Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book 1: In Search Of Lost Time: Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

For many years this six volume masterwork by Marcel Proust was known by a different translated name. 'Remembrance Of Things Past' was the title widely accepted until D.J. Enright's new translation in 1992 appeared. My father set about reading this new translation. He was determined to finish it before he died. And then, I believe, he deliberately refused to do so.

The French title is 'A La Recherche du Temps Perdu' and the key word there is 'Perdu', which is the past tense of the verb 'perdre', or 'to lose'. To translate this title without the words 'Lost Time' is egregious almost to an offensive level. I liken it to Demi Moore and Company deciding that Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece 'The Scarlet Letter' just didn't pack the right kind of punch as is. Like painting a mustache onto the Mona Lisa. Idiots.

I remember feeling a surge of interest in the book once the title had been changed from its bland predecessor. 'Remembrance of Things Past'??? Sounds like a Lawrence Welk special highlighting standards of the '40's. 'In Search Of Lost Time' is a far apter title, capturing the ache inherent in every single syllable, articulating the unspoken continual impossible dream we all share.

All six volumes taken together add up to over 4,000 pages. And these are no Robert Parker (RIP!) three yeses, two no's and a gunshot from Hawk pages. These are dense to an almost pathological level. So far I have only completed the first two volumes and each made 'Ulysses' seem like a graphic novel. Sentences begin, falter, twist, divide, multiply, regain thread, evaporate, shift direction entirely, soar off into rumination on several concurrent topics, and finally resolve, reminding you that every word contained therein did, in fact, refer back to the root. The imagery and expression is breathtaking, the psychological scope enormous, the talent undeniable.

I am not sure exactly when my dad decided to read this series but he kept struggling along with it as his health deteriorated. By the time I expressed interest in it he was on Volume 5. He curled his lip up and waved me off with his good arm, such as it was.

"Just read the first one. Forget the rest of it."

Now, I found this hilarious on several levels. First of all, if anyone ever had any incentive to remove struggle and difficulty from their recreational life, my dad did at this point. Each page was a physical labor bordering on Herculean levels. The concentration it took me in relative health was enormous. For my father I cannot begin to imagine how he did it.

I began to read 'Swann's Way' and I would update him on my progress. We laughed together over the phone about the narrator and what a little momma's boy he was. He describes in excruciating detail the tricks and devices he comes up with to try to get his mother to come up and visit him while he tries to fall asleep. The language and expression are formal to a forbidding degree but once you get into the rhythm of it it is actually quite hilarious.

Then he would just give me a status update of sorts on how much further he was along the way. Finished Volume 5. Started on Volume 6. Speaking about this book was one of the few times he mentioned his death directly.

After my sister's wedding, a tale I cannot really begin to tell, I asked him when he was going to finish Volume 6 because he was quite close.

His response was gruff and funny, like he always was. He knew how many pages were left, how long it would take him to get through it. He was going to wait until the doctor said it was just about time to go.

The day approached. We held our breaths with each one of his. I've never seen suffering even close to this level. And yet he still managed to make jokes, show affection, connect with us. But finally even these qualities seemed to be taken and he was essentially gone from us while tethered ever so slightly to the frail form that rested in the living room sun.

We would take turns and read to him from the final pages of Marcel Proust. By a trick of publishing, it appeared that there were at least one hundred pages remaining. We had not taken into consideration the Appendix. What seemed to be chapter upon chapter to be gone through was merely footnotes. And as my sister sat with him and read, as the final moment gently approached, the hourglass rushed too quickly and all of a sudden he was gone.

When she looked up he had left.

One simple turn of the page remained. Now, anyone who ever met my dad will tell you. This was a smart smart man. He had ample time to finish that Volume even before we all convened to be by his bedside. He knew what he was about.

There is a defiance to that refusal which is very much in keeping with his character. He wanted every second he could get. He didn't want to lose any more time.

For Sheila, Sheila, Brendan, Jean, Siobhan and most of all, Bill...............

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Book 2: The Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon

'The Yiddish Policeman's Union' imagines that Israel did not last after being established in 1948 and that a Puerto Rico like settlement off the coast of Alaska has thrived for 50 years, part of and separate from America. The settlement will revert to American territory and the Jews once again will wander, being forced to leave a bleak landscape that they'd desperately carved into a makeshift homeland.

