What plans do I have for the site and the posts? I am clearing most of the posts off the site. I’m leaving about twenty as a sampler to browse. All the posts – including some new ones that have not appeared here – will emerge shortly in a Kindle ebook titled MAIL FROM TUNIS. I plan also to issue it as a paperback copy for those like myself who need the physical comfort of a book in our hands.
I started this blog in October of 2012, coinciding with the launch of the first volume of my novel SANFERMIN. And now I am calling a halt at the point where I have finally succeeded in producing (in ebook format at least) a single complete omnibus edition. It’s showing on Amazon for the Kindle. The book was the original excuse for starting to post blogs. But in the end that boiled down to a proforma announcement of the release of the latest volume. The blog became its own reason for living. At the beginning I was posting three times a week. After a couple of months of that I eased back to a pair of posts each week. I experimented with length and approach and subject matter and I basically relayed the first thoughts that entered my head on the topic whatever it was. From reading other blogs with their strings of comment which usually degenerated to misspelled abuse, I determined that I would not spend my time moderating comments. If anybody really wanted to discuss a particular post, they could take the simple steps to send me a message.
The reason this seems to be a natural breathing rest is not only the launch of the omnibus edition, but something else. These blogs average a page plus apiece – a short form style. I make a distinction between these comments on the run and the more formal style of long form essays. And what has come up, sooner or later, confronts all blog writers. You run out of things to say. I imagine the well will fill again somewhat. But I am freeing myself from the self imposed schedule of twice a week posts. (I have a whole new respect for newspaper columnists, particularly those who publish daily.)
So to make this a send off post, let me address the subject of books that are game changers. Books that alter lives and history no matter their intrinsic artistic worth. UNCLE TOM’S CABIN was a game changer in American history. Darwin’s ORIGIN OF THE SPECIES ushered in a scientific revolution that is still being debated today.
Of course there are books that get heralded on publication as ground breakers. But they usually end up in the remainder bins. ZEN AND THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE for example. Anybody remember falling for THE GREENING OF AMERICA? I don’t hear too many people discussing Robert Ardrey’s THE TERRITIORIAL IMPERATIVE any more.
Anyway these are a few of mine. The ones that in whole or in part have made up my apprehension of the world and the business of living.
The first book I remember having a mind altering effect on me was Colin Wilson’s THE OUTSIDER. To my adolescent mind, it seemed like an instant roadmap of how to decode the business of living. The basic notion that most of us are riding bicycles with flat tyres. And it is not so hard to learn to pump them up once one is aware of the problem. Wilson, after his Outsider series drifted into writing about the occult which was far more profitable than his volumes of philosophical enquiry. But I will always be grateful for those basic insights that came through despite all the errors and garbled quotes.
Another person working in an adjacent field was Abraham Maslow. Where shrinks like Freud and Jung and Adler spent their time studying and working with troubled people, Maslow deliberately set about studying people who were mentally healthy, happy and productive – able to access peak experiences easily. An obvious notion now but it was revolutionary when he proposed it.
Karl Popper was the philosopher who dealt with concrete matters – not how many logical positivist angels could dance on Freddie Ayer’s nose. He wrote of the Open Society and its enemies (Plato for one). He was the philosopher who made real sense of the world.
Viktor Frankel and MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING. A book that had earned its right to speak in blood. Frankel had been to the bottom in a German concentration camp. Yet he found hope in the world.
Jared Diamond has written a number of well known books. The most illuminating one for me, altering ones views on geographical fate and culture is GUNS AND GERMS AND STEEL.
Every so often a theory comes along that gets embraced by some and rejected by others. Darwin’s work falls into this category. Do you immediately cry “Eureka” on being presented with the concept of evolution or do you reject the notion that the human race was sprung from a primate ancestry that we share with chimpanzees? Such a polarizing theory is Chaos theory. I read James Gleik’s book on the subject when it came out and felt a sense of instant acceptance. Quantum mechanics and Schrodinger’s cat, big bang and string theory. I could never quite ‘get’ them. But Chaos theory. Yes, it fit.
