I'm endlessly attracted to artistic process, sometimes even more than finished pieces, and so I enjoyed meandering through these "sketchbooks," glimpsI'm endlessly attracted to artistic process, sometimes even more than finished pieces, and so I enjoyed meandering through these "sketchbooks," glimpsing into various creative processes. What becomes immediately clear is what the term "sketchbook" actually means varies widely from artist to artist—and that's both part of the strength and occasional frustration of the book overall.
Large and substantial in size, handsomely bound, intelligently curated, and stylishly organized....more
A modest achievement and enjoyable, but not much more. It needed to either fully embrace its pulpier elements, or commit to more pages than the lengthA modest achievement and enjoyable, but not much more. It needed to either fully embrace its pulpier elements, or commit to more pages than the length of a novella allows. As is, it feels somewhat like a treatment for a film—which makes some sense, as the search for an idea on which to base a film script is a major plot point—with the characters, "exotic" colonial African setting, and melodramatic plot turns all feeling too broadly sketched, outlines awaiting the kind of vivid details and insights that make for something truly memorable.
At the same time, what is there is deftly handled; Maugham, the nephew of W. Somerset, clearly possesses the family knack for engaging storytelling, and I'm certainly still interested in reading his most famous work, The Servant. But even if it's no lost masterpiece, I'm glad Valancourt Books has brought it back into print (in a handsomely produced edition, per usual), and also glad I read it—it's the type of novel that helps fill out my understanding of how queer-inflected stories could be handled at a certain point in time, and the type of queer content a reader might possibly cross paths with in popular literature. In their own way the middling and the mid-range can give us just as much insight into an era, and a literary tradition, as the unqualified triumphs.
"But one must accept limitations and exploit such talent as one has. I have a flair for what entertains, and I write my scripts with a slight American accent that brings in dollars. I do not write my scripts as an artist because I am not an artist... why should I worry?"...more
Read with a group of friends in conjunction with a viewing of the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Experiencing both film and essayRead with a group of friends in conjunction with a viewing of the Oscar-nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro. Experiencing both film and essay collection in tandem, what kept coming to mind over and over was Jan Kott’s influential phrase “Shakespeare, our contemporary,” which forwards the idea that every generation discovers some aspect of the Bard that seems to speak specifically and almost peculiarly to them, making him feel continuously contemporaneous. Well, I couldn’t get the revised phrase “James Baldwin, our contemporary” out of my mind, as thirty years after his passing his work continues to thunder with the blistering, clear-throated immediacy as if being issued this very moment from twitter or a blog.
Certainly, some of the specific topics of analysis are specifically of its era, and the terminology is very much of its time as well. But Baldwin was an intersectional thinker—able to recognize how race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, etc are all inextricably intertwined—long before the term became a term to toss about in internet think pieces, lending a suppleness to his ideas that allow them to be easily, often uncannily transposed to our current moment. The appearance of Raoul Peck’s long-awaited documentary at the end of 2016 couldn’t have occurred at a more apt moment: we need Baldwin more than ever.
I still generally prefer Baldwin the fiction writer to Baldwin the essayist, but just as a large source of the power of his novels lie in their autobiographical inflection, it is the pieces in this collection that are most autobiographical that were for me the strongest (my favorites being title essay, “Stranger in a Village,” and “Journey to Atlanta”). Trying to think through larger social/political/cultural issues by offering up one’s subjective experiences as a lens is nothing new in critical writing, and has become more or less ubiquitous now, but few have ever been able to it as convincingly or with as much intricacy or nuance as Baldwin.
Was essential then, is essential now.
“One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experience. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.” ...more
Bram’s fictionalized account of the last weeks of iconic horror director James Whale—most famous for creating the original Frankenstein and Bride of FBram’s fictionalized account of the last weeks of iconic horror director James Whale—most famous for creating the original Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein—can be enjoyed on any number of levels, but what I found so exquisite is how Bram handles his story like a prism or a crystal, constantly discovering unexpected facets to refract his narrative through: a representation of midcentury sexual mores, a glimpse behind the curtains of the early days of the Hollywood studio system, a defense of the important role art plays in making life meaningful, a dramatization of the long-lingering traumas of the World Wars, a depiction of the experience of aging in a society that values youth and “now”-ness above all else. It is the last dynamic, I admit, that most captivated me, its poignancy smoothing over the occasional clunkiness of the flashbacks. But overall it’s a very beautiful evocation of what can happen when a long and rich lifetime of experiences falls prey to an aging, infirmed body.
