Archives for posts with tag: biography

Trying to save the neighborhood park, I started thinking about public space, which is basically the urban space in which democracy was, and is, formed. All the genders, races, classes, and creeds mix there and regard one another, in the great Hausmannesque urban renewal which creates sidewalk promenades, flaneurs, and the Frankfurt school of Marxist modernity. The male and female gazes are formed in the sidewalk encounters of Baudelaire with his passing dream girl.
https://poesie.webnet.fr/…/charles_baudelaire/a_une_passante
That was the insight of the great Marxist urbanist Marshall Berman (1940-2013), who felt personal amputations of his anatomy when Robert Moses’ Cross Bronx Expressway (1948-72) cut the beloved Bronx of Berman’s youth into two anaerobic slums, starving both of capital and community. The trench created the notorious South Bronx, which has been burning down since the ’60s, and from whose ashes both DJ Kool Herc and AOC arose.
Berman writes the eulogy for the vibrant Communist Jewish Bronx in which he grew up in his wonderful book, *All That Is Solid Melts Into Air*.
https://www.amazon.com/All-That-Solid-Melts-in…/…/0140109625
That Bronx — where Communist Jews in the garment trades built their Utopia in the famous Workers’ Coops, in 1925, with hammer and sickle over the doors and free libraries for all — the Edenic Bronx of the hardass vibrant working class Jewish body politic always struck me as the heart of Edenic New York City. The greatest city ever.
https://bronxbohemian.wordpress.com/…/finding-utopia-in-th…/
Probably because of my college boyfriend, law school Richie, Bronx High School of Science, ca. 1963. Probably because of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade survivor I interviewed there in the ’70s. Probably because of the hardass brilliant working class Jewish teachers I saw at Nick Monda’s high school graduation in Bushwick in the ’90s. Salt of the earth does not begin to describe the inspiration, the dedication, the belief in the power of literacy, and the nut-cutting street wisdom those grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, of Jewish immigrants brought to Nicky’s heroin and AIDs-ravaged Puerto Rican neighborhood. R. Kelly’s *I Believe I Can Fly* was the processional for Nicky’s graduation ceremony.
https://youtu.be/GIQn8pab8Vc
Berman, an Oxford and Harvard graduate, started teaching at City College in 1968, and was teaching there when he died. He wrote for the Village Voice. He was an upper West Side guy, a denizen of the Metro Diner ay 100th and Broadway, where he had his fatal heart attack.
He had a big fluffy Uncle Karl beard. His first book, *The Politics of Authenticity*, expressed his passion for romanticism.
https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/…/marshall-berman-1940-20…
The sinewy, urbane, steetfightin’ and modern reputation of City College penetrated even to me, and I longed to know more about the Bronx which engendered the metropolis as the organic entity the starry-eyed Jews of 1925 had built, with Marshall Berman and Jane Jacobs acting out their humane view of life on the sidewalks in turn in their generation.
Twenty-seven years after I first read Berman, I found the book which tells his autobiography, from Bronx Communism to City College to walking the sidewalks of New York as the central, organic, political and spiritual experience of a life.
It’s Vivian Gornick. A little older than Berman, and still pounding the pavements.
In the Bronx, in the ’30s, her mother was a party member and an organizer for the party-sponsored tenants’ councils. Every Saturday morning, Bess would go down to the party HQ in Union Square and get her instructions for the week. Her father, a presser in a dress factory, was also a party member. He read the New York Times and the Daily Worker every day, and died of a heart attack when she was 13. The women in her apartment building brought her up as her mother dissolved in an operatic performance of grief. This enactment of widowhood was the same romance which, Gornick later realized, every Communist she knew growing up held close. The plumber could be a poet, the seamstress a fiery political speaker; every Communist had, like a good Buddhist, a right livelihood and a right vocation. Bookeeper by day, rock star by night.
Gornick wrote an oral history book about the romance of the Communist Party members. And Jonathan Lethem, the other great writer about New York City as an organic body politic based on the dreams, and the long walks through the city, of its people, actually used Gornick’s characters to write his novel *Dissident Gardens*, about a Communist mother and her red diaper counterculture baby. He has become an acolyte as well, writing an introduction to a re-edition of *Fierce Attachments*.
https://www.salon.com/…/feminist_icon_vivian_gornick_still…/
And then the children of these passionate urban peasants, as she called them, made their way to City College, where as people of the word, they were electrified and transported by what their teachers gave them to read. The widowed Bess worked sadly at being a bookkeeper to help send Vivian for transubstantiation, and felt swindled when Vivian graduated without a teaching degree. This was what you went to college for, not talking all night with tongues of fire with other kids about books. The only other red diaper baby I know of is Carl Bernstein, whose parents lived in D.C., about whom he wrote his own memoir, *Loyalties: A Son’s Memoir*. It touches on some of the same passionate enmeshments Gornick struggled with all her life.
https://www.amazon.com/…/B01…/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i8
And so I had this idea of the city as Eden. And Vivian Gornick’s book has filled it in for me. Of cultured artisanal blue collar workers tearing pumpernickel with their white teeth, dark eyes, dark curls, burly forearms, masters of the great promenade, diddlybopping like John Travolta staying alive down the Grand Concourse. The Grand Concourse, confected in 1890 to make the sidewalks of the Bronx seem more like the ones in Paris.
https://untappedcities.com/…/history-of-nyc-streets-grand-…/
The red diaper kids like Vivian Gornick who came down to the Village and radicalized everybody from Dylan Thomas and the Cedar Bar denizens to the hippies of my generation. (I can still see redheaded Susan Kaplan lipsynching Janis Joplin in college. Rad.) Talking Faulkner all night long in the cafeteria at City College: Well, that would be America. My dream girl.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

