Would That He Were With Us Now: a remembrance of John le Carré

“I’m perfectly hopeless at spelling,” John le Carré told me, “but at least I can think up a plot.”

“People say exactly the same thing about me,” I said. “I can’t make up a plot to save myself but my spelling is first-rate.”

He’d been telling me about the book he was working on at the time, the one that turned out to be Single & Single (1999), and he was talking about the father-son entanglement—which worked out brilliantly, unlike the post-Soviet Georgian intrigue plot which, apart from a stunning scene about a plan for the global commodification of ex-Soviet proletarian blood, was surprisingly action-y and not one of his best inventions. “Once I situated the father correctly,” he said in a voice of retrospective pleasure, “I knew I had a premise, in fact a book.”

I had just given him an inscribed copy of mine, and he had given me his Cornwall and London phone numbers. You must come round next time you visit, he said. Of course I never phoned. “You must come round to lunch, anytime you like.” I knew the code, and had known an English woman who became so horrified when an American couple she’d invited had actually come round that she could hardly move or speak, and had to call upon a neighbor to get rid of the unaccountables in her sitting room.

John le Carré and I were in Ojai, California, one late spring evening in 1998 at the house of one of his sons who was in the film business. I’d been passing through on a smallish reading tour, had stopped in town to read to three people at the back of a bookshop and to visit old friends. One of these friends had a sideline in real estate, and had sold le Carré’s son the house we were chatting in, so naturally we’d been invited in bulk to the housewarming party.

We arrived after dark and followed a path of candles to the kitchen door at the side of the wood-paneled house. We were six, two Brits, the rest Yanks of one kind or another, in a spread of ages from teens to sixties. We were surprised to be greeted in the windowed kitchen by the master novelist himself. He looked to have only just arrived in the region: his face looked newly boiled. Its florid redness overwhelmed the pink of his tailored Oxford buttondown.

“Ah,” he said, in mock-overwhelmment, “Welcome, welcome, please come in. Our hosts have assigned me the task of greeting you, and I must provide you each with a glass of champagne on entry.” The kitchen was well provisioned with cases of somewhat chilled champagne. He handed, he poured, and at the second or third glass came up empty. “Oh dear, half a glass and an empty bottle, it will not do. It’s like arriving at an orgy without an erection. Wait a moment and I’ll open a fresh one for you.”

I was instantly reminded of Ted Mundy, the lead character of one of his best late-period novels despite the blown ending (Absolute Friends, 2003). We first meet Mundy in his role as a tour guide, acting effusively the part of a Professional Englishman at a schloss in Germany. I think that if one had read le Carré—who hadn’t; I certainly had—he would have expected one to appreciate both the kitchen-serf performance and what could be seen of the quizzical impersonator behind it.

His virtuoso welcome expanded its range after he asked my English friend Aaron Cass about his interests. Aaron said something about Sufism, or Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi, or perhaps only mentioned the Symposium on the subject at which we had both made presentations in Berkeley a couple of days before.

“Ah,” le Carré said, turning very slightly Aaronward to suggest a furl of almost-privacy and fellow-feeling, “I’m quite interested in Islam as well, which is not at all what people today tend to think it is . . . “ And somehow, without removing himself from the social collectivity or still less cornering Aaron, his voice reduced itself to sub-audibility to anyone else in the room.

There was no one whose essential self, it seemed to me, that his cadences could not authentically or otherwise include in his mist of generous acceptance. In his writing he had accurately articulated his personal and inherited contrarieties; if I’d been a touch more sophisticated I might not have been quite so overset by the fluency of his presentation. He seemed at least as kind in person as he was unsparing in print. Even in his bleakest passages as a writer his strength of compassion had never been in doubt.

He released us after a time, indicating our way toward the party while finicking a tea-towel onto the neck of a new bottle for a couple of couples coming up the path.

The other broadly recognizable person among the hundred or so at the party was Ted Levine, who had played the serial killer Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs; which set off in contrast the charming disarmament with which the most famous person in-house had eliminated all possible awkwardnesses by performing so elaborately the status of a servant. It was as admirable and original as his writing, and conceivably as true. I was the most graceful fog of self-obfuscation that had ever enveloped me.

Back, or rather forward, at the Single & Single conversation, I was telling him that I had expected to have to teach in the coming year, but my book, the one I’d just given him and which he still held within view, had won a prize and I was about to get well-paid for the one I was working on now.

“Oh,” he said, “the same thing happened to me when my third one was published.”

I laughed aloud. “That was on an entirely larger scale,” I said. He was talking about The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. I told him that for the teaching I had expected to do, I had selected three first pages as models for how to begin a novel. “One of them a book you probably don’t know by Robert Stone, then the first page of Under the Volcano—”

Here le Carré performed a fluttery gesture, with an intake of breath, that seemed to indicate a kind of writing so exalted that folks like us should not speak loosely of it.

“The third was the first page of Smiley’s People. The street, the woman, pure bare description, and somehow we’re pulled wholly into it.”

“Ah, I stole that from Balzac.” He mentioned one of Balzac’s many novels. “The room, the bed, the table, the window, and you have the old man completely before we even see him.”

We talked a bit more shop, then parted at what felt like the appropriate moment.

It was a lively party, in large, high-roofed rooms paneled in dark wood. I drank, I noshed, circulated, was introduced, talked to and was talked to, checked back with my friends, and at some point I wanted a moment of quiet aloneness. There was an empty armchair in a subsidiary room and I sat down in it, looking contemplatively down at the floor in front of me, feeling fine.

Mr. Le Carré passed by, did a slight double-take, half-broke his stride, and decided that I needed looking after. He sat in a facing wooden chair and we began to converse. Since I’d mentioned that, like him, I’d been to late-Soviet Georgia, the chat gravitated to Soviet anecdotes. I uncorked one about a hotel in Frunze (now Bishkek) where I’d stayed with a touring rock band and its subsidiary troops, and that the twelve of us discovered at breakfast after our first night there that each of us had been subjected to at least one extra-vivid nightmare. On subsequent nights the total would come up nine, eight, five, and finally nearly zero. Before Frunze we had stayed at Intourist hotels, but this was a Party hotel for dignitaries and apparatchiks, and we decided that the place was haunted by bad people, bad actions, and tortured ghosts.

“I stayed there too,” le Carré told me. “Did you go to the mineral baths in the basement? No? I was taken down by my hosts, and it turned out there was a store of costumes in a closet, bear and lion costumes for the apparatchiks and bird costumes for the giggling prostititutes they would pursue, drunk and roaring, until they trapped them in one suitable niche or another. And my host asked me, ‘Should we get some women?’ What could I say? ‘Yes, by all means let’s get some women.’ Happily, they were unable to find any at the time. They were terribly apologetic about it, but I felt rather relieved, though it wouldn’t have done to let on.”

We laughed chattily together, while I sat privately amazed that I was swapping Cold War stories with John le Carré in one of the most surreal-seeming moments of my life; a moment in which he had also been able to incorporate the opening motif of champagne bottle and orgy without an erection, with the uncanny kindness of his interest and acceptance a constant in both.

I see now that he had a superflux of sensibility and cognition that needed special theaters of self expression, in the privileged corners that life miscellaneously allows and also, which is how we know him, on the written page.

It would be an extreme understatement to say—and I have met scads of cultured Englishmen—that I had never met anyone like him, and my appreciation of the artist and the man went leaping in search of new, more expansive bounds.

—As published in The Journal of the Plague Year

Modes of Narrative Magic

A student of mine at a 92nd St Y workshop once wrote a short story that featured a schoolyard punch-up. I was fascinated by how her description of the fight seemed to put the reader in the position of an onlooker inescapably fascinated by what was going on, but she had slightly underdescribed the action, so that my view was intermittently blocked by other people’s heads and shoulders and I kept on trying to see the fight. It was a beautifully achieved technical effect, and I asked her how she had come up with it. The others in the class liked it too. She told us that she hadn’t known she was doing it. Which just goes to show you  . . . what exactly?

The last time I read Tolstoy’s great novels I was surprised to see how little description he had written about buildings, salons, furniture—much less of it than I had misremembered; which indicates to me that he conveys such a sense of narrative completeness with writerly means that actually leave a lot out, and it seemed to me that this was less a technical achievement than an emanation of his sense of the wholeness of life and the world. Because he sees it all you’re borrowing his eyesight, and you see what he sees even when he doesn’t mention it.

This is not like Hemingway’s iceberg, owing the dignity of its motion to the submarine seven-eighths of it you cannot see. With Hemingway you’re aware of his subtractions and the hyper-clarity of what remains, whereas with Tolstoy you feel that you’re being shown the whole works, when actually you’re not. There’s a difference between a skillful use of craft and what is achieved by the essence of an author conveying itself to you without apparent artifice.

