Posted by: zhiv | May 24, 2013

John P. Marquand and John O’Hara–and Others

Just as i was scribbling again and trying to revive this blog, high-value local LA Times bookman David Ulin wrote out a latter-day assessment of John O’Hara, occasioned by a reissue of Appointment at Samarra. And I thought it was interesting that I had just been reading and thinking about John P. Marquand, who seems to be a writer from (roughly) the same generation, with a (somewhat) similar reputation. So I’m going to work through some backgrounds and do a little comparison, throwing a few other 20th century novelists into the mix as well, perhaps.

O’Hara had at least been on my radar through all these decades, but he was just a faint blip on the outer reaches. As I started gulping down literature and styled myself as an English major at the end of the 70s, one of my principal cronies, part of the Poli Sci-to-Law School herd, who did posses a serious bent for political philosophy, was in a pitched battle with his colorful parents about the development of reading habits. His mother was a dynamic entrepreneur-producer contrarian, given to broad pronouncements such as saying that Picasso was a massive fraud, and modern art is all a waste of time. His father was a sober and concerned physician, a man of fastidious habits who was a voracious reader. He had started by trying to get his son, my friend, to read Darwin back in high school, and my friend’s forays into Hobbes and Rousseau were probably belated responses to this early, overly ambitious prompt.

As I read Shakespeare and Milton and Boswell and all or most of the rest, aside from diving into Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy all together my friends and I worked through Kerouac and Kesey and Barth and Hawkes and Pynchon, along with other sidemen (yes, so many men). Our realists were Updike and Cheever and Roth I suppose. As this was going on and evolving into the early 80s, when I began to explore 18th and 19th century waters more deeply, my friend’s father was ploughing through 20th century and contemporary fiction at a strong, steady pace, reading everything, basically, although he wasn’t much interested in the experimental and postmodern posturing that we were chasing. As I moved from George Eliot to the obscure recesses of Leslie Stephen and Virginia Woolf, my friend studied law and his patience for literary hijinx dissipated quickly–he began to adopt an amalgam of his parents’ attitude towards books and fiction, past and present. He became a good reader, with a well-developed nose for contemporary literature.

All of which is the long way around to John O’Hara. Perhaps it started with my friend’s father saying, if you guys are reading Updike, you should read John O’Hara. O’Hara became a touchstone between me and my friend for the divide between an important threshold in contemporary literature, even though O’Hara wasn’t contemporary. I thought of this divide when I was reading some initial background materials on Marquand, as it was mentioned that after Apley his critical reputation was always solid enough and his work was embraced by Hollywood (like O’Hara’s), but he was ignored by academics. Edmund Wilson gave him short shrift. It was shortly after this moment, when I was starting to write about Apley, that Ulin’s O’Hara article appeared.

Obviously there are dozens of worthy writers in any given period, and we pick and choose. Marquand and O’Hara were part of the firmament as my friend’s father (b. 1917) came of age just as books like Butterfield 8 (1935) and H.M. Pulham Esq. (1941) came out. Looking at the Pulitzer winners that bookend Apley (all of them major films), the ultimate pre-war blockbuster text Gone With The Wind (1936) is little read, if at all. It was sprawling enough that getting through the even more blockbusting movie seemed like a good bit of work to the next generation (my own, roughly), and the book was ignored. By now, going on 75 years, even the film has slipped markedly as a part of the culture, becoming the province of film history students. The Yearling is a dated kids book and film, something I vaguely remember seeing in my own 60s childhood, but it was passed over when I powered through kidlit and film with my children from 95 to 2010, approximately. Maybe The Yearling is something I should read, and there’s something there I should know about–and maybe not. The next one, The Grapes of Wrath, is more interesting and significant, and more lasting. I was never a Steinbeck man myself, but the combination of book and film in this case seems superb, and it’s easy to see that Steinbeck rose above the Marquands and O’Hara’s and made it to the next rung, elbowing his way into a seat on the bench with Hemingway and Faulkner and the other major leaguers.

Ulin guides us towards O’Hara’s curmudgeonly grandiosity and 60s conservatism, which marred his standing somewhat. Even more interesting is the chip on his shoulder that he carried around to the bitter end about not attending college. This is rather intensely reminiscent of Richard Yates, who might have had a more fundamental insecurity and less abrasive complex about it, although drunken Yates must have had plenty of hostile moments. And Yates made a precarious living, as he was much more obscure and unsuccessful, teaching on college campuses, while O’Hara had more financial security and spent his time trolling around for honorary degrees.

The difference here is that Marquand was a college man, and indeed a Harvard man, of a sort. As was Walter Edmonds, another writer I wanted to mention in this context. Marquand had Boston brahmin roots and connections, which very much come into play in George Apley, but his own family was poor. He was sent to live with his aunts in a crumbling Newburyport mansion, and went to Harvard on a scholarship. Marquand gravitated toward wealth and privilege, slowly making his way, while satirizing its old guard at the same time. I’m not sure what any of this really means, except that it serves as background to the maturity shown in Marquand’s relatively late run of novels, and it’s a strong contrast, I would imagine, to the early, youthful success of John O’Hara. It also points to a fundamental difference between Fitzgerald, the Princeton collegian, and Hemingway, who went to the Italian front.

Birth-years also play a role here. Marquand Nov 93 was able to finish Harvard in 1915 and join the army in 1916, going to Mexico with Pershing (as does John Apley in TLGP); FSF Sept 96 dropped out of Princeton in 1917 and went into the army in Alabama; EH July ’99 graduated high school in 1917 and worked in Kansas City before joining the Red Cross ambulance corps. John O’Hara was born in Jan 05, and published Appointment in 1934, when he was 29. With Edmonds July 03 we want to add another Harvard man, James Gould Cozzens Aug 03 (close!). Marquand, O’Hara, and James Gould Cozzens are lumped together fairly often. It seems like they were all popular novelists writing good books, but they were obscured by giants like Hemingway, Faulkner, and Steinbeck, along with Fitzgerald’s post WW2 recovery. So they were already aging second tier guys, a bit out of step in the 50s with Norman Mailer and other Young Turks on the rise, but the cultural change in the 60s was pretty much a complete wipeout for them. By the time my friends and I came around, in the late 70s, they were off the map, and their books looked dated and uninteresting. I do remember reading more recently–only 20 years ago, rather than almost 40–that Cozzens’ Guard of Honor should be in the running as one of the best WW2 books. But he was apparently just as big a grouch as O’Hara. His own surprise bestseller is By Love Possessed, which gave his career a significant boost in 1957.

Walter Edmonds is even more obscure than the O’Hara-Marquand-Cozzens trio, perhaps because he was a regionalist who returned to Central New York after his college years. Regionalist writings seem like a 19th century literary phenomenon, but it must have been a viable tradition and approach that carried over well into the 20th century, and probably up to today. Edmunds’ big book Drums Along the Mohawk (1936) was a strong and steady bestseller, a classic silver medalist that was completely overshadowed by runaway hit Gone With The Wind. I really liked Drums, and would happily read more Edmonds–and now this is a really beefy stack of books from this group, even if you’re selective and only read the best two or three or four by each of these authors.

