Online course: American Cinema in the 70s: A New Look at New Hollywood

AMERICAN CINEMA IN THE 70s:
A NEW LOOK AT NEW HOLLYWOOD

A 12-WEEK ONLINE COURSE
(March-May, 2021)

PRESENTED BY MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

The 1970s is one of the richest periods in American film history. In this original 12-week online course, to be delivered via the Google Meet platform, we’ll study 16 key films of the New Hollywood era from such essential directors as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, Elaine May, Arthur Penn, Sam Peckinpah, Sidney Poitier, John Huston, Orson Welles, George Lucas and William Friedkin.

The lectures will explore these films through the stories of their production and in the wider context of American society, history, and politics. We’ll examine the transformation of traditional genres such as the western and the detective film, and the massive changes in the film industry before the rise of the blockbuster era. We’ll also examine the careers of the major directors and writers.

Classes are limited to a maximum of 12 students. Each week I’ll give an original fifty-minute multimedia lecture on a set film and theme and then lead an in-depth group discussion. All participants will have a chance to contribute. The only weekly homework will be to watch a film (or two) in preparation for the session. There will be no final exam or essay. This course is designed purely for enjoyment and discovery. All are welcome.

I will be running two identical sessions each week to accommodate different international time zones. Choose whichever you prefer:

American session: Sundays 12pm PT/3pm ET.
European session: Tuesdays 7:30pm GMT/8:30pm CET.

(NB. The lecture portion of the session will be recorded and available for download if you are unable to attend a live session and need to catch up.)

Price per student: US$120. Please email me at matthewaspreygear@gmail.com to book your place in the course.

LECTURE PLAN

March 7th (US)/9th (EU)
Lecture 1: The Dawn of New Hollywood
Movie: FIVE EASY PIECES (Bob Rafelson, 1970)

March 14th (US)/16th (EU)
Lecture 2: The Revisionist Western
Movie: BUCK AND THE PREACHER (Sidney Poitier, 1972) & ULZANA’S RAID (Robert Aldrich, 1972)

March 21st (US)/23rd (EU)
Lecture 3: Nixon at the Movies
Movie: THE CONVERSATION (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974)

March 28th (US)/30th (EU)
Lecture 3: The Nostalgia Industry
Movies: FAT CITY (John Huston, 1972) & AMERICAN GRAFFITI (George Lucas, 1973)

**ONE WEEK BREAK**

April 11th (US)/13th (EU)
Lecture 5: Men and Women on the Road
Movies: SCARECROW (Jerry Schatzberg, 1973) & ALICE DOESN’T LIVE HERE ANYMORE (Martin Scorsese, 1974)

April 18th (US)/20th (EU)
Lecture 6: New Hollywood and its Discontents
Movie: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (Orson Welles, 1970-6/2018)
Special Guest (US session): Josh Karp, author of Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind and co-producer of the Netflix documentary They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead.

April 25th (US)/27th (EU)
Lecture 7: Winning Streaks
Movie: CALIFORNIA SPLIT (Robert Altman, 1974) & MIKEY AND NICKY (Elaine May, 1976)

May 2nd (US)/4th (EU)
Lecture 8: Crimes on the Edge of America
Movie: NIGHT MOVES (Arthur Penn, 1975)

May 9th (US) /11th (EU)
Lecture 9: Transgressing the Border
Movie: BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA (Sam Peckinpah, 1974)

May 16th (US)/18th (EU)
Lecture 10: The Wages of Fear
Movie: SORCERER (William Friedkin, 1977)

May 23rd (US)/25th (EU)
Lecture 11: Napalm in the Morning
Movie: HEARTS OF DARKNESS: A FILMMAKER’S APOCALYPSE (Fax Bahr/George Hickenlooper/Eleanor Coppola, 1991)

May 30th (US)/June 1st (EU)
Lecture 12: Permanent Vietnam
Movie: CUTTER’S WAY (Ivan Passer, 1981)

Online Orson Welles course: The Other Side of The Shadow

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THE OTHER SIDE OF THE SHADOW:
A NEW LOOK AT ORSON WELLES

A 12-WEEK ONLINE COURSE
(March-May, 2021)

PRESENTED BY MATTHEW ASPREY GEAR

This original 12-week online course, delivered via the Google Meet platform, is designed for serious Orson Welles fans as well as newcomers. We’re going to have a lot of fun as we dive deeply into the work of one of the 20th century’s greatest filmmakers.

