Another lovely tale of escape from Katherine Mansfield’s cousin Elizabeth. In this story, an Italian castle is rented out for the month of April and two youngish women having problems with their husbands meet and decide to take it as a rare treat to themselves. They recruit two other women, one an impossibly gorgeous blue blood with pots of money and the other a stiff old woman (also with pots of money) who is unbearable in her insistence on name-dropping all the literary celebrities she knew in her lifetime. Lotty (one of the wives) changes overnight in the fresh Italian spring air, blossoming and insisting on inviting her disapproving husband immediately. He shows up and is actually decent because he plots to recruit the rich ladies as clients for his business. The other wife, Ruth, moons about hopelessly about her memoir-writing husband who’s been living an alternative life in London away from her, decides to invite him at the last minute, and he shows up in pursuit of Lady Caroline not having received Ruth’s letter. The castle’s owner shows up and falls for Caroline and in the end it’s happily ever after with couples abounding.
This is a book all Americans are guaranteed to hate. If, like me, you’re a reasonable person who doesn’t enjoy feeling slayed by the staggering amount of corruption spilling out of McDonald Tr*mp’s administration, you’ll hate being reminded in minute detail about every single infraction that has occurred since 11/9. If, like most soulless Republicans (redundant?), you don’t want to see a catalog of your hero’s worst hits mercilessly scroll out page by page over the year following 11/9, you’ll hate this meticulously created list of things that have been changing in our pseudo-democracy.
But I couldn’t finish it. It is, as Carol Anderson says, “a brutal, necessary mirror.” I could only read a week at a time and my blood pressure would spike. I made it to Week 17 and couldn’t continue the self-flagellation, the emotional cutting. Thank you, Amy Siskind, for doing this hard work and staying on top of all the things that I’d already forgotten. I cry mercy, uncle, whatever. My life feels shortened even by living in the months post-11/9 and the pace accelerates by reading each of these offenses. These are the pin pricks that drain life away. Perhaps I’ll return to this in happier times to plow through with a smirk of oh-my-god-I-forgot-about-that. Or maybe things will get worse and this volume (I’m assuming she’ll do a follow up for Year 2) will be a ray of Good-Old-Days. I hope not.
Richard Kennedy was 16 when he went to work at the Hogarth Press. This book is a pseudo-journal, recollections jotted down decades after the experience, describing the more mundane side of Leonard and Virginia and peppered with Kennedy’s own drawings.
Kennedy was a friend of the family it seems; his aunt’s parents had rented out Talland House to Julie and Leslie Stephen in St. Ives, the home VW used for To The Lighthouse. After Kennedy is kicked out of school for not being able to pass on to higher learning, he’s relaxing with his uncle in St. Ives when he learns of the opportunity to work for the press. Kennedy mentions that he would prefer to become an artist, and his uncle “replied that it was a positive duty on the part of any responsible person to discourage a young man or woman from taking up the arts: if they were any good they would do so anyway.”
This book is mostly valuable for giving us an honest portrayal of the Woolves from the perspective of a non-Bloombury-ite. Virginia is seen handing over tickets to lectures she can’t attend, sometimes chattering happily if she’s been to a party or “been walking round London, which she often does.”
Despite mispronouncing Proust, he elicits this opinion from her (who’s been called the “English Proust”): “she laughed and said she couldn’t do French cooking, but it was very delicious.”
Other details: VW handrolled her own shag (loose tobacco) cigarettes, talked about enjoying to learn foxtrot steps and kicking up her heels, is described as “beautifully dressed” throughout, said that the Hogarth Press was like keeping a grocer’s shop, and works in a studio in the basement (large windowless room) with boxes of books all around: “sitting in her little space by the gas fire.. she looks at us over the top of her steel-rimmed spectacles, her grey hair hanging over her forehead and a shag cigarette hanging from her lips. She wears a hatchet-blue overall and sits hunched in a wicker armchair with a pad on her knees and a small typewriter beside her.”
This shows Leonard’s temper in action when confronted with the petty cash book not adding up correctly.
