Tuesday, March 31, 2009


Biss, Bob

There is an assumption that essayists must be introverts. It probably starts with Montaigne, who retired from public life and more or less pulled up the drawbridge in order to write his fat volume of essays. He went so far as to have a navel-gazing mission statement inscribed on the walls of his study: "In the year of Christ 1571, at the age of thirty-eight, on the last day of February, his birthday, Michael de Montaigne, long weary of the servitude of the court and of public employments, while still entire, retired to the bosom of the learned virgins, where in calm and freedom from all cares he will spend what little remains of his life, now more than half run out." Still, there is an equal and opposite tradition of the essayist as fact finder. The late David Foster Wallace, whose sprawling novels always beat with an essayistic heart, noted that practitioners of the genre "watch over other humans sort of the way gapers slow down for car wrecks: they covet a vision of themselves as witnesses."

In any case, these thoughts were occasioned by a paragraph I came across last night in Eula Biss's Notes from No Man's Land. Her topic, often, is race--still a thorn in the side of America's collective consciousness, even with Barack Obama securely lodged in the Oval Office. Yet her approach is highly varied, mingling the personal and historical as if to insist that only an amnesiac would do otherwise. And her research does bear some amazing fruits. "Relations," for example, is about dolls--black ones and white ones. Biss discusses her own girlish pastimes with the doll she named, in an engagingly no-frills style, Black Doll. Inevitably she grapples with Barbie and her multi-hued entourage, and it was the sheer, comic compression of these sentences that caught my eye:
In 1959, Mattel introduced a doll that was, unlike most dolls marketed for children, not a baby doll. This doll had breasts and makeup and was modeled after a doll sold in Germany as a gag gift for grown men. The man who designed the American version of the doll, a man who had formerly designed Sparrow and Hawk missiles for the Pentagon and was briefly married to Zsa Zsa Gabor, was charged with making the new Barbie look less like a "German street walker," which he attempted in part by filing off her nipples.
I doubt that Biss accumulated those facts in some dusty archive at the International Center for Barbie Studies. If she did, bravo. But what really impresses me is the way they're deployed--at a brisk clip we get the transition from baby to miniature bombshell, which seems weirdly appropriate given the designer's resume. (So does his brief union with Zsa Zsa Gabor, whose hourglass figure may be lingering in the background.) That leaves the filed-off nipples, at which point the comedy is terminated and Barbie becomes, well, respectable. Perhaps Biss can be persuaded to add an envoi about the transformation of the Obama girls into Beanie Babies.

On another note (but give me time, maybe I can come up with a Barbie connection), I'm hugely thrilled at the prospect of the new Bob Dylan CD, Together Through Life. With his gambler's mustache and cowboy wardrobe, he seems to be on a roll, serenely unconcerned with fame (he's had it spades), wealth (ditto), or the overwhelming shadow of his own creative past. The disc doesn't come out until April 28 (and yes, I already pre-ordered the deluxe edition with a bonus CD, a bonus DVD, collectible poster, sticker, and what is rumored to be an actual lock of Dylan's hair). Meanwhile, the label threw a listening party for a select group of lucky ducks, Alex Ross and Ann Powers among them. On the strength of single spin, they both gave the Bard of Hibbing high marks. Said Ross: "To my ears it was no letdown after Dylan's recent trilogy of new material--Time Out of Mind, Love & Theft, and Modern Times." Added Powers: "Bob Dylan can do whatever the bejeezus he wants."

Dylan himself chimes in via an interview on his official website. At one point the interviewer suggests that Together Through Life has an old-fashioned immediacy associated with early Sun or Chess recordings:
Flanagan: You like that sound?

Dylan: Oh yeah, very much so... the old Chess records, the Sun records... I think that's my favorite sound for a record.

Flanagan: What do you like about that sound?

Dylan: I like the mood of those records--the intensity. The sound is uncluttered. There's power and suspense. The whole vibration feels like it could be coming from inside your mind. It's alive. It's right there. Kind of sticks in your head like a toothache.
If you absolutely must experience that toothache prior to April 28--and I'm afraid I fit into that category--you can purchase the first cut, "Beyond Here Lies Nothin'," as a single. It is, as Powers notes, "a celebration of the Latin influence that also shaped early rock," with a percussive swagger and Dave Hidalgo's norteño-flavored accordion (evidently a sonic trademark throughout). The lyrics lean toward the generic, but what the hell--this is intensely atmospheric music, with a period flavor you can't quite identify and Dylan's grizzled voice alternately parting the fog and darting back into its recesses. I can't wait to hear the rest of it.

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Monday, March 30, 2009


Random task

While I was tracking down that J.F. Powers photo in my previous post, I came across this image, also in the Life archives. In the context of today's self-immolating publishing industry, it seems not only anachronistic but extraterrestrial: the man in the overcoat is a Random House talent scout. That's right, a roving operative with a sharp eye for the sleek sentence, the pungent predicate. "This kid is something," you can almost hear him saying, addressing his words into one of those old-fashioned crank-driven telephones, or maybe jotting them down on the back of an envelope as he hurries over to the Western Union branch. And what about the hot prospect standing on the stairs? She turns out to be Brenda Ueland--journalist, feminist, bohemian (one of her numerous lovers, an anarchist named Raoul Hendricson, left her for Isadora Duncan), and an exercise fanatic who set at least one international swimming record when she was in her eighties. If somebody can supply some accurate dialogue here, I'll be extremely grateful.