My lectures will cover the obvious Welles classics — Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, and Chimes at Midnight — but will also explore some of the lesser-known films and TV programs, including many works that have appeared posthumously (and many unproduced screenplays that have never been published). I’m also eager to share the discoveries I’ve made in the Orson Welles archives in Turin, Munich, Michigan, and Indiana.

Each week I’ll give an original fifty-minute multimedia lecture on a set film and topic and then lead an in-depth group discussion. All students will have a chance to contribute. The only weekly homework will be to watch a film (or two) in preparation for the session. Many of the films are easily available on YouTube. There will be no final exam or essay. This course is designed purely for enjoyment and discovery. All are welcome.

I will be running two identical sessions each week to accommodate different international time zones. Choose whichever you prefer. Each group will be limited to a maximum of 12 students.

American session: Sundays 3pm PT/6pm ET
European session: Mondays 7:30pm GMT/8:30pm CET.

(NB. The lecture portion of the session will be recorded and available for download if you are unable to attend a live session and need to catch up.)

Price per student: US$120. Please email me at matthewaspreygear@gmail.com to book your place in the course.

LECTURE PLAN

INTRODUCTION

March 7 (US)/8 (EU)
Lecture 1: The Myths and the Man
Movie: MAGICIAN: THE ASTONISHING LIFE AND WORK OF ORSON WELLES (documentary, 2014)

A: WELLES’S STYLE AND METHODS

March 14 (US)/15 (EU)
Lecture 2: Orson and Film Noir
Movie: THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947)

March 21 (US)/22 (EU)
Lecture 3: Inventing Independent Film
Movies: FILMING OTHELLO (1978); ORSON WELLES: ONE-MAN BAND (documentary, 1995)]

March 28 (US)/29 (EU)
Lecture 4: The Essay Film
Movie: F FOR FAKE (1973); PORTRAIT OF GINA (TV special, 1958)

** ONE-WEEK BREAK **

April 11 (US)/12 (EU)
Lecture 5: Return to Hollywood
Movie: THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND (1970-76/2018)

B: WELLES’S WORLD

April 18 (US)/19 (EU)
Lecture 6: Orson’s 19th Century: Dinesen, Conrad, and Melville
Movie: THE IMMORTAL STORY (1968); Screenplay reading: THE DREAMERS (c. 1979)

April 25 (US)/26 (EU)
Lecture 7: Orson Across Europe
Movie: MR. ARKADIN (1955)

May 2 (US)/3 (EU)
Lecture 8: Orson’s Spain
Movies: AROUND THE WORLD WITH ORSON WELLES: PAYS BASQUE I (TV episode, 1955); IN THE LAND OF DON QUIXOTE: TEMPO DI FLAMENCO (TV episode, 1964)

C: WELLES AND LITERATURE

May 9 (US)/10 (EU)
Lecture 9: Adaptation
Movie: THE TRIAL (1962)

May 16 (US)/17 (EU)
Lecture 10: Shakespeare
Movie: CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT (1965)

D: WELLES AND AMERICA

May 23 (US)/24 (EU)
Lecture 11: Power in the Streets
Movie: TOUCH OF EVIL (1958)

May 30 (US)/31 (EU)
Lecture 12: The Post-Lincoln Republic
Movie: THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942) and CITIZEN KANE (1941)

*

STUDENT COMMENTS
 
“The Orson Welles online course The Other Side of the Shadow by Matthew Asprey Gear offers an inspiring overview of the work, inspiration, and drives of a world-class filmmaker whose relevance is often reduced to a few early-career masterpieces. I can only recommend it!”
– Matthijs Wouter Knol, CEO and Director, European Film Academy
 
