Witnessing History

Saw a movie and am reading two books that take very different approaches to witnessing history and raise questions about claiming famous ancestors.  First up, the movie.

It’s 14-17 July 1789:  the Bastille falls amidst cries that Louis XVI, his Queen, and most of their friends lose their heads.  Does the day seem portentous at Versailles?  Not really for Sidonie, the Queen’s reader, nor for the other courtiers, nor for Marie herself.  Disturbing whispers circulate, to be sure.  But the Court’s normal business of gossip and flirtation basically proceeds.  By the 17th, all that will change and we witness it along with Sidonie, who has her part to play by then.

Whether she’s a servant or an aristocrat, she’s clearly in danger.  So much so that one woman said to me as we were leaving:  ”Do you think she lives?”  Well… in 2012, surely not.  But that kind of reaction tells you that Director Benoit Jacquot gets us to feel like we are witnessing history in FAREWELL MY QUEEN though it’s history remained for 21st-century tastes.

I am only 15% of the way into DREAMING IN FRENCH and note here how easily the % gets rendered rather than the # of pages for e-book users like me.  Alice Kaplan, a friend and colleague, is a terrific writer and this book is a fun read that includes lots of research about post WW II France that is draped over true story of three famous women who studied abroad:  Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis.  I’m only up to Jackie and find myself wondering:  If Jacqueline Bouvier had not become Jackie Kennedy would the book have been written and read? Not so sure about that.  I’ll be reading on to see how the famous ancestor gets claimed here.

Final, light read:  Alan Furst’s MISSION TO PARIS.  The Furst hero has already appeared.  He’s a fictional movie actor in this case and not yet playing James Bond, though he will, he will.  As in most Furst novels, there’s a wonderful feeling of historical background here:  right now, Munich is about to happen and halt the momentum in Paris towards war.

Fiction and history; fact and history:  a curious and ongoing interplay for which I am always a sucker.  

 

 

 

 

 

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Summer in This City

You know the kind of day I mean: intense; brutal; the sidewalks giving up smells of garbage long forgotten. After a bout of New York grays, the city turned up the heat last week. All around me, people talked about the Hamptons, upstate, and (this being my first full summer in New York in quite some time),I had to wonder.

Then, the heat lifted. The museums hummed; ice cream was eaten in Parks. At night, up high, the air was fine and sunsets ruled. There are many places to spend the Summer, some maybe better. But it’s never bad to take Manhattan.


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The Return of the (Coney Island) Native

Coney Island 2012 is a different kind of place.

Cleaner.  Friendlier.  A mellow mix of New Yorkers enjoying the balmy air.

The Boardwalks are low to the ground now, making “under the Boardwalk” a code harder to understand.  The feeling is mellow, almost un-New-York, a feeling amped up when the cool air hits your face on a sweltering day in the City.  All in all, it’s pretty cool in more ways than one.  It doesn’t matter that the Cyclones game is kind of dull when the real live Cyclone is part of the view.  It doesn’t matter that the game goes into extra innings when the fireworks go up on schedule by 10 p.m.

I was born close to the spot I am sitting at the game.  Literally, this is the Return of the Native, Coney Island style.  When we neared the stop in Bensonhurst where I had grown up and waited many a long day and night for the N train, also lovingly called the Sea Beach, with a cruder nickname, the recorded conductor keep saying “we are being held here momentarily.”  After the third time, it began to seem symbolic.  Like the evening.  At Coney Island.

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Roland Barthes: Writing Criticism, Writing Memoir

Roland Barthes gave us a model of the critique of mass culture that continues to be on point today.  I suspect he would have loved  Twitter and blogging, though we’ll never know.  He might have turned into a mandarin had he lived into our age and scorned the internet, though I rather suspect not.  In a Times Book Review article, Sam Anderson talks about his favorite pieces in Barthes.  They establish a goal, an ideal for writers:  that decades after we write someone will have favorite pieces to recall.  If you have a Barthes favorite, what’s yours?

Jeffrey Eugenides uses Barthes as a sign of the times in The Marriage Plot. The latest Barthes is his touching Mourning Diary – also on point for our time.  It may be the link between the personal and the critical that speaks most about Barthes today, that makes him still “surprisingly relevant today.”

On Loving A City

Orhan Pamuk says some stunning things about his love for Istanbul.

They made me wonder whether all people who love a city feel something very similar.

Here’s what he says:  What do you think?

“What gives a city its special character is not just its topography or its buildings but rather the sum total of every chance encounter, every memory, letter… and image jostling in its inhabitants crowded memories.”

“Anything we say about the city’s essence says more to about our own lives and our own states of mind.”

“Why should we expect a city to cure us of our spiritual pain? Perhaps because we cannot help loving our city like a family.”

“I embraced the city as my own – no one had ever seen it as I see it now. Once I had mastered this new poetic outlook, I chased with unchecked ardor after anything and everything connected with the city.”

 


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Who we are in memoir?