Then there’s the more radical case of Arrigo Beyle, Milanese, aka Stendhal, who was in deliberate rebellion against the narrative/descriptive manner of his day, especially the reams of description in the historical novels of Walter Scott and what he thought of as the fulsome, over-poeticized scene painting of Victor Hugo. He even wanted to keep things more fleet of foot than the life-crowded pages of his contemporary, Balzac. There are exceptions to Stendhal’s leanness, like the description of the town of Verrieres at the beginning of The Red and the Black, but usually Stendhal likes to set up his scenery with as little fuss as possible. Sometimes he’ll get by with calling Como “that magnificent lake,” and you see it as if he’d put you there. In my favorite of his novels, The Charterhouse of Parma, our hero’s view from a bell tower onto the terrace of his father’s palazzo, from which he is banned, snaps into focus, along with the entire landscape of the region in which it is set, with sudden poignancy: “He could even make out the sparrows hunting for a few crumbs of bread on the big balcony of the dining room. They’re the descendants of the ones I tamed in the old days, he told himself.”

A different example from the same source. Our young hero, Fabrizio del Dongo, is caught up in the retreat from Waterloo, a battle which he is never quite sure he experienced. He’s in conversation with the vivandiere, the woman with a food wagon, who had sagely steered our dashing young idiot through the misadventures of the day.

            “How much money have you got?” the canteen-woman said all of a sudden. Fabrizio did not hesitate to answer; he was confident of this woman’s nobility of soul; that is the good side of France.

        “How much money have you got?” the canteen-woman said all of a sudden. Fabrizio did not hesitate to answer; he was confident of this woman’s nobility of soul: this is the good side of France.

    “In all I may have thirty gold Napoleons and eight or nine five-franc écus left.”

“In that case you’re as free as air!” exclaimed the canteen woman. “Get yourself out from among this rabble of an army. Jump off to one side, take the first road you can find that’s been cleared a bit on your right hand. Keep your horse going hard, away from the army all the time. The first opportunity you get, buy some civilian clothes. Once you’re eight or ten leagues away and can no longer see any soldiers, take the stage and go away for a week and eat steak in some nice town. Don’t tell anyone you were with the army. The gendarmes will pick you up as a deserter. And though you’re very nice, young man, you’re not yet smart enough to answer the gendarmes. As soon as you’ve got some town clothes on your back, tear your movement order into a thousand pieces and go back to your real name. Say you’re Vasi. And where should he say he comes from?” she asked the corporal.  

        “From Cambrai on the Escaut, a nice town, quite small d’you understand, where there’s a cathedral and Fenélon.” “That’s it,” said the canteen-woman. “Never say you were at the battle and don’t say a word about B * * * or the gendarme who sold you the movement order. When you want to go back to Paris, go to Versailles first of all, and go through the toll-gate on that side, strolling, on foot, as if out walking. Sew your napoleons into your trousers.”

And so on. The vivandiere’s voice is at once so realistically rendered that you know everything you have to know about her right away, while at the same time functioning like a recitative in a comic opera and thereby adding a note of the fantasticated and the irreal—something that happens a lot in The Charterhouse of Parma; but what nails the passage for me is her advice, in the middle of everything else, to eat a steak when he gets to town. For me—for you it might be some other passing touch—that steak is worth a world of scene-setting, character portrayal, landscape painting, a description of the road they’re on, or anything about the weather. Definitive focus has been established. You’ll remember it. And why? Yes, because Stendhal knows how people of all social classes talk, and can do seven versions of each from hard realism to serio-comic rodomontade, but what makes it come across so well is the essential vigor, appetite, intelligence and keenness of sight with which he engages the world and the life in it. That’s him, that’s the man, and it’s in his writing. He can leave out as much as he likes, because he knows the world and puts you in it. Seek out the technical means and you will probably not find them. Essentially, it’s magic.

Earlier on, when he was writing The Red and the Black—one of the foundational modern novels for its character analysis and its air of rebellion against a rotten social order—Stendhal viewed the Code Napoleon as a model of the deglamorized prose style he wanted: plain as possible, as if in the tone of conversation, not that of literature as it was then practiced. By the time he got to the Chartreuse de Parme, he was still more free with the idiom and was able to dictate most of the book in a few weeks. The edition I have at hand runs to five hundred pages, and would have run to a hundred more if his publisher hadn’t told him the damn thing was too long, so that Stendhal lopped off the last section and ended the book with a plot summary. Later on he realized he’d made a mistake and tried to find the pages, but couldn’t. If you ever run across them in an attic, or in some sub-basement of the Galeries Lafayette, which stands roughly where the house he wrote the book in did, please let me, or Sotheby’s, know. There’s always something abrupt about Stendhal. He could throw away the last hundred, write a first fifty that don’t let you in, so that you might quit before you get to the battle of Waterloo, the great set piece that taught everyone from Tolstoy and Crane to Hemingway onward how to write about war.

  He was born French and, to put it very mildly, preferred Italy. He dictated the words he wanted on his tombstone (in the Cimitière Montmartre, near Place Pigalle):

Arrigo Beyle, Milanese

Visse

Scrisse

Amo

Arrigo, not Henri. From Milan, not Grenoble. Lived, Wrote, Loved. And fifty years after the death of the author, Stendhal’s admirers, Les amis de Stendhal, finally put up a proper memorial atop his grave but changed the order of how he saw his life: Wrote, Lived, Loved. Fans. What can you do with them?

It’s so odd that when Stendhal first set out to write in his youth it was in the genre for which he was least well-suited: verse drama. Think about how much he had to learn to get to where he got. Lived, wrote, loved. War, fiasco, short and stubby, awkward horsemanship, the brains to throw away what everyone knew the art and craft of writing was and cut to a more vital essence and, learning and forgetting everything he needed to, do what truly suited him. Hemingway said that it was the winter retreat with the remains of Napoleon’s army from Moscow that made him as a writer, and while that may not be the whole story it’s essentially right: that bedrock realism that never deserts him even at his most outlandish—anyone for Fabrizio’s romance from his prison cell in the Farnese Tower with the prisonkeeper’s daughter sequestered in the tower across the way?

Whenever I arrive in Paris—and it’s been too long since I’ve been there—my first supererogatory social call is to the Cimitière Montmartre, beneath the chestnut trees, for the pleasure of having met him, best I could.

Vladimir Nabokov said that he had checked, and Stendhal hadn’t written a single good French sentence. I once had a go at the original of the Chartreuse and decided that I’d rather read my favorite novel in translation, not only because my French ain’t that good but because his wasn’t either. Certainly if your French is as middling as mine, his sentences will seem to trudge, and you won’t pick up on all that intricate ironic nuance and constancy of wit. Of the translations I prefer C.K. Scott-Moncrieff’s (although for this post I used John Sturrock’s version for Penguin Classics, because it was handy; almost any translation will do, apart from Richard Howard’s highly praised flop, that calls its hero Fabrizio, not Fabrice, and if possible calls la Sanseverina the Duchessa and not the Duchess) because Moncrieff’s is the version I read first, when I knew the book was way smarter than me and I’d have to come back to it when I was more experienced. Moncrieff’s slightly antique air catches the echo of the ancien régime Stendhal the Bonapartist detested, as he detested his father; so that he was a writer and a sensibility both ahead of his time and behind it. That disjunction, along with other internal complications including his wealth of worldly experience indissolubly bonded to an adolescent ardency, produce bracing discords and much sweet thunder.

And then there’s Gina, Gina Pietranera, later the Duchessa Sanseverina, impossibly beautiful, daring, indomitable, Stendhal’s wet dream of Italy—based on his less grand onetime bygone mistress Gina Pietragrua—one of the great ladies of the 19th century novel, and happily one who doesn’t have to throw herself under a train like Karenina—I maintain that Tolstoy pushed her—or swallow arsenic like Emma B., but who triumphs over all her enemies. And Conte Mosca, her lover, the wisest, most wittily Machiavellian man of his day or any other. . . They all come alive by means they won’t teach you in writing workshops—that’s the windup, here comes the pitch—but I like to think that with good counseling, by studying the means that can lead you not only to the technique uniquely suited to you but to the self you can write from,  liberating a mysterious essence at your core that will enable you to write, as Stendhal did, for the Happy Few, and, who knows, maybe a handful more. Some of it might even last.

The Thrill of the Edit

Did you ever try to see if you could write a genre novel and make it work? Eight summers ago, armed with a few bits of inside information about the pre-legalization recreational weed trade in Northern California, I thought that with a research trip back west I might be able to put together a publishable article for, say, Outside magazine. Fortunately, my close friend and best writing advisor told me, in effect: Don’t be stupid, take what you’ve got and make stuff up. Write a novel.

