Monday Oct. 26, 2015

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Gauguin’s Grandson

was named Paul Gauguin,
too. He was an artist,
too. He lived in Denmark
in his grandfather’s shadow
all his life. And he chafed
against that shadow.
Like living under a rock—
a rock as big as the biggest
island in French Polynesia.
He painted only insects.
Insects that live under rocks—
beetles, ants, centipedes,
pill bugs. In a later period,
he painted only his wife Marta
in only her long black hair
and horn-rimmed glasses.
Toward the end of his life
he made hundreds of collages
of orthopterous insects—
katydids, mantids, cicadas,
crickets and grasshoppers
with long hind legs for jumping
or, you could say, flying;
and for making a rasping, chafing
sound or, you could say, song.

“Gauguin’s Grandson” by Paul Hostovsky from The Bad Guys. © Future Cycle Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the playwright John Arden (books by this author), born in Barnsley, England (1930) who was bookish and well behaved until he joined the army, where he said, "I heard a lot of stories which I found rather distressing and not what I thought the army was for." He came home and started writing plays that attacked British conformity. He's best known for his play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959), about four deserters from the British army who try to persuade the local people in their town that war is pointless. John Arden said, "Theater must celebrate noise, disorder, drunkenness, lasciviousness, nudity, generosity, corruption, fertility, and ease."

Today is the birthday of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (books by this author), born in Chicago (1947), the daughter of a man who sold draperies and was so frugal that even on the coldest winter nights in Illinois, he would turn the heat in the house off, and then wake up early in the morning to warm the house back up before everyone else arose. Hillary grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago, where she was in Girl Scouts, played sports, wrote for the student newspaper, and participated in student government.

Her father was a Republican, and she started her political life as one also, campaigning for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential Election. Her first year in college she was president of the Wellesley Young Republicans student group, but within a couple years, influenced especially by the events of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Vietnam War, she shifted her political views. As a junior in college, she campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, running on an anti-war platform.

Her senior year, she wrote a thesis about the strategies and tactics of a radical community activist — which, while she was First Lady, the White House suppressed. That year, she also became the first student ever at Wellesley to deliver the formal graduation address, and it was so well-received that people in the audience clapped for seven minutes. Her speech made national headlines and she was interviewed on talk shows and featured in a Life magazine profile.

She traveled for the summer and then started law school at Yale. It was at Yale that she met Bill Clinton, and the first time she saw him was at the student center there. She heard a loud, southern voice saying "and we grow the biggest watermelons in the world!" — and asked her friend who that was, and her friend answered, "Oh, that's Bill Clinton, he's from Arkansas. That's all he talks about."

She's the author of It Takes A Village (1995), about the responsibilities of communities to see that children succeed. She's also written an autobiography, Living History (2003), for which she was paid an advance of $8 million by the publisher. The book sold over a million copies within the first month it was published.

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James (books by this author) wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but that she shouldn't write about Europe if she didn't live there. He said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

They remained friends for the rest of James's life, but while Wharton became more successful, James's novels sold less and less well. When he learned that she'd used the proceeds from a recent book to buy herself a new car, he joked that he hoped his next book would provide enough money for him to buy a new wheelbarrow. But he always appreciated her friendship, and once wrote to her, "Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices ... might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights."

Andrei Bely was the pseudonym of Russian novelist and poet, Boris Nikolayevich Bugaev (books by this author), who was born in Moscow on this day in 1880 to a prominent intellectual family.

He is best remembered for his 1913 novel, Petersburg, the book of which Vladimir Nabokov said, "My greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose are, in this order: Joyce's Ulysses; Kafka's Transformation; Bely's Petersburg ..."

Petersburg is a story of conspiracy and betrayal set during the 1905 Russian Revolution, when massive political and social unrest spread across the country. In the book, a group of radicals plan to assassinate a senator with a time bomb disguised as a can of sardines, but the bomb is lost, the conspirators only manage to destroy someone's study, and their attempt at revolution becomes a farce.

The language of Petersburg is by turns comical, poetic, and abstract, the city in a landscape where "In this melting greyness there suddenly dimly emerged a large number of dots, looking in astonishment: lights, lights, tiny lights filled with intensity and rushed out of the darkness in pursuit of the rust-red blotches, as cascades fell from above: blue, dark violent and black."

Nothing in Russian literature up to that point had prepared Russian readers for Bely's novel, which mixed the scientific and rational with the intuitive and spiritual, an omniscient voice with the first person, adding music, color, past and present, and gleeful humor to a story of impending patricide. But although Petersburg is difficult to classify, critics have remarked that Bely's novel would be strangely familiar to contemporary readers who have seen the blend of fact and fantasy in The Black Swan or A Beautiful Mind, and that Bely's writing foreshadows the late American author David Foster Wallace.

Bely lived in poverty through the 1917 Russian Revolution, which led to the end of Tsarist Russia and the beginning of the Marxist regime. He worked as a lecturer in Moscow for a few years, traveled to Berlin for a few more, and returned to find himself denounced in the new Marxist view of literature.

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