Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Charles Durning on Acting and Trauma

There's some fascinating information about actor Charles Durning's pre-theatrical life in his New York Times obituary. I've always known he was an actor of admirable range and talent, but only from the Times obit did I learn that he was also a  traumatized survivor of some of the worst of WWII:

His combat experiences were harrowing. He was in the first wave of troops to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day and his unit’s lone survivor of a machine-gun ambush. In Belgium he was stabbed in hand-to-hand combat with a German soldier, whom he bludgeoned to death with a rock. Fighting in the Battle of the Bulge, he and the rest of his company were captured and forced to march through a pine forest at Malmedy, the scene of an infamous massacre in which the Germans opened fire on almost 90 prisoners. Mr. Durning was among the few to escape.

By the war’s end he had been awarded a Silver Star for valor and three Purple Hearts, having suffered gunshot and shrapnel wounds as well. He spent months in hospitals and was treated for psychological trauma.

Late in life, Durning spoke of one crucial wartime experience in an interview with Parade magazine. Quoting the Times obit again:

In the Parade interview, he recalled the hand-to-hand combat. “I was crossing a field somewhere in Belgium,” he said. “A German soldier ran toward me carrying a bayonet. He couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15. I didn’t see a soldier. I saw a boy. Even though he was coming at me, I couldn’t shoot.”

They grappled, he recounted later — he was stabbed seven or eight times — until finally he grasped a rock and made it a weapon. After killing the youth, he said, he held him in his arms and wept.
Mr. Durning said the memories never left him, even when performing, even when he became, however briefly, someone else.

“There are many secrets in us, in the depths of our souls, that we don’t want anyone to know about,” he told Parade. “There’s terror and repulsion in us, the terrible spot that we don’t talk about. That place that no one knows about — horrifying things we keep secret. A lot of that is released through acting.”

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Some Favorite Short Fiction

...continuing my year-end listmania:

Lucian, "True Histories" (in Penguin Classics volume Chattering Courtesans and Other Sardonic Sketches). Ancient Roman source for Baron Munchhausen tales, Terry Gilliam's film, and much else in Western comic / satirical / fantastical writing.

Boccaccio, The Decameron. One of the greatest (and funniest) collections of short fiction ever written. There are so many good tales here that I can't possibly choose just one.

"The Fall of the House of Usher" by Edgar Allan Poe. The best Poe is the weirdest Poe, the Poe that will never go out of style.

"Bartleby the Scrivener" by Herman Melville. For me, one of the defining works of the American short story tradition (to the extent that such a thing exists).

"The Figure in the Carpet" by Henry James. It is wondrous to watch old Henry weave and try to guess what warps his woof.

"Ward Number Six" by Anton Chekhov. Hard to choose a single Chekhov story (and there are many I haven't read), but this one is exceptional.

Three Tales by Gustave Flaubert. Again, can't choose one, so why choose? Read all three; they're short and great. Smutty secret: the French title, Trois Contes, puns for "Three Cunts." Think about that after you've read the book.

"Counterparts" by James Joyce. One of the best and darkest stories in Dubliners.

"Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" by Jorge Luis Borges. Really everything in Borges's Collected Fictions in marvelous, and the book is an essential part of any library (because it contains every library, and all books).

"A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" by Ernest Hemingway. Perfect.

"The Death of Justina" by John Cheever. One of the greatest American short stories, period. This is Cheever at his most original and most Kafkaesque; after reading this, you won't need to read Don DeLillo, because much of DeLillo's America is anticipated here. If you think you know Cheever but you haven't read this, you don't know Jack about Cheever.

"A Rose for Emily" by William Faulkner. There's something about the narrative voice here that grabs me at the opening phrase and doesn't let go.

"In The Penal Colony" by Franz Kafka. Every time I read it, it's a different story, and every reading seems the first.

"The Terminal Beach" by J. G. Ballard. Everything in The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard is worth reading.

"Good Country People" by Flannery O'Connor. Yeah, the title's ironic. Very, very ironic.

"A Small, Good Thing" by Raymond Carver. Minimalism has gone to its cemetery of blank tombstones, but Carver's stories remain, as easy as talking and harder than rock.

"Scale" by Will Self. Self at his outrageous, surreal, satirical best. Laugh-aloud funny and constantly surprising.

"Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" by David Foster Wallace. This novella, broken into story-length fragments in the eponymous book, is a great example of Wallace doing what he does best, voices.

"Helping" by Robert Stone (in his excellent collection Bear and His Daughter). Easily one of the best American short stories of the twentieth century.

"Brokeback Mountain" by Annie Proulx. Read Annie Proulx's Wyoming stories. Read 'em all, in three volumes. They contain some of the finest prose written by anyone still on the upright side of the American sod. She is one tough broad.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Some Favorite Music

My Desert Island Discs, I guess:

Robert Johnson, The Complete Recordings (Columbia, 2 CDs)

Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Waltraud Meier and Siegfried Jerusalem in title roles, with Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Daniel Barenboim. (Teldec, 4 CDs)

Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited (Columbia)

Bob Dylan, Dylan (Columbia, 3CD career retrospective)

Beethoven, The Late String Quartets (opus 127, 130, 131, 132, 135), The Guarneri Quartet (RCA, 3CDs)

Beethoven, Symphony No. 9, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Goldcrest)

Louis Armstrong, The Definitive Louis Armstrong: Ken Burns' Jazz Collection (Columbia)

Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band, Live/1975-85 (Columbia, 3CDs)

Bruce Springsteen, The Essential Bruce Springsteen (Columbia, 3CDs)

J. S. Bach, The Goldberg Variations, Glenn Gould, 1955 and 1981 recordings (Sony and CBS, respectively)

The Rolling Stones, Hot Rocks 1964-1971 (ABKCO, 2 CDs)

Frank Sinatra, Nothing But The Best (Reprise)

Frank Sinatra, The Capitol Years (Capitol (duh), 3 CDs)

Rage Against The Machine, Rage Against The Machine (Epic)

The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Electric Ladyland (Reprise, 2 CDs)

Alban Berg, Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (To the Memory of an Angel), Pinchas Zuckerman with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Pierre Boulez (CBS Masterworks)

Charlie Parker, The Definitive Charlie Parker: Ken Burns' Jazz Collection (Columbia)

John Coltrane, Giant Steps (Atlantic)

The Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Virgin, 2 CDs)

The Band, Anthology (Capitol, 2CDs)

The Beatles, The White Album (EMI, 2CDs)

The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (EMI)

Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd, Original Cast Recording with Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou (RCA, 2CDs)

Olivier Messiaen, Quartet for the End of Time, Gil Shaham, Jian Wang, Paul Meyer, Myung-Whun Chung (Deutsche Grammophon)

Fleetwood Mac, Rumours (Warner)

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 14, Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ladislav Slovak, with Magdalena Hajossyova, soprano, and Peter Mikulas, bass (Naxos)

Ornette Coleman, Free Jazz (Atlantic)

Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel, Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits (Columbia)

Kronos Quartet, Black Angels (Elektra Nonesuch)

Nirvana, Nevermind (Geffen)

Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs / Six Orchestral Songs, Jessye Norman, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra conducted by Kurt Masur (Philips)

Rchard Strauss, Salome, Hildegard Behrens in title role, Vienna Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (EMI, 2CDs)

Paganini, 24 Caprices, Itzhak Perlman (EMI)
Anonymous 4, 1000: A Mass for the End of Time: Medieval Chant and Polyphony for the Ascension (Harmonia Mundi)

Grateful Dead, American Beauty (Warner)

Morton Feldman. Durations I-V, Coptic Light, Ensemble Avantgarde (CPO, 1CD)

And although not technically music, very musical indeed:

In Their Own Voices: A Century of Recorded Poetry, poets from Walt Whitman through Li-Young Lee reading their own poetry (Rhino, 4 CDs)

Dylan Thomas, The Caedmon Collection (Caedmon, 11CDs) The definitive collection of Thomas reading works by himself and others, including Shakespeare and Auden; someday, I might have time to listen to it all...