Of the ancient Greek philosophers, I respond not to Socrates (except for admiring his forensic debating skills) but to Epictetus, a Stoic who stood for acceptance of whatever fate laid upon you. If you don’t want to take him straight, there is a very entertaining explanation of his thinking and influence in Tom Wolfe’s A MAN IN FULL.
There of course are books that deal with smaller topics than how to make sense of the universe. I hold no brief for Malcolm Gladwell – except to note that in one book he was genuinely onto something. THE TIPPING POINT on how influence travels through society.
David Quammen’s book SONG OF THE DODO. Paul Colvinaux’s WHY BIG FIERCE CREATURES ARE RARE. Edward Tenner’s brilliant book WHY THINGS BITE BACK – all about the unintended consequences attendant upon every change or innovation in our world. Taleb’s BLACK SWAN.
For the poetry in anthropology, anything by Loren Eisely. Try THE UNEXPECTED UNIVERSE.
Works I am still grappling with. E.O. Wilson’s works on consilience and sociobiology (or as I understand it, what ants have to teach us). Douglas Hofstadter’s GODEL, ESCHER AND BACH (best dealt with in short doses).
That’s not so many books in a life. There are gaps in my world view that one could no doubt drive trucks through. But these are the lenses through which I view my surroundings. If I had to describe my beliefs, nail my colours to the mast, I would go with the phrase – “phenomenonological existentialism”. It’s as good as any.
I don’t suppose that the gates are shut. A friend recently sent me a tome by Julian Jaynes. The title (wait for it) – THE ORIGIN OF CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BREAKDOWN OF THE BICAMERAL MIND. I feel a faint twinge of trepidation. Is my mind about to get messed about with again? Adjustments are harder to make with age (witness my incompetence with streaming, tablets, smart phones, apps et al). But I do know there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in anyone’s philosophy.
See you down the road.
For quite a while, when I was living in London, I worked as a stagehand at Covent Garden – the Royal Opera House, home to both the opera company and the Royal Ballet. It was a great gig and I was loth to leave it. These were the days when the Three Tenors had not joined forces but were simply stars on their own.
With Jose Carreras, nicknamed ‘Cosy’ Carreras, when he was singing in ELISIR D’AMORE, even the least musical of stagehands would at a certain point drift up to the OP (opposite prompt) wing to get as close as possible when he sang ‘Una Furtiva Lagrima’.
Pavarotti and Domingo were temperamental opposites. Pavarotti, ‘King of the High C’s’ was a voice pure and simple. He didn’t bother so much with acting. He just took the center of the stage and opened up his mouth and let the arias sail forth. No more was ever demanded of him.
Placido Domingo on the other hand was the complete professional package. He acted as well as sang. In rehearsal when the repetiteur was out of the room, he would go to the piano and accompany his fellow singers. And it was no surprise when some years later, he added conductor to his quiver of talents.
Both of them had their particular superstitions. In the case of Luciano, he had a ritual that had to be performed before he would step on stage. Most of the scenery in a theatrical set is held together by hinges fastened with a stage pin. This makes for easier assembly and disassembly. Pavarotti’s unvarying ritual was to pace up and down in the wings looking for a loose stage pin on the floor. He had to find one. Otherwise he simply would not go on. He had to find that lucky pin for each performance. Now the simple fact was that there were no stray stage pins lying about on the floor. They would have been swept up.
So we had this game. Luciano would appear and pace worriedly up and down the Prompt Side wings, hunting for his essential lucky charm. We would be standing around, watching him get increasingly desperate. Stella, the stage manager, would hiss at us “For God’s sake, give him his pin!” And one of us would casually drop a pin on the floor for him to find. There was always a crow of triumph from Luciano when he stumbled across it. “See, I always find a pin.” Yes, Luciano, fancy that.
Domingo’s superstition caught us all by surprise. We discovered it by accident on an all nighter when we were breaking up a giant set of FANCIULLA DEL WEST after the last performance. The set was a monster. Act One was a saloon so big that Clint Eastwood would have been proud to shoot an entire movie in it. Act Two was a mountain cabin three stories high. Act Three was a mining camp with a giant water wheel. It was going to take us all night to break it down.
