Pity the poor publishing professional. She — and these days, three out of four publishing pros on the editorial side are women — was lured into the field by her love of books. Yet she spends her work hours as caught up in commerce and bureaucratic politics as any office drone. She hoped to have regular encounters with art, thought and glamour. Yet what she runs into more frequently is the fact that she’s earning far less than friends who went into squarer fields. She expected to continue her life as an eager reader. Yet she spends her reading time wading through manuscripts, review copies and buzzed-about but lousy new books. “You hate your work, you wonder why you’re doing it, you think you should quit,” an editor said to me recently. “And it really does cut into your reading enjoyment.”
Perhaps as a consequence, there’s little that makes people in publishing as wistful as talking about what they’d like to be reading. They sit back, they smile a little and their eyes search the ceiling — this is a question they still really care about. What answers do they come up with? Suspecting that there might be something to be learned here, and with as few preconceptions as I could manage, I asked a dozen publishing people how their reading habits would change if they never had to read out of obligation again.
One journalist who covers publishing said happily, and with no hesitation, that she would “read Colette in French — but first I’d need to learn French, which I’d also love.” An editor of science books said that what he’d most like to do is “line a wall with photography books,” while a fiction editor confessed that he’s happiest reading books about science. One marketing person said that she’d love to finish “Paradise Lost,” which she struggled only partway through while in college. “Now that I know something about defeat and frustration, I keep thinking about how Satan got cast out of Heaven,” she said. “In college I couldn’t relate. Now I can.”
But some patterns did emerge. Many of my respondents would, with relief, simply give up reading most new books and head straight back to the classics. It was chilling to learning what some people in publishing haven’t read: “The Odyssey,” Dickens, Tolstoy, Gogol, “The Aeneid.”
It was when I asked my interviewees to specify what they’d be happiest not reading that the surprises began. (The wittiest answers: Publishers Weekly and the New York Times Book Review.) John Grisham, perhaps predictably, topped the list. But after him came writers from among today’s most respected literary figures. Salman Rushdie (“boring and pretentious”) and Toni Morrison shared top honors. Don DeLillo (“he’s homework”), Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Martin Amis trailed close behind. (To be fair, each of these writers also had a fan or two.) In fact, of the dozen publishing people I polled, only three would still be devotees of what passes today for literary writing if it weren’t part of their jobs.
The list of living writers my subjects would willingly continue to read was much more varied. The winners among literary figures, with three votes each, were Alice Munro (“the best writer of short fiction alive”) and Janet Malcolm (“the best journalist of my lifetime”). But named just as often were a handful of genre writers: Elmore Leonard, Tony Hillerman, Donald Westlake, Susan Isaacs and Carl Hiaasen. William Trevor, David Foster Wallace, Anne Tyler, J.G. Ballard, the sci-fi writer Connie Willis and the humorous novelists Peter Lefcourt and Charles Portis were each cited approvingly as often as Thomas Pynchon was (i.e., once). For those of you on the lookout for tips, here are some fairly recent books that my respondents also enjoyed: Daniel Menaker’s novel “The Treatment,” Florence Rubenfeld’s “Clement Greenberg: A Life,” Steven Pinker’s “How the Mind Works” and Patti LaBelle’s autobiography. “She put all her dirty laundry out on the street,” my interviewee giggled.
It’s enough to remind you of the (true) story of the architect who, as a professional, designs thorny modern buildings, but prefers to live with his family in a rambling old country house. And it brings up a question: How can we account for the widespread illusion many of us have of an ongoing literary world? In architecture, it’s an open secret that the buildings that are sold to us as “architecture” (as opposed to mere “building”) aren’t the ones that people find comfortable, delightful, pleasant or well-built. Instead, they’re the buildings that photograph well and that give critics and journalists plenty to write about. With books, could it be that many of the writers who win the most enthusiastic coverage aren’t the ones whose books are enjoyed most by knowledgeable, educated readers, but are instead the ones who, whether consciously or not, write to get literary notice and win literary prizes?
What would our reading lives be like if they weren’t preoccupied with, or nagged at by, the dream of literature? My poll suggests that in such a world the reader who finds Toni Morrison a hectoring drag and Salman Rushdie a radical-chic blowhard wouldn’t hesitate to say so. We would give serious thought to the argument that, for example, Elmore Leonard is more likely to be read 50 years from now than Martin Amis. Preferring Rikki Ducornet and Dennis Cooper would be fine, too. In any case, it turns out that, even if your reading stash looks like a disorderly heap of magazines, mysteries, celebrity bios, a classic or two, fiction by a couple of literary figures you’ve grown attached to and books about your personal interests — whether it’s birdbaths or the nature of consciousness — there’s no reason to feel shame or guilt. Nobody can read everything. And, besides, you’re already reading like the pros wish they could, if only they had the chance.
If Robert (“The Trial of Joan of Arc”) Bresson had directed a Zalman (“Wild Orchid”) King film, it might have come out like Louis Malle’s “Damage.” A pot-boiler made austere and tragic, equipped with style to kill and that phony but ever-alluring theme, sexual obsession, it’s a perfect complement to the Josephine Hart novel it’s based on. Hart gives us sleek coupling, with people in glamorous jobs suffering from posh anguish.
Along with such recent novels as Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History” and Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover,” “Damage” is an example of a new type of literary fiction. These books represent a highbrow mining of trash for its zing while condescending to it for its lack of class — literature that’s slumming. They’re would-be page-turners for narcissists who want to imagine they’re having an art experience.
This new form is the latest outgrowth of the ever-prospering creative-writing industry and the ongoing rationalization of the publishing business. The large publishing houses have moved far beyond what was called (by Thomas Whiteside) some years ago “the blockbuster complex”; one executive describes the creature his company has become as “a creator and exploiter of copyrights.” A house may or may not have a place for “quality literature” on its list; they may or may not feel they “can make it work.” What they prefer to commission and market is category books — franchises like horror novels and sewing books. Most have lost the knack of selling literature. Only Knopf, publisher of “Damage” and run by a one-time English publisher with a British flair for exploiting the American culture market, seems capable of putting over “literary importance” anymore.
If, for the publishers, literature is one potentially marketable commodity among many, for the creative-writing industry literature has become just something people with a certain kind of education produce — an abstract discipline a good college is supposed to give you a taste for. (People who follow this kind of writing closely seem to do it in a spirit of dedicated self-denial; most of them don’t watch TV or go to the movies. It’s a cargo cult under the sway of the great gods Flaubert and Chekhov, Joyce and Beckett.) The creative-writing classes and schools teach formula — a matter of fiddling with “voice,” “points of view,” etc. — while claiming to encourage the creation of literature. A couple of the hallmarks of writing-school writing: a preoccupation with that mesmerizer of first-year literary students, the unreliable narrator; and in place of story, word patterns, image patterns, theme patterns. It’s literature-by-algorithm-Synthesizer Lit. We now have several generations of writing school-educated creative writers; they have begun to set the tone for serious fiction. As the generation of Roth, Mailer and Munro becomes less prolific, the composers of Synth Lit will have the field almost entirely to themselves.