With my usual aplomb, I blinked and said something on the order of Hahh?

Within an hour or so, and then over the next few days, that organ fundamental to my thinking began to sprout something resembling a plot—never my strong point, but it was gaining vigor now—which my imagination began to festoon with invented, remembered, and compounded people, i.e. a dramatis personae. Actually, most of the characters came first: a confused kid in the midrange of the business; an old-time skunk dealer ready to give up in the face of oncoming corporate takeovers so maybe he’d open an Old-Time Grass Business Theme Park with rides and a disco; a frustrated cop who wasn’t allowed to bust anyone important because the town needed the business; a disturbing chap buying up properties under cover for a major tobacco company but really out for himself; a Tibetan-Buddhist lama originally from New Jersey who still sounded like Tony Soprano when discoursing on the dharma; and, principally, a mother anxious about the wayward young man, her son, in the middle of it all . . .

In other words, something like a thriller was shaping up. Something to play with and maybe help boil a pot or two. Thing was, if it was going to thrill I’d have to find a way of writing it that had some swing to it. I’d have to write it quickly if I was to write it at all, and work up a style I could write off the top of my head and with some flair to it, sentences that would be worth reading for their syncopations and their step; otherwise everything would go dead on the page: yes, I was that kind of writer. So I loosened my grammar belt, leaned on Elmore Leonard in the opening pages, then began stretching my sentence and dialogue rhythms, keeping an eye on the plot-clock, and started doing things that Mr. Leonard probably wouldn’t have put in there. For instance the mother, just before things start going haywire with her son, is visited by an over-eager blue-skinned deity when all she was trying to do was visualize a yantra. The book began to seem plausible to me, or the right kind of implausible. I’d lived in California ages back, but had only been in Eureka for part of a day that year, so I’d have to make the place up and hope it would stick. The tobacco-company guy, my first villain ever, was wicked enough to worry me—where was all that nastiness coming from if not from right here?—so that was working. The branches of the plot began sprouting leaves and interwinings. Three months later I got enough people shot or run down to make an ending, and my agent told me that although it needed work here and there he would sell it not in months but weeks.

That was in 2012. An editor at Random House wanted it but then some people upstairs told him No sale. Other houses produced a string of zeroes but no integer whistling a tune at the head of the queue. If it had sold to a major house I’d have used some of the advance money for an authenticity trip to Humboldt County: the characters and their story were doing fine but if I could afford a trip I might repaint the background, most of which I’d made from scraps of this and that, including many swatches of whole cloth. Or maybe I would leave it, but it would be good to check it out and see.

I’d been happy writing it the way I had and I liked the result. The main complaint from publishers was that they couldn’t figure out whether it was a thriller or literary fiction. I couldn’t see why that was a bad thing. I’d chatted with John le Carré at a party in California once, and he was as kind in person as he is unsparing on the page. He was working on Single and Single at the time and told me about it, perhaps because I’d been to Soviet Georgia, where much of Single is set. I gave him a fondly inscribed copy of The Bear Comes Home, we talked shop, he gave me a phone number in Cornwall I never called, and in a stretch of conversation utterly surreal to me, we swapped stories of a Soviet hotel in Frunze (now Bishkek) we’d both stayed in. I knew about its capacity for producing parallel nightmares in groups of its guests, and he knew about the orgies for apparatchiks in the basement’s mineral spa, where the men put on animal costumes and chased prostitutes costumed as birds. Le Carré is a seriously major writer, a fine and intricate gentleman and I write nothing like him because I can’t, but I did think of him as a model of genre probity when I was working on my thriller.

Short version, just last week, out of the blue, some people with evidently excellent taste at a small press asked me if they could put the book out—I hadn’t even known they were considering it—not for the kind of dosh I would have gotten from a major, but it bugged me that the thing hadn’t been published, and in this parlous time the advance would help.

So I’d have to read it again. See if it was truly shipshape. Or if there was excess verbiage I could shear away. I did tend to let scenes and conversations run on. When I gave it a first fresh look it wasn’t as if someone else had written it. It was more that I couldn’t quite apply my eye to the aperture I’d been looking through when I wrote it. The descriptions didn’t evoke the scenery my mind’s eye remembered. The dialogue didn’t have the casual-seeming but efficient conveyance I recalled. The text had been worked over pretty well years ago—my agent is a superb and exacting editor—but now I owed it to the work, and to its kind publishers, to see if I could improve it in any way. I’d have to ease myself back in. I’d written it with a degree of sprezzatura it would be a mistake to lose. Don’t lose the beat. No bad grafts and transplants. No pruning the wrong branches. No wrong intrusions of any kind.

I’m pretty good at editing and reshaping other people’s work—you could ask my students—but I have a less sure hand with my own stuff—please don’t ask the editors I’ve worked with, though I hope I’ve been humbled by experience since the last time.

I started thinking about the best edits I had ever seen. I’d looked through a copy of one of Hemingway’s Paris  notebooks in the Hemingway Room of the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. The library was a white cube on a point onshore of Massachusetts Bay. The Hemingway Room’s décor had accents of safari-lodge, but Ava Gardner wasn’t about to walk in and sit on the white and brown hide-covered trunk or stretch out on the tan leather sofa. I was there for a prizegiving event, and the curator showed me a photocopy of the notebook in which Hemingway had penned or pencilled the opening chapters of The Sun Also Rises. Many lines had been struck through with the same firm hand that had written them. Description of evenings in Paris, the nature of the street life, the people you would typically see, and so on: all had been struck out, and what remained was Jake Barnes heading for a bar to meet some friends, that’s all. The cuts had been unerring. There wasn’t a single flaw of judgment. The curator told me I could make an appointment to come back to look over the actual notebook if I wanted. I wasn’t interested in handling the object, but I was floored by the quality of Hemingway’s edit. If over the years I had acquired a degree herd immunity to the Hemingway Effect my esteem for his workmanship had just been given a shot in the arm. (If you’ve been around long enough to be tired of him, read his little story The Old Man at the Bridge and see what you think.)

Now, with my attempted thriller back in my hands, I knew that I was never going to do as well as Hem had. If I wanted to be dishonest I could blame my jazz background. I‘d written like a player in a rhythm section, going for a groove and staying with it when I had it. Keep the plot swinging and the characters light on their feet. I could write that way for two or three thousand words a day, twice my non-genre pace, and feel okay with the result. It was a pity I couldn’t afford a trip west but hey, The Charterhouse of Parma is probably my favorite novel, and its Parma resembles the actual Parma the way Freedonia resembles Sylvania resembles Ultima Thule, and Stendhal had set a fundamentally Renaissance fable in the post-Napoleonic world: the book’s proto-absurdist disjunctions and its realistic take on what the world’s like spice each other. The uneven footing keeps your wits awake. It reads like a Mozart comic opera in which his characters speak in recitative, with occasional arias. I’m no Arrigo Beyle, but trying out some of his steps had been good for me. In fact a reading of the Chartreuse at just the right moment had bucked me up when I began to write a fundamentally preposterous first novel—which, mercifully, reads nothing like him. As for editing the present volume I’d have to find a way to step inside its rhythms and wield my pencil like a cinema Samurai the justice of his sword, otherwise best not wield it at all. I have humble, probably humbling work to do on a piece of work I wrote with relative ease. I’ll keep you posted if I learn something new as I go. Or let’s see how it works out, about a year from now: Street Legal—sorry, Bob—on the excellent Terra Nova imprint.

A Brief Episode

Jed: 2016

June morning heating up, sun above Times Square pushing it to 90° atop an open-top doubledecker in the barely moving crush of Broadway traffic, exhaust haze rising amid the racket of buildings hammered and bolted and blowtorched up and down, hi-rez videoscreens on all sides blazing apocalypse and tits and Disney with maybe fifteen people up here with me on the hot plastic buckets of this sixty-seater shuttling through a city ripe for fire from heaven. “CERN’s got nothing on us,” I’m saying into the microphone. “Times Square’s a gigantic human particle-collider. This ain’t just New York City, it’s New York City City:too much of everything piled in one place just in case you’re afraid of missing out.” I’m the tour-guide in company getup, white synthetic shortsleeve shirt, trademark on the breast pocket and royal blue epaulettes, with black cargo shorts and soft black shoes below, yammering about the bronze gentleman in front of the Celtic cross over there on your right, Father Patrick—waitaminnit, is it Francis? only been doing this job a couple-three weeks—Father Francis Duffy, the most decorated clergyman ever to have served with the United States Armed Forces, the Fighting 69th from Hell’s Kitchen, statue by Charles Keck, who was a student and disciple of Augustus St. Gaudens . . . When what I really want to tell them is Run for your lives! Get outta town before it goes lethal on ya! Go home and forget you been here! It might not be too late! Run!