It was just past midnight when Placido came on stage and halted in surprise at seeing us still there. Somebody said “Did you forget something, Placido?”
“No,” he said. “It just little custom I have on last night of a show. You don’t mind?” He spread his hands, shyly supplicating.
“No, go ahead, Placido. What do you need?”
The stage curtain separating the stage from the auditorium was closed. He pointed to it and said, “Please. Can it be open?”
I stepped to the lever in the prompt corner and pulled it over. The red drape curtain divided and swooshed up out of sight to reveal the empty auditorium. All of us stopped what we were doing to watch. Placido stepped down stage till he was overlooking the orchestra pit. And he opened his mouth and sang an aria to all the silent empty seats. I can no longer remember which aria or from which opera it came.
Not a paying customer in sight. And normally, none of us would have been there. He would usually have been singing with no witnesses nor listeners. An offering, a thanks, a tribute to the Gods. He finished – and, yes, we all applauded. He turned to us and gave an embarrassed shrug. “It is little thing. But I like to do it.” And he left the stage, having shared his private ritual with us.
THE CLUB OF QUEER TRADES is an episodic novel by G.K. Chesterton. To belong to the club you have to have invented the trade you live by. These are harder to think up than you would imagine. In my life I have only come across one person (maybe two) who would be a member.
He was an American called Dennis Severs and he was a passionate Anglophile, the kind that knows more of his adopted land than the natives do. The changes of history fascinated him. After casting about in several directions, he settled on the experiment of buying an old house in Spitalfields, an area hard by the City of London that originally owned an immigrant population of Huegenot silk weavers fleeing religious persecution on the Continent. Out of this house gradually Dennis built a time machine. Or the nearest to it than anyone will ever come. He collected the right period furniture and orchestrated the ‘history’ of the house and its family in chronological order from the cellar to the attic. It was a cabinet of wonders and he was the curator.
No more than eight people at a time were taken on the tour of 18 Folgate Street. You were instructed to arrive at the precise moment. If you were late, the effect could be ruined. As the master of ceremonies, Dennis briefly laid down the conditions under which he and we were to operate. Anything untoward like a sudden need for the toilet could disturb the spell he was attempting to cast. Starting with Roman pottery fragments in the cellar Dennis introduced his audience to the generations of the same family that had lived over two centuries in the house. He conjured up their individual lives. He conjured the picture of their world. At times he would leave you alone in a room, the kitchen, say, and you would hear the urgent whisper outside the window of a crony of the cook. The house became alive around you. Hearing voices from the diningroom, you would hover in a panicky silence outside the door, half afraid that you would be caught in the act of trespass. When the diners departed out the other door, when it was safe, you would be permitted entry. A clay pipe would still be smoking on the table. Glasses of half drunk wine. Plates with food scraps. You felt like a burglar in another dimension of time, running the risk of being unmasked, caught stranded.
The whole thing was very difficult to define. Part theatrical performance, part son et lumiere, part museum tour, part historical lecture. The cumulative effect was to feel you were literally by some special dispensation coexisting in the same place with long dead generations. There was a moment on my first visit when I knew the day was cloudy outside and wet with rain and I heard the news from Waterloo. There used to be an American TV program called YOU ARE THERE in which modern newsmen would interview figures from the past like George Washington about to cross the Delaware. In both cases you were an eyewitness to history.
But 18 Folgate Street was the full immersion 3D experience. When I heard the news from Waterloo, I was there. What made it all different from all other attempts to lift the veil of the past, was the simple use of chronology as one moved up the levels of the house. One was not going back. One was moving forward in time. Think of the Victorians and their over stuffy furniture with antimacassers and side tables full of oddments. To most of us now, it would seem a smothering environment. But that is because we are looking backwards at it. For the Victorians, their desire for comfort was a reaction to the spare furniture, elegant and chilly, of the previous century. Seen in that light, it made perfect sense. Each generation was reacting to the one before. They weren’t looking backwards. They were looking forwards. And it was this change in perspective that made the whole experience so compelling for Dennis’s groups.
