“I won’t kill for it, and I won’t marry for it,” the private eye Jim Rockford sometimes said about money. “Other than that, I’m open.” That credo suggested a man with one foot on the solid ground of decency and the other submerged in slime, a good man with no illusions, a wry, slick navigator of a crazy, hard world whose humanity, bruised and bandaged though it might be, remained intact. That was Rockford, given life by the recently deceased and sorely missed James Garner.
As a kid watching The Rockford Files in the 1970s, I often wondered why its hero stayed friends with the lowlife Angel (played by Stuart Margolin), but now I see that just as decency was essential to Rockford, so was the world that the ironically named Angel represented: a place long on danger and short on scruples. Rockford needed to stay in touch with the world of kind-hearted folks so he wouldn’t lose the best part of himself; he needed Angel and others like him so he wouldn’t be bored.
Rockford also straddled other worlds, or, perhaps more accurately, different eras. He was part John Wayne but part Hawkeye Pierce from M*A*S*H, too; he was brave and handy with his fists, but he didn’t win every fight, and when honor and brawn didn’t carry the day, he had no problem with trickery. But mostly, Rockford was . . . there, a magnet for some of the craziest shit the world could dream up, a hole in the balloon toward which so much rushed and, in rushing, dispelled itself.
Recently I persuaded my wife to watch one of my favorite movies, the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski. At the end she said — among other things — that there was a lot of The Rockford Files in it. And she had a point. The Dude of The Big Lebowski might be said to be Jim Rockford reduced to his essence: divested of Rockford’s fighting and driving skills, missing even the twisted satisfaction Rockford got from keeping company with the scum of the earth, and yet the one sought out by the hidden evil of the world around him, the one toward whom those forces gravitate, as if desperate to find something better than themselves.
There have been quite a few books, articles, and blog posts on ways to nurture one’s creativity, and many of those focus on writing. And yet there are already so many good writers—published and unpublished—in addition to so-so writers, just-plain-bad writers, and people who would write if only they could find the time or the energy or the confidence, that a more useful book/article/post might be one that nipped the writing itch in the bud. Flannery O’Connor, asked if she thought university creative writing programs discouraged too many writers, famously replied, “In my opinion they don’t discourage enough of them!” Perhaps a wiser and more humane take came from Richard Ford, who, in a line that could apply to all forms of literary endeavor, compared writing a novel to getting married: “If you can talk yourself out of it, you should. If you can’t, there’s no advice to give you.”
For those of us for whom there is no advice, there is the model of the great Virginia Woolf. Her 1929 nonfiction work A Room of One’s Own is concerned chiefly, of course, with what is required for women to write (enough money to be independent and the room of the title), but the book contains advice that applies to all writers—none more eloquent than this:
“So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say. But to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to . . . some professor with a measuring-rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery. . . .”
Sometimes, like a kid who turns to his parents for help, a creative type has to look to past masters. During a recent visit to Paris, I had a refresher course in the art of simplicity. One of the books I took with me to read there was my wife’s old copy of Ernest Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast — an obvious choice, with its Paris setting. I had read the book before but was struck by how much I’d forgotten. I remembered the cool descriptions of the twenty-something Hemingway writing in cafes, trying to begin a story with “one true sentence,” and stopping while knowing the next thing he would write. One thing I had forgotten was Papa’s hand-to-mouth, sometimes desperate existence as he struggled to support his wife and young son after giving up journalism in favor of full-time short-story writing. I had also forgotten, among other things, the horserace-betting he took up in his attempt to stay afloat, a pastime that became a fascination and threatened to develop into something else.
I had forgotten these things perhaps because of Hemingway’s simple style, a flatness — I do not mean that disparagingly — that seems to lend equal weight to, and thus de-emphasize, everything; the reader takes that at face value at her peril. And that style was part of the approach Hemingway took to his art: leaving out the thing he was actually writing about, so that the reader would “feel more than he understood.” My forgetting parts of the book, I think now, was a result of not having read closely enough before. I am now eager to re-read stories including “The Big Two-hearted River,” which struck me as uneventful the first time, long ago; I want to see what I was missing.
