Days of Wine and Roses

The days
of wine and roses
palm trees green
leaves dangling in bronze breeze sea
fallen fronds found for tiki faces
carved with pocket knives
in soft dry wood
of branch stalk deep eyes
and sharp shell teeth
long slender days
fat pug noses
and sunburnt legs
beaches galore
nevermore
a sober sunset for two
the days
of wine and roses
are here.

Memoir

One might approach the memoir form, one’s own memoir, with a casual indifference, for no doubt everyone else will, while it takes a bit of faith to trust as total fact any stranger’s avowed remembrances. There’s also the problem of what’s to be left unsaid, for any deletion – deliberate, determinate, accidental – turns down the path of fiction, yet all of experience, the universe of one’s life from its big bang forward or the unexpurgated version of the time one visited (fill in your personal fave), will take way too long. Even Proust must have left some stuff out, and Knausgard, if for no other reason that they had not eyes in the back of their heads. It’s not what we remember, but how that fills dreams and notebooks. And most folks are quickly bored hearing one’s dreams recast in words over morning coffee. While the day-book or journal is not quite yet a memoir, often neither the what nor how of memory but the immediate reaction to a still unfolding event.

I’m looking into again Edmund Wilson’s “The Thirties: From Notebooks and Diaries of the Period, Edited with an Introduction by Leon Edel” (First printing, 1980). From the Editor’s Foreword:

“Wilson intended his journals to be edited as ‘trade’ books, not as scholarly editions; he wanted no scholarly apparatus and in particular no treatment of his text as if it were sacrosanct. Journals are written in the rough; and he knew journal keepers repeat themselves. He wanted his slips of the pen silently corrected without the inevitable sic and explanatory notes.”

xi

Fortunately for this reader, L. E. ignored Wilson’s want and provided copious explanatory notes as to who’s being talked about, why important to the era, and what’s going on around them at the time. Though Wilson also logs enough everyday observation to make notes unnecessary:

July 18 [Journey to the Soviet Union, 1935]. Rowing on the river at Marmontovka, Free Day – little curling river with grass-green banks, with people, largely naked, on the banks: they look better without their clothes because the clothes are no good – very nice to see them – blond girls with white skin, thick round legs, and big round breasts, boys burned brown except around the hips, where they had been wearing trunks, where it was comparatively white – bathing suits seemed to be becoming more and more perfunctory, they seemed more and more to be leaving them off – the factory, where a very rudimentary little swimming dock of planks had been built; at the end a dam and falls, beyond which you couldn’t go any farther, a flock of white goats; two men in a pup tent, a man in a shack; an elderly man and woman sitting on something, turned away from each other reading the papers.

574-575

I pulled Wilson’s “The Thirties” off the “now reading” shelf (aka books with bookmarks still somewhere in them), looking for parallels to today’s “The Twenties,” though we are of course only just into them. In a long note, Edel says “He [Wilson] could not see why the American leftists should not be as critical of this [the Stalinist regime] as they were of other tyrannies – Hitler’s, Mussolini’s, Franco’s” (714).

Of closer if not exact parallel is Irene Nemirovsky’s “Suite Francaise,” which begins with:

“It was night, they were at war and there was an air raid. But dawn was near and the war very far away. The first to hear the hum of the siren were those who couldn’t sleep – the ill and bedridden, mothers with sons at the front, women crying for the men they loved.”

3. First Vintage International Edition, May 2007.

“Appendix I,” which includes Nemirovsky’s notes taken from her notebooks, begins:

“My God! what is this country doing to me? Since it is rejecting me, let us consider it coldly, let us watch as it loses its honour and its life. And the other countries? What are they to me? Empires are dying. Nothing matters. Whether you look at it from a mystical or a personal point of view, it’s just the same. Let us keep a cool head. Let us harden our heart. Let us wait.

21 June [1941]. Conversation with Pied-de-Marmite. France is going to join hands with Germany. Soon they will be calling up people here but ‘only the young ones.’ This was no doubt out of consideration towards Michel. One army is crossing Russia, the other is coming from Africa. Suez has been taken. Japan with its formidable fleet is fighting America. England is begging for mercy.

25 June. Unbelievable heat. The garden is decked out with the colours of June – azure, pale-green and pink. I lost my pen. There are still many other worries such as the threat of a concentration camp, the status of Jews etc. Sunday was unforgettable. The thunderbolt about Russia* hit our friends after their ‘mad night’ down by the lake. And in order to [?] with them, everyone got drunk. Will I write about it one day?”