“Literature” used to indicate a judgment implying degree of expressiveness and level of accomplishment — either that or an elite, avant-garde activity. (“Professional writers” wrote genre books.) It’s still generally assumed to mean one or the other. But the creative-writing writers simply do literature. (This is similar to the way, among visual artists, “art” has become simply what it is an artist does.) Their schools have informed them that literature is the manipulation of formal elements, and the press, itself educated to recognize literary quality in these terms, concurs — another example of the domestication of a stance that once served to defy and provoke.
Like every other category, literature has spawned innumerable sub-categories, each with specs as demanding and artificial as any mystery-novel form: the Hers-column coming-to-terms novel; the multicultural/oracular/accusatory; the ode to the pre-AIDs years; the new-South farce; the category-defying blast of mega-ambition, etc. Despite this, literary people are almost frighteningly determined to see what they’re doing as akin to the supposedly unique works of solitary genius they learned to admire in school. One useful way of thinking of this kind of literature is as a category that won’t admit it’s a category. Yet the industry and the press still paint that old picture from the Thirties and Forties, the one that shows us how:
The new books in a bookstore may include genre, fluff and utility books, yes — but there’s also literature, where humanity transcends itself, and the tears and heartache are redeemed. Sophisticated editors and journalists and critics manage to exchange information about which books really do count in such a way that deserving authors and readers finally find each other.
The fantasy is that the culture of books is guided by people of talent and taste, and that while decency may not always prevail, it has a fighting chance. But the fact is that trade publishing is now run almost entirely on the business’ terms. The rout began about 15 years ago is now close to complete. Trade publishing is a thoroughly professionalized world. Publishing lists are constructed under the same kind of constraints and with the same kind of conceptualizing-editor guidance (and interference) that glossy magazines are, and the fiction writers who contribute their work to these lists tend to have an academic preparation comparable to that of contemporary journalists and business people.
Why is it, then, that virtually the only fiction that’s accepted as literary are books the industry labels as such? And why is it that only such literary fiction is considered worthy of serious discussion? It partly has to do with the vanity of the college-educated post-World War II generations. Many of what are marketed as literary books are clearly the products of educated people who have decided that only the field the greats toiled in is worthy of their full talents. (People seem tirelessly attached to using literature as a way of making themselves unhappy — using it to represent the something important they feel they really should be doing with their lives.) And of course the corporate journalists and publishers want to believe that what they’re involved in is significant not just economically but artistically and intellectually.
A more basic reason may be the widely cherished image of the book as the sacred embodier of wisdom and cultural values, as well as (for the writer) the big chance to show what he or she has got, and the ultimate test of character. Books, read in solitude and held emotionally close-in, often make a memorable impact on us during adolescence — like pop music, only more private. Attack the current literary conversation piece and you’re attacking someone’s memory of being moved by “Crime and Punishment.”
There are a number of kinds of books the corporate houses publish pretty effectively nowadays. Literature just isn’t one of them. Among their literary books it’s rare to run across one that sets out to entertain as straightforwardly as a mystery by, say Sandra Scoppetone or Robert Crais; that has anything like the sociological and psychological interest of the average true-crime book; that shows as respectful a recognition of the everyday frustrations people endure as a fair number of self-help books; that has the pep of Kay Yarborough Nelson’s computer-advice books; or that’s as beguiling to leaf around in as the Dorling Kindersley productions.
Yet faced with a stack of titles from the large houses, each one having a shelf life of from six weeks to six months, the old arguments about what’s a “real book” and what’s not still go on — a “real book” being understood to be not just some fleeting pop-culture phenomenon. Given this atmosphere of self-delusion and self-consciousness, how can a modeler of empty, graceful exercises such as Michael Chabon not be more likely to win the label of real writer than, for instance, Lee Smith, an emotional celebrator of common experience, whose novels have the pop fullness of a Patsy Cline performance?
It’s a PR triumph that the industry still has perfectly intelligent readers feeling guilty for not keeping up with its literary output, and convinced that they aren’t managing to do any real reading. But of course when you look at your friends’ bookshelves, you find that they really are reading, really prolifically. You see the nod to literature: a shelf or two of Synth Lit, mostly unread and often in hardcover (the hard covers sober monuments to the importance of “the literary”). And you see books that have actually been enjoyed: shelf after shelf of well-thumbed paperback books of journalism (“Barbarians at the Gate”), collections of interviews, category fiction (airplane reading, Scott Turow) and reference and lifestyle books — avowedly genrefied projects, few of them “real books.” One friend served on a literature prize board for a couple of years, reading literary novel after literary novel. When her term ended she returned to what she really enjoys: true crime and celebrity biographies. Readers nagged by the feeling that they’ve lost track of what’s important in books might trust their own tastes more; the books they’re having fun with generally are the industry’s most lively products.
Literary trade publishing today resembles the movie world as “The Player” (accurately) portrays it — with the difference that Hollywood doesn’t rely on the illusion of artistic significance. By now the world of literature, or the appearance of such, has become its own greatest creation. Certainly it makes no sense to take the fiction reviews in The New York Times Book Review as anything other than components of an ongoing soap opera with a rotating, evolving cast of characters. Synth Lit reached a momentary state of refined-away-to-nothing perfection a couple of years ago when Harold Brodkey was being compared to Proust for a novel he was avoiding publishing, and Gordon Lish was celebrated as “Captain Fiction” not for his novels and stories but for an EST-like writing class he conducted.
To find work that has some actual originality of form and content — Acoustic Fiction as opposed to Synth Lit — readers would have better luck trying books from such small houses as Godine, New Directions, Mercury House, Arte Publico, 4 Walls 8 Windows, Sun & Moon, Coach House and Dalkey Archive. Intriguing novels have come from such unlikely places as the University of New Mexico Press and the Sierra Club Press.
Trade literature might have more vitality if it allowed itself some acknowledgement of the hustle and vulgarity of the commercial world it’s part of; the combination of the corporate and the aesthetically and morally self-serious results in something neutering, products that serve the corporations’ convenience first of all.
However sincere the authors are, the Sontag, the Hart and the Tartt are examples of books designed to stand out in this streamlined new world of trade literature. (Does it mater whether these writers know that they’re filling out templates? A bee doesn’t need to understand DNA and natural selection to gather honey.) They’re cashings-in on people’s vulnerability to the myth of literature, raids on the literature market that are as high-concept as any Hollywood film. High-concept movies can actually be easier to take simply because more people have participated; there’s often a performer or two worth watching.