Summing up, what’s interesting to me is the way that the 20th century is coming into sharper focus all the time now. Tolkein turns out to be one of the most important writers of the century (go look at his academic library shelf), perhaps even vying for a Dickens slot. It makes sense, of course, but it’s a bit jarring for a reader whose taste started forming in the 70s. Books come and go, and there’s still a significant amount of shoving and jockeying for position. These midcentury guys, grouchy or not, will try to hold their spots as well as they can, even as latecomers like John Williams and Richard Yates make a somewhat surprising grab for position.

Posted by: zhiv | May 14, 2013

The Late George Apley, John P. Marquand

A friend of mine asked if I had read Stoner, which caused me to look back at some John Williams lit rambles I took a few years ago. I remember Stoner fondly as the best neglected/recovered novel (thanks, NYRB) I had read since Revolutionary Road. Somehow the fates conspired for me to plunge into a very satisfying, similar book the next day, John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley. Apley and Marquand present some intriguing issues, many of them falling on the same ground where Williams and Yates were lying fallow through the end of the last century.

TLGA was a dark horse bestseller, I believe, and won the Pulitzer in 1938, sandwiched between Gone With The Wind and The Yearling, which was followed by The Grapes of Wrath. Marquand was a successful working writer in his mid-40s when he wrote the book–but he wasn’t yet exactly a novelist. He was the creator, we’ll call it, of the Mr. Moto series, a Charlie Chan knock-off that ultimately stretched to 6 books and spawned 8 serial B-movies starring Peter Lorre from 1937-39, just as Apley was composed and published. More significantly, Marquand was a steady practitioner of the glossy short story through the heyday of the Saturday Evening Post and its ilk. Many of us probably think of this genre, if that’s what it is, as the way that F. Scott Fitzgerald supported himself as he failed to write novels for so many years, but of course it was an entire literary industrial complex with formulas and nuances, widely varying degrees of ambition and quality, and a history of its own that would repay study. An understanding of that machine and its evolution a hundred years ago could be especially enlightening now, as publishing and reading habits go through another new century paradigm shift. Marquand was part of a relatively satisfied herd–if writers are ever satisfied–, and it would be useful to have a sense of his beginnings, standing, and accomplishments as he scribbled out a living through the jazz age and the depression, up to the publication of this book.

Apley serves lots of purposes as a literary creation, but it seems like it must have been hard to imagine it would be a bestseller and major prize-winner. Sometimes the best way to write something honest and unique is to focus on the thing itself, and not worry about its reception. But Marquand was deeply experienced with engaging an audience, and he must have trusted his honed instincts. A big part of the accomplishment of Apley is its mastery of form and easy style, the product of a rather brilliant conceit. One version of the bottom line in Apley is that it is a study of the older generation and its prejudices, blind spots, and failings, working from the same cues that prompted Eminent Victorians, To The Lighthouse, and the Modernist revolution against 19th century culture and assumptions. But Apley is a mature, measured work, covering the full lifespan of one of the last of the old guard, and conceived by the younger generation in its own middle age. This maturity is perhaps the ultimate source of its power and success.

The conceit in the novel, one that makes it especially appealing to this blog and its interests, is that it is a faux biography. It purports to be a piece of necessary yet welcome desk work in the later career of a fictional dean of New England letters, Will Willing, Apley’s contemporary who is asked by the family to pen his life story, and urged to go beyond the platitudes of the standard memorial of a pillar of the community. Willing–whose name is as heavy-handed as his approach–is an old, close friend of Apley’s from college days at Harvard, and he presents himself as an ideal biographer. And that’s the brilliance of the book: Willing is elderly, conservative, and close-minded, and he’s deeply invested in the proprieties that have stultified, frustrated, and ensnared George Apley his entire life. The satire here runs both extraordinarily deep, with layers upon layers, and quite smoothly at the same time. This placid-seeming text is actually a bold Late Modernist generational critique in its measured way, perhaps an important part of the progress from Orlando (1928) to Pale Fire (1962). I’m not sure about other novels in the faux biography genre–that could take some digging. But what’s striking here is the misguided, deeply prejudiced biographer, and the way that Marquand manages somehow to tell a touching and poignant story, with great subdued emotion, romance and sympathy, of the dark underside of the American experience. It’s the rotten growth from New England’s puritanical roots, in this case a snapshot from the late 30s, one that is worthy of Hawthorne’s original conception.

Biographer Willing (catchy, no?) is more determined than anyone to prevent the real life of George Apley from seeing the light. As he plugs Apley’s movements and attitudes into all the right boxes, beginning with respect for his Victorian parents and the family’s notable accomplishments–barely mentioning a sister Madwoman in the Attic–, the social substructure gets bigger and stronger and his subject, Apley, is slowly and steadily crushed by its weight. Willing unwittingly celebrates the individualism of Apley’s seafaring forebears and his capitalist, stern father, Thomas, who is quietly successful at virtual robber baron levels, creating vast Apley wealth while at the same time severely constricting his children’s sphere of endeavor. George Apley goes to Harvard and the Law School and joins a firm, but there seems to be nothing for him to do besides sit on charity boards, attend events, and be a club man, all of which add up to an exhausting and meaningless occupation and existence. He works extremely hard at doing nothing, his whole life long.

George Apley’s son John, a World War 1 vet and Jazz Age rebel of sorts (he lives and works in New York, until shortly before his father’s death) who is a member of Marquand’s own generation, having enlisted Willing to the task, insists that the biographer include “incidental” materials from his father’s life. Willing is most reluctant, and does so under a graceful but firm literary protest. And it’s in these materials that George Apley’s story of love and despair and the cost of familial duty is told, most oblquely. He has a college romance with a beautiful and thoroughly unsuitable Irish girl, Mary Monahan, and he’s sent away to Europe after graduation to forget and recover his severely damaged spirits. He becomes, briefly, a Jamesian disaffected flaneur, always surrounded by family and friends, who bring Boston to Europe wherever he goes. Biographer Willing makes it clear that he firmly believes that any mention of Apley’s romance and passion is a dark blot on his text, only included because of the (misguided) wishes of Apley’s children, who will be its only readers. The privacy of the text is reminscent of Leslie Stephen’s Mausoleum Book (which contains no such romantic subtext, however), and this novel is thoroughly engaging for a student of Stephen and Woolf and Strachey and biography, like myself. Apley returns to Boston and marries his completely suitable childhood playmate Catherine, and his father writes that “You have shown the good sense, too, to realize that beauty is only skin deep and that there are more important elements in the holy bond ofmatrimony.” The stage is thus set for Apley to be properly cowed through an entire adult lifetime by a spouse concerned only by society and propriety. Perhaps the most poignant moment in the book, althought a great many sneak through, is when George’s dictatorial, unbending father utters a single instance of reflection just before going up to lay down on his deathbed, saying “I wonder if it would have been better if George had married that little Irish girl.”

The scale of this squelched romance is amplified when Apley absurdly crusades against the corruption of the vice squad late in life, is ensnared and his reputation blotted–his bad faith towards himself means he can’t even succeed in his life’s work of exemplary propriety–, and Mary Monahan appears and persuades him to give up his quixotic campaign. The tender sense of completion Apley achieves in this most benighted sequence is effective, despite being veiled by Willing, who seems unable to suppress the truth that once again George Apley’s unbearably thin sustenance of love provides the only meaningful element of his life. In these spring days of Gatsby (big movie version; remarkable takedown of the novel by Kathryn Schulz), at the end of this novel we realize that Goerge Apley had his own Daisy, here a raven-haired, blue-eyed Irish Mary. Schulz’ insightful diatribe (“cranking up the symbol machine”) points to the restraint and magnificent subtlety of Marquand’s highly successful formal exercise and his unlikely bestselling text. Yes, this book is both a satisfying and accomplished aesthetic experiment and also a prescient extended portrait of American existentialist ennui and despair, one that put me very much in mind of the desiccated lifespan of William Stoner.