373, *Footnote 2: “Germany invaded the USSR on 22 June 1941.”

Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, Mr Klein on Hydra, and Bendrix in the Wrong Bed

The theme tying the Palfrey, Klein, and Bendrix books together, apart from I read them near simultaneously, is how to live given our peculiar predicament in place and time. For Mrs Palfrey and Klein, the quandary is old age, for Maurice Bendrix, another of Graham Greene’s difficult but entertaining characters, it’s another man’s wife.

Elizabeth Taylor’s Mrs Palfrey finds herself widowed and looking for a suitable place to live out her remaining years. Daniel Klein returns to Hydra, the Greek island he first visited in his youth, now, the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus et al his companions, “in Search of a Fulfilled Life.” And Graham Greene, obsessed with another man’s wife, tries to reconcile lust, love, man, and God in London at the end of World War II, no less. The trio of books forms a sandwich of bread fiction with filling of popularized philosophy.

In Elizabeth Taylor’s “Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont,” first published in 1971, recently widowed Laura Palfrey decides she would prefer living in London at a partially residential hotel where she can take her meals and companions or not as part of the deal. She doesn’t have much of a plan, so the random but lifelike twists and turns come naturally, while old age seems to bring the same existential questions one faced in one’s foundling youth but perhaps put on the back burner during one’s years of forced employment or marriage, more concerned about the bread than the filling. But in old age, one returns to the choices of fillings. How, for example, we might fill our time.

Daniel Klein, in “Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life,” argues for simplicity in old age, the art of doing nothing contentedly, a choice of course requiring a bit of privilege. But his point, in part, is that even those with a ton of privilege often waste it trying to stay young, while old age offers a predicament thoroughly to be enjoyed. Part of that enjoyment includes the gift of being untied from the train tracks of sex.

Graham Greene’s Maurice Bendrix in “The End of the Affair” enjoys no such respite. Another Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition with a movie-trailer-like Introduction better left unread or at least saved until after you’ve read the book, “The End of the Affair,” first published in 1951, is another of Greene’s fictions borrowing enough it seems from his own experience to qualify as fictional memoir, a good choice for those readers who might need the explanations of gossip as critical backdrop.

So, how does one live one’s old age? Well, one could do worse, for starters, than reading about it.

Graham Cracker

Graham Greene’s “Orient Express” (1932) is a mean-spirited book about human experience and condition, closer to Theodore Dreiser than to Evelyn Waugh, and not to be confused with Agatha Christie’s trip on the same train a couple of years later. In Greene’s book, the murders take place off the train. The writing technique shows the early influence of the cinema. A New York Times contemporary review from 1932 explains:

“Something of motion picture technique is used, with brief glimpses of the actions and thoughts now of one character, now of another, interspersed with the longer stretches of narrative.”

NYT, March 12, 1933

The characters are drawn from stock and the plot from Naturalism. Film endings coming as they do only an hour or two into the story, are unexpected and stir the emotions of the audience. Yet the threads are there from the beginning, and the wall could have fallen only one way as brick by brick is pulled out.

I read the “Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition” (2004), with an introduction by Christopher Hitchens (“Hitch” to his friends), which I would not read because I don’t like reading introductions, at least not until I’ve finished the book, because, like movie trailers, they give too much away, and because I never cared much for Hitch. I almost did not buy the book when I saw that Hitch did the intro, but I did, rationalizing I didn’t need to read the intro. But I did, buy the book and read the intro – after finishing the book. All of which is nonsense, of course. And browsing through the reader reviews on Amazon, before deciding to click “buy now,” I found a curious and funny one from a guy who didn’t like the book’s physical format – the uncut pages and the folded end flaps of the cover – folded flaps that are like the book covers used on hardbacks. But I like these features, and the book has a nice heft and feel to its pages, which feel and look printed instead of photographed.

Hitch spends most of his intro worrying about Greene’s use of stereotypes and trying to arrive at some sort of apologia for Green’s alleged anti-semitism. But Greene was probably following his bent. “Orient Express” is really about Greene’s own human predicament: his place and fit in time and class and mood. The narrator is also on the train, trying to avoid its preordained lineal descent or ascent. Like Hitchcock’s brief appearance at the beginning of his films, Greene is the purser in his first paragraph:

“The purser took the last landing-card in his hand and watched the passengers cross the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks.”

3.