When the show was over, he would always ask one question. At which point, in which room did you surrender to the spell he was trying to cast? About half would say “the cellar, the beginning”. Nobody resisted past the second room. By the end one was so convinced by the history of the family that had inhabited the house for two centuries and the selected examples of their furniture, evolving over the generations, that it came as a blazing shock to find out that all was a fiction. Dennis had made up the entire saga. And most of the furniture was second hand replicas.
It was an experience that I would term unique. For once the word is absolutely appropriate. It was something new under the sun. And I did not run into an equivalent match until I was living in Los Angeles and came across a weird operation on Venice Boulevard that called itself The Museum Of Jurassic Technology. A different beast. But they both shared that cockeyed freedom of imagination.
Sadly Dennis died too young. But at least 18 Folgate Street is still preserved by a trust and you can visit it. A foggy winter’s night is best.
We all know the parlor game of – if you were able to choose – bringing back one of the rock stars who died prematurely (plane crash, drugs, whatever) so they could continue and complete their life work. Well, the answer to that one is blindingly obvious. Sam Cooke of course.
Let’s shift the game to different terrain. Many authors have died with the pages of an incomplete work on their desks, leaving their followers to tantalizing speculation. In no particular order, let us sift among them. Stendhal? Well, I’ve never read LUCIEN LEUVEN (if that’s how it’s spelled). So I’m not too concerned there. THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD is the incomplete novel that Dickens left behind. Simply, knowing, going in, that the book ends in mid air makes me not want to read it. Why frustrate yourself.
Here are some of the ones I do care about and gnash my teeth over. One of them is an oddity. It’s an abandoned graphic novel by an author who is very much alive. Alan Moore, writer of WATCHMEN and FROM HELL among others. In the thick of the Thatcher era in England, Moore launched what looked like being a social epic on the time and place. BIG NUMBERS. I have the first two issues. I don’t believe any more came out. The reason for the abandonment of the project was a clash between Moore and his picture maker. And then Thatcher got deposed. And the world moved on. And there was just no point in trying to resurrect the project any more. But they were a terrific two issues. A shame.
Three easy ones from the 19th century. SANDITON. Who would not want another Jane Austen novel. What she left us was only eleven or twelve chapters. Not enough. THE WEIR OF HERMISTON. Stevenson himself thought this was going to be something special. What we have of it is more than special. BILLY BUDD. This was one of the first films I remember seeing as a boy. I can still see Robert Ryan as Claggart, lowering over the spirit of the crew. And that last line from Terence Stamp, about to be hanged, calling out “God bless Captain De Vere.” I was amazed to find upon reading the actual tale that it was unfinished.
Okay, the top three. I am in the camp of John Fowles who was a great admirer of Truman Capote. Ruled out of the great writer of his generation stakes by his butch competitors, Capote nevertheless was the most talented of them all. Name me a single character out of Norman Mailer who rises above the pages. On the other hand think of Holly Golightly. Capote could create character. He was a brilliant reporter. Try THE MUSES ARE HEARD. He was a natural travel writer. And he pulled off the feat of IN COLD BLOOD. And then for years, he basked in the recognition and hinted at the modern Gilded Age society magnum opus that he was working on. Clearly, it was to be his masterwork. He let slip the title coyly. ANSWERED PRAYERS. Eventually, three chapters saw the light of day. Grotesque betrayal of his high society friends. That was the instant reaction. He showed, or claimed to show the dirty linen. He was banished from the kingdom. And when he died, it seemed that the magnum opus did not exist. And yet, he had the talent and the knowledge. His prose was always luminous. What happened? If only he had endured to set it all down, I am convinced that he would have been acknowledged as the most talented of his generation instead of the gadfly image he paraded on television talk shows. Only Salinger could match him in the prose department.