This classic work from Betty Smith should be a must-read for anyone with command of the English language. Her brilliant portrayal of Brooklyn around the turn of the 20th century is vivid, detailed, and somehow uplifting in its poverty. Frannie’s mother cleans homes to keep the family afloat while her charismatic father occasionally picks up singing waiter gigs and spends his tips on drink; the family plays a game they call North Pole Explorer where they have to subsist on whatever is in the cabinets for days, sometimes approaching utter starvation. Frannie and brother Neely collect junk and carefully count their pennies. The mom (who prefers Neely over Frannie) has an idea that education will get them out of poverty, so she makes the two of them read pages from Shakespeare and from the Bible every night, starting over again once they finish. Frannie says she prefers eating a raw potato to a raw apple?!
After the dad (Johnny) dies, Frannie must leave school to bring in money to help the family, including her pregnant mother. First employed in a factory making artificial flower stems, when that work dries up she lands a gig at a press clippings agency and later as a telegraph operator. There’s heartbreak and squalor and soaring spirits and everything in between, like Frannie’s life lessons of becoming a woman and her writing that sustains her (despite a teacher calling her stories “sordid” because the poverty was too realistic). Everything happy-endings as you would expect, with Frannie’s pretty mother remarrying an upstanding wealthy citizen and Frannie happily-ever-aftering herself into college at Univ of Michigan.
Books get shuffled off to the library archives when they’re no longer being requested, and I probably should have refrained from dipping into this one based on that knowledge. This is not a writer’s memoir, this is a hodgepodge of reminiscing about Bryher’s childhood (why does that part invariably end up being excruciatingly boring?) growing up in Kent and London; her extremely privileged early years traveling with her parents to Paris, Italy, Greece, Egypt; some time at school; stumbling onto H.D.’s world (which I think is why we’re still curious about Bryher, her being H.D.’s long time lover); plus the swirl of between the wars life in Paris (Gertrude Stein, Hem, Joyce, Sylvia from Shakespeare & Co… the usual). She rakes William Carlos Williams’s Autobiography over the coals (where I originally heard of her), noting several derogatory statements he made and wanting to file a lawsuit against him but cautioned not to so as not to increase interest in the book.
However tedious and poorly shaped/written this was, there were at least a few bits worth noting; for example, her adoration of Stein. Visiting Gertrude’s house,
the atmosphere seemed full of gold. There was a table piled with books and beyond this a high chair where Gertrude sat, surrounded by a group of young men. At first there was little general conversation, then she would pick up a phrase and develop it, ranging through a process of continuous association until we seemed to have ascended through the seven Persian heavens and in the process to have turned our personalities inside out. Make no mistake, however, it was not an ego selfishly seizing the stage, it was rhetoric, spare and uncolored by emotion. She offered us the world, took it away again in the following sentence, only to demonstrate in a third that it was something that we could not want because it had never existed. How bitterly I regret that there were no tape recorders then available to preserve her disputations.
Also of interest are her descriptions of travel in 1900.
How can I make people understand what the trip was like fifty years ago [in 1901]? There were no motorcars, we traveled by steamer, train or horse-drawn carriage, sometimes we rode. There were no passports, I had my first one in 1919, nobody spoke English but French was a lingua franca everywhere and, if necessary, in remote districts, we drew pictures of what we needed. The trains were dusty and unheated, occasionally porters brought round “foot warmers,” long metal cylinders filled with hot water, but my legs were too short to reach them so I was wrapped in a rug. There were no dining cars at first (I resented them when they arrived, it was much more fun to picnic in the compartment) and no baths nor running water taps in the hotels though enamel tubs were brought to us with cans of steaming water… we wore tiny muslin bags full of insect repellent sewn into our stockings and vests.
Occasionally good but not worth losing your mind over. Wolitzer excels at packing a novel full of characters you want to know more about, whose threads you eagerly follow to the end of the book. Fascinating to see your own response to the twists, like when Greer is handed a letter by her friend Zee to Faith Frank but she doesn’t want to give it to Faith because Greer is just starting at the foundation and wants to swim on her own without the weight of her friend tagging along (but would Zee do that in real life? I’m unconvinced). Or when Cory (Greer’s boyfriend) gets shipped to Asia for a consulting job, you completely expect things to fall apart, but not in the way it happens (Cory’s brother gets killed by his mom running him over accidentally, Cory abandons job and tends to distraught mom).