“Matthew is an excellent researcher and lecturer. He put Welles and his films into a fascinating historical context that has greatly enhanced my viewing experience.”
Charles
 
“The class was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the lesser known details of Welles’s career and to discourse over his films with like-minded enthusiasts!” 
Tyler, Chicago
 
“Matthew is very generous in sharing the fruits of the deep archival research he has done on Orson Welles. His expertise about his subject is plain to see and his thorough command of knowledge about Welles reaches well beyond the man’s work as a filmmaker to the many other media he worked in (theatre, television, radio, etc.). Matthew’s lectures are deeply informative and visually interesting. He is particularly good at drawing hidden thematic and historical connections between seemingly disparate projects in Welles’s work, helping to reveal the kernels of new ways to think about Welles as an artist. He is a great facilitator of the conversation portion of the class, helping to keep the conversation lively and guiding us toward stimulating subjects.”
Jesse
 
“Matthew Asprey Gear’s 12-week course was an opportunity to have an expert guide lead me through both familiar and obscure corners of Welles’s work. The format was an inviting way for both Welles neophytes and old Wellesians to join in a learning community and explore the unendingly fascinating films and life of a great artist.”
Josh, Texas
 
“It’s Terrific! Matthew Asprey Gear brings a wealth of Orson Welles research from firsthand sources and illuminates even the most ardent Welles fans. Come for the informative deep-dive lectures and stay for the lively discussions about Welles’ s many noses, wigs, cheap sets, and bad accents — and of course, the undeniable genius present in most of his films.”
Christian, Fort Lauderdale
 
“I highly recommend Matthew’s online Orson Welles course, for both beginners and seasoned Wellesians. The course brings new perspectives and insights to Welles’ extraordinary career.”
Ronan, Galway
 
“There was a sense of discovery even for someone who’s been interested in Orson Welles for more than a decade. A carefully planned structure made the course very intriguing.” 
Petri, Finland
 
“If you are an old Welles fan it is certainly a great opportunity to review and discuss his work and expand your knowledge on unrealized projects, screenplays, literary influences and the diverse facets of his life and work. If you are new to Orson Welles… lucky you! You will be in the right place to have a great overview of his extraordinary work that is certainly not limited to Citizen Kane. In both cases, fun and enjoyment are guaranteed!”

Elliot, Switzerland

“It was like knocking at the door where Orson is sleeping and wake him up with sweets and going down in the garden with the dog for a walk each Monday. Sometimes we talk sometimes we just walk, and it’s great the same.”
Emiliano, Rome
 

Lewis Lux: Chapter 1

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1. EDINBURGH

“ACTUALLY, JULIA,” said Lewis after the first sip of his third cappuccino, “your glorious Seville preserves an astounding range of Roman archaeological treasures. Surely you’ve visited the ruins of Itálica, the birthplace of Trajan and Hadrian, built under the generalship of Scipio?”

The waitress looked down at Lewis in quiet shame. “No. I never been.”

Lewis put down his cup. “Well, to be fair my journeys to Seville have only taken place in my novels. In The Wrath of Scipio Africanus, for example, I staged a very interesting scene with Mago Barca and Hasdrubal Gisco — their discussion on the placement of elephants in relation to the central phalanx — in Ilipa.”

“I know this place, Ilipa!” she said with a beaming smile. “It’s in the Alcázar!”

Lewis smiled patiently. Julia was twenty-two or twenty-three, a pretty girl although getting fat, with chocolate brown hair tied in a high ponytail. Her feisty Mediterranean femininity rebelled, Lewis thought, against the boxy unisex uniform the waitstaff were forced to wear in Le Jardin d’Eden d’Édimbourg– a crisp white shirt buttoned at the neck, black waistcoat, black slacks, glossy black shoes.

“Actually the Alcázar dates from the Moorish occupation of Iberia,” Lewis continued. “Certainly my interests extend to medieval Spain, and I once read a lot on that subject in preparation for a novel of the Reconquista, although I never ultimately fictionalised that period of history. As the years pass I realise how much Ancient Rome still offers the novelist. But perhaps Andalucía will be one of my next travel destinations.”

