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05 DECEMBER, 2014

Vanessa Redgrave Reads Joan Didion’s Harrowing ‘Blue Nights’

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“Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934) wrote in her remarkable memoir of the year following her husband’s death after forty years of marriage. John Dunne died suddenly of a heart attack on December 30, 2003, as the couple’s only child, their daughter Quintana, lay comatose in a hospital ICU with complications from pneumonia. On October 4, 2004, Didion began writing her memoir and spent 88 days on the manuscript, completing it on New Year’s Eve. Midway through the author’s book tour and shortly before she received the National Book Award, Quintana died. She was thirty-nine.

It takes a rare person to retain the capacity — the desire — to be wise, let alone wry, in the face of such tragedy. And yet that is what Didion did in embarking on a second memoir, the spectacular Blue Nights (public library | IndieBound), rising above the uncommonly cruel cards life had dealt her to write with exceptional candor and grace about grieving her daughter, mourning her mistakes as a parent, and confronting her own mortality.

Few things could elevate Didion’s already exalted art of bearing witness to life and death. But one cold November night not too long ago, as I sat on a heavy wooden chair at St. John the Divine — the iconic New York cathedral where Quintana had spoken her wedding vows eleven years earlier — and awaited Vanessa Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights to the accompaniment of legendary jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens, I knew something unrepeatable was about to take place, something transformational and transcendent.

Redgrave and Didion have more than their decades-long friendship in common. Four years after Quintana’s death, the great English actor lost her own daughter Natasha, a childhood friend of Quintana’s, to brain injury after a skiing accident. Two years earlier, Redgrave had played Didion in a Broadway adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. But the grimly uncanny parallel of maternal loss brought a far deeper dimension of mutuality to Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights. As her graceful, coolly expressive voice spills from the altar into the nave and echoes, godlike, across the cathedral, one can’t help feeling — at least I couldn’t help feeling — a brush at once chilling and beautiful with the unanswerable questions that line the vaulted ceiling between life and death.

Time passes.

Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

In the introduction to Blue Nights, Didion explains the book’s title:

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming — in fact not at all a warming — yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

Complement with Didion on self-respect, why she writes, and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

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01 DECEMBER, 2014

Our Fraught Relationship with Time, in Clever Minimalist Illustrations

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A witty visual meditation on our comical control strategies, the predictability of modern life, and our constant tussle with productivity and presence.

“I can see no reason to be bound by chronological time,” Jeanette Winterson wrote in her spectacular essay on time and language. “As far as we know, the universe is not bound by it.” And yet ever since Galileo invented modern timekeeping, the tyranny of the clock has not only bound but shackled us to the invisible dimension in everything from our internal rhythms to our ideal creative routines. Meanwhile, time, with its remarkable elasticity, continues to mystify us — unsurprisingly, perhaps, given that the capacity to imagine it made us human.

In About Time: A Visual Memoir Around the Clock (public library | IndieBound), French-Armenian graphic designer Vahram Muratyan — who gave us the 2012 delight Paris vs. New York — builds on humanity’s long history of visualizing time, exploring its enduring mesmerism with great humor, sensitivity, and insight into modern life.

From the predictable cycles of our routines, relationships, and our fashions to our psychological tussles with the flow of life, Muratyan captures the profound anticipatory anxiety that defines our relationship with time — the expectation that there is always something more, or more important, to do, that the next moment must bring what this one lacks. He pokes gentle fun at our preoccupation with productivity at the expense of presence and at the chronic civilizational busyness making us forget that, in the unforgettable words of Annie Dillard, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

One can almost hear Alan Watts’s voice booming from Muratyan’s minimalist vignettes, admonishing once more that “hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present.”

There is also a meta-element commenting on the cyclical nature of time and our resistance to its flow — Muratyan’s visual sensibility is intentionally reminiscent of mid-century graphic design, vintage children’s books, and the aesthetic of the Mad Men era, as if to remind us that nostalgia is our most stubborn and wistful hedge against time’s merciless forward motion.

Although his project is undeniably intended to delight with visual humor, Muratyan rewards those willing to attend to what remains after the initial chuckle — a number of his vignettes explore the darker reaches of our relationship with time, reminding us that despite all of our efforts to control and constrain it, time itself inevitably has the upper hand in that play-pretend power dynamic.

In our recent conversation at Brooklyn’s BookCourt, Muratyan and I dove deeper into the heart of the project by discussing how the tyranny of the clock has enslaved our capacity for spontaneity and presence, why the a-ha! moments of creative breakthrough arrive when we least expect them, the relationship between motion and meditative contemplation, and how life’s most challenging experiences demolish all of our defenses and control strategies, leaving time as our only master. Please enjoy.

Complement About Time with Alan Watts on the art of timing, a visual history of mapping time and the psychology of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped while we vacation, then counter the frantic modern rhythms Muratyan teases with a lesson in stillness from Leonard Cohen.