https://untappedcities.com/…/history-of-nyc-streets-grand-…/

https://www.amazon.com/Fierce-Attachments-Memo…/…/0374529965

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1.

Mad Men. I don’t know how widely spread the Tony Soprano trope now is, but Weiner, the writer and producer of Mad Men, and a writer on The Sopranos, has reproduced it trope for trope in Mad Men. Ie., a protagonist engaged in a brutal and immoral business is also a sensitive family man and hero.  (See also Breaking Bad and The Wire, the third and fourth contenders for best TV show of the last 25 years.)

I’m noticing how psychiatry, which was the key to Tony’s sensitive family man and hero stuff, is being used here by Weiner — to analyze his Barbie wife, and to repress, as when he tells Peggy Olsson (is that Superman’s sidekick’s sister?), that Peggy’s accouchement and breakdown never happened.

I think this project, which delectates (as did the Sopranos) on very bad behavior by a whole group of men, is, like the Sopranos, a defense of Hollywood and corporate frat boy values. What’s shocking, when you think about it, is the number of movie tropes that are deployed, even as they are deployed very, very well. I don’t think there’s a single original idea or line in the whole production — maybe, just maybe, the costumes and sets are the real deal. I am thinking of the outfit Peggy wears on the date with the truck driver — those purple floral lapels were a masterpiece.

The Barbie wife, shooting pigeons, seducing the tow truck guy — is an especially insidious trope well exploited — let’s just cut to the chase — by Spielberg in the Schindler’s List wet t shirt scene, which may be the most repulsive iteration of the trope since the beginning of time.

Sardou, the author of the play on which Tosca was based, was asked what to do when the audience of his jaded fin de siecle Parisians grew bored. Torture the women,, he said. The whole icy blonde Grace Kelly trope — the gripping Hitchcock iteration — is based on this insight of Sardou. Spielberg’s ouevre is especially guilty of the sadist/sex connection, and it is pernicious.

Eggs Sardou as served at Brennan’s.

That Barbie wife has herself a Thelma and Louise moment, and then a Holly Golightly moment — just adds to the strange sense that this is all collaged and parroted by a kid who spent too much time watching TV. (Zadie Smith!!!)

The sense of looking at the lamination of capture-computer-animated actors is a trope too — apparently there’s a new app on your Iphone called Hipstamatic which takes photographs with fake sprockets and hyped Polaroid colors to achieve the effect of photographs taken with celluloid.

And the idea that this laminate world is the only one in which a naturally gorgeous actress like Christina Hendricks — a redhead, not an icy blonde — with the rococo shape could get work just makes the whole enterprise even worse.

