Monday, April 24, 2017

Favorite Books (3): The Adventures of Augie March

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this is part of a continuing series.

“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”

Saul Bellow [1915–2005],
The Adventures of Augie March (1953), 1

Augie March: Hardcover by Viking Press (N.Y.; 1953) and softcover by Avon (N.Y.; 1977). The book is dedicated to Bellow’s father, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who was born in Vilnius also called Vilna), the capital city of Lithuania. Before the Second World War, the city had almost 100,000 Jewish residents, equating to 45 percent of the city’s total population. With 105 houses of prayer and synagogues, six daily Jewish newspapers and a thriving Yiddish culture, Vilnius  was called The Jerusalem of Lithuania. After the Holocaust, this was no longer the case; 3,500 Jews survived. After the war, many such Jewish communities relocated and were rebuilt in America, most notably within and around the area of New York City, where they flourished.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Adventures of Augie March (1953), by Saul Bellow [1915–2005], has one of the best opening lines written in an American novel, celebrating the individual, where his fate is in his hands, where he gains entry by his own hand, by whatever means are necessary. This is American literature at its brashest, but also at its finest, writing about the common individual (a character in search of meaning) at a time when this was not popular.

This book is among the dozen or so books that have had a profound effect on me. I encountered this book first in a college course on American literature, which I took in 1977, a year after Bellow won the 1976 Nobel Prize in Literature “for the human understanding and subtle analysis of contemporary culture that are combined in his work,” the Swedish Academy said. This introductory course eventually led me to read all of Bellow’s fiction and quite a bit of his non-fiction essays.

This novel speaks of a quest for identity, and how one’s fate can lead nowhere if one does not act rightly on one’s ideals. In other words, high ideals are good and well, but these alone will not bring you to achieve a measure of success; one needs to act upon them in a concrete and directed way and within the cultural and ethical norms of the time. In America, this was easy to determine and emulate.

Even so, it is also true that a life without ideals is empty, without meaning. It is true that Augie does get involved in many schemes, often not of his own invention, that his life is full of adventures. Yet, in doing so, it is also about Augie finding or transcending his ordinariness, in finding a distinct path, which although not direct and is often meandering, leads to some final destination of distinctiveness through a path of high-low culture that is common to America.

It is about “getting it right,” or about “making it right.” And it is about discovery, after all, and of making peace with oneself, of making peace with the past, including most notably with one’s father, with whom sons often have difficult relationships, balancing the need for familial acceptance with the need to make one’s own way in the broader world. One can see the author in this work. It is about knowledge, including self-knowledge, and, of course, about the highest and noblest of human emotions, love.

That is, to give love and be loved. This is a measure of success. It is not easily achieved, which is evident by the fact that there is so much written about love and the failure to achieve it. If this sounds complex, it is because this book raises so many important questions about the human condition in contemporary culture. This novel is also about hope in America, which throughout its history provided immigrants (and more so, children of immigrants) the ability to open the previously barred doors of opportunity.

By doing so, and doing it with success, they are to write their own story, based on freedom and opportunity available to them in America. There have been many stories of the immigrant experience since this novel was published, in opposition to those that say the character, the individual, is dead, no longer relevant in literature. I too join hands with those that disagree. Augie March is, when all is said and done, a very modern character.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Old Movies

Entertainment: 1:9

“Happy is the man…”
Photo Credit: ©2017. Eli G. Greenbaum

“Of all the arts, movies are powerful aids to empathy,
and good ones make us into better people.” 

Roger Ebert [1942–2013]
The Great Movies IV (2016), p. xx1

I love old movies; I am indeed fortunate to live at a time when there exists a TV channel like Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which since 1994 has been showing hundreds of movies each month, many of them still standing the test of time, resisting the erosion of meaning and retaining relevance and, at the same time, reminding us of what once was essential to the human race. They bring back good memories. Yes, old movies are like good friends—they remain true and are always there for you.

Speaking of “old friends,” I was sad to hear about the death of TCM’s host, Robert Osborne [1932–2017], on March 6th.; he was 84. I found his knowledge and love of classic films, and his way of speaking of these gems both comforting and endearing. Osborne brought a classiness and style to the show that will be hard to duplicate. Mr. Osborne spoke as if he were speaking to you directly, close up and personal, as if he were a guest in your living room. 

So it was and so it will always be. There are roughly two great periods of Hollywood film-making. The later period of the 1970s when I was around and an earlier period called “the Golden Age.” Each era’s greatest films peeled back the layers, revealing something essential about America and its people. The great films resonated with the public and spoke to their hearts. The great films were the ones everyone watched and discussed; they provided a shared experience.

“We'll Always Have Paris;” Casablanca (1940)
Via: Youtube

During Hollywood’s Golden Age (roughly 1930–1959), such film classics as Duck Soup (1933), Modern Times (1936), Grapes of Wrath (1937), Gone With the Wind (1939), The Great Dictator (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), Casablanca (1942), Mildred Pierce (1945), The Lost Weekend (1945) and Sunset Blvd (1950) were made. This was the era of b&w films. During this period in time, people went to the movies at least once a week. I was born a generation later, but I loved to watch these actors and actresses on TV, often when they showed these movies late at night (or rather early in the a.m.)