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27 OCTOBER, 2014

Sylvia Plath on Poetry and a Rare Recording of Her Reading the Poem “The Disquieting Muses”

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“Darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things.”

In 1957, Sylvia Plath (October 27, 1932–February 11, 1963) — beloved poet, secret artist, dedicated diarist, passionate lover, little-known children’s book author, youthful beholder of the transcendence of nature, repressed “addict of experience” — submitted a few of her poems for consideration for broadcast in the BBC’s celebrated series The Poet’s Voice. They were rejected. But she kept trying. In the summer of 1960, she finally broke through — two of her new poems were accepted for broadcast, and soon she had an ongoing gig. Between November 20, 1960 and January 10, 1963 — just four weeks before she took her own life — Plath produced at least 17 known broadcasts for the BBC. Those that survive are preserved in The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath — the same magnificent archival gem that gave us Plath’s readings of “The Birthday Present” and “Tulips,” as well as that rare interview on literature and love.

One of the most powerful poems in these recordings is “The Disquieting Muses,” later published in Plath’s Collected Poems (public library). It is after the famous Giorgio de Chirico painting of the same name and inspired by the enigmatic figures in it — “three terrible, faceless dressmakers’ dummies in classical gowns, seated and standing in a weird, clear light,” per Plath’s own description, who suggest a twentieth-century version of “other sinister trios of women,” such as the Three Fates and the Witches in Macbeth. Emanating from Plath’s verses is a haunting lament about maternal neglect.

'The Disquieting Muses' by Giorgio de Chirico, 1916–1918

But perhaps even more notable than Plath’s enchanting reading of the poem is her short preface to it, into which she condenses her views on poetry in general with extraordinary precision and eloquence:

A poem can’t take the place of a plum, or an apple. But just as a painting can recreate, by illusion, the dimension it loses by being confined to canvas, so a poem, by its own system of illusions, can set up a rich and apparently living world within its particular limits. Most of the poems I will introduce in the next few minutes attempt to recreate, in their own way, definite situations and landscapes. They are, quite emphatically, about the things of this world.

When I say “this world” I include, of course, such feelings as fear and despair and barrenness, as well as domestic love and delight in nature. These darker emotions may well put on the mask of quite unworldly things, such as ghosts or trolls or antique gods.

She proceeds to read the poem itself:

THE DISQUIETING MUSES

Mother, mother, what illbred aunt
Or what disfigured and unsightly
Cousin did you so unwisely keep
Unasked to my christening, that she
Sent these ladies in her stead
With heads like darning-eggs to nod
And nod and nod at foot and head
And at the left side of my crib?

Mother, who made to order stories
Of Mixie Blackshort the heroic bear,
Mother, whose witches always, always,
Got baked into gingerbread, I wonder
Whether you saw them, whether you said
Words to rid me of those three ladies
Nodding by night around my bed,
Mouthless, eyeless, with stitched bald head.

In the hurricane, when father’s twelve
Study windows bellied in
Like bubbles about to break, you fed
My brother and me cookies and Ovaltine
And helped the two of us to choir:
“Thor is angry: boom boom boom!
Thor is angry: we don’t care!”
But those ladies broke the panes.

When on tiptoe the schoolgirls danced,
Blinking flashlights like fireflies
And singing the glowworm song, I could
Not lift a foot in the twinkle-dress
But, heavy-footed, stood aside
In the shadow cast by my dismal-headed
Godmothers, and you cried and cried:
And the shadow stretched, the lights went out.

Mother, you sent me to piano lessons
And praised my arabesques and trills
Although each teacher found my touch
Oddly wooden in spite of scales
And the hours of practicing, my ear
Tone-deaf and yes, unteachable.
I learned, I learned, I learned elsewhere,
From muses unhired by you, dear mother,

I woke one day to see you, mother,
Floating above me in bluest air
On a green balloon bright with a million
Flowers and bluebirds that never were
Never, never, found anywhere.
But the little planet bobbed away
Like a soap-bubble as you called: Come here!
And I faced my traveling companions.

Day now, night now, at head, side, feet,
They stand their vigil in gowns of stone,
Faces blank as the day I was born,
Their shadows long in the setting sun
That never brightens or goes down.
And this is the kingdom you bore me to,
Mother, mother. But no frown of mine
Will betray the company I keep.

Despite its antiquated audio format, The Spoken Word: Sylvia Plath is well worth the effort. Complement it with Plath’s unseen drawings, edited by her daughter, her bittersweet-in-hindsight diary entry on the appetite for living at age 18, and wonderful children’s verses illustrated by Quentin Blake.

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25 SEPTEMBER, 2014

William Faulkner on Writing, the Human Dilemma, and Why We Create: A Rare 1958 Recording

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“It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do.”