The tentative, unexpected pas de deux between Whale and his yard man Clayton Boone—all disaffected, rage-y midcentury blue collar white man who feels vaguely gypped by the world—is gracefully rendered, often foregoing expected narrative pathways to explore more unpredictable territories of desire and eroticism and human connection. Bram is also a careful scholar, and there are some delightful cameo appearances and other wonderful references and bits of trivia for the cinephilically inclined reader to savor, even though such foreknowledge is by no means necessary (indeed, I imagine it would just align one more with the character of Boone).
Gay literature and culture, like so much else, has a tendency to fetishize the presence and perspectives of youth, and so it was wonderful to find in Bram’s characterization of Whale a great gay character of a certain age—complicated and not without sadness but certainly not tragic, elegantly balancing the deep, sometimes harsh wisdom of maturity with a disarming rapier wit. I have not yet seen the 1998 film adaptation, which in some ways is even more widely acclaimed, but will be rectifying the situation soon.
'Before I retired, you might say I had a brief time in the sun. Fame, as it were. I used to make talking pictures…'
It takes Clay a moment to realize he means movies. 'You were an actor?'
'Oh, no. Nothing that grand. Only a director.'
[The actual James Whale and his infamous cinematic progeny.]...more
I wrote a long analysis of the delightful, sadly forgotten Going Somewhere on my blog Queer Modernisms, which can be found here.
An excerpt: "Max EwingI wrote a long analysis of the delightful, sadly forgotten Going Somewhere on my blog Queer Modernisms, which can be found here.
An excerpt: "Max Ewing’s effervescent Going Somewhere, as fizzy as the champagne that had been newly (re)legalized the year of its publication, is primarily remembered today as one of a handful of novels published in the publication industry’s efforts to capitalize on the “Pansy Craze” of the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The placement of Ewing’s text within this category can considered something of a historical coincidence, however, as the text deals directly with queer subject matter only in several brief, ultimately fleeting passages, something in marked contrast to other “Pansy Craze” novels, almost all which uniformly foreground queer characters and/or experiences.
Rather, in style, content, and tone, the novel is much more in line with the type of breezy high-society romps that Carl Van Vechten specialized in throughout the 1920’s. Van Vechten’s novels are themselves endlessly queer affairs, of course, though more in regards to sensibility and milieu than in regards to any type of sustained reference or focus on queer individuals or behaviors. Going Somewhere employs a similar approach, which is no surprise since Van Vechten was Ewing’s mentor and close friend."
To my mind the allusion of the title—to the beloved Astaire/Rogers RKO musical from 1936—is much more than a resonant reference to the protagonist’s lTo my mind the allusion of the title—to the beloved Astaire/Rogers RKO musical from 1936—is much more than a resonant reference to the protagonist’s lifelong passion for the classic Hollywood movies, but actually signals the overall structure and spirit of the book: this a novel of movement and rhythm and not precision, of giddy expansiveness and not meticulousness.
And as anybody who watches and loves musicals know, imperfection is just part and parcel of the form: that single bummer song in a score, one routine that just doesn’t quite come off, a narratively jarring pretext for a dance number, retrogressive attitudes and social behaviors that mar technically flawless scenes. Smith’s Swing Time functioned very similarly for me: some of the storylines riveted me, others made me long for more judicious editing. Characters I wanted to get to know better would disappear off of stage right and cede the stage to less compelling ones. But that is kind of the beauty of the entire enterprise: this is a big, messy, sprawling novel full of ideas and subplots and individual moments of sparkling radiance—but sometimes one has to accept some of the rote stuff needed to string them all together. And my god, those moments when everything comes together: just magical. And I found more than enough of them to keep me reading through some 450+ pages.
Perhaps I’m coming off too much as an apologist—and I fully admit to being a Zadie Smith fanboy—but I’m also instinctually sympathetic to what I sense is the overall project. Like many great writers before her Smith has opted to hone a more rigorous analytic style for literary and cultural criticism (see her excellent collection Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays) while fiction continues to serve as a realm for experimentation. No, Swing Time is not a masterpiece, but it feels quite obvious to me that Smith is moving toward one—like the dancers she celebrates through the novel Smith is feeling out prose rhythms, stretching stylistic muscle, undergoing the hard work necessary to scale the dizzying heights of the extraordinary (one need only recall, say, the multi-volume process implied between the raw talent of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out and the indisputable mastery of Mrs. Dalloway and after; I suspect Smith is on a similar trajectory).
And I get it—not everyone particularly wants to see what goes on behind the curtains and between the acts. Fair enough. But I certainly wouldn’t want to miss it myself.
“She measured time in pages. Half an hour, to her, meant ten pages read, or fourteen, depending on the size of the type, and when you think of time in this way there isn’t time left for anything else…” ...more