At the time of its release my family was reeling with the knowledge that my father was not going to recover from the cancer he'd been fighting. So a novel that supposes an imaginary city was, for me, akin to a grim drug, one that helped with your symptoms but had consequences of its own.

The funny thing about Chabon is that he seems to love writing what he calls 'genre fiction'. He talked at length about wanting to do a detective novel and adopting that hard-boiled terseness that is so evocative of that category of literature. He kept it up for about three tight pages and then the real Chabon comes out and sentences last pages and pages last chapters and parentheticals threaten to turn into their own novels.

But, even with the over verbosity wrestling with the nature of the form, Chabon has written a corker of a tale. Meyer Landsman is a Sitka homicide detective losing a long battle with alcoholism and depression. He pines for his ex who just so happens to be his new boss. A chess player in his building gets murdered which he takes rather personally and he sets out to solve the case.

Along the way Chabon gives us a snapshot of a city that never existed. You start to feel the streets, to sense the geography of the place, to truly sag under the weight of the oppressive cold and oncoming dread of relocation. The murder may or may not be related to this seismic change and Landsman risks what is left of his career to pursue a case that everyone wants to bury.

Several times during the reading of the novel I'd find myself forgetting that NONE of this actually existed. When a detective novel happens in New York or Chicago or Boston, the very reality of those cities lends a credibility to the story that enhances the tension. Here Chabon weaves it whole cloth.

And that is what my family did as we journeyed along with my father. You'd think there'd be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth. But that was not how my father operated. I'd call from the west coast every day when I got out of work and if my father felt well enough we would chat. He mostly wanted to know what I was up to. We didn't discuss what was happening to him. It would have been like having a conversation about air.

We'd chit chat about the Celtics, about the Red Sox, about whatever he was trying to read at the time, which was slow going because of the pain he was in and the drugs he was on. He'd ask me about Cash and we'd just bask in what a good boy he is.

With 'The Yiddish Policeman's Union', Chabon has behaved like a god of sorts, wiping history away with a stroke of his pen. The citizens of Sitka go about their daily lives trying not to see the future which is staring them in the face.

As if everything was normal.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Book 3: Different Seasons by Stephen King

When Stephen King published this book in 1982 it was seen almost as a joke. The horror guy? Four short novellas? None of which have any spooky monsters? The world at large was ready to laugh him off the stage. So even if you don't connect with King as a writer you have got to respect the courage it took for someone to undercut their own image so thoroughly in service of their muse.

Imagine Tom Cruise taking a small part in an ensemble Broadway drama. Britney Spears mounting a tour in which she sat on a stool in front of a bass/piano/drum trio and sang standards. Angelina Jolie playing a regular person. Harrison Ford doing any independent film. (Quick aside...just watched 'The Mosquito Coast' for the first time and I am now DESPERATE for someone to save Harrison Ford from himself...Peter Weir??? Are you listening? Can you put something REAL together for Harrison Ford, please?)

Whatever you think of those examples and their current career trajectories, the point is that for them to completely go against the grain of what has made them who they are would be a supremely courageous act. It might not work, it might backfire, but they must be commended if they TRY.

Now, Stephen King in 1982 was seen as a JOKE. In spite of the fact that Stanley Kubrick, one of the greatest artists of all time in any genre, had responded to his creation with a masterpiece of his own interpretation, in spite of the overwhelming connection the public made with his work, his writing was looked at like a succession of car crashes on the highway. Riveting but hardly artistic or human.

So what does he do? He comes out with four novellas. Which in and of itself is not common. To make matters worse, none of these stories have the least bit of supernatural gore. They are all real plausible human stories.

Of the four stories, three have been made into SUPERB movies. The first was 'The body' which became 'Stand By Me'. This film, along with 'The Princess Bride', 'Spinal Tap' and 'When Harry Met Sally', make a great case for Rob Reiner as the Film Director of the 1980's. Who else had a better run than that?

'Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption' famously became 'The Shawshank Redemption'. And 'Apt Pupil' is the grossly underrated 'Apt Pupil' with Ian McKellen and the late Brad Renfro.

So. From a man who'd called forth demons, vampires, werewolves, and unspoken evil, we now had four kids on a life changing hike looking for a dead body, an unjustly imprisoned man who grimly clings to hope over almost thirty years in jail, and a twisted young man who blackmails a Nazi war criminal into telling him the grisly details of everything he'd done.