I enjoyed everybody from Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Spencer Tracy to Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall and Grace Kelly; from Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Ingrid Bergman to James Stewart, Cary Grant and Henry Fonda.  There was also Kirk Douglas. There are so many greats; a list can be found [here]. As can the Los Angeles-based American Film Institute’s (AFI) 1998 ranking of the top 100 films [here], and a similar ranking in 2007 [here]. There is general consensus of which films stand the test of time and are considered as worthy of this unique praise. There are sound reasons why this is so.

My era, which started around 1968, when I was allowed to go with my friends to the movies downtown, had Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, Gene Hackman, Clint Eastwood, Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Jack Nicholson, Gene Wilder and an older Marlon Brando along with Meryl Streep, Jane Fonda, Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, Faye Dunaway, Barbra Streisand, Jodie Foster, Madeleine Kahn and Goldie Hawn. 

Going to a movie theatre when I was growing up was a big deal. There was no such thing as large-screen TVs, or none that I was aware of back then, back to a time that began for me 50 years ago. 

“Funniest Scenes;” Annie Hall (1977)
Via: Youtube

This was arguably the greatest period of Hollywood films, including such great movies as Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Five Easy Pieces (1970), The French Connection (1971) The Godfather (1972), The Sting (1973) Chinatown (1974), Blazing Saddles (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), All the President’s Men (1976), Network (1976) Annie Hall (1977), Star Wars (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979)

One of the first noticeable things is that this is a long list, but the number of films that I enjoyed seeing then is actually much longer. There are many more films I could add, so good was the craft of film-making and story-telling in this period of Hollywood history. As was the directing and acting, often done with an intensity and physicality that is now often lacking. 

As for the comedies, they were produced without the vulgarity so evident and commonplace today; humor tends to follow what is happening in general society.  These are now viewed as old movies, I aging along with the movies of my youth; the younger generation might views these as dated. All, in my view, are worth seeing again or for the first time.

While we had TV the movies were the big screen; it was truly magical seeing these larger-than-life actors and actresses playing the roles that they did. In the best movies, you walked out a different person than when you came in, although going to the movies was not chiefly about gaining knowledge or about forming character. Even so, Roger Ebert’s sentiments about the power of film to better the human condition, to make you a better person, echo mine. They likely echo the minds of many millions.

Going to the movies was an outing, a place and a time to be entertained, an escape from the normal And this is what the movies offered. For example, during the Christmas break from school, my friends and I went to the movies often, seeing all the movies that came out then. Not all were good; some were disappointing, and a few were exceptionally memorable. They were all entertaining. 

Afterward, we would head to a local restaurant or diner for something to eat; it was often a burger and fries with Coke. When we got older, our tastes became more sophisticated. What remained constant was discussing the movie afterward, which included recounting our favorite parts and bits of dialogue. We also planned our next outing.

I do watch modern movies,  but I rarely see a movie at a theatre. Perhaps I have just grown older, perhaps I don’t feel like making the effort, or perhaps I don’t like what it costs to see a movie at a theatre these days, especially when there are better alternatives like the classic movie channel, TCM.  In addition, now watch movies on streaming services like “Netflix” (we do turn out the lights). 

So, yes, I still enjoy movies, thus I might write about the good movies, the ones that I enjoy, on this blog from time to time. 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Ken Burns: Baseball (1994)

America’s National Pastime

Via: Youtube

“The story of baseball is also the story of race in America, of immigration and assimilation; of the struggle between labor and management, of popular culture and advertising, of myth and the nature of heroes, villains, and buffoons; of the role of women and class and wealth in our society. The game is a repository of age-old American verities, of standards against which we continually measure ourselves, and yet at the same time a mirror of the present moment in our modern culture — including all of our most contemporary failings.”

Ken Burns [born July 29, 1953; Brooklyn, N.Y.],
“Introduction” to Baseball, 1994

This is the first part (Inning 1) of Ken Burns’ masterful and popular 1994 series on baseball, simply called Baseball, which naturally has nine parts or nine innings, the length of a complete baseball game (one that doesn’t go into extra innings). The documentary is narrated by John Chancellor [1927–1996], the anchor of NBC Nightly News from 1970 to 1982.

This sport has also been called “America’s National Pastime.” Like all professional endeavors, and most noticeable in sports, this is considered serious business, influenced not only by the money that can be made, but also by the prestige of winning and of being the team that wins it all in the World Series. There is a euphoria, a feeling of elation, in winning, in being declared without any doubt the best among the best players. Such is competition at a high level.

One can say that baseball is the most intellectual of sports, since there is a lot of strategy involved, a lot of ways to advance base runners from home plate and back to home plate—a total distance of 360 feet. This is achieved with very little physical contact, unlike teams sports like hockey, football and soccer. The greatest and most important contact is between a round wooden bat and round cork-centered ball weighing approximately 5 oz.

Moreover, unlike any other sport played in the United States, the history of baseball and the history of America are intertwined. If you want to understand America, you need to understand baseball. This explains why in the past, for example, Jewish children of immigrants played and watched baseball, and when a game was not on TV they listening to their team on the radio. This adage applied to me since 1969 with the Montreal Expos being granted a franchise (the first outside the U.S.), and baseball fever hit the city.