It’s a cracker of a book, crisp and salty, melts in your mouth, and leaves you wanting something with a bit of sugar in it.

Alternate Endings

No end will suffice, not fire nor ice. In the beginning, things started off with a bang, a big one at that, after a night of fitful sleep, though how one measures big in the face of nothing surrounding seems insolvable. In any event, life, what is (the distinction between organic and disparate proven fallacious), now looks to have been without beginning, so a world without end seems fitting. Nevertheless, we begin anew, if not afresh, at the diurnal clarion call. To awake is irreversible, at least for a few hours. Always some remains. And while the Big Pop was the most considerable in several hours, having sunk deeper than one can remember, nothing but whimpering since, awake with the bends. But it won’t finish with a whimper. No end and no exit and no exit and no end: how’s that for the unknotting?

Up and about, wandering now bottom of bole (trunkus, luggage compartment, the part of a tree above the roots and below the branches). Think Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape,” evening in the future, looking backward. Distribution. Retail branches, manufacturing roots.

All brick and mortar retail closed, malls emptied – or might as well be, old habits dropped. The only jobs are those deemed essential. Who deems? The Great Deemer. People waiting in long lines to enter the one remaining store where the shelves are empty, just to look around, shopping it’s called, nothing much needed. Staples delivered. The only rigs on the roads these days those doing deliveries. Still, going shopping, something to do. But the shops are all closed, boarded up, a wilderness for the pigeons, cats, possums, racoons, peacocks, squirrels. Even the meek seem to have abdicated.

The cafes closed, bars banned or pubs perished (though one suspects the Speakeasy may be making a comeback), theatres imploded, churches clapped shut. Schools closed forever. Tested and corporations bid accordingly and draft as needed according to five year plans and instead of schooling what one gets is on the job training: slated for a professional sport, a career in medicine, or a space program. But no one is forced to work. Work is not even considered work, but a fulfillment of a combination of want and need. Consider, if you like, the lilies of the field. There are of course those dirty jobs few look forward to, plumbing and such – but still, “Fair is foul and foul is fair.” What’s to be done? Nothing to be done. But that we do it well, or at least try to.

Chary

Sun blasted yeses across space and time
and the moon goes down in a mist of no
earth rolling moving warming ice caps
melting and the seas rise first a foot toe
a frozen continent calving crumbling
a piece at a rhythmic mythic time slow
so slow lights dim smoke cake rises
and they learn to go easy the strung horns
plucked and picked by the breeze afloat
in cosmic currents first detected in the 60s
of each receding century shoveled under
fallen garages leaning walls broken
foundations sinking into the ocean
nowhere now to park the rigs the stallions
of snow unleashed from barns of bane
from frozen fears offered up to the sun.

In the Key of All Go Rhythm

New music includes sounds we’ve never heard before, regardless of how old the tunes might be. But are we running out of the possibility for new songs? In his January 23, 2022 piece for The Atlantic, “Is Old Music Killing New Music?” Ted Gioia, jazz musician and critic, cites marketing trends and sales stats to support his concern that “the new-music market is actually shrinking. All the growth in the market is coming from old songs.” His music world appears on the brink of a new-music mass extinction, where one can find only oldie stations on the radio. He explores a number of causes, including the lucrative business of copyright litigation that apparently follows the algorithms close enough to pair bonds and links coincidental and unintended, turning your new effort into a plagiarism accusation. But to new ears, isn’t all old music new music? Gioia also explores the new trend in buying up the rights to all the old song catalogs, an investment that presumably assumes new ears of generations of listeners to come.

Sales projections need to start somewhere, and “nothing is less interesting to music executives than a completely radical new kind of music,” Gioia says. It’s another road not taken, one with too much risk. Better to replay a setlist of Beatles than to try out a new one from the Belates.

What happens when we hear a new song, one that sounds somehow familiar yet distant, unheard before? From the opening of the novel Dance Night (1930) by Dawn Powell:

“What Morry heard above the Lamptown night noises was a woman’s high voice rocking on mandolin notes far far away. This was like no music Morry had ever known, it was a song someone else remembered, perhaps his mother, when he was only a sensation in her blood, a slight quickening when she met Charles Abbott, a mere wish for love racing through her veins.”

p 3. Dawn Powell: Novels 1930-1942. The Library of America, 2001.

