mentions that Salinger referred to himself as a young man in the third person (as “the boy”) and comments: “Hamilton’s lawyer considered this method of reference odd.” Doesn’t Slawenski? He tells us of Salinger’s mysticism, but not his dabbling with Scientology, or Christian Science, or the occultism of Edgar Cayce. Once the public record fails him, Slawenski’s account just tails off: Salinger’s last forty years are hastily sketched in a couple of chapters. He shares the heartwarming fact that the reclusive Salinger took his two young children on a long-promised holiday to London, but neglects to mention his daughter’s claim in her memoir that he only did so in order to meet a teenaged girl with whom he’d been corresponding. He makes nothing of the fact that, by Slawenski’s own reckoning, Salinger doesn’t seem to have begun a relationship with any woman over the age of 19 until he was in his 70s—when he married a woman 40 years younger. He makes light of the 53-year-old’s relationship with the 18-year-old Joyce Maynard and never mentions any of the other string of adolescent girls in Peggy Salinger’s account, even to refute it.

Slawenski’s analytical inadequacies pale, however, beside his stylistic ones. Verbs become nouns (“the letter rings reminiscent of Whit Burnett and his cajoles for The Catcher in the Rye” and “Salinger’s letters overflowed with recounts of her antics”), nouns become adjectives (“his absence was foreboding”) and verbs are misused throughout: “He swore never again to deal with the slicks, regardless of how much they paid. ‘Let us be broke and obscure,’ he resigned.” And: "'His tragedy,' Faulkner derived, 'was that when he attempted to enter the human race, there was no human race there." And, oh, the metaphors: “In Bavaria, Salinger’s sinews to normalcy were strained to the point of bursting”; “William Faulkner’s appreciation of [Catcher] brought full circle an inspiration that he himself had unwittingly catapulted.” If Salinger had read this, his sinews to normalcy would have burst, too.

In his story “Seymour: An Introduction,” Salinger’s narrator dismisses scholars and biographers as a “peerage of tin ears.” One can only conclude, with disappointment, that A Life Raised High would have done little to change Salinger’s mind. © 2010 by Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Happy Birthday, Marilyn - Part 2

In honor of Marilyn's birthday, here is a short essay I wrote a few years ago for a small magazine, and have never reprinted. Hope you like it.

Why do we call Marilyn Monroe a goddess? She could not perform miracles, she was the miracle, a pure embodiment of the American Dream in all its counterfeit splendor. Like Fitzgerald’s vision of Jay Gatsby, she sprang from a Platonic conception of herself—but unlike Gatsby she did not stay faithful to her youthful conception to the end. The problem was that no one wanted her to reinvent herself a second time. It is a truism that Marilyn was desire incarnate, but we misconstrue what those desires were, seeing only our own, instead of the fact that hers are what drive the tale.

That Marilyn Monroe even happened—that the foster child Norma Jeane, so rootless that she had multiple last names, propelled herself from the sublunary obscurity of Van Nuys, California into a nation’s cosmology—is itself a miracle of such ardent wanting, such stubborn determination, such dogged, bloody-minded willfulness that it catapulted her to a level of stardom which has still to be matched, and may never be surpassed. Marilyn distilled, and radiated, America’s most treasured assurances: in the beginning, she soaked them up. She trusted that success would ensure esteem, that it should earn wealth, and that all of these things together would prove her worth. Didn’t she live in the greatest meritocracy on earth? She would put herself in the service of the vast, vulgar, and meretricious beauty of Tinseltown and make her dreams come true. She didn’t realize that she wasn’t supposed to dream of more than tinsel.

The great struggle of Marilyn’s life wasn’t really her struggle against drugs, alcohol, depression—it was her struggle for respect. It can’t have been easy, to have been the world’s lightning rod. “In a way I’m a very unfortunate woman,” she said near the end. “All this nonsense about being a legend, all this glamour and publicity. Somehow I’m always a disappointment to people.” And has that really changed? Marilyn is venerated—but hardly venerable. Respect is still not part of the Marilyn lexicon. By any reasonable standard, Marilyn Monroe was staggeringly successful at her chosen profession. But she has never been given the kind of validation she might reasonably have expected: most people still think of her as rather vast, vulgar, and meretricious herself.

