I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green:I've had the good fortune to read two excellent literary memoirs in the last week or so. This one, and Paul Theroux's Sir Vidia's Shadow. Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties is superbly written. The author's ability to compress this decade of his life into a mere 230 pages is a marvel. Stone has long been considered a writer's writer, still, I would lay odds that some of his nimble phrasing here came from honing these tales at dinner parties and other venues over the years. The book is very funny.
It opens with Stone at the helm of the USS Arneb. At sea he keeps two pictures over his desk: one of Bridget Bardot, the other of the New York City skyline. These he calls the poles of his desire. His descent into yellow journalism is interesting. On discharge he went to work for the New York Daily News, perhaps no worse then than it is today, and later for a few scuzzy National Enquirer-like rags. There he was responsible for headlines such as "Mad Dentist Yanks Girl's Tongue" and "Skydiver Devoured by Starving Birds." He goes to Hollywood with Paul Newman to make his novel A Hall of Mirrors into an apparently bad movie called WUSA. I've never seen it, have you?
He introduces us to Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and other works. I'm very grateful for the introduction because I've always been led to believe Kesey was a charlatan. Au contraire. Stone eulogizes his friend here as a great—if often drug-addled—man of superior learning and charisma. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters are probably most famous for setting off from Northern California in a psychedelic bus for the 1964 New York World's Fair. Neal Cassady was the driver. Yes, that Neal Cassady, Kerouac's friend, the one immortalized in On the Road.
One tale of the Pranksters in Mexico—Kesey was on the run from drug charges—has Cassady clandestinely using a hypodermic to dose a roast pig with LSD and amphetamines, thus sending the many diners—Stone was one—on an unexpected journey. That LSD was originally intended as a Cold War weapon, coming out of CIA-funded studies at Stamford University, and ultimately became a popular drug which "changed the minds" of Baby Boomers and others in many ways during that time of heightened social consciousness, is an irony that resonates to this day.
When Stone goes to Vietnam as a stringer, the narrative grows thin, the prose seems rushed, fragmented. But this is only in the last fifteen pages or so. The rest of the book is quite wonderful....more
What a hoot! A religion started by a bad science-fiction writer. OMG, the greed, the debauchery, the paranoia, the totalitarian re-education camps, thWhat a hoot! A religion started by a bad science-fiction writer. OMG, the greed, the debauchery, the paranoia, the totalitarian re-education camps, the power trips, the murders, the mayhem, the countless lives ruined, the advent of the petty sociopath David Miscavige. And I thought the history of the Roman Catholic church was scandalous. It is, but the Church of Scientology is giving that hoary institution a run for its money —and it's all about the money of course. The Roman Catholic Church has had two millennia in which to refine its all too pleasant modus operandi. The Church of Scientology has achieved its notoriety in about 1/40th of the time. I think most will agree that that's quite a start. Revelatory stuff. You'll be astonished and appalled. Highly recommended....more
Author John Lukacs starts with a description of the funeral in 1900 of the painter Mihály Munkácsy. The huge size of the man's funeral and its elaboraAuthor John Lukacs starts with a description of the funeral in 1900 of the painter Mihály Munkácsy. The huge size of the man's funeral and its elaborateness, Lukacs suggests, says much about the high esteem in which the city held its artists. Such reverence for the artist simply does not exist today. Lukacs then goes into a brief history of each of the city's 10 districts. (There are 23 today.) I enjoyed the descriptive writing, the architectural assessments, the overview of city planning in general (especially when augmented with photos from the web). The sophistication of Budapest at this time is truly stunning. It's the little Paris on the Danube, though distinctly Hungarian in its culture.
My interest in the book grew from reading Gregor Von Rezzori's novel, Memoirs of An Anti-Semite. That astonishing book showed me how very little I know about Eastern Europe, especially the states along the Danube. Lukacs shows us how Pest, once smaller than Buda, grew to dominate the city we know today. He marshals a lot of statistics, and is always careful to show how Budapest stacked up against the other major European cities in 1900. For that is the year he views as the city's high water mark or richest elaboration. We are briskly taken from the tiny Celtic settlement to Rome's establishment of Aquincum on the Buda side--for some reason the Romans did not often cross the river--to the Magyar settlement in 896, the Mongol invasion of 1241, the establishment of the royal seat of the Hungarian kings in the 14th century, the conquest two centuries later by the Ottoman Empire, and the reconquest 145 years later by the Hapsburgs.
There is one laughable passage in which Lukacs suggests that the lack of police evidence of homosexuality means that there was none. This is attributed to the stark masculinity of the local culture. The intimation being, I suppose, that all homosexuals are effeminate. Now, if that isn't bias I don't know what is. Funny, in this one instance he neglects the evidence of neighboring Danube states, a comparison he uses frequently at other times. The author resorts to some cheerleading in Chapter 5, "The Generation of 1900," for Hungarian arts and culture. One finds instances of inflationary prose like this on page 106:
Whether optimists or pessimists, the people of Budapest, even in this bourgeoise period, were expressive. They wore their minds, if not their hearts, on their sleeves. Their concerns, problems, strengths and failures were evident in their conscious expressions of all kinds, rather than suppressed or submerged on subconscious levels.
I find it ridiculous to claim that the citizens of an entire metropolis are without certain basic human psychological traits. Recommended with keen reservations.
PS: Lukacs' comment about Casablanca, directed by Hungarian Michael Curtiz--which he calls an "imbecile movie"--angered me. Granted, the picture's far from perfect. (The sets, for example, seem cheap and flimsy.) But it's Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman! Their performances alone diminish the flaws, if they don't annihilate them altogether....more
A portrait of Hapsburg Vienna about a generation before its dissolution. The monarchy is a class-driven machine producing much punctilio but apparentlA portrait of Hapsburg Vienna about a generation before its dissolution. The monarchy is a class-driven machine producing much punctilio but apparently little in the way of strategic planning. The growth of nationalism among its polyglot population is viewed by Emperor Franz Joseph with trepidation, but ultimately the official attitude is wait and see. We as readers know these nationalist pressures will tear the Empire apart in 1914 when, in Sarajevo, Serb Gavrilo Princep blows a hole in Archduke Franz Ferdinand's neck. But in 1888 the monarchy seems either oblivious or in denial, perhaps a little of both. Only Crown Prince Rudolph and those of his immediate circle possess insight into the unsustainable imperial trajectory.
The Crown Prince is a fascinating paradox. He's well educated and liberal, a noble who's at heart a republican. His fondest wish is to see his kind expunged from state affairs. He knows the government is in desperate need of reform. Yet despite his lofty rank, his legions of admirers, he possesses no real power to effect change. The emperor employs his intelligence apparatus to spy on him. Agents follow him about and monitor his telegrams. The burden of protocol is overwhelming, but Rudolph seems to bear up well until the visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. The occasion is Emperor Franz Joseph's fifty-sixth birthday. Rudolph, who prefers the company of the so-called commoners to the moribund aristocracy, despises Wilhelm for his empty pan-German rhetoric. Yet he must toast him, must follow him about like a puppy, so the Kaiser won't grandstand at this or that reception about the virtues of the Greater Reich. He's stuck in this empty diplomatic role, smiling and toasting a man he despises. He's good at it. His manners are Old World. Understandably, he grows depressed.
There can be no question of Rudolph taking a mistress from among the nobility. His marriage to a cipher was a function of politics, not love. The noble ladies set their sights on him but he is emphatically not interested. Things look bleak indeed. Then he sees Mary Vetsera at one of the few social events where commoners and nobles can intermingle. At the new Court Theater they observe each other with opera glasses. Mary is 18 and Rudolph is 30. He's heard of her, of course. Mary's mother is a skillful social climber who's handed her gifts on to her daughter. Mary's a "lady of fashion" whose every new ensemble makes the society pages. Their liaisons are complex, arranged by a Vetsera family friend. There is much scuttling about labyrinthine corridors, much zigzagging about town to shake persistent tails.
Soon they are both dead from a suicide pact. Mary's corpse is spirited away by family members and buried without ceremony. Rudolph is given a funeral the likes of which are perhaps no longer seen in our day. His death rocks the empire. Of his final messages for others, he leaves not one word, not a syllable, addressed to his father.
The book is a portrait of a vanished era as much as it is a tale of star-crossed lovers. Along with Rudolph and Mary's story we're given a look at the cultural life of Vienna. The artist bios are beautifully compressed. We peek into the young lives of Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo Wolf, and Sigmund Freud--all in their twenties--as well as older established artists like Aaron Bruckner and Johannes Brahms. Vienna is a vast overwrought Baroque wedding cake. Morton brilliantly transforms the boulevard of braggadocio, the new Ringstrasse, into a fitting central metaphor for the posturing and decorum of a vast, fragmenting empire oblivious of the ticking clock. Wonderfully vivid and highly recommended....more
The book is sheer intellection. Naipaul proceeds by letting Muslim converts -- not those who were born to the faith -- speak for themselves. He questiThe book is sheer intellection. Naipaul proceeds by letting Muslim converts -- not those who were born to the faith -- speak for themselves. He questions them pointedly. The monologues are interspersed with sequences of analysis so brilliant, so penetrating, that they consistently astound, at times conveying insights that take the breath away. This is not classic travel narrative. This is not Dalrymple or Theroux, which is not to slight those writers. But there's very little description or sense of landscape here, no colorful characters appear to relieve the considerable tension. For Naipaul's questions are not always easy ones to answer and his interlocutors tend to squirm at times. Rather, one has the sense of being Naipaul, that is to say, of following his rigorous thought process from inception to conclusion. I have never read anything like it. To my mind, it's an entirely new form. That it gives us Muslim points of view is important and necessary, especially today, but it is the book's structure and seamless execution, that is to my mind its true achievement....more