Scott Fitzgerald left a Hollywood novel unfinished. THE LAST TYCOON. What we have of it contains some of his most vivid writing. Images still burn. The giant Buddha floating in a flash flood between the studio sound stages for example. He left us the outline of how it was going to finish. Which makes it all the more frustrating. His talent was still there.
The final one, the one I regret the most is – sadly – the least known these days. It is the work of the great novelist Richard Hughes, writer of A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA and IN HAZARD. It is his attempt at writing the great novel of the 20th century. The first volume was extraordinary. THE FOX IN THE ATTIC. We had to wait a decade or more before the second volume THE WOODEN SHEPHERDESS. It was equally as good. I was passionate about Hughes as a writer and I was thrilled to find out that one of my tutors at university John Buxton knew him. I asked him why it took Hughes so long to write, expecting to hear an answer along the lines of “Oh, he carves out every sentence and revises endlessly.” Not a bit of it. Buxton said airily “Oh, it’s pure laziness on his part.” A chill fell over my heart. I somehow knew that the work was never going to be completed. Sure enough, he wrote only twelve chapters of the next volume. And yet what we are left with is still one of the greatest novels in 20th century English literature. From the moment a man walks out of the mist carrying a dead girl in his arms we are hooked. This is the one for me. And I still have the infantile urge to go and jump up and down on Richard Hughes’ grave and scream ‘How could you not finish it?’
A postscript thought occurs to me. These books have all been fictions. Out of non fiction I would have to mention Patrick Leigh Fermor’s third volume, finished by other hands. And we should be grateful for what we have.
What makes a successful talk show on television? The English and the American audiences are sharply different. Some years back as an experiment Johnny Carson arranged for the Tonight Show to appear on British televison for a 13 week trial. Well, the Brits tuned in on the first night and were instantly baffled. What was this monologue that kept making jokes about the medfly? And the guests – they were wheeled on for an exchange of pleasantries that lasted about two minutes before they were demoted out of the guest chair. That’s not how they did talk shows in England. The Tonight Show was not picked up. It wasn’t that Carson didn’t come across. It was the format.
In England talk shows are paced more slowly. Michael Parkinson, probably the most famous UK talkshow host, would get Orson Welles or David Niven on, ask them one question and get out of the way. All he had to do was be an appreciative audience and feed them the occasional query. If you, the guest, were a sporting or entertainment celebrity, Parkinson might keep you on for the entire hour. He was less enthusiastic about politicians. You could always tell because that was when he had to resort to the security of prepared questions on his clipboard.
The format of all the late night talks shows in America has become locked in stone. I guess Dick Cavett in his day and Charlie Rose now are the hosts that the UK audience would most respond to. I can’t think of any others. Though I have hopes for Fallon to shake things up.
But there is a talk show in England that America is responding to, one that has rethought the format. It’s the Graham Norton Show. Norton is a gay Irishman with a camp flair, a fast tongue – a worthy link in the chain of Irish TV personalities like Terry Wogan who are adored by the British audience. But it is the rethought out format of the show that gives it its special appeal. One of the pleasures of the show is watching a first time American celebrity guest, obviously nervous, step onto the stage. The arena is different. There is not the anchoring security of the host’s desk that you sit beside. And the guests do not appear sequentially. They all come on stage at the start and are invited to sit on a plump orange sofa in a row. There is a coffee table in front of them with their pre requested alcoholic beverages positioned to hand – a nice touch.
Norton performs a remarkable juggling act, balancing the specific attention he gives each guest, encouraging byplay between them while keeping the audience interaction going. He makes it look easy and it’s not. Last Saturday for example his four guests were De Niro, Stallone, Jonah Hill and Carey Mulligan. Hill, a first timer on the show looked a little guarded and tentative to start, not sure if he was in front of a firing squad. But he quickly loosened up and started telling self deprecating anecdotes. Carey Mulligan, supposedly a difficult interview, was bubbly, relaxed, at her ease. Stallone and De Niro traded veteran’s one liners. The feel was that of a party where the guests were enjoying themselves. It became a communal experience.