I became curious about Bryan Garner after reading DFW’s long piece in Consider the Lobster about usage of the English language wherein he reveres Garner as a genius. Apparently the two met twice in real life but carried on an epistolary friendship along with scattered phone calls. The second real life meetings was the one captured in this book— Garner interviewed him in LA for an hour about writing and language. (The first meeting DFW brought his mom—a huge Garner fan—and his dad along, but Garner never even bothers to call DFW’s mother by name in his intro, all while mentioning James—his dad—as a philosophy professor. ARGH.) The conversation recorded here proves DFW’s charm and humor and smarts, conveying words of writerly wisdom while making my heart hurt from our loss of him. (Garner includes a weird bit about being disturbed by the way DFW signed books, crossing out his printed name with an editing mark, which apparently signaled a suicidal mind in the handwriting analysis books he read as a kid.)
I love that Wallace considered himself a journeyman of writing, someone skilled at a craft from having worked his way day-in and day-out, honing, struggling, showing up. He revealed that his process for writing the long form non-fiction essays took him about six months with obsessive notes and several drafts before he figured out what it was he wanted to say.
Random thoughts on writing:
- “The reader cannot read your mind.”
- Learn to pay attention in different ways, such as the exercise where you take a book you like, read a page 3 or 4 times, put it down, try to imitate it word for word to feel your own muscles trying to achieve the effects of the text. It will be in your failure to duplicate it that you learn what’s going on.
- “The writing writing that I do is longhand… the first 2 or 3 drafts… I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.”
- “One of the things that the college drummed into me is, ‘Welcome to the adult world. It doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.'”
- How to write effectively is more a matter of spirit than of intellect or verbal facility. “The spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
- “The average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.”
- Bryan asked him what writers he admired. “You mean writers I think are models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose? William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich… here’s a weird one, though: one of my very favorites is Cormac McCarthy.”
- “If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—[it] becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.”
- “And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day… Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
- Necessary tools: OED, Roget thesaurus, and a usage dictionary like Garner’s Modern American Usage. “It’s like if all of English is a treasure and this is the chest that it’s in.”
- “A good opener fails to repel… it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes.”
- “The general rule of thing is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation…[and] there’s this thing called ‘elegant variation.’ You have to be able… In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.”
This beautiful book is a miracle. To be able to write a compelling and well-researched book about recovery—a subject everyone’s else glaze over when you bring up—is extremely hard. Leslie Jamison does an astonishing job at making this interesting, weaving her own story in among the many tales she picks up at AA meetings in her constant struggle to remain sober. Interspersed among this are literary nuggets as she tries to demystify the notion that writers must be drunks to get gold to gush from their pens, holding up Raymond Carver as a shining example of one who was able to write in sobriety (ending her book with a pilgrimage to his grave). David Foster Wallace is among the pages and she credits reading Infinite Jest as a crucial support system during her early months of sobriety. He called booze “the interior jigsaw’s missing piece.” Brutally honest about her own depths of depravity, she shows us the ugliness of her scheming to drink whenever her boyfriend is away from home, how solo cups filled with whiskey prevent her from making progress on a book she’s supposed to be writing about the Sandinistas, the dirty tour of despair through Iowa City and New Haven on the road to recovery.
