If you’re drawn to stories of the art world (and who isn’t?), the beauty and the money and the chicanery, you might have considered picking up the following books. For me, aspiring writer that I am, they illustrated some of the differences between rather ordinary storytelling and the remarkable. I didn’t set out to make such a comparison, but the rather startling weaknesses of the first were all the more apparent upon reading the second.
The Art Forger is a debut novel by B.A. Shapiro (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013). Glossy and sexy, the cover is clearly intended to draw the attention of what I’ll call the airport patron: quick choice, disposable, and full of positive reviews (“engaging”, “addictive”, “ingenious and skillful”, “blazingly good”, etc.). It was the subject matter, though, that drew this reader.
It’s a twist upon a twist in the art forgery sub-genre: Is the stolen, now-recovered Degas the original work or a forgery? If the latter, is making a forgery of a forgery a crime? It’s an interesting concept, and in more sure hands it might have been pulled off.
For me, the term “insouciance” came to mind. (I can’t tell you quite… Continue reading
One of the reasons I’m convinced of its sublimity is that I’m really not keen on poetry, and in fact don’t care for anything else Eliot ever wrote.
But this particular poem encompasses, encapsulates, the entirety of human existence, in a way no other type of writing could. A novel would make all the subtext into text, and rob it of its nuance; a play would make it mundane and common by forcing the words to be spoken by mere mortals; setting it to music would limit and trivialize it. It has a solemn, tragic beauty that would be diminished in any other form.
The poem isn’t flawless (“I should have been a pair of ragged claws …” is a tad goofy), but the missteps add to the poem’s overall perfection, the way a slightly “off” feature on a beautiful face makes it even more beautiful.
This is my favorite stanza:
And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail… Continue reading
It was mountains of sound—vast parapets and promontories and cliffs of sound. The deep bass notes were born of thunder, or the roar of a great fire, or the eruption of a volcano. They filled the space completely, as thoroughly as the air, as densely as water.
Somewhere in the interstitial spaces between the notes, the trills of the higher ranges could be heard flitting overhead. It was as if the very songs of the birds had been captured for the pleasure of the composer.
It was the last few bars of the benedictory song being played one ordinary Sunday morning on the great pipe organ of New York’s Trinity Church.
It shook the air.
It was the roar of an immense waterfall. A roar of booms. It was primordial, as if left over from some great cataclysm. Or beginning.
It shook the air and vibrated the body and the soul.
It was sublime.
Though it was one of my mother’s great joys to finally obtain a Hammond for our small town church, I’ve never been enamored by the sound architecture of the ordinary organ. And though my favorite aunt Marian sang… Continue reading
“Because when I read, I don’t really read; I pop a beautiful sentence into my mouth and suck it like a fruit drop, or I sip it like a liqueur until the thought dissolves in me like alcohol, infusing brain and heart and coursing on through the veins to the root of each blood vessel.”
So says Hanta on the first page of Too Loud a Solitude, a novella by Bohumil Hrabal (1914-1997).
What more could any writer wish than to have such a reader?
And, too, the words are so vivid as to create the very physical sensations of which he speaks.
I considered posting the sentence with only a simple “wow,” but found myself wanting to know more about these words and their context.
I was in for a surprise.
This happy sentence, chock full of the delights of discovery (and the savoring of it) stands out in the novella as brilliantly as a diamond—not so much for the quality of its construction or insight (for that is superb throughout), but in its brightness of mood. Too Loud A Solitude is full of oppression and darkness and even the putrid. And… Continue reading
In my last post, I laid the foundation for an occasional series exploring the sublime—unmatched and unmatchable human accomplishments that rise above all others, that rise “beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” Achievements which transport us viscerally or intellectually, emotionally or spiritually to a place of great wonderment. As examples, I proposed Rhapsody in Blue by George Gershwin and the sculpture Balzac by Auguste Rodin.
For my next nomination, I ask you to watch a performance of the Barcarolle from the opera by Jacques Offenbach, The Tales of Hoffman. Watch it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=is0Lb4cj_3c. (Yes, my first suggestion for the transcendental requires you not only to listen to music which derives its name from gondoliers, but to watch it on social media, no less.) It will require about three minutes for your first time through, but my guess is you will want to hear it again, again, and perhaps again. I’ve imported a translation from the French below.