It may be peculiar to this form that what’s most immediately irksome about the books isn’t how deadly they are but how badly they fail on the most basic (if “sensational”) level. The Donna Tartt can’t compare to a Tony Hillerman, and Hart’s “Damage” isn’t exactly a stellar example of the when-do-the-sex-scenes-begin genre.
Sontag, forever making like Kundera and dropping her narrative to let an essay take over, can’t keep the pages turning as fast as Danielle Steel; Kundera hasn’t been making the pages turn too fast lately either. (It’s said in the business that Sontag’s agent, in celebration of her epochal decision to write a “popular, literary” novel, broke Sontag’s long-standing contract in order to raise her price.) But has the writing ever really been the point with Sontag? Her greatest gift has always been for acting out people’s fantasies of a thinker — nothing she writes can surpass the public character “Susan Sontag, woman intellectual.”
The most entertaining aspect of her performance this time around were the highfalutin’ interviews she granted. Did Marie Antoinette ever affect such regal airs? Asked recently what she thought of her fan-turned-detractor Camille Paglia, Sontag simply denied ever having heard of her.
Remembering the feverish moviemaking days of the 1970s, writer-director John Milius said, “The stuff that brought it all to an end came from within. Diller, Eisner and Katzenberg — they ruined the movies.” And here’s what producer Don Simpson said about the end of his own go-go years, the 1980s: “The failing of the present-day system is quite simply based on the fact that the studio executives are by and large ex-lawyers, agents, business-oriented people who are fantastic executives and managers who don’t have a clue about telling stories.” Different decade, same message: The movies are dead, business killed ’em, and things are only getting worse.
A consensus exists among some of the more serious, informed movie journalists and critics that all American moviemaking passion is spent. This judgment is the inevitable consequence of a widely shared interpretation of recent movie history, which goes like this: The spirit of the ’60s came to Hollywood with “Easy Rider” and “Bonnie and Clyde.” The public responded to a new mood; the studios, in confusion, opened their doors; for once, talent poured through the system on its own terms. Then the mood of the country turned again, a reaction set in and — here come the ’80s! — the producers took over, delivering vacuous if shiny blasts of energy. In the ’90s, we have …
Well, not much of anything. Some nice performances. A nice movie here, a nice movie there. Video game-style action comedies and tedious indie flicks made by kids who think movie history began with “Pulp Fiction.” So the serious film critics write essays about the end of the era of the cinéaste and odes to the glories of the Iranian cinema. The reporters content themselves with tales of executives and deals.
Peter Biskind and Charles Fleming both write under the spell of this view. Both have new books out (the quotes above are taken from them).
Of the two, Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” (Simon & Schuster) is by far the more substantial. An attempt to sum up what was important in ’70s American moviemaking, it’s cast in the form of an anecdotal history of, as the subtitle puts it, “how the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll generation saved Hollywood.”
In some ways it’s a helpful work. Biskind provides some essential historical information — reminding us, for example, how very, very old the people at the top of the studios were by the late ’60s (many of them had begun their careers in the silent days). He emphasizes the roles played not just by the young directors but by such producers and executives as John Calley, Bert Schneider and Robert Evans. And he’s convincing (as well as original) when he explains the importance of spouses, collaborators, lovers and friends in the careers and successes of his chosen directors — Ashby, Scorsese, Coppola, Lucas, Altman, Schrader, Bogdanovich, Spielberg and Friedkin.
The glory days of the ’70s, he shows, were the creation of a larger community of people, working in more capacities, than we tend to imagine. There was a shared excitement about movie art. Filmmakers swapped ideas with writers; resourceful casting directors found new faces in the New York theater world. Friendships were formed on the basis of talent and respect as well as ambition. Francis Coppola plays ringleader; Paul Schrader is the most brazen hustler; Martin Scorsese the purest artist; Steven Spielberg the eager beaver who just wants to please and succeed. At times, Biskind’s book reads like an account of a ’60s commune, with moments of heartbreaking harmony achieved before the inevitable breakdown.
Some of Biskind’s judgments are questionable. Brian De Palma plays only a minor role in his account while Robert Altman plays a large one — yet surely De Palma is more representative of Biskind’s “rock ‘n’ roll generation” than Altman, who is a Korean War-era figure. The book’s major failing, however, is Biskind’s cynical insistence on interpreting his subjects as exclusively driven by money, power and image. He is (in part) celebrating the era, but he seems determined to be tough on everyone (except for Hal Ashby, his martyr-saint figure).
Biskind’s get-the-goods approach ensures that nearly everyone in his book comes across as scum. It leaves him at a loss to account for talent and generosity and incapable of discussing whatever nonscummy side of these people their sometimes wonderful work emerged from. His excessively jazzed-up writing style doesn’t help. In an all-too typical passage, he allows an observer to conclude that, in winning Spielberg from Amy Irving, Kate Capshaw “outmanipulated the most manipulative woman who ever lived.” Bitchily amusing and “smart,” yes. But it doesn’t speak well for Biskind that he didn’t add a sentence of his own to allow for the possibility that Capshaw and Spielberg might have actually liked each other.
Biskind’s most important contribution is to demonstrate that what used to be known as the “movie brats” (Scorsese/Coppola/Schrader, etc.) were responsible for bringing about their own fall from grace. High on their defiant vision of movies as personal expression and determined to take over a system they professed to despise, they consumed too many drugs, allowed their heads to be turned by money, betrayed their friends and helped themselves to too many women. Finally, they lost their audience. They danced on the edge of the abyss, and then they fell right in.
The end of the moviemaking era known as “the ’70s” arrived with the overwhelming successes of “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” Sayonara art, hello action scenes and happy endings. Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (Doubleday) concerns this post-“Star Wars” period. His book is a guilty pleasure, a garishly written, slapped-together piece of work delivered in punchy Variety-ese. (Fleming was once a reporter for Variety.)
His subject, Don Simpson, was an emblem of the ’80s. Credited with inventing the high-concept movie — imagine that on your tombstone! — Simpson hit his stride with the immortal “Flashdance,” and went on, with his partner Jerry Bruckheimer, to produce the likes of “Beverly Hills Cop” and “Top Gun” — the kind of movie that Biskind in his book, and in his overwrought way, calls “the smarmy, feel-good pap of the coming cultural counterrevolution.”
Simpson created an infamous persona — he’d have hookers flown to his film sets, for example — and eventually established a reputation as “the town’s most notorious bad boy.” He also had, for a few years, a nearly perfect instinct for what the public could be sold and a peerless story sense, manifested in cocaine-fueled, 40-page faxed memos. Still, as tuned in as he was, “Simpson was never the audience. He dominated,” as one source said to Fleming.
