Friday Oct. 10, 2014

To the Happy Few

Do you know who you are

O you forever listed
under some other heading
when you are listed at all

you whose addresses
when you have them
are never sold except
for another reason
something else that is
supposed to identify you

who carry no card
stating that you are—
what would it say you were
to someone turning it over
looking perhaps for
a date or for
anything to go by

you with no secret handshake
no proof of membership
no way to prove such a thing
even to yourselves

you without a word
of explanation
and only yourselves
as evidence

"To the Happy Few" by W.S. Merwin, from Collected Poems: 1996-2011. © Library of America, 2013. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of Giuseppe Verdi, born in a village in Parma, Italy (1813). His parents owned a tavern and were not very well off. But his father recognized musical talent in Giuseppe and bought him a spinet (an upright harpsichord), which he kept for the rest of his life. By the age of 12, Verdi was the organist for his church. He started playing for other churches farther away from home, and then he went off to music school. He lived in the town of Busseto and boarded with a wealthy grocer who liked Verdi and wanted to support him, and whose daughter Verdi ended up marrying.

Verdi wrote marches, overtures and other pieces for the Busseto Philharmonic Society and the town marching band. But then he set his sights elsewhere and got an opera,Oberto, performed at La Scala, the most important theater in Italy, in 1839. It was a modest success. Then tragedy struck: his wife died of encephalitis. Verdi had already lost their two children in infancy. He vowed he would never write music again. But he couldn't resist when he read the powerful libretto for Nabucco. He turned it into a stunning opera, premiering on March 9, 1842. The audience applauded for 10 minutes after the first scene, and after the chorus, the audience demanded an encore, even though they were prohibited by the Austrian government at the time. Even the stagehands, who rarely paid attention to the performance, would stop what they were doing to watch and applaud the show. Verdi used the same librettist for his next opera, Lombardi. The librettist had a procrastination problem, and Verdi had to lock him in a room in order to get him to write enough on time. Once Verdi made the mistake of sticking him in the room with his wine collection. Hours later, the librettist emerged drunk. Verdi wrote a total of 26 operas, most notably Rigoletto (1851), La Traviata (1853), Aida (1871), and Falstaff(1893).

It's the birthday of playwright, screenwriter and director Harold Pinter (books by this author), born in East London (1930). Pinter tried out London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but he didn't like it and left after two years. He debuted his first full-length play, The Birthday Party, in the West End in 1958. It didn't do well, but he continued to write plays and eventually created a body of work that people call the "comedies of menace." In these plays, situations that should be ordinary turn absurd or ominous because of inexplicable reasons. The plays usually take place in a single room, whose occupants are threatened by indefinable outside forces.

Pinter wrote The Homecoming (1965), about a man who brings his wife home to meet his all-male family. She stays with his family to be their caretaker and prostitute, and he goes back to his job teaching philosophy, realizing that nobody needs him. Pinter said that the opening of that play in New York City in 1967 was one of the greatest theatrical nights of his life. He said the audience was full of money — the women in mink, the men in tuxedoes. And as soon as the curtain opened, they hated the play. Pinter said, "The hostility towards the play was palpable. You could see it." But, he said, "The great thing was, the actors went on and felt it and hated the audience back even more. And they gave it everything [they had]. By the end of the evening, the audience was defeated. All these men in their tuxedos were just horrified. [...] There's no question that the play won on that occasion."

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer R.K. (Rasipuram Krishnaswami) Narayan (books by this author), born in Madras, India (1906). Narayan's first book was Swami and Friends (1935), which, like many of this other books, is set in a fictional town of Malgudi. He said: "I had an idea of a railway station, a very small railway station, a wayside station. You've seen that kind of thing, with a platform, trees and a stationmaster [...] a street, a depot, a school or a temple at any spot in a little world [...] with the result that I am unable to escape Malgudi." He stayed contentedly in his home country, venturing abroad only rarely. He seldom addressed political issues or tried to explore the cutting edge of fiction. He was a traditional teller of tales, a creator of realistic fiction that is often gentle, humorous, and warm rather than hard-hitting or profound.

Graham Greene greatly admired R.K. Narayan and helped publish his works in Britain. The remarkable fact about their relationship was that Greene and Narayan met only once, briefly, in London in 1964. The friendship began in 1934 when Greene happened to come across a manuscript of Swami and Friends. Greene was impressed and passed it on to publisher Hamish Hamilton. He also began a correspondence with R.K. Narayan. The correspondence lasted until Greene's death, with both of them taking around 15 years to switch from Dear Mr. Narayan and Graham Greene, to Dear Narayan and Graham.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®