Almost Random Notes, Part 19
1. The Paris Review: At your next oppportunity, run to the nearest good bookstore and buy a copy of the latest issue of The Paris Review. The interview with novelist Marilynne Robinson is, alone, worth the cover price. I highlighted a good number of her responses to interviewer Sarah Fay's questions, including this one:
[The protagonist in Gilead, pastor John] Ames says that in our everyday world there is "more beauty that our eyes can bear." He's living in America in the late 1950s. Would he say that today?
You have to have a certain detachment in order to see beauty for yourself rather than something that has been put in quotation marks to be understood as "beauty." Think about Dutch painting, where sunlight is falling on a basin of water and a woman is standing there in the clothes that she would wear when she wakes up in the morning––that beauty is a casual glimpse of something very ordinary. Or a painting like Rembrandt's Carcass of Beef, where a simple piece of meat caught his eye because there is something mysterious about it. You also get that in Edward Hopper: Look at that sunlight! or Look at the human being! These are instances of genius. Cultures cherish artists because they are people who can say, Look at that. And it's not Versailles. It's a brick wall with a ray of sunlight falling on it.
At the same time, there has always been a basic human tendency toward a dubious notion of beauty. Think about cultures that rarify themselves into courts in which people paint themselves with lead paint and get dumber and dumber by the day, or women have ribs removed to have their waists cinched tighter. There's no question that we have our versions of that now. The most destructive thing we can do is act as though this is some sign of cultural, spiritual decay rather than humans just acting human, which is what we are doing most of the time.
Add to the Robinson interview a long piece by Jean Hatzfield on the aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda, an "oral history" of the early days of the Paris Review, and poems by Robert Bly, Paul Guest, Bruce Smith, and others, and you have a remarkable, highly readable issue of this premier literary journal, which (my opinion, of course) seems at last to be finding its way under editor Philip Gourevitch.
2. Today's New York Times Book Review: The history of the Paris Review excerpted therein is drawn from George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals––and a Few Unappreciative Observers, edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., which also has the cover of this morning's New York Times Book Review.** In his review, Graydon Carter writes, "Another WASP trait George carried was an almost allergic reaction to introspection. He was offered $750,000 for his memoirs, but felt he had written so much about his life already that he's just be 'putting nails in the coffin.' Sometime after the offer came in, James Scot Linville recalled seeing a quotation from Verlaine in his [Plimpton's] diary that had been left open on his desk. 'When one goes on a journey of self-exploration, one should go heavily armed.' George would often complain that because of the review and the need to make money, he never got around to writing the Big Book, to enter the Pantheon of the greats the way Mailer and Styron had. 'I could have been a contender,' Maggie Paley remembers him saying, 'If I hadn't done the Paris Review, I could have been a major writer.' "
I met Plimpton briefly in Key West many years ago, and liked him. He struck me then as having the personality of an editor and collector of people, rather than as a great writer, but those were the roles he had assumed for himself. He was fiercely bright, and who knows, perhaps he could have written the great American novel had he made the time to do so.
But then, who would have been our George Plimpton?
3. On Ted Hughes: I was dismayed by Gregory Orr's semi-snarky review of The Letters of Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007) which also appears in today's Book Review. Orr faults Hughes for the very qualities (a Jungian attention to symbolism and the natural world, a faith in the ability of poetry to heal the soul) that make Hughes what he is as a poet. I have never quite understood why a devotion to the natural world makes a poet an object of tolerant amusement among certain critics. Perhaps their own work––and criticism--would be informed by a walk or two in the woods. Preferably with their eyes open.
4. A Good Movie: I watched Becoming Jane the other night, the 2007 film by director Julian Jarrold about the long-rumored romance between the young Jane Austin and the Irish barrister Tom Lefroy. The leads (Anne Hathaway and James McAvoy, respectively) are very good and the movie is well worth your time. I understand that many Jane Austin fans have been critical of the film because it speculates (rather extensively, based upon the slim historical evidence) about the depth and importance of the relationship, but if one sets aside those concerns, it is an enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours.
One thing I find annoying about Austin (and Dickens, the Brontes, etc.) is the constant chatter about "how many pounds per year" this or that character shall have, and this is also a recurring concern in this pseudo-biographical film. If our economy continues its present downward slide, of course, this may be the way all of us make our critical decisions well into the 21st Century.
Question: Does anyone do any actual work in these novels?
5. Adventures in Adaptive Technology: Getting new glasses was a big help with my eyes, but it has also made evident how far my vision has deteriorated in ways that cannot be comepensated for by new lenses. It was obvious from looking at the photos taken of my retinas that the macular degeneration--or at least, the accumulation of drusen, which causes so-called dry MD-- has advanced in both of my eyes, and I now have particular trouble with my right eye, where I have what I can only describe as a blurry piece of pie forming in the lower right third of my field of vision. My eyes had been able to focus around this, but not so much anymore. My left eye doesn't blur out as much, unless I am tired. I also do not see well in the dark--and prefer not to drive at night unless necessary. Of course, on standard time in November, it is difficult to avoid low-light driving conditions.
Anyway, I bought red flashing lights to attach to the dogs' collars and a walking stick with a light attached to it that I bring when I take the dogs out in the dark. These work well, and also serve to reestablish my divinity credentials with our three dogs. Our boldest (a black lab who should probably be leading some sort of great, slobbering, benevolent wolf pack), had figured out that I couldn't see him in the dark, and will gladly disappear into the woods or sneak away to the neighbor's house if I don't stay right on his tail. The other two will slavishly follow the leader, if I let them. The lights and the walking stick have increased my confidence in the dark, and have substantially readjusted the odds vis-a-vis our insidious canines.
I also bought plug-in night lights so I can find my way around the house at night, a couple of new Verilux lights to help me read, and some special over-the-glasses sun glasses. Yes, I look like Superfly when I wear them. I am glad that I got the largest screen I could afford for my computer, but I still panic a bit when I think about the things I would like to accomplish and how my assorted eye problems may make all of that more difficult.
Time remains a terrible thing to waste.
* I always wanted to use this phrase somewhere.
**Lucky George by Graydon Carter, a review of George, Being George: George Plimpton's Life as Told, Admired, Deplored, and Envied by 200 Friends, Relatives, Lovers, Acquaintances, Rivals––and a Few Unappreciative Observers, edited by Nelson W. Aldrich, Jr., (Random House, 2008), New York Times Book Review, November 16, 2008.