Monday, June 20, 2005


Althorp, Kabbalah cretins, Lowell, two books, Human Stain on film

First, some breaking news from Althorp House, where the Spencer clan has hung its hat for more than five centuries. This imposing estate in Northamptonshire also happens to be the site of the Althorp Literary Festival, now in its second year. Richard Jinman's report in the Guardian makes much of the upscale decor (Andrea Levy declares herself more at home in the servants quarters, away from all those oppressive marble busts and Old Masters). But what really caught my eye was a paragraph about how Lady Caroline Spencer has called in various favors to get the festival on its feet. Logrolling is an international phenom, of course, but it sounds so much more glamorous when the English do it: "Her friends include Big Brother presenter Davina McCall, who was kept busy yesterday interviewing another of Lady Spencer's friends, Helen Fielding. Richard Curtis is Lady Spencer's former brother-in-law--she used to be married to PR supremo Matthew Freud--and Curtis's wife, Emma Freud, was Levy's onstage interlocutor yesterday." Oh, that PR supremo.

Gershom Scholem is doubtless spinning in his grave at the news that the Kabbalah Center in Los Angeles--a celebrity petting zoo stocked with such big-name exhibits as Demi Moore, Ashton Kutcher, and Britney Spears--will be teaming up with Madonna (whoops, I mean Esther) to promote its own brand of bottled water. You just can't make this stuff up. But that's not the worst of it. The founders of the center, Philip and Karen Berg, are concerned that the Jewish mystical tradition is, well, too Jewish, and requires a firm shove into the mainstream. Makes sense, doesn't it? Why bother with the Ten Sefirot or the hidden essence of God when you can peddle red strings to every teenager in America? And those kids will need reading material as well: "Trying to cut the cult from its Jewish roots, [the Bergs] used Craigslist to solicit freelance ghostwriters to help them write 'scholarly' Kabbalah books." The good news: if you buy the book and the bottled water in a single, shrinkwrapped gift pack, they throw in a branded dreidel.

On a more inspiring note, Jonathan Raban has written an eloquent piece about The Letters of Robert Lowell in the latest New York Review of Books. He's very shrewd on the matter of Lowell's reputation, which has sagged pretty seriously since the poet's death in 1977. For example, I had never considered the ways in which Ian Hamilton's biography (which Raban does call "indispensable") subtly takes its subject down a notch by stressing his manic antics: "Where most of the people closest to Lowell saw him as a sane man cruelly afflicted by intermittent bouts of mania, Hamilton was inclined to see his life as one of overwhelming madness punctuated by spells of sanity." In any case, Raban loves the book. Lowell, he asserts, is "one of the finest letter writers in modern literature," and I would absolutely agree. Stick this on the shelf next to the Wilson-Nabokov correspondence, Randall Jarrell's Letters, and Elizabeth Bishop's One Art. (I'm sure there are plenty of others, but I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet.)

"Isobel, who with her leaping breasts / Pursued me through a Summer." Quick quiz: who wrote those lines? Turns out to be Auden, who later said they were the worst he had ever produced, and added that they would have made a perfect caption for a Thurber cartoon. I came across that gem in Humphrey Carpenter's W.H. Auden: A Life, which I've been thumbing through before bed. I've also been reading David Ferry's new translation of The Georgics of Virgil, and have gotten this apocalyptic bit stuck in my head like a Top Forty tune:
At twilight, in the evening, ghosts were seen,
Or strange pale simulacra of human beings;
In a silent grove--many attested to this--
A loud voice was suddenly heard to speak;
And animals, too, were suddenly heard to speak--
Unspeakable!--with the voices of men and women.
Odd. I can't read Latin, so I don't know if the passive, halting, circular sound is true to the original, but it's working for me.

Finally, I watched The Human Stain on DVD the other night. It might have worked better as a piece of radio theater. That way, I wouldn't have noticed that Anthony Hopkins wasn't black, or that Gary Sinise wasn't an elderly Jewish writer, or that Nicole Kidman wasn't a homely janitor. In fact Kidman was the most persuasive of the three. On the other hand, she was saddled with the worst scene in the entire film--a cri-de-coeur addressed to a caged crow, which kept tilting its head in disbelief--so I had to dock her another ten points. Yes, I understand that Coleman Silk was passing as a white man. But Hopkins seems so quintessentially Caucasian that I couldn't accept his negritude for a single instant--even Yoda strikes me as a more realistic character. Maybe they should have paid the extra money and gotten Dana Carvey.

Marcus's suggestion that "The Human Stain" might have worked better as a radio play than as a movie brought to mind Greil Marcus's "Real Life Top Ten" column in Salon, January 8, 2001. Here is the relevant entry in its (lengthy) entirety:

January 08, 2001 | 1) Arliss Howard, "The Human Stain by Philip Roth" (Houghton Mifflin audio books)

Album of the year? This is it: unabridged, eight cassettes, 14 1/2 hours and a tour de force by an actor less known for his roles in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar!" and "Tales of Erotica" than for his marriage to Debra Winger. Winger has a small role in "The Human Stain"; all it does is throw Howard's performance into relief. He contrives different voices for different characters, and many different voices for different incarnations of the same character, without ever seeming to do so, without ever losing an overall narrative authority. It's as if, somewhere behind all the acting, Howard himself were the real author of Roth's novel. With not a word missing, this means a lot of ruminating, a lot of philosophy, repetitions that on the page can seem like a whisper and that spoken out loud can sound stupid. With Howard speaking, the same phrases, the same ideas coming up again and again, work in the listener's mind not as irritations, but as reminders, as part of the listener's own memory. This is the perfect companion for a long, long driving trip -- but be sure to time the end of the trip to the end of the story. Otherwise you'll be left stranded, wondering what you're doing so many miles from home, no place to be when, as at the end of Howard's reading, all of life comes crashing down.
After I saw saw the Human Stain I wondered about the bad reviews I had a sense it had received—which is to say I liked it very much. I thought Nicole Kidman's performance was brave and riveting. The issue of Anthony Hopkins ("quintessentially Caucasian") passing as Black was not a problem— I thought about people like Anatole Broyard. Even Ed Harris was convincing in his role

It does go to show how deeply subjective our apprehensions are, doesn't it?

And the reference to Greil Marcus's review of the Human Stain audio shows his ignorance of Arliss Howard's CV —Mr Winger directed and acted in a very fine film,Big Bad Love, which was based on a collection of Larry Brown stories.
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