Sunday, June 26, 2022

A Neglected Classic: Fredrick Exley's "Pages from a Cold Island"


 Is Frederick Exley's neglected novel, Pages from a Cold Island, one of the great American classics of the 1970s?  It is out of print, so it has few fans.  It is one of the best novels I've read this summer, along with such wildly disparate selections as Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, Balzac's Cousin Pons, and Seneca's De Otio (On Leisure). Did the critics give Exley a break?  Not at The New York Times, where  Alfred Kazin droned on about how much he loathes the non-fiction novel (which is known as autofiction now.)

I am a great fan of Exley's acclaimed novel, A Fan's Notes, and  Pages from a Cold Island is a brilliant, if unconventional, sequel.  Much of it takes the form of a homage to Edmund Wilson, who died in 1972. 

At the time of Wilson's death,  Exley is sobering up at his mother's house in upstate New York and preparing to teach for a semester in Iowa City at the Writers' Workshop.  He almost misses Wilson's obituary in The Watertown Gazette, his hometown paper, because  he is riveted to an  article about the arrest of one of his ex-pupils for possession of unprescribed amphetamines.  The ex-pupil had once called him a cocksucker:  "we'd been reading Shakespeare and apparently his diseased mind had equated an appreciation for the Bard with a yearning to envelop inflamed penises with  my oral cavity." (Exley then slammed the boy against the blackboard and slapped him.)

Exley is depressed by the brief death notice.  He considers Wilson, who grew up near Exley's hometown, the greatest American writer of all time.  Exley is indignant about the TV news coverage:  both the local news anchor and Walter Cronkite give Wilson only three or four sentences.  And Exley becomes obsessed with Wilson, as he tries to make a syllabus for his workshop students.  Should he assign Hecate County or To the Finland Station?  And then, while rereading Nabokov's Pale Fire, he becomes convinced that the model for  Nabokov's "'shaggy'-headed, downhome, and aging poet John Shade was Wilson!"  

But Exley gets a grip and fussily explains his mania:  "Well aware of their celebrated feuds over Eugene Onegin and Wilson's by no means that uncomplimentary portraits of 'Volodya' and his wife Vera in Upstate (both of which feuds, frankly, were carried to distasteful extremes suggesting both men were playing games), I thought that so gratuitously injecting Wilson into Nabokov's novel resulted from nothing more than the guilt I felt that so hard by his death I had determined to read Pale Fire and hadn't yet decided on the Wilson fiction."

In Singer Island, Florida, where Exley lives in a beach hotel and spends most of his time drinking, he becomes obsessed with Gloria Steinem, the celebrity feminist writer who founded Ms. magazine and co-founded and organized famous feminist organizations and events.  He spends days preparing for what turns out to be an uncomfortable four-hour interview with Steinem, who is not the angry feminist he'd expected, but a charming, outspoken, well-informed woman.  But the interview doesn't go well: there isn't much connection between them, which he blames on using a tape recorder instead of taking notes.  She does not answer his final questions bu mail, as she'd promised, because someone told her nasty things about Exley.

He also describes his semester at Iowa, which he does not enjoy. The talented workshop students turn out to be such brutal critics of each other's work that he dreads the mayhem in class.  The literature class is fine, because he teaches his beloved Wilson and Nabokov, and is accepted as an authority. However, Exley spends most of his time drinking at Donnelly's, a bar for hardcore alcoholics, or a dive called the Deadwood with the Epstein brothers, owners of a bookstore, and their store manager, Danny.  That apparently is great fun, but even so Exley cancels his seminars a week early and heads back to Florida - where nothing is expected of him.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Living in Dystopia: The Overturning of Roe V. Wade


A rally in the 1970s


The signs of dysfunction were all there - the rise of the Christian right, the closing of Planned Parenthood clinics in red states, the near-ban of abortions in Oklahoma - but I did not expect the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

If I may say so, I am not tactfully pro-Choice:  I strongly favor birth control and abortion. In our polluted, overpopulated world, it would be more sensible to limit the number of children to two per family than to ban abortion.  Now that would be another violation of a woman's right to choose - but at least it would be good for the environment.  I'm just saying, Justices of the Supreme Court! 

