One thing you could always say for me: I was a finisher. I may not have been a great reader, but by God I was dogged, and if I made it through the opening 10th of a book, then I was going all the way to the end. Though this started as merely an inclination, it eventually became a rule, for reasons I can’t quite understand. There are, after all, so many books that deserve abandonment, and to this day I admire readers like my wife, who can jump ship after 80 pages. But I suppose my years as an altar boy left their mark, both in a too-easy conflation of negligence and sin and in a deeper, anthropomorphic sense that even a bad book might at the last minute change into something singular and not-to-be-missed. “Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life,” as Grace Paley put it, in her own American idiom. And if I was to be the little god of the worlds I made when turning the pages, then who was I to let a little boredom or disappointment turn me away? I mean, isn’t the real God, if there is one, a finisher, too?
This isn’t to say there weren’t challenges. The Book of Disquiet took me over a year, and several running starts. Ditto Being & Time. Proust I read over four summers, and though there was never a moment when he sunk me in the swamps of saudade, or gave me whatever is German for brain-freeze, it took a certain monogamous willfulness to return to, say, The Fugitive when fresher titles beckoned from the shelf.
But then came baby #3. Let’s call her N. She was not, exactly, planned on, though for several consecutive springs when my manic phase rolled in I had this sense that my own open destiny would probably include throwing myself out of the fatherhood plane one more time. Capping the family at two kids would have felt like stopping Proust after book six, somehow. I hasten to say of baby N, as of Proust: totally worth it.
Except that all of a sudden I couldn’t finish anything. When N was born, back in February, The Great War raged in Robert Musil’s diary. Socialism, in G.D.H. Cole’s five-volume history, had entered its anarchist phase. Now, in December, poor Robert Musil still hasn’t reached an armistice, while socialism retains a markedly anarchist flavor.
Here was me in the first few months after the delivery: I would open a novel, read along perfectly happily for a day or two, and then let it drop. I was waiting for the thing that would sweep me up and carry me through. But perhaps my reading list was too ambitious for my circumstances. (Like, who outside of grad school reads Musil at the same time as G.D.H. Cole?) I told myself I would move, temporarily, to something more sensible. But to no avail. My study grew littered with dog-eared New Yorkers, foreshortened short stories, longreads I sputtered out halfway through. Many of which I enjoyed, and hope to finish in the near future. For now, though, my year in reading comes back to me as a mixtape, as hip-hop: a swirl of enticing samples. Bits and pieces of Laura Oldfield Ford’s ’zine cycle, Savage Messiah. Phosphorescent sentences from Jaimy Gordon’s Shamp of the City-Solo. Andrew O’Hagan’s essay on Satoshi Nakamoto. Ian Frazier’s on New Jersey Route 3. The poem “Far Rockaway” by Delmore Schwartz. The part of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything when Antinous Bellori spots some angels in the woods. The part of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil where Virgil arrives in Brundisium and the translation hasn’t yet gone bananas. The unimprovable first paragraph of Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days. And Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” whose allegorical valences were not lost on me. Here I was looking down from the deck of a ship, not quite where I ever thought I’d be, while down there in the water, untethered but unreachable, swam another, truer self.
Okay, so I guess I did finish the Conrad. And by summer there were other things, small things, I was managing to see to the end. Like several short stories by Mavis Gallant, including “Speck’s Idea,” probably the single most perfect piece of fiction I read this year. Gallant at her best is every bit the equal of Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, or Joy Williams. Whose story “Stuff” was another highlight. As was Claire Vaye Watkins’s “I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness,” from the Granta “Best of Young American Novelists” issue.
Or like the essays in Zadie Smith’s forthcoming collection, Feel Free. Several years ago, I thought I noticed a turn in Smith’s nonfiction, a loosening of the burdens of her remarkable erudition, like an astronaut swapping out the gravity boots, or like a swimmer kicking off from land. The places she now consistently reaches in her essays—on Joni Mitchell and Get Out and Anomalisa and joy—are not only nearer to the distant philosophical goalposts of the true and the just and the beautiful…they get us there with truth and justice and beauty of their own, and with an extraordinary, dab-worthy grace. In short, I feel lucky to be alive at a time when these essays are being written.
