Thursday Mar. 19, 2015

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The young are walking on the riverbank,
arms around each other’s waists and shoulders,
pretending to be looking at the waterlilies
and what might be a nest of some kind, over
there, which two who are clamped together
mouth to mouth have forgotten about.
The others, making courteous detours
around them, talk, stop talking, kiss.
They can see no one older than themselves.
It’s their river. They’ve got all day.

Seeing’s not everything. At this very
moment the middle-aged are kissing
in the backs of taxis, on the way
to airports and stations. Their mouths and tongues
are soft and powerful and as moist as ever.
Their hands are not inside each other’s clothes
(because of the driver) but locked so tightly
together that it hurts: it may leave marks
on their not of course youthful skin, which they won’t
notice. They too may have futures.

“Kissing” by Fleur Adcock from Poems 1960-2000. © Bloodaxe Books, 1992. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of novelist Philip Roth (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1933). His father was an insurance salesman, and both his parents were the children of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He majored in English and taught it, and he became friends with Saul Bellow, who told him that he was talented and should keep writing. In 1959, when he was 26 years old and teaching at the University of Chicago, he published his first book, a novella and short stories titled Goodbye, Columbus, and it won the National Book Award. He wrote two novels, which got mixed reviews, and then for five years, he didn’t publish anything at all. Then he published Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), which is entirely made up of a monologue delivered by a patient, Alexander Portnoy, to his analyst. It got rave reviews from critics, and its sexual content made it controversial and also extremely popular — it was the best-selling book of 1969.

And Roth has continued to be a prolific and popular novelist.

In 2009, he published The Humbling, only 140 pages. It’s the story of Simon Axler, a famous and respected stage actor in his mid-60s, who suddenly finds that his talent is gone.

He published his 31st book, Nemesis, in 2010.

Philip Roth said: “Writing turns you into somebody who’s always wrong. The illusion that you may get it right someday is the perversity that draws you on. What else could? As pathological phenomena go, it doesn’t completely wreck your life.”

It’s the birthday of Russian writer Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (books by this author), (March 31st according to the Old Calendar), born in Great Sorochintsy, Ukraine (1809). His mother was extremely devout, and his father was a bureaucrat who owned a vodka distillery on 3,000 acres and had more than 300 serfs working for him.

After college, he went off to St. Petersburg, ready to take on the world. First he tried acting, but he failed at his audition. Then he tried writing prose, short stories rooted in the folklore and culture of rural Ukraine, and his first book, Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka (1831), was a big success. A few years later, he produced a comic play, The Government Inspector (1836). The satirical play mocked the ineptitude of the Russian bureaucracy, but it was extremely popular, and even Czar Nicholas loved it — he is reported to have said, “Everyone gets the business here. Me most of all.”

Gogol produced several more books of short stories; his most famous stories include “The Nose,” about a nose that takes off on its own, dressed in uniform and acting like any other human being; and “The Overcoat,” which has been endlessly interpreted. Dostoevsky is rumored to have said, about himself and his contemporaries: “We all emerged from Gogol’s overcoat.”

But Gogol became a religious fanatic, the follower of a Russian Orthodox priest who convinced him that all art was sinful. He fasted so severely in his attempt to overcome the Devil that he destroyed his health, and the doctors tried to treat him with leeches, which only further weakened him, and he died at the age of 43.

It’s the birthday of translator, writer, soldier, and all-around adventurer Richard Francis Burton (books by this author), born in Torquay, England (1821). Growing up, he loved languages, and he learned French, Italian, and Latin, and local dialects as his family traveled around Europe — his father was an officer in the British army. He hated Oxford, but he learned Arabic there and went on to fight in the East India Company and learn Hindu, Persian, and quite a few local Indian languages. He wrote about his travels in Asia, Africa, and the Americas, and he often disguised himself in local clothing. He became famous when he published A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855), about his experience disguising himself to make the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, which is forbidden for non-Muslims.

He wrote the definitive English translation of A Thousand Nights and a Night, (usually referred to as The Arabian Nights), and it was he who introduced The Kama Sutra to Western audiences.

The first reported bank heist in United States history was pulled off on this date in 1831. The perpetrator was Edward Smith, and he was a shoe salesman by trade. He got hold of a set of duplicate keys to the City Bank at 52 Wall Street in New York City, and he let himself in over the weekend. He helped himself to $245,000 in bank notes and Spanish doubloons, and he had already burned through $60,000 of it by the time he was caught a week later. A Mr. Bangs, who ran a “respectable private boarding house,” tipped off police. Smith had moved in under the false name of “Jones,” and had three small trunks that he was quite anxious about. The landlord was suspicious of Jones’s odd behavior, and he called the police when Smith left with one of the trunks; the cops picked the locks on the other two trunks and found the missing loot. Smith was arrested as soon as he returned. He already had a police record; he had been picked up for robbing a store in Brooklyn, but wasn’t convicted. After a one-day trial, Smith was found guilty and was sentenced to five years’ hard labor in Sing Sing. The rest of the money was never recovered.

These days, banks lose 10 times more money to check fraud than they do to bank robbery, and modern safes are almost impossible to crack. According to FBI statistics, the average U.S. bank robbery yields about $7,500.

It’s the birthday of legendary African-American comedian Jackie “Moms” Mabley, born Loretta Mary Aiken in Brevard, North Carolina (1894). Her career as a performer began when she moved to Cleveland at 14 to get away from her tragic past — her parents died in separate accidents, she was raped twice as a teenager resulting in having two children who were taken from her, and she was being forced into a marriage with an older man. In Cleveland, she met the vaudeville team Butterbeans and Susie. She went to New York City and was very successful on the Chitlin’ Circuit, earning more than $10,000 a week. In 1939, Mabley was the first female comedian to perform at the Apollo Theater.

She was known for her clever and raunchy humor. In her act, she developed the persona of an old woman clad in a frumpy dress and floppy hat, wryly commenting on sex, race, and social issues.

Mabley said, “A woman’s a woman until the day she dies, but a man’s only a man as long as he can.”

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