Leaning on the rail alongside the stairwell looking toward the rear of the bus I don’t see anyone down the aisle too interested in hearing about Charles Keck—though the mention of Hell’s Kitchen might have perked them up a sec—but the show must go on. I see no way out.

“As we edge slowwwly down to 42nd Street through a traditional midtown traffic jam the next bronze Irishman ahead and on your right is George M. Cohan, the Yankee-Doodle Dandy who gave his regards to Broadway and helped invent the American musical—but why no statue of Damon Runyon who wrote the stories behind the musical Guys and Dolls? ‘Rusty Charley is not just a tough guy, Rusty Charley is a tough guy as tough guys are tough guys.’ Come on, people, sign the petition, we need to put that marker down.”

The stray of punters between here and the back of the bus look puzzled. I decide not to tell them that Runyon figured the odds on life in general as six-to-five against.

Then there’s the worrying large-size Australian up front in the first row against the windshield with his much smaller girlfriend seated to his right. Looked angry when he got on but behaved climbing aboard, volunteering ticket, accepting earphones, returning welcome, so I figured aggro was just his default facial presentation. But now I’m picking up a vibe and turning to scope his ox-heavy shoulders in that worrying convict-stripe Harley-Davidson shirt and the display of hair upfrothed on top and hanging past his shoulders—can’t see his face until he turns toward his girlfriend with his goatee, yammering up and down at her. Yep, he’s pissed off about something and his girlfriend is shrinking lower in her seat.

Now he gets up, huffs his superstructure and is coming toward me up the aisle in a power-walk as if knocking barstools aside in a movie.

Quick assessment while I wait for it: large furry Australian, not tall but a fireplug, maybe five-seven, estimated weight 250, light brown lion-mane array of hair, long outlaw goatee, baggy Harley shirt untucked over belly and hips. Thick hairy legs trunked in khaki cargo shorts. Hey, some of my best friends are Australian, I want to tell him. He advances up the aisle eyes fixed on mine while I do my MC bit at him, “Sir it’s quite dangerous to walk around when the bus is in motion, especially here in midtown with all this stop-and-start traffic, don’t want you to take a tumble, won’t you please—?“

He keeps coming, though, an unspecified fury in his posture. Did I look at his girlfriend funny? She’s not turning in her seat to observe the encounter. How’s it look, I wonder: young bullock confronting a bald-headed Jew-looking greybeard well over sixty wearing bifocals and a paper-straw Panama to keep the sun off, both of us swaying on the rocking bus-top above sidewalks and pedestrian plazas chockablock with rush-hour hordes jammed into the crotch of Broadway and Seventh agape for an overdose of the irreal, hundreds of thousands of them beset by Spider Men, Iron Men, Batmen, Statues of Liberty, American Eagle Outfitters’ bikini-babes, Naked Cowboys, actual desnudas wearing only thongs and red-white-blue body paint on their upper decks hustling for the selfie dollar beneath the flashing adverts of a culture proudly bridging the gap between the sentimental and the inhumane.

Downstream behind the Australian two giant metal sci-fi elongations, one yellow, the other orange, angle storeys high from the street on tubular extendo-arms, their beaks tearing the faces from last week’s heroes and villains and nearly naked models.

He’s reached me.

“Your man downstairs,” he begins, “your company’s man on the street selling the ride, ripped my wife off for twenty dollars on the tickets.”

“Sir we don’t do that. I’m sure that if you—”

“Twenty dollars, mate. Two tickets, sixty-eight apiece, and he touches her for a hundred thirty six, that’s twenty taken, pure theft.”

“Honestly sir, we don’t do that, our people don’t do that. If there’s a discrepancy please just get in touch with our office and they’ll—“

“But I’m not at the office, am I?” he points out while crowding me. “I’m with you. You represent the company, my wife has been ripped off for twenty dollars, and you’re all the company I’ve got to talk to.”

“I’m just a tour guide, sir.” I try to hold my ground, mindful of the gap at the top of the stairs on my left and to his right: he’s near enough to fall into it if he steps the wrong way or the bus does a lurch. “If you take this matter up with the office—“

“You’re all I’ve got and I’m taking it up with you.”

“I’m not equipped to, I’m not qualified to . . . Look, sir, if I can just walk you back to your seat and try to put you in touch with the office on the phone.”

“Ow, you’d like me to sit down, would you?”

“Just to get away from the stairwell for the moment . . . Wait a minute, what were those figures you mentioned?”

“Figures? What you talking about, figures.”

“The numbers. The amount of money for the tickets.”

“Like I said. Sixty-eight per ticket for which my wife paid a hundred thirty-six dollars making it a ripoff of twenty bleedin’ wombats.”

“Actually, sir, sixty-eight plus sixty-eight is a hundred and thirty-six.”

What?” He’s trying to follow the numbers but he’s too angry to focus on it through that rucking forehead.

“Try it this way. Sixty plus sixty is a hundred and twenty, right?”

“Go on.”

“And eight plus eight is sixteen. One-twenty plus sixteen, check me if I’m wrong, is a hundred and thirty-six.”

He might be getting it. “Say that again?”

I say it again, slower.

It dawns: “Right.” He relaxes. “Then that’s all right then. All right.”

“Yes I think it is.”

Right, then.” His shoulders are lowering back to parade rest or do I mean, Father Duffy of the Fighting 69th, do I mean at-ease?

What I’d failed to notice was not that the bus had stopped—I did subliminally notice that the bus had stopped, but since we were redlighted in chockablock traffic, we were stopgapped all the time—but a third voice coming from somewhere invisibly below me to join our colloquy: a repeated squawk that sounded something like Lea him low, lea him low, you muss talk office!

It wasn’t until his head appeared as he clambered up the stairs alongside me that I realized that it was Chao, our driver, small Chinese guy in his thirties, a notably gentle man in a rough profession—must have heard our argument over my microphone line and had come upstairs to save me, a rookie, or at least to straighten things out. Now he’s reached the landing and stepped into the aisle between me and the Australian and is waving his arms in the guy’s face. “You mus lea him low, you mus lea him low and talk to office!”

“What?” The Australian squinted into Chao’s accent, trying to make the words out.

“You no talk he, you talk to office!”

“Oh! Hey. Look,” he lowered his face to Chao’s. “It’s all right. We worked it out. It’s okay. Okay?”

“No! You you mus talk to office!”

I try to get Chao’s attention but can’t, by voice or a touch on his shoulder.

The Aussie lowers his lion-face close and personal into Chao’s. “It’s all right, get it? It’s all right! It’s okay! Okay?”

“You mus talk office and lea him low!”

I saw it begin and decided to get in the way before it happened: Chao waving his arms had brushed the guy’s shoulder twice and hit his ear on the return, and maybe it was just a reflex or display but the guy was raising his big right arm up to where he could bring it down on Chao, who was standing beside the lip of the stairwell.

I thought the thing to do was pull Chao back from the guy and away from the stairs, so I laid my hands on Chao’s shoulders, the guy’s girlfriend was standing up from her seat to face us, the traffic light was turning green, there was a siren in the uptown distance, usually it was an F.D.N.Y. ambulance in these parts trying to get through a herd of cars that would not or could not budge, and as I pulled Chao gently-under-the-circumstance toward me, Chao reached forward for something solid to hang onto and that turned out to be the Australian, with the result that I was the first of us to topple backward into the open stairwell, seven steps down, hard surfaces on all sides, tubular steel bannisters bright yellow against grey panelling alongside  ridged steel-tipped steps.

There was half an instant of balance, then a tipping point, and I saw and felt us pass through it as Chao lost his footing, fell toward me while retaining his grip on the Australian’s Harley-shirtfront and the Australian started to topple forward.

Hard to follow the rest of it in detail, but a multi-culti sandwich of the three of us with Chao the meat in the middle catacalysmed down the stairs in a bundle—the Australian’s bulk almost wedging him for a second but then on he came, perhaps redoubled, piling up our combined weights on the way down.

I felt a heavy blow to my head, but the first bones I heard crack were Chao’s and must have been his ribs, then as we hit bottom in a pile I heard and felt the breakage in my chest. My breath blown out of me and a piercing. A gabbling strangle of voices while I was trying to figure out if the sensation was one of pain or something else entirely, then an unprecedented experience possessed me: the things of the world were blotted out and my sight filled to all horizons with uniform impenetrable fire-engine red.