“You must fly with BudgetAir to Malaga,” Julia said. “They have Monday deals. And I can recommend a very good place for pastries in my city. I see you like pastries very much. If I may be honest, Dr. Lewis, these things are much better in my country. This is not a country that eats real food.”

He agreed with Julia’s opinion. Scottish food was even worse than the Polish food to which he’d become grudgingly accustomed living all those years in Krakow. It was no improvement to move from greasy zapiekanka and tooth-decaying ptasie mleczko to chips and Yorkie Bars. Nor did he pine for the Chiko Rolls and Jaffas of his long ago Australian youth. He hungered for the food of a warmer Europe, for Greek grilled octopus, Valencian paella de marisco and Tuscan panzanella salad; for zabaglione from the Piedmont, Turkish baklava, and the varied sweets of the French pâtissier. For that reason it was fortunately he’d discovered Le Jardin d’Eden shortly after his arrival in Edinburgh. Its menu had become the foundation of his daily diet. Once he’d dispatched a breakfast of croque madame (with an additional fried egg) or a savoury crêpe, he accompanied his four hour’s work at the table with a succession of croissants washed down with hot black coffee.

This ideal daily workspace occupied the interior courtyard of the Rob Roy Hotel on St. Andrews Square. Jasmine, gardenias, and ground coffee beans perfumed the air. If the sun did not always stream through the pebbled glass ceiling onto the marble floors — in Scotland the sun rarely streamed — the burnished brass chandeliers cast a bright and even light. While a scrotum-shrinking wind off the Firth of Forth screamed down George Street, scattering rubbish and making balloons of peoples’ jackets, Le Jardin d’Eden remained a zone of temperate stillness. Best of all, few people came in for the breakfast session. Lewis barely noticed the other diners, most of them guests at the hotel, typically white-haired Americans with their own packets of artificial sweetener. His regular table was the most discrete available. It was located between potted geraniums and opposite a large reproduction of the famous Gérard portrait of Madame Récamier, muse to Chateaubriand. She sat sideways on a cushioned chair wrapped loosely in a Kashmiri shawl. The light of a bright yet cloudy day fell evenly into the marble-floored loggia and illuminated her flawless skin, the high-pinned brown curls, the plausible trace of a nipple behind the sheer bodice, a lace sleeve hanging off her left shoulder. With that aura of confidence, elegance, and education Madame Récamier had become, then, muse to his latest novel, Maranatha: Above the Eagles, the third of his newest trilogy. At his table Lewis could spread out the necessary historical maps, the reference books, and the loose leaves of deluxe hotel stationary upon which he wrote the novel by hand. His small wheeled suitcase, which transported his most essential Latin Loeb Classical Library titles, fit snuggly beneath the table in easy reach. The location was also convenient because his wife Ludmilla worked a six hour shift in another part of the hotel. Lewis timed his writing so their respective labours ended when the clocktower at St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church struck noon.

Julia was saying: “The Scottish don’t eat the simple good food like olive oil, wine, cheeses…”

“And what do you cook at home?” Lewis asked. ” Jamón iberico? Salmorejo? Tortillitas de camarones?”

“Hmm, very nice Andalusian style! But no, I am terrible!” she said with a laugh. “I eat frozen pizza at home!”

“That is terrible, Julia, and bad for your figure.”

“Aye, but it is cheap from the supermarket,” she said. “I am sure your wife is a very good chef.”

“My wife?” Lewis said. “To be honest I’m not fond of Polish food, so we usually prepare our own–“

“Anyway, she is a very nice lady, and your son is very cute, too!” she said. “Bring him to breakfast again and I will make a special ice cream!”

“Oh, Jerzy is not my son,” Lewis clarified. “He’s actually the son of my wife’s niece, but he has been living with us — you know these extended Polish families. His mother is away, studying in Dublin. She was impregnated at a very young age, you see, younger even than you are, Julia, and the father is never…. It’s true, the boy basically looks to me as a kind of father figure. He often comes to me for guidance and education.”