Friday, March 27, 2009


A book for animals

Books tend to collect in what Max Reger famously called the smallest room in the house. Yesterday morning there were three, daintily stacked behind the door: The Hero and the Blues, The Deaths of Louis XVI: Regicide and the French Political Imagination (you'll have to ask Nina about that one), and Prince of Darkness and Other Stories. The latter is a favorite of mine, by J.F. Powers, and during the afternoon I rescued it from its purgatory and reread "The Old Bird, A Love Story." With the economy still drooping, I was struck by one paragraph in particular. The protagonist, an aging businessman who has lost his job, is offered a lowly gig in the shipping room of a department store. Powers nails his response--the flicker of pride, the rapid surrender--to perfection:
For an instant Mr. Newman succeeded in making it plain that he, like any man of his business experience, was meant for better things. A moment later, in an interesting ceremony which took place in his heart, Mr. Newman surrendered his well-loved white collar. He knew that Mr. Shanahan, with that dark vision peculiar to personnel men, had witnessed the whole thing.
Powers knew exactly what he was talking about, having held down a succession of small-potatoes jobs: "He worked as a salesman for Fidelity Insurance, a sales clerk at Marshall Field’s, a chauffeur for a wealthy investor touring the South, an editor for the Chicago Historical Records Survey, and a clerk at Brentano’s bookstore--where he used the shelves to complete his education and to force his favorites on the customers." (The quote is from Joseph Bottum's excellent piece in First Things. There, too, you can find Powers's exasperated response when Morte D'Urban was categorized as a book for Catholics: "Would you say that The Wind in the Willows is a book for animals?") But in the photo here, dredged up from the fascinating Life archives, the youthful, pipe-smoking author seems to be in excellent form, far from the madding crowd at Marshall Field's. There is snow on the ground, a book under his arm, a mild halo of Midwestern light around his head. Those interesting ceremonials of surrender, the ones in the heart, had yet to take place.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Elevator music

Strange. I was just in the elevator, having made a thrilling trip to the ATM and supermarket, when I heard something familiar playing on the recessed speakers. There is always music in the elevator, and the volume is always turned down to the ghostly edge of audibility. You don't hear it--you sense it through your pores. Still, I swore they were playing Sibelius's "Valse Triste." To make sure, I hit the Open Door button and held it until the alarm bell went off. Yep, it was the Sibelius. I had never heard this lovely, wistful fragment (I think of it as a 45 RPM single with a big hole in the middle) before March 2, when I attended a concert at the refurbished Alice Tully Hall. Paavo Jarvi led the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen, and the bulk of the program was Beethoven: Symphony No. 1 and Symphony No. 3. Jarvi is a small, highly energetic figure. At some moments he seemed almost stiff, with a carriage not unlike a toy soldier. Then he would erupt into ferocious body language, including a great deal of micro-managerial action with the left hand.

I enjoyed the Beethoven--it was swift, vigorous, non-reverential. In his review, Allan Kozinn beat up on the hall's retooled acoustics, which he found too dry. It's true that the opening salvo of the Eroica just vanished into thin air, with no reverberation. But what you lose in grandeur, you gain in intimacy. In any case, once the program was over, Jarvi returned to the podium for a performance of "Valse Triste." I didn't know what it was. I did know that it was beautiful, and that I had never heard a symphony orchestra play that quietly before. It was almost like being in the elevator. The entire audience leaned forward in its seats. Now, as I would subsequently discover, some critics have taken Jarvi to task for this extravagance. In August 2007, James Oestreich gave him a thorough scolding:
An occasional showiness on Mr. Jarvi’s part came to the fore not, oddly, in a gaudy moment but in a quiet one. In an otherwise lovely encore, Sibelius’s “Valse Triste,” he reduced a string passage to a pianissimo on the very edge of audibility. (Pianissimos of any kind had not been prominent in the Beethoven.)
This brings up an interesting point. To my vulgar ear, Jarvi's tamped-down dynamics sounded wonderfully expressive, not showy. Of course I've never seen the score and have no idea what Sibelius called for. But I'm not a strict constructionist and assume that even the most manically exact composers (Mahler is a classic example) will elicit a range of interpretations. Speaking of which, I downloaded a version of "Valse Triste" the moment I figured out what it was. As it happened, the performance by the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Neeme Jarvi, the father of Paavo. And you certainly couldn't accuse the elder Jarvi of dabbling in sound-of-silence gimmickry. Compared to his son's delicate reading, this one sounds more like falling down a flight of stairs. Still pretty, though.

PS After I wrote the preceding, I came across this clip of Jarvi leading the same orchestra through "Valse Triste" in 2006. At the 1:30 mark he dials down the ensemble to near silence, and thirty seconds later, he and the orchestra appear to be posing for a still photograph. The clip has been viewed 68,120 times, which suggests that I'm a little late to the party on this one:

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