For starters, she was never well paid by contemporary industry standards. Although her films almost single-handedly kept Twentieth Century-Fox afloat in the 1950s (only the Cinemascope process contributed as much), Darryl Zanuck refused to pay her anything like her market value. She made Fox millions; they begrudged her a dressing room. The year Marilyn died, Elizabeth Taylor was earning $1 million for Cleopatra and Monroe the $100,000 a film she had wrested out of Fox six years earlier. Having publicly fired her, Fox secretly hired her back with a million-dollar contract just days before she died (how little time she had to savor that long-overdue financial victory). Now of course even Marilyn’s garbage is worth six figures at auction—Polaroid snapshots of her terrier sold for $220,000; her driver’s license for over $100,000—but we pay it to someone she never met. As ever, Marilyn exists only to make other people rich (Hugh Hefner, take a bow).

But in any event Marilyn repudiated money as such: “I don’t want to make money,” she said. “I just want to be wonderful.” People scoffed, but she meant it literally, and fervently. It was never about the money, only about the value, and validation, that money would represent (in that sense, she was a fine Marxist). The same was true of stardom: Marilyn didn’t mistake signs for wonders. Her stardom was the great feat of her life, but stardom might also once have seemed to prove the measure of her worth. What she wanted most, she said, was to be good at her job. “I didn’t want anything else. Not men, not money, not love, but the ability to act.” Stardom and wealth would be the rewards earned by talent and skill; merit would beget more merits. Stardom would say something—something good—about her.

Instead, she was mocked by the people whose approval she wanted most. Her marriage to Arthur Miller, which she hoped might establish her substance in the eyes of the world (and perhaps her own), was greeted with the derisive headline Egghead Weds Hourglass, thus demonstrating that—unlike guilt—respect does not work by association. Unsurprisingly, she resorted in the end to surrounding herself with a court of sycophants and flatterers who would tell her what she wanted to hear, trapping herself in the double-bind of those who can’t trust opinions they have to pay for.

We blather on about Marilyn’s need for love, her desperate insecurities, her inadequacies, because talking about her anxieties quiets our own, by making her sound like an anomaly, and reproving her for her shortcomings. But why do we find Marilyn so blameworthy for somehow having failed to acquire self-esteem, as if she misplaced it, or forgot to get in line for it? Where, precisely, was her sense of worth supposed to come from, if not from us? Self-esteem derives from feeling valued by others, and it is precisely that validation we have always, sneeringly, withheld—and then blamed her for lacking it. Offered precious little of it as a child, Marilyn did the sensible, the mature thing, as an adult—she tried to learn how to acquire self-confidence in the realms she could control. She tried to change her own mind, hoping that this might change the minds of others about her: in her own words, she sought to build a foundation in her work: “My work is the only ground I've ever had to stand on. To put it bluntly, I seem to have a whole superstructure with no foundation. But I'm working on the foundation.” But no one wanted a grounded Marilyn: they wanted her floating above Time Square. They wanted tinsel. Marilyn was a casualty of the Puritan work ethic: she worked extraordinarily hard; she succeeded, immeasurably; and yet we continue smugly to insist that she failed in all the things that matter.

Marilyn’s need to be loved was no different from that of everyone else in kind; perhaps it was greater in degree—but perhaps not. The same can be said of her insecurities, her anxieties: they were powerful, and she was not particularly good at ignoring them, but she certainly fought them. Her lack of confidence, her stage fright, her diffidence about her lack of education: she battled against them all, determined to show herself, and everyone else, that she was worthwhile. “I finally made up my mind I wanted to be an actress and I was not going to let my lack of confidence ruin my chances,” she said. “My illusions didn't have anything to do with being a fine actress. I knew how third rate I was. I could actually feel my lack of talent, as if it were cheap clothes I was wearing inside. But, my God, how I wanted to learn, to change, to improve!” She tried to change, but we didn’t let her—because then we’d have to change our minds, and admit she was one of America’s greatest success stories instead of our favorite tragic myth.

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that the fault lies not in our star, but in ourselves?