People must have felt similarly fortunate reading A Room of One’s Own a century ago, or hearing it in its original form, as lectures. I somehow made it to 38 without having read it, and in a weird way, I’m glad I did. In a college classroom, I might not have understood it as I did this summer in Maine, as a book not only about feminism, or art (as if these were ever “only”), but about how to live, for everyone, everywhere. That was a good week for finishing things, come to think of it, because I also, finally, tackled Evan S. Connell’s Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, those sterling examples of love as an act of ruthless attention. And I read much of Neil Sheehan’s A Bright, Shining Lie, a monument of narrative nonfiction that belongs on the national required reading list.
There was, too, the compellingly terrible first couple hundred pages of Harlot’s Ghost, part of an ongoing personal Norman Mailer project I probably won’t complete short of a vasectomy. There are times these days when I find bad writing as exciting as good writing. Maybe more. And apparently it’s not just me, because Mailer seems to bring the best out of his critics. Witness Elizabeth Hardwick, in her long-overdue Collected Essays: “the demonic, original clutter of Mailer’s high style.” Or witness Jonathan Lethem: “If, as in the Isaiah Berlin formulation, ‘the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing,’ then Mailer’s gift and curse was to have been a hedgehog trapped inside an exploding fox.”
Other, more recent titles I should mention: Ben Blum’s Ranger Games, a gripping and thoughtful blend of memoir and true-crime. George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo, which I can’t make up my mind about—usually a good sign. And Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “My President Was Black,” with its arresting final cadences. I had read, and felt conflicted about, the epilogue to Coates’s We Were Eight Years in Power when it appeared as a stand-alone in The Atlantic. (This is how I read now: epilogue first). If the evidence was hard to reproach, the rhetoric seemed to me flawed. But the book as a whole makes the argument far more persuasively, and—I know this is a little contrarian—I think it’s a more fully realized piece of analysis than Between the World and Me. Coates is that rare thing in our public life: a writer willing to let us see him becoming. We’ll need more of that in the year to come.
And finally, while on the subject of public life and presidents and the winter that is now upon us, I suppose it’s time—with apologies to any of his supporters left reading The Millions—to invoke He Who Must Not Be Named. For, as much as I’ve been pinning my distractibility on baby N (which would suggest I only have to persevere till she sleeps through the night), a novelist friend of mine recently proposed a counter-explanation. “Oh, yeah, man, that’s not you, it’s everyone,” he said. “All of our colleagues, everyone I talk to, my mom and stepdad, their neighbors…It’s been everyone’s worst year in reading.” His argument was that we’re so inundated just at present with narrative and fantasy—with one particular person’s narrative and fantasy—that the last thing we want in our reading lives is more imagination. If democracy dies in darkness, then dispense with the dreaming. Just give me the facts.
Now, if I were a Trumpist, I’d probably say “just give me a break.” There goes the liberal culture industry again, blaming him for their own failings, for every last thing they don’t like. To which I simply ask: aren’t you, too, tired of it? The insults, the feuds, the hysterical touchiness, the drag masculinity, the swamping of the drain, the bull in the nuclear china shop? Not to mention the buck stopping perpetually elsewhere. If politics has become a reality show, we’ve progressed in the last 18 months from the guilty pleasure of The Apprentice to the absurdity of The Celebrity Apprentice to, like, Season 7 of Real Housewives…and did anyone not stuck on an airplane even watch Season 7 of Real Housewives? Haven’t you, too, found far more of your brain given over to Donald Trump than you should have give over to even a good president? Or to put it another way: isn’t one definition of “a good president” “one you don’t have to constantly keep your eye on?” Speaking personally, I’m realizing that I read just as much this year as any year…it’s just that hundreds of my hours were given over to news, lest I fail to be aware of some developing crisis. And in the station wagon of representative government, the driver’s not supposed to be hunched over his twitter feed, leaving everyone else to watch out for hazards. We – I mean to include Trump voters here, too – deserve better. We deserve, at a minimum, adult hands on the wheel.
