Sunday, November 15, 2015

New Readings of Old Books-2

When Wood showed me how to get over the levee to the River
By the time we clambered down the moist bank of the levee, the sun had just set over Port Allen in the west; it was late Spring, and the river was half flooded around the swamp willows.  This was taken (early 1980s) where one could drive to the top of the levee where also some of the agriculture school cattle were grazing, on the dry side, about half a mile south of the LSU campus.  Of course, it is film, not digital, Kodachrome probably.

I want to write about a Memoirs, Present Indicative, of Noel Coward, that I first read when I was about to graduate from high school or during the three semesters that I was at the California College of Arts and Crafts.  In either case I was living in Berkeley (so was the family) but did not yet have access to the University library.  I recall finding it at the Egyptianizing Berkeley Public Library on Shattuck Avenue and checking it out there.  It really made an impression!  It was a time when I was reading biographies and memoirs of opera singers, Emma CalvĂ©, Maria Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Geraldine Farrar (my goodness: princes and tennis stars, cf. Anna Netrebko), Chaliapin, Caruso, Alma Gluck: probably her first, because her daughter, Marcia Davenport, had written the novel that really astonished my adolescent imagination, The Valley of Decision, and then Of Lena Geyer, so that it was no wonder that opera stars were exciting—and wasn't it just as well that I could imagine Manon, for example, delicate, petite?  I also haunted the used-book stores for 78 rpm records.  It was a lovely couple of years.  At the rooming house, at 2622 College, which qualified as Approved Housing, since I was under age, in the evening we sat around a large round kitchen table and filled sketchbooks and talked, and talked.  Neither before or later (until perhaps now) did I have free time for such preoccupations.  By the time I turned 21, in 1955, I was beginning graduate course work.

So what about that Sunset over the Willow Swamp on the Mississippi?  Well, the photos of famous people are under copyright, and by now those years in the early 1950s and now even the early 1980s have become sentimental in their own right, and I have made a habit of using pictures as headers.  I might break my neck if I went down the slithery mud today, to take new ones, and my coaevals are dying and my former students are at the height of their careers, very busy, so I treasure these pictures.  Besides, they are part of me, and you may make of them what you wish.

(Have to re-write body of this post: please excuse):
Having lost the tangled thread for this post, I'll just note the kind of thing I had in mind.  Noel Coward had reminded me of the craze for African American night-club music (and it was picked up, too, in Downton Abbey, Season 5).  But I also had noticed in novel after novel the protagonists having been described as appreciating a Grammaphone Society recording of the Bach Concerto for two violins, which reminded me how much shorter the pre-WW II catalogues had been, and how important the really outstanding 78rpm sets had been.  Then there was that Blackbird business: a comment on a YouTube offering of a 1927 song, "Bye, bye Blackbird", and some young person was astonishingly puzzled by the lyrics of the song.  Nor did I at the time know about the all African-American musical show Blackbirds, which predated the song by a year or so.  The song's 'blackbird' was inspired by Florence Mills, who enchanted London and, I think, Paris as well, until her early death in 1927.  She was adorable, as her portrait photos show (and perhaps the inspiration for the figure of Betty Boop?), but she never recorded the song in question though we do have a recording of one with a similar reference.  Like Noel Coward, Paul McCartney. who sang the 1927 "Bye bye" song so lovingly in the "Kisses on the Bottom " concert at the Capitol Records studio a few years ago, surely knew whose song it was, and Bessie Smith actually recorded it when it was new.  However, and this is the kind of realization (better late than never), I have a two-CD album  of Josephine Baker in her youth that includes two of the songs from Blackbirds.  But these were European recordings and were not noticed, apparently, by the person who compiled the list in the Wikipedia.  But Josephine Baker's knowledge of Mills, who died so young, and her covering Mills's songs for performance in France, adds one more detail to the history of the effect (with the Prince of Wales, Edward, attending Mills's concerts repeatedly) of the most enchanting African-American  performers  in Europe  at the time.  It was my retirement-age pleasure reading that took me to the abundant material in Wikipedia on the musical  Blackbirds and Florence Mills.  You'll find lots of material, both documentary and pictorial, on Florence Mills—all except her voice.  Josephine Baker was only five years younger, but happily lived till 1975.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