Once successful, Simpson repeatedly revised the story of his beginnings in Alaska, feeding credulous journalists accounts of religious-fanatic parents, beatings and jail time, even going so far as to tell a reporter that he’d “hunted moose for dinner” when he was 7. In fact, Fleming establishes, Simpson came from a well-liked lower-middle-class family and was a quiet, foppish nerd — “a nice boy,” as one classmate remembers.
It’s hard to tell where Simpson’s narcissism ended and his insecurities began. He subjected his chunky, 5-7 frame to epic quantities of drugs and booze, to late-night binges on peanut butter and hamburgers, to crash diets and workouts, to testosterone implants and to at least 10 procedures by plastic surgeons, including a butt lift and a penis enlargement. When Simpson died in 1996 at the age of 52, the coroner found 27 prescription drugs in his blood, plus cocaine, heroin and booze.
A quickie movie bio to its core, Fleming’s book is short on insight, full of padding and rich in unnamed sources and careless copy editing. It’s also zesty and likable. Fleming has an endearing taste (and even some talent) for one of my favorite hard-boiled tropes, the two-sentence cliffhanger chapter kicker. “The year to come was to be the best in Simpson’s entire career,” he writes. “It would also be his last.”
Reporting on a world as image-conscious and self-dramatizing as Hollywood is like trying to build a house on quicksand. Movie people are gossip-driven, and they’re also professional dissimulators, so it’s never hard for a movie journalist to turn up delicious anecdotes. (Hollywood exists in part to feed our appetite for them.) But even if you find five people to confirm a story, you can usually only feel certain that what you’ve found is five people who have been amused by the same rumor.
This basic fact about movie-biz reporting isn’t a problem with Fleming’s book, which you read as you do the National Enquirer. Clad in a gaudy silver jacket, it isn’t likely to be mistaken for history. Biskind’s book is, and is likely to become, a standard source for discussions of ’70s movies. So it’s disappointing that he’s often less scrupulous than he might be about passing along implausibly juicy tales. When a concerned party takes issue, Biskind does, to his credit, include the denial, usually in parentheses. He doesn’t, of course, exclude the tale.
The few examples where I have first-hand knowledge of events recounted by Biskind suggest that his book shouldn’t be taken as gospel. For example, Biskind relates that Scorsese and his screenwriter friend Mardik Martin agree that the main problem they had with their botched “New York, New York” was the Earl Mac Rauch script they started with, which was supposedly unfinished and a mess in other ways too. Alas, not true. Years ago, I read that original script. It was a gem, and not just finished, but tightly structured and pungently written. And Biskind misspells “Mac Rauch.”
But even if only half of what these books relate is true, the wildlife on display is still pleasingly horrifying. Both books deliver memorable quotations, the best of them apparently generated at extreme moments of showbiz humiliation and exasperation. One source, describing the Simpson/Bruckheimer negotiating style, says, “It’s not ‘good cop, bad cop.’ It’s ‘bad cop, worse cop’.” Remembering the night his two-timing wife, Ali MacGraw, accompanied him to a party for his greatest triumph, “The Godfather,” the ineffably embarrassing Robert Evans recalls sadly: “She was looking at me and thinking of Steve McQueen’s cock.”
As fans of movie history well know, most of the men who manage to become filmmakers conform to the same template: part monster, part charmer, part alpha-male wannabe and (sometimes) part artist. The genuine charisma is overwhelmed in the long run by the need to be a big shot, whether artistic or commercial; Schrader confesses to Biskind that he screwed his own brother Leonard out of screen credits. Movie-book readers will also recognize another pattern: For all the heterosexual coupling that occurs, most of these men are far more interested in other men (their success, their wealth and their fame) than they are in women — hence the predilection for hookers, starlets and bunnies when the company of women is required.
Still, this group of moviemakers seems very different than similar figures in earlier ages. What’s missing is the carefree quality usually present in accounts of Hollywood life. Readers of Biskind and Fleming hoping for glamour are likely to be startled by its absence, and by the excretory fixations that the subjects display. Most only do so verbally; Simpson, fanatically determined to live his fantasies, is drawn to piss, dealing out abuse and shoving dildos where some might think they wouldn’t be welcome.
The characters are often so grotesque they seem to have arrived direct from Transylvania. Basic mood control seems a common challenge. William Friedkin, prone to rages and fits, literally foams at the mouth when angry. Coppola makes absurdly megalomaniacal announcements about the future of cinema, then spends weeks hiding from the editors of the movie he’s actually at work on. As for George Lucas, after years of whining that all he really wants to make is little experimental films, he finally decides that fate has determined that he should produce a “Star Wars” prequel trilogy. Those little experimental films will just have to wait a few more years.
Drugs are a convincing explanation for some of this gargoyle-like behavior; so too is the almost religious importance these men placed on being filmmakers — and the visceral aesthetic they pursued. If many earlier Hollywood entertainers offered the equivalent of champagne highs, the boomer filmmakers peddled blow-you-away, drug-style experiences. And where the earlier entertainers reveled in their good luck and their success, the boomer filmmakers pursued art and a place in the history books with earnestness, intensity and a sense of entitlement. Then Don Simpson came along, took their overwhelm-the-audience-with-sensations approach and rammed it home commercially. In fact, when you read both books, Simpson, usually portrayed as the opposite of the movie brats, comes across as the man who pulled it all together — the ultimate boomer auteur.
For anyone who followed movies in the ’70s and ’80s, Biskind and Fleming provide an opportunity to remember and reconsider. Those who weren’t there and who want to catch up could do worse than start with these books. But it may also be time to reconsider the view of movie history that these two authors, among many others, subscribe to. That view is itself a baby-boom phenomenon; in its focus on extremes and creators, it fails to account for a lot, some of which can be summarized in two simple words: “the audience.”
You learn from Biskind almost nothing about the movies most American moviegoers were paying to see in the ’70s. Among the decade’s hits were “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Blazing Saddles,” “The Longest Yard” and “The Groove Tube.” Fleming takes accurate aim at the frantic, never-enough side of the ’80s, but doesn’t hint at the existence of such relatively casual audience-pleasers as “Airplane” and “Tootsie.” As a result, their books are like those histories of the ’60s that leave you with the impression that everyone in the country was a pot-smokin’, free-lovin’ hippie.