Like countless others on my street I played games of pickup baseball. (I am now teaching the game to my younger son.) I also watched baseball at Jarry Park, and when I couldn’t I was one of the many who listened to the game on a transistor radio (a red Zenith), sometimes joined by my older brother, while reclining on a chair in our backyard balcony during a hot summer day sipping on a iced tea or an iced cold lemonade.

I have many fond memories of Hall of Fame broadcaster (2011) Dave Van Horne, the Expos play-by-play man for 32 years (and now with the Miami Marlins), and the use of his signature phrase, “up, up and away,” when a player hit a homerun. His enthusiasm was part of his charm, as was his ability to capture what was happening on the field while high in the box above. That was magic.

For those who don’t appreciate the finer points of the game, it appears slow and boring, but for those who do, it is anything but. Here is one particular interesting aspect of the game. Baseball is unique among team sports in that it is not ruled by a set time, but by completion of the required 9 innings, or more until there is a decided winner. The longest game in MLB history, between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago White Sox on May 8, 1984, was for 25 innings, lasting more than eight hours. The White Sox outlasted its competition, winning 7–6.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Celebrate Your Victories

Jewish Holidays1:8
“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something, If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however a small way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”
Howard Zinn [1922–2010], 
A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (2006), p. 270

Pesakh Seder (2017): Our table set up before the beginning of the traditional Passover seder, which begins the holiday often called the Festival of Freedom. It is seven days in Israel, eight days outside Israel. Jews who follow the Reform tradition also celebrate for seven days. Our family read from the Haggadah, both in English and in Hebrew. Our meal included gefilte fish, matzah ball soup, beef brisket and carrot tzimmes; there was an opera cake for dessert, but I was not able to eat it.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2107. Perry J. Greenbaum

The Jewish People like celebrating holidays with a table laden with food, lively discussion and lots of singing. There are no shortage of occasions to celebrate, since the Jewish calendar is filled with holidays to mark important events in the history of the Jews. As a notable example, on Monday night’s festive meal (סֵדֶר‎; seder‎) to mark the beginning of Passover (פֶּסַח‎; Pesakh), we read from the Haggadah (הַגָּדָה‎‎), which translates as “the telling.”

In  doing so, we recount the biblical story of how the Israelites (the ancestors of the modern Jews), led by Moses, an untested but patient leader, were able to gain their freedom after enduring approximately 400 years of slavery in a foreign land ruled by the ancient Egyptians. For greater detail, it is all there in the Book of Exodus (שְׁמוֹת; Shemot), part of the Torah (תּוֹרָה; instruction or teaching), the central reference document of Judaism.

The story, like all the biblical stories in the Jewish Bible of victory, reveals a transcendent being acting in some fashion on behalf of the narrator and his people, leading them to victory by the use of bloodshed and force. In this case, the narrator is Moses; the transcendent being is the God of Israel, introduced earlier by Abraham, if not Adam, the first man—as told in the first book of the Bible, the Book Of Genesis (בְּרֵאשִׁית; Bereishit). The beginning has a lot of foreshadowing of future events, of both great victories and crushing defeats.

The Bible, if anything, is a bloody book of battles; there is no escaping this conclusion, even as some of us recoil against such means of punishment, the gratuitous use of violence. These are not, by any stretch of the imagination, humanistic values, values that give us comfort. But, then again, violence has always been a part of our nature, a means to stop evil when it does occur. We tend to frame such battles as good versus evil. Uncomfortable as the idea is, it takes violence to stop evil.

The question, as always, is which battles need fighting?

Some people look to the Bible for guidance; I find in it ethical and moral teachings, especially in the prophetic literature and in its message of hope. I also find this in modern stories of courage, where individuals live in defiance of “all that is bad around us,” an idea that Howard Zinn encourages, if not outright emphasizes, in his 2006 book, A Power Governments Cannot SuppressThis is not a superfluous defiance, but a necessary defiance, where individuals are compelled to act in accordance with their conscience.

What Zinn, the child of working-class Jewish immigrants from Brooklyn, N.Y., says is instructive and strikes a chord that resonates deep in my being. I live, and have always tried to do as I think I ought to, in agreement to my values, ethics and morals. Much of it given life and nurtured from what I learned in my early years. I have had both successes and failures, including loss of friendships and sometimes more. But I have also had a few successes, where courage was victorious over cruelty. This is worth celebrating.

As are battles to regain human freedom from unnecessary constraints and the preservation of human dignity are always important, and such are often long battles, requiring perseverance and courage. Such is a universal message, a universal need that applies to all humans. As is the need for hope, not only a Jewish value but a universal one. Here we are and one of the other chief lessons is that despite the way humanity appears—and it might appear dark and gloomy today—does not mean that it will always be this way.

The situation can change; it often does. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Favorite Books (2): The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz

Reading for Enjoyment

Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this might be a continuing series.

“A man without land is nobody.” 
Mordecai Richler [1931–2001],
The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), p. 49

Duddy Kravitz: First Edition Cover (1959); André Deutsch publisher. I first read this book in high school, the first of the many novels and non-fiction essays that Mordecai Richler wrote in his almost five decades of writing. 
Photo Credit: Rare Books and Special Collections, McGill University Library
Source: 100 Objects

The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1959), by Mordecai Richler [1931–2001], is his fourth novel. The book is set in post-war Montreal of the late 1940s, a generation before mine. It is a coming-of-age story of its protagonist, Duddy Kravitz, who is born into a working-class Jewish family, when Jews in Montreal are neither part of the English nor of the French business establishment. Duddy wants more from life, driven by a desire to be “somebody,” a universal desire, I would think.