What can you say about DFW that hasn’t already been moaned before? I love his essays, his incisive bite, his bulging vocabulary that precisely pinpoints the exact word necessary to bowl you over. Reading him in 2018 you get almost nauseated with sadness, the gaping hole where his skewering of the McDonald Tr*mp era would have fit nicely. There are glimpses of what his take would have been, like in the footnote in Big Red Son where he’s describing adult film star Scotty Schwartz’s recounting of praise he’s gotten (and gnashing of teeth over the fact that rival Corey Feldman’s career survived rehab):
“Russ comes over to me and goes, ‘Scotty, I been watching you. I like your style. I’m a good judge of people, and Scotty, you’re good people. I never heard one person say one bad thing about you.'” [Keep in mind that this is Scotty telling the story. Note how verbatim he gets Hampshire’s dialogue. Note the altered timbre and perfectly timed delivery. Note the way it never even occurs to Schwartz that a normal US citizen might be bored or repelled by Scotty’s lengthy recitation of someone else’s praise of him. Schwartz knows only that this interchange occurred and that it signified that a big fish approves of him and that it redounds to Scotty’s credit and that he wants it widely, widely known.]… What is the socially appropriate response to an anecdote like this—a contextless anecdote, apropos nothing, with its smugly unsubtle (and yet not unmoving, finally, in its naked insecurity) agenda of getting you to admire the teller?
Consider the Lobster is brimming with delights. A lengthy tour of the Vegas-hosted adult video awards where an industry journalist makes the prescient quote that “Nobody ever goes broke overestimating the rage and misogyny of the average American male.” DFW’s complete body slam of John Updike brought a huge smile to my face along with his coining of the Great Male Narcissist label for Mailer, Updike & Roth, and the perfect ending to the piece: “It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” The epic essay on American English Usage, drowning in footnotes and sidebars and interpolations. A raw recounting of experiencing 9/11 with a group of ladies from his church in Bloomington, Indiana, and the aftermath of flags that popped up the next day, leading him on a futile search that ended in breaking down in a gas station, comforted by the Pakistani owner over cups of styrofoam tea. His incisive and bitter review of tennis phenom Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten memoir where he wonders why she bothered to have someone ghostwrite such terrible things like “I immediately knee what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” His 80 page article for Rolling Stone covering McCain’s 2000 run, hilarious and more entertaining than HS Thompson’s classic from the campaign trail. His questioning of the ethics of eating meat after attending the Maine Lobster Festival wherein these creatures are boiled alive (including a great footnote about tourists, see below). His quick glimpse at Frank’s epic bio of Dostoevsky which I’ve added Vol 4 to my to-read list since C&P has been sitting beside me for months in a please read me again attempt; also includes some tirades against translation which I enjoyed (more below). And finally, a really long piece (Host) that is nearly unreadable in the way it’s laid out on the page with boxes and arrows overlaying the main thrust of the article about a certain AM talk radio host; of interest in this piece is the early discussion of the fragmentation of news controlled by a handful of companies, creating “precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.”
As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
On translation. DFW is not a fan of Constance Garnett’s “excruciatingly Victorianish translations” but he also has problems with the overly popular P&V translations. “Russian, a non-Latinate language, is extraordinarily hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the archaism of a language 100-plus years old, Dostoevsky’s prose and dialogue can come off stilted and pleonastic and silly.”
How dreadful to be known as a revolutionary poet and yet write a tedious and boring autobiography.
I’ve been thinking about reading WCW’s poetry but first decided to check his autobiography for any cautionary tales. And yes, they are legion—sexually harassing young girls with his college pal Ezra Pound, slinking along with various “streetwalkers,” ogling the nurses in his hospital (“well-made” with “powerful legs”). But there are bits of interest as well, such as words of wisdom from people who told him to keep studying medicine so that he could get an income while he worked on his writing (an abundance of plays and poems). Instead of enlisting in the military for WWI, he opts to remain home offering his services as a doctor, which were needed in the 1918 flu pandemic. He has the obligatory post-WWI jaunt through Paris and Europe, hobnobbing with Joyce, Pound, “Hem,” Ford Madox Ford, the usual tripe. On a return visit, he’s invited to tea at Gertrude Stein’s, and the toxic waste of his friends’ dismissal of her work bubbles to his lips and he actually tells her he’d burn her notebooks if he were her. (Later he comes to admire her work, so he does redeem himself slightly in my eyes).
Mostly I kept reading for the all too rare tidbits about writing which, looking back, all seem to be clustered in the Foreword.