Utopian moviemaking passion may indeed be largely a thing of the past in Hollywood, and a certain kind of moviegoing culture may well have died too. But mourning these facts can blind us to the pleasures that are to be found in the modest and the piecemeal; the absence of fevers and trends can itself be savored, frustrating though that may be to journalists. The supposedly desolate ’90s have delivered such varied delights as “Mimic,” “The Gingerbread Man,” “Devil in a Blue Dress,” “A Little Princess,” “Clueless,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” “Bound,” “Donnie Brasco,” “Breakdown” and “Before Sunrise.” Too scattershot a group to be called a movement, these works all display a determination on the part of their creators to make coherent entertainments out of the deconstructed bits and pieces the ’70s and ’80s left behind.
Even the success of “Titanic” doesn’t have to leave the educated moviegoer in despair. Inane as the movie is, the audience that loves it is enjoying glamour, thrills, eroticism and romance. Biskind writes about how most of the movie brats wanted to overwhelm with art (“the ’70s”); Fleming shows Simpson making attacks on the nervous system (“the ’80s”). Whatever its scale, “Titanic” isn’t an assault on the senses or the psyche. It also has a comprehensible shape — and its audience is rising to the screen to meet it. They’re identifying, dreaming and weeping (“the ’90s”?). It may be a good time for moviemakers (and for the people who write about them) to recall that part of the job of an entertainer is to give the audience room enough to have its own responses.
In the world of Tom King’s “The Operator” (Random House), a biography of the music and movie mogul David Geffen, and of Kim Masters’ “The Keys to the Kingdom” (Morrow), an account of Michael Eisner’s reign at Disney, the media biz comes across as a pixilated moosh. The artists function like businesspeople, the businesspeople are creative, everyone lives in terror of where public taste will go next, and what comes into being around and because of the movies (publicity, gossip, spinoffs, documentaries) is more entertaining than the movies themselves.
“I’m not Sammy Glick,” Geffen protests, referring to the unprincipled subject of Budd Schulberg’s 1941 Hollywood novel “What Makes Sammy Run?” Yet of course Geffen is Sammy Glick to a T, although a contemporary, gay variation on the standard grasping, vindictive theme.
Born in Brooklyn to an unambitious father who died early and a bossy, enterprising immigrant mother, Geffen was a flop at school, but fell in love with musicals and movies. Hustling a job in the mailroom at the William Morris Agency (he claimed that he was related to Phil Spector and had a degree from UCLA), he found his niche. Within just a few years he’d won the trust of up-and-coming artists (Laura Nyro, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell), and made himself the indulged protégé of powerful men (Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun). Soon he had a record label of his own. Asylum Records was, Geffen explained to the talent he wooed, meant to be an asylum for its artists. He’d care for his musicians personally; he’d look after them. Weren’t they surprised when he sold Asylum and moved on. Some years and a few attempts at moviemaking later, he was head of another new label. At Geffen Records, he explained, the artists came first. And weren’t those artists surprised when he sold Geffen Records, too.
Today Geffen is worth around $2 billion. He has produced a variety of movies, from “Risky Business” and “Personal Best” to “Interview With the Vampire,” and has cultivated a wide circle of high-powered friends and enemies. According to King, during his clawing-to-the-top days, Geffen was dismayed by his homosexuality; he formed intense friendships with Cher, Mitchell and a few other women while making compulsive use of male prostitutes. These days he’s open about being gay and is a big contributor to AIDS charities. A shrieker, a liar and a bully for most of his working life, he’s now entered a statesmanlike phase. He’s a partner in DreamWorks and has become a friend of Hillary and Bill’s, advising them on how to spin the press.
Geffen is small, slim and hyper. Michael Eisner, who was once described by the late producer Don Simpson as “a big Gummi Bear,” is a more modern, self-satisfied kind of fat cat. He grew up wealthy on Park Avenue, wearing a jacket and tie to family dinners. Where Geffen is hysterical and pushy, Eisner is self-deprecating and entitled. According to Masters, he has some charm and smarts, and much self-possession; running things suits his sense of himself. He got started doing grunt jobs at NBC and CBS, made his mark at ABC, and together with Barry Diller, Dawn Steel, Don Simpson and Jeffrey Katzenberg, he was part of a famously aggressive executive team at Paramount. When that group fell apart, he got himself (and Katzenberg) hired by the moribund Walt Disney Productions. Together with the lawyer/executive Frank Wells, they worked the Disney brand. Out of their first 17 films, 15 made money, and within eight years, Disney was worth over 10 times what it was when Eisner, Wells and Katzenberg arrived.
Along the way, Eisner has also had some less well-known defeats. EuroDisney got off to a spectacularly bad start, losing over $1 billion in its first two years. A feud with Katzenberg led to a humiliating court battle, and Eisner’s choice of super-agent Mike Ovitz to be his No. 2 was an immediate disaster; after little more than a year on the job, Ovitz was given around $100 million to leave. Masters contends that, since the death of Wells in a helicopter crash and the departure of Katzenberg, who was largely responsible for the rebirth of Disney’s animation unit (and who wound up co-founding DreamWorks with Geffen and Steven Spielberg), Eisner has been floundering.
But along the way he has cashed some awfully big checks. In 1992, his salary and cashed-out stock options totaled more than $200 million, the largest sum the head of an American corporation had ever received. Where Geffen, in his new old-mogul way, actually has some dreams and some taste (he bought and refurnished a mansion that once belonged to Jack L. Warner, he owns art and he tries to make classy movies), Eisner, for all his affability and “warmth,” is professionally interested only in winning — Masters claims that Eisner doesn’t even enjoy dealing with “the talent.” Geffen appears to be more infuriating than Eisner, yet he’s also more appealing — he’s more mixed-up, a tiny part of him may actually love the arts and he has a streak of generosity.
There are some small practical lessons to be learned from these books, the most obvious being that if you can’t stand manic highs and suicidal lows, screaming, back-stabbing, and 24/7 work weeks, you’d probably do well to consider going into another field. It’s remarkable how few people with middle-class (as opposed to lower-working, or upper-middle/upper-class) backgrounds seem to find any success in the movie world. And sometimes it seems that being blessed with an adoring and ambitious Jewish mother is a prerequisite for success in Hollywood. Eisner’s mother was an “iron-willed” woman who regarded Michael as her “young prince” and “helped him cheat at his schoolwork.” Geffen’s mom considered David “a miracle child,” and called him “King David” right into young adulthood.
Both of these books encountered trouble on the way to the bookstore. King began his biography with Geffen’s cooperation — like Geffen, King is gay, and Geffen hoped a gay journalist’s view would result in a portrait of himself as a dignified, empowering role model. (He hoped to come across as a kind of showbiz Warren Buffett.) Partway through King’s research, though, Geffen shut King off without much explanation.
Still, the resulting book is anything but an attack. As a writer, King, a Wall Street Journal reporter, shows calm and intelligence, and he manages the occasional low-key insight. But most readers will probably wish that he’d taken the time to polish his many not-yet-there sentences, and made the effort to move his story along with more zip. Respectful and plodding, the book might have been written by a gentleman’s-butler robot.