Did I mention that this book has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years, as I was guided to it by my earlier literary Boston efforts, and I read it because I plan to spend a big chunk of the summer in Boston? Yes, this book is a Boston classic and there’s a lot to say about that aspect of things–another time.

Posted by: zhiv | May 8, 2013

The Pursuit of Love, Nancy Mitford

Not a lot to say other than that Nancy Mitford is worth reading. I enjoyed her Madame de Pompadour biography, which showed a certain mastery of the history and culture of France. Come to think of it, that book makes a nice companion for the brief biogrpahy of Napoleon I read: biography as building blocks of history.

In browsing through Mitford’s own bio (wikipedia), learning about her famous aristocratic family, I heard about this book, her best-known novel, which is essentially a portrait of her early life and circumstances. Only it isn’t, not exactly. The first half does contain a view of the great estate, peopled with mannered, slightly wacky eccentrics, and yes, it gives a very good, fairly direct impression of her youth. But it’s all rather oblique, with an interesting, detached narrator who is very much a “Fanny,” perhaps the code name for the unassuming Jane Austen observer of upper class foibles and follies. The second half of the book, we only realize belatedly, has a more specific subject and main character, Fanny’s closest cousin and friend Linda–early on it wasn’t exactly clear that this novel is Linda’s story. Linda’s love story is simple but engaging, perhaps not so substantial as the group portrait of childhood. The primary thrust of the whole thing is what it was like to be born just before the first war, and thus come of age in the 30s, building a life, or starting to, before the second war. Towards the end Mitford suggests that hers is a secondary lost generation, destined to be forgotten because the wars will gradually be scrunched together as time marches on, and the time of youth and love in such circumstances was especially ephemeral. Part of this impression must be caused by writing about an all-but-dead aristocracy during a time of global depression and economic conflict and crisis, none of which is allowed to be mentioned or considered. Linda succumbs to a communist phase and husband as the war gathers itself, but her approach is romantic and fashionable, her character ultimately unsatisfied. For all of the near-specifics of the family portrait in the first half of the book, the second half creates the impression of a symbolic journey of the heart, and the emotional life of a representative woman of a particular generation and class.

There are lots of voices and echoes, staring with the immortal Jane. Mitford no doubt found that Austen’s tone of propriety and detachment was perfectly suited to her sophisticated taste and penchant for light and sparkling comedy. She does a lot of updating, using a quiet first-person narrator, but she’s careful to preserve the stately home and its basic rules of decorum. It’s as if she takes a wayward Emma, marries her to a banker, has her make a second marriage to a communist, and then allows her to find a trancendent, transient love with her French opposite number, a rarified coupling that is too special and fragile to survive such a nasty and brutish war.

The artistry here is equally delicate, but there’s plenty of life to it. Such a book and tone and story is no mean feat. I think I might be more interested in reading and pursuing Winifred Holtby, who comes to mind as an alternative, and I’ll have to try and think of others. I’ve never gotten around to Evelyn Waugh, who is working the same vein, I imagine. Mitford’s narrator Fanny survives to tell more tales in a couple of subsequent books, and that’s certainly intriuing. It’s all a bit like drinking champagne, which ain’t so bad, right?

Posted by: zhiv | May 8, 2013

Summertime Sojourns

Hello friends–returning after a long break, and little output before that. Hard to say anything about anything that might seem like a reason, so I’ll try to just get started. Did some typing, and I had at least one post in the bank, putting it up now as I edit and type up one that I just wrote. Not that I’ve been reading, and it has been a strange time; feeling the paradigm shift, which is something I’ve been thinking and even writing about a little. But I did read a book, more quickly than in my old style, and I have a backlog of starts and low-hanging fruit, and I’m going to give it a shot. In the past this has been the time of year that things slow and shut down with the blog writing, but since it hasn’t even started yet this year I’ll try to get in what I can. The plan is that I’m about to spend a big chunk of time in Boston, working (sort of), so it’s a return to an old haunt and plan and topic. And we’ll see how this goes.

Posted by: zhiv | December 3, 2012

A Short Biography of Napoleon

Napoleon, by Paul Johnson (2002) Penguin Lives

I wrote a post about The General and The Biographer, right at the start of the Petraeus Affair, another swim in different waters, but I hesitated and it dated itself very quickly. It contained a fair amount of general speculation about biography, some of which was background for this post. Just saying.


Biography has all sorts of uses and felicities. Perhaps its basic premise is that each and every life has a beginning, a middle, and an end, that it’s a story, a narrative. We in turn relate that to our own lives, our own journey, and try to gain some perspective. At the same time we can look at lives as the building blocks of history, connecting them en masse and in all sorts of different ways, sorting out specific roles in political, social and historical movements and events.

The life of Napoleon is in many ways the classic biographical subject of the modern era, a study of the rise of the individual out of the messy workings of democratic revolution, and an example of how ancient forms and principles of tyranny applied themselves to rising nationalism and post-monarchical statehood. The US, and our teaching and study of history, has strong counter-texts to the life of Napoleon in the lives of George Washington and the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln, a pointed and effective anti-imperial mythology. England and the Victorians also created a legacy and tradition of anti-Bonapartist studies, biography and history, keeping a strong division between military leadership and statesmanship, with a weak monarchy providing a buffer of symbolism, a complicated but rather organic structure. And in the meantime 19th century critics, notably Carlyle and Emerson, used the example of Napoleon as a starting point for the study of the limits and meaning of the role of the individual in society and history. Or something like that.

It’s a massive and gigantic mound of materials and issues, like an ancient metropolis buried under centuries of broken buildings and structures and sand. The quiet and tawdry ending and all of the missed opportunities and shortcomings were largely eclipsed by the rising cult and mythmaking and rehabilitation, the materials for idolatry and symbolism more malleable in death and posterity. We’re left with a story and a life that is somehow always catching up with itself, finding new ways to fit into the current narrative. Time, measured in decades and half-centuries and now almost two hundred years after Waterloo, makes it all a lot easier to see and understand, at least in broad strokes.

A good short biography of Napoleon goes a long way at this point in providing an important perspective and insight into the history of the last 250 years, the modern period after the American and French Revolutions. We get the story from so many sources and in so many haphazard, half-baked ways, especially here in the US, that it’s easy to bypass the basics of Napoleon’s life, taken as a whole, his rise and fall. But a good short biography, like this one by Paul Johnson, presents a number of keen overarching principles. The advantage of short biography is that creates itself by separating wheat from chaff in a most radical manner, just the opposite of the common biographical approach. It’s a tricky but intriguing and entertaining sub genre, a favorite and quite useful and satisfying in its way when it’s done well, as it seems to be here.

The most incisive point made in this book is that Napoleon laid the groundwork for 20th century totalitarianism. If this wasn’t obvious enough already, perhaps obscured by the century between Waterloo and WWI, Johnson adds a number of key points that bolster and inform the argument. The one I found most interesting is the idea that German unification and militarization was a direct response to Napoleon’s wars and armies, as the coalitions and forces that were left behind in his wake ultimately followed the logic of Napoleon’s imperial statecraft, moving inexorably towards militarized industrialization, tyranny, and even genocide. Napoleon and his regime not only planted all of the seeds, they also provided the blueprint, as well as the link to classical empire, Roman domination of the Western world. There’s a continuum, in looking at this life story, a level beyond the cultural recovery of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, through Goethe’s romantic individualism, into the realm of state control, a replay of Julius Caesar’s assumption of the role of Emperor, the step rejected by George Washington, a directly traceable line to Hitler.