One summer I worked for NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League), and, after arranging the flyers on a trestle table, I would call out to passers-by, "Keep abortion safe and legal!" Many signed postcards and petitions that asserted I'M PRO-CHOICE AND I VOTE! (These were delivered to Congress and the Senate.) 

Despite the polls that say the majority of Americans support legal abortion, where are we now?


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

The Sports Injury: Richard Ford's "The Sportswriter" & Frederick Exley's "A Fan's Notes"




There is nothing more tedious than a sports injury.

I have been limping because of a sports injury. (I hurt my back during power yoga).  And I have been thinking about sports and sports injuries in literature. The male protagonists tend to watch sports rather than play them, so their injuries are mental rather than physical. 

 Richard Ford's The Sportswriter (1986), the first volume in the stunning Frank Bascombe tetralogy, is an American classic, not necessarily for sports fans.  Frank, a former fiction writer, accepted a job as a sportswriter, because he has become indifferent to writing fiction.  He wants desperately to live on the surface, to feel nothing, since his oldest son died, and he and his wife, X, a golfer and voracious reader, are divorced and unhappy.  X must keep it together and raise their two younger children, while Frank sets out to be the most superficial man in the world.

For instance, he takes his girlfriend, a nubile young nurse, Vicki, to Detroit, which she pronounces DEE-troit.  Frank seems to regard Vicki as a pet, which she figures out eventually.  Frank is too cheap to pay for the weekend, so he arranges to interview  Herb Wallagher, a paraplegic ex-ball player in Detroit.  But Herb is so bitter that Frank's interview will prove unusable.  And we can't really blame Frank or Herb. 

"Do you ever miss athletics?"

Herb stares at me reproachfully.  "You're an asshole, Frank, you know that?"

"Why do you say that?"

"You don't know me." 

"That's what I'm doing here, Herb.  I'd like to get to know you and write a good story about you.  Paint you as you are.  Because I think that's pretty interesting and complex in itself."

"You're just an asshole, yep, and you're not going to get any inspiration out of me.  I dropped all that.  I don't have to do for anybody, and that means you.  Especially you, you asshole.  I don't play ball anymore."


 Frank's attitude towards sportswriting is not completely dissimilar to Herb's attitude toward sports.  But there will be no joy in the interview for Frank.  In the next volume of the tetralogy, Independence Day, Frank is in real estate.

 Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a fictional memoir published in 1968,  is not only a famous sports novel, but an early example of autofiction.  The narrator, Exley, an alcoholic, is anxious before Giants games. His personal life is also anxious: he is in and out of mental hospitals, sometimes sponges off his parents, and occasionally lives at a bachelor friend’s apartment.  

His obsession with sports is maniacal. His father was a local high-school and college football star. And then Exley went to USC with Frank Gifford, who became a player for the Giants.   Exley never knew Gifford, but partly identifies with him, partly hates him.

When Exley lands a teaching job at a high school, we hope he'll prosper. But he is disturbed by the limitations and ignorance of the English faculty.  One of the teachers tells him not to talk during meetings:  it takes up too much  time.  Exley pities the  chair of the department, who talks into a void.

Unsure of our ability to read (our ability to talk hadn’t encouraged him), he read each and every item [on a mimeographed sheet] to us….  Matchlessly vapid, the items were such that I remember only one of them, and that only because to this day I have no notion what he meant by it:  The best place to make out your lesson plans is at your desk.

So it's no wonder that Frank drives every weekend to another town to sit in the bar, drink too much, and watch the Giants games.  

This novel is unflaggingly male, teeming with beer, gin, football, TV, depression, hospitalizations, and bachelor’s pads. The obsession with a sport he'll never play seems to be part of Exley's mental illness.

 You have to read past  Exley's sexist attitudes, because this is an American classic.

We need a revival of Exley's work.  A Fan's Notes is the first of a trilogy. Perhaps a Library of America edition?

