Friday Apr. 22, 2016

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The Sound of a Tree Falling

Your mother complains about my snoring,
Father said, but she forgets to mention
the times I was awakened in the middle
of the night by the sound celery makes
when you bite into it. At first I thought it was a tree falling
on the house. I almost jumped out of bed,
but when I saw her munching on celery
I knew I was safe. Crackers are just as loud.
They sound like a chainsaw cutting wood.
My snoring is a form of self-defense—
it drowns out the other noises.

“The Sound of a Tree Falling” by Hal Sirowitz from Father Said. © Soft Skull Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Henry Fielding (books by this author), born in Sharpham, England (1707). He grew up rich and carefree, studying literature at Eton and flirting with girls. But when he was 21, he found out that his father could not support him anymore, and suddenly he had to make a living. So he turned to writing.

He started out writing satirical plays — 25 of them in about 10 years. But his plays were so critical of the government that they were one of the reasons the government passed the Theatrical Licensing Act of 1737, which demanded that every play be approved and licensed by the government before it was performed. Like many other writers, Fielding simply stopped writing plays. He became a barrister, and that might have been the end of his literary career, if the novelist Samuel Richardson hadn’t published his epistolary novel Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740).

Pamela is the story of a beautiful 15-year-old maid who resists her rich master’s constant attempts to seduce her, and in return he is finally won over by her chastity and decides to marry her. Pamela was a huge sensation in England, and Fielding thought it was terrible. He didn’t think the epistolary form worked well, and he thought the morals of the story were questionable — that women should hold on to their virginity because they might get a good deal out of it in the long run. So he wrote a satire called Shamela (1741), in which Pamela is in it for the money. It was published anonymously but widely considered to be the work of Fielding. After Shamela, he wrote the novel Joseph Andrews (1742), about a footman named Joseph who is Pamela’s brother. While Fielding was writing Joseph Andrews, he was struggling with gout, his daughter was dying, and his wife was so sick he wasn’t sure if she would survive either. Joseph Andrews started out as a light-hearted mocking of Fielding’s contemporaries, and although it remained essentially a comedy, it became a serious and ambitious novel in its own right. He went on to write many more novels, including Tom Jones (1749).

It’s the birthday of Russian-born novelist and critic Vladimir Nabokov (1899) (books by this author), best known for his novel Lolita (1955), about a lecherous man named Humbert Humbert who has an indecent relationship with a 12-year-old girl he nicknames Lolita. Four publishers turned the book down, calling it “lewd.” Even after publication, Lolita divided critics, some of whom thought it brilliant and others who thought it filthy. Lolita was banned by several public libraries and the Chicago Tribune refused to review it. The uproar didn’t bother Nabokov. He said, “I do not give a damn for public morals, in America or elsewhere.”

Nabokov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, to an aristocratic family. His father was a lawyer, politician, and activist. The family home was opulent, with a lavish library. Nabokov grew up trilingual, fluent in English, French, and Russian. His family fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and settled in England, where Nabokov studied at Cambridge under a scholarship for sons of prominent Russians in exile. Nabokov’s father was later assassinated during a political rally in Berlin (1922).

Nabokov switched to French and Russian literature after initially studying zoology. His fascination with butterflies, however, would continue for the rest of his life. He eventually published 18 scientific papers on entomology and even worked as a volunteer entomologist for the American Museum of Natural History in New York when he first arrived in America in 1940.

Nabokov’s first novel, Mashenka (Mary), was published in 1926. He wrote eight more novels, including King, Queen, Knave (1928), The Defense (1930), while supporting himself as a tennis and boxing instructor. The little money he made went to funding his butterfly-hunting expeditions.

Until the publication of Lolita, Nabokov never made more than a few hundred dollars for his writing. He taught in America at Wellesley and Cornell and became a U.S. citizen, saying, “I’m as American as April in Arizona.” He never bought a house, preferring to stay in cabins, motels, or the homes of professors on sabbatical. The success of Lolita, which sold over 100,000 copies in its first three weeks, combined with his fee for writing the screenplay for Stanley Kubrick’s film version (1962), allowed him to quit teaching and move with his wife to Switzerland, where they lived in the Montreux Hotel.

Nabokov wrote standing up, at a lectern, taking careful notes on index cards, which he then arranged in order and gave to his wife, Véra, who typed them out into manuscript form. Vera also served as his manager, bookkeeper, and agent. He thought her the best-humored woman he’d ever met and once wrote to her, “You turn my life into something light, amazing, rainbowed.”

On the writing of Lolita, he said, “She was like the composition of a beautiful puzzle — it’s composition and its solution at the same time, since one is a mirror view of the other depending on the way you look.”

Upon his death in 1977, he left a stack of index cards filled with text for his last novel, The Opposite of Laura. The original title was Dying Is Fun. His wife ignored his wishes to burn the cards and instead placed them in a Swiss bank vault, where they remained for three decades, until his son, Dmitri, decided to have them edited and published. The title was changed to The Original of Laura, and the book was published in 2009.

Nabokov said: “I don’t fish, cook, dance, endorse books, sign declarations, eat oysters, get drunk, go to analysis, or take part in any demonstrations. I’m a mild old gentleman, very kind.”

Lolita is now considered to be a masterpiece of satire and style.

It’s the birthday of American poet and essayist Louise Glück (1943) (books by this author), born in New York City and raised in Long Island. Her father was a Hungarian immigrant who helped invent the X-Acto knife. Glück was troubled during her adolescence and suffered from anorexia. She dropped out of Sarah Lawrence College after six weeks and decided to take classes at Columbia’s School of General Studies, where she studied poetry with Stanley Kunitz.

Her first collection of poetry, Firstborn (1968), was published to great acclaim. She was just 25; the book won the Academy of American Poets Prize. Glück’s poetry is known for its sensitivity and technical precision. She writes often of loneliness, family relationships, and death. She says, “I think the poem is a communication between a mouth and an ear — not an actual mouth and an actual ear, but a mind that sends a message and the mind that receives it.”

Glück won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for her collection The Wild Iris (1992). She wrote the book after a two-year bout with writer’s block, during which she gardened extensively and devoured the White Flower Farm catalog. One day it occurred to her that perhaps she could write a poem from the point of view of a flower. She began writing longhand and didn’t stop for 10 weeks, until she had enough poems for a book. After the book was published, Glück received many letters asking her for horticultural advice.

Glück currently teaches poetry writing at Yale University. When asked if creative writing could be taught, she answered: “I think the question of who’s going to be a writer has more to do with intelligence and hunger than anything you would say was talent. There’s a ton of talent, first of all, and it takes you only so far. People with toughness and the willingness to start over, combined with intense need, those are the people who can become anything.”

Glück’s other collections of poetry include The House on Marshland Street (1975), Descending Figure (1980), The Meadowlands (1997), and Poems: 1962–2012 (2012).

Glück’s latest book is Faithful and Virtuous Night (2014). When asked what still surprises her about writing poetry, she says: “My feelings remain a kind of grade school simplicity. I am dead. Then I am alive. And the older I get, the more thrilled I am.”

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