As to what duties an informed citizenry does have, in this or any other time, it’s worth asking: is newspaper prose plus a handful of cultural swatches anyone’s definition of an inner life? Will even the richest fragments be enough to shield us from ruin? Somehow, I don’t think so. In the short run, the con man who now has the car keys may have exposed our gullibility, sending all of us scrambling to find out things we never had to know before. But the long-term damage may be to a quantity so abused as to have fallen into shame and disrepute: the capacity for belief. We will need, if we are to stitch ourselves together again, to find stories that bridge the unbridgeable, stories that make sense of the senseless, or simply present it in all its mystery, stories that respect the difference between facts and truth – stories worth believing in. In some small way, then, seeing a novel or a poem or a work of imaginative nonfiction through to completion may turn out to be not an irrelevance but an act of subversion. Or better yet: preparation.
Here’s to being a better finisher in 2018.
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During summer break, sophomore year, my father and I took a short trip from our house on Sugarbush Drive (memorable streetname, unmemorable neighborhood) to visit the Jack Kerouac House. It was a 20 minute drive down I-4 to the small quaint house that is now situated a few blocks from a sprawling commercial development. Orlando was an agreeable town when Kerouac’s mother moved there, and while Kerouac wrote The Dharma Bums there. A few years later, the arrival of the Walt Disney Corporation would radically alter the landscape, physically and culturally.
We walked around the House and knocked on the door. Answering the door was an early-career MFA graduate, the House’s resident writing fellow. The three-month fellowship ostensibly afforded him the time to work on a play about a New Orleans jazz musician. A pair of sunglasses slid down his nose, exposing his puffy eyes: he was just then emerging from a hangover. Work, he explained, was going slowly.
When we asked for details about the House and Kerouac, the playwright politely pointed us to a neighbor, a retiree who was walking across the street. The pensioner claimed to have known Kerouac’s mother, who had actually owned the house, as well as Kerouac. She kept “a nice lawn” and “was a sweet woman,” but he was “a drunk” and a “druggy.” Whether or not it was true was beside the point. My father and I agreed the Orlando Tourism Board couldn’t have dreamed up a better touch of embellished authenticity than a curmudgeonly, fist-waving, stay-off-my-lawn Floridian to America’s Own Free-Love Dionysus. Granted, a residence of a 20th-century American novelist probably never earned much notice in the Tragic Kingdom.
Years after visiting the Kerouac House, during a vacation in Prague, I visited Bohumil Hrabal’s cherished pub, U zlatého tygra (At the Golden Tiger). He once shared a drink with Bill Clinton and Vaclav Havel in the same boisterous, salty, regulars’ bar. At one of the shared tables in the backroom, I met a half-British, half-Czech jazz singer who boasted that he played cards with Hrabal’s frequent collaborator, the film director Jiří Menzel (Closely Watched Trains, Larks on a String). According to the singer, who can be found performing a fine version of “Strange Fruit” on the west bank of the Charles River most nights, Menzel was the worst director of live opera in history and, at 75, an incorrigible womanizer. The latter, at least, was meant as high praise.
These are examples in my long-held fascination with writer lore and the places they immortalized. It probably began, at eight, when I first checked out the collected short stories of Edgar Allan Poe from the Poplarville Public Library, and read the short, breathless biography in the introduction (Virginia Clemm, alcoholism, his vexed relationship with a father figure). Since, I have sabotaged dates, relationships, other people’s vacation plans, among other things, for a few extra hours in the Eudora Welty House, Rowan Oak, the Lake Isle of Innisfree, Berggasse 19, Richard Wright’s elementary school (or perhaps it was just his schoolchair and the school had been torn down — I can’t remember). How could anyone not be shaken up by reading Franz Kafka’s famous (and famously unsent) 1918 letter to his father now on display at the Kafka Museum? Imbued with the authenticity of Franz’s own cramped, unerringly legible handwriting? Partly, in all these journeys, I was looking for that very same authenticity, the dirt and the air Hrabal or William Faulkner had actually breathed, the unmediated sources of their perfect art. But I was also looking for, and more often finding, myth. Sometimes there were anecdotes embellished by the author, for instance, the public images enthusiastically promoted by Sigmund Freud and Nathaniel Hawthorne; other times, the rumors had been mooted by rivals, promoters, surviving family, and friends.