"Sports" novels are not just for sports fans.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Charm and Nuisance: The Trouble with Pool Parties

If you live in a northern town or city, you will see few private swimming pools.  Private pools are for people in Hollywood, we used to think.  

That may have changed in our backwater in the last fifteen or twenty years. According to several websites,
the accuracy of which I don't vouch for, there are 10.4 million private pools in the U.S., and 40 percent are in California and Florida.  

Private pools have not caught on in flyover country, even with global warming.  But my friend Cassandra has gone mad about her neighbors' swimming pool, on the patio of which she expects Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin to break out singing and dancing.   She claims that the young pool owners are "tacky nouveau riche riffraff."

I guffawed at her nouveau idiom.  Indeed, I haven't heard the phrase nouveau riche since I taught at a fancy private school.  The more sophisticated, experienced teachers criticized the students' parents' nouveau riche life-style, of which I was oblivious.  And that was the first time I heard the phrase outside of a Henry James novel.

But the nouveau riche - whoever they may be - have occupied our backwater.  According to my friend, the neighbors' pool parties are so Dionysian that Jay Gatsby's wild parties seem tame.  They play their music so loudly that the foundations of all the houses in the neighborhood shake.  For fun my friend looks up city ordinances about pools. And I must say, the pool parties are obnoxious.

My experience with pool parties is strictly cinematic and literary. I vaguely remember pool party scenes in movies set in Hollywood. I  can't remember the names of any of these films, so perhaps I read them in some novel.  Anyway, glamorous aspiring actors and actresses drink cocktails and mingle charmingly with the well-known guests, hoping to meet the pool owner - a director or producer.

And so I began to wonder:  What happens at pool parties in literature? Well, mostly drinking.  In John Cheever's well-known short story, "The Swimmer," which was made into an excellent film with Burt Lancaster in 1968, Neddy Merrill attends a pool party.  After drinking a lot of gin, begins a journey swimming through neighborhood pools, planning eventually to circle  back home.  Along the way he crashes pool parties and meets interesting, difficult people. 

Vivid and suburban, Cheever's writing hooks you from the first sentence.  (You can read the story at the Library of America website.)

It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, "I drank too much last night."  You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover.  "I drank too much," said Donald Westerhazy.  "We all drank too much," said Lucinda Merrill.  "It must have been the wine," said Helen Westerhazy.  "I drank too much of that claret."

This was at the edge of the Westerhazy's pool.  ... The sun was hot.  Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic, The Great Gatsby, which was adapted as a movie in 2013, starring Leonard DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, the pool is part of lonely nouveau riche Gatsby's  ostentatious life-style.  He entertains people he barely knows at his wild parties.  He himself rarely uses the pool.

In Chapter 3,  the narrator, Nick Carraway, observes Gatsby's parties from his nearby house;  then he is invited to a party.  Here is the exquisite first paragraph of Chapter 3, which does not feature the pool but gives you a sense of Fitzgerald's exquisite style.

There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motorboats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.

Is it time to reread Gatsby?  I had forgotten how remarkable Fitzgerald is.

What are your favorite pool parties in literature or the movies?  Inquiring minds want to know.

Saturday, June 18, 2022

Gaslighting in Balzac's "Cousin Pons" and a Reread of G. S. Kirk's "The Nature of Greek Myths"



I am reading eclectically this summer.  It began with a little-known classic by Balzac, Cousin Pons, which is perhaps the greatest 19th-century novel about an inheritance scandal - greater than Middlemarch.  Then I hunkered down with G. S. Kirk's The Nature of Greek Myths,  a definitive work  first published in 1974.  Kirk takes an intellectual approach: he explores the difference between myths and folktales;  subdivides myths into categories; skewers psychoanalytic and anthropological theories of myth; compares literary versions of myths by Homer, Hesiod, Herodotus, Callimachus, and the tragedians; and describes the transformation of  a myth-dominated culture into one which valued philosophy.


is enough about Kirk, whom few of you will read. 