Sleeping with Mozart

Elsewhere on this website I confessed to having been foundationally influenced, as a writer, by Robert Stone. I also owe him for Mozart. It was that first novel of his again, A Hall of Mirrors, when forty-some pages in, his man Rheinhardt, down and nearly out in New Orleans, walks into a library for some peace and quiet and comes upon a kid reading the score of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet, at which point Rheinhardt remembers auditioning for Juilliard with the piece.

Somlio, pale and fat, came in with his four musicians, treacherous and bitter little men, they said, who liked to lead you down the glory road and then leave you impaled on a transition, drowning in spit and clinkers . . . Then Somlio gestured from his seat and the swings [sic: first printing, touchingly inscribed] welled with what seemed a sudden violence and went into the opening bar of the theme, the ten notes that sounded like “East Side, West Side.” And Rheinhardt, fifteen seconds from his ordeal, looked across the street to the rocky vacant lots where the Harlem housing projects were going up and little Puerto Rican kids were throwing rocks at a cement truck, picked up on G and performed the first arpeggio . . . So it turned out that morning that just above the barrier of form there was a world of sunlight where he could soar and caper with an eagle’s freedom, rule and dispense passion, where his breath was the instrument of infinite invention, yet not a pause was lost — not a note . . . Because there was perfection in this music something of God in this music, a divine thing in it — and the hungry coiled apparatus in Rheinhardt was hounding it down with a deadly instinct, finding it again and again . . . He opened his eyes to see the cellist bent low over his strings, the man’s eyes were bright with love, and as his fingers moved tenderly across the board his upturned wrist displayed the five blue characters where they had taken that caressing arm and tattooed on it — DK 412.

I loved the book and went out to buy a recording of the piece, with Gervase de Peyer and the Melos Ensemble, put it on the stereo and didn’t get it at all. I was a jazz guy, I was listening to Sonny and Coltrane and Mingus and Ornette, and when it came to classical music I was into Bartok’s quartets and the Sacre, and Mozart’s cadences sounded simple-minded to me—I mean, honestly, that last movement!—but I made a kind of vow anyway: people had known Mozart was great for hundreds of years already, so there was probably something to it—and I myself had got a thrill from the opening of his Haffner symphony in my parents’ Readers Digest compendium-of-the-classics box set—but most of all, Stone’s writing had made me want to know; so I promised that I would listen to classical music systematically now, until I understood for myself why Mozart was so wonderful and all; because if a guy as hip as Robert Stone dug him that much, it had to be right.

It took me a few years to get there, and I listened to a lot of music en route, for which I am duly grateful. The Juilliard scene still sounds wonderful to me, and reading it again just now I realized for the first time that I didn’t only owe Stone for my education in Mozart but also for beginning to show me how I would write about music years later.

And nowadays for helping me sleep at night.

Like, I suspect, most writers with a hyperactive if inefficient brain, I am a career insomniac who by nature keeps vampire hours, or musician hours, and apart from being out of synch with the world’s workaday clock, I’m okay with that. But a few years ago when I got a day job that required me to wake up at five or six in the morning and then truck into the city to get desperate and exhausted, I tucked into my girlfriend’s stash of imported sleeping pills and haven’t gotten off them since. Now that I have more leisure time—don’t we all—my sleeping-time dropoff keeps edging further and further into the small hours, so that when I heard of Max Richter’s all-night music called Sleep, available online or complete in eight CDs, and that he’d worked it up in collaboration with a neurologist, I tried it on. It sounded like Brahms for simple people. There was a  four-four tread and a repeated tolling at the bottom of the keyboard at the start, but no ambiguous, half-anguished Brahms chords, and as it went on the music revealed itself to be ultra-simplified minimalism off the rack, but it actually worked. That four-four repetition, which at first irritated me with its regularity, began to take control of my pulse rate and dial it down. For a month or so I found myself sleeping with the music playing through the night, or most of it, instead of waking halfway through and wondering if I’d need to take another quarter-pill to get me back to dreamland. Then it stopped working, and I didn’t like to listen to it while lying there awake, and always had to avoid the ooo-ooo vocal tracks.

Which brought me back to Mozart, though I forget the specific turnings of the road that took me there. It was all about the piano concertos, mostly the last dozen or so Mozart composed in his brief maturity. I had learned my way through most of these pieces in the course of my education, and when starting out young naturally enough I fixated on the only two he had written in the minor mode—numbers 20 and 24—and of course the slow movement of the “Elvira Madigan” was heavenly stuff, but the other concertos remained a largely undifferentiated mass for years, and it was only relatively recently, when I was staying over at someone else’s house and found it on the radio that I realized that #23 in A major was actually (I decided for the moment) the greatest of them all.

It was Balm from Gilead from the moment the first phrases eased you in. It was Good for What Ails You in three movements. It was heart’s-ease and Elysium, and it had the consequence of getting me to listen to the other concertos more intently; so that when Richter failed me—and I like the film score he’s been writing for Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan novels—I found my medication with my laptop beside me, a bluetooth speaker set at a discreet volume on my bedside drum, and Murray Perahia’s traversal of the complete concertos, conducting the English Chamber Orchestra from the keyboard and conveyed to me by the devil’s instrument, Spotify. I could listen to a concerto or two with waking intent, then set the sequence on #17 and hope to sleep straight through to 27 or battery death. Even though the music was anything but minimal or inactive, I usually made it unbroken to the opening fanfares of #25 in the morning. Mozart beats Richter! The concertos would start off with their often apparently simple themes: statement, slight counterstatement, then enter the piano and a world that was one cascade of radiance after another, and I slept through it all, in augmented peace.

Well, everyone knows that the piano concertos are among Mozart’s greatest achievements, and that the concertante setup seems to suit him pluperfectly: the self in context of an accompanying world, a dialogue of the single and the collective . . . then the beauty of all those notes. It’s hard to say exactly why the music’s as great as it is. If you have to ask . . . All I can advise is: practice, practice, practice. And perhaps above all: listen less crudely. We live in a noisy and overbearing culture with its volume turned up to eleven. We turn things up because we’ve forgotten how to hear. Coming to grips with Mozart’s piano concertos will lead you into an education into the ways and means of beauty, and much besides. And it may yet remain difficult to put your finger on how it got to be this way and why.

       

The question remains: how can this music possibly be this good? Formally, even the best ones are like enough to each other to have come out of a cookie cutter. They open with the orchestra and a melody, sometimes striking, sometimes cute, sometimes a banal little march—#21 in C, which in its middle possesses what maybe the single sublimest melodic phrase ever written, begins that way—but then the piano enters with its incredible profusion of notes, each one golden, its melodies arrayed like sheets of sound or picked out in perfect individuations, wealths of melody threading the everywhere, so many notes it’s impossible for me to imagine anyone writing them all down, never mind imagining them, never mind playing them .  The concertos don’t have the scale of the music that began with Beethoven and expanded through the Romantic century. They’re tuneful. They’re ditties. They’re the greatest piano concertos ever written and there are a lot of them. Go figure.

Not long before he began writing eleven masterpieces in the form all in a row, between 1784 and 1786, he wrote a dismissive letter to his father about three piano concerti he had just turned out for the Viennese public:

These concertos are a happy medium between what is too easy and too difficult; they are very brilliant, pleasing to the ear, and natural, without being vapid. There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why…. The golden mean of truth in all things is no longer either known or appreciated. In order to win applause one must write stuff which is so inane that a coachman could sing it, or so unintelligible that it pleases precisely because no sensible man can understand it.

And in fact this casual attitude toward his material persisted into his golden period. He didn’t mind starting with trivial thematic stuff—just listen to the 17th concerto, which at the start gives little hint of the sublimity to come; and its slow movement seems still less promising, but it opens up to a chambered but intense drama that will amaze you if you listen right. (I’ve always loved it in a vague sort of way, but now I hear it as Beauty encountering Grief and then dealing with it—the initial encounter is one of the few things Perahia fails adequately to grasp and, I think, underplays in this music; whereas Brendel, who also has a scrollable set of the complete concertos, almost savagely overdoes it.) Mozart is a great example of Fats Waller’s “T’aint watcha do, it’s the way watcha do it.” Or of spinning gold from straw. He didn’t mind if the concertos were all constructed on the same pattern. And neither should we. I pass the mic to a Mozart scholar who must have only narrowly escaped  being invented by P.G. Wodehouse: Professor Cuthbert Girdlestone, who wrote of the concertos in 1939:

They are an inexhaustible spring of delight. Their diversity corresponds to our most varied moods, from the state of quiet content in which all we ask of art is entertainment, exquisite rather than deep, the exuberance of animal spirits, the consciousness of physical and moral health, to melancholy, sorrow and even revolt, and to an Olympian serenity breathing the air of the mountain tops. The comparative uniformity which we notice between them at first sight disappears with closer scrutiny. The feeling is never the same from one to the other; each one is characterised by a personality of its own and the variety of their inspiration shows itself ever greater as we travel more deeply into them.

