The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Tennessee Williams’

Laughing in the Face of Death: A Vonnegut Roundtable

April 11, 2013 | by

BirdTile2

 

Birds were talking. One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, ‘Poo-tee-weet?’”

Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut

A well-constructed e-mail and some guts on my part had one day inspired Harold Bloom to send me the phone number of his editor. A few days later I began writing for his literary criticism series with what was then Chelsea House and what is now Infobase Publishing. I put together two works on Tennessee Williams and a revamp of a guide to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness before I was contracted to write a book called How to Write About Kurt Vonnegut. Most of what I had read of Vonnegut’s work I had read long ago, and I had seen Vonnegut only once at a forum in Connecticut in 2006, where he appeared onstage with Joyce Carol Oates and Jennifer Weiner, the three of them parodying a dysfunctional family in a scene that led to much laughter. The theater, however, was completely absent of sound when an audience member asked a cultural-political question and Weiner sputtered, “I wasn’t expecting to have to deliver a message about humanity tonight.” “Well, leave,” was Vonnegut’s response. It was this Vonnegut moment that featured prominently in my mind’s reel as I packed notebooks, an inordinate number of pens, and several of Vonnegut’s novels in my bag that July in preparation for a trip to Boston. Once there, I read and took notes on one Vonnegut book per day from my room. (The hotel that I checked into, the Liberty, had served as a jail until a revolt over poor inmate conditions in the early 1970s led to its obsolescence and subsequent evolution into luxury accommodations.)

When I got tired of being cooped up I moved to the lobby, where I witnessed absurdities such as a woman pushing a very small dog in a stroller and smiling, goofing tourists wandering the open tiers of what had once been rows of jail cells, and sometimes I wandered up Charles Street and popped into the local antique stores. I couldn’t afford most of what was in them, but haggled in one shop over the purchase of an antique blue-and-white tile which featured a single bird—a bluebird. It was a difficult trip, hot and coming on the tails of a year in which nothing went as planned and which involved the full stock and variety of deaths that is possible in one human year. And so I had to have this tile (symbol of happiness, you understand), and I turned over my last ten dollars to acquire it, and I read each book that week with the tile tucked away next to me, wrapped in paper in my bag. And in the strange, beautiful ways that life and art—life and fiction—can converge, I became certain that I was now living in a Vonnegut novel, filled with dark and strange humor and impossible—weren’t they? shouldn’t they be?—absurdities. The only highlight of the trip was an evening concert, one of Beethoven’s symphonies played live by the Charles River, and I sat on the ground listening with my pants growing damp from the remnants of a recent downpour. “Music,” Vonnegut said, “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” But I wasn’t feeling fond, and I returned home having worked hard but defeated. I put the tile away on one of my bookshelves. It wasn’t until one day—after I had finished the book and had grown tired of burdens and hungry for laughter—that I saw it again. I had placed the tile so that the bird was caught in an endless nosedive. And look at its tail! What had made me think that it was a bluebird? It had the tail of a peacock! With it seeming like the natural thing to do, I turned it so that its beak was pointed skyward, so that this strange bird—a bluebird with the tail of a peacock—was now a triumphant phoenix. A ridiculous bluebird-peacock-phoenix. The summer had ended and so had the heat. And things had gone on. Poo-tee-weet.

On the eve of the anniversary of Vonnegut’s death, I asked Ben Greenman, David Holub, Rick Moody, Josip Novakovich, and Avi Steinberg about their own memories of Vonnegut’s work and about why everyone else should remember it, too.

How has Vonnegut influenced or informed your own work?