Over a recent weekend, I consumed Sarah Stodola’s Process: The Writing Lives of Great Authors. Stodola reconstructs the careers, habits, and influences of major writers in English of the last century, from Edith Wharton to David Foster Wallace; each section ends by summarizing the author’s daily writing routine, and anything that might have disrupted it (Wharton’s frustration over an unsatisfactorily arranged hotel room, Wallace’s lack of discipline). It’s a well-researched book that is affably written and organized, though the choice to avoid quoting or expanding on each writer’s career development seems like a missed opportunity.
Though each chapter takes a writer in detail, Stodola has focused on the “horizontal and vertical,” things that avid readers might find interesting, such as the controlling “image” that guides Toni Morrison’s work or how much time Ernest Hemingway really gave over to socializing. I was reminded of peculiar trivia I had read years ago, but hadn’t fully appreciated at the time: James Joyce’s early infatuation with Henrik Ibsen, Philip Roth’s habit of writing hundreds of pages before finding the first useable syllable.
I’ll almost certainly return to Process when my own enthusiasm for revising wanes, or when I finally start The Custom of the Country, and would like to pluck some well-curated details about its author. Though I also know my interest is slight compared with the insatiable, obsessive appetite of some writers, my fascination is not just a type of highbrow celebrity cult, which tends to be less about the person’s work and more about Puritan pillorying. There is no prying into their intimate lives, either, since I’m mostly interested in things that the authors considered “fair play” — documents sold to libraries, autobiographical writing published with their permission, property that their families curate on their behalves — rather than, say, Henry James’s sexuality.
Instead, I, and thousands of others, are interested in how they chose to live with their work. I too live with their work, sometimes comfortably, sometimes miserably, the terrible beauty that their novels and poems are. Stodola offers some research, but I still wonder: How did Faulkner gain perspective on a place and people that were in such uncomfortable proximity to his Oxford house, while Joyce was able to sustain an intimacy with his city, his country, and its politics from more than 1,600- kilometers away?
Megan Mayhew Bergman’s Almost Famous Women explores this theme with deft control and cool poise: how we mortals interact with genius. In these 13 stories, Bergman observes a range of influential, often-mythic, often-thwarted women: a jazz singer, bit actresses, artists. The collection’s stories examine how both their fame and femininity exerts a powerful attraction on the hangers-on, attendants, and survivors that orbit them. The “almost famous” are alternately callous, benevolent, brilliant, self-effacing, self-serving, merciless, and wounded. That word, “almost,” is singly devastating, salvific, and penetrating: their failures haunt them but haven’t doomed them.
“The Autobiography of Allegra Byron” envisions the too-short life of Lord Byron’s tragically neglected daughter by Claire Clairmont. Sent to the Convento di San Giovanni before she had turned four, Allegra is a confused, frustrated child patiently nurtured by one novice nun. In one indelible scene, the abbess begins to praise the theological education of her wards to Percy Bysshe Shelley, a surprise visitor. Shelley, the formidable Romantic poet and polemicist who was expelled from Oxford in 1811 after he published The Necessity of Atheism, has turned up at the Convento to visit his niece, but is appalled to discover that the child of a Romantic arch-firebrand has to recite church creed.
Can you recite the Apostles’ Creed for your friend? the abbess said, a note of pride in her voice, as if she was eager for Shelley to report Allegra’s progress to her father.
I believe in God, the Father almighty. Allegra looked up at Shelley’s eyes, perhaps sensing his horror. Her voice fell flat.
That won’t be necessary, Shelley said, holding up one hand in protest. I’m quite confident in Allegra’s recitation.
After the girl is taken away for her evening prayers, he says to the narrator, the younger nun,
She appears greatly tamed, Shelley said to me as the abbess and Allegra disappeared down the hall, though not for the better.