Also in Paris I went to the Centre Georges Pompidou, whose art collection includes paintings from the first decades of the twentieth century — my favorite period. There are works by Matisse and others there that made my heart pound (well, nearly). Take Matisse’s Portrait de Greta Prozor (below), from 1916. Check out the eyes and eyebrows, the shading — so simple, yet so evocative. The same with the bags under the subject’s eyes in Auguste Pelerin II, from the same year, also below. Simple — masterful — great.
A while back I posted “Cliff’s 10 Best Movies of All Time.” Lists like this, whether about movies, books, or music, are fun but also fundamentally fraudulent, since no one who puts them together has read, seen, or heard every film, novel, or record out there. The longer we live, and the more we encounter, the more our experience broadens, and the more we reflect on what we have already experienced. It is with that in mind that I offer an alternate Top 10. This list does not supersede the first one — I stand by the films on that list — nor does it exactly combine with the first to form a Top 20, since part of my rationale for the original choices was that each one represented a particular idea or quality, which is not necessarily the case with the new list. Best to call it, as jazz musicians do, an alternate take. So, in no special order:
MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001). Fascinating beyond all reason, and, if you think about it — and you don’t have to think too long — horrifying in its implications. I’m not sure David Lynch completely worked through the logic of this story; it’s more as if he glimpsed something he himself didn’t understand and merely reported back, which is scarier still. This movie knocked my socks off.
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF COLONEL BLIMP (1943). Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s moving epic about a career soldier (Roger Livesey, a sort of British Cary Grant) whose weakness is his belief that the world is as honorable as he is.
JEANNE DIELMAN, 23 QUAI DU COMMERCE, 1080 BRUXELLES (1975). In this film by Chantal Akerman, we watch single parent Jeanne (Delphine Seyrig) as she makes meatloaf, washes dishes, has quiet dinners with her teenage son . . . oh, and takes in male sex clients. The sympathy we develop for Jeanne during what ought to be unwatchably dull sequences is a miracle, and the ending is a heartbreaker.
NOTHING BUT A MAN (1964). Michael Roemer’s film, starring Ivan Dixon and Abbie Lincoln, was made during the civil rights era but is not about civil rights, exactly. It is simply a deeply human story about one couple’s struggle to stay together in the face of societal conditions that would be funny if they weren’t so horrible. Completely unsentimental and very affecting.
GOODFELLAS (1990). You like mob movies or you don’t. I do. This is one of the best.
THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY II (1989). I admit this doesn’t sound like much. Most sequels are created solely to make suckers of people who liked the original stories, and it’s a rare sequel that comes close to equaling, let alone surpasses, its predecessor. But here is one of those rare films. As cliché as this sounds, you will laugh all the way through The Gods Must Be Crazy II, and when it’s over you may have a tear in your eye. (And it’s not necessary at all to have seen the original.)
SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973). Ingmar Bergman’s TV miniseries, condensed for theatrical release. An amazingly written and acted portrait of a marriage that fails but refuses to die. (Only one thing didn’t make sense: Who could leave Liv Ullmann?)
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946). Capra’s masterpiece has become just another part of Christmas, which makes it easy to forget just what a great film it is. It’s a Wonderful Life is novelistic in its accumulation of detail and its treatment of the passage of time, with its attendant disappointments. I cry every year.
THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). The Dude! Macabre fun, the Coen brothers’ way. Inspired.
UNFORGIVEN (1992). “It’s a hell of a thing, killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got, and all he’s ever gonna have.” This is Clint Eastwood, after making more shoot-em-ups than you could shake a stick at, reflecting on the real cost of violence.
What’s on your list?
At this writing, I have called New York City home for nearly three decades — several years longer than I’d been alive when I moved here. I have lived in Harlem though mostly in my current home of Brooklyn, and I’ve worked in Manhattan and the Bronx. I got married in Prospect Park and sent my children to public schools in Brooklyn and Manhattan. I have served on two juries, voted in seven mayoral elections, and watched the progression from one-dollar subway token to two-and-a-quarter MetroCard. I am a New Yorker.
Or am I? I ask this because I wonder whether, if I were truly convinced of and secure in my New Yorkerness, I would still feel the urge that comes over me once a week — on Sundays. I have not seen all of the United States, but I’ve seen enough to know that much of it shuts down on that day. Not my town, though. That, to me, is the mark of a vibrant city, and there is no better time to be in one than Sunday. You can appreciate what’s around you in a way that isn’t possible when you’re rushing to get to work on time or hurrying to lunch with a client. Gone by Sunday, too, is Saturday’s frenzy of celebration. Still at leisure, but with our feet back on the ground, we can take in a city that has slowed down just enough to be seen. This balance of our awareness, the city’s magnificence, and its — and our — unhurried pace is a magic formula, making it possible to revel in our New Yorkerness, to do that quintessential thing that lets us feel a part of this place. The urge I have on Sundays is to do that thing, my only question being —and I’ve been here twenty-eight years—What is it? A classic movie at Film Forum, or a Yankees game, or a visit to the Brooklyn Museum, or brunch at Sylvia’s, or lunch at Katz’s Delicatessen, or a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, or a tour of Louis Armstrong’s house? I have enjoyed all these things, but the problem with doing anything at all, in any place at any time, is that that thing precludes everything else, which won’t cut it if the point is to feel of a piece with a city whose essence is unlimited possibility.
On a recent Sunday, in search of an answer, I turned to a movie from the early 1960s. As with many other movies, I had seen part of it on TV when I was a boy; I had retained very little beyond its title, but this particular title alone had led me to search for it online over the years, always finding it unavailable — until recently. Finally, I had in my hands the work that would yield, if anything could, the secret to capturing the feeling I was after. What better way, after all, than to spend part of a Sunday in New York watching a movie called Sunday in New York? When it was over I felt, if I may be permitted a comparison to another film, a bit like Dorothy after she’d been to see the wizard. Sunday in New York is a very enjoyable sex farce that is nonetheless dated by the very thing that must have once made it seem so fresh: the burning question of whether a “girl” should or is expected to bed the guy she’s out with. Unlike many works whose day has passed, this one gave me the brief, sad feeling that mine had, too, and not just because the movie was released in the year of my birth. When the twenty-two-year-old Jane Fonda character referred to her parents back in Albany, I realized that those obviously settled folks, not important enough in the movie even to appear on screen, were probably younger than me. More pertinently, this sweet love story, while set in New York on a Sunday, is not about Sunday in New York; shots of rowing in Central Park aside, the setting could be Chicago or San Francisco. I liked the movie, but it didn’t have much to tell me.
I was on my own, back to my original question. It might help, as they used to say where I’m from, to break it down. What are the elements of this quintessential New York feeling or experience? What are the things that say “New York” to me? Literature — elegant sentences or verse by the writers, so many writers, who have come here; music — strains from the meeting place of jazz and symphony, grand but playful and unpredictable like the city, works by Duke Ellington, say, or another transplanted New Yorker, Charles Mingus; people — seeing so many walking this way and that. On another recent Sunday, I tried for some of this. At home I had The Symphonic Ellington playing while I read Auden poems, works that are themselves like the city, beautiful and elusive; from time to time I looked out my living room window at bare tree limbs silhouetted against the gray-blue winter sky. After a while I took the Auden collection with me to a diner down the street, where I read while sipping black coffee and watching strangers go by the window. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though eventually something occurred to me about this afternoon of experiencing New York: I had barely left home.
But maybe, if this quintessential New York experience can be even partly achieved in one’s living room, it is largely a state of mind. And maybe any New York activity, incomplete though it may be, is the real deal for that very reason: its incompleteness proves you’re in the right place. You can take in all of Hudson, New York, in an afternoon. Not so New York City. You get there only a piece at a time, and you never get there. And if you did, what then? Better to think of each little piece as a DNA sample, making do for the whole. Maybe you live here; may you visited once; either way, you’ve had part of the experience. I will try to remember this on some Sunday while looking down the long, long stretch of Park Avenue as I walk along in the East 80s, on my way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art . . .
What do you do on Sundays?
Welcome to the 100th tellcliff.com blog post! I write that somewhat sheepishly, since this is not what you’d call a major event. I don’t know who, if anyone, reads this lovingly prepared blog with any regularity; I feel a little like Crash Davis, Kevin Costner’s character in Bull Durham, embarrassed that he has broken the minor-league home-run record—except this ain’t even the minors. But as my family likes to say: Oh, well. I write tellcliff.com because I enjoy it. Maybe somebody else finds something to enjoy here, too. If so, here’s to you.
Looking back over my more recent posts, I realize I’ve been doing more telling than being told, which is my fault. Some of the posts don’t leave much room for response, particularly when I go on about fairly obscure subjects (the silent films of Louise Brooks or Louis Feuillade, say). So with this post, tellcliff.com returns to its roots. I will offer a few lines each on recent, wonderful discoveries in my usual areas—books, film, jazz—and then ask what YOU have discovered lately. Away we go:
FILM. Who’s That Knocking at My Door. Very, very early (1967) Martin Scorsese, starring a very, very young Harvey Keitel. In the current phase of Scorsese’s career, when he seems to have decided that more is more—witness the excess and sheer length of The Wolf of Wall Street—this black-and-white film is a surprise and a delight. Not all of its subject matter is delightful. Keitel, un- or ambiguously employed, spends a lot of time hanging out with the borderline-shady guys in his working-class Manhattan neighborhood. Meanwhile, he falls in love with a young woman (Zina Bethune) he meets on the Staten Island ferry. The subject of their first, faltering conversation, the John Wayne movie The Searchers, turns out not to be a random choice on Scorsese’s part: Keitel’s beliefs, we come to find out, bear an unfortunate resemblance to the Wayne character’s. The standout parts of Who’s That Knocking—three montages, two of them using still photos—convey more, despite their brevity, than the three hours of The Wolf of Wall Street. As I like to say, anything’s new if you haven’t seen/heard/read it before, and Who’s That Knocking, from 47 years ago, is one of the best things I’ve let in lately.
MUSIC: Friday Night in San Francisco. Three acoustic guitars, live concert, 1981. John McLaughlin of Miles Davis jazz-fusion fame joins Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia. The music is by turns moving and exciting, and you just can’t believe human fingers can play that fast. Is this jazz? I don’t know. I don’t care. It’s fantastic.
BOOKS. If on a winter’s night a traveler. This 1979 novel by Italo Calvino sat on my shelf from 2002 until last week, when I finally picked it up. The main character, known as the Reader and referred to by the narrator as “you,” buys a novel and reads the first chapter—as do we—only to discover that the book then turns to blank pages. Obviously in possession of a faulty copy, “you” return to the bookstore for a good one, which turns out to contain a different first chapter altogether (we read that one, too). “Your” search for the real novel brings “you” in contact with a long-suffering publisher, a shady translator, an angst-ridden Irish novelist, foreign revolutionaries and counterrevolutionaries, a second Reader, and the second Reader’s sometimes-disguised sister—in between many first chapters of seemingly unrelated books. It sounds annoying—actually, it is a little annoying—but it’s also brilliant, with laugh-out-loud send-ups of publishing and academia and transcendent passages about the nature of writing.
And now for the important part: what great things have YOU discovered lately?
The Coen brothers are celebrated for their quirky aesthetic, located at the border of the hilarious and the horrifying. What I personally love about them in their ability to capture a given sensibility, one you recognize even if you can’t put a name to it, one you may have thought no one else knew about (think of, say, Sam Elliot’s gentleman cowboy-narrator in The Big Lebowski).
Following is an attempt to identify levels of quality in the brothers’ work, and to rank films within each level – a pointless exercise, probably, and, like many pointless things, a lot of fun. So:
1. The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges as The Dude, maybe the brothers’ most inspired creation. Transcendent.
2. Fargo. A great concept, summed up by the image of a hugely pregnant officer of the law (Frances McDormand) holding a gun on a sociopath.
3. Raising Arizona. My vote for the funniest movie ever made.
4. Miller’s Crossing. It’s irresistible, all of it — from the guys in black fedoras and long dark coats to the made-up lingo (“What’s the rumpus?”) to the theme of one guy, in this case Gabriel Byrne, taking on everybody.
6. No Country for Old Men. A movie remarkable for subverting every expectation formed during a lifetime of movie watching. With Javier Bardem as the stuff of nightmares.
7. O Brother, Where Art Thou? The first scene of George Clooney improvising country blues in a recording studio is worth the price of the rental.
8. The Man Who Wasn’t There. Mostly this black-and-white film looks terrific, and Billy Bob Thornton is great as the enigmatic, doomed man who longs for the land of “things they don’t have words for down here.”
9. True Grit. It loses energy after a while, but Jeff Bridges is great in the John Wayne role, and so is Hailee Steinfeld, playing one very determined teenaged girl.
10. Burn After Reading. The brothers’ funniest film, after Raising Arizona.
11. Blood Simple. Their first work, a taut film noir — in which, as someone once pointed out, every human fluid gets spilled.
12. Inside Llewyn Davis. The main character is a jerk, and the story goes exactly nowhere, and yet it works. A wonderful evocation of a fondly remembered time — early ’60s New York – one that wasn’t always great for the people living in it.
13. A Serious Man. A little too serious, but not bad.
14. The Ladykillers. Really, guys? Ironically, the brothers updated the 1955 film by bringing in two of the oldest black stereotypes in existence. On the other hand, Tom Hanks is brilliant as an extremely erudite criminal — my favorite thing I’ve seen him do — which is what saves this movie from being . . .
15. Intolerable Cruelty. Substandard Coen, which still makes it better than a lot of other movies. And it has one great line, from Cedric the Entertainer: “You want tact, call a tactician.”
16. The Hudsucker Proxy. The only boring movie the Coens have made.
Years ago I had a date with a stunningly beautiful woman. As we sat down to dinner together in a restaurant, we had an unspoken but obvious attraction to each other, and the evening seemed full of promise. Then we started talking. The more we talked, the more uneasy I felt, and the more the light in her eyes appeared to dim. Politics, religion, art, movies, books — you name it, and we not only disagreed about it, we were like soldiers in trenches on opposite sides of a battle line; it was as if we’d been matched by some sort of anti-dating service. When we left the restaurant, there was no need to discuss the one thing we agreed on: that we would never see each other again.
Actually, I made all of that up. It never happened. But if it had, I think I would have felt the way I do now, having read my first book by Joseph Epstein, the essay collection In a Cardboard Belt!
Belt was published in 2007, around the time that Epstein — whose nineteenth book this is — was turning seventy. It starts out with charming reflections on reaching that milestone, which is “an odd thing to happen to a five-year-old boy who only the other day sang ‘Any Bonds for Sale,’” seventy being a time when “middle age is definitely — and definitively — done,” when “not recogniz[ing] that one is no longer living (as if one ever were) on an unlimited temporal budget is beyond allowable stupidity.” From there we’re off to a section of personal essays, including a thoughtful and evocative piece on his father and on fatherhood. Many passages in the section called “Literary” are gems of clarity and power, like this one, in which Epstein paraphrases the poet and critic Karl Shapiro: “The Pound-Eliot Axis has succeeded, with the aid of the academic New Critics, in creating a poetry in which ideas and symbols replace feeling and pure love of language. . . . Looking back on the history of twentieth-century poetry, one realizes that what Pound and Eliot accomplished, along with the building up of their own reputations, was removing poetry ‘from the people’ and delivering it ‘to the classroom.’” The five pieces in “Attacks” are just that — hilarious balloon-puncturing takes on such intellectual blowhards are George Steiner and Harold Bloom. Bloom began his career as “quite a good” critic, Epstein writes, “but his ambition grew and he soon became the intellectual equivalent of the character in P. G. Wodehouse who looked as if he were poured into his clothes and forgot to say when.” Similarly, “what George Steiner has been doing, over the past forty or so years, is an incomparable impression of the world’s most learned man.”
But amidst all this humor and insight, all these impressive dispatches from “that unending work in progress called [Epstein’s] education,” are flashes of other things that made me more and more wary as I read. Epstein is, I don’t think he would mind my saying, a conservative. At its best, a modicum of conservatism lets one choose common sense over the worst excesses of politicized thinking; for example, I cheered the following passage about Epstein’s teaching career: “One year, at the opening of my Conrad course, a student asked ‘how’ we were going to read Joseph Conrad, by which she meant what suppositions we were going to bring to the task: Marxist, structuralist, deconstructionist, multiculturalist, and so forth. I said that we were going to try to discover what Joseph Conrad himself meant to convey in his novels and stories, and that this ought to keep us sufficiently occupied to fill out a quarter.”
And so I am not one who equates conservatism with sexism and racism. (For what it’s worth, Epstein praises Ralph Ellison’s work to the skies.) But there are passages here that beg the question of where one ends and the other two begin. “Even though all the world’s famous chefs seem to have been men . . .,” Epstein writes in a piece about dining out, “my sense is that in general women seem to taste food with greater sensory refinement than do men. (Perhaps women don’t have the first-sergeant, kick-ass personality that is required to run a large kitchen staff).” Or perhaps I should introduce Mr. Epstein to some of the women I’ve met. The book’s concluding essay, “I’m History,” performs the dubious service of validating my suspicions. “In my twenty-three years as editor of The American Scholar,” he informs us, “the title ‘Ms.’ never appeared in its pages. ‘Chair’ or ‘chairperson’ didn’t make it, either. I thought the first unpronounceable, the second patently silly.” There, at least, he gives explanations for editorial policies, as benighted as they are. But he apparently considers the wisdom of a later statement to be self-evident, since he doesn’t bother to explain it. Mentioning “feminism, black history, and gay and lesbian studies,” Epstein writes, “I . . . mostly treated these subjects in The American Scholar by ignoring them.” Is that, in the case of black history, because it’s not part of American history? Are blacks not Americans?
I found most of Epstein’s essays to be funny, illuminating, a joy to read. What a pity that I’ll probably never pick up another one. What did I expect, taking a reading tip from David Brooks . . .
On a Saturday night last month I went to hear some live music in Greenwich Village with my friend The Mail Order Santa Claus of Jazz. I am fairly well steeped in the classics of that genre, but Santa has mounted a valiant campaign to bring me into the present. As we made our way on foot to catch the tenor saxophonist David Schnitter at Smalls, whose cover charge was music to my bank account, Santa talked about really wanting to hear Tom Harrell, whom he called the greatest living trumpet composer and who was playing at the nearby, legendary and legendarily expensive (well, not really) Village Vanguard. Nonetheless we went to Smalls, which, living up to its name, was so packed that the front row was the only place left to sit. What a boon. We were maybe eight feet from the sixty-something Schnitter, whose breaking-down body took nothing away from his warm, fluid tone, and we were even closer to the club owner/house pianist Spike Wilner, a dead ringer for the young Elliott Gould and a player with some of the same wistfulness as the late Vince Guaraldi. I got mesmerized watching his fingers on the keyboard, seeing his face as he worked to anticipate and complement Schnitter. At the break I turned to say as much to Santa, but he was gone, and even more surprisingly, he wasn’t back when the music started again! The longer the band played, the more I worried. Had Santa, in a moment of dreaminess brought on by the beauty of the music, fallen and cracked his head in the john? Had he stepped out for a breath of the fresh air of our storied city and gotten mugged? I went to look for him, but he wasn’t stretched out groaning on the sidewalk or lying unconscious between the sink and the toilet. I pulled out my cell and left a message on his, and I was still in the bathroom when he called back to say, very apologetically, that he had slipped out to hear Tom Harrell. I went back, laughing, to hear the rest of the Schnitter set, and I made a mental note to check out the music of this Harrell, apparently worth ditching one’s friend for.
And so it turns out to be. I downloaded Harrell’s Number Five (2012), and while I will need a few more listens to write anything worth reading about the trumpeter’s compositional prowess, I can tell you right now that it’s a very, very fine jazz record. Number Five features a quintet, but a number of the cuts have wonderful pairings. Some standouts for me: Harrell’s trumpet and Johnathan Blake’s nimble drum work on the opening track, “Blue ’n’ Boogie”; “Journey to the Stars,” on which Harrell plays a beautiful middle-range solo to Danny Grissett’s spare, deft piano accompaniment, making for a tune so deceptively simple that it brought to mind the best modern paintings, the kind with just a few bold colors; and “Preludium,” which has Harrell playing alongside the tenor saxophonist Wayne Escoffery, whose distinctive tone has a kind of . . . shine to it, and who, like Johnny Hodges and Dexter Gordon before him, is able to do a lot without a lot of notes (though he has them when he needs them). Then there’s Harrell’s version of “Star Eyes.” The best way I can think of to describe his solo on that standard is to say that if the original melody is a well-worn footpath, Harrell tunnels underneath it, every so often poking his head up through the dirt. Thanks for pointing the way, Santa!
On September 22, 2013 I participated in a panel on nonfiction at the Brooklyn Book Festival, along with George Packer, Svetlana Alpers, and the moderator, Phillip Lopate. Below are remarks I prepared to deliver at the panel but, because of the format (readings from our books, then a general discussion), did not get to.
Before I begin talking about my own approach to the essay—and, actually, by way of doing so—I’d like to acknowledge my friend Albert Murray’s passing on August 18, at age 97. In books including the essay collection The Omni-Americans, Mr. Murray supplied several generations of thinking people, especially thinking black people, with a big piece of the American puzzle that had gone missing. The hole in the puzzle is what has led some of us over the years to change our names, put on dashikis, and declare ourselves to be Africans who happen to live on American soil. While I do not disapprove of that course, it does leave open the question of how, if you’re black, you relate to that soil, the scene of many crimes against people who look like you. But a closer look at that soil will reveal a history not only of pain but of resilience, achievement, and artistry in the face of that pain. Not only that: this soil, which for better or worse produced you, also bears your imprint, your trademark, your copyright symbol. To put it succinctly, you are an American.
A moment ago I mentioned artistry in the face of pain. That is a serviceable definition of a black-created art form: the blues. Then there is the blues’ fraternal twin, jazz, the improviser’s art. At its best, improvisation is new action based on knowledge, experience, and guts, three elements at the heart of the American—and black American—stories. Improvisation, or making a way where none existed before, produced both the Declaration of Independence and the Underground Railroad. Jazz serves as both example of, and metaphor for, such improvisation; jazz is part of every American’s, particularly every black person’s, cultural inheritance and identity.
Albert Murray helped me to understand this. But his work left one question open. Now that I know what I am, what do I do? My approach to the essay represents, in part, an attempt to answer that question.
Surely one of the benefits of knowing who and what you are is having a position from which to relate to others. Identifying elements from one’s own artistic culture that are similar to those of other cultures ultimately underscores the interrelatedness of all humanity. That is a large part of I try to accomplish with essays. What are examples? It seemed to me, as I wrote in one essay, that the music of the tenor saxophonist Lester Young is similar to the writing of Ernest Hemingway; just as Young’s spare, graceful melodic lines merely suggested underlying chord structures, Hemingway’s equally spare, equally graceful sentences left to our imaginations the pain felt by his characters. To quote a different essay, “It occurred to me as I listened to the work of the bassist-composer Charles Mingus . . . that it bears similarities to the films of Robert Altman: that the films, with their many characters crowded into a single shot and their simultaneous conversations, might be mere exercises in cacophony but are instead works of power and beauty—pulling off a feat similar to that accomplished by Mingus’s polyphonous compositions.” In still another essay, I found a parallel between the career progression of the novelist Zadie Smith and that of the actor and filmmaker Clint Eastwood.
In addition to cultural connections, I try to address in essays what I sometimes call “the general problem of being human.” How do you deal with the knowledge that the close, loving family you are raising will one day cease to be a unit, will one day cease to be at all? What features of middle age—if any— compensate for the refusal of your eyes and knees to work the way they used to? What do you and your close friend do after something like 9/11, when it’s all either of you can think about, and you think about it one way, while he has a completely different view?
