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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

Story Time

September 11, 2014 | by

fm3a

From the cover of a “Fun with Music” disc.

Ann Rachlin, storyteller, MBE, and pioneer of music appreciation, has been working for years—she’s now eighty—but she really came to prominence in the mideighties, when she started teaching little Prince William. I wonder if that’s when my mom bought her records. Whatever the reason, her “Fun with Music” series was in heavy rotation at our house, and the distinctive, lilting rhythms of her idiosyncratic narratives was the sound track of our childhoods. I think if you’d asked me between the ages of four and six which celebrity I would have most liked to meet, the answer would have been Ann Rachlin. (Well, Ann Rachlin and Jeff the mannequin from Today’s Special.)

The records (and later tapes, for playing in the car) featured narration over classical music pieces. Sometimes, as in the case of Prokofiev’s Lieutenant Kijé, or the deeply distressing Swan Lake, Rachlin based her tale on a preexisting story. Others were wholly original, and often unabashedly bizarre. (I am thinking especially of Lost Coin in a Fountain, set to Respighi.) To call Rachlin’s style “expressive” is a vast understatement: her voice rises and falls dramatically, she takes on all characters with gusto, she evokes laughter and tears and bafflement. She is so wholly uninhibited that it’s shocking even to a child. Maybe especially to a child. And while her tales are all designed to capture a child’s imagination, she does not shy away from sadness and even, occasionally, tragedy. (See: Swan Lake.) Read More »

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Dovlatov’s Way

September 4, 2014 | by

This weekend, an intersection in Queens will be renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way.

dovlatov-granish1

Sergei Dovlatov

Sergei Dovlatov gave me a pistol when I was a child. It was just an air gun, it turned out, but my mother couldn’t tell the difference, and she was justifiably horrified to see me running around with a semiautomatic. It did not have a red plastic tip and it was nicely chromed, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. With enough pressure pumped into it, its little steel pellets could really hurt someone. Dovlatov found this very funny. Now we New Yorkers are naming a street after him.

And I’m thrilled. That street in Forest Hills, Queens, is the same one where his widow lives; it’s where his daughter, who recently translated Dovlatov’s great novel Pushkin Hills, grew up; and it’s where I grew up, too. At least eighteen thousand people share in my enthusiasm—that’s the number of petitioners it took to make this happen. That it’s such a formidable number should come as no surprise. Even if Joseph Brodsky was the greatest member of the so-called Third Wave of Russian immigrants—he won the Nobel and married an Italian woman—it’s Dovlatov whom readers love viscerally, unconditionally. How can we help it? When Matt Taibbi showed up to inaugurate Katherine Dovlatov’s translation a few months ago, I asked why he came: it was because Dovlatov was the one Russian author who made him laugh out loud. And suddenly we understood one another. Dovlatov made me laugh out loud, too, first in person, and then when I grew up, through his literature.

During the height of his fame, Dovlatov’s works were read universally. Solzhenitsyn, a dour man in his Vermont stronghold who wished to have nothing to do with the Third Wave “sausage immigrants,” read his entire three-volume collected works. The pieces translate easily because of their inherent humanity, and their humor, remarkably, translates as well. In Russia, where his work was retyped at night for samizdat, his secret readership grew, making many a fan. Half of Russia sat in jail, the other half stuck around to be with the first, and Dovlatov had been in both positions—and wrote about it, and still made it funny. The KGB, of course, was not a fan; they even destroyed typeset plates that had been prepared for publication. Dovlatov took the dissident-lite approach of simply not taking the Soviet Union seriously, and for this he was beloved. Read More »

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Paranormal Activity

August 20, 2014 | by

Washington_Square,_New_York_1897

Fernand Lungren, Washington Square, 1897

James’s writings about New York disclose, more than anything, an anger, quite unlike any other anger in James, at what has been lost to him, what has been done, in the name of commerce and material progress, to a place he once knew. It is not an ordinary anger at the destruction of beauty and familiarity; it is much stranger and more complex than that, and it deserves a great deal of attention.

That’s from Colm Tóibín’s introduction to The New York Stories of Henry James. It’s a great primer on the writer’s hometown ambivalence—a quite explicable turn of events when one considers that any visit to the Village would have brought James face to face with the death of childhood, with constant overhaul, Mammon, and rampant sexuality on nearly every block. And with bad food, to boot. 

On a constitutional in Washington Square Park today, my thoughts turned to James—they generally do, when I see the intact row houses fronting the park. (Well, James and NYU.) The man titled a novella after it—even if, as a friend recently pointed out, Washington Square gives less sense of the neighborhood than of interiority. (He’s said to have modeled the Sloper residence on memories of his grandmother’s. And if you want to see that brought to life, take a tour of the Merchant’s House Museum, one of the small treasures of the city, listed on any compendium of NYC’s haunted spaces.) 

