The Life of the City

February 13, 2013 § 12 Comments

A man in my writer’s group often makes the comment that the rough draft of my second memoir could use more plot.  Writing a memoir is a long process of layering, of recalling memories that are revived through old journal entries.  By the end of the process, there is always a plot, but never it seems, before the final draft.

It made me think of all my favorite books.  They don’t follow a traditional narrative arc, but they do capture life itself – ‘Post Office’ by Charles Bukowski, or any book by Henry Miller, for example.

In real life, plot does not take the same shape as in a novel.  It only exists as something to be noticed from many years past.  It’s a narrative device to hold the reader’s interest, a method of pacing and cliffhangers.  In life, we are not aware of the plot until we have reached an entirely different evolution of self.

My second book is difficult to build since it captures the time I spent living in Hoboken, NJ/New York City.  There were always a million things happening at once, much more than what should be captured on the page.  In a three year span I was a poet, a belly dancer, a singer/songwriter on the mandolin, a percussionist in a bossa nova band, a hostess at a popular restaurant, a literary agent, an artist’s assistant for someone famous, a pool player, a coffee drinker, a groupie, and a mad downer of whisky.  I was out every night, and working every day.  Many universes collided, which is part of the fun, and exactly what made it so fascinating to live through.

In New York, the parallel life shifted between being very poor, while often being among the extremely rich.  Within my tribe there was a great deal of tension within the “us verses them”.  We despised the rich.  Abused them if they came within our dive bar territory.  And yet, we often depended on the rich to get by.  To play those games, you had to pretend to be someone you weren’t.  There was a massive growing process that took place within that struggle, and a process of letting go.

This week I read Ernest Hemingway’s mostly memoir ‘A Moveable Feast’.  It’s the first book by Hemingway that I have ever enjoyed, and I’m surprised that I gave him another chance.  I never lose faith in him, though I don’t like any of his novels (minimalism, no adjectives, run-on sentences, bare expanses, macho posturing).

Of ‘A Moveable Feast’ Hemingway writes, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction.  But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Is there a plot in this book?  Of course not.  It’s a love letter to Paris and his time spent with Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the love he shared with his first wife Hadley, and their baby, Bumby (including Bumby’s babysitter, a cat named F. Puss).

Hemingway makes Fitzgerald sound like a tiresome alcoholic with a cuckold for a wife; Zelda, a wife jealous of her husband’s talent who makes him drink to distract him from his craft; Stein, an egomaniac with no patience for women other than Alice.  To get through it all, Hemingway drinks plenty of whiskies with soda and lemon juice (a delicious drink).  And then, just when you feel he’s really had enough, supreme, in all of this, is the joy of being a writer in a city like Paris.

“The blue-backed notebooks, the two pencils and the pencil sharpener (a pocket knife was too wasteful), the marble-topped tables, the smell of early morning, sweeping out and mopping, and luck were all you needed (Hemingway, 91).”

By the end of the book, you feel the sadness that Hemingway experienced at the loss of this world he inhabited, and his young family.  The rich were drawn to his success and left him feeling empty.  Other women drew him away from Hadley and filled him with regret.  But in the end, there was always Paris.

“We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached.  Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.  But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy (Hemingway, 211).”

In ‘A Moveable Feast’ the place becomes the plot.  No matter how many people pass through, or how quickly they appear and then disappear.  This is the life of the city: a constant rotation of people and experiences that you should never expect to last.  But it’s beautiful while you are at the center, watching the menagerie orbit around you.

Why Art Will Always Be Literary

December 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

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            I have just finished reading The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe and my mind is spinning with the insanity of the Modern Art world.  I’ve always loved Modern Art, but suspected that something was flawed with the movements heaped upon movements and the over-intensity of new theories at every turn.  Pieces became more a dissection of art than a complete work to be enjoyed.

            Art has always been and always will be a reflection of our culture.  The twentieth century was a story of mass consumption and the obsession with the newest, best, latest thing.  Suddenly realistic painting was not cool.  “Literary became a code word for all that seemed hopelessly retrograde about realistic art…  The idea was that half the power of realistic painting comes not from the artist but from the sentiments the viewer hauls along to it (Wolfe, 5).” 

So strip away the story and the vision and all the things that allow us to emotionally connect to a piece of art.  Subtract until all you have is color and unrecognizable form and absolute flatness.  Build a pile of overlapping theories that sit in the corner like dirty laundry.  Then you have the truly bohemian disease; the disease that keeps the artist from becoming a success.

            Few artists can make the leap from, what Wolfe calls, “The Boho Dance” to “Consummation.”  Few can genuinely double-track between their anti-bourgeois values while kissing the ass of the bourgeois.  But who else buys the art?

            Picasso was an enormously talented painter but so was Georges Braque.  Today we remember Picasso as the great master while Braque remains that neighbor he chatted about Cubism with.  Braque clung to his bohemian values and was never going to let go.  Picasso, however, adapted to wealth and used it to the advantage of his art.  He was versatile and knew he had to constantly evolve as an artist and a man. This is what made him great and gave him such a diverse body of work.

            Jackson Pollock, in his time, was lauded by the critic Clement Greenberg as, “the most powerful painter in contemporary America.”  But he couldn’t sell a painting, never evolved past the drip-phase, and “… one night he arrives drunk at Peggy Guggenheim’s house during a party for a lot of swell people.  So he takes off his clothes in another room and comes walking into the living room stark naked and urinates in the fireplace (Wolf, 57).”  I kind of love him for that.

            Within Pollock’s personal values also lies the art that cannot be understood without the theories that go with it.  Otherwise you might just look at his work and think, “Well, his mind must have been a mess.”  Which leads us back to where realism left off.  “Modern art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text (Wolfe, 5).” 

The difference is that in twentieth century art, only a very small group knew the text behind the art – the artists themselves and a small group of collectors.  But in realism we all have the text to bring to the art – realism is all-inclusive.  This is why it’s so hard to sell abstract art.  “They will always prefer realistic art instead – as long as someone in authority assures them that it is (a) new, and (b) not realistic (Wolfe, 65).” 

            I usually have no money to my name.  But I am still often driven to buy art, and will find a way (layaway plans) if I love something enough.  Great art tells a story that you can get lost in.  This is timeless.  The same goes for literature.  I’ve never liked Hemingway because he is an abstract writer.  He only puts ten percent of the story onto the page.  It reads so dry and empty – whereas his personal letters were full and rich and honest and true, as he would put it. 

            After all the Abstract Expressionism came the relief of Pop Art.  Art was fun again.  The paintings still had the same flatness of abstract art but with recognizable images from everyday life – American flags, soup cans, comic books, celebrities.  Collectors bought it up and who was more cutting edge or as obsessed with the rich than Andy Warhol?  His work was new, and not quite completely realistic.  The Bourgeois ate him up with a silver spoon.

 

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