The rapture with which she was greeted frequently betrayed a nasty edge: for everyone who called her a goddess there was someone else to call her a monster or “freak”—a beautiful freak, or freak of nature (they loved variations on that one). The implications are clear, and wouldn’t have been lost on her: her success was a grotesque accident, which she certainly didn’t earn; she was just an “arrogant little tail-twitcher who learned to throw sex in your face.” When Marilyn left Joe DiMaggio, she was handed a letter with the word “whore” written in shit. Even her own biographers tend to agree, and her freakishness and whorishness become fixed: they call her schizoid, paranoid, frigid, nymphomaniac, unformed, immature, embryonic, prostitute and madwoman. Every name in the book.

And the tributes? Take The Misfits, Miller’s “valentine” to Marilyn, which imagines her as a tree-hugging hysteric (“he could have written me anything and he comes up with this,” she commented). Billy Wilder said she was a genius—the first time she was photographed; cinematographer Jack Cardiff that she wasn’t an actress, she was a genius. Her passivity is enshrined: how could she take credit, take solace, gain affirmation from compliments that credited anything and everything other than herself with her own success? The people made her a star; the studio made her a star; God made her a star; her body made her a star; nature made her a star. All this to describe someone so self-propelled she was more of a comet, who took her ambitions, her career, and her life seriously, and wanted only to be treated seriously in return.

“Some people have been unkind,” she remarked once, revealing a great talent for understatement: “If I say I want to grow as an actress, they look at my figure. If I say I want to develop, to learn my craft, they laugh. Somehow they don't expect me to be serious about my work.” In the beginning, they laughed at Marilyn because she couldn’t act; so (not unreasonably) she took acting lessons. Then they laughed at her pretension, her presumption. How dare she aspire to better herself! Who does she think she is, an American?

Near the end of her life, Monroe commented upon how she survived the difficult filming of The Misfits: “I had to use my wits, or else I’d have been sunk—and nothing’s going to sink me.” If only she could have convinced us. In 1953, she told The New York Times: “My dramatic coach, Natasha Lytess, tells everybody that I have a great soul—but so far nobody’s interested in it. Someday, though, someday—”

In the meantime, she kept chasing the promise of the green light: it receded before her, it eluded her, but no matter, she would run faster, try harder, and, “someday,” tomorrow … Aspirationalism in its purest form, that’s Marilyn Monroe—a greater Gatsby.

© 2006 by Sarah Churchwell. All rights reserved.

Happy Birthday Marilyn

Yesterday - June 1st, 2010 - would have been Marilyn Monroe's 84th birthday. It is hard to believe that it has been six years (yipes) since my book about her (The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe) first came out.

I've been lucky enough to spend the last couple of days going through early proofs of Farrar Straus Giroux's upcoming Marilyn: Fragments. (They wouldn't appreciate my giving anything away, so don't look for any spoilers here.)

The book comes from Marilyn's notes and papers, which were left to Lee Strasberg, her friend and acting teacher, when she died in August, 1962. Her will asked him to distribute her effects among her friends; because of legal wrangling (and perhaps some other reasons), that didn't happen. His wife Paula died; he remarried a woman called Anna, whom Marilyn never met; Anna Strasberg now controls Marilyn's estate, after Lee's death in 1982, and it is through her auspices that this publication has come about.

Marilyn: Fragments is due for publication in October; I will have more to say about it then. But I will say this: many books (many books) have purported to be "in her own words" since she died. This claim has been everything from highly arguable (such as her ghost-written "autobiography," My Story, which was co-authored by at least two writers, and probably ghost-revised after her death; it was certainly ghost-edited after her death) to the outright nonsensical (everything else). This book actually is Marilyn's own words--it reproduces notebook pages, in her handwriting, and then transcribes them. That alone makes it worth reading.

It was quite something to spend her birthday reading it. Happy Birthday, Marilyn.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Sex and the City, Liz Jones, and Me, Blondie

Well that was fun. I've now been personally attacked by Liz Jones for a little VT I made for the BBC on romantic comedy, linked to Sex and the City 2. (I'm not linking to her piece in the Daily Mail because I don't want to be sullied by it. You can google if you want to find it.)