Along with poignant global historical implications and insights we get a better sense of the human subject at the center. I never thought much about the core of Napoleon’s character, although I picked up a good number of details along the way, mythologized and otherwise, including of course the simple and effective idea of a “Napoleon complex.” But the emphasis here is on energy, steady applied pressure and tirelessness, combined with speed, decisive action, and modern efficiency and organization. Revolutionary and Napoleonic France was pre-industrial, as the factory model was evolving more quickly in England, but artillery and its movement and deployment was a sort of precursor, a decisive form of military technology of which Napoleon was the master, using it with a bold and dynamic tactical approach. It’s all pretty fascinating stuff, very well presented in this little book. There’s the downside too, of course, the mistakes and crimes and tragedies of building a state out of a death machine, and vice-versa.


When I look at this period and these materials I always remember my first and only upper division history class, a failure that made me stick exclusively to the sunnier climes of the English Department and literature. I started college as a terrible, clueless student. My cronies all studied Poli Sci, headed toward law school, which was pretty much the beaten path in those days. They all took the survey course in American History, but that didn’t make sense to me, as we had just taken American History in 11th grade, not AP but pretty solid, a fair amount of content compared to all of my other high school classes. I always point to the amount of academics in the movie Dazed and Confused, to any one curious about the high school experience in the mid-70s: it was 2% academic, 3 or 4 at the most and definitely not 5%, and 96-97-98% social, with sports included in that number. I was the editor of the newspaper, which was a very zhiv job when I was a senior, and I didn’t take many English classes. The only book I read was The Assistant, by Bernard Malamud.

I started catching up a little when I went to UCSB in the fall of ’76, and one of the major tipping points was taking Western Civ instead of American History. I liked it; it was interesting, a great introductory college survey. And that got me to the French Revolution course, which I wasn’t prepared for. I missed classes, didn’t do a lot of the reading, and as I fell behind the lectures were confusing, and I floundered. The whole thing was quickly over my head. I didn’t know how to read a real, analytical history book, and had never strayed much beyond a standard textbook. I think I was just starting to learn how to read books in general, cutting my teeth on Fitzgerald and Hemingway. I was slowly gaining a sense of length and narrative wholeness, the idea that books actually end and reach conclusions; before they had seemed oceanic and impossible. Once I figured this out–and it’s strange that it had to be learned, and that I was such a late bloomer–, I started picking up steam pretty quickly, but after my History Department struggle I stuck to literature. I liked novels and stories. I became interested in biography. It took some time before I was ready for critical analysis. My point, I guess, is that I had to go through a sort of late, basic training as a reader before I could appreciate and enjoy even simple and accessible non-fiction, like this book. So I can think about how helpful it would have been, how reading something straightforward and concise and a few similar texts would have made me a decent student of history, which I always enjoyed at least in theory, and I would have understood some of this stuff and wouldn’t have bombed out. At the time, sadly, it wasn’t going to happen.

Back when I worked for Kathy Kennedy, my first real job in the film business, more or less (reading books for CAA, getting $1100 a month, but only going to the office three days a week as I was zhiving through my oral exams up at Berkeley, using a nice Selectric typewriter and getting high in the parking lot, probably doesn’t count), we became amused by the word HUGE, and started using it with gusto. In the wake of the $4 billion Lucasfilm sale to Disney, it seems worthwhile to reflect on Kathy and her cronies and this latest level of HUGE.

The story has been told many times. Kathleen Kennedy, already working hard at a San Diego TV station in her early 20s, while her identical twin covered the counter culture side of the coin up in Canada, got a tip from a friend that Steven Spielberg and John Milius, laboring along with Belushi and others with youthful insouciance on 1941, needed a “Girl Friday,” as it used to be called, whatever that means, though I suppose it’s a literary reference (this being a litblog, sort of), going back to Daniel Defoe and the birth of the novel in English. Kathy was a huge fan of Close Encounters, which gave her a sense of the infinity of cinematic imagination, and she loved Spielberg’s ability to bring widescreen storytelling down to a human level. George Lucas was partnering with Spielberg as his director on his next project, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Spielberg arrived with Lawrence Kasdan’s script in place, and the production crew marshaled by… Frank Marshall. Spielberg brought one person to the project, Kathy Kennedy. She received a tidy Girl Friday credit, Associate to Mr. Spielberg, and one assumes she was paid a modest weekly sum. Frank and Kathy bonded, hit it off, fell in love, consolidated, whatever you want to call it–it’s called Kennedy-Marshall, officially–, while Spielberg told Kathy she should look around for another movie for him to do. They made E.T. for 10 million dollars, and the credits show Kathleen Kennedy and Spielberg as the producers. It was Kathy’s first real credit, and she was so focused and worked so hard that Spielberg thought her meager entry-level fee was insufficient, and he gave her a point of his backend. The film came out one week after Kathy’s 29th birthday, she was nominated for an Academy Award, and it has grossed just short of $800 million.

It could have ended there, quite satisfactorily. Spielberg’s next film was the sequel to Raiders, Temple of Doom, bringing the Lucas-Spielberg-Frank Marshall team back together, with Kathy upgraded to Associate Producer. But by this time she was more than a Girl Friday. She was the female yin to the Lucas-Spielberg yang, and she and Frank had their own hetero intimacy mindmeld thing going 24/7, putting their operational and administrative skills in service to the two genius partners. Kennedy and Marshall didn’t get married until 1987, just because people took their time with those things back in the day. They were busy, it was a time when Speilberg’s creative expression and needs were their most voracious and sharklike, and it was just the two of them, making it all go. When Lucas and Spielberg went off to Hawaii to build elaborate sandcastles together after locking their latest blockbuster, Kathy and Frank cloistered themselves with Sid Ganis, the #2 at Lucasfilm ever since the shocking success of Star Wars, and launched the marketing and distribution campaign.

Kathy and Frank cleaved to Spielberg, working with him on his wholly-owned Amblin label–with the sale of Lucasfilm, will somebody buy Amblin now, and what would that “company” be worth? How would that work with Dreamworks?–these are a few tangential questions suggested by the rather surprising sale of Lucasfilm to Disney. The Spielberg-Kennedy-Marshall triumvirate made a lot of movies, many of them spectacularly successful. Up in Lucas Valley in Marin County, George Lucas bathed fairly peacefully in the ever-surging tide of Star Wars receipts and brand management, puttering around a quaint empire not unlike C.F. Kane’s Xanadu, but one with a techno sector provided by ILM, which built dinosaurs for Spielberg and dominated the transition of visual effects into the digital age. Lucas didn’t make a lot of movies, and when he went back to supplement the first Star Wars trilogy it didn’t go very well. Kathy and Frank, meanwhile, had branched out from Amblin to form their own company, Frank directed a few movies, and they slowly gained their familiar level of prestige and success at the Kennedy-Marshall label. Crucially, Kathy came in on occasion to produce Spielberg movies, not all of them, just a few monsters here and there.