There is a great virtue in such an isolation. It permits a fair interval for thought. That is, what I call thinking, which is mainly scribbling. It has always been during the act of scribbling that I have gotten most of my satisfactions.
When and where did I or could I write? Time meant nothing to me. I might be in the middle of some flu epidemic, the phone ringing day and night, madly, not a moment free. That made no difference. If the fit was on me… I would be like a woman at term; no matter what else was up, that demand had to be met.
Five minutes, ten minutes, can always be found. I had my typewriter in my office desk. All I needed to do was to pull up the leaf to which it fastened and I was ready to go. I worked at top speed. My head developed a technique: something growing inside of me demanded reaping. It had to be attended to. Finally, after eleven at night, when the last patient had been put to bed, I could always find the time to bang out ten or twelve pages. In fact, I couldn’t rest until I had freed my mind from the obsessions which had been tormenting me all day. Cleansed of that torment, having scribbled, I could rest.
Once he got bitten by the theater bug in college, he wanted to write plays and wanted to see every available play that came through but had no money.
But it was money that finally decided me. I would continue medicine, for I was determined to be a poet; only medicine, a job I enjoyed, would make it possible for me to live and write as I wanted to. I would live: that first, and write, by God, as I wanted to if it took me all eternity to accomplish my design. My furious wish was to be normal, undrunk, balanced in everything.
Besides meeting Ezra Pound at University of Pennsylvania, he also befriended the poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.). Williams’ relationship with Ezra was complicated—he describes Ezra coming over to his house and playing the piano. “Everything, you might say, resulted except music… It was part of his confidence in himself. My sister-in-law was a concert pianist. Ez never liked her.” There was a particularly horrifying scene wherein Ezra brings WCW along to stalk a “particularly lovely thing in her early teens…. The poor child was all but paralyzed with fear, panting to the point of speechlessness as she just managed to say in a husky voice, ‘Go away! Please go away! Please! Please!”
The 1913 Armory Show seemed to be a pivotal moment for the group: “There had been a break somewhere, we were streaming through, each thinking his own thoughts, driving his own designs toward his self’s objectives. Whether the Armory Show in painting did it or whether that also was no more than a facet—the poetic line, the way the image was to lie on the page was our immediate concern. For myself all that implied, in the materials, respecting the place I knew best, was finding a local assertion—to my everlasting relief. I had never in my life before felt that way. I was tremendously stirred.”
Then the war came. “I decided that I would write something every day, without missing one day, for a year. I’d write nothing planned but take up a pencil, put the paper before me, and write anything that came into my head. Be it nine in the evening or three in the morning, returning from some delivery on Guinea Hill, I’d write it down.”
John Herrmann was a pal of his who bought a farm, grew his own vegetables, and wrote. Occasionally he’d float into the city and go into a bar with a copy of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans which he’d read aloud. “He’d have them spellbound. It wasn’t a gag. He knew it was interesting stuff and if people could get to it they’d like it.”
One of the more idiotic tidbits to drop from WCW’s pen was this: “Spanish is not, in the sense to which I refer, a literary language.” Had he not been exposed to Don Quixote?
Reading Remembrance of Things Past—I prefer Moncrieff’s translation and not the In Search of Lost Time translations that attempt to correct his lyrical embellishments, but perhaps I should just say À la recherche du temps perdu to avoid any confusion—I’ve granted myself the luxury and extreme pleasure of a long, slow read.
The work is lengthy, a novel in seven parts spread across three volumes. I’m still sipping Swann’s Way (which itself is broken into four pieces: Overture, Combray, Swann in Love, and Place-Names) but having fought my way through Swann in Love, I needed to come up for air and note just a few things. SIL was hard to get through, excruciatingly painful to see Swann’s discomfort of being in love with the odious Odette. But that’s the point, the sharp jealousies and ecstasies of love, the pitfalls and triumphs, the heady early days melting into tedium and apathy.