The conventional part of the format is a musical number by some artist with product to plug. It could be Paul McCartney or, as it was, last Saturday Jake Bugg, a rising UK star. There is also one traditional custom to wind up the show. It’s called the Red Chair. Members of the audience dare to sit in it and tell a funny or remarkable story. The second Norton loses interest he pulls a lever by his seat and the Red Chair does a backward flip, disappearing the story teller in an undignified head over heels somersault. There is no fairness to the proceedings. And few survive unscathed.
I write about the liberating effect of the format on the show. But you have to give credit to Norton. He’s like a man spinning plates and dancing at the same time. And he is as good with ad lib off the cuff responses as his great predecessor Terry Wogan was. I remember watching Mel Brooks years ago on Wogan. Brooks made a quip. Wogan returned it with spin. Half a dozen exchanges later, Brooks threw up his hands in surrender, turned to the audience and asked plaintively “Who is this guy?” He looked like he had been ambushed by some unknown Robin Williams. Norton is equally fast with the rapier quip. But it’s his ability to get his guests loosened up and relaxed and prepared to make fools of themselves and interact with the audience that makes it all so remarkable. The energy level soars. And there is none of that stop and start a segment that you get on most talk shows. The Norton Show is like a hot air balloon that floats up into the rafters, buoyed up by that communal animated mood. It airs on Saturdays.
We live in a great area of Portland. It’s a town divided into quarters by a north south river (the Willamette) and a bridge thoroughfare aligned east west called Burnside. This makes for instant territoriality. Those of us who live in South East regard the other quadrants with pity. All right to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there.
Ours is a leafy suburban looking barrio. But you can walk to everything. There’s a beautiful laid out area of fine houses and elm lined avenues here called Ladd’s Addition. Two of these avenues come to the same junction with Division Street. A couple of other roads feed into this junction which is commonly known as Seven Corners. And if you happen to be shopping in the Plaid Pantry (Portland’s version of 7-11) you get a ringside view of the whole deal.
Okay. So here’s what happens. Coming down one of those elm lined streets is a cyclist doing what comes naturally at a lollygagging pace (i.e. taking his full share of the road). Behind the cyclist comes a lady in a big green car, taking it easy because she doesn’t want to run over the cyclist. Behind the big green car comes a lady in a small blue car. And she is in a hurry and wants to make the light and clearly has no idea why the green car is crawling. In a desperate effort to make the light, Little Blue tries to cut around and overtake Big Green, nearly colliding. She cuts across Big Green’s bows and then, upon seeing the cyclist, she screeches to a halt. And the light goes red.
A frozen moment. Then Big Green Lady gets out of her car and with arms outstretched, expostulating, walks over to Little Blue to ask her what the hell she thought she was doing. Little Blue is wound up and promptly pulls out a gun and points it at Big Green. A gamechanger. The cyclist immediately raises his hands up in the air. Big Green after a blink of astonished WTF turns and runs back to her car. Not waiting for the light to change, Bonnie Parker takes off up Division at speed.
The things you see when buying a lottery ticket.
Back in the silent movie days, a few of the stars formed a partnership. It was called United Artists. The partners were Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith. As a company, its glory days were to come later after the originals had left the scene. But it was an early attempt by the stars to control their own destinies.
The biggest Hollywood Set of the time was Griffith’s INTOLERANCE. Douglas Fairbanks determined to out do it in his lavish no expense spared action picture ROBIN HOOD. The set was the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle. As it slowly reared up to dwarf the surrounding stages, people became fascinated. One had to see it. It was the eighth wonder of the world. It beggared all description. A perfect stage for Douglas Fairbanks’ patented acrobatic stunts. It was all anybody could talk about. Which was just what Fairbanks had calculated. He showed the set off proudly to his friends. One of them being his partner Charlie Chaplin. I want to type in the name of Buster Keaton instead. But that would not be correct.
Anyway Chaplin came and oohed and aahed with the best of them. A couple of days later, he ran into Fairbanks and casually asked if he could borrow the castle for an hour or two the next day. Fairbanks said “fine” and went on his way. But he began to think about it. The castle was the key element in his film. What was Chaplin planning? Might it steal Fairbanks’ thunder?