Masters’ book has a very different tone — it has the fake urgency and portentousness of a New York magazine cover story. She promises to explain much of significance; “the Hollywood power structure would never be the same” is a phrase that seems to recur every few pages. Yet she never gets around to telling us what the change is. Her book was commissioned by Broadway Books, which dumped it as “unacceptable,” before being purchased and released by Morrow. In fact, it’s competent, pointless and rather deranged.
Masters seems like a classic example of a frantic media broad: “Stop me before I report again” is the subtext of her every paragraph. The same desperation also damaged “Hit and Run,” an account of the Jon Peters/Peter Guber reign at Columbia that she co-wrote with Nancy Griffin a few years ago. Eisner often comes across as a hazy figure; he refused the author’s requests for interviews, so Masters relies heavily on Katzenberg.
Although Masters is a contributing editor at Time and Vanity Fair, and an adequate writer of overheated magazine prose, she seems to have no sense of perspective, and a compulsion to gather and write down facts. A typical sentence: “DreamWorks lost out on the chance to have a Burger King tie-in by moving up the film, because such efforts must be planned many months in advance.” What is it that leaves her so clueless about what readers might actually care to know? Perhaps she just has little to say about the human content of her material, and so relies on facts, facts and more facts to carry her through. But page after page of descriptions of contract negotiations do not make for riveting reading. Geffen pops up on occasion, yet you’d hardly suspect from Masters’ descriptions of him how high-strung and abusive he can be. (King, in his index under “Geffen, David Lawrence, screaming of,” has 22 entries.)
As books, both are juiceless and pitilessly overdetailed. They do, however, leave you wondering: Why do so many articles and books about life behind the scenes in show business get published? My hunch is that it’s because editors of magazines and books see themselves reflected in the movie moguls and businesspeople. But perhaps readers actually like and demand these books and articles. After all, it’s still show business — bigger, sexier and more glamorous than our usual lives. These are stroke books for the power-and-glamour-hungry.
There is such a thing as a movie-business book that provides some illumination. Although garish and slapdash, such in-the-midst-of-it works as Jane Hamsher’s “Killer Instinct” (about the making of “Natural Born Killers”), Charles Fleming’s “High Concept” (a down and dirty biography of Don Simpson), Robert Evans’ breathtakingly shameless autobiography “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” and Julia Phillips’ notorious “You’ll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again” do give a reader a sense of what life in the movie business is like. You feel that you’ve encountered something authentic.
There are also a handful of civilized books that tell you directly about the business: Steven Bach’s “Final Cut,” for example, about United Artists and the “Heaven’s Gate”” disaster, and Julie Salamon’s account of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” fiasco, “The Devil’s Candy.” The screenwriter William Goldman recently published “Which Lie Did I Tell,” a sequel to his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” — as a writer, he’s tough and self-satisfied, but he does a good job of spelling out what it is the movie business exists to do, and how it generally goes about doing it.
“The Operator” and “The Keys to the Kingdom,” though, are predicated entirely on our (supposedly) pre-existing interest in all things behind-the-scenes. King manages a few passages about Geffen’s taste, Masters almost none about Eisner’s or Katzenberg’s. As character studies, these flattened-out artifacts are just raw material. And as for the impact these men have had on the products their businesses make, or the culture at large? Next to nada. Too long, too sober and too well-vetted to qualify as guilty-pleasure wallows in show-biz outrageousness and misbehavior, these books are likely to please only those readers whose Player Within demands constant feeding.
The sound you hear is academics crowing. The scientists and technicians may still be furiously inventing and perfecting, the businesspeople may still be jockeying for position. But the academics (who know an opportunity when they see one) have the digital universe figured out; they have already imperialized the very ether.
In textbooks and academic publications, a body of theory has taken form. The gist of it isn’t just that an era characterized by the myth of the heroic individual and the autonomous work of art is dying. It’s that in cyberspace — the electronic alternative universe whose physical components are phone systems and the computers that are wired up to them — dematerialized intelligence will always be able to outwit power. And that in hypertext — electronic documents you can interact with, and that you make your way through not in a straight line but by associative leaps — creativity is returned to the viewer/reader/consumer. The computer is necessarily a force for decentralization. You can get the feeling that, to the academics, the digital technology that is upon us is significant primarily because it makes Barthes, Foucault and Derrida look like prophets.
Right now, probably the easiest way to sample the digital universe for yourself is by logging onto bulletin board systems and online services (commercial bulletin boards). Once there, you very quickly realize that the notions of the academics don’t hold up very well (except, perhaps, as claim-staking careerism). Power, for example plays an important role online. One bulletin board I visited is mainly used by media types in search of that scary duo — the buzz and the proper liberal consensus. One night a young computer jockey barged in and scattered some obnoxious white-trash comments around. It was impressive to see how efficiently these media advocates of diversity and inclusiveness hurried the offensive outsider on his way. The consensus was that he should go, and he was gone.
Offline, you may wonder about people for whom the death of the author is something to be celebrated. Academics, in the habit of viewing reading and writing as a matter of assignments given and executed, may be more prone to resent the supposedly oppressive “authority of the author” than the rest of us. More basic are certain practical questions: are the traditional media simply going to go away? And even in the new media, will the author be dead or just present in a different form?
What’s impossible to dismiss is the excitement of toying with hypertext and zipping around cyberspace. Going online can knock you silly. It can give you the feeling that you’re entering a kind of hallucinated wild west — that you’re turning away from “the civilized” and stepping forth among the cacti, where experience is raw and unprocessed.
If discussing content and its relation to form is almost impossible, the temptation is to wonder: are these categories and concerns simply irrelevant in this new world? Not being able to tease out an answer is surprisingly pleasing: so this is what it feels like when anything seems possible. The propagandists of the computer fringe, rejoicing in the drug-style rush the technology gives, are more honest than the academics; the utopian excitement they express is like that present in the work of such early writers on film as Vachel Lindsay.
The enormous potential for far-out mind games is part of the appeal of playing with the new media. A small online service can have in its computer the equivalent of a couple of million pages of text. Should it be considered a simple heap of documents? A community work of art? The electronic equivalent of naturally-occurring, self-evolving structures such as coral?
Moving through a bulletin board, you get to know “characters” and you get to follow “stories” — perhaps a bulletin board deserves to be discussed as a work of fiction. Another impression poking around online can leave you with is of unfolding corridors and towers that dwarf the invisible cities and libraries-of-all-libraries of Borges, Calvino and Cortázar. Yet no one set out to give you this impression.
The academics are missing out on what’s most essential about this stage of the digital revolution, which is the high that comes from the fact that sense simply can’t yet be made of that new world. How do you discuss creations that have no material existence? (The information in a computer can always be moved to another one.)