Perhaps my favorite of James’s New York stories is “The Jolly Corner.” Like The Turn of the Screw, it is a ghost story and more than that. It concerns a man returning to his empty childhood home, which is about to be subdivided into apartments. Read More »

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The Greatest Artist in the Whole Wide World

July 22, 2014 | by

06 Edgar

A portrait of the author by his mother, Louise Oliver.

02 Edgar December 14th 1963

Louise Oliver, Edgar, December 14, 1963

03 Helen at 17 or So

Louise Oliver, Helen at Seventeen or So

04 Untitled January sketch

Louise Oliver, Untitled (January sketch)

05 Still Life with Glasses

Louise Oliver, Still Life with Glasses

One of our favorite places to play, all throughout my childhood, was in cemeteries. We would go get fried chicken at the Woolworth’s on Broughton Street and go with our sketch pads to the Colonial Cemetery to picnic atop the family vaults that were all shaped like gigantic brick bedsteads. Helen and I loved to climb on these strange bed-shaped vaults and to lie there on the gently curved bellies of the tombs and play at being dead. And while we played, Mother drew in her sketch pad.

At the very back of the cemetery was a playground with old, rusted iron swings that shrieked when you swung in them. Helen and I loved to swing high and make the swings shriek mournfully—the cry of our flight. On the other side of the brick wall, overlooking the playground, rose the Savannah jailhouse—a tall old building with a tower topped by a red onion dome. High up in the jailhouse wall were dark arched windows where you could sometimes see the silhouettes of men’s heads—the prisoners watching us as we swung.

“You’re the greatest artist in the whole wide world, Mother. You’re also the best, funnest, most beautiful Mother in the whole wide world. And you cook such good food too.”

Mother made us say that to her over and over again—every day. And I think we said it sincerely. Mother almost never cooked—but when she did, what she made was always luscious. And I think Mother was a great artist. There is an innocence to Mother’s work that is like a form of revelation.

Over the years of our childhood, Helen and I were to become Mother’s most trusted and devoted encouragers and critics. Mother would call us in from the backyard to examine whatever painting she was working on. We would make our pronouncements with great authority. Read More »

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Happy Fourth of July from The Paris Review

July 4, 2014 | by

plimpton fireworks

I always thought it was the best day of the year. It was in the middle of the summer, to begin with, and when you got up in the morning someone would almost surely say, as they did in those times, that it was going to be a “true Fourth of July scorcher.” School had been out long enough so that one was conditioned for the great day. One’s feet were already leather-hard, so that striding barefoot across a gravel driveway could be done without wincing, and yet not so insensitive as to be unable to feel against one’s soles the luxurious wet wash of a dew-soaked lawn in the early morning. Of course, the best thing about the day was the anticipation of the fireworks—both from the paper bag of one’s own assortment, carefully picked from the catalogs, and then, after a day’s worth of the excitement of setting them off, there was always the tradition of getting in the car with the family and going off to the municipal show, or perhaps a Beach Club’s display … the barge out in the harbor, a dark hulk as evening fell, and the heart-pounding excitement of seeing the first glow of a flare out there across the water and knowing that the first shell was about to soar up into the sky.

—George Plimpton, Fireworks

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The Sartorial Kafka

July 3, 2014 | by

Kafka was born on this day in 1883.

Kafka-as-pupil

Kafka before 1900.

But while I thought I was distinguishing myself—I had no other motive than the desire to distinguish myself and my joy in making an impression and in the impression itself—it was only as a result of giving it insufficient thought that I endured always having to go around dressed in the wretched clothes which my parents had made for me by one customer after another, longest by a tailor in Nusle. I naturally noticed—it was obvious—that I was unusually badly dressed, and even had an eye for others who were well dressed, but for years on end my mind did not succeed in recognizing in my clothes the cause of my miserable appearance. Since even at that time, more in tendency than in fact, I was on the way to underestimating myself, I was convinced that it was only on me that clothes assumed this appearance, first looking stiff as a board, then hanging in wrinkles. I did not want new clothes at all, for if I was going to look ugly in any case, I wanted at least to be comfortable and also to avoid exhibiting the ugliness of the new clothes to the world that had grown accustomed to the old ones. These always long-drawn-out refusals on the frequent occasions when my mother (who with the eyes of an adult was still able to find differences between these new clothes and the old ones) wanted to have new clothes of this sort made for me, had this effect upon me that, with my parents concurring, I had to conclude that I was not at all concerned about my appearance.

—Kafka’s diary, December 26, 1911.

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