Why cannot there be original work on television? And wtf is this lamination thing?

Plus, it’s like Twin Peaks, Gatsby, My Sister Eileen, Kiss Me Guido meets The Office, except with really serious mindfucking as the job.

2.

Treme. More frat boys. Some black. Lacks the specificity, the entire Dickensian/Zola sweep of the city and all its stories that The Wire had, and is lost in the (strangely square and sentimental) music. I attribute this to the  late David Mills and his romance with music. Musicians? Dude. Are frat boys.

The main thing I like is somebody saying, naw, just playing the music in New Orleans is the important thing. The Cubans are like that — music just is what one does.

But the music portrayed at stupefying note-for-note lengths in Treme again, has that strange formaldehyde-enbalmed, Hipstermatic feel to it I was complaining about in re Mad Men. And Wendell Pierce’s character is so completely unmusical — nothing about who he is except the king of dawgs is portrayed —  so flat as almost to be limbic — that it seems to be saying that being a musician is about scoring. Here’s a black guy name of Antoine Batiste, which is a whole television series in its ownself, that Treme seems not to be covering. (I hate the whole Antoine story arc, and Pierce is such a fine and intelligent actor, I miss him.)

I do love Clarke Peters and I dote upon his bowlegs. I love the Indian thing. But I think it’s not well portrayed; I think the thread on the real musicians trying to get their gigs (why is the only drug addict a white Dutch carpetbagger asshole? Give me a break) is strangely wonkish and boring. The Southern gothic aristo Davis McAlary, also strangely wonkish and boring, thread makes me FF in pain, although a glimpse of the artist formerly known as Elizabeth Ashley, all false teeth and fais do-do Tennessee Williams, made me want to cry.

John Goodman is overacting like a mamma jamma. He also looks on the verge of death. The failure of imagination entailed in making the Goodman character into David-Simon-auteur-as-boring-old-one-shot-fart character a YouTube Cassandra makes me wince.

It’s all musician polemic and no music and no Cajuns and apparently no real New Orleans black people plots, no real music, no real musician stories, no conflict except with buffoonish and faceless acts of God. There’s no worthy opponents here, as The Wire had in spades,  from Omar to the mayor of Baltimore himself, just faceless FEMA bureaucrats and George W. Bush. Too easy, not Big Easy.

Big Easy the movie had rockin’ music, btw, as well as the real racial/corruption scenario: still listening to the magnificent Claude Jeter, coal miner, reverend, and the best singer ever, and the Swan Silvertones’ Saviour, Pass Me Not which they had on their soundtrack. You should be too.

Still Treme is better than anything else on television, though the material is oddly thin. I love the look of the post- apocalypse city, of the ruins, the waterline mold as the opening credits, Goodman standing at the empty waterfront and pointing out the truncated footbridge which had led to one of the  great old 19th century landmark buildings sunk ‘neath the waves forever, that whole Blade Runner visual of the pan-Asian food trucks beside the gigantic concrete sewer pipes, of the mummy under the canoe, Daymo’s body on the shelf in the refrigerated truck (that whole two-ep MAX narrative arc was stretched out for at least eight episodes, so much so that a really good story became a pain in the ass because you figured it out 15 seconds into ep 1). Simon is good at that, and I like it. I think the deal is, David Simon based every single character in The Wire on somebody he met or heard of in 25 years of covering Baltimore. And he cannot create a character, only describe real ones.

The wimmin. Strong black wimmin. Strong blue collar white chicks. Yeah, whatever. The story seems to be about fat Antoine gettin’ gigs and gettin’ laid. There’s a whole narrative arc based on I lost my ‘bone.

Not interested, frat boy.

3.

Michael Holroyd announces, with the publication of his biography of the bodice-ripper romance between Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis, that he is retiring from writing. A recent NYT book review has this gracious farewell by Toni Bentley in her review of A Book of Secrets:

Holroyd will be 76 on Aug. 27, having survived several years of aggressive cancer treatment that has left him, he says, “ludicrously pragmatic.” “Now, as in a film,” he writes toward the end, “I can bring back the characters who occupy the pages of this, my last book.” And so he announces, with infinite poise and quiet humility, his retirement. Our loss.