Let me unreservedly praise Balzac's Cousin Pons (1847), which he paired with Cousin Bette, his brilliant novel about greed, money, art, and family revenge. Unlike the scheming, vengeful Cousin Bette, Cousin Pons is a good, generous man, an impoverished theater orchestra conductor and music tutor whose aristocratic cousins no longer welcome him to dinner as he grows shabbier and older. Then, suddenly, he is very ill and circled by human vultures who have discovered that his collection of  rare paintings,  fans painted by Watteau, snuff boxes, and other bric-a-brac is priceless. He has spent years searching shops for masterpieces and spent what little money he has on his collection.

People love people with money - especially people who want to take it from you!  Suddenly everybody wants to be Pons's friend - or should I say" friend"? - though he hasn't a franc in actual money. The wicked concierge, Madame Cibot, one of the most memorable liars and villains in French literature, "gaslights" Pons by admitting ghoulish antique dealers into the flat at night to pick over what they want. (She gets a percentage.)   Pons awakens and sees them, though Madame Cibot says he is dreaming.  But he hobbles with great difficulty into the front room after her departure and is appalled to see that minor paintings from a back room have now replaced his masterpieces. Pons's guileless German musician roommate, Wilhelm Schmucke,  approved the sales because Madame Cibot bullied him and claimed he and Pons were in debt to her. As Pons puts together what is going on, he determines to stay alive long enough to take care of sweet, silly, Schmucke - and make sure Schmucke inherits his  fortune, rather than the greedy dealers and his cousins.

And vultures they are!  An unscrupulous lawyer, Monsieur Fraisier, and an unethical doctor, Poulaine, descend upon  Pons with a plot to hasten his death and  to prove him non compos mentis to win the inheritance for  Pons's aristocratic cousins -  in return for prestigious jobs for themselves.

Are there any good people in Balzac's world?  Well, yes, there  are.  The people of the small theater, whose morals might not stand up to those vaunted by Pons's cruel, hypocritical, rich cousins,  are loyal and unselfish, if not especially interested in the old man Pons.  They willingly help him trick Madame Cibot and Monsieur Fraisier by witnessing a will that leaves everything to the Louvre - which the deceitful Cibot and Fraisier read and purloin in the night - but that morning Pons makes  a second foolproof will, with a different notary, and still witnessed by friends.  Schmucke is the sole heir.

Does it all work out?  I was breathless till the end.   It doesn't end as I had hoped,  but it  does not end without hope.  It's not that people are VERY good - Balzac certainly vilifies most of the characters in Cousin Pons - but some are incorruptible.  And it fascinated me that these few are mostly involved with a small theater, where they must struggle to make ends meet.  They are the only people the two old musicians could count on.

N.B.  I very much enjoyed Herbert J. Hunt's translation of  Cousin Pons (Penguin)

Thursday, June 16, 2022

Thomas Hardy's Masterpiece, "The Mayor of Casterbridge"


Writers have radically different views on Thomas Hardy.  D. H. Lawrence considered Hardy the best novelist of the 19th century; Stella Gibbons criticized Hardy's (and Lawrence's) "loam-and-lovechild" novels and satirized them in Cold Comfort Farm.  Hardy's fans have their differences:  some prefer his reputed masterpieces,  Tess of the d'Uurbervilles (one of my favorites) and Jude the Obscure (too melodramatic even for me), while I dally with The Woodlanders and A Laodicean. 

My favorite is The Mayor of Casterbridge, an almost- perfect Greek tragedy set in England in the 19th century.  The prose is exquisite, the plot intricate, and the structure a ring composition. 

In this masterpiece, Hardy charts the rise and fall of Michael Henchard, who, as a young man, tragically gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife, Susan, to a sailor, Newson, for five guineas, along with their daughter Elizabeth-Jane.  When Michael sobers up, he searches for them but cannot find them. And so he vows to abstain from alcohol for 20 years, and moves to Casterbridge, where he succeeds as a grain merchant - and becomes the mayor.