My experience of the concertos confrims Professor Girdlestone’s perceptions, but there is one invariable constant among them: once the piano enters, so does that world of sunlight and infinite invention above the barrier of form the Robert Stone wrote of, and what becomes clear is that the piano is Mozart’s heaven, and what pours forth from it is more heavenly still. And if we ask ourselves why that should be, we might first settle on a readymade psychological explanation: he was a child star who never learned how to handle himself in the real world, so when he wrote these pieces, most of which were composed for his own use in concert, he was an escape artist making the perfect if temporary escape from the fortress of the real.

In part, maybe so, but if I have any aesthetic ideas that I adhere to it’s something I snatched from Proust: that the hacks of the art world, the Salieris, say, can use as many skills as they like, but the source of all true artistry does not proceed from the earthly personality of the artist but from his essential self, outside time, perhaps immortal, perhaps not—Proust doesn’t go that far—and this is something we, listening, can recognize because, even if we’re not ourselves artists, we possess or are possessed by such a self as well, and we detect upon the air the welcome scent of our true home in felicity and grace and a world beyond the one that passes before us here, as we pass too, and which, veiling itself, passes for life, as life, when really . . . The odd thing is that when Proust, and with him the narrator of his monsterpiece, discovers the fact of his extratemporal essence, it never occurs to him to ask to what order of Being this objective ontological fact, suddenly revealed to him, belongs. Instead he decides that in this world at least its only activity lies in the area of art, or in stray moments of eating a madeleine—in fact it was a rusk—with a tisane or stepping on an uneven paving stone. Proust enjoyed extremely idiosyncratic means of extratemporal travel; most people find out about such things via a spiritual practice of some kind, or dumb luck, or divine grace. (BTW, I think it was the narcissism that early experience bonded to his personality that sealed Proust away from higher enquiry: once he had himself in comprehensive view, that was enough.)  Mozart was certainly in no doubt about the nature of artistry, and took his analysis higher still: he understood his musical ability to be a gift from God, and therefore it had to be treated with appropriate respect.

But such a gift, and the respect due it, means that one has to do the work, prepare the place for it, accumulate all the expressive, technical, intellectual and emotional means—what these days we usually call craft—that will enable that gift as completely as possible to arrive in this world and do its stuff. The appropriate means for the appropriate gift, as it appears in unrepeatable individuals, each uniquely selfed outside time and also alive within it: Proust and Hemingway unpack different toolboxes when they set to work.

So here I sit, with what is often considered Mozart’s greatest piano concerto, #24 in C-minor playing alongside the sofa, and even in so tragically inclined a piece, a tragic sense undiminished, once we hear it well, by its classical, pre-Romantic scale—please notice that the main theme provides the model for Brahms’ titanically tragic First Concerto—even here the sense of the piano being Mozart’s heaven is inescapable. It helps, I’m sure, that I’m listening to Perahia’s refined and fluent version—he always goes for the pure gorgeous—and not to someone harder-edged, like Brendel. But there are mysteries even so.

I spent a few hours the other day reading Charles Rosen’s analysis of Mozart’s extremely abstruse technical means of achieving musical results that sound so natural you might think that the composer had found them ready-made as he strolled among the flowers of his native land and found them complete and perfect in a buttercup. Which I think helps explain the concertos’ variety within their alikeness, and may also help prove Proust’s point. And Elvin Jones’ point too. I mean that in of one of those life-of-Coltrane documentaries, at the very end, that brilliant, anarchic roughneck thundergodlike master of oceanic rhythm at the drums looks into the camera and with a semi-incredulous grin, tells us that in the time he spent with John Coltrane, “I experienced something more real than Life.” Then he gives it a nod yes, to make sure we understand that he means it literally.

So where does that leave us, with our lives, our daubs, our verses, paragraphs, paradiddles, singsongs, doodles?

I incline my ear—the good one: the others mugged up with an infection for the moment—or raise my sight a little higher, as the next concerto starts up with its fanfare, in a time on earth which it’s a pleasure to get any kind of vacation from.

Oh, and that Mozart-for-sleeping thing? It stopped working after a month or so into the pandemic, but so what? I remember going to an astonishing Fra Angelico show in the rear rotunda of the Met a few years back, and it must have been my lucky day, because even though I’d been to San Marco in Florence it was here that the paintings opened their throats and sang to me. I walked around for an hour or so, gaping in amazement the whole time, but did overhear some amusing comments from passersby. A well-dressed Upper-One-Side-or-the-Other woman told her adolescent son, “Never mind all those Jesuses and Madonnas, look at the art, the art.” Even better, as I stood before some small masterpiece, which I think depicted Mary at home, in some ornate red chamber in one world or the other, yet another woman told her son, “I don’t really like this period,” and I almost shouted out loud, What period do you mean, Eternity?

It’s amazing how much you can learn just by trying to get a good night’s sleep. I show no sign of getting tired of this music ever, never, ever.

The Dersuity of Uzala

I first saw Akira Kurosawa’s film Dersu Uzala in Colorado, when I was about thirty years old and already familiar with the muscular dynamism of Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. Dersu struck me immediately as an old man’s work, and for a while I found it difficult for my younger self to accustom itself to the slow pace of the film’s development. Then in about twenty minutes came a scene in which Captain Arseniev and his men, whom the hunter-trapper Dersu Uzala is guiding through a surveying mission in southeastern Siberia in the early 1900s, are sitting around a campfire behind which a twilit river seems, astonishingly, to be standing almost vertically behind them and flowing powerfully from left to right across the screen. The teapot-lid on the campfire is clattering and the short, squat, bowlegged Dersu takes the pot off the fire and says, “This is bad people. Make racket.” One of Arseniev’s soldiers says, “To you, everything around is people . . . Is fire alive too?” “Yes,” Dersu tells him. “Fire is people . . . Fire, water, wind—three mighty people.” In that moment the film came and got me. I was astonished by scenes so memorably shot they seemed to forcibly engrave themselves on my memory as if on stone—with the reservation that yes, it was a bit slow, and the second half wasn’t quite as good as the first, although it ended wrenchingly well.

Eventually, bluff against the growing condescension to Kurosawa among cinephiles who prefer the masterworks of Mizoguchi and Ozu, I would come to regard it as one of my very favorite films, definitely top ten, and, gradually, as the most thoroughgoingly Tolstoyan film I had ever seen. I don’t only mean its valorization of the primitive, tribal, simple, man of the earth who is Dersu—based on an actual, historical Dersu Uzala—but the unaccustomed breadth and existential inclusiveness of Kurosawa’s point of view, which, like Tolstoy’s, expands your consciousness of life as it enters you. The field of view of the human experience seems evenly lit, and is made visible in depth as if by the simple combination of sight and nature. It renders humanity and nature on an equal basis, not as set and setting, but as integral parts of a whole. This is something that writers could strive for, without taking up a rhetorical position that isolates one empirical reality from another, or unnaturally sections out their point of view. There’s nothing showy about the cinematography. Kurosawa was a virtuoso of dramatic composition but, a few standout scenes apart, he doesn’t make too visible a virtue of it here. The simplest things are eloquent. For all I know this was due to a constraint of the Soviet budget or the limitations of his unfamiliar film crew, but it looks intentional. Kurosawa’s way of seeing rhymes with Isaac Babel’s famous epigram: If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.

Nowadays, thanks to a generous birthday gift from a friend, I’m reading Captain Vladimir Arseniev’s journal of his travels with Dersu—Dersu the Trapper, a McPherson reprint of a 1941 original—and it’s helping me contemplate the nature of the artistic registry of life in whatever idiom and to try to wrap in my mind the essence of what makes a book or a film distinctive, and by implication what does not. Arseniev was not a great writer, and I’m reading him in a translation I can’t evaluate, but he was an excellent observer and a learned naturalist. When he tells you about a patch of forest he names the trees for you, and gives the Latin, but his writing sharpens only when he makes small observations of the life around him: the sound of a pica’s chuck, the behavior of woodpeckers peeping out from behind a tree, and other small observations of bird and animal behavior. And of course, Dersu. We can’t have enough Dersu. How many more pages do I have to read before there’s more Dersu. Kurosawa and his co-scenarist never let us wait very long before we get more Dersu, who is played by the unforgettable Maxim Munzuk who, as a sympathetic hero-figure in a Kurosawa film, is right up there with Takashi Shimura’s Kambei in Seven Samurai (who is so sympathetic he doesn’t seem to even slightly mind Toshiro Mifune stealing the film out from under him. I have a special attachment to Takashi Shimura. When I saw Godzilla at the age of ten I was so naïve that I thought that it must be the greatest monster movie ever made because it had the biggest monster, overtopping King Kong, say, by at least twenty storeys. Nevertheless, when Takashi Shimura showed up as the old scientist who has to explain to everyone who Gojira is and why he has come back, just looking at the man’s face made me want to weep, and I had no idea why. He might be my favorite actor in all of film.).