Here's what Liz has to say about my little film:

The final straw in the whole PC backlash was when a snooty blonde American academic pontificated on BBC2’s Newsnight Review that the romantic comedy is dead, and why on earth do we no longer (yawn) have strong female role models?

Listen, blondie, you obviously didn’t spend enough time as a child in front of the telly. Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday was about to throw in the typewriter and get married, and indeed ends up happily ever after with Cary Grant (a plot followed as closely by SATC the TV series as Bridget Jones mirrored Pride and Prejudice).

Sex And The City 2 deals with the issue of being married to a monosyllabic nightmare who only ever wants to watch TV, with the menopause, with the mundanity of motherhood

Blondie cited The Philadelphia Story, as if this were some homage to women’s lib.

Can I remind you that Kate Hepburn, an unemployed heiress, gets smacked in the mouth by Cary Grant, apologises to her father for being a shrew, promises to behave, and gratefully marries the aforementioned wife beater and recovering alcoholic in the closing credits.

Hi there, I'm the Blondie. *waves*

I'll leave the incoherence of Liz's piece behind, and simply point out a few of the most egregiously stupid of the things she says about me.

First, it is a two-minute VT, produced and edited by the BBC. Liz obviously hasn't made very many films, or she would know that I had very limited control over what was done in that film: only the words I speak are definitely mine.

For the record, I say nothing in the film about The Philadelphia Story. If there were images used from the film (I haven't watched it yet, as I hate watching myself on tv), that was not my idea. In fact, The Philadelphia Story is a Taming of the Shrew tale, as I have written elsewhere, so it is not a feminist exemplum. Actually Katharine (not "Kate," Liz, you never met her, but perhaps you don't know how to spell Katharine?) Hepburn is supposed to have told playwright Philip Barry to make the heroine "like me, but make her go all soft at the end."

I only mention "Katharine Hepburn" in the piece. Liz seems to be under the impression that The Philadelphia Story is the only film she made. There were others, Liz - more than 50, in fact.

Second, in calling me "Blondie," Liz seems to believe that knowledge is correlated with hair color. The idea that my hair-color symbolizes anything about me, or what I know, is just the kind of stupid thinking you'd expect from a brunette. Grow up, Liz, and get off the playground. The same goes for my being "snooty" and - gasp - an academic. Name-calling is a terrific substitute for an actual argument, and prejudice and presumption is much easier than thinking.

Actually, Liz, I know more about screwball comedy (that's what they're called) in one blonde hair follicle than you will ever know. My family would be convulsed with hysterics at the idea that I didn't spend enough teen years in front of the tv: I never left it, and I watched nothing but old black and white films for years. I have written about them, read about them, and watched them, all of them (and I mean all of them) for decades. I own, and love, screwball comedies that I can assure you, Liz, you've never heard of.

As for His Girl Friday, as I wrote in the comment to Liz's column, I made the connection between this film and Sex and the City three years ago, in the Spectator. Perhaps Liz got the idea for the comparison by reading my 2007 column? It's here.

The idea that His Girl Friday is the ur-plot of Sex and the City is, frankly, moronic. His Girl Friday is based on a play (The Front Page) that was about two men, an editor and his star reporter; in 1940 director Howard Hawks had the brilliant idea to make the reporter a woman, and a classic was born. But Walter Burns, the Cary Grant character, is a bastard - he's charming, and gorgeous and fabulous in every way except that he has no morals and treats Hildy (Rosalind Russell) like shit. Deciding that this Cary Grant character - a cheater, liar, thief, manipulator - is infinitely preferable to the Cary Grant character in The Philadelphia Story seems, let's say, rather an arbitrary choice.

I adore His Girl Friday in every way, but let's tell the truth about it. It has no connection to SATC except that Carrie is supposedly a "journalist"--but a tough investigative newspaper reporter she ain't. There are no other parallels whatsoever, beyond the so general as to be meaningless. Those are probably the ones Liz was thinking of.