Again, you might not respond to the writing style or the films in any way whatsoever. I've gone over this territory with King and I can't blame anyone who doesn't feel the way I do about his work. But if you can separate those things and see the risk he took, the gamble inherent in taking such a radical left turn away from your hardcore audience, you will begin to get a glimmer of what I'm talking about.

The great artists never rest on what they've already accomplished. They are bored with what they just did. Their lifeblood pumps only in the face of a new challenge, a new idiom, a new path. We cheer them when they rediscover this trait after having abandoned it (John Travolta, Robert Downey, Jr., Mickey Rourke, etc.)

So here's the challenge. Imagine yourself in Stephen King's shoes in 1982. You have countless manuscripts in your drawer that your fans would eat up. You don't know the future. Plenty of writers as popular as Stephen King have faded into obscurity when it seemed like they would never disappear.

What do you do? What do you turn in?

The next vampire epic or the personal story?

That takes balls. I don't know about you, but I'm following that guy's lead.

Book 4: Shampoo Planet by Douglas Coupland

I took a broken heart to France and a shattered immune system. The former from a girl, the latter from a deer tick which gave me Lyme's Disease. While I was in France a novel by a man I'd yet to read was published, a novel that disappointed a lot of people, a novel that was written off as 'Fluff' in comparison with his first novel. But had I read it while traipsing around France it would have been akin to falling into a mirror. The magical image that comes to mind is me falling into an inverse world. In reality, shattering glass would have reflected my image and the cuts would have run very deep.

The protagonist of 'Shampoo Planet' by Douglas Coupland has just returned from Europe where he'd cheated on his longtime girlfriend with a sophisticated cutting edge modern-ess. When the foreigner takes him up on his ill-advised invitation to visit him in the States his life is thrown into an uproar.

The manner in which Coupland uses this idea of an 'other' intruding into everyday life is fascinating. Every aspect of your life that you take for granted comes under a different kind of scrutiny. For me this happened because I was the 'Other'. I was foreign even to myself.

I felt as if my personality were being forged in fire, transformed by some great heat, cooled too quickly, prone to shattering. It is almost as if the entire experience were a gauntlet, a self-imposed exile designed to scour every last bit of what I'd been and replace it with whatever greedily came to hand.

I stole pallets from construction sites to build fires. I slept on dirt with my jacket tucked under my neck and woke up with frost on my eyelashes. My cohorts were bundled better than I was so I drank alone and foraged for wood in the field we were squatting in to rebuild the fire. I had no censor. I drank to excess. I smoked French cigarettes for emphasis. I had fun but in looking back it was furlough fun, the kind of fun that gets sailors into trouble, that leaves them stranded in some unwanted port waiting for the next freighter.

This is the kind of fun the characters in 'Shampoo Planet' have. It is an alluring lifestyle and I think readers substitute 'Shallow' for 'Shampoo' a bit too easily because of this fun. These characters are as modern as today's teenagers with their texting and tweeting and technological lives WITHOUT ANY OF THAT INTERCONNECTIVITY.

Think about that for a second.

I was 22 years old when I went to France and I couldn't email anyone. I couldn't Skype. My day to day existence was completely trapped on the continent. This cut me loose from my past in such a dramatic way that I am still feeling the after shocks.

How do you untether a balloon that is tied to each and every one of us?

But the collective psyche was already straining at how ancient things were, how isolated and cut off we were from each other. Imagine what tweets you'd have gotten out of Tehran during the Revolution. My buddy Buzz was born in Iran and moved here as the Shah's regime fell. His father had been a general and saw the writing on the wall. He put together a nest egg and fled to Georgia.

Buzz lost contact with his entire family at ten years of age. Not only that, his entire cultural envelope was burned away.

All I did was go to France. Where I became just another other.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Book 5: A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man by James Joyce

As a kid I could never get this title right. And getting it right meant that my dad would lean down and dispense a quarter from his slender fingers.

We all had to recite Irish authors and titles of their works in order to get our allowance. Clean our rooms? Nope. Take out the trash? Nope. Do the dishes? Nope. I was a terrible roommate upon moving out of my parents house because the only real task I was given was learning that James Joyce wrote 'Ulysses', 'A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man', and 'The Dubliners'.