He is animated by the advice “to own land,” given by his grandfather, Simcha Kravitz, an immigrant shoemaker from Poland who is well-respected in the community. The streets of St. Urbain Street and others of the area, including St. Dominique Street, become his master in keeping with Duddy as the apprentice learning his trade. Yes, Duddy is a hustler, a young man who justifies his dubious behavior, an antihero, but both his purpose and his means are well understood. This alone makes Duddy sympathetic in some circles.

The book, although not meant to be, is instructive on the ways of the world, notably on its definition of success and on becoming a mensch, a “man,” an individual of substance and means and if it could be earned or gained. It also touches on the need for respect, primarily from one’s father but also from the wider community. This speaks not so much about happiness but more about the need for affirmation and the knowledge that you have made it, that you belong.

Duddy seeks the main chance, where financial security is the means to be such a somebody—this includes entering a world where admittance was previously barred by old-time prejudices. Money is a great equalizer. It can be said that money might not make you happy or buy you love, but lack of money will make you miserable and lonely. In a choice between money and poverty, sane people will choose the former and do well by it.

In an insecure world, money brings a good measure of security. It takes knowing poverty to understand its fears and why it drives men so much to escape its clutches. Arguably, there is a “Duddy” in many of us, notably if the beginnings are humble, i.e., poor. Such a state is not sustainable and there is no getting around this or denying it by dressing “a pig in silk.” Poverty is still poverty, no matter how it is romanticized or viewed by those who have never felt its sting.

Mordecai Richler: On the steps of his childhood home at 5257 St. Urbain Street in 1979. This is near (north of) the corner of Fairmount Avenue  a short walking distance to Fairmount Bagel, a Montreal institution along with St-Viateur Bagel, a block further north. I frequented both establishments. This is part of a now trendy area of Montreal called Mile End; this was not so when I was growing up in this area in the 1960s. You will note the long staircases in the front of the two-storey rowhouses. 
Photo Credit: George Cree; The Gazette (Montreal) 
Source: The Walrus

Although I have never been a “Duddy” while growing up in Montreal, I did grow up in a working-class area on Park Avenue—a few blocks from St. Urbain Street, where a good part of the novel takes place. While St. Urbain Street and the surrounding area around “the Main” informed Richler’s writing and his views, Park Avenue, Fletcher’s Field and “the mountain” has likewise informed mine. There are differences, formed by time and space, but also many similarities.

Not surprising, this closeness to the Jewish ghetto is raised in an article (“My Dad, the Movie, and Me; September 12, 2012) that Noah Richler wrote about his father in The Walrus: “[A]nd immediately at the foot of this side of Mount Royal is Jeanne-Mance Park, formerly Fletcher’s Field, and the streets of the Jewish ghetto my father had moved away from but never left.”

Such humble roots also encouraged a desire among its inhabitants to achieve something and become a somebody. Richler, to his credit, did. In my case, I encountered individuals like Duddy in my neighborhood. I later worked for individuals like Duddy—many of whom did achieve a measure of success and financial security. They, too, were a product of their upbringing at a particular time and place in Montreal, a minority within a minority community.

Such is the way it was, and the book, although a novel, does a good job of showing how some people lived during a period of Montreal history. Moreover, the book, like Richler’s many other works, is funny and satirical. Richler was a satirist and he was good at his craft. He found humor in all the right places and struck all the right chords. Richler knew well the city of his childhood.

If you are not a Montrealer, you can still laugh and enter this circumscribed but very well-described world while reading this work—the writing is so rich; if you are a Montrealer, particularly of a certain age, all the more so.

Friday, April 7, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Barking Dogs

Neighbors: 1:7
“Happy is the man…”
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

“Barking dogs don’t bite, but they themselves don’t know it.”
Sholom Aleichem [1859–1916], 
Dos Sholom Aleichem Buch (1926), p. 350

I reside with my wife and two children in a two-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of a high-rise building (16 stories tall) in a part of Toronto called North York, in a neighborhood called “Little Moscow.” The name likely reflected the demographics of the 1990s; and although we hear quite a lot of Russian when we take our walks at the nearby park, most of the people residing in the area are from Asia, in particular, the Philippines.

Speaking of nature, one of the reasons that we moved here is that we have a wonderful unobstructed view of the park from all of our windows. I enjoy looking out the window during all of the seasons, but especially in the summer when the park is green and in the fall with the changing colors. I have posted a number of such photos on this blog, including here, here and here.

The building is well-maintained, and our apartment was painted and all the floors redone before we moved in. A complete renovation of the lobby and the hallways was done last year with new tiles, wallpaper and carpets. It also has a large laundry room and an exercise room.  It has sufficient amenities and the staff is responsive to any and all maintenance needs that arise.

All in all, I am happy living here, apart for the desire for more space. The four of us reside in a space of 650 sq. ft.—an extra bedroom would be a mechaye (Yiddish: a real joy). This of course reminds me of the Jewish joke, the well-known one about the family and the goat. So, this aspect of our lives, however much we desire it, cannot be changed for now—goat or no goat.