Before getting to the present day, a neat trick–Spielberg’s bag of cinematic tricks is truly wizardly–in Spielberg’s production schedule might be worthy of note. It goes back to an Amblin franchise (anybody with not a few billion dollars want to do not just Jaws and Jurassic Park, but also Back to the Future 4, or a new millenium reboot? Actually the beauty of Star Wars and Lucasfilm is that it owned the Star Wars franchise, while most of the Amblin franchise catalogue is owned by Universal. Damn!), directed by Bob Zemeckis–hey Bob, welcome back to making movies with humans, and with a great script and fantastic actor no less! Can’t wait to see it, and very excited about reliving the intense plane crash anxiety I only managed to quell a few years after your last human movie, which which had its own intense plane crash and came out the Christmas before Sept. 11, fortunately, you know, back when we didn’t know who had been elected president and the Supreme Court got to decide how fucked up the next 8 years were going to be. I guess it’s a new decade thing, right? Are you saying we should we be worried about this election, about next year, about planes falling out of the sky all over again? The Amblin gang and Zemeckis and his writer, Bob Gale, were sitting around plotting the sequel to Back to the Future, when they decided that doing all the work and spending all the time and money and then coming back to do it all over again, not to mention the time travel thing, would be a big drag. And so they built, with Zemeckis’ producer Steve Starkey, a Frank Marshall crony, an epic production schedule, and shot sequels 2 and 3 together. The experiment was a success, and at some point, it made Spielberg say to himself, hmmm. And in one of the darker creative hours of his career, after Always and Hook (when I “worked” at Amblin, not coincidentally I suppose, zhiving hard and stumbling around aimlessly, bringing and feeling the funk), he put together a consecutive production schedule, shooting Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List back to back. After the barely-managed chaos of Amblin Hooking up with the newly-installed Guber-Peters Sony regime, as Ganis lost his mind and was branding Last Action Hero with a space shuttle launch, Kathy was saying that “Steven needs to get away, just go off somewhere with a small crew, and make a movie the way he used to do it.” And Spielberg did just that, but he shot Jurassic Park first, and then he got on a plane to Poland, more or less by himself, and shot Schindler’s List. Branko Lustig and Gerry Molen produced Schindler’s and won Oscars, while Kathy stayed home and worked with George Lucas and ILM on the visual effects and post-production of Jurassic Park, building raptors and rexes and sending stuff to Spielberg in Poland with some sort of cutting edge technology that would seem laughable at this point. The early 90’s, so quaint, so long ago! Gerry Molen had taken on Frank Marshall’s slightly mysterious, quiet and seemingly effortless producing duties, as Frank had directed Arachnophobia, and he was working on Alive, the first production of the Kennedy-Marshall Company–speaking of plane crashes. Schindler’s List, Oscar and $325 million; Jurassic Park, $915 million, and a franchise. Just saying. At any rate, as Kathy and Frank started their own company, Spielberg realized that he could maintain a hearty output, keep printing money AND win awards, stay as sane and steady as ever, and even take on the new role of menschy paterfamilias by shooting two movies back to back, starting post on one while he films the next. A very neat trick, and worth keeping in mind as we try to figure out what Kathy and Spielberg might be up to in the future.

And maybe Kathy, who seems to have mastered the concept of super-multitasking alongside Lucas and Spielberg, had this history in mind when she started talking to George about his company. I’m delving into the backgrounds and longstanding partnerships here because it’s fun to try to get it right and the news that we’re getting now, the actual closing of the Disney-Lucasfilm deal, is all part of a slow-rolling sequence, with a number of its elements already determined. Let’s not forget that Kathy was producing Spielberg’s Lincoln as this whole thing got started. But her conversations with George may have begun long before that. These are the questions to be asked by a real journalist who is trying to get the story straight. The announcement that Kathy was going to run Lucasfilm was timed, presumably, to the completion of the heavy lifting on Lincoln, a springtime trot that suggested a change in fashion during the fall season. It was an intriguing transition, but a bit of a head-scratcher, and it would be interesting to look back at the coverage to see if anybody guessed it was all about selling the company. The good part, of course, is to look back at it now, and to try to line up the dominoes and put them in their proper places. Obviously the idea of selling the company and reviving the Star Wars franchise was always part of the discussion, and part of the plan. But is it something that George Lucas gravitated towards on his own, based on years of conversations and deals with Disney? What was Kathy’s role, or that of the precedent of Disney’s Marvel acquisition? Was there a wait while Avengers opened, and did its success this summer affect the plan, providing a new ceiling for blockbuster brands?

Mainly, however, Kathy Kennedy jumping over to Lucasfilm, and standing behind George Lucas as Robert Iger handed him one of those over-sized poster board checks with a 4 and 9 zeroes on it, is about a sterling level of quality control for the future of the Star Wars franchise, along with great energy and focus and new initiatives for Lucasfilm. The mid-10 figures day was all about Lucas and his accomplishment and legacy, his future in philanthropy, and the tidy fit with Disney, how the deal makes sense and how the company can exploit the asset. It came with a necessary announcement that Lucas had written out a few detailed treatments for the next Star Wars trilogy, along with a production schedule. No one was going to step on Lucas and Iger’s big day, least of all Kathy or, you know, her colleagues. But it’s safe to say that this is the beginning and there’s already a plan in place, more than a thin file typed up by George Lucas.

Out here in the movie world, the ball now bounces back to Spielberg, as he and Kathy are beginning the roll out of Lincoln next week, mounting what figures to be a dedicated, not to say huge, Oscar campaign, one which probably won’t be interrupted by any major announcements. But you tell me–can you think of any filmmakers who might do a good job of moving forward the Star Wars franchise for Kathy Kennedy, Lucasfilm, and Disney? Maybe some one whose new Oscar-bait project is being released by–ahem–Disney? I’m sure that there are a number of promising candidates, but for me, one guy seems to stand out as the starting point. Not a bad question to confirm or deny, or maybe just say maybe. Some things never change: huge is huge.

Quick note right now, and I might try and get into it deeper over the weekend when I have time to settle down and reflect, but I just want to say that the zhivblog is going off the reservation for a little while, and moving down into the show business cesspool. So all of my old literary cronies, all 5 or 6 of you, feel free to ignore any and all of this latest round of gibberish. I feel especially bad because I’m diving into this while coming off an extended summer break. Those that are familiar with my approach know that I have no idea what I’m doing, no plan, that I’m just stumbling forward. A couple of days ago I was excited about writing up a couple of George Gissing posts that I found in my last notebook, left over from the spring and never typed up, I had a prompt towards continuing Gissing studies, and I’ve been looking at some Hawthorne stuff as well. And then this other bullshit cropped up. I feel bad about doing it, no less because I managed to go for so long without getting into anything resembling this kind of thing. I’ll settle down soon enough, I hope. And I’ll get those literary posts up sooner rather than later. In the meantime, my bad.

Here goes nothing.

Posted by: zhiv | October 30, 2012

Spielberg’s Lincoln

I don’t read movie reviews as a general rule, although I love to read them once I’ve seen the film. The thing is, even though I work in the business, my moviegoing ebbs and flows, and the tides can be pretty steep. I’m moody, fairly cyclothymic, and movies aren’t exactly my life, although maybe they’re supposed to be. When I was in college and grad school I trained myself for a scholarly life, but I went into the movie business instead, which seems to have been a good decision. But I’m on the creative side, more or less, and I’m not a movie critic, and I never made the full leap from being a book guy into being a movie guy. And I’m not a book guy either, although I’ve gotten a lot of satisfaction over the past five years from writing about books on this blog. I’ve only written about movies on a few rare occasions, mostly as they relate to books, rather reluctantly even then. My blog is anonymous, although it doesn’t really need to be at this point, because I didn’t want it to affect the illusion that I was doing my job. It seems safe to have opinions and reflect upon literature, but I’m not so interested in gossip, and I don’t want to muddy the industry waters, which are murky enough for me already.