Ben Greenman: Through moral rigor, though not in any of the predictable ways. As a younger reader, which is when I had my strongest connection to Vonnegut—maybe not my most meaningful, but my strongest, in the fashion of first love—I took a preteen tour through Mother Night and Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat’s Cradle. The things that I dimly and germinally felt about war and technology and religion and the different—but similar—risks to humanity inherent in all of them were laid out quite clearly. As time has moved along, the sources of the risks have shifted slightly, for purposes of camouflage, but the risks remain. Read More »

10 COMMENTS

What We’re Loving: Carson, Hatterr, Fidel

February 8, 2013 | by

pbdepart

If you’re going to judge a book by its endpapers, then I recommend Julie Morstad’s The Wayside. I’ve spent a fair amount of time imagining them on the walls of the drawing room I don’t have. It helps that the rest of the book—all new drawings by the Canadian illustrator—is equal parts charming and strange. There’s definitely an Edward Gorey–esque feel to her work, but I also see occasional hints of William Pène du Bois (in a troupe of women acrobats) and Amy Cutler (in the wonderful patterned textiles). I think my favorite drawing may be a double gatefold depicting groups of flatly rendered performing-arts kids doing their thing. It’s Attic form meets Fame. —Nicole Rudick

In the early fifties, a married Cuban socialite has an epistolary romance with a dashing political prisoner. They meet for one night, and the woman bears his child. Meanwhile the young man, freed from prison, seizes command of the struggle against Batista and becomes ruler of their country. It sounds (and reads) like a novel, but Havana Dreams, Wendy Gimbel’s 1998 portrait of Naty Revuelta and her daughter Alina, is a work of intimate reportage, and the relationship of these two women to Fidel Castro takes on an uncanny symbolic weight. The book invaded my own dreams. —Lorin Stein Read More »

1 COMMENT

Gore Vidal’s Bully Republic

August 6, 2012 | by

A few years ago, fresh off a diet of Wilde, Maugham, and Saki, I was beginning to feel disappointed by the gay pantheon. Not the actual writing—no one could find fault with that. It was the example of their lives that depressed me, ending more often than not in loneliness and/or despair, if not complete exile.

I remember having a conversation with my father about it. I told him what I’d really have liked to find, in my exhaustive search of the canon, was a gay superhero. You know: fucking dudes, saving the world. Never mind the fact that superheroes, with their notoriously contour-hugging apparel, are usually assumed gay by default. I wanted something that had existed, something from history. My father considered my criteria.

“I think what you want is Gore Vidal.”

I think it took me all of one day to read Myra Breckinridge in full and possibly a month to process it. The cartoon version of gender deviance it put forth was one that, against all odds, enraptured me. From its famous opening (“I am Myra Breckinridge whom no man will ever possess”) to Myra’s core, radical aim in life (“the destruction of the last vestigial traces of traditional manhood in the race in order to realign the sexes…”), to the lengthy rape scene three quarters through, wherein Myra rapes a guy with a strap-on, comparing herself to an Amazon and making him say thank you afterward, the message was clear. She was the ultimate queer bully, taking no prisoners and getting a comeuppance so ridiculous that Vidal gives the reader no choice but to discount any kind of moral implications it might have otherwise had.Read More »

6 COMMENTS

Staff Picks: Biennial Cataloguing, Southern Gothic Horror

March 30, 2012 | by

For the first time in its eighty-year history, the Whitney Biennial gives substantial space—an entire floor of the museum, in fact—to dance and performance. The catalogue, typically a by-the-book affair (no pun intended), has matched the show’s experiential adventure, allotting each of the roughy fifty artists six pages for original contributions that extend, rather than merely reflect, the work in the museum. Among others entries, I love Vincent Fecteau’s use of a quote from Dennis Cooper to accompany his sculptures, while Cooper’s Last Spring project appears a few pages back; and Nick Mauss’s description of room he built in a dream: “just like that Claus Oldenburg installation with the plush and the zebra, except that the bed is covered in a grid of baguettes standing en point beneath a poster of the cover of Triste Tropiques.” —Nicole Rudick

It feels redundant to recommend something as canonical as Shoah, but until this past weekend, when I devoted a day to it at BAM, I’d never actually seen Claude Lanzmann’s landmark documentary all the way through. I must admit, I entered into the nine-hour experience with something of a sense of obligation. But it’s okay. Entertaining is the wrong word—wholly engrossing. I’ll leave it to others to discuss its cinematic and historical import; all I know is that it stays with you. —Sadie Stein