The one that gave me the most trouble however was 'Finnegan's Wake'. And I don't mean trouble reading it because I have yet to tackle that mountain of gobbledygook. No. I would desperately try to remember the three names I needed to remember and I would invariably blurt out, 'Gilligan's Wake'!

My sister Sheila wrote a gorgeous essay about this ritual which was published in 'The Swanee Review', a venerated quarterly literary journal. My father was extremely proud of her, as we all were.

Now, 'A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man' I have read. And read again. I believe it is three times now and I'm certain that I shall read it again. It is an astonishing read now but if you take a second to place yourselves in the time in which it was published it becomes almost unimaginably good. Because the tone of this narrative literally pre-figures the way that storytelling itself would change over the course of the century. We are now in the age of the Memoir but James Joyce wrote the Grandmother of All Memoirs in 1916.

And it isn't even a memoir.

We are along for the transformation of our narrator from a young child to a man on the verge of adulthood. As usual with Joyce, what happens isn't as important as the words he uses to describe what's happening. I found myself re-reading passages over and over again, not because some critical piece of information was contained therein but simply because I couldn't quite believe that he'd managed to combine words in that particular order, like watching a YouTube video of a LeBron James improvised slam dunk over and over. You understand what is happening and are still fully awed.

The catalog of James Joyce lingered on the fringes of my peripheral vision for much of my own childhood. If I had to, I could lead you to the Joyce books on my father's bookshelves even if you'd never been to my house before. I could lead a blind man to 'The Dubliners' with step counts and turning instructions.

He is our Shakespeare. I'm sure at the time Shakespeare was living there were those who preferred other playwrights. Many Salieri fans wondered what everyone saw in Mozart. But time passed and the world grew up and Shakespeare and Mozart were left standing. Joyce is with them.

As is the cast of Gilligan's Island. Especially that Ginger.

Book 6: Murder On The Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Melody turned a corner of our apartment into a reading nook yesterday afternoon, something I could never have envisioned, and the sight of it made me think of my father and I burst into tears.

Books were more than books in my house. Our religious life was loosely connected to the local Catholic church, Sunday school, Sunday morning service, but the Bible talk was relegated to that day. The remaining six days were a continual service in the Church of Literature.

The first time Melody ever came on vacation with us to Cape Cod she remarked that there were frequent times when we were all sitting and reading. Separately but together. Silent vacation! The funny thing is, that in our minds it's like a big conversation we are all having, through the various books we are reading. But in reality there are six people with their heads buried in six different books.

My dad didn't hold forth on the topic of literature or impose books on us and then discuss. No. He followed his own interests and assumed we would do the same. The best form of laissez-faire parenting. So when I was twelve or so and started devouring every single Agatha Christie book I could find he accepted it as a matter of course. He didn't say, 'Well, before you read Christie you should read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle' or 'What about the Hardy boys?'

I think I preferred Hercule Poirot to Miss Marple then, something I'm not as certain of now. Miss Marple and her cases usually seemed contingent on some small-town sense of gossip and human nature while Poirot was usually in some exotic locale and forced to view some question through a foreign lens in order to solve it.

In 'Murder On The Orient Express' I remember being enthralled with the opulence and other worldliness of train travel in the 1930's. It seemed like a different planet to me and one that I longed to live in. Trim suits, turned down brims of fedoras, cigarette cases, porters and bellhops, cocktails and intrigue.

The cases didn't mean that much to me, who did it, why, etc. What I really lost myself in was the description of the world that these people lived in, and this is where Christie shows her true genius. If you needed to know what life was really like in those times, her novels are time capsules. The particulars of each case usually hinge on specific real life details, things that reveal clear-as-a-bell quotidian patterns.

At this time I had no notion of becoming an actor. I wanted to play sports for a living, preferably for one of the Boston teams. If I really had to I would become a professional athlete for another city but I would always long to play for my hometown heroes.

But the novels of Agatha Christie sparked some connection, some wish to be transported elsewhere, to embody something different. I could see myself with a potbelly and a razor sharp curlicue mustache, pulling a watch fob out of my high-waisted pants to clock some crucial moment in time. I imagined myself as the murderer, seething as I sat and listened to this little Belgian describe with excruciating exactitude how I'd ALMOST gotten away with it.

What did my father think of Agatha Christie? I have no idea. He read mystery novels, but only mystery novels that took place in Boston or Ireland. Agatha Christie was my choice. He let me be twelve.

I'm trying to make the same mistake with my son.