Chaplin (and I’m sorry but I keep visualizing Keaton) sent over a shot list of what he proposed.
Shot 1 – establishing shot of massive castle
Shot 2 – the closed drawbridge lowers over the moat
Shot 3 – the giant portcullis rises. Out toddles Chaplin the householder in dressing gown and slippers, cat in his arms. He releases the cat to do its business, picks up the milk and the newspaper and shuffles back inside. The portcullis descends.
At the bottom of the page Chaplin had scrawled a reassuring note. “We’ll be out of there in an hour”.
Fairbanks had a sense of humour but he knew his movie would never survive that sight gag. He promptly forbade Chaplin from shooting anywhere near his castle. I believe I am correct in saying that no copy of that silent ROBIN HOOD now exists. The visualization of that sight gag is now what keeps it alive. But I still keep seeing Buster Keaton.
Some years ago, living in Los Angeles, I was in Borders and saw that there was a new Gore Vidal novel on display called HOLLYWOOD. With the exception of LINCOLN, I am not a huge fan of Vidal’s fiction. But I love his essay collections. And it so happened, as a common publishing tie in, his latest collection of essays HOME was also on offer in paperback. I grabbed it and headed home to read my way through the contents. One essay in particular struck me. It was a funny affectionate memoir of a forgotten writer Dawn Powell. Vidal put her in the same category as Evelyn Waugh. I was slightly annoyed that I had never heard of her, let alone read her. Fancying myself as a literary trufflehound, I determined the next morning to hit the second hand bookstores in the neighbourhood to flush out copies of her work.
The next morning I drove over to Vagabond Books which was then on Westwood Boulevard. Blocking the doorway with a broom was a shop assistant. He asked me what I wanted. Somewhat surprised, I said I wanted to hunt for some books in the stacks in back. Rather reluctantly, I thought, the clerk stepped aside and let me in. I thought his hesitation was somewhat odd but I forgot about it as I scanned the shelves.
It took me about ten minutes of hunting around before I confessed failure. And it was then I heard a vague hum of noise coming from the front of the shop. I peered round the edge of the stacks and saw a line of people, all carrying stuffed shopping bags, entering the store and making a queue before a desk and a chair. Being ushered with near worship by a little posse of publishers aides and bookshop clerks was none other than the great man, Gore Vidal in the flesh.
I was lurking in the shadows, unnoticed, and I saw the opportunity and I could not resist. Before anyone could stop me, I stepped forward and tapped Vidal on the shoulder just as he seated himself. He turned and his eyes widened slightly, wondering who this nut was.
“You know, it’s a real coincidence you being here,” I said. “I was just reading your Dawn Powell essay last night. And that’s why I’m here hunting for any of her books.”
The publishers aides and the bookshop employees froze, wondering where this lunatic had sprung from. The entire line of people against the wall stiffened in outrage at this blatant queue jumping. But Vidal lit up like a Christmas tree. He swivelled the chair around so his back was to everyone else. “Did you find anything?”
“Well, as a matter of fact, because of that essay, three of her books are about to be reissued and they’ve asked me to write the preface to each of them.”
I asked which ones. He told me, making some comments on each choice. Behind him, the hostile forces, glared at me, quivering but impotent. But Vidal was totally oblivious. It obviously does an author good to know that the power of his words can set a reader off in quest of a literary grail. He was practically on the verge of inviting me for lunch. But I felt I had pushed things far enough. I said, “I think maybe it’s time to -” and I gestured. He glanced and with some reluctance accepted he had work to do.
I walked past the gauntlet of the queue, all with their mysteriously stuffed shopping bags. The thought struck me that as an act of courtesy I should buy the novel HOLLYWOOD and have him sign it. I don’t really understand the need to have books signed by authors. Not unless you actually do know them. But in this case it seemed to be simple good manners. I bought the novel from the original assistant with the broom who was clearly expecting me to pull another stunt. I joined the queue next to a fat lady who glared at me with suspicion as we shuffled slowly forward.