The writer’s duty, William Faulkner (September 25, 1897–July 6, 1962) asserted in his magnificent Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950, is “to help man endure by lifting his heart.” Faulkner’s idealism about and intense interest in the human spirit permeated all of his creative pursuits, from his views on writing and the meaning of life to his only children’s book to his little-known Jazz Age drawings.

In 1957 and 1958, the period halfway between his two Pulitzer Prizes, Faulkner served as a Writer-in-Residence at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. On the last day of his residency in May of 1958, he read from his favorite novel, The Sound and the Fury, at an event open to the general public. After the reading, he answered questions — wonderfully Southern-drawled questions — from the audience. The surviving recording, found in the University of Virginia’s Faulkner archives, is of questionable audio quality but makes up for it in sheer richness of insight into Faulkner’s views on writing and the project of art. Transcribed highlights below.

On why he considers The Sound and the Fury his favorite novel:

I think that no writer is ever quite satisfied with the book — that’s why he writes another one; that he is trying to put on paper something that is going to be a little better than anybody else has put on paper up to date… This is my favorite one because I worked the hardest on it — not to accomplish what I hoped to do with it, but I anguished and raged over it more than over any other to try to make something out of it, that it was impossible for me to do. It’s the same feeling that the parent may have toward the incorrigible or the abnormal child, maybe.

On his influences and the notion that our ideas are the combinatorial product of our lived experience:

I read everything I could get my hands on without any discretion or judgment at one time, and I’m sure that everything I’ve read from the telephone book up has influenced what I’ve done since. I think that’s true of any writer.

[…]

Any experience the writer has ever suffered is going to influence what he does, and that is not only what he’s read, but the music he’s heard, the pictures he’s seen.

The question of why writers write — why artists make art — has been addressed, in one form or another, at one point or another, by nearly every significant writer in history. For instance, George Orwell listed four universal motives and Mary Gaitskill outlined six. For Joan Didion, the impulse grants her access to her own mind and for David Foster Wallace, it was about fun. Michael Lewis finds in it a way to exorcise the the necessary self-delusions of creativity and Joy Williams a gateway from the darkness to the light. For Charles Bukowski, it sprang from the soul like a rocket, while for Italo Calvino it was about the comfort of belonging to a collective enterprise. When an audience member poses this very question, Faulkner offers his private answer, at the center of which are some beautifully articulated creative universalities:

You’re alive in the world. You see man. You have an insatiable curiosity about him, but more than that you have an admiration for him. He is frail and fragile, a web of flesh and bone and mostly water. He’s flung willy nilly into a ramshackle universe stuck together with electricity. The problems he faces are always a little bigger than he is, and yet, amazingly enough, he copes with them — not individually but as a race.

He endures.

He’s outlasted dinosaurs. He’s outlasted atom bombs. He’ll outlast communism. Simply because there’s some part in him that keeps him from ever knowing that he’s whipped, I suppose; that as frail as he is, he lives up to his codes of behavior. He shows compassion when there’s no reason why he should. He’s braver than he should be. He’s more honest.

The writer is so interested — he sees this as so amazing and you might say so beautiful… It’s so moving to him that he wants to put it down on paper or in music or on canvas, that he simply wants to isolate one of these instances in which man — frail, foolish man — has acted miles above his head in some amusing or dramatic or tragic way… some gallant way.

That, I suppose, is the incentive to write, apart from it being fun. I sort of believe that is the reason that people are artists. It’s the most satisfying occupation man has discovered yet, because you never can quite do it as well as you want to, so there’s always something to wake up tomorrow morning to do. You’re never bored. You never reach satiation.

He later revisits the subject in answering another question:

I’m writing about people. Man involved in the human dilemma, facing the problems bigger than he, whether he licks them or whether they lick him. But man as frail and fragile as he is, yet he will keep on trying to be brave and honest and compassionate, and that, to me, is very fine and very interesting — and that is the reason I think any writer writes

Faulkner echoes Schopenhauer in answering a question about style:

I prefer to think that no writer has got time to be too concerned with style, that he is simply telling this dramatic instance in the most effective way he knows, that the book, the story, creates its own style.

Long and involved sentences — I don’t like them any more than the people that have to read them do, but I couldn’t think of any, to me, better, more effective, way to tell what I was trying to tell. And it’s not really an evolution — simply that one story in my opinion demanded, compelled a certain diction and style. The story next to it has compelled a completely different one.

Having endured his share of derision early in life, Faulkner smirks at the question of whether criticism hurts him or causes him to change direction:

I don’t read critics. I’d rather read imaginary fiction.

(Susan Sontag once put it even more forcefully: “Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol.”)

Complement with Faulkner on the purpose of art and the strange story of the children’s book he wrote for the daughter of the woman he was courting.

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