“This is good, Dr. Lewis. A young boy needs a father. Too many soft boys today.”

“Right,” said Lewis. “By the way, I think I’ll have another cappuccino and a croissant.”

“With butter or strawberry jam?”

“Bring both and then I’ll choose.”

She nodded and crossed the restaurant to the kitchen. On the way she relayed the coffee order to her shift manager, a tanned New Zealander with a shark tooth puncturing each of his ear lobes. He set to work at the coffee machine.

“My manager is a fucking bastard,” Julia said upon her return. She put down his croissant, butter, jam. “But I make better money in Scotland than in Spain. When I win the lottery I will go home.”

“That’s a rather long shot, Julia,” Lewis said. “I daresay you will be staying in Scotland for the foreseeable future!”

“No, this week I feel lucky.”

“Well, I’ll leave a little tip on the table today so you can try your luck with the lottery this weekend. I’m feeling lucky, too.”

“That is kind. Are writers paid more money in Scotland? This is why you came here?”

“A writer is that happy soul free to work anywhere,” Lewis told her, scratching his beard. “I’m merely visiting for the summer for family reasons. But I’ve always had an affection for Scotland. I came here to take my PhD in Britannic historiography. That was a wonderful four years of my life. Back in the early 1990s. Probably before you were born!”

“Yes, it was,” she said. “Many years before.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘many’,” Lewis said. “A few, certainly.”

The shift manager brought over the latest of Lewis’s cappuccinos and rudely set it down atop a facsimile town plan of ancient Regensburg. He sent Julia to take another table’s order.

“Anything else, mate?” said the manager.

“I was actually in the middle of asking Julia about the lunch options,” Lewis said. “She was very informative. But now I’ve changed my mind.”

The manager left and Lewis returned to Maranatha. Absorbed in chapter LXVI, an account of early viticultural bartering on the Upper Rhine between emissaries of the Alemanni and opportunist soldiers of the border limitanei, Lewis did not notice the church clock pass noon. When he raised his eyes from the page he did not see his benevolent Madame Récamier but instead, blocking the sightline, the altogether different face of his wife. She’d set loose her grey-streaked hair to fall across her shoulders. She wore a dark blue blouse and tight jeans. Still a fit and good-looking woman at fifty-one, she maintained an elegant continental chic. You would never guess she had been scrubbing toilets since dawn, Lewis thought, until you heard the long sigh of exhaustion that passed from her lips.

“Coffee, sweetie?” he said.

“No, I need cigarette,” she said. “Pack up your stuff.”

Lewis reluctantly capped his pen and waved to Julia to bring the bill. To his irritation the manager brought it over himself. Ludka glanced at the bill, rejected it, and sent the manager back to the till to apply her 25% hotel staff discount. Lewis paid by contactless credit card and, when the manager had departed, left a couple of pound coins on the table for Julia. Ludka reclaimed one of the coins and pocketed it herself. Lewis frowned but otherwise ignored this miserliness, and noted he would have to find a copy of the three-volume Loeb Library edition of Seneca’s Moral Essays to introduce this Andalusian girl to Andalucía’s greatest philosopher. A task for the afternoon.

He slipped on his grandfatherly jacket and carpet slippers, sturdy enough for short walks in the city, and followed Ludka across the intersection into St. Andrew’s Square. Clustered school children on summer holiday were throwing stones at each other near the fountain. The sky was overcast and the wind was fierce. Ludka made no allowance for the cumbersome suitcase of books Lewis wheeled behind him.

“What’s the rush?” Lewis said.

She stopped beside a rubbish bin to light a cigarette.

“Tough shift?” Lewis said. “Ah. Well, at least you have this weekend to look forward to. A change of scenery, the sun shining, and the Berlin State Opera under Daniel Barenboim. I envy you, actually.”

“You do not need to envy me because I will not go to Berlin this weekend.”

“What? How come?”

“Marta in housekeeping must have hernia surgery. For this reason I have my leave cancelled. Nobody else can work.”