I am pondering who we are and want to be in memoir.

Maybe we have no choice.  But writing takes time and revision and so, in fact, we always do.

Reading Joan Didion’s BLUE NIGHTS made me sad:  for her daughter, for sure, but also for Didion herself, who has not entered old age with resilience or any care for wisdom. She’s frail, she tells us again and again.  But she’s also Joan Didion and a killer writer still, though she claims not and relies more than may be wise on the repetition of key phrases.  All through the book — a book about her daughter’s death — you keep wondering, what happened?  What several things (for there seem to be several things) went wrong?  It’s not that kind of memoir.  Didion will not go there.

Francisco Goldman’s SAY HER NAME, which I thought wonderful and gripping, sent me on this memoir binge.

As well, of course, as my own writing.  I am processing.  I’ll say more.  Recent ones I’m missing?


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Italian Cookies.

“Those are traditional Italian cookies, you know,”  the clerk said — a young man I would judge, on the basis of accent, to be Russian.  ”I know,” I said. “And I miss the big traditional butter cookies you used to have, the ones that were plain or half covered in chocolate,” I added, going a step too far.

I was purchasing the cookies for my last day of class, wanting my students to have the taste. For reasons unclear to me, I had scoped through a series of Italian bakeries in the Village the day before, noting each time things missing that should have been there:  pignolis fully covered in nuts; fig cookies as the Christmas season moves on, those large butter cookies which tended to be eaten after the fancier ones were gone, being simple, but simply delicious.  My reasons must have had to do with some desire to regain my past, Proust-like, in the taste of a cookie.

When the Russian young man confided in me that the simpler biscuits I’d purchased were “traditional Italian cookies,” a whole lot came together.  The Italians who used to bake the cookies are gone now — to colleges and engineering jobs and to firms on Wall Street.  The desire for the authentic Italian cookie or hero can drive us to frenzy — as anyone who has visited Torrisi Brothers or Little Italy on a weekend will know.  But traditional Italian cookies?  More often than not, they’re gone now too or mingled with a Spanish or Russian twist.

Digital newspapers

Okay… like most of us, I read the paper online as well as in print.  It’s been sad to see stories I read on the net appear days later in the NY TIMES.  It’s like a confession that print journalism is not just on the ropes but down for what is likely to be a permanent count.

That said, I am away from my NY TIMES and want to sing an ode to hard copies.

For one thing, there is the physical pleasure of holding the page and flipping back and forth at will.  For another. there is the surround:  what appears next to what on page one.  Which ads appear in which context.  And then there is the matter of attention.  I don’t read every word in print but am far less likely to do so on the screen.  Am I unusual?  Miss you NY TIMES and look forward to having you back.

Species Thoughts

When Peter Jackson’s KING KONG opened in 2005, I realized that I was a thrill seeker at the movies and, in fact, always had been.  Epics from GONE WITH THE WIND to LAWRENCE OF ARABIA to GANDHI thrilled my soul.  I saw some of these epics on tv by necessity — they were before my time — but epic is always BIG and even better on the wide screen. KING KONG was a thrill maker, an adventurers’ adventure.  I’d forgotten the dinosaurs (there in the 1933 original).  And Adrian Brody isn’t much of a hero.  But what this version of the movie got right was species thinking.  Thinking between species.  Or, of that’s too much, the kinds of feelings between species that any pet owner knows exists.  Or any fans of KING KONG.  The 2005 Ann loves King Kong and sees (as 1933’s Fay Wray did not) that he wants to protect her and, like her, loves beauty. He wants to take her far away from the 1930s crowd, always vulgar in the film. I’m thinking about KONG because I am teaching it this week. But it’s part of who we are too.


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Joan of Arc

I was around eleven or twelve when I became infatuated with Joan of Arc, reading biographies of her and loving the idea of a maiden warrior for France unfurling her flag and taking the field for God and King.  That was the Joan who came to me, I suspect via a book aimed at pre-teens. She was feisty and strong and above all not hemmed in by a conventional sense of what women can or cannot do.

The Carl Dreyer film shows a rather different Joan.  His Joan has lost her last battle and is on trial for heresy, with the penalty for a wrong answer potential burning at the stake.  His THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC is a 1928 silent film that uses intense close-ups to convey its moods.  The movie alternates tensely between closeups of Joan and closeups of her accusers and the one priest well-disposed to her case. Coming out, as it did, a year after talkies, the film was always out of sync with its times.  I saw it this weekend in the director’s cut, accompanied by an original and quite stirring score that enhanced the mood.

The film is an idiosyncratic masterpiece about a truly unique and stirring figure in world history.  The director reconstructed a medieval city which is shown only in tiny patches, showing an obsessive quality suitable to his subject, Joan.  For anyone who watches the film knows that Joan’s over-the-top quality will surface in the end and doom her to the witch’s death she so rightly fears.  Obsession.  Compulsion.  The heeding of inner voices.  Saints did it.  Artists do it all the time.

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