Speaking of domesticated animals, there is one other lingering problem that should be easy to resolve: a barking dog. Here’s the back story. This building has a large number of residents who have dogs living with them, possibly drawn here by the building’s proximity to the park. Some of the dogs are large, some are small. Most, it seems, are quiet. We have the misfortune, however, of living on the same floor as a neighbor who has a small dog that barks regularly, especially when anyone passes her door.

This can happen at any time of the day. We have made numerous complaints to the management about the barking; they are responsive, letting the dog owner know about the noise complaint. They have even suggested that “if this continues we will give her a notice of eviction.” Two years later, she and her dog remain. I now sense that “the management” says this as means to placate us. It is like a bad comedy.

My wife and I did encounter the dog’s owner a couple of times last year while waiting for the elevator; and my wife did point out to her about the nuisance of her dog’s barking. Her first response was that the dog was nervous and she was taking him to see a therapist and possibly obtain some medication to calm his anxiety. The second time was a few months later, after it seems that the therapy and medication weren’t working sufficiently well, when she said that we were fortunate, since her dog is a Maltese and “they are good at warning in case of robberies.”

This is nice to know, but not a concern that we have ever had; and regardless of the dog’s abilities in this area, and I am sure he meets the highest standards in “dog warning systems,” can this excuse or justify the dog’s behavior? How about the many false alarms? Well, I actually don’t blame the dog, since I suspect that the dog never goes out for a walk, which is what an animal needs. Neither my wife nor I have ever seen this dog outside with the owner, and this is a period of more than two years. This is not proof but certainly is suspicious.

I did call the local humane society a while ago about the barking, and their response was that unless there was some kind of known abuse there was nothing that they could do. So, that’s the end of it, and the comedy continues. I guess that I and my family have to “live” with this inconvenience. This is all part of high-rise living and of living in an urban environment, where noise becomes an expected albeit unwelcome presence of city life. Now, don’t get me started on car alarms or on low-flying airplanes in the middle of the night.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Reading Now (April 2017): A Biography of the Imagination

A Writer’s Imagination

“What is imposed on us by birth and environment is what we are called upon to overcome.”

Saul Bellow, A Jewish Writer in America,” 
The New York Review of Books (October 27, 2011), p. 28 
[Excerpts from a talk Bellow gave in 1988]

Saul Bellow: A Biography of the Imagination (1991) by Ruth Miller. I picked this up last month at a second-hand shop. I read another bio of Bellow about a decade ago, by James Atlas; this one focuses more on his work and how his imagination influences his writing. It captures a different side of the writer and his work. Reading Bellow, one can see that he was a complex intense man, who allowed his questioning restless mind to flow in to his writing; and, yet, he retained a fine measure of control.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Although Saul Bellow [1915–2005] is known as an American writer, and understandably so, he was born in Canada (in Lachine, Quebec, now a borough of Montreal); and when he was three, in 1918 (before the end of the First World War on November 11th), his family moved to the second floor of a duplex at 1092 St.-Dominique St., which was then in an area at the heart of the Jewish community in Montreal. 

It was more than likely a cold-water flat with wooden floors, a long central hallway, large open rooms and high ceilings. This was on the same street on which my mother grew up, but this was a decade later and a few blocks north of Bellow’s family. Change was slow coming to Montréal, and remained so until the 1960s. I, too, grew up in a similar house, although on a different street and at a different time. Yet, some things remained.

Ruth Miller first met Bellow when she was a first-year student, taking a required English Composition course he taught at Pestalozzi-Froebel Teachers College, in Chicago, in 1938; she writes in the biography about the influence that his childhood in Montreal had on him. influences that, although nowhere near as important as of those of Chicago, have nevertheless informed his worldview and his work:
When I asked Bellow to explain to me what he wished to do as an artist, he answered with an anecdote about his childhood. As a boy, he said, he loved to sit alone on the curb, staring into the gutter. He would watch the iridescent colors shifting on the oil and water and he figured that the slop of St. Dominique Street gutter was reflecting the sunlight overhead. A small boy, just sitting there, he had emotional feelings, very powerful, of gladness and mystery, and he wanted to say something, to tell someone, about that. But there was no one to whom he could speak. (5)
What was Bellow to do but give voice to his thoughts and write, making sense of his surroundings, with all the peril it entailed; that he was talented and earned success is a testament to both his gifts and his will to get out of the place that both caused him fear and joy. Where he would no longer be the outsider, l'étranger. Such is often the case when the individual, and the writer, tries to stay the course as a humanist. Eschewing political parties and ideologies as well as pretentious pieties is never an easy task.

Not to over-state things, but I remember as a young boy, around the same age as Bellow was in this anecdote, but more than 40 years later, on a street (av du Parc) that was not too far (not only geographically) from rue St.-Dominique, watching at a corner gas station (called Fina and now Petro-Canada) opposite Fletcher’s Field, the colors of the visible spectrum forming as gasoline mixed with water and washed into the sewers below. 

I, too, watched with fascination and dreamed of beautiful things. The imagination can be a powerful motivating factor in the mind of the young. It can carry you far, but it also requires a good supply of energy and power. It is often the case, and this applies to me, that what one escapes from, in our desire to “overcome it,” becomes highly desirable after a long period of discovery and absence. 