Friday, December 21, 2012

Some Favorite American Poems

Now that we've entered the time of year reserved for stale fruitcake, inanities from American Greetings, egg nog so thick you'll need a crash cart after three sips, and a seemingly endless manneken pis-like stream of repetitive "best of" lists, I've decided to hop aboard the overloaded bandwagon and make a few lists of my own, not for 2012 but for all time... To begin, here's a list of some of my favorite American poems:

Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Emily Dickinson, "I cannot live with you" (poem 640)
T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land
Hart Crane, "The Broken Tower"
Ezra Pound, "Canto LXXXI"
Robert Lowell, "For the Union Dead"
James Merrill, "Lost in Translation"
Allen Ginsberg, "Howl"
Galway Kinnell, "The Fundamental Project of Technology"
Sylvia Plath, "Ariel"
Robert Frost, "Desert Places"
Elizabeth Bishop, "In The Waiting Room"
George Oppen, "Route"
e e cummings, "next to of course god america i"
Wallace Stevens, "The Idea of Order at Key West"
John Ashbery, "Soonest Mended"
Randall Jarrell, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"
Anne Sexton, "Red Riding Hood"
William Carlos Williams, "To Elsie"
Theodore Roethke, "Elegy for Jane"
Rita Dove, "Parsley"
Richard Howard, "Wildflowers"
Stanley Kunitz, "King of the River"
A. R. Ammons, "Corson's Inlet"

The least-known poem on the list is probably Oppen's "Route," one of the great masterpieces of American poetry. It should be as widely read and known as The Waste Land and "Howl."

I've long suspected this...

In yet another internet hideyhole, I've found an interesting 2006 interview with Samuel R. Delany (SF legend, literary fictionist, critic, pornographer, theorist, wild man, teacher, and all-around Dude Who Looks Like Santa), in which the Big Man has this to say about the contemporary publishing industry in the wake of its mergermaniacal 'contraction' (a contraction from which nothing of non-monetary value will be born):

Commercial publishers today are far more distrustful of good writing than they have ever been before, and usually won't consider it unless it comes with some sort of ready-made reputation or gimmick. In the last half dozen years, writers have shown me rejection letters from publishers such as Harcourt Brace that actually say, under the letterhead, "We're sorry. This book is too well written for us." This means that competition is of an entirely different order than it was, say, thirty years ago, when such a letter simply would not have been written.

Thanks to interviewer Josh Lukin and to The Minnesota Review for publishing this interview on their website.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Samuel R. Delany's Literary Pillars

In the spirit of the season, here's a link to a highly eclectic book list composed by a writer who bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. Samuel R. Delany, literary novelist, critic, teacher, and living legend of American science fiction, submitted this list to the blog Big Other back in July as part of BO's (there's something I like about those initials...) birthday celebration for William H. Gass (speaking of living legends). Inspired by Gass's essay "Fifty Literary Pillars" (collected in A Temple of Texts), Delany lists some of the books and texts that, he writes, "if I hadn’t read and reread over the years, I wouldn’t be myself." So I suppose we should consider this a list of the books that 'chose' Delany rather than ones he chose. An excellent criterion, and a very interesting, surprising list that doesn't contain too many of the usual literary suspects. Check it out. (And note that #32 on the list is Delany's former spouse.)
Samuel R. Delany

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Tragedy (Sandy Hook Elementary School, 12/14/12)

Again we grieve.
Again we mourn.
Again the flags fly lower.
Again the politicians say the appropriate things.
Again we begin the conversation that will end too soon.
Again the frantic calls to 9-1-1.
Again the parents screaming.
Again the children running for their lives.
Again the guns designed to kill are used to kill,
And again we are surprised.
Again the place of safety becomes a battleground.
Again the children die.
Again the empty shell casings roll like marbles on the floor.
Again the boys and girls with eyes closed walking past the carnage
are again a symbol for us all.

How many more times will we say

How many more?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Ten Literary Sentences That Will Never Be Spoken

  1. That's the self-published avant-garde novelist's Porsche.
  2. Don't you find Lacan refreshingly clear and easy to understand?
  3. This year's winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry doesn't teach anywhere.
  4. I just saw Wilbur Smith seliing copies of The Big Issue under Hungerford Bridge.
  5. I read Philip K. Dick for his prose.
  6. I read Derrida for pleasure. (I do, in fact, but I'm very, very odd.)
  7. After his workout at the gym, Slavoj Zizek ate a light salad and ran three miles.
  8. The American poet was mobbed by adoring fans.
  9. Henry James is OK, but he could use a little more nuance.
  10. This Faulkner novel has too few adjectives.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck (1920-2012)

Jazz legend Dave Brubeck died today at age 91. Take Five and watch the man play back in '64: