Friday Apr. 1, 2016

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April in Maine

The days are cold and brown,
Brown fields, no sign of green,
Brown twigs, not even swelling,
And dirty snow in the woods.

But as the dark flows in
The tree frogs begin
Their shrill sweet singing,
And we lie on our beds
Through the ecstatic night,
Wide awake, cracked open.

There will be no going back.

"April in Maine" by May Sarton from Collected Poems. © W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is April Fools’ Day, a day of hoaxes and practical jokes the world over. Newspapers and other media often get in on the act, with phony news stories, and people always fall for them. In 1957, the BBC reported on a bumper spaghetti harvest in Switzerland, accompanied by images of farmers pulling down great strands of pasta from the “spaghetti trees.”

In the April issue of Sports Illustrated in 1985, George Plimpton reported that the New York Mets had recruited a phenomenal young pitcher who had learned his craft in a Tibetan monastery. The pitcher’s name was Sidd Finch, and he could throw a 168-mile-per-hour fastball. Plimpton buried a clue in the article’s subtitle: “He’s a pitcher, part yogi and part recluse. Impressively liberated from our opulent life-style, Sidd’s deciding about yoga — and his future in baseball.” The first letter of each word spelled out “Happy April Fools’ Day — ah fib.”

It’s the birthday of the pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninoff, born in Novgorod, Russia (1873). He was a halfhearted student in his early days at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, and his teachers felt he probably did not have much of a career ahead of him. He grew to be a tall, imposing man (Igor Stravinsky called him “a six and a half foot scowl”), and his hands were so big they could span an interval of 13 keys on the piano.

He escaped from Russia just before the Revolution and spent most of the rest of his life in the United States. When Vladimir Horowitz arrived in New York City, the two pianists sealed their friendship by going down into the basement of Steinway and Sons and playing Rachmaninoff’s own Third Piano Concerto (1909). Horowitz played the solo part on one piano, and Rachmaninoff the orchestra reduction on another.

Rachmaninoff was in the middle of writing his famous Second Piano Concerto (1901) when his first symphony received a lukewarm response. He stopped writing music for three years, during which he felt as though he was like a man who had suffered a stroke, losing the use of his head and hands. He was able to overcome his nervous breakdown by visiting a psychiatrist, who cured Rachmaninoff by repeating the following words to him each time they met, “You will write your Concerto. You will work with great facility. The Concerto will be of excellent quality.”

Rachmaninoff’s music was very popular, particularly his piano compositions, which were filled with dark and massive chords and strong melodic lines. Prokofiev once remarked, “With Rachmaninoff, all its notes stood firmly and clearly on the ground.” His most famous works include various piano concerti, Symphony No. 2 (1907), and the Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini (1934).

It’s the birthday of liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow (books by this author), born in Castro Valley, California (1973). She showed an early interest in journalism and started reading the newspaper regularly when she was only seven years old. She studied public policy at Stanford and went to Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, where she earned a doctorate in political science. She was the first openly gay American to be chosen a Rhodes scholar, and she went on to become the first openly gay American news anchor. She’s hosted The Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC since 2008; it was the network’s most successful launch ever. She told the Boston Globe: “When Pat [Buchanan] is saying something outrageous, you know when you yell at the TV? I get to yell at him in person. I get to yell at the TV and it hears me.”

Maddow met her partner, Susan Mikula, in 1999. Maddow was working on her doctoral dissertation and doing odd jobs to pay the bills. Mikula hired her to do some yard work. “It was very Desperate Housewives,” Maddow said later. Their first date was at an event for the National Rifle Association. The two have so far chosen not to marry. Maddow supports gay marriage, but has said: “I feel that gay people not being able to get married for generations, forever, meant that we came up with alternative ways of recognizing relationships. And I worry that if everybody has access to the same institutions that we lose the creativity of subcultures having to make it on their own. And I like gay culture.”

Maddow is the author of Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012), which debuted at No. 1 on the New York Times best-sellers list.

Today is the birthday of American novelist Francine Prose (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1947). Prose is best known for her novels Household Saints (1981), about an Italian butcher and his schizophrenic daughter, and Blue Angel (2000), a witty and dark satire on academia and writing workshops.

Prose graduated from Radcliffe College (1968), but dropped out of graduate school after reading Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which inspired her to write in earnest. Her first novel, Judah the Pious, was published in 1973, and she’s gone on to write over 30 books of fiction and nonfiction, including two young adult books, Touch (2009) and The Turning (2012). Prose is a frequent reviewer of books for New York Review of Books and teaches at Bard College. She wrote a best-selling book on the craft of writing, Reading Like a Writer (2006), in which she advises would-be writers to read widely. She said, “The advantage of reading widely, as opposed to trying to formulate a series of general rules, is that we learn there are no general rules, only individual examples to help point you in a direction in which you might want to go.”

Her best-selling novel Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (2014) was inspired by a series of photographs by Hungarian-French photographer Brassai. The novel features a cross-dressing heroine, auto-racing, and the backdrop of Jazz Age Paris. Pablo Picasso makes an appearance, as do several other real-life artists. Prose doesn’t consider it a historical novel, though, saying: “To be perfectly honest, by the time I got through writing the novel — five years — I was no longer precisely sure how much was ‘real’ and how much I’d made up. I see the book as a contemporary novel that happens to be set in the past.”

It’s the birthday of Czech author Milan Kundera (books by this author), born in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1929. Best known for his novels, especially The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984), The Book of Laughter and Forgetting (1978), and The Joke (1967), he has also written three poetry collections, four plays, and numerous essays and short stories.

Kundera was born into a middle-class family with deep roots in music. His father, Ludvik, was a pianist and musicologist, and Milan also studied musicology and composition as well as literature and aesthetics at Charles University in Prague. He then transferred to the Academy of Performing Arts in the same city, studying scriptwriting and film direction. After he graduated in 1952, the Film Faculty appointed him a lecturer in world history. During the early 1950s, he was expelled from the Communist Party for anti-party activities, and then readmitted in 1956. His early writings, especially his poems, were pro-Marxist, and he was active in the “Prague Spring,” a brief period of Communist reform in 1968. The Soviets banned his books after their invasion later that year. He was expelled again from the Communist Party in 1970, left Prague for France with his wife, Vera, a banned newscaster, in 1975, and was stripped of his Czechoslovak citizenship in 1979. Immortality, published in 1990, was his last novel written in Czech; now he writes in French, and is adamant that he be considered a novelist, not a political writer.

Kundera is just as likely to be inspired by philosophers and composers as he is other writers, and often thinks about his novels in musical terms. In an interview with The Paris Review, he said: “I first thought of The Unbearable Lightness of Being in a musical way. I knew that the last part had to be pianissimo and lento: it focuses on a rather short, uneventful period, in a single location, and the tone is quiet. I also knew that this part had to be preceded by a prestissimo: that is the part entitled ‘The Grand March.’”

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