Luckily, there are bits of humor tucked in along the way that act as breadcrumbs leading you on. And the insults reach art form, as Swann says to Odette’s face:
You are a formless water that will trickle down any slope that it may come upon, a fish devoid of memory, incapable of thought, which all its life long in its aquarium will continue to dash itself, a hundred times a day, against a wall of glass, always mistaking it for water.
By far the dreamiest part is Combray,
And I should have liked to be able to sit down and spend the whole day there, reading and listening to the bells, for it was so charming there and so quiet that, when an hour struck, you would have said not that it broke in upon the calm of the day, but that it relieved the day of its superfluity, and that the steeple, with the indolent, painstaking exactitude of a person who has nothing else to do, had simply, in order to squeeze out and let fall the few golden drops which had slowly and naturally accumulated in the hot sunlight, pressed, at a given moment, the distended surface of the silence.
I naturally gravitate toward the section that is all about long walks and reading.
Overture is delightful as well, with its infamous dipping of madeleine into tea to trigger tidal waves of memory and emotion. I also enjoyed Swann’s comment about the newspaper:
The fault I find with our journalism is that it forces us to take an interest in some fresh triviality or other every day, whereas only three or four books in a lifetime give us anything that is of real importance.
One more section and I’ve finished the first part of the seven!
The story of this book is longer and slightly more enchanting than the book itself. It was a previously forgotten story that was recently rediscovered in the miniature library of Queen Mary’s dollhouse in Windsor Castle, written in the 1920s. The dollhouse was a marvel with a working elevator, running water, a tiny Rolls-Royce, jars of marmalade. The best artists of the day decorated its walls, and the popular authors contributed their words to a library of tiny leather-bound books. Vita Sackville-West contributed this story (no bigger than a postage stamp!) wherein the dollhouse is haunted by a ghost-not-ghost who traveled through time and had been a pal to Scheherazade, flown to China to hear the Emperor’s famous nightingale, and generally mucked around in the past before settling in this dollhouse. She got stuck in the elevator, created dirty dishes, left the lights on, and when the guardians of the dollhouse arrived every morning they couldn’t figure out what was going on in the house. The ghost-not-ghost left this note of explanation in the miniature library to explain the enigma, although it would all have disappeared if they’d just hired a maid to clean up after her.
I need to stop reading books that are popular with the masses, I guess. And yet I couldn’t stop. There were just enough good bits to pull me through the terribly obvious plot as it plodded along. My first clue that this was not going to be good was the overabundance of descriptive period details, like the exact model of some 1930s car or all of the geegaws in the family’s apartment. Over-specific means you’re covering for a lack of something else… soul, perhaps? War work gave Anna something interesting to hang her hat on, measuring widgets then strangely becoming a diver to fix ships underwater. Her dad disappears midway through, leading her into Dexter Style’s arms to find answers. Sex and a baby that is almost aborted but Anna changes her mind just as the chloroform is hitting?! The dad wasn’t dead but ends up alive fighting in WWII and has a lost at sea episode then arrives to re-establish a relationship with Anna in California. Jesus, this book turned a bad corner and never recovered. Avoid.
Who the hell is Nell Scovell anyway? This is how she structures her memoir, along the forms of that old joke about the stages of life in a Hollywood writer: Stage 1 – Who is Nell? Stage 2 – Get me Nell! Stage 3 – Get me a younger, cheaper Nell! Stage 4 – Who is Nell?
Her memoir is entertaining with a dash of practical advice for writers. She shows you her process, explains what goes into the writing of a show, either solo or in a writer’s room. She tackles the thorny issue of being the only woman in several comedy rooms and the underlying current of sexism that flows through them. Her early days included episodes for It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Newhart, The Simpsons, an uncomfortable few months at Late Night with David Letterman. She moved up the ranks as a producer on Coach and Murphy Brown and still kept writing scripts, including one for Space Ghost with her buddy Joel Hodgson (of MST3 fame). Sabrina was her creation from start to finish although she left after the first season. In later years, she got wowed by Sheryl Sandberg and helped write Lean In. She also wrote some of Obama’s jokes at the White House Correspondents Dinner for several years. And her author’s bio ends with “Despite Blue Öyster Cult’s well-reasoned arguments, she still fears the reaper.”