“This has been my exit from myself,” Holroyd has said of his life’s work as a biographer. “I seek invisibility,” he writes, “behind the subjects I am trying to bring alive on the page.” But in this he fails miserably: his heart and humor bounce in vibrant rays off every hot-blooded, lovelorn, crazy, jealous and joyous woman — and what enlightened being would have any woman be otherwise? — in his book. Through his “exit” Holroyd is well found.

“A Book of Secrets” is a book of magic, a sleight of hand by a master conjurer singing his swan song, sweetly, softly, with piercing wit and overwhelming compassion, his poetry in prose evoking a time past, with all its outrageous obsessions, its illegal passions, its melancholy perfume. It is the scent, I believe, of violets that rises from these intoxicating pages.

Holroyd likes this poem by Violet Trefusis, a woman he elevates from feisty sidekick to contender:

My heart was more disgraceful, more alone And more courageous than the world has known. O passer-by my heart was like your own.

And in this final offering, this small book bursting with the tremendous generosity of its author, one feels that courage. Sir Michael, I curtsy before you. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/07/books/review/a-book-of-secrets-by-michael-holroyd-book-review.html?scp=2&sq=holroyd&st=cse

Biographers are very interesting cats. Biography seems to be the only thing I am able to read these days, except for 19th century novels.

I am interested, as anybody of my vintage is, in Holroyd’s concentration on Bloomsbury (he is the biographer of Strachey; Strachey is the icon-smashing biographer and probably Bloomsbury’s central character, with Virginia Woolf, his former fiancee, and Keynes and Grant, his former boyfriends). Why, in the 40 years since I wrote, for the great metropolitan daily newspaper, of the incredible surge of feminist interest in V. Woolf, no one has thought to write the love story of Vita and Violet — one of Bloomsbury’s most notorious liaisons — I do not know.  What I do know is that Vita Sackville West would not have become the central hero/ine of queer romance literature were it not for the limelight accorded her by  the gold-dust touch of her lover, Virginia Woolf. The other contemporary gossip here is that Camilla Parker Bowles is, like Violet Trefusis, a descendant of the beautiful, randy Mrs. Keppel, Edward VII’s last mistress.

Mrs. Keppel, mother of Violet Trefusis, ancestrix of The Parker Bowles, mistress of Edward VII.

Vita was connected to Bloomsbury forever by her love affair with Virginia Woolf. Her androgyny (and her ducal connections) inspired Woolf, long before Olivia Butler made it “science fiction”,  to write Woolf’s shape-changing, sex-morphing, magic realist “biography”, Orlando, which was essentially the story of Vita, with a Vita and Violet chapter, and Vita’s ducal forebears, in the form of young Orlando, who lived for 500 years and changed sexes as necessary.

Orlando is a wonderful, rich book, much more profound than its gotten credit for — its form-conferring sci-fi, magic realist and queer biography chops notwithstanding. It has been totally unexploited for the Vita and Violet material until now. I don’t understand why nobody treats it seriously (beauty of surface, one reason, Woolf herself criticized herself for; the sexuality (in a writer notorious for being allegedly frigid); and in its treatment of time/history/eternity, always a huge interest of Woolf’s, picked up in her posthumous novel, Between the Acts).

Biography may be Bloomsbury’s most influential and sophisticated contribution to the 20th century. Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, the original godless Bohemian, became in 1882 the official cartographer of the British canon when he was named editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. Virginia, on whose education he spent no money, grew up reading his books instead of going to school. Her second brush with biographers was editing her parents’ love letters for Sir Leslie’s biographer, who refused to believe her father had viciously sexist temper tantrums. Her third brush with biography was with the homosexual Lytton Strachey, who probably fell in love with Virginia’s older brother Thoby at Cambridge. (The young Stephens all looked —  I think it was Strachey who said it first —  like Greek slaves; Thoby among the most beautiful and dead at 26.)

Thoby Stephen, 1880-1906, the lacuna around whom Bloomsbury, and two of Virginia Woolf’s novels, were formed.