But the most amazing part is that Liz assumes I haven't seen this specific film because it wasn't mentioned in a 2-minute tv film. By that logic, I also haven't seen, or heard of anything in this list either, which I just happen to have on file despite my startling ignorance of the genre (the asterisks indicate films I especially recommend):

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  1. It Happened One Night (1934)**
  2. Twentieth Century (1934)
  3. The Thin Man (1934)*
  4. The Gay Divorcee (1934)
  5. The Richest Girl in the World (1934)
  6. Hands Across the Table (1935)
  7. Red Salute (1935)
  8. If You Could Only Cook (1935)
  9. Remember Last Night? (1935)
  10. She Married Her Boss (1935)*
  11. Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)*
  12. My Man Godfrey (1936)*
  13. The Awful Truth (1937)**
  14. Nothing Sacred (1937)**
  15. The Bride Walks Out (1936),
  16. The Ex-Mrs Bradford (1936),
  17. The Princess Comes Across (1936),
  18. Love on the Run (1936),
  19. The Moon’s Our Home (1936),
  20. Theodora Goes Wild (1936)*
  21. Wedding Present (1936),
  22. Breakfast for Two (1937),
  23. Double Wedding (1937),
  24. Easy Living (1937)**
  25. History is Made At Night (1937) *
  26. I Met Him In Paris (1937),
  27. It’s Love I’m After (1937),
  28. Libeled Lady (1936)*
  29. Love Before Breakfast (1936)
  30. Love is News (1937),
  31. Second Honeymoon (1937),
  32. Topper (1937),
  33. True Confession (1937)*
  34. Bringing Up Baby (1938)**
  35. Bachelor Mother (1939)**
  36. Holiday (1938)**
  37. Midnight (1939)**
  38. Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938),
  39. The Mad Miss Manton (1938),
  40. Having Wonderful Time (1938),
  41. Joy of Living (1938),
  42. Merrily We Live (1938),
  43. Vivacious Lady (1938),
  44. 5th Ave Girl (1939)*
  45. Café Society (1939),
  46. Eternally Yours (1939),
  47. It’s A Wonderful World (1939),
  48. His Girl Friday (1940)**
  49. Ball of Fire (1941)**
  50. The Devil and Miss Jones (1941)*
  51. Sullivan’s Travels (1941)**
  52. The Lady Eve (1941)*
  53. The Palm Beach Story (1942)**
  54. The Philadelphia Story (1940)*
  55. My Favorite Wife (1940)*
  56. Too Many Husbands (1940),
  57. Turnabout (1940),
  58. Hired Wife (1940),
  59. I Love You Again (1940),
  60. No Time for Comedy (1940),
  61. Public Deb. No 1 (1940),
  62. He Stayed for Breakfast (1940)
  63. Love Crazy (1941),
  64. Mr.and Mrs Smith (1941)
  65. The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)
  66. To Be or Not to Be (1942)*
  67. Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942)

I end the list there for various reasons I won't enumerate now, and which Liz wouldn't understand anyway. Anyone else reading this, do yourself a favor and if you haven't seen these films, get a hold of them and enjoy. I'll be laughing with you in spirit.

I've also written about screwball and the great women who starred in them here: and here and here

So Liz, there you have it. You were talking out of your ass, as usual. And I'm quite sure that neither Katharine Hepburn, nor Rosalind Russell, would want me to take this crap lying down.

Wizard of Oz

Here is a piece I wrote for the Guardian on the Wizard of Oz, before it was cut for space (22 May 2010).

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As Britain prepares breathlessly for Sunday’s finale of Over the Rainbow, Drew Barrymore announced plans to direct Surrender Dorothy, the story of Dorothy’s great-great-granddaughter, who apparently uses the ruby slippers to defeat the Wicked Witch of the West (the reports are unclear about whether she’s been resurrected, or it’s her great-great-granddaughter, too) in her attempts to conquer Oz and Earth. The Wicked Witch used to just enslave Munchkins and monkeys; now she’s a rather more ambitious imperialist.

Meanwhile, Robert Downey, Jr. is rumored to be making a Disney prequel explaining how the wizard ended up in Oz, at least two CGI productions have been proposed, and something called The Witches of Oz, which will star Christopher Lloyd as the wizard.

Oz is clearly enjoying a renaissance. In part, as some have already noted, these are predictable efforts to capitalize on the recent success of new versions of old classic fantasies, from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to Lord of the Rings. But there is something particularly appropriate to The Wizard of Oz returning to our screens, both large and small, and to the West End, right now.