I got asked to go to a screening of Lincoln at the DGA last night. It seems early in the game, like it hasn’t entered the reviewing cycle and not a whole lot of people have seen it, but you never know these days. There’s a lot of anticipation about the film, although I don’t follow fan and movie sites so I don’t really know (part of the problem with there being so much information is that we’re all on editorial overdrive, perhaps all of the time, or not, when we choose to ignore broad, well-populated swaths of culture), but the buzz that I’ve been hearing is that people are scared of it, they’re worried that it will be long and boring and ponderous, and they’re somehow both curious and slightly disinterested. It doesn’t seem like it’s fun, no matter how amazing it may be, and drama is a dirty word these days, except in television.

No, the movie is not fun, and in fact it’s a lot of work, and yes it is amazing, the very height, in its own way, of filmmaking accomplishment. It’s a grand lesson in a pivotal moment in American history and national and racial identity. The screenplay is marvelous, sustained brilliance in its concision and power and focus, which is pointed and narrow as it hones in on the historical moment and storyline, and expansive as it pertains to Lincoln’s humanity and character and the burden of his office, the reverberations of his actions and helmsmanship of the broken nation. It’s good and it’s meaningful and it’s well-done. The pace if fine and it’s captivating, pulling the audience into the awesome gravity of the moment with grace and seriousness and maturity. Spielberg’s abundant tricks of manipulation and intimacy are put to solid, respectful and mostly quiet use, while he remains the populist storyteller and consummate craftsman that he has been for 40 years and 25 films. But this movie is a lot of work, it doesn’t care if you see it the first weekend or before the Oscars or 25 or 50 years from now; it’s attempting to be timeless and it’s largely successful in doing so. It’s a culmination of Spielberg’s rather veiled and broad attempt, in some sort of collaboration with Tom Hanks at times, to teach us history, and shape our own identity in the process. With maturity, Spielberg’s sense of history has become increasingly profound, and his abilities as a cinematic storyteller seem well-matched to it now, finally, as he nears the twilight of his career. There’s an inevitable ponderance of death and human limits in this story, a deep part of its nature and the tragedy of Lincoln, and this would seem to apply to Spielberg. He won’t be making movies forever.

Perhaps it’s a perverse view to take, but I’ve had a long-standing penchant for reading Spielberg’s character into his films (I need to watch his recent 60 minutes interview), and it might be worth thinking about the subject of this movie as the death of filmmaking, the end of a classic and transformative media era in which Spielberg fully participated, playing Dickens to Scorsese’s Thackeray. I came out of the film with the overwhelming idea that it was a lot of work, that I really liked it but I like lectures and I love history and epics and I’m a pretty old school guy myself, as it turns out, inevitably, it seems. My other clear idea was that I can’t imagine anyone who is 25 today, or in the broader 15-35 age range, a young person who will live the greater percentage of their lives, by far, in the new century, ever making a film that is remotely like this one. There won’t be any reason for them to do so; the form of film and media and storytelling will have changed. The distance will be as great as the distance between this film and Gone with the Wind, even greater. It was said that George Gissing, my current literary interest and subject, “was sliding down the hill that Dickens ran up with such exuberance,” and it appears that Spielberg enjoyed his youthful ascendance to the peak and pantheon of Hollywood filmmaking, but the circumstances of his birth and epoch and social progress in his times suggest that his work will ultimately mark the ending of an era, rather than the beginning of one. His body of work continues to evolve organically, remaining as uncannily Dickensian as ever, questing after Shakespeare, classic, for the ages, a matter of taste and inclination in the present, great if you like this sort of thing, skewing ever older, away from audience towards timelessness–all of which I suppose aims it deadeye towards the Academy, a shot that hits Oscar right between the eyes.

Which isn’t to say that there’s no fun at all. Marvin Levy, Spielberg’s ancient publicist, who I haven’t seen in 20 years, said last night that he hadn’t seen the movie with a good-sized, fairly random audience–and this was a serious, not a glitsy crowd–and he was surprised that there was laughter, that the sporadic moments of humor, part of the humanity in the story, really hit. He shouldn’t have been, because Spielberg is good at that kind of thing. It also shows that Spielberg remains profoundly detached from audience testing, which is an ongoing marvel in itself. One of the best parts of the film is the way that it captures the famous folksiness of Lincoln, which is perfectly well-measured against the seriousness of the moment and his mission. As a historical drama the film is weighty and portentous and effective; as a character study it is deep and rounded and warm and humane. It’s easy to read volumes into Spielberg’s view of fathers and sons and his own relationships and work in this film; it’s as transparent and meaningful as ever, Dickensian once again.

But the FUN part is that Spielberg here goes to the greatest weapon in his arsenal, on a heretofore unforeseen level. I had no intention or thought of writing about this movie last night after I saw it, but I’m in pretty good compository form myself at the moment, and I woke up, earlier than I have been lately, with a thought and perspective and insight that served as a prompt. Spielberg put an alien in this movie. At dawn today it was obvious to me, as obvious as the cinematic fact of E.T., paired with Yoda, back at the beginning of the blockbuster era. A lot of the interest in the film is focused on the performance of Daniel Day Lewis, working in this story, playing this character, working with this filmmaker. And the fact is that “Daniel Day Lewis,” if he exists in the real world at all, isn’t human, he isn’t like the rest of us–he’s an alien. There are a few dozen very recognizable actors in this heavily populated film, and it’s fun to recognize them as they pass by–hey look, it’s Glen the chemist from Breaking Bad, with a big role as a congressman; there’s Lena Dunham’s intense boyfriend from Girls playing a telegraph operator, not a weirdo; and that’s Lane Pryce from Mad Men, reborn after his suicide with an American accident, playing Ulysses S. Grant. Sally Field–how do you like me now?–gets to mix it up, though we guess that Sister Gidget Bertrille doesn’t do depression and madness quite like Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Leavitt notches a late arrival, David Straithern hangs out, griping masterfully, and Tommy Lee Jones, very familiar with aliens from MIB, gets the plum role of well-meaning curmudgeion, set on 11, that he can do either asleep or awake, however you want it. And the whole time, with all of these actors going by, in perfectly composed and paced scenes, I was thinking wow, it’s a really good thing that Abraham Lincoln is in this movie, because it might not work otherwise. There’s no Daniel Day Lewis, only Lincoln. Every other character is played by an actor, many of them wonderful, acting with, of all people, Abraham Lincoln.