Sisters Irina and Christina Lordachescu perform the Barcarolle in what appears to be an anteroom of a concert hall in Budapest. They are accompanied only by a pianist. It’s an informal setting, not unlike having them in your… Continue reading
In the language of aesthetics, the sublime is “the quality of greatness, whether physical, moral, intellectual, metaphysical, aesthetic, spiritual or artistic. The term specifically refers to a greatness beyond all possibility of calculation, measurement or imitation.” [See footnote.]
But not beyond our accomplishment. And not beyond our appreciation, for the sublime transports us viscerally, intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually to a place of great wonderment. Of awe. It leads us to a capacious realization of the heights possible within the human experience. Of the pinnacles within our reach if only we pursue them.
Some accomplishments that attain the sublime are the product of spontaneous inspiration, or more likely of relentless exploration and trial by individuals who have the experience and perspicacity to allow such ideas to pierce the commonplace. I think, for instance, of Auguste Rodin and his rough but powerful statue Balzac, the great thinker standing far back and assessing—some say dominating—the world, his immense energy barely contained.
In Peter’s Parchment, The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios, while walking along… Continue reading
At the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., there is an impossibly long wall of bronze stars—an abstract but instantly recognizable representation of the heroes of war, the horrors of war, soldiers lost at war.
Each one of the four thousand palm-sized stars standing at attention represents one hundred lives lost. One star, one hundred fathers, sons, brothers, and yes, mothers, daughters and sisters lost at war.
Four thousand stars.
It is overwhelming.
I’d say inconceivable, were it only so.
Up on their wall, the stars are fixed in place. Below, in reflection, they stir about, stretch, converse with each other. They reach toward their comrades and withdraw, reach toward the captivated visitor and withdraw.
Up on their wall, the stars are flotillas, regiments, squadrons.
In reflection, they are souls.
J. S. Anderson
Photos by J. S. Anderson: Field of Stars, World War II Memorial, Washington, D. C.
Some time ago, my best friend Liz (now my wife) and I were discussing the burdens of responsibility at work and home, the rush of our lives, the clamor of family. Each of us spoke of a need to be alone from time to time and the quiet pleasure it can bring.
Time alone allows our minds to rest, our emotions and physical bodies to settle, to breathe. For her, to peruse recipes, imagine fine meals and cook them at her leisure—and emerge relaxed and recharged. For me, to let my mind drift and mull.
Peace and relaxed introspection was our common wish.
We could not find a word or phrase that captured the sense of it. “Alone” or “being alone” weren’t sufficient, for they did not carry a sense of contentment or pleasure. And the words “lonely” and “loneliness” convey negative values such as sadness, depression and even anguish—the opposite of what we wanted to express.
Accustomed to playing the occasional word game, we found ourselves working backward from “loneliness”—the antonym, we decided—until it came to us: Drop the first letter and create an entirely new word: oneliness. … Continue reading
On April 18, 2014, The Editorial Department published a guest blog I prepared entitled “What Do I Know?” It gives my take on the old stumbling-block of an adage, “write what you know….” Yes, I have a grasp of several subjects, but what I know best is how I perceive the world around me, emotionally, intellectually, viscerally and visually. And that opens up a world of possibilities. Check it out:
(The Editorial Department’s Peter Gelfan was the editor of BOOK OF HOURS: The Beguilement of Brother Alphaios.)
On April 21, 2014, Lucky Bat Books, my publisher, posted my guest blog “Mr. Kissinger and Me.” It tells a story I heard years ago about the famous Henry Kissinger, the former U. S. National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. No, I didn’t remotely know him, but it posits a very high standard for one’s work—one which I think authors should keep in mind. Here’s the link:
J. S. Anderson
Photo by J. S. Anderson. Chiaroscuro at Park Headquarters, Saguara National Park West, Tucson, AZ
It seems an apt statement for creative writing as well, no matter the form.
I wrote “Blue Notes” several years ago while living in Tucson, but was never really sure I’d finished it. It seemed to leave its subject unresolved, a town (and its people) in slow and silent decline into the dust from which it rose. I’ve felt the poem was missing either the spark of optimism or the mercy of certainty.
Yet sometimes the blues are not just a beat. Sometimes they just don’t end.
I’ve come across another observation about art which I hope applies to this poem. It’s from Paul Gardener (Strength to Love, 1963): “A painting is never finished. It simply stops in interesting places.”
The colors of this town, once vibrant and proud,
Have blanched toward white, tan and brown.
House paint and trim and storefront signs,
Once bright of hue are faded and rimed.
Even the tags of graffiti, once… Continue reading