When the musicologist Sam Charters introduced a new audience in 1959 to The Country Blues, the music was already as old as the hills and twice as dusty, and he found the music exec gatekeepers of the ’50s reluctant to remarket it. But had it truly disappeared, or had it been assimilated? Well, the original recordings, of which there were not too many to begin with, had for the most part disappeared. It was oldies, old-folks music, but to the young ears of the 1950s, it was new.

But there’s something else that marginalizes and renders some old music newly unmarketable. Can we imagine a Superbowl halftime where the entertainment is a solo voice self-accompanied on an acoustic guitar? A Crossroads surrounded by 100,000 yelling fans, a liminalty too loud to attract any local supernatural spirits, old or new.

What we call new music might be more accurately named recycled music. The needle often seems stuck. But there certainly are huge differences between composing a new song and covering an old one, even if the cover sounds radically new, the Ramones playing “Surf City,” for example.

Speaking of surf cities, Ted Gioia grew up in neighboring Hawthorne, almost a generation behind me though, so he probably wasn’t at the Playa del Rey beach that grad night in the mid 60s when a bunch of locals from St Bernard High were ceremoniously burning a few of their textbooks in the fire pits. That was the night I met Emitt Rhodes, a friend of my date from Bernards, both also of Hawthorne, Emitt then of The Merry-Go-Round fame. Even then he eschewed any special place in the group, but upon hearing that I played guitar, he told me you have to play your own songs, write your own stuff. He was referring to the many bands that then played high school dances featuring Top 40 covers.

“The song bewildered Morry reading Jules Verne by gaslight…It came from other worlds and then faded into a factory whistle, a fire engine bell, and a Salvation Army chorus down on Market Street.”

p. 3.

Maugham on Marketing

From a different time, W. Somerset Maugham recently appeared in the neighborhood free library box on the Belmont and 68th Avenue corner, near the Line 15 stop, in an old Penguin paperback of Cakes and Ale (1930). Here, he’s speaking of one’s own marketing of one’s own writing:

“When he stood on the platform, in evening dress admirably worn, or in a loose, much used, but perfectly cut lounge suit if better fitted for the occasion, and faced his audience seriously, frankly, but with an engaging diffidence, you could not but realize that he was giving himself up to his task with complete earnestness. Though now and then he pretended to be at a loss for a word, it was only to make it more effective when he uttered it.

18, Cakes and Ale, W. Somerset Maugham, Doubleday 1930. My found Library Box edition published in Penguin Books (U.S.A) 1993.

Maugham’s narrator is talking about the antagonist Alroy Kear, who “could use a man very shabbily without afterward bearing him the slightest ill-will,” and about which one critic actually said, “he [Kear] was a snob…he was a humbug.” (17).

Yet for Kear, we quickly learn:

“No club was so small, no society for the self-improvement of its members so insignificant, that Roy disdained to give it an hour of his time.”

19.

Indeed, so magnanimous does Roy appear to be, that for the continued benefit of the younger writers he often mentions, he

“Now and then revised his lectures and issued them in neat little books. Most people who are interested in these things have at least looked through the works entitled Modern Novelists, Russian Fiction, and Some Writers; and few can deny that they exhibit a real feeling for literature and a charming personality.”

19.

The problem, of course, is that there are far far too few “people who are interested in these things.” Thus the need to self-market, even if one has managed to appear in print by a gatekeeping trad publisher. Revisiting his book for a preface for a later edition, Maugham writes:

“When I wanted to draw the portrait of a writer who used every means of advertisement possible to assist the diffusion of his works I had no need to fix my attention on any particular person. The practice is too common for that. Nor can one help feeling sympathy for it. Every year hundreds of books, many of considerable merit, pass unnoticed.”

7.

One wonders what Maugham might have thought or said of today’s social media outlets, the blogs and author’s pages, readings, panels, yesterday’s cheers and tomorrow’s cancellations, not to mention today’s rises and falls that occur indeed between any given sunrise and sunset:

“He must make himself a public figure. He must keep in the public eye. He must give interviews and get his photograph in the papers. He must write letters to The Times, address meetings, and occupy himself with social questions; he must make after-dinner speeches; he must recommend books in the publishers’ advertisements; and he must be seen without fail at the proper times. He must never let himself to be forgotten.

8. Bold font added.

And Maugham concludes his preface lamenting that at the time he wrote Cakes and Ale, the “cocktail party that is given to launch a book…did not flourish at the time.” Too bad, he suggests, “It would have given me the material for a lively chapter” (8). Could such a chapter be written today following an on-line Twitter or Zoom or blog book launch?

Meantime, we interrupt this post for a commercial break.