Monday Feb. 16, 2015

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The Blizzard

Now that the worst is over, they predict
Something messy and difficult, though not
Life-threatening. Clearly we needed

To stock up on water and candles, making
Tureens of soup and things that keep
When electricity fails and phone lines fall.

Igloos rise on air conditioners, gargoyles
Fly and icicles shatter. Frozen runways,
Lines in markets, and paralyzed avenues

Verify every fear. But there is warmth
In this sudden desire to sleep,
To surrender to our common condition

With joy, watching hours of news
Devoted to weather. People finally stop
To talk to each other—the neighbors

We didn’t know were always here.
Today they are ready for business,
Armed with a new vocabulary,

Casting their saga in phrases as severe
As last night’s snow: damage assessment,
Evacuation, emergency management,

The shift of the wind matters again,
And we are so simple, so happy to hear
The scrape of a shovel next door.

“The Blizzard” by Phillis Levin from Mercury. © Penguin, 2001. Reprinted with permission.   (buy now)

It was on this day in 1848 that the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin played his final concert in his adopted city of Paris. Chopin only performed about 30 concerts during his lifetime; he wrote to his friend, the composer Franz Liszt: “I am not at all fit for giving concerts, for the crowd intimidates me, its breath suffocates me, I feel paralyzed by its curious look, and the unknown faces make me dumb.” But his audiences loved his performances. A reviewer for a French music journal wrote: “Listen to Chopin play! It is like the sighing of a flower, the whisper of the clouds, or the murmur of the stars.”

For this Paris concert, Chopin insisted that there would be no publicity and limited the venue to 300 people, mostly friends and acquaintances. He played at the same venue where he had played his first Paris concert 16 years earlier: Salle Pleyel, the concert hall owned by Camille Pleyel, one of the best piano makers in Europe. A week before the concert, Chopin wrote to his family: “Pleyel always makes fun of my folly and to encourage me to give the concert is decking the steps with flowers. I shall be like in heaven, and only familiar faces will meet my eyes.”

The concert went off without a hitch. There were candles in the windows, and flowers everywhere. Chopin played études, waltzes, preludes, mazurkas, and his Barcarolle and Berceuse. He brought in a cellist and violinist to play his Cello Concerto in G Minor and a trio by Mozart, and a soprano and tenor sang a few pieces. The audience loved it, and the reviews were flattering.

Less than a week later, the Revolution of 1848 broke out in France; the music world was disrupted, and he lost his main source of income when his aristocratic pupils fled the city. One of Chopin’s Scottish pupils convinced him to take a tour of Britain. His last public appearance was in London in November. When he returned to France, he weighed less than 90 pounds, and he died of tuberculosis the following year, at the age of 39. His funeral was a huge event; one of the pallbearers was Camille Pleyel.

It’s the birthday of the writer Henry Adams (books by this author), whose memoir, The Education of Henry Adams (1918), came out the year he died. He was the great-grandson of John Adams, and the grandson of John Quincy Adams, which left the sensitive, introverted boy burdened by an almost stultifying sense of responsibility to play a prominent part in the world. But Adams preferred to be an observer only, later writing of himself that he “never got to the point of playing the game at all; he lost himself in the study of it, watching the errors of the players.” After attending Harvard, he traveled extensively through Europe, became a political journalist for a time, and eventually returned to his alma mater in 1870 to teach medieval history.

He wrote two novels, Democracy (1880), which he published anonymously, and Ester (1884), a comic romantic tale about the battle of the sexes that he published under a pseudonym. He also wrote numerous biographies and The History of the United States of America: 1801–1817 (nine volumes; 1889–1891), which is considered a neglected masterpiece.

Unlike many autobiographies, The Education of Henry Adams is really a record of Adams’s introspection rather than his accomplishments. Adams had long since come to the conclusion that his traditional education had failed to help him come to terms with the changing world — changes that included the discovery of X-rays and radio waves and radioactivity, a world war, and the invention of the automobile — and that was the thrust of his memoir. But, while the memoir was an intimate portrait of his own life, Adams avoided any mention of his wife, Clover, whom he was in love with and who committed suicide 13 years after they married.

It’s the birthday of the printer Giambattista Bodoni, born in Saluzzo, Italy (1740). He came from a family of engravers, and by the time he died, he had opened his own publishing house that reprinted classical texts, and he had personally designed almost 300 typefaces. His typeface Bodoni is still available on almost any word processing program.

It’s the birthday of novelist Richard Ford (books by this author), born in Jackson, Mississippi (1944). When he was a boy, his mother told him that their neighbor across the street was a writer. He wasn’t really sure what that meant, but he could tell it was something important from the way she said it. It turned out that neighbor was Eudora Welty. Ford went to the same elementary school as Welty, and they even had some of the same teachers. But he didn’t meet her until many years later.

When he was eight, his father had a heart attack — and died from a second heart attack when Richard was 16. For much of his childhood, Ford went back and forth between Mississippi and Little Rock, Arkansas. His grandmother and her second husband, a former prizefighter, ran a hotel in Little Rock, and Ford said: “I did everything in the hotel. I worked in it and I played in it. A lot of things go on in great big hotels, behind closed doors, and I saw behind those doors. Recklessness and mistakes.” After college, he tried to work for the Arkansas State Police, but he was rejected. Then he got discharged from the Marines because he had hepatitis. He tried law school — his plan was to be a lawyer for the Marine Corps and then work for the FBI — but he didn’t like it, and he dropped out. Unsure of what to do next, he decided to give writing a try.

His first novel was A Piece of My Heart (1976), his only novel set in the South. A few years later, he was teaching at Princeton, and Eudora Welty came to do a reading there. He was nervous about meeting her because he was sure she disliked his novel — he said, “I had a feeling she probably knew about it; that it was full of dirty words and sex and violence.” He introduced himself and said that he was from Jackson; she said, “Oh, you are?” and nothing else. He was depressed, convinced that she hated his book and disapproved of him.

Ten years after A Piece of My Heart, Ford published The Sportswriter (1986), the first of his trilogy about Frank Bascombe, a novelist-turned-sportswriter-turned-realtor from New Jersey. Ford did a book signing for The Sportswriter at Lemuria Books in Jackson, and not many people turned up. He said: “Suddenly I looked up and there was Eudora. She’d driven over to the bookstore. She had a deep voice — and I’m making her sound more imperious than she was; she was very sweet — but she said, ‘Well, I just had to come pay my respects.’”

Ford and Welty became good friends. Ford shared an anecdote about his writing mentor: “One hot spring day, I was walking with Eudora Welty through a little shopping mall. It was her birthday, April 13th. There was a surprise party waiting at a bookstore down the way. She was 86. As we walked rather slowly along the glass storefronts, we came to where a wide, smiling, pink-faced man was inflating colorful balloons. As each balloon filled and fattened, the cylinder emitted quite a loud whoosh of air. Eudora looked about to find the sound. ‘Balloons,’ I said. I had her hand. ‘Someone’s apparently having a do.’ ‘Oh,’ she said. Those luminous, pale blue eyes igniting, her magical face suppressing once again an amused smile. ‘I just thought it was someone who saw me, sighing.’”

When Welty died in 2001, at the age of 92, Ford was a pallbearer at her funeral, and he was her literary executor. He co-edited Welty’s Library of America: Collected Writings.

Ford’s sequels to The Sportswriter were Independence Day (1995) and The Lay of the Land (2006); Independence Day won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Pulitzer, the first novel ever to do so. His most recent book is Let Me Be Frank with You (2014), a series of novellas that follow Frank Bascombe in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

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