Kurosawa’s parsing of Arseniev’s text is exemplary, and a comparison of the film with the book could teach one a wealth about the selection and arrangement of significant detail, and how to make a story dramatic and unforgettable. And if you read the book you’ll get more of Dersu than can be fit into even so long a film. Arseniev and the translator, Malcolm Burr, have Dersu speaking like Tarzan—the film’s subtitles do better—but there are gems even so:

            The pig killed by Dersu was a two-year-old sow. I asked him why he had not shot a boar.

            “Him old man,” he explained, speaking of the old tusker. “Him bad to eat; meat much smell.”

            I was struck that Dersu spoke of the boar as a man, and asked him why he did so.

            “Him all same man,” he said, “only different shirt. Him know everything, know traps, know angry, know all round . . . all same man.”

Dersu and Arseniev may be the greatest representation of friendship in the whole of cinema—when Dersu saves the Captain’s life from a snowstorm in a shelter of reeds, it is as if Arseniev is reborn into a new recognition of life when he wakes in the morning—and a fellow-feeling of that friendship permeates the book as well, undiminished by the relatively arid stretches Arseniev could not have avoided in relating the story of his mission and his notes on the region.

I don’t want to deprive the ending of the film of the power of its secrets, but it’s enough to say that at the end of his second expedition with Arseniev, Dersu’s hunting eye fails him, in addition to which he has brought a curse on himself by—necessarily—shooting a tiger, so that he can no longer live in the forest. Arseniev invites him to come live with him and his family as an honored guest in the frontier town of Khabarovsk, and it is heart-rending to watch this paragon of life in the wild reveal his limitations, as he fails to adapt himself to the life he must live, in town, in the winter, surrounded by the kindness of Arseniev and his wife and son. I won’t disclose the final, tragic irony of this last act, but I can repeat something the distinguished environmentalist Arthur Sacks pointed out to me: the relationship between Dersu and the Captain, their mutual appreciation and the comity of their differentiated hearts, all derive from a Russian surveying mission of the region that in its consequences would help destroy the untrammeled nature of Dersu’s homeground, and the possibility of a life like his for anyone. Sacks also pointed out to me that in the very last scene, when Arseniev visits Dersu’s grave, the forest is being chopped down and a village is being built. (A propos, worse was to come: when Arseniev died of natural causes in 1930, Stalin already had an arrest warrant out on him. His wife was shot as a spy seven years later, and their daughter spent ten years in the Gulag, in Arseniev’s Siberia.)

The closing episodes in Khabarovsk are dealt with in very few pages in Arseniev’s book. Kurosawa has the acumen to draw them out—and to add a last, possibly apocryphal twist—to portray more fully the townbound counterweight to Dersu’s long life in the wild. None of this added, articulated detail is superfluous, even though it contradicts the usual filmmaking logic that tells the director to compress, compress, if possible reduce to a single image the nub of the story he is trying to make memorable and real.

There’s a lot to be learned and applied here.

Mizoguchi made one great film after another, no gaps, and Ozu sailed on an even keel, partly by making the same film many times in slightly different versions. Kurosawa was surprisingly uneven, making some okay flicks, some mediocrities, and a few real failures. He made only one great film in modern dress. You know the one. It ends with an old man on a playground swing in bad weather. Maybe his masterworks were all the stronger for the energy he expended on his hits and misses.

What can you say about something truly great? Everything and nothing.

Fictional People and You

This is a piece about people who make up characters and watch them go, or who observe real people closely and take notes, or mix up composite human compounds in their alembic and . . . It’s about writers and their inward constellations of the real and irreal intermixed. It’ll take me a minute to get there.

Shortly before Shakespeare wrote Hamlet circa 1600, he wrote the King Henry plays, which co-starred the greatest male character he’d created up to that point—Fat Jack, the Old Man of the Castle, the False Staff—who is also far and away the most gloriously verbose of his creations. Falstaff emits a skyful of word-clouds not only because to live he must expand, disguise, and obfuscate every fact with multiple versions of his own remaking, but because he is so over-full of Being he must, like God, breathe out Creation in a breath that existentiates his dreamed particulars and grants them the mercy of words. In this respect Falstaff is a portrait of his author, and they’re both so prolix as to be impossible to read in full. We seize one piece, lose another and never quite catch up to the whole. All Shakespeare’s men are self-dramatisers, but Falstaff overstuffs the human frame to overwhelm the world he walks in—until, two plays later, heartless truth speaks and his knell is rung.

Hamlet—the play, the man—breathes a different air, and we know it right away. His language seems a more limpid flow than any that has preceded it in Shakespeare, a purification, a living vein of inward silver. When we meet him in Act One Scene Two he is a young man who has had some shocks that are nothing compared to what’s coming, and already in soilèd Denmark feels himself a princeling too good for this world. In his public speech at court he asks leave to go back to school  in Wittenberg, but once alone he wishes his too too solid flesh would melt away from this gross and solid world and resolve itself into a dew. It’s as comprehensive a lemme outta here as one could speak, but circumstances have already come calling and he doesn’t know it yet. Ho, here comes Horatio with some soldier and the news about his father.

Hamlet’s got problems in his intellectual innards but he’s more intelligent and direct than anyone we’ve read before, and despite present confusions and those to come he is always focused on the essential matter, the quick and evanescent core of what confronts him whether inside or out: the deep and always self-transforming Real.

Once you’ve landed a character that compellingly, no absurdities of plot need trouble you overmuch. I don’t just mean the RosencrantzGuildenstern.doc switcheroo and a return to port via pirate ship but the nature of Hamlet’s central perplexity: we get it that he’s conflicted about his mom and at having to off Claudius for his half-departed dad, but what’s all this then, as soon as he gets the murder news, about him having to put on an antic disposition and play at madness? All right, it expresses his inner conflict but it’s externally unmotivated and excessively self-defeating, and it’s not really why he’s acting out. In Shakespeare’s Danish source-text our hero is named Fang and in that Danish court it’s widely known that his uncle zotzed his dad and shagged maman, so he’s as widely expected to take his just revenge on the king. He starts acting like a nutter in order to appear harmless and inane so he can stay alive long enough to do the needful; whereas our so far unsuspected Hamlet is the most immediate to the throne with ready access to the royal ribcage from the start, so that suddenly acting nutso only calls attention to him, so that he’s not just the glass of fashion, mould of form, and observed of all observers, but a clear and present danger and a walking target with a big red arrow on it, one he keeps pointing and repointing right back at him. Why doesn’t this huge implausibility ever bother us? Sure, Shakepeare can sell us anything, but that can’t be the whole story.

Here’s an interpretation—which is always a limiting factor—about what goes with him. Hamlet is too good for this world and doesn’t want to get involved in it, but comes upon him his father’s command, beyond deny, and he’s stuck with having to intermix with the gross in nature beings and doings that possess it merely; and it’s his sheer reluctance to dirty his hands and muddy his soul that makes him want to act out. He feels himself superior to the manifest order of worldly existence, and knows that anything that implicates him in it will have filthy, lethal consequences to himself and, inescapably, to anyone close to him. He would rather not have been born, and although many of us have felt something like that, he is now confronted with an extreme case of that repulsion. He has to act, in fact to kill—which is the ultra-type of every action within the sublunary, mortal sphere—and he doesn’t want to go there. Not without reason. If I had to direct a production of Hamlet, that’s the through-line I’d follow. It doesn’t eliminate the other currents in play and has the additional virtue of obviating the Freudian stodge.

One thing I’m sure of about the lad, who is affectionate, generous, and freehand with anyone who meets his true untroubled standard: we all want him to like us, to find us sound, unfalse, find us in accord with his supernal self-harmony now put tragically on trial.

I was rambling through these familiar thoughts when it occurred to me that all Hamlet’s inly wise mercurial predecessors in Shakespeare’s work all have names like Juliet, Rosalind, Beatrice, women always smarter and more subtly truthful than their men. Hamlet is a woman, or rather, male, he is a descendant of his author’s matrilineal line of transmission, hardly to be called descent. Or perhaps Shakespeare has achieved a greater integration of his masculine and feminine aspects allowing him to raise to a new height and depth his already virtuoso poetic and professional practice. (To add to this the poignancy of his son Hamnet’s death to plague is more than I can tally here; and Ted Hughes’ ‘tragic equation’ balancing the Goddess of Complete Being on his head would also make an unsightly bulge.)