At least now I knew what the shopping bags were about. People were emptying out bags of books. Hardbacks, paperbacks. They were all by Vidal. With no comment, he wrote his name in each one and handed them back in silence with a neutral gaze. Once they had their books signed, the customers did not leave. Instead they backed away and kept on gawking reverently upon the author at his work.
Finally it came to the fat lady’s turn. She upended her shopping bag and sorted out her collection. She said, “I’d like this one signed to John with regards. This one for Benjamin. And these two here – “
She was cut off by a publishers aide hovering at Vidal’s shoulder. “I’m sorry but Mr. Vidal only signs his name. It’s not fair to the others, you see.”
The fat lady was disgruntled but not going to argue about it. She took her books and stuffed them in her bag and stepped away, still glaring at me as if somehow this was all my fault.
I handed Vidal the book. He opened it to the fly leaf, looked up at me with a straight face and said clearly “How exactly do you spell your name again?” If looks could have killed. I could feel the fury all around me. Neither of us cracked the hint of a smile. But Vidal stretched it out with unhurried deliberation and wrote a dedication of a couple of lines before inscribing his signature with a flourish. He handed me the book expressionlessly. I said “Thank you.” And I walked out of the bookshop.
If I was ever to be asked what my best example of a roman a clef is, one novel would automatically come to mind. WHITE HUNTER, BLACK HEART by Peter Viertel. Clint Eastwood made a gallant if not particularly successful attempt at filming it. The book is a thinly disguised account of how Viertel, hired as a coscreenwriter, accompanied John Huston, the film director and world class outsize character, on a scouting journey into the heart of the Dark Continent to find locations for THE AFRICAN QUEEN. That was the official mission. In fact, Huston was using it as an excuse to go bag himself an elephant.
Somewhere along the way, the Huston character (called John Wilson in the book) is railing about Hollywood and the film industry and his ambivalent feelings about that world. He starts to tell the narrator of the kind of film he would really rather make. What follows is a rough synopsis.
- It’s about a teenage boy and his mother in the early 1900’s living in a small MidWestern town. They live in a cheap boardinghouse and husband their money, sometimes having to skip a meal, in order to enjoy one hour of happiness each Sunday when they hire a couple of horses from a livery stable and go riding out in the country. That one hour a week is what they live for.
A man comes into their life. He’s in town for a couple of months. He makes a play for the widow. She has to work all week to support her son and herself. But she’s lonely. And the only free time she has is on a Sunday. After a time she gives in and makes a date with the salesman. The boy has to go riding out on his own. And it happens the next week. And the week after that. The boy is too proud and too hurt to complain. He rides out into the country where nobody can see him and he sits and cries while the horse waits. And one Sunday while riding, he sees the salesman and his mother riding out in a hired trap. And that seems the final betrayal to him.
He wrestles with wild thoughts of killing the salesman. But in the end he decides to run away. He does so and makes his way in the world, makes money, gets married – in a word, grows up. And finally he comes back. Now that he’s an adult he recognizes that what his mother did was normal. She only betrayed him on Sundays. But when he gets back to the small town, he can’t find her. He follows her trail. Since he ran away she became a lost soul. The guilt she felt about him has made her a drunk and a prostitute.
He searches for her from town to town. But when he catches up, it’s too late. She died the month before. She had gotten drunk, hired a livery hack and the horse had thrown her in the street. She had died in the charity hospital.
There’s nothing he can do. So he returns to his ranch out West and at dusk walks out among the horses. And you know he’s marked for life and nothing will ever make it right again. And it’s too deep for tears. -
Now when all is said and done, the book is a novel, a fictionalization of real events. Was this a scenario that Viertel made up to put in Wilson’s mouth? I always wanted to know. A while back a friend of mine Tom Kallene in Spain was heading down to the coast to interview Peter Viertel over his memories of Orson Welles for a documentary. I told Tom the story and begged that he would ask Viertel whether the tale was an invention or not. Viertel died shortly after. But not before I got my answer. The tale was actually word for word from Huston.
So there you have it – John Huston’s unmade original movie.