Years later, Susan and Elizabeth Jane return to the scene of the fair, where Susan tries to find word of Michael, because her other "husband," Newson, has died.   They find Michael in Casterbridge, and he makes amends by marrying Susan, who is awed by his beautiful house and riches; but he had planned to marry his long-time mistress, Lucetta.  Eventually, Lucetta moves to Casterbridge. 

Ironically, Michael's marriage to Susan, which raises both Susan and Elizabeth Jane up several classes, is the beginning of Michael's downfall.  There are many twists:  there is a mystery about the identity of his daughter, not revealed until after Susan's death.  

But mostly this is a novel about jealousy.  Hot-headed Henchard  becomes jealous of the popularity of a  brilliant young Scotsman, Farfrae, a scientist, whom he once liked, and hired as the manager of his business; he fires him, but then cannot compete with Farfrae as a rival businessman.Farfrae and Elizabeth Jane are interterested in each other, but Henchard forbids him to see her.   Farfrae gradually obtains everything Henchard has or had, including Lucetta.  Henchard thinks Farfrae is deliberately setting out to wreck his life  - and one can see why he thinks it, but Farfrae regrets the loss of their friendship.

 And then there are triangles within triangles within triangles.  We have Michael, Susan, and Newson; Michael, Susan, and Lucetta;  Michael, Farfrae and Lucetta; and Farfrae, Elizabeth-Jane and Lucetta...

I love nothing more than a good wallow in a Hardy novel:  an uncritical enjoyment of his lyrical if occasionally heavy-handed prose (but the style is uniformly elegant in The Mayor), athe characters' tragic love affairs, the descriptions of Wessex (the fictional county where his novels and stories are set),  and  the complicated structures of his novels.

However, J. I. M. Stewart (a Hardy scholar, novelist, and  writer of mysteries under the pseudonym Michael Innes) is not as partial to The Mayor of Casterbridge as I am.  In his introduction to the Modern Library edition, he cannot resist a certain dry mockery. He thinks Hardy's novel benefited from being written as a weekly serial: "Above all, the quick manipulation of event and character required by his crowded fable keeps Hardy's hands fully occupied so that he has leisure for but few of those large cosmic gestures which have threatened to become routine with him."  

And there are more observations in this caustic vein.  He writes, "[The characters] seem resigned to parting or coming together, to dying or bobbing up from the dead, with a precision and punctuality in terms of the proposed exhibition suggestive of a factory in which an advanced state of automation has been achieved." 

 Very witty, but...   I do at least agree with Stewart when he says that Michael Henchard is one of Hardy's most memorable male characters - and one of the best in English literature.  

J.I.M. Stewart is a  scholar and the author of Thomas Hardy:  A Critical Biography. I have enjoyed J. I. M. Stewart's novels, but found his critique of The Mayor of Casterbridge a bit depressing.  It is a mistake for Hardy fans to get mixed up with the critics, I always say.  And I have read this novel so many times -  why did I bother with the introduction?

Monday, June 13, 2022

What Would Doris Lessing Say? The Implosion of Sex in the Arts


What would Doris Lessing say?


In the year of our Lord 2016, madness began to consume the world of arts.  Let us bear witness to a subset of that world, the  literary scene, which has imploded on itself with the new fashionable Puritanism and political correctness.

What would Doris Lessing say? Like Lessing, who, as she grew older, used to talk about the days "when she was still a woman," I don't feel particularly feminine these days; indeed, aging makes one less conscious of gender issues, and more exasperated with gender politics.  Lessing, who denied she was a feminist, even though we feminists claimed her,  pitied  men who lived in our times, because she thought - and this must have been the '90s, so think how appalled she'd be now - they had lost their place in the world and weren't allowed to fight back. No, I don't go that far. But the current atmosphere of witch hunts and victim-heroines has had a political result:  the derailing of men's careers on sexual misconduct charges has produced job opportunities for women.  

I read mostly women writers and respect women editors.  Still, at the back of my mind I am aware of the "erasures" that have plagued the literati in recent years. By 2017, I could not open a newspaper without finding a new list of proscribed men.  On a personal level these men might have been cretins, but surely they couldn't all be guilty.  Statistically, would that even be possible?  (By the way, I kept expecting to see Cicero's name;  he was proscribed - but for political reasons.)   Some of the misconduct scandals were horrifying, but most amounted to very little - is touching a woman's back really sexual harassment?   My generation must have been tougher.