Friday, March 31, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Making It As A Writer

Success: 1:6
“Happy is the man…”

Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

“Writers are greatly respected. The intelligent public is wonderfully patient with them, continues to read them and endures disappointment after disappointment, waiting to hear from art what it does not hear from theology, philosophy, social theory, and what it cannot hear from pure science. Out of the struggle at the center has come an immense, painful longing for a broader, more flexible, fuller, more coherent, more comprehensive account of what we human beings are, who we are, and what this life is for. At the center humankind struggles with collective powers for its freedom, the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul. If writers do not come again into the center it will not be because the center is pre-empted. It is not. They are free to enter. If they so wish.”
Saul Bellow, Nobel Prize Lecture, December 12, 1976

The happy writer is the one who gets published and who gets paid handsomely for his work; together this implies recognition of the writer’s work. Money is the universal system of recognition today; I can’t think of any other socio-economic system that has such universal power or appeal like capitalism. Even China, which is still officially communist, has capitalism as its economic system. This alone has done more to the change the nation.

For writing is work and its value is determined by what the market deems as its fair price. This is not an assessment of knowledge that I find comforting, but it nevertheless says something important. The economic rule of supply and demand applies to knowledge, which in the case of writing can now be had on the cheap in all but a few cases. This is not to say all knowledge put in written form is equal, but its evaluation is often based on its marketability and on its cultural relevance.

In other words, in the marketing of words, writers become famous because the persons who manage the publishing industry think that such writers will earn them a profit; and they earn them a profit because they have already become famous. It’s nice work if you can get it. Most don’t, but not for lack of trying. If I have made the rule of success simple, it is because this is often the case. Talent might rise to the top like cream, but it always helps if you know “someone” or if you are “known.”

There are many good writers who never get sufficiently noticed to make a living with their craft, and thus have other jobs to keep them able to pay their bills. Most don’t make it, and you don’t hear about such persons in the literary magazines, academic journals or academic courses. Writing is a lonely profession and the loneliest of the lot might be the freelance writer, who hustles for work alongside the hordes of writers for the diminishing number of publications that pay sufficiently well for articles.

It was common at one time for even established fiction writers, even literary writers of first rank, like Saul Bellow, to supplement their book income by submitting long-form non-fiction articles to magazines as a non-staff member or as a freelancer. I am not sure if this is the case today.

Freelancing, a profession with which I have had a long association, is no longer viable for traditional writers like myself. It is true and worth noting, and with a degree of sadness, that not many can survive the barrenness of low-paying work, the rotting state of poverty and the death of rich human companionship. Humans have certain universal needs, if left unmet turn to pain and misery. Recognition is one, as is the moral idea that your work matters. Writers might say that they write for themselves, but most want people to read their work.

When Bellow writes in his Nobel Lecture that “the individual struggles with dehumanization for the possession of his soul,” which is a universal theme of what internal obstacles the individual faces. This used to be one of the prime struggles when Bellow said these words more than 40 years ago. Perhaps this is no longer the case, but I believe it is so, despite the protests of Science & Technology that we are progressing well. 

This need to overcome obstacles seems as important now as it was then, as the individual struggles to regain his place in society; and it left to the writer to regain the center with moral words of intellectual depth and meaning. This being the case, what is a writer of prominence to do, if not support this effort? Some enter the arena, the center of it all, to counter the dehumanization of the soul with healing words. Yet, this rarely pays well or earns the writer any measure of respect among those who like and enjoy the status quo. It is a thankless endeavor, but a necessary one.

The few writers who make a lot of money might sometimes question the (a)moral aspect of their work, or might suffer pangs of guilt for their success, but they are likely less miserable than the ones who have no money or no recognition. They might squander it all, but they have the opportunity to rebuild their fortunes, banking on their name—a Faustian bargain? Whether or not they are fulfilling the purpose of the Writer is something that they might eventually address. Does a state of misery make you a good writer? Does living with adversity and overcoming it make you a better writer?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Israel Philharmonic: Mendelssohn’s Wedding March

Via: Youtube.

Here is another version of Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Arie Vardi [born 1937]. It has a cute scene in it with two children playing the part of bride and groom. I do not know when or where this was performed, since the Youtube channel did not provide this piece of information. Perhaps someone can kindly provide me with this, so I can add it in.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Favorite Books (1): The Great Gatsby

Reading for Enjoyment

In last month’s post, “For The Love Of Literature,” I argued in favor of being a good reader, which is not the same as being a good literary critic. Here I briefly discuss one of my favorite books; this might be a continuing series.

I am one of the few honest people that I have ever known.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (1925)

Celestial Blue Eyes: Francis Cugat’s original gouache painting for The Great Gatsby is shown on the left; and the cover of the first edition of the 1925 novel is shown on the right. Cugat, a Spanish artist, was paid $100 for his work. The book, published on April 10th by Scribner’s of New York, was done under the keen editorship of Maxwell Perkins.
Image Credit: University of South Carolina Libraries
Source: Smithsonian

The Great Gatsby (1925), by F. Scott Fitzgerald [1896–1940], follows the short and tragic life of one James Gatz, a person of no consequence who reinvents himself as Jay Gatsby, a wealthy man who becomes noticed and discussed. Not much is known about Gatsby, a shadowy but charming man, other than he is wealthy, has beautiful shirts and likes to throw lavish parties at his mansion.