New Reading of old Books

Detail of a poor photo of a rabbit (Jill's), but all I could think of as a heading was a rabbit, and Durer's is too wild, too fine, and too alert to illustrate Dorothy Sayers' characterization of an unhappy drunken college girl: "The general impression of an Angora rabbit that has gone loose and was astonished at the result"—but what I need is the face, and of an Angora, and I can recall but cannot find the image of my sister Linda's big old rabbit.

In any case, that characterization is from Gaudy Night, and I hadn't meant to risk being disappointed after fifty years by that one.  Actually, I was wondering whether I would still admire her Dante commentaries as much as I had when the three Penguin volumes were new, but the font is too small till I get new reading glasses.  And, in the first place, looking across the room at my big oaken chair with the mask of a goat pan on its back, I was thinking of a student couple in Eugene, Oregon, c. 1970, who had found a chair just like mine but with a lion mask (indeed mine is the only one with an aegipan mask).  I think it was to Roger that I lent the paperback of Busman's Honeymoon, as fun to read, and he found it "castrating".  That rather spoiled the fun, though later I realized that one needed to know that the personality of Peter Wimsey had evolved so that, though he might not have liked the book, Roger might have chosen a different epithet.  Besides, between the two wars, and especially after the trenches, working with what we call PTSD, and after the worst experiences of World War II we called Shell Shock, as I recall, was de rigueur for writers who took themselves seriously.  After Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf, et al., who called Dorothy Sayers a feminist?  And girls raised in Oxford were generally well educated even before the women's colleges.  There's a whole literature on them.
Anyway, I found out that Busman's Honeymoon had been a highly successful play before she turned it into a novel a year later.  That accounts perhaps for its wonderful conversations, perhaps more numerous than even in her other detective stories.  But only those readers who just don't like Sayers (even as I just don't like P. D. James, though it seems to me normal to have one's favorites, and James has her own admirers), and I enjoyed Busman's Honeymoon more than ever.  So much, in fact, that I re-read Gaudy Night, too.  It had been the first of her books that I'd read, and I enjoyed it even more for getting all of the references (I think, all of them).  This time, between the two of them, I have decided finally to read Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy.  Kindle obliged handsomely, but they don't have those three volumes of Dorothy Sayers' commentary on Dante in eBook format.  Famous poetic versions abound, and those everlasting DorĂ© illustrations, but not commentaries.  I suspect that we are supposed to treasure the Commedia,  but not to study it, not to get from it what Dante put in.  Not even if one wants an Italian commentary.  I pulled down the Penguins, but the font that seemed so reasonable until recently now might as well be 6-point.
Surely I am not the only reader-for-pleasure to pluck choices from chapter headings in the books I'm reading currently.  There's always plenty more.  It is not the sort of reading you'd get course credit for in college, but it was there that I formed the habit.  You study for one final exam then steal time to read something that appeals to you before facing preparing for the next exam.  During final exams you don't have to dress or go out to do anything...  I protest, I didn't read detective fiction during exam weeks; in those early days I'd read travels or journals or sometimes the novels by authors that I couldn't afford to take whole courses on (or, to confess it, that I hated to answer the predictable essay questions on, spoiling the book for me!).  
I think I'll write a couple more posts about reading things I've always meant to read or that I haven't read again since I was fifty years younger.
Here is that chair again that I got in the 1960s.  It really is white oak, but the black is a product called japalac, which is original.  Roger and Judy (I think I have their names right) "cleaned" their lion-head one, stripping it right down to the bare wood.  That was the fashion at the time, alas.  The chair is American Renaissance Revival, c. 1885, I think.