“That doesn’t sound fair,” said Lewis.

Ludka shrugged. “I am accustomed.”

“Well, it’s a pity,” said Lewis. “I suppose Jerzy will have to wait to see his father another time.”

“No, you must take the boy yourself, Lewis. His father is in Berlin only this weekend then flies back to the oil rig! There will be no other chance for Jerzy.”

“Me? Fly to Berlin? Impossible.”

“Jerzy’s dream cannot be shattered like this. If you only knew what it means to him! I think we can transfer BudgetAir ticket to your name for a fee. And you can have ticket for La clemenza di Tito. You will like it, it is about Ancient Rome.”

“I maintain rather sharp criticisms of its libretto’s liberties with Suetonius. Not Mozart’s fault, of course. In any case, this is a very delicate time for my novel, darling.”

She puffed on her cigarette. “You will not make a problem for me with this, Lewis.”

“I’m not making a problem–“

“Because I have already many problems. I have so many problems my head aches. Because of our problems we are here and not at home in the Poland enjoying actual summer.”

“Coming to Edinburgh was never my idea,” he reminded her. “I would have been perfectly happy to remain in Krakow.”

“We will not save twenty-five thousand zlotys working in Krakow!”

“Oh, you really must forget about those twenty-five thousand zlotys!” he said. “A ridiculously inflated amount, and my accountant friend insists we need not pay a grosz. This is a Polish government scam.”

“Tax debt, Lewis. You lose your property, go to prison, your family name forever shamed.”

“With due respect to your parents, I don’t think the Podolaks were ever much more than drunks and horse thieves, darling.”

“You always speak this of my family. But your family is the same. Australian thieves. And drunk as well.”

“I won’t argue with that.”

“Why not?” she chuckled miserably. “You argue everything else!”

“Actually, I do not argue about everything, you are again chronically misrepresenting–“

She had shoved a letter into his hand. His Polish was weak but sufficient to get the gist. Unbeknownst to him, Ludka had sought legal advice from what appeared to be (he judged from the luxuriousness of the letterhead) a top Krakow law firm.

“The verdict is absolutely clear,” she said. “We must pay. And by the end of the month. Twenty-seven days.”

“How much did this legal consultation cost?”

“I use credit card,” she said. “Your accountant friend’s calculations for exemptions in last five years were catastrophically wrong and now I scrub shit for British minimum wage. But that is not enough. We need to pay this bill before end of month. In pounds sterling it is five thousand.”

“Perhaps we should simply never return to Poland.”

“Idiot man! The authorities will seize my flat and we lose everything.”

Ludka smiled a particularly sour smile and sucked smoke deeply from the cigarette. Lewis thought of their tiny, draughty flat in the Kazimierz neighbourhood of Krakow filled with his books, his manuscript archive, his entire life!

“Can we talk to your brother for a loan?”

“Jan is bankrupt. Television is an unforgiving industry.”

“Your parents?”

“We are poor family, Lewis!”

“And where is Jerzy’s mother during this crisis?” Lewis said, returning to a slightly less contentious conflict. “Partying in Dublin when she should be taking care of her kid! Not expecting us to gallivant across Europe to facilitate visitation with that neglectful Turkish bastard.”

“Ola cannot go to Berlin this weekend, she must study for her exam on Monday. Her education is important so she escapes this stupid cycle. And anyway, you know she cannot even tolerate hearing Demir’s name spoken. She has anxiety attacks and flashback to naked woman she found hiding in closet. Of course Ola must allow visitation but it is better she is not involved in details.”

“Everybody has an excuse!” he said.

“Jerzy respects you, Lewis. You must take him. You cannot destroy his dream.” Ludka flicked her cigarette butt onto the pavement. “I must go home now to make lunch for Jerzy even though I am very tired. He has been alone all morning again because you will not look after.”

“Well, Le Jardin d’Eden has a pretty strict policy on kids,” Lewis said. “And I really think he’s happier at home. He can read!”

“This is not home. This is Scotland and rented studio flat.”