Thoby’s early death made his Cambridge friends friends of his sisters for life, and these formed the nucleus of Bloomsbury. Thoby’s death in 1906, of typhoid, may be the most influential and least-known literary event in 20th century history. It inspired the modernity of the lacuna — no “plot”, no “character” — in at least two books of Virginia’s — Jacob’s Room, and the thrillingly abstract and yet autobiographical The Waves. How Thoby’s death affected Strachey, I do not know but plan to discover by reading Holroyd’s bio, on which the silly fag hag tragedy movie Carrington was based.

In any case, Strachey was the atomic bombardier of biography. In 1918, Strachey published Eminent Victorians which changed biography forever. Every iconoclastic trick Christopher Hitchens performs on Mother Theresa et al, Strachey performed first on personalities of enduring substance and influence — Cardinal Manning (Oxbridge convert/politician), Florence NIghtingale (the lady with the lamp), Thomas Arnold (Rugby, the school) and General Gordon (Opium Wars, Africanist, Khartoum), heroes of Victorian hegemony.

Cardinal Manning, by Watts.

The New Journalism doubtless owes a huge debt to (and I’m guessing here) the very intelligent Tom Wolfe’s reading of Strachey, and the adoption of the famous Strachey voice, which had as much to do with Lytton’s enormous family of siblings — like Virginia’s, part Anglo-Indian colonialists — and their famous drawl as it did with Lytton’s own Cambridge Apostle-inflected high camp candor. (G.E. Moore, the fin de siecle Cambridge philo, whosePrincipia Ethicawas recently chosen as one of the 20th century’s most influential books, had something to do with the directness of the voice. But the queerness was all Lytton.)

 I’d be interested to trace the influence of Eminent Victorians on Virginia Woolf’s own writing — she was both competitive and very loving with the man she called her Old Serpent. He dedicated his next, and much less good, biography, of Victoria herself, to Virginia. As I recall, she criticized it in the same terms she criticized the work of other Bloomsberries —  as if it were “a luncheon party at Gordon Square”. And indeed, the aural and conversational beauty of both Woolf’s and Strachey’s rhetoric and dialogue is notable.

The fourth connection of Virginia Woolf to the enormous subject of 20th century biography writing — think about how memoirs of abused children have taken over the best seller list — is her own magnificent foray into the genre, Orlando, and the much more troubled effort she made at the end of her life with the biography of the artist Roger Fry. These have, I think,  just begun to be influential. Holroyd’s popularizing queerness touch should do for Orlando what his biography of Strachey did for Carrington — Carrington being Strachey’s devoted fag hag, who killed herself after his death.  The classic women-who-lust-for-gay-men piece to date is the biography — by the incandescent Hilton Als — of Dorothy Dean, gentle and sad, in The Women.

The fifth and probably most infuential connection of Woolf to biography is her foundation, with others of the Bloomsbury circle, of the Memoir Club — designed to get their alcoholic friend, Desmond MacCarthy, to stop expending his energy on magnificent conversation and ephemeral journalism, and to begin to write books. I have written about the Memoir Club,  and its ethical infuence, its powerful amity for atheists, as well as its influence in producing memoir by their rich and powerful, queer, lifelong stalwart friend, Keynes, here.

There’s also a connection in the whole early 20th century language of seduction used by Vita and  Violet in their love letters — only Violet’s are preserved — used to great effect by Holroyd. The gypsy sheik cross-dressing rhetoric is used, as I have written elsewhere, in the Lost Generation Lesbian poetry of my own Aunt Cherie. It was creepy to read it written much less well, but with equal passion, by the daughter of the King’s mistress, and to think it was the way all the queer girls talked to each other in 1925. Another ducal connection, so essential to the bodice-ripping genre.

In their letters, Vita was “Mitya,” and Violet was the lush “Lushka”: “My poor Mitya, they’ve taken you and they’ve burnt your caravan. . . . They’ve pulled down your sleeves and buttoned up your collar! They’ve forced you to sleep beneath a self-respecting roof with no chinks to let the stars through. . . . Come away, Mitya, come away. . . . I’ll wait for you at the crossroads. . . . Ah, Beloved!”

And you wonder why 21st century fictions are so moronic.

Michael Holroyd, biographer in the iconoclastic Bloomsbury tradition of Lytton Strachey.

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