The first time we see him he’s listening to a group of soldiers after a bravura and upsetting, brilliantly staged, mucky, mano-a-mano battle, which has nary an Omaha Beach wide-shot, and no pinging bullets, just gruesome hand-to-hand slaughter, horrible. Lincoln is sitting, raised up on a platform, in a scene that’s more than a bit fraught and stagey, and we think really, is this how it’s going to be? A lot of the audience will give up there, unfortunately. Lincoln is rickety, stiff and composed, halting, patient, and more than anything he’s like the old Lincoln automaton at Disneyland: it’s as if that’s how Spielberg wanted to present the origin of his central character, a figure we know well from childhood myth. He ain’t human, that’s for sure, he’s not like anybody else, he’s not like us. There’s no Daniel Day Lewis, there’s just this thing, this Lincoln, stiff and barely moving. It’s a Disney Touchstone movie, and the filmmaker remembers the power of bringing Pinocchio to life. I came out of the film saying that there’s an alien in the movie, that the Daniel Day Lewis thing is uncanny and utterly amazing, an obvious big part of what makes the film great, and even transcendent. It wasn’t until this morning that I realized what it meant and how it functions in the film, how extraordinary and perhaps intentional it is. Lincoln, more than anything, is like E.T., as it turns out, or a shark for that matter, with plenty of Yoda as well–he moves deliberately, he cocks his head, he’s a man apart, his power resides in the untold depths of his singular humanity, so profound and spiritual we can barely imagine it, he rides the Force through a dark hour, alone. Spielberg takes that rickety amusement park icon and brings him to life, telling his story on an intimate, broadly stretched canvas, with complete mastery, confidence, and maturity. What Daniel Day Lewis is doing, I really couldn’t say. It’s beyond description. We were sitting around yesterday, before I saw the film, talking about it, cronies saying that the movie will be boring, hard work, and you’ll only see it once. But one of my partners said, “what I want to know is what Daniel Day Lewis does between movies. You never see him, you never hear about him, he disappears.” He makes shoes, we said, he’s a cobbler, right? Doing his own Gepetto thing maybe? But he’s not just making shoes all day. He’s married to Arthur Miller’s daughter, a film director. We don’t know what he does, but he’s not like you and me. This is perhaps the most amazing performance I have ever seen, beyond convincing, beyond acting as we know it. Having the real Abraham Lincoln in the movie, hanging out with his folksy patience, listening to his stories, eventually digging into his far-seeing, Hawkeye gaze, is powerful stuff, and damn fun. Maybe it makes it worth seeing for everyone, even if it’s work. I loved it. And Spielberg is a good dude, a good egg, and he’s done great work here, once again. As with Lincoln, he’s one for the ages, and we will not see his like, and movies like this one, again.

Posted by: zhiv | October 30, 2012

Picking Things Back Up

The other night I stumbled over to a fairly tony lit party, given by one of my most beloved old pals, introducing and honoring the new incarnation of the Paris Review. I suppose I go to more than my share of glam show biz events, although I wouldn’t say that I frequent them. On rare occasions I manage to calibrate the wine and the crowd correctly and start to flow, assuming a clubby, outgoing and even hey baby persona, ever ironic of course, that I barely recognize. I have great old friends and know all sorts of people and I have a basic strategy for quelling the anxiety and ennui, mostly involving alcohol, but it’s a delicate equation, and it’s just as well that I don’t get out much. I’ve been through a rather lengthy gauntlet of challenges I guess, and I’ve been beating myself up more than usual, out of rhythm and out of touch and out of focus. My reading has been poor for the most part, not absolutely pathetic but pretty close. So I didn’t have anything to blog about, not really. I think it would be a good idea to do a list of the books on my bedside shelf, just to have a sense of stuff that I’ve started and put aside, to understand where things are.

At the beginning of the year I started writing a book about last year. There was enough going on in 2011, or at least it seemed like it, that I didn’t write anything new, aside from some blog work (with another extended summer break, getting to be routine), and I just tried to keep up with all the craziness in my journal, which reached new levels of length and detail. I thought it would be pretty easy to go through everything and turn it into a narrative, and I guess I got off to a pretty good start. I wrote up a piece on the last five years of my writing, doing most of it on a plane ride back from New York, and I was going along pretty nicely, with a break or two, but it all seemed kinda peachy.

Then there were a couple of significant disturbances, and at a certain point this year started looking like last year, a struggle. I had a couple of graduations coming up, my daughter from college at Wesleyan and my son from high school down in Costa Rica. Ma femme’s 50th birthday preceded those events, and I managed to rally for that.

On our way home from an extremely well-appointed birthday weekend celebration our daughter informed us that she had decided to become a business woman, and she was going to break up with her boyfriend, who was going to Cambridge and studying philosophy, and abandon her own literary studies, declining her admission to get her masters in London in the fall. It took awhile for this to sink in, and I’m not sure that I understand what it means to me even now, but it has had some sort of effect. We went to her graduation and a bunch of other shit started happening, a pretty rugged patch, and the next thing I knew I was struggling to get by again, just like last year. I really enjoyed reading Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding right in the midst of it all, but nothing else stuck, and I didn’t think about blogging. I stopped working on my new narrative early on, and weeks started going by and then months. I managed to write up a short version of the most recent harrowing sequence of events. I was waiting for something to happen, something to get me going again. After the May-June-July tumult our daughter reconsidered the business woman plan, and she went to Paris in August, getting back on track with the Brit boyfriend. August in Paris, September in Greece (working for free lodging at a commie bookstore), and now October in Cambridge: rough life. In the meantime my son is doing a 13th year studying art at a boarding school in Idyllwild (along with a Russian Lit/Creative Writing class, Art History, and a couple more academic classes), an easy 2 hour drive up into the mountains to the east of LA. So far so good.

And so I go to this party, and I loosen up, talking to a few old friends, enjoying myself. I don’t really work the crowd of folks I don’t know, but I pick up a few stray bits of interaction. The question seems to be what I’m doing there, what anybody is doing there, what do books and literature and reviews mean these days, especially in LA. But these are definitely serious people milling about, and the next thing you know I’m one of them. Zhiv here is a writer and producer who studied at Berkeley way back when–two of my pals at the party were at Berkeley at the same time I was. One is a screenwriter, the other is the hostess, a lawyer and book-to-movie agent and now a Paris Review personage, on its board. And suddenly I’m not shy, and I talk about doing graduate work on Leslie Stephen–oddly enough, to a few people who actually know who Leslie Stephen is. I talk about this blog, a true rarity, and I’m trying to remember the books I’ve been most excited about the past few years. I get into a big conversation about George Gissing, and another one about Theron Ware and Harold Frederic. I was happy. I had a great time.

I even have a little follow up going, working on a couple of Gissing notes, rereading my last posts, thinking about how I failed to bring up May Sinclair in conversation when I had the chance. I was surprised when some one who knew Woolf and Stephen well had never heard of Schreiner and Story of an African Farm. And today I pulled out a relatively recent notebook, wanting to look back at the Gissing stuff, and I found two posts that I had never typed up. So maybe I’m back. A little typing, some reading, a few notes and thoughts. A change in the weather.

George Gissing portrays a wide variety of writer characters in New Grub Street. In the previous post I talked about his primary plotline with Edwin Reardon and Jasper Milvain, and mentioned their friend Biffin, “the Realist.” Milvain’s sisters zhiv and zhiv also explore their ability to write and exploit the literary marketplace, pushed and guided by their opportunistic brother.

But I set aside another major plotline in New Grub Street for separate consideration, the story of the man of letters Alfred Yule and his daughter Marian. Marian is of course deeply enmeshed in Jasper Milvain’s world, and she’s forced to make a rising generation choice between her father and her lover. Jasper helps her break free from her father’s tyranny and limited appreciation of her, but in his solid proto-realist manner Gissing frustrates happy ease, and Jasper abandons Marian and ends up with the widowed Amy Reardon. Marian’s fate is a curious result for a sympathetic heroine, as her romantic dreams are crushed, but she has at least in part established some independence.