“You know what I mean.”

“Home is Krakow. I hope Jerzy will have a home after the end of the month. Maybe not.”

Ludka walked on across the square. Lewis decided not to chase her, nor to ask her to lug his suitcase back to the tiny flat they rented in Canonmills. She did not wait for the green pedestrian light to cross the street, and in consequence an airport tram had to brake with a screech and ring of its bells.

“I have some errands to run in town, darling!” Lewis called across the square. “I’ll see you later tonight.”

*

LEWIS caught a bus on Princes Street bound for the Old Town. He took a window seat and rested his suitcased library on his lap. At the next stop the bus filled with passengers. He was soon wedged tight against the glass by a six foot-three Scot in a red jacket, evidently a chips-and-Yorkie-Bar eater, who hummed along tunelessly to whatever nonsense was feeding through his earphones. In this claustrophobic confinement, Lewis closed his eyes and considered how he might raise this absurd Polish tax penalty. Five thousand pounds. What were his assets at the age of fifty-three? Of course he owned the copyrights of his eighteen magisterial novels of the ancient world, although it would be positively Faustian to auction them off to the highest bidder. In any case, none had yet proved financially lucrative. But on the matter of royalties he suspected criminal accounting by the various independent outfits who’d published them; some of his earliest publishers, claiming to be from such distant cities as Adelaide, Lowestoft, and Boise (Idaho), had disappeared without a trace.

Other assets? About a thousand books filled the shelves in Krakow. Was there something of saleable value? Perhaps a few rare 18th and 19th century histories, but he was not a pedantic collector of rare books. He was a reader. A good book should become part of one’s consciousness, should be argued with, memorized, almost absorbed into the bloodstream. He therefore stamped his ex-libris on a corner of the title page, scrawled extensive notes in the margins, rendered the copies both irreplaceable to his research and worthless to anybody else.

Meanwhile the joint bank account was in perpetual overdraft and the credit card was running close to its maximum. The previous year they’d earned an extra couple of thousand euros, proceeds of a lecture series on translation Ludka gave to an college in Vienna, but that had been invested in a project (a very promising idea to sell accurate recreations of Roman armour on the internet) which had failed, it was explained, because of some sort of computer glitch. Lewis owned no property. It would not be a good idea to lose Ludka’s Krakow flat.

Anyway, he’d think of something.

He squeezed out of the seat and disembarked near the Museum of Scotland. He walked to Boam’s Antiquarian Books in a gloomy side street off Cowgate. The antiquarian proprietor, straggly-haired and greasy-spectacled, as usual gave no greeting. Lewis went into the shadowy rear annex to the shelves of secondhand Loebs. He was a tad irked to find an inflated price of £50 for a rubber-banded trio of Seneca’s Moral Essays. But no matter. Andalusian Julia should know the glorious heritage of her land. With the books under his arm, he wandered to the history shelves looking for titles on Spain. He thought again of how, during his doctoral studies here in Edinburgh some twenty-five years earlier, he’d read up on medieval Andalucía with an eye to an epic novel of the Reconquista that would have been called The Vanished Gardens of Córdoba. Was it to be the middle volume of a trilogy also encompassing the stories of El Cid and Alfonso the Wise? Lewis could not quite remember, although he recalled happy hours studying the Primera Crónica General in the edition of Ramón Pidal, The Chronicles of Saint King Ferdinand III, the Muqaddimah, and the poetry of Ibn Sahl. And he’d bought an antiquarian copy of something called Nobleza del Andaluzia for a pittance in a Dumfries charity shop. The condition was rather astonishingly fine after something like four centuries. Somebody had once told him the book was probably worth a bit of money, and yet he’d never bothered to investigate its value.

Huh.

