Saturday, March 21, 2015

Artists Are Members of a Privileged Class @ SF Theater Pub Blog

I'm rereading Tom Stoppard's Travesties tonight (for a very cool reason which I am not yet at liberty to disclose) and I have to say that it makes for very interesting reading in light of what I wrote for the Theater Pub blog earlier this week.

My Theater Pub piece is about living in an age when "count your blessings" has turned into "check your privilege," acknowledging that being an artist is itself a privilege, and wondering if anything short of total social revolution will change that.

And then I start rereading a play in which Vladimir Lenin, James Joyce, and Tristan Tzara debate art and revolution with Henry Carr, a privileged British guy who'd rather talk about his Savile Row suits than about the carnage of World War I. Despite that, he gets in some rather trenchant commentary on art and privilege.

Some choice quotes from Travesties:

"To be an artist at all is like living in Switzerland during a world war." (Carr)

"Art created patrons and was corrupted. It began to celebrate the ambitions and acquisitions of the paymaster." (Tzara)

"Revolution in art is in no way connected with class revolution. Artists are members of a privileged class. Art is absurdly overrated by artists, which is understandable, but what is strange is that it's absurdly overrated by everyone else. [...] What is an artist? For every thousand people there's nine hundred doing the work, ninety doing well, nine doing good, and one lucky bastard who's the artist." (Carr)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The House of Mitford and the House of Black

As I mentioned, when I was up in Oregon last month, I holed up for several days at the Sylvia Beach Hotel. For my first four nights, I stayed in the Virginia Woolf room, which had a kind of French Provincial décor modeled after Woolf's country house, and on my last night I moved to the J. K. Rowling room. I worried that this room might feel too cartoonish and juvenile, but I actually LOVED it: it had a cozy canopy bed with red satin curtains, a beautiful antique drop-front desk, and plenty of memorabilia to make you feel like you're in Gryffindor Tower. I quickly got into the spirit of things, saying "Hello, Hedwig" to the plush snowy owl in its cage, and waving Hermione Granger's wand around while saying "Expecto Patronum!"

I also started re-reading Book 7 of Harry Potter, which I hadn't read since it came out. (Here's my post from August 2007 about my history with the Harry Potter series and my first impressions of Book 7.) At the same time, I was re-reading Hons and Rebels, Jessica Mitford's autobiography. (I first read it in May 2008.) I'd brought it to the coast with me because I sensed that on my Reading/Writing/Thinking retreat, it might be inspiring to read about a courageous, funny, rebellious woman. I also liked the connection that Jessica Mitford is J.K. Rowling's personal heroine (she named her first daughter "Jessica" in her honor).

Indeed, as I simultaneously re-read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and Hons and Rebels, I spotted a detail in Rowling's book that I'm convinced was drawn from Mitford's. In the prologue to Hons and Rebels, Mitford writes, memorably, "In the windows [of my mother's house], still to be seen, are swastikas carved into the glass with a diamond ring, and for every swastika a carefully delineated hammer and sickle. They were put there by my sister Unity and myself when we were children." Later, she describes the room that she and Unity shared -- divided exactly down the middle, one half of it filled with Unity's Fascist memorabilia and literature, and the other half with Jessica's Communist stuff.

I couldn't help thinking of this when I got to Chapter 10 of Deathly Hallows, which describes the teenage bedrooms of Sirius Black and his brother Regulus at Grimmauld Place: "Sirius seemed to have gone out of his way to annoy his parents. There were several large Gryffindor banners, faded scarlet and gold, just to underline his difference from all the rest of the Slytherin family. There were many pictures of Muggle motorcycles, and also (Harry had to admire Sirius's nerve) several posters of bikini-clad Muggle girls." Meanwhile, "[though] Sirius had sought to advertise his difference from the rest of the family, Regulus had striven to emphasize the opposite. The Slytherin colors of emerald and silver were everywhere, draping the bed, the walls, and the windows. The Black family crest was painstakingly painted over the bed, along with its motto, Toujours Pur."

I need hardly point out that there's a connection between the Toujours Pur motto, Voldemort's ideas of magical blood purity, and Nazi racial ideology; nor that Gryffindor's colors, like Soviet Russia's, are scarlet and gold. In the scheme of the novel, Sirius Black basically is Jessica Mitford, and his cousins Bellatrix and Narcissa are basically Unity and Diana Mitford. (Bellatrix and Unity = mentally unstable, with a twisted, unrequited love for the Big Villain; Narcissa and Diana = beautiful cool blondes, married to the Big Villain's loyal lieutenant.)

It seems so obvious now, but I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't been re-reading Mitford and Rowling's books simultaneously -- in a canopy bed in a simulacrum of Gryffindor Tower.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Three Brief Reviews of Three Brief Books

Hello! Apologies for my long absence. In mid-February, I was off the grid on a week-long vacation; and for the past two weeks, I've been trying to recover from a lingering head cold.

On my vacation, I stayed at the literary-themed Sylvia Beach Hotel on the Oregon coast, in the Virginia Woolf and J.K. Rowling rooms -- so naturally, I found myself reading the books that were on hand there.

I'm also participating in a year-long book-reading contest with some friends, and every little bit counts...

Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf by Mary Ann Caws
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In this short bio, Mary Ann Caws depicts Virginia Woolf as an enthusiastic, thoughtful woman who cherished her friends -- counter-balancing the stereotypical image of Woolf as depressed and suicidal. But in so doing, Caws neglects Woolf's work as a novelist and essayist, which, after all, is what made her famous and why we still care about her. If I recall correctly, this book mentions Mrs. Dalloway only in passing and doesn't discuss A Room of One's Own at all, and those are two of Woolf's most notable works. Instead, it feels like most of the book describes the bohemian habits and complicated relationships of the Bloomsbury Group. One perk of this book is that it's lavishly illustrated with vintage photos of all of the people it mentions. But ultimately, it gives you a much better sense of Woolf's milieu than of her own life or her writing.

The Tales of Beedle the BardThe Tales of Beedle the Bard by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As literary fairy tales, the five Tales of Beedle the Bard are far from the most interesting ones I've ever read -- some of them wear their influences too obviously, e.g. "Babbitty Rabbitty" is clearly modeled on "The Emperor's New Clothes." But it's always charming to spend time in the Wizarding World, especially in the company of the beloved Albus Dumbledore, who provides criticism and commentary on each of the five tales. The most interesting element of this book is the "Postmodernism for Kids" aspect of it: it is presented as being written hundreds of years ago by Beedle the Bard, translated recently by Hermione Granger, with Dumbledore's commentary, an introduction by J.K. Rowling, and footnotes by both Dumbledore and Rowling. If I ever have children, I might want to give them this book as an introduction to concepts like intertextuality, literary criticism, subtext, metafiction, etc.

Now All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That WayNow All We Need is a Title: Famous Book Titles and How They Got That Way by André Bernard
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Did you know that John Steinbeck originally wanted to give Of Mice and Men the laughably bad title Something That Happened? Or that both Dorothy Parker and Dashiell Hammett's publisher thought that The Maltese Falcon was a terrible title? Those pieces of title-related trivia, and many more, can be found in this little compendium. One can see how this kind of book would be more useful before the Internet existed (nowadays this would be a Buzzfeed list, not a book), and it feels like the publisher had to pad it out to even get it to be over 100 pages, but it's nice to be reminded that while certain famous book titles may sound inevitable to us now, some of them were anything but.

View all my reviews