Online entities can remind you of other recent category-confounders. In architecture, for instance, much of the work of Christopher Alexander and the team of Plater-Zyberk and Duany consists of codes and processes for other builders and architects to use to develop their own buildings and neighborhoods. And the work of the scientists in the field of artificial life results in computer-screen creatures that take on wills independent of the intentions of their creators.
The technology itself provides much of the kick. Erasing the line between thinking and doing, and observing and participating, has always been part of the attraction of technologies like video and computers. So it isn’t surprising that the topics that inspire the most consistently absorbing writing online are sex and computers. Taking part in these discussions is rather like looking at fractal images: the further you venture into cyberspace, the more what you find out about is… computers.
In fact, when you aren’t playing cowboy-philosopher, what you spend your time doing online is pretty silly. You gawp at the weirdoes, bump into a few like-minded individuals, pick up computer tips and eavesdrop on conversations. But some of these can be eye-openers.
My favorite is the ongoing debate among lesbians about “fisting”; some lesbians have evidently taken up the practice that male homosexuals have abandoned (although what women put their hands up are each others’ vaginas). A few lesbians love it; a number of them insist it must be painful; most are politically offended by the notion that the vagina might ever be thought to be a source of pleasure. It’s only thanks to cyberspace that now I know.
Has Mike Hammer seen the light and joined Al Gore’s staff?
Douglas E. Winter’s first novel is an example of what might be thought of as a micro-subgenre: the hard-boiled, apocalyptic thriller with a liberal agenda. It’s a condemnation of what Winter clearly sees as America’s insanely permissive laws concerning firearms.
Burdon Lane, his protagonist, is a middle-level errand-runner for a shady gun operation in Washington. Valued for his toughness and ability to keep a low profile, he’s part of a team making a huge delivery of weaponry to a New York City street gang. Things, from Lane’s point of view at least, rapidly start to go wrong.
Winter shows an amusing ability to turn descriptions of firearms into demented arias, and a talent for cooking up interlocking conspiracies. He may be optimistic about the number of times all hell should break loose in the course of a single thriller, and he may also have misjudged how many bitterly ironic cracks about ”the American dream” his book needed.
But what makes the novel a chore to get through is the ”Natural Born Killers” manner in which he has told his story; hyped-up and full of hallucinatory effects, the voice seems electronically processed rather than written. Even granting that he’s making a point, most readers will want to ask this of Winter and his publisher: Has there ever been a person who, when in the mood for a video-game-style nerve jangling, has reached for a novel instead? If there is such a person, this is the book for him.
In his new collection of essays and reviews, “Truth and Lies in Literature” (Atlantic Monthly), Stephen Vizinczey comes on like a pistol-packing stranger here to root out corruption and remind us of our ideals. He carries the role off with inspired gusto. He writes out of a conviction that art is worth fighting over, and he loves entering the fray — taking sides, making judgments.
He’s at his most eloquent in bursts — one-liners, really. His review of a biography of Dostoevsky begins: “If we want to know how the world hangs together, we must read Pushkin, Kleist, Stendhal, Balzac, Tolstoy; if we want to know how the world falls apart, we must read Dostoevsky, the grand master of frenzy, of vile and senseless passions.” Stendhal, whom Vizinczey adores for his “absolute involvement and absolute detachment,” shows “the continuous tension in our consciousness between our expected and real reactions.” The French writer Gérard de Nerval “slipped in and out of madness, using his saner moments to tell us all about it, and then he hanged himself.” Kleist’s work “glows with the heightened sense of self-awareness most men feel in the presence of death.” Vizinczey despises caution in writers and responds with his own fine extravagance to those who get carried away: “Great writers are not those who tell us we shouldn’t play with fire, but those who make our fingers burn.” His own essays convey the sheer fun of getting worked up about art.
Born in Hungary, Vizinczey fought the Russians during the 1956 revolution and became a refugee. He has written — in English — two novels, “In Praise of Older Women” (1966) and “An Innocent Millionaire” (1985), and is now a Canadian citizen living in London. In his essays, he doesn’t spend much time on analysis, description or developing an argument; instead, he scrapes away misconceptions and lies, states why a work does or doesn’t matter, and then simply stands aside. “What I hope my collection will accomplish is to send people back to the books themselves,” he says.
Vizinczey’s boldness and pugnacity are bracing and can be very funny; they have also left him something of a literary-world lone wolf. “I would love to be accepted,” he says. “But whenever I’m tempted to be one of the boys — and I often am, I hate being an outsider — I ask myself, what was the point of running around the world and learning a new language if I’m just going to become another flatterer?”
Buy a copy of “Truth and Lies in Literature.”
Buy a copy of Vizinczey’s “In Praise of Older Women.”
Gilbert Sorrentino has the mind of an avant-garde experimentalist and the instincts of a profane showman. His novels overflow with elaborate literary contrivances and games, and the titles he gives them (“Aberration of Starlight,” “Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things”) lead you to expect one hall of mirrors after another. But there’s nothing dry or ingrown about his writing. His novels have the kind of physical charge and excitement more often associated with jazz and improvisational comedy than with literature.
“Blue Pastoral” (North Point), his new novel, is an attempt at a rococo black comedy, and is populated by people who love the sound of their own voices. Virtually all the characters speak in elaborate periods, invocations, apostrophes — bursts of enthusiasm that build and build, then scatter. The questing, Candide-like hero, a New York lens grinder named (Blue) Serge Gavotte, is possessed by a sudden love of music. Encouraged in his mania by a doctor who is treating him for an infection brought on by too much harmonica playing, Blue loads a piano on a cart and sets out with his son and wife in search of the perfect musical phrase. Whenever his zeal falters, the “doctor,” who using Blue as a guinea pig in an experiment, materializes in a new form and eggs him on.
The novel is full of parodies — of speeches, poetry, pornography and intellectual fashions. One chapter opens with Blue and his wife, Helene, inexplicably miles farther along in their travels. Blue: “We have passed through the great state of Mizzoo in a sudden flash, the time it takes to turn a page.” Helene: “I wondered why the so-called scenery zipped by so fast.” Blue: “I suspect that it the ‘text’ is being ‘deconstructed’ beneath our very feets!” Characters turn aside to argue with the narrator. Weeds, lingerie and sheep are only some of the major motifs.
Much of this is good fun, and there’s drive in the gnarled language. So why does “Blue Pastoral” grow tedious? I think it’s because the story, whose outlines Sorrentino used once before, in his first novel, the 1966 “The Sky Changes,” interest him as little but a display case for his pyrotechnics. In his earlier novels, the innovative techniques had a strange, tickling quality. They seemed at once irrelevant and essential, and provided a fresh way of getting inside frustrated lives; the loneliness, anger and humor they released were startling and vivid. Here the devices are no more than ornate excrescences and, in the end, they overwhelm your interest.