Orson Welles, who would have known, pointed out that Shakespeare’s tragedies are sodden with melodrama, and in sum and action that is Hamlet’s condition daily: to be a tragic character stuck amid the melodramatic personae of Elsinore: to have one more dimension than anyone else in view: the only one who’d read Montaigne and overleapt him: a quality of apartness Shakespeare himself must have found a too-constant puzzler betimes.

I think that the best character-writing appears when the imagined character is most real to its author, a felt and palpable presence, and in contemplation larger than life, or in any case large enough to obscure the rest of it. Shakespeare appears to have had this capacity more continuously than any author. He seems able to inhabit from inside the anatomy of his leastmost atomy or functional human unit; but with Hamlet, as everyone already knows, he achieved an unprecedented depth. His river had found its sea, and in the years to come he would sail to its every shore.

Fine for him, but what about scribbler folks fashioned forth on our more modest scale?

                                                            *

I’ve written characters a few different ways. I’ve done it from inside and out, I’ve disguised people I know with alternate names or noses, have clapped a few friends together and played the accordioned result, and once or twice or maybe thrice I’ve had the full, most satisfying experience of cohabiting with someone made of my essential stuff who yet is not me, in fact is more, in fact is so real that I breathe and feel him fully present as someone no longer me. It’s the lifting of the burden of being oneself, a wonderful liberation that rings truer than you do, and conforms to a somehow higher world.

When I was a younger writer I didn’t want to be found out. Didn’t want to leave traces of myself behind as spoor to be decoded by any nosy readers. I must have had a guilty soul. Maybe you could write some stories in that condition, but a worthwhile novel? I doubt it. When finally I wrote a novel for real I was able to give up trying to conceal myself because I was no longer present when the Bear was. Actually we were pals. Good pals. He and Jones were a split decision on me and it was obvious. Jones was me without talent, but the Bear was a true himselfness, made of my stuff but betterly real. The book had to be written so I had to let my inmost self show itself and not care. It would have been scary had not the relief of escaping my selfsame prison been so satisfying. I’d suffered long enough from the rooted illusion that my characters should resemble me as little as did Raskolnikov, Fabrizio, Pierre, the Consul, or Molloy resembled, as I thought, their makers. So I guess that one of the keys that opened writing long fiction for me was becoming less afraid of my own human nature.

Another character I wrote who disappeared me, unpublished, was my first true villain, probably what I’d be like if I were a sociopath. I had good sport with him but he disturbed other people in a serious way. His look and manner and rhythm were drawn from a guy I’d known for a few weeks in Paris forty-six years before I wrote him into an imagined California, but his soul was pared from mine and the juices were inextricable from each other. Even the most detached great novelist of his epoch had to confess, with whatever ironic declension, “I am Madame Bovary,” just you and I are all the people in our dreams, differently portioned out.

Nowadays it’s been noised about that we’ve had it with well-rounded human-seeming simulacra, so how about some flat ones, or some cool attractive absences. Human nature has been disclosed as an empty subject, a haphazard pileup of evolution and accident. We’re tired of it, we’d like some cardboard, let’s throw out the pizza and eat the box. Film-acting has taken the place of character-making anyway. We mean just what we see and that is all. The sun’s only gonna last a few more billion years anyway. There is no there there, or if there is one we’re too tired to invest in it or care too much. On an impalpably higher octave a Buddhism might agree. But for now, once no one’s home, so disappears the point of interest. If there’s no heart, or a heart with nothing in it, who’s to care?  I can read books that are done like that and even enjoy them if they don’t go on too long, but they never truly win my allegiance. I can’t help it. It’s constitutional: my reading of fiction is centered in character, and as a writing coach I make a special effort to bring it out, in whatever form it suits the writer in question. I don’t think fiction has had its day and its bags are packed and locked. There are dimensions of human nature that haven’t been reported yet .

So I’ll never make a good post-modernist, I guess. Or much of a Buddhist either—I think Identity is inherent in Creation. I’m so old and grey and set re essential preferences that I don’t innately regard, re music, say, the subtraction of melody from the traditional trinity of melody, harmony, rhythm, as a big advance, except into the post-human, which is a world hurrying toward us, and we toward it. I won’t be around for  most of that and it’s too hot anyway so why should I care but I do. “Because” would involve a further discussion we ain’t got room for here.

When it comes to the actual writing of fiction, each writer finds his and her instinctive inner viewpoint, and has an instrument with which to find a proper depth of operative inner view, also optionally changeable with each character and different books. I tend to work close inside but I don’t think it’s the only true measure of the telling. If I could write like Chekhov, as clean and apparently simple as that, I would. If I could write like the world I’d open the windows wide and do a Tolstoy. If I could make Hemingwayan omission sail icebergs for me I’d open the  biggest cocktail bar. If I could make Le Carré’s acute behavioral observations of mixed humans I would do them.

As for memoir, I walked into it thinking that it was just writing, and that I could deal with painful experiences without re-suffering them, but that turned out to be worng, real worng, not to mention the wounding blowback from someone who told me I could write anything I wanted about him but who did everything he could to hurt me when he saw the result in print. It was my fault, my own grievous fault. Caveat scriptor.

I think the best characters come out of deep process and inner transmogrification, but how many of those will we be capable of in our lives? And for us non-Shakespeareans, sometimes observation, imposture, compositing, cheating and lying well enough will sometimes have to do. As for those who have a never-failing spring of living water within, you don’t need to be reading this. I salute you.

Proust made one of his several million brilliant remarks when considering the received notion that Tolstoy was a great observer. He said T’s observations were not essentially those of the eye but of a thinking mind, one that sought out the general law beneath observable appearances. He might have added, with Isaiah Berlin, that when Lev Nikolaevich forsook his fox-eyed multiplicity of view and began thinking like a hedgehog he lost sight of the best treasures in his lair.

Our work is to prepare the place in ourselves and meanwhile learn the architecture, bring light to every stair and cornice, buttress the weakened walls, repair broken lintels, grout the tiles, paper or unpaper the walls of the house of revelation, or of memory, or reportage, analysis, jiggery-pokery, free improv, simple play, joyful sport, antics light and dark. Whether the place is a temple or a brothel, light up the space within. That is a kind of love, and love plumbed deep enough might save us yet.

Welcome To My Blog

The last time I set up a website I had to use actual webs, along, of course, with the usual hammer and chisel, and the antelope I claimed to have hunted and bulls I had coached were even harder to draw than they were to count. The webs were mostly for decoration, and the spider did not come cheap and she took long breaks for “lunch.” As for tweets, my mynah bird kept going over the limit.

So it’s been a while since I’ve done this.

During lockdown in my present Brooklyn cave, Chekhov’s letters, even though none of them were sent to me, provided the friendliest reading. It’s always good to encounter a great writer who is not only not a jerk but actually some kind of paragon. I don’t mean just inventing the modern short story and, in a different, more musical mode of invention, the plupart of modern drama. I do mean a guy who lived only to the age of 44, published over 4,500 pages of sketches, stories, plays, and his extraordinary survey of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island—the letters chronicle his eye-widening journey across Russia in late winter—and found time, when a cholera epidemic hit his region, to get on the road with horse and cart, a good country doctor—never mind that he was in increasingly tubercular health—looking after his neighbors and also raising funds so that the local landsmen wouldn’t sell their livestock and seed-grain, and they’d have the means of surviving once the epidemic passed. Timely, huh?

And he wrote in fairly simple sentences, one after another, without exaggeration, so that we see the truth. Okay, he was opportunistic and elusive with the women who fell in love with him, and only let one tie him down when he was on his last legs, so, absolutely perfect he was not. But if you don’t know his letters and if, as I assume by your presence here, you’re into writers and writing, you’ll find him more upbeat among his friends—you’ll soon be one of them—than in most of his published work.

I had two collections to work with. One, edited by Simon Karlinsky, frames an acute selection of letters with biographical and personal commentary, and is a smooth, authoritative read. The other, a sprawling compendium chocked by Avrahm Yarmolinsky with wonderful Chekhovian ramble and flow, can probably be found used via some shop or website or another. All of it will cheer you up about writing, if you need cheering up about writing, and although we can’t all be Chekhov, or for that matter Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or PG Wodehouse, getting to know one of the finest, pleasantest authors in the club will not only improve the prospect ahead but teach you tons.

Let me know if you get in touch with him, and drop by at this address to tell me how he, and you, are doing. I’ll roast a haunch of something for you, if there’s anything left in the cave.