A story that balances mischief and bleakness, “Romaine Returns” is about a servant named Mario, who manipulates the household of the early-20th-century artist Romaine Brooks. Brooks’s decadent youth has been ravaged by post-traumatic stress disorder, and she has become a reclusive shut-in and virtually given up art. When her friend-dealer contacts her, Mario is surprised that she had ever had friends. He wonders, “It’s hard for Mario to imagine Romaine deep in anyone’s heart. He stares at the lavender card stock with disbelief and jealousy. He wants words this intense, this loving, coming in a letter with his name on it. But he’s never been in love.”
In “Saving Butterfly McQueen,” a medical student remembers a semester she spent as a confused young religious proselytizer. In Augusta, Ga., her vanity and ambition leads her to the doorstep of McQueen. The well-known African-American actress has publicly disowned her celebrated career as a racially stereotyped movie actress and any belief in God. In Bergman’s imagined Augusta neighborhood in 1994, McQueen is glimpsed in a pitch-perfect scene: her most famous role, as Prissy in Gone With the Wind, is profoundly embarrassing in post-Civil-Rights America — the cringe-worthy “I don’t know nothing bout birthing no babies,” the staircase scene in which Scarlett O’Hara shoves her down. McQueen attempts to reclaim part of that dignity. She renounces her faith. She donates her body to science. She proudly reminds a reporter that she wouldn’t allow Vivien Leigh to slap her.
The narrator, the proselytizer, has the grace and wisdom not to explicitly point out her hypocrisy or other failings. Marco’s soul-destroying jealousy is also tautly drawn. As in many of Bergman’s stories, the writing shines through understatement, the well-placed detail, the disciplined accumulation of theme and style. That few of the sentences or passages pull at your cuff to highlight them and paste them on a Goodreads page is a testament to Bergman’s craft. Each sentence is deeply rooted in story and voice and is more effective for not having too-precious prose.
Another strength is the way that she manages to balance romanticizing her subjects with providing characters with depth and mystery. I think about my trips to see subjects when I read Bergman, because she has accomplished the hope of every literary pilgrim: reaching for a greater depth of understanding without grasping, seeing without gazing.
None of this cult-worship started with my generation. Remember that Aristotle tells a fanboy story about Heraclitus: a group of foreigners decide to go out of their way on a journey to visit the famous Greek philosopher. When they arrive at his house, “they saw him warming himself at his stove.”
Surprised, they stood there in consternation — above all because he encouraged them, the astounded ones, and called for them to come in, with the words, “For here too the gods are present.”
Martin Heidegger, in his “Letter on Humanism,” claimed that the anecdote illustrates the banal, everyday dwelling of genius, or godliness. He suggests that the unfamiliar thing (god or genius) happens here among all these familiar things. They expect intellectual charisma — incendiary, paradigm-shattering, irascible — or at least a man baking bread, but find an old man in a quaint house, the most ordinary of places, where the great Heraclitus is heating his bare feet.
Another recent novel has also shone some insight on impressionable youth, the cult of genius, and the problem of familiarity and estrangement. Lars Iyer’s novel Wittgenstein Jr is set at a British university, among a group of graduate students enrolled in a seminar by a man who might either commit suicide or write a great philosophical work in the style of Being and Time or Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The students half-mockingly name him after the great German philosopher. Iyer mirrors some of Jr’s behavior on the actual Wittgenstein’s own insane antics, including beating a sick child unconscious in the 1930s Austria, as catalogued in Wittgenstein’s Poker.
Aside from picking off biographical details, the novel itself seems to draw inspiration from the arc of Wittgenstein’s career. The first half is dense with the study of logic and propositions, before the second half gives way to a looser, direct, yet more conventional and approachable style. In the second half, Iyer almost completely discards the preoccupation with philosophical puzzle-solving altogether. The last hundred pages could be described as a kind of campus love story.
The flinty personalities. The abrupt changes in style and approach. The disembodied philosophical chatter. It’s a triumph that Iyer pulls off this high-wire act so brilliantly. It’s irreverent, smart, and off-kilter. One of my favorite passages describes the professor’s arrival at the university:
He’s trying to see Cambridge, Wittgenstein says. He’s done nothing else since he arrived. But all he sees is rubble.
The famous Wren Library!, he says, and laughs. The famous Magdalene Bridge! Rubble, he says, all rubble!