Lee Smith’s novels are as consciously “women’s fiction” as anything you might run across in Redbook or McCall’s, but she opens the genre up and makes it seem expansive. Her work has a mixture of lyricism and sexual boldness that makes you go outside of writing, to the work of actresses and women singers, for comparisons. Like Sissy Spacek and Loretta Lynn, Smith can make a performance in a popular medium seem like a complete declaration of feeling.
Her new novel, “Fair and Tender Ladies” (Putnam), consists of letters written by Ivy Rowe, the daughter of a Virginia mountain family, who lives from 1900 well into the ’70s. Ivy’s life is the stuff of a back-country soap opera. When her father dies, her mother takes the family to town; when her mother dies, she boards with a sister who drinks on the sly. Ivy gets pregnant by a boy who leaves to fight in World War I, has an affair with a rich kid, marries a childhood friend, and returns with him to the family farm to raise a passel of kids.
Although Smith’s choice of the epistolary form might lead you to expect a play of irony and distance, the book contains no satire or parody. The author is in closer sympathy with her protagonist than we’re used to in contemporary literary fiction, and the point of the book is how far into Ivy’s emotions Smith can take us. That’s pretty far. Ivy’s letters, when she’s a child, keep shading into bookish extravagance; her words are all needlepoint and ribbons. In adolescence, she’s fascinated by being loved and desired, and by loving and desiring, and she acquires a reputation as a fallen woman even as she sees herself as the heroine of a romance novel.
A number of the letters she writes are to a mentally handicapped sister: in them, Ivy confides feelings she tells no one else about. These words stream out of her like feathers, clouds. She writes her sister about a hallucination she had the day she discovered she was pregnant: “I could see that baby as clear as day, tiny and pink and all curled up, and then it started beating me with its little fists against my stomach, trying to escape. It hurt me. And then … I was that little baby caught inside my own self and dying to escape. But I could not. I could never get out, I was caught for ever and ever inside myself.” By old age, facing down the coal company with a shotgun by her side, Ivy has become an eccentric buzzard and her words have grown crabbed and spiky. But her feelings still transport her; she still has the avidity of a little girl.
“I didn’t care if he was lying or not,” she writes her sister about a sweet-talker she once left her children and husband behind for. “It seemed like years since I’d heard a story.” Smith brings a more wide-ranging awareness to her tastes than Ivy does, but she shares Ivy’s susceptibility to storytelling. She reacts to stories as many people react to favorite songs, and she fills the novel with legends and tales. Smith’s love for the Appalachian hills gives off vibrations. She makes a reader feel the presence of spirits; she still sees in the land what folk artists saw there. Her work is about the moment when, as you look at or listen to a work of naïve art, it stops being a curiosity and starts to speak to you in a human voice.
It’s these longer, darker rhythms, pulsing beneath the hillbilly-Victorian flowerets of Ivy’s voice, that give the novel its physicality, and that help create the illusion of coming into warm contact with lives that have always seemed to take place at an impassable distance. “Fair and Tender Ladies” might have been sung into being.
From 1892 to 1895, the Bohemian composer Antonin Dvorak lived in New York. Lured here by the sponsor of the new National Conservatory of Music to help Americans develop a distinctive style of music, he worked, drank oceans of beer, and was wowed by the surreal scale of the country. What he discovered about our musical life came as a surprise: we already had a magnificent tradition. “In the Negro melodies of America I find all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. “There is nothing in the whole range of composition which cannot be supplied from this source.”
Josef Skvorecky tells the story of this visit in his bighearted and wide-ranging novel “Dvorak in Love” (translated by Paul Wilson; Knopf), using it as an opportunity to explore American musical history and to suggest the mystery of Dvorak’s creative fire. He takes us from the 1840s, when a composer in search of the American essence entitled one of his orchestral works “Pocahontas, fantasia romanza,” to the mid-20th century, when jazz was finally performed at Carnegie Hall. And, though he never brings us inside Dvorak’s mind, he sketches a vivid, mobile portrait of an earthy man of the senses with a peasant’s simple religious faith, who also happens to be a genius. The “love” of the title is Dvorak’s private drama: his adoration of his wife’s older sister, an actress who died early and for whom Dvorak composed his most cherished melody. Skvorecky tenderly and humorously places this unrequited passion at the center of his novel; the effect is to draw a connection between ephemerality and love.
That’s what happens in “Dvorak in Love,” narratively and structurally. But this is a far from conventional novel. You don’t experience it primarily in terms of drama, character development, or finely tuned sentences. You experience it musically, as an unruly jazz suite on themes suggested by Dvorak’s visit: high art and folk art, the Old World and the New, music and words, exile. The chapters, told from a variety of points of view, many of which shift internally, are riffs — long, seemingly improvised passages that charge off in all directions. “To me, literature is blowing a horn,” Skvorecky has said. It’s clear that, for him, beauty, youth, emotion and music are close to synonymous, and that his writing is an effort to keep them alive, to prolong the music. His books, including the novels “Miss Silver’s Past” and “The Engineer of Human Souls,” are soulful, comic laments about what vanishes between youth and age, one language and another. In his best work — in passages here and in his earlier volume, “The Bass Saxophone” — his humor and lyricism work together in ways that make entire paragraphs seem to rise right off the page, borne away by nostalgia, bewilderment and love.
“Dvorak in Love” is sometimes halting and it has its tedious stretches. But the network of themes Skvorecky has devised is loose enough to let his riffs take off and sturdy enough to hold them together. His prose is robust — it has a smoky, gypsy flavor — yet the book has an airy theatricality. Skvorecky shines the poetic light of a “lunatic moon” on this factually based past, and he tells wild, true stories about early visionary naifs like Patrick Sarsfield Gilmore, who once led an orchestra of 2,000 and a chorus of 20,000, and who kept his huge ensemble in some rough kind of synch by firing off cannons.
Some of the solos in “Dvorak in Love” have the nakedness and lift of great spirituals. In one chapter, set in the 1940s, the woman patron of the arts who brought Dvorak to America is musing about Duke Ellington and the sound of saxophones, and she wonders how the long-dead Dvorak would have responded to swing. This old lady settles into sleep, and when she “awakens,” whom should she see but Dvorak himself. There he was, “sitting next to her bed in a waistcoat, with his sleeves rolled up, and he was playing the saxophone.”
Robert Winter’s CD-ROM about Dvorak’s “From the New World” symphony is a wonderful work in its own right. I can’t find anyplace that currently sells the disc, but you might be able to find a copy on eBay. Highly recommended.