In the absence of fact, innuendo takes its place. There are unconfirmed rumors on how he acquired his wealth, but it is gossip and insinuations mixed in with some fact and resentment. There is guilt by association (with Meyer Wolfsheim, a gambler responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series). It is about money, how it is acquired and who should “rightfully” acquire it.

The book was written during the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties; and this is when the action takes place: in the fictional town of West Egg, located on the wealthy enclave of Long Island in the summer of 1922. West Egg represents new money; East Egg old money, an important distinction. As is the demarcation point of the First World War, which ended a way of life for many. Gatsby is very much a post-war figure, part of the nouveau riche. He might have been new money, but his values were old money. Or so it could be argued.

Of course, it speaks about transformation and also about how difficult it is to be honest, how it is nearly impossible to say the obvious. Deception is preferred. Truly, few want to hear the truth; it is too shocking. So is love and being of pure of heart.

I first read this book in high school, in the early 1970s. I believe it was in Grade 10, but it might have been a year later. I have read the book a few times and it remains my favorite book. It speaks about the need and ability to achieve success, a passion that is strong when one comes from humble roots, but also of the obstacles and the cost of achieving this. For Gatsby, it was about (finally) becoming good enough to be with the object of his desire, Daisy, who would be his undoing; Daisy was careless with what she was given.

It is a typical American book, and one of the best books to define what it is that makes America the great nation of opportunity and invention, but also a nation that can quickly turn on the outwardly weak, a cautionary tale that makes hyenas devouring a lion evoke more sympathy. One can become whom one wants to become; the possibility is ever-present. Yet, old money is suspicious of new money, seeing it as an unwelcome intruder, a gate-crasher; some things never change. I suspect that for this reason alone this book resonates with many.
The book, however, was not a success during Fitzgerald’s lifetime, but became popular only after the Second World War, when it became a literary masterpiece. Timing might not be everything, but it is important. It remains popular today for reasons that need not be explained.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: The Taste Of Tomatoes

Food: 1:5
“Happy is the man…”
Photo Credit: ©Perry J. Greenbaum

I love tomatoes; even as a child I loved eating tomatoes, not only in salads but alone (with some salt) as a fruit. I often enjoyed a toasted tomato and onion sandwich with a bit of mayo and sometimes with a slice or two of cucumber. Nothing like a sweet juicy tomato on a hot summer day. Suffice to say, I am a big fan of tomatoes.

One of my fondest eating memories dates to the early 1980s, of eating fresh tomatoes (with a bit of salt) right off the vine, just as they became ripe, on a hot day in August; there was little to compare this to in terms of gustatory experience. The man who grew the tomatoes was much older than me, in his late seventies, and offered them to me as one would offer a prize possession. They were delicious, but I did not think much of it at the time.

After all, I had always expected tomatoes to taste like this. There was no reason then to expect otherwise. But I noticed recently, this being in the last decade or so, that there is something wrong with the taste of tomatoes as they have become larger and less sweet. They don’t taste right. They don’t taste like tomatoes.

Basket of Tomatoes: The larger the tomato, the blander the taste. Tomatoes lose their taste if kept in the fridge. It is better to keep them at room temperature. 
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

First I thought it was a matter of finding organic tomatoes, or non-GMO tomatoes or expensive fancy-type tomatoes or growing your own, which I did one year in a pot on our balcony. But, while these were an improvement in taste, they did not duplicate my memory of earlier years. I had all but given up, thinking that my memory was false, that I had just aged and my taste buds had aged along with my memory.

My family and friends chimed in that I must accept that my taste buds were not telling the truth. But then I came across this article (“The Quest to Return Tomatoes to Their Full-Flavored Glory;” January 26, 2017) by Brian Handwerk:
Today’s fruit simply doesn't pack the flavor of the old-fashioned tomato, finds a new genome study published today in the journal Science. “Genomic technologies, like the ones the authors used in this research, really enable us to study what happened to the tomato in a very effective way,” says Esther van der Knaap, a plant geneticist at the University of Georgia who was not involved in the new study. “What did we leave behind, and what are we carrying through?”
I now know that it was not me that changed, but the tomato. Thank you Mr. Handwerk for your article. I have been vindicated. Now I am waiting for the return of tasty and sweet tomatoes. I am waiting to repeat that experience from more than 35 years ago.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

First Day of Spring (2017)

The Seasons

Park ViewThis is taken from my sixth floor balcony at around 1:30 p.m. Spring arrived here officially in Toronto at 6:29 a.m. yesterday, Monday March 20th. Such marks the season of warm promise, when temperatures move upward from single digits. (February 2017 was the warmest on record, but March 2017 for the most part has seen below normal temperatures.) Yet, it might be warming up. The temperature when this photo was taken was 5°C (or 41°F); the forecast daytime high was 7°C (or 45°F). If the past is any indication, it does not really warm up here to spring-jacket weather—to at least 15°C (or 60°F)—until early April, basically coinciding with the beginning of the professional baseball season. Time to get my baseball gear ready.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Spring Flowers (2017): No flowers are evident outside, so it seemed like a good idea to buy some cut flowers and bring them indoors. Is there ever a time when one can say too much beauty exists in the world? 
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Ducks in the Water: On Sunday, the day before the official arrival of Spring, we took a walk to the park near where we reside. There were a number of ducks—we counted nine in total—taking advantage of the thaw; it was a sunny 6°C (43°F). On Saturday, when we took a walk to the same spot, we witnessed two ducks on top of a thin sheet of ice, and there was more snow on the ground. It was much colder, with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark, and snowing slightly—not a pleasant day at all. One day can, indeed, make a difference, and not only for the ducks of Toronto.
Photo Credit & Source: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Monday, March 20, 2017