And when I’m really lucky, I can locate a connection between the cultural and the personal. Hence my approach to discussing Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days, one that includes my recollection of singing a song about John Henry as an elementary school student in music class. Engaging in this mix of the cultural and the personal, I see myself as the beneficiary of what seems to me a trend of the last several decades: the synthesis of various nonfictional and even some fictional forms, which has assured the continuing vitality of the essay. There was the introduction of dialogue and close-third-person point of view into feature stories, by Truman Capote and New Journalists such as Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe; there was Wolfe’s playfulness with things like onomatopoeia, effects echoed recently in the typographical tricks of Ander Monson; there was the insertion of the personal into the story, as pioneered by Norman Mailer and Hunter S. Thompson and carried on today through the do-it-yourself-ism of bloggers; there is the tradition of the “outsider” perspective on such mainstream subjects as presidential politics, as seen in the past in the works of essayists including James Baldwin and today in the nonfiction of Zadie Smith, among others. As alloys can make metal both stronger and more flexible, so this combination of the objective and the subjective, of erudition and confessed fallibility, makes the essay form capable of nearly anything.
But first you have to write it. I remember reading an interview with the late Kurt Vonnegut, in which he advised young writers that they need only have something to say, and the paragraphing would take care of itself. While I respect Vonnegut’s work, I found that statement to be wrong on two counts. Having “something to say” will not lend beauty and rhythm to your passages, will not prevent the flattening effect of ending two consecutive sentences with the same word, will not help you judge whether a sentence is lyrical or simply too long, will not provide the image that hangs on in the reader’s mind. And I have found that having something to say plays a small part, sometimes no part, in saying something—since it is often in the act of putting words down that the writer comes to understand his own thoughts and feelings. Having something to say does not make you a writer; writing does.
Finally, there is the subject of essays vs. fiction. Essays fall under the heading of nonfiction, an unfortunate term that in itself might seem to indicate an inferiority to novels and short stories. Pity nonfiction, named for what it isn’t! A friend of mine who is a short-story writer, a normally thoughtful woman, once expressed the opinion that a good fiction writer could knock out a personal essay in her sleep. This, too, like the term “nonfiction,” seemed to indicate a fundamental misunderstanding of the form. The implication, I think, is that the essayist is spared the work of constructing a reality, that his subject—like a trust fund—has been handed to him, and all that remains is the spending. But just as there is more to a blues performance than standing before an audience and crying, there is much more to an essay than simply writing down what you have experienced or observed, and because of this the essay and fiction forms have more in common than is generally acknowledged. Both have as their building blocks human experience, and the task facing both the essayist and the fiction writer is to interpret and order that experience; in doing so, both kinds of artists—yes, artists—have limitless possibilities and exactly one restriction: truth, be it actual or virtual. With these possibilities and this requirement, one can succeed or fail, plummet or soar.
For all these similarities, there is perhaps one major difference, besides the obvious one, between the essay and fiction forms: ultimately, the function and purpose of fiction may be more in the nature of performance, while those of the essay involve communication. All eyes are on the fiction writer, while the essayist, with perhaps more humility, or perhaps more brashness, with, in any case, greater warmth, has sought you out to convey something. That “something” may be concrete or ephemeral, but the basis of its conveyance goes back to what I mentioned in a different context a minute or two ago, which is the interrelatedness of all humanity. The strongest essays have this at their root, and those essays are, to put it simply, great works. And so I belatedly advise my fiction writer friend to read the essays “Canal Street,” by Ian Frazier; “Dreaming of a Black Christmas,” by Gerald Early; “The White Album,” by Joan Didion; “Against Joie de Vivre,” by Phillip Lopate; “The Hottest Water in Chicago,” by Gayle Pemberton; “Upon This Rock,” by John Jeremiah Sullivan; “Consider the Lobster,” by David Foster Wallace, “Equal in Paris,” by James Baldwin. And if you think that in your sleep you can write works like these wonderful mixes of the cultural, the social, the historical, the political, and, above all, the human, then drop what you are doing and run, do not walk, to your bed.