We look around us—immense courts, magnificent lawns, immemorial trees, towers, buttresses and castellated walls, heavy wooden gates barred with iron, tradition incarnate, continuity in stone, the greatest university in the world: all rubble? What does Wittgenstein see that we do not?
The bitterly wry tone comes to inform how his students respond to Wittgenstein’s baffling lectures. Wittgenstein’s classes dwindle in size, and his remaining students are mostly half-hearted in their attempts to emulate his philosophical dedication. Instead they’re preoccupied by his general oddness, his sexuality, his comments that seem to indicate that he plans to kill himself, and his tendency to use intellectual palaver to disrupt Cambridge’s bourgeois conventionality:
A don, walking his dog, greets Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein nods back.
The dog is a disgusting creature, Wittgenstein says when the don is out of earshot. Bred for dependency. Bred for slobbering. We think our dogs love us because we have a debased idea of love, he says. We think our dogs are loyal to us because we have a corrupted sense of loyalty.
People object to pit bulls and Rottweilers, but pit bulls and Rottweilers are his favourite dogs, Wittgenstein says. They don’t hide what they are.
People love Labradors, of course. But the Labrador is the most disgusting of dogs, he says, because of its apparent gentleness.
Some undergraduates might be able to resist such deliberately provocative cant. But a handful of students can’t resist those kinds of observations, the type that seem to reanimate the banal surface of things, spoken by a deeply knowledgeable university professor. They form a quasi-cult around him and can’t resist his unusual charisma. To this day, I can’t resist charismatic thought, however flawed or incomplete the idea might be, and I’m not likely to learn how to anytime soon.
For that matter, I can’t resist putting together a “lit-itinerary” for a trip I plan to take to East Asia later this year. Did you know there is a recreated statue of Apollo on display at the Yukio Mishima Museum? How well did Kenzaburō Ōe’s mother keep her lawn? Perhaps, the Museum has a recorded testimonial from one of his neighbors, complaining how he was really just a lazy, drunk slob — I can hope. And I ask myself, in what Kyoto bar might a fellow literary pilgrim relate to me the praiseworthy sexual longevity of one of Japan’s great dilettante artists?
“The drop is a small ocean.”
“When people express what is most important to them, it often comes out in clichés. That doesn’t make them laughable; it’s something tender about them. As though in struggling to reach what’s most personal about them they could only come up with what’s most public.”
Describing, let alone reviewing, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life is almost forbiddingly daunting. Probably for this reason, critical reaction has been decidedly garrulous. A vast majority of reviewers have invoked some kind of “higher” culture to signify the elusive mood or feeling it evokes. Just skimming down the list, one picks up earnest references to Emily Dickinson, Tristram Shandy, Picasso, 2001: A Space Odyssey, W.B. Yeats, The Passion Of The Christ, the Sistine Chapel, and The Museum of Natural History. It’s been referred to as “beautiful“, “baffling“, “magisterial”, “unbearably pretentious” and putting the viewer at risk of emerging from the theatre “with a pretzel for a brain.” All of this is fair game, I think. Oscar Wilde‘s droll dismissal of controversy wraps it all up nicely and points the way forward: “When the critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.”
In some postmodern milieux it’s common to judge a work of art sight unseen and only by the reactions of others (you’ve done it before, admit it). The Tree of Life lends itself to this vulnerability, for sure. It was alternately booed and cheered by the discriminating cineastes of Cannes, ultimately winning the historic Palme d’Or. Robert De Niro, the head of the prize panel, explained in a very Robert DeNiro way that the film had “the size, the importance, the intention, whatever you want to call it, that seemed to fit the prize.” Roger Ebert wrote a lovely and moving piece about it, the first sentence of which calls it “a form of prayer.” This would be pretty decent praise from anyone but considering Ebert himself has been struggling with his own mortality for several years now, and doing so with grace and dignity, the accolade is especially poignant.