The best way to sink into a rainy weekend is to watch Barbara Loden’s 1970 film, Wanda, then read Nathalie Léger’s book that attempts to chase down the ghost of Loden, fill in the gaps, explain some of the heart-piercing gut-punching feeling you’ve just experienced by watching the film. If you’re lucky, the copy of the film you watched came with bonus features of Loden’s appearance on the Mike Douglas show hosted by Yoko Ono and John Lennon. You can safely ignore Douglas’s simpering smirk when he asks questions about her husband (Elia Kazan) helping her make this film (he didn’t) and Lennon’s comment about the perils of having a famous husband.
This article by Bérénice Reynaud contains a quote from Kazan that perfectly illustrates the challenge Loden faced. “When I first met her, she had little choice but to depend on her sexual appeal. But after Wanda she no longer needed to be that way, no longer wore clothes that dramatised her lure, no longer came on as a frail, uncertain woman who depended on men who had the power… I realised I was losing her, but I was also losing interest in her struggle… She was careless about managing the house, let it fall apart, and I am an old-fashioned man” (Kazan, 1988, 794). This perfectly echoes the words Wanda’s husband uses in the movie when he’s trying to obtain a divorce.
But to the book itself, Nathalie Léger is supposedly working on a short entry for a film encyclopedia about Wanda. Instead, she produces this 125 page exploration to give more space to this slippery topic. It’s “a woman telling her own story through that of another woman.” Biographical details on Loden are sketchy at best. Léger meets with the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman and tells him her difficulty in trying to piece together Barbara’s life. Wiseman’s advice? “Make it up. All you have to do is make it up.” Well, no. Instead, Léger carefully shades in her own recollections, her mother’s experience, the universal woman’s retreat into numbness to avoid the brutality of men.
Léger is at times quite funny, such as in her recounting the answer Hemingway gave to a journalist who asked what the best early training is for a writer. Léger has him answer “‘An unhappy childhood.’ How he must have sniggered as he helped himself to another Scotch.”
Léger perfectly captures what it is to be a woman. “How could he not understand the sometimes overwhelming necessity of yielding to the other’s desire to give yourself a better chance of escaping it?” Juxtaposed against this, she quotes from Sylvia Plath’s journal: “For instance, I could hold my nose, close my eyes, and jump blindly into the waters of some man’s insides, submerging myself until his purpose becomes my purpose, his life, my life, and so on. One find day I would float to the surface, quite drowned, and supremely happy with my newfound selfless self.” Against this, an impression of Léger’s mother layered on Loden driving around in the film: “she sits the way my mother used to sit next to my father, upright, short, alert, holding her breath, just waiting to be murdered.”
Tracking down the film locations in Pennsylvania, Léger gets a tour of Holy Land from a young man. This is perfection:
We meet in the hall of the Silas Bronson Library. He is a young man. I don’t like young men, I don’t like their bloom, their inflexibility, their grace, their spermatic irritability, their soft hands. I look at young men, I look at them below the belt, I look at them very carefully, I scrutinize them, but I don’t like them, they laugh too easily, which is nice, I make this one laugh easily, it’s nice, it’s boring. I would not want to die in the company of a young man.
I’m not sure if this part was true, but Léger says she meets Mickey Mantle at the Houdini Museum in Scranton to get his impressions of Barbara Loden, whom he knew from the Copacabana where she had danced. Mantle begins to reference Proust, Melville, and Hemingway, and Léger writes: “I mentally go through my notes again: Mickey Mantle, hero of the New York Yankees, a typical American hunk, with regular features, a slightly vacant expression in his eyes, a dimpled smile, an impoverished childhood, sent down into the mines at the age of twelve, an astonishing batman, famous for hitting 530 home runs—his body swinging backward then throwing itself forward in a devastating swing—a hard drinker, a skirt-chaser, a clapped-out liver, a real American tough guy—Mickey Mantle is talking to me about Proust.”
Prescription for a melancholy day: one viewing of Wanda + one reading of this book. Repeat as often as necessary.