Wanda Landowska: Mozart Sonata No. 13 (1956)

Via: Youtube

Wanda Landowska [born in Warsaw, Poland; 1879–1959] performs Mozart Sonata No. 13 in B flat major (K 333), which scholars say Mozart completed in the Austrian city of Linz at the end of 1783. Landowska, of course, is well-known for playing the harpsichord, her beloved French-made Pleyel (she called it “my very dear companion and friend, my love, my baby”), yet she does a marvelous job on the more modern instrument, the piano. You can hear her enjoyment and pleasure coming through; you can hear the sound of beauty.

Landowska was in her late seventies when she recorded this piece at her home in Lakeville, CT. The 2 LP box set was released by RCA Victor in 1956, to mark the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth (he was born on January 27th). This sonata is on Side B of the first album. This piece reminds me of spring, and thus it is dedicated to its timely return today.

1. Allegro
2. Andante cantabile (8:32)
3. Allegretto grazioso (21:44)

For those interested, there is an interview with Landowska [here], which was broadcast by WQXR New York (part of New York Public Radio). In it she discusses her views of Mozart and the interpretation of his music. There is an earlier interview [here], from 1953, for the NBC-TV program Wisdom, which aired from 1957–1965. In it, she explains her love of the harpsichord, how she worked assiduously to gain its wide public acceptance, and how it differs from the piano, which is better known.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Happy Curmudgeon: Sufficient Freedom

My-Self: 1:4
“Happy is the man…”

“When the mind’s free,
The body’s delicate. ”
William Shakespeare
King Lear (1608), Act III, scene 4, line 11

When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” 
Ralph Ellison [1913–1994],
Invisible Man (1952)
Photo Credit: ©2017. Perry J. Greenbaum

Before December 18, 2012, I had never spent a night in the hospital. I was in excellent health, or so I thought. On that day, I was told that I had a tumor in my colon and it was cancer. In a blink of an eye, at age 55, my view of my health and of myself changed. This change is now permanent. Or so it seems at the moment.

What this tells me now—back then I was too immersed in treatment and recovery to think about the seriousness of this statement—is that change can and often does come about unexpectedly. So much so that one can never prepare for these shocks in life. And this news was a shock, as it is for so many others. My view of myself changed and continued to change in the months of treatment—the so-called new normal.

Even after treatments ended, what I had to face was another unpleasant truth: I was still no longer free to be myself, despite earnest but inadequate efforts on my part to do so, including taking on a regime of exercising and healthy eating, since this person no longer existed; he could not be resuscitated, returned to the land of the living. My diminishing physical abilities and the diminishing possibilities to recover it combined in some unholy alliance to change the way I saw myself.

I was also getting older, and continue to do so, that is, age, which brings with it similar losses of freedom. Things are not the way they once were.

A recognition occurs. I was placed, against my will and desire, in a awkward position of having to rediscover who I was, never a simple or easy task at any stage of life. This knowledge of Self is always bound up with the ideas of Freedom. It’s a personal journey on the tortuous (and at times, torturous) road of epistemology.

Even so, as always, there is a problem; there are speed bumps and other hazards on the road to sufficient knowledge and understanding. How much freedom we have in our lives is not really known, but we tend to not think about it until we lose some of it, or more pointedly, a slice of it in a pie of indeterminate size. Then, we know we have lost something and we also know that we have lost something important, essential to our being. This also helps us gauge, however inaccurate the measurement, how much freedom we once had, or seem to have had.

It is knowledge of some sort, but not the kind that offers any comfort.

It is also true that we always want more freedom than we have (are given?), and tend to bemoan later on the lack of freedom we currently have. In other words, we think that we have squandered what we once had in youth. When we had it in our grasp. But we did not know then what we know now. Isn’t this always the case?

It is our human nature to mourn the loss of something valuable. Different people respond differently to similar circumstances (it’s never exactly the same). Someone once said, I forget who it was, that “freedom begins in the mind,” that if you think that you are free, no matter the physical circumstances you find yourself in, then you are free.

This suggests that freedom can be conjured up in the mind, even if you are locked up in a small cell of a prison. Perhaps this works for some, but I am dubious of such claims, viewing any obstruction of movement as militating against freedom in the widest possible sense. It might work in reverse, as well; that your mind might imprison you, even as your body freely does what it wants or desires. Most people prefer and live by the second option.

The question is, as always, how much freedom is enough? Some people say they know the answer, but I am not one of them. I tend to view this as a question that has too many parameters to arrive at any universal consensus. But whatever it is, it is probably not enough for some humans and too much for others. There is always someone who’s unhappy at the work of politicians to either extend or limit freedoms.