I don’t usually mind getting spoilers before I see a movie for the first time, which probably has more to do with my tendency to be easily confused than a need for surprise. Not to worry – it’s almost impossible to give anything away. Part of the wonder of this film is that the visual style and narrative undulation (the term “arc” just doesn’t do it justice) not only allow for but encourage emotional and intellectual responses which are ultimately the viewer’s own. Certain moments in the film were vivid enough to sting me with recognition and tears came to my eyes. It felt like moments of my childhood reappeared, unbidden, and not the most obvious ones. Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Several people I know well admitted to a similar reaction. There is comfort in that. One of the things which is often asked of art, if not cinema itself, is that it move us, give us grandeur, something of the ineffable. This can be done with either massive, panoramic vistas or with detailed, minute shifts of insight. The Tree Of Life, to Malick’s abiding credit, offers us both.
The narrative centers around a small lower middle class family in east Texas. There are three brothers, one of whom is revealed to have died in unexplained circumstances. Brad Pitt sinks so deeply into his role as the stern, frustrated, ultimately helpless father that you can see what Freud termed “the family romance” flickering behind his thick glasses and masculine scowl. Jessica Chastain’s mother is ethereal, loving, one of nature’s forgiving creatures. This dialectical conflict is subtly set up early on: one side of the parental wall is earthly, ambitious, occasionally brutal in word or gesture, brittle and seething with balked ambition. The other floats in midair in her children’s daydreams, enveloping all the struggle of life with a luminous, beneficent glow. Blessings are all, she suggests, by her mere presence. The boys are boys, pointy of ear and baby fat faces, reflecting the confusion and energy that comes with the humid rush of pre-adolescence. Sean Penn isn’t given a whole lot to work with as the middle aged son mourning his long deceased brother amid the modern-day glaze of skyscrapers in New York but he makes something happen nevertheless. The rest is, well, the rest is the world – a glimpse at the totality of creation itself. The editing is timed to the rhythm of memory – moments simply occur, evolve, glimmer, fade, and disappear. Trying to describe this film’s visual range is like describing a waterfall or a rainbow or the sparkling light cast for a moment on the wall: it can be done, but why not see it for yourself, and on the big screen while you’re at it?
Terrence Malick has often been considered a spiritual director. This is not say he has a particular creed, or even necessarily a belief system, at least none that comes readily to mind. He has a degree in Philosophy from Harvard, taught it at M.I.T, and translated the notoriously dense and mystical Heidegger before going into film. The influence must have stuck with him. There really is something Heideggerian going on in his work. One could sum up the two major themes of his films with just the title of Heidegger’s magnum opus: Being and Time. Malick’s characters inhabit a landscape more than a frame. Their presences register over the looming, incandescent indifference of the world they inhabit. They build, they dwell, they think, in Heideggerian vocabulary. Language is a scattered thing in his films, a groping towards meaning. This aesthetic comes out memorably in Days of Heaven and Badlands, his still- astonishing debut. Accounts of the making of these films reveal years of the director’s prosaic research as well as on-set instructions to spontaneously just drop everything and follow a stream of rippling birds suddenly taking flight.
There’s something mysterious about having been a filmmaker for over thirty years with only a handful of films to your name. Actors beg to be involved and sign up by the dozen for ever-expanding bit parts. Producers are sometimes driven crazy by his relentless perfectionism and visionary drive. His movies can be an experience unto themselves. You walk out with that strange, sober buzz a good film gives you, and inhabit the world of the film’s perception for a little while. Light is more like light, the earth below more compact, and the sky above the buildings is vaster than you ever quite noticed. Every reader is bound to come to any work of art with her own set of tastes, prejudices, and unconscious assumptions. Naturally, she leaves with them as well. Hopefully something has happened in between which causes (at least) a subtle, insistent, almost insubstantial change in the consciousness of the audience. All movies are in some way about seeing, of course, but no one making them or attending them ever sees them in quite the same way. It’s very rare that anything is seen in the way Terrence Malick sees it, which says more about Malick than it does about anyone else.
In the end, watching “The Tree of Life” is best done in a spirit of generosity, curiosity, care, and a healthy dose of plain reverence and awe. Not a bad way to go through life.
My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we’ve rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me – perhaps justly, since I’m the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I’ve been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people’s discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don’t see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a “Free – Take Me” sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I’ll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I’ve apparently taken from other people’s stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I’d be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor’s EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it’s a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]