This week New Orleans held its annual Tennessee Williams Festival, featuring copious mint juleps and a Stella shouting contest. I celebrated the occasion with Sweet Bird of Youth, the 1962 film adaptation of Williams’s play. When tweaking and fame-hungry Chance Wayne (Paul Newman) returns to his Florida hometown to win back his sweetheart with big Hollywood promises, as always with dear Tennessee, heartbreak and histrionics ensue. Geraldine Page as Alexandra del Lago, a boozy, washed-up film star, steals the show. —Allison Bulger

Gothic thrillers are my guilty pleasure, but it’s hard to find a really good one. John Harwood’s The Séance is one of the best I’ve come across lately, a creepy page-turner that manager to capture the flavor of nineteenth-century horror conventions without feeling mannered. —S.S.

William K. Everson was the head of the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, which put on weekly retrospective film series in New York City from the fifties into the eighties. These screenings were attended by such luminaries as Stanley Kubrick and Susan Sontag. Everson wrote extensive notes for each show, and these legendary writings—idiosyncratic as they are erudite—are now available online through NYU. —Josh Anderson

Cultural narratives often contain the most distilled and revealing identifiers of a people and their imagination. The Met exhibition “Storytelling in Japanese Art” is a beautiful instance of narrative revelation, a window into the world of Japanese storytelling from the twelfth to the nineteenth century. This collection of various media—hand scrolls, folding screens, playing cards, textiles—pairs narrative text and intricate illustration to showcase the rich and fascinating history of Japanese people, their spirt and their stories. —Elizabeth Nelson

NO COMMENTS

In Miss Eudora’s Garden

February 20, 2012 | by

Eudora Welty. Photograph by Jill Krementz.

There are certain towns that are forever linked with the authors who lived there. Oxford, Mississippi, is Faulkner land, parts of New Orleans’s Toulouse Street belong irrevocably to Tennessee Williams, and Monroeville, Alabama, is Harper Lee’s territory as surely as if it had been marked on the state map. If Jackson, Mississippi, had a patron saint, it would be Eudora Welty.

Miss Eudora, as native Jacksonites affectionately call her, was a fixture in the capital city of Mississippi from her childhood until her death in 2001. Her presence is still inescapable. Visit the Mayflower Café, off Capitol Street, and you’ll hear about Miss Eudora’s fondness for plate lunches of fried catfish and butter beans. Dig through the waist-high volumes at Choctaw Books and, with luck, you can come across a volume signed in Welty’s bunched and looping hand. Ask an alumnus of Belhaven University about Welty, and they’ll tell you how she used to keep the window of her bedroom open to listen to the music department practice, her head just visible in the top floor window as she sat at her typewriter

Author’s homes on public display tend to have a stuffy quality, all velvet ropes and militantly made beds. The assiduousness of the preservation drains the life from them, makes them seem impossibly antique. Welty’s house, a Tudor-style revival tucked into a thicket of pines, is almost unbearably welcoming. Visiting feels like an intrusion on her privacy. Read More »

17 COMMENTS

Aamer Hussein on ‘The Cloud Messenger’

October 18, 2011 | by

Aamer Hussein, courtesy of the writer.

Though The Cloud Messenger is Aamer Hussein’s first novel, it comes after five collections of stories and a novella, Another Gulmohar Tree. Born in Karachi, Pakistan, but a long-time resident of London, Hussein has dramatized the sorts of encounters between and within cultures that reflect his own facility in seven languages. He writes with intelligent restraint about the experience of displacement, but also the indelible richness of wherever we like to think of as home. The Cloud Messenger draws on his own unsentimental education as a student of Farsi to create a romance about language and the unexpected life that reading and translating can take. Last year, we met to discuss the Granta anthology of writing from and about Pakistan at his home in West London.

Could you begin by explaining your background?

I’m from Karachi, third-generation in almost an accidental way, because both my grandfather and father were born there, even though they hadn’t lived there very much until after partition because of certain historical … mishaps, you might say. My mother is from Northern India and from a much more traditional family, although her father was an academic.Read More »

1 COMMENT