L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz was published in 1900, as America emerged from a recession in the 1890s. Its most famous film version appeared in 1939, as America tried to decide whether it was emerging from the Great Depression, and whether to enter the war in Europe, or continue to avoid it. It has become a truism that the films of the Great Depression offered escapism, but this facile observation doesn’t begin to explain the power these films still possess to comfort even modern audiences. Like all the greatest Hollywood films of the 1930s, The Wizard of Oz offers a master class in consoling philosophies, the art of running away from your troubles—and what will happen when you return.

Dorothy seeks a life over the rainbow, her own fantasy of avoidance, of running away from the grey life of agrarian survival in the Kansas dustbowl. But when she dreams of crash-landing among beings with magical powers (including a great deal of symbolic flight), she drags her home along with her and drops it on a witch. Home was never so comforting: it doesn’t just save Dorothy, it liberates all the enslaved munchkins. For the rest of the film, Dorothy tries to get home, but Dorothy is exactly like her friends, who already have the brains, heart, and nerve they seek—she never left home at all: she brought it with her. So when she “learns” that there’s no place like home, the implication is not that she’s lowering her standards and resigning herself to her lot in life, but that you can, in fact, go home again. As the “Optimistic Voices” (so-named by the screenplay) sing: “You’re out of the woods, you’re out of the dark, you’re out of the night”…

Films like The Wizard of Oz (and Gone with the Wind, which came out in the same year) were immense hits with an American audience that had been grappling for the best part of a decade with rampant homelessness and despair because they offered myths of survival and return. By contrast, many of our most popular contemporary stories focus on leaving home: fantasy sagas like Lord of the Rings, the Star Wars cycle, or Pirates of the Caribbean are initiation stories about young men learning to be heroes, stories of journey, adventure, quests, and king-making. Such imperial fantasies are quite at odds with the very domestic stories of the Depression. In times of comfort, stories of leaving home are signs of independence and power; in seasons of want, stories of leaving home are signs of desperation.

No surprise, then, that our own grandiose age of peddling endless ambition should shift the focus either to fantasies of saving the world, or to the wizard, the man behind the curtain—who’s now the man perched on a golden throne every Sunday night deciding the fate of Dorothy. The pragmatic opportunism of Professor Marvell, who grabs his power where he can, was part of the problem in the original story. The wizard is just a humbug; how typical that we should turn him into a hero, or pop him onto a throne. Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore.

Sarah B for Blog

Welcome to my belated blog, which will be used primarily to publish my journalism, both so it is one place authored by me, and also to give me the chance to publish full versions when pieces are cut for space, which happens more and more as our dying papers give less and less space to cultural and arts criticism.

I hope you enjoy reading it. Comments are of course welcome, as long as they are courteous.

Review of Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel

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Here is the full review, before it was cut for space by the Observer (30 May 2010)

Historians and scholars have long debated the relationship of art to the Holocaust, a debate referred to in shorthand as “the limits of representation,” which asks: does the sheer scale of the Holocaust mean that any attempt always risks trivializing or oversimplifying it, reducing the horror to a story that can be read, put away and forgotten? Can the Holocaust adequately be represented? Henry, the protagonist of Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil, the follow-up to his prize-winning 2002 The Life of Pi, is a writer who decides to challenge the fact that no “poetic license was taken with—or given to—the Holocaust,” and represent its evil and suffering in a new way.

Henry bears a striking resemblance to his author: like Martel, Henry’s second novel, a charming, poignant tale of the humanity of animals, was an unexpected success, bringing prizes and fame. For five years Henry has labored on his next project, a “flip book” that combines Holocaust novel with Holocaust essay, representing the catastrophe in, he fondly believes, an original way. Henry’s publishers deem the book itself catastrophic, and Henry staggers off into writer’s block and self-pity. He and his wife, Sarah, move to some interchangeable cosmopolitan city--“Perhaps it was New York. Perhaps it was Paris. Perhaps it was Berlin”—where Henry amuses himself by waiting tables at a fair trade café, playing the clarinet and acting in amateur theatricals.