In the aftermath of multiple scandals, women have become editors of prominent magazines.  Lorin Stein, the editor of The Paris Review, resigned from his job in 2017 during an internal investigation of his sexual misconduct. He made the requisite apologies for blurring the lines of professionalism with women employees and writers - and then disappeared from view.  Emily Neman succeeded him as editor in 2018, and Emily Stokes succeeded Neman in March 2021.  It's a remarkable magazine - but two Emilys in a very short time!

What happened to Lorin Stein?  I don't know.  But Katie Roiphe wrote about him in a brilliant article in 2018 at Harper's, "The Other Whisper Network:  How Twitter feminism is bad for women."


...Not long ago, I was sitting on a friend’s couch, and she was talking about Lorin Stein, an acquaintance of mine for many years, with a special intensity. She also knew Lorin Stein, who was then still the editor of The Paris Review. Of course, Stein has since resigned under a cloud of acknowledged sexual misconduct....My friend was drinking chamomile tea and telling me second- and thirdhand stories about him with what, for a minute, I thought was gusto, but might have been political concern. “I like Lorin,” she told me. “I don’t have a personal stake in this.” She then informed me that he had sexually harassed two interns at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, where he had worked before his Paris Review tenure, leading to hushed-up, sealed settlements. She delivered this piece of highly specific information so confidently that I did not stop and think, even though I teach in a journalism department: Is this factually correct?


The next morning, I related the troubling new fact of the FSG settlements to a journalist friend. Could it be true? She checked it very thoroughly and called that evening to tell me she could find no truth at all to the settlement rumors. I was disgusted with myself for repeating what was probably a lie about someone I liked and had nothing against. What was wrong with me?

At The New York Review of Books, the editor Ian Buruma was fired  in 2018 after publishing a piece by former Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who had been accused by 20 women and acquitted of charges of one count of choking and four counts of sexual assault.  I never saw this unsavory article, and it is unlikely that I would have read it anyway, so I cannot judge whether it was good or bad - but clearly the timing was bad, and editors have to be savvy about those matters.  

Perhaps Lydia Polgreen, the  editor of the Huff Post, put it best when she  said amusingly, “I really think the outrage was over the sloppy editing and then his intellectually incoherent justification of the piece.Truly unworthy of a publication with NYRB’s aspiration.”

Let me just mention the cultural appropriation fanatics.  They consider it morally wrong to write about any group, race, religion, or country unless one is a member.  This is not even practicable, is it?  And yet a group of Latinx writers in 2020 protested at bookstores and sent death threats to Jeanine Cummins, a white writer whose novel, American Dirt, centered on a Mexican woman and her child fleeing from a cartel hit and finally making it  to the U.S. border.  Because of the death threats, Cummins canceled her book tour, but American Dirt was still an Oprah Club pick and a best-seller.  


Going off the track a bit:  may I admit I am glad that Johnny Depp won his defamation case against his ex-wife Amber Heard, who in 2018 published a short op/ed piece in The Washington Post saying she was a victim of domestic violence and implying that Depp had abused her?

I began to read about the trial after reading Marius Kociejowski's memoir, A Factotum in the Book Trade.  Kociejowski writes that Depp came into Peter Ellis bookshop one day and bought a second edition of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.  Naturally this heightened my respect for this excellent actor.  And Depp was articulate and credible during the trial.  I was also impressed by the women who testified on his behalf, among them Kate Moss, who assured them that Depp had never pushed her down a flight of stairs at a hotel - that he wasn't even there when she fell. 

Ironically, Heard's op/ed piece had repercussions for the careers of both actors.  After its publication, Depp lost a lucrative movie deal reprising his role in The Pirates of the Caribbean.   Why Heard hae continued the battle in print is a mystery - they were already divorced.

Doris Lessing would have hated this. She, too, was tired of the battle of the sexes.