Let me work back from this provocative finish and go to the original set-up. Gissing’s characters and different households all reflect powerfully on one another. The story begins with Jasper visiting his sisters and his weak (and dying) mother, and the introduction of Marian, visiting as well. Jasper believes he has no choice but to succeed by any means possible, but he notices Marian and thinks she is dangerously attractive. We don’t quite realize that Gissing is exploring, just as May Sinclair later does in the The Creators, the economics and psychology of literary production and marriage. But we get our bearings pretty quickly as Gissing shifts his scene to the troubled and increasingly desperate world of Edwin and Amy Reardon. And from there he follows Marian into the fascinating and deeply problematic world of her household and her father, Alfred Yule.

I mentioned that Edwin Reardon and Alfred Yule together add up to an approach to George Eliot’s Edward Casaubon in Middlemarch, a sort of scholarly dying hand affecting the fate of literate women. Gissing’s formulation is actually more compelling in some ways, although he doesn’t achieve the amazing depths explored by George Eliot. Scholarship is a critical factor for both of Gissing’s characters (as it is for F.M. Mayor in The Rector’s Daughter), although it is handled quite subtly. It’s hard to shake Casaubon in considering this pair, because Gissing’s approach is a striking contrast to Casaubon’s grandiose Reform Bill-era attempt to one up the Germans and encompass the knowledge of the scholarly world, a project that was always marked for failure. In my last post I mentioned Johnson and his Dictionary, Shakespeare, and Lives, along with his Grub Street roots, and he’s famous of course for producing his Dictionary under his own name, competitive with 40 members of the French Academy. Casaubon seems to be trying to follow Johnson’s example of individual, independent monumental scholarship, or perhaps it’s more along Edward Gibbon’s genteel, monied lines. Dorothea Brooke believes in the value of his ambition and project more than the man himself, finding an object for her religious fervor, but it’s a false hope. There’s nothing grandiose about the ambition of Alfred Yule or Edwin Reardon, as they’re merely trying to get by, but they’re both deeply engaged in self-deception. It a different viewpoint on literary drudgery and failure, probably closer to Gissing’s own embittered experience.

Edwin Reardon and Alfred Yule (along with Biffin too, for that matter) are both very solid classical scholars, and Gissing wants to explore the meaning and value of such an education and interest in the contemporary world. This also goes to Gissing’s own biography, as he was a prodigal classicist himself, and he throws around the deep learning of Reardon, Biffin and Yule with nonchalant ease. Reardon’s visit to Italy and Greece, which he remembers as he’s poor and dying, is modeled on Gissing’s own similar journey. It’s great, rich pickings for careful analysis by readers much smarter and better organized than I am, and I’m sure Gissing’s intellectualizing has attracted its share of capable critics. This view of the relationship of Reardon and his wife Amy is poignant and even heartbreaking–they come so close to achieving the dream of combining love and learning and literature.

Gissing is writing about the world in which he found himself, a young man with the skills and tools of a scholar, hoping to make his way on Grub Street the way that Johnson did. Jasper Milvain, who doesn’t appear to have the least shred of classical learning, states right up front that the game has changed. He knows that Reardon won’t make it, and he inspires Amy Reardon to save herself. If this was the entire scope of Gissing’s novel, it would be more than sufficient. And Gissing swipes directly at the tyranny of the conventional three-volume format, suggesting that writers like himself and Reardon would make much better books without it. But Gissing answers the demand of Victorian form by creating another character who immensely enriches his story and portrait of literary futility, in Alfred Yule.

If Jasper Milvain represents the rising generation, Alfred Yule stands for the old-fashioned, dying one. He has toiled through a lifetime, getting by as a man of letters and never achieving success. The sad and poignant side of his story is that he still believes that he can turn the corner and make a name for himself and have an easy landing in old age. He thinks his scholarly and literary quest is a noble one, worthy of the support of everyone around him. Most especially, Yule has carefully trained his daughter Marian to be his helpmate. At the start she’s essentially an assistant and gopher, trudging to the British Museum (where Jasper does his own work, and has spotted her) and preparing materials for her father’s work. Over the course of the story, as Jasper rather reluctantly gives in to his attraction to her, she achieves both personal and scholarly independence from her father. She is doing much of his work herself, and with Jasper’s inspiration and her dream of marrying him, she eventually reaches the stage of signing and publishing her own work.

It’s all much more complicated and interesting than that. There’s an inheritance plot, as Alfred Yule’s rich brother snubs him in his will, having never approved of his choice to live and work in Grub Street, but he leaves 10,000 pounds to Amy Reardon, driving that plot, and 5,000 to Marian. This latter sum pushes Jasper to believe he might be able to marry her, if he can keep working and hang on for another year or two. That’s a long time in Jasper’s dizzying rise (and Edwin’s precipitous fall), and when Marian’s actual inheritance turns out to be half that sum it dashes her hopes. Jasper is a cad, after all, well-meaning but clearly subject to Darwin and Spencer’s social law, and Amy Reardon’s intact 10,000 is more fit. She and Jasper are perfectly suited for one another.

Alfred Yule’s self-deception about the appropriate use for Marian’s 5,000 is very sad, as Gissing works through his last bit of Grub Street hope that he might start a review and make it a success. And just to top it off, Alfred Yule’s eyesight begins to fail, making him even more dependent on Marian, just as she is being pulled away by her attraction to Jasper. There’s more–Jasper is employed by one of Yule’s Grub Street enemies, and Yule is suspicious of him from the beginning, causing Marian to put in extra work and emotion to clear his name and establish his good intent, only to have him abandon her at the end. Yule’s paternal fear and concerns were correct all along, although they were pernicious and destructive in their own right, and Marian had been wrongfully cloistered and never allowed to live and love.

Gissing also lays out another side of the literary life in the marriage of Alfred Yule, one that is picked up and explored by May Sinclair in The Divine Fire and The Creators. Yule’s wife zhiv, Marian’s mother, is an uneducated woman who keeps his house and raises his daughter and gives her emotional support, but she doesn’t share any of his intellectual pursuits. Yule knows that she helped him to live and survive, and she never put any bourgeois pressure of the kind Amy Reardon forced onto Edwin. Marian has grown up to fill the role of helper and companion, but as Yule’s sight dims and his failure lays itself out before him, he bitterly knows that his inability to bring home colleagues and to have a wife who shares in his quest for success has been a big part of his degradation. Gissing creates a simple but compelling hierarchy of what I called the “economics and psychology of literary production and marriage,” and Alfred Yule’s marriage to zhiv is a strong negative example set against the dysfunctional Reardons, although it does produce the heroic Marian. All Yule has is his daughter, and once she’s independent, it isn’t enough.

In The Creators May Sinclair picks up on the marriage of Alfred and Zhiv Yule and recreates it in the union of George Tanqueray and Rose. She also shows the tyranny of fathers over daughters in Laura Dunning’s plot. It’s interesting to see how things change as Sinclair explores the idea of women as full-fledged writers and creators, and her general intentions aren’t as dark and cynical as Gissing’s are here. The comparison shows that Gissing’s view is an extremely dark satire, but one has to suppose that’s in keeping with his classical and Johnsonian mash up with Flaubert and Zola and realism.

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