One day Henry receives a package in the mail, with a letter and Flaubert’s story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator,” a fable about a boy whose greatest pleasure is killing animals. If you don’t know Flaubert’s story, never fear: Martel devotes 15 pages to summarizing and quoting long passages of it. He also explains that “hospitator” means, basically, host; at book’s end we learn that Henry’s surname is L’Hôte. The package also includes part of a play about two characters named Beatrice and Virgil, standing in a road, by a tree, trading cryptic epigrams. The first excerpt consists of their efforts to describe a pear; later they debate what to do next (“We should go, then? / We should”) and offer sophomoric philosophizing about something they call the Horrors: “How can there be anything beautiful after what we’ve lived through? It’s incomprehensible.” Not nearly as incomprehensible as the clumsiness of this from a writer capable of Martel’s grace.

The letter writer just happens to live in the same city as Henry (though no one knows that Henry moved there). A taxidermist, he also just happens to be named Henry. (Flaubert and Beckett, meet Mr Dostoevsky.) Beatrice, in fact, is a stuffed donkey, Virgil a stuffed monkey on her back (see what he did there?); they are the taxidermist’s “guide to hell.” Martel thoughtfully helps out readers struggling with all this literary virtuosity: “Hell? What hell? Henry wondered. But at least now he understood the connection to The Divine Comedy. Dante is guided through inferno and purgatory by Virgil and then through paradise by Beatrice.”

Like the reader who needs help understanding Martel’s allusions, Henry the taxidermist needs help writing his play, A 20th-Century Shirt (Beatrice and Virgil are living on a striped shirt. Don’t ask) and writer Henry inexplicably agrees to assist. The result is a book by turns pretentious, humorless, tedious, and obvious. All of the characters are there to be manipulated: Henry is endlessly blind to the evident, while all the other characters are cardboard cutouts propped around the novel: his wife, Sarah, might better have been named Henry’s Pregnant Wife, as she is otherwise a gesture. Even less credible is the sinister taxidermist Henry, who is meant to be menacing but whose only real threat comes from the possibility that he might bore the reader to death.

Taxidermist Henry reads ersatz-Beckett out loud for pages at a time, or pontificates on the fate of animals and the ethics of taxidermy; otherwise he is a cipher until the end, when he suddenly provides the novel some much-needed but quite unbelievable action. Host Henry delivers wooden, overwritten speeches ("I noticed that a donkey has an appealing terrestrial solidity--it's a good, solid animal--yet its limbs are surprisingly slim. It's as firm yet lithely connected to the earth as a birch tree”) and explains Martel’s allusions to the reader.

Attempting to manage the problems he has created in trying to mix allegory, psychology, metafiction, mystery and a parable about the Holocaust (not to mention our inhumanity to animals) in under 200 pages, Martel also makes Henry explain the book’s flaws: “There seemed to be essentially no action and no plot in it. Just two characters by a tree talking. It had worked with Beckett and Diderot. Mind you, those two were crafty and they packed a lot of action into the apparent inaction. But inaction wasn’t working for the author of A 20th-Century Shirt.” No kidding.

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“About what happens in the play,” Henry tells Henry, “in effect what happens is they talk about talk.” This means that in effect what happens in the novel is they talk about a play in which what happens is they talk about talk, and they talk about silence, and they talk about horror, and they talk about the unrepresentable. Then a few bad things happens from which we are entirely insulated by all of the talk, all of the silence, all of the abstraction, and the fact that this is a taxidermist we don’t like narrating a play about a stuffed monkey and donkey to a protagonist whose total solipsism insulates us even further from caring about any of it.

At the end, author Henry develops some “games,” twelve brief questions posing to the reader the kind of moral quandaries William Styron so successfully dramatized in Sophie’s Choice: would you allow your son to endanger his life to try to save the rest of the family? If you knew people were about to be killed and you couldn’t stop it, would you warn them? If only Martel had bothered to dramatize any of these dilemmas, and think through the answers rather than abdicating responsibility to the reader, he might have produced a novel that didn’t show the limits of representation quite so painfully.

© Copyright 2010 Sarah Churchwell. Do not reproduce without prior written permission.