Nobleza del Andaluzia. Lewis squinted into the recesses of long undisturbed memory and saw a blurry image of marbled red leather and gilded spine (surely a rebinding of a more recent century). He saw piles of books in his student dorm. And of course Professor Ballantyne, his PhD supervisor here at the university, had borrowed the book to read. And Lewis had never got around to collecting… Yes. Lewis was now struck by a clear memory of entrusting the volume to Ballantyne in his cluttered office. An unusually warm day, he recalled, the students barbequing and boozing on the grass outside. It must have been around the end of the 1992 or 1993 academic year. And knowing Ballantyne, eccentric Professor of Classics who’d since become a bestselling hack, the book was probably still sitting there in his office.

“Mr. Boam, I have a query about a rare book,” said Lewis. “By the name of Nobleza del Andaluzia. I can’t recall the exact edition, but it was certainly late 16th century or early 17th.”

Mr. Boam turned to his computer and searched for the item.

“Well,” said Boam. “There was only ever one edition, so that narrows it down, doesn’t it? Published by Fernando Diaz, Seville, 1588. Three hundred and forty-eight pages.”

“That’s the one.”

“There is a lone copy for sale online. Condition: poor, front and rear hinges cracked, front endpaper stained, pages foxed and torn throughout. Price: £4,993.91.”

Lewis paid for the Loeb Senecas with the contactless credit card and came out of Boam’s to find the street bathed in golden sunshine. He must go directly to Professor Ballantyne’s office, reclaim his rightful property, then sell it immediately. At the very least the Polish tax debt would be cleared, and due to the book’s impeccable condition — at least as it had survived circa 1992 — he should expect a nice surplus of change. Of course he had not been in touch with the professor since graduation, not since the incident at the party with Ballantyne’s daughter, Alison. She had been seventeen. Perfectly legal in the United Kingdom. And yet Ballantyne — liberal historian, cosmopolitan bon vivant, contributor to the TLS and LRB — had acted like an Andalusian father avenging his daughter’s honour. Lewis had another blurry vision of the broken wine bottle, the shouts, something out of a Lorca play. But come on — that was twenty-five years ago. And, even if there was lingering resentment on Ballantyne’s part, the book was unquestionably Lewis’s rightful property. He waved over a black cab and directed the driver to the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology….

This is an extract from the novella Lewis Lux, available for a limited time as an ebook at Amazon and Smashwords.

Copyright © 2020 Matthew Asprey Gear. All rights reserved

Publication: Lewis Lux (a novella)

Last seen in 2016’s Lewis L’Amour, Arthur James Lewis returns for another comic misadventure.

Lewis intends to spend the summer of 2019 at his regular table at Le Jardin d’Eden in Edinburgh. On a diet of croissants and coffee, under the Gérard portrait of Madame Récamier, he will write Maranatha: Above the Eagles, his latest magisterial novel of Ancient Rome.

Alas, Lewis’s tranquility is disturbed by yet another family crisis — the threat of repossession of their home. Ever resourceful, Lewis races across Europe to recover a long-lost antiquarian book he once loaned to his PhD supervisor. Its purported value will neatly pay off the family debt, but recovery from the elusive Professor Ballantyne will not be easy. Luckily this time Lewis is accompanied by his seven-year-old grand nephew, Jerzy, who is just as eager to save their home.

From the piazzas of Venice to the deserts of Almería, Lewis Lux concludes a trilogy of comic novellas that began with Lewis and Loeb (2013) and is collectively titled Three Roads to Rome.

This novella will be available for a limited time as an ebook at Smashwords.

Publication: Three Dangerous Summers

My new research article ‘Three Dangerous Summers: Orson Welles’s Unrealized Hemingway Trilogy’ has been published in the Fall 2020 issue of The Hemingway Review. It examines three Orson Welles film projects left in varying states of incompletion at his death: The Sacred Beasts, The Other Side of the Wind, and Crazy Weather.

The abstract: Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles shared a romantic enthusiasm for Spanish traditions, particularly bullfighting. Nevertheless, Welles rejected Hemingway’s influential interpretation of the corrida as well as the macho archetype the writer had established for the foreign aficionado. This article draws on new archival research to examine three distinct film projects Welles developed in his later years that imaginatively engaged with Hemingway’s personality and his legacy. These projects were left in varying states of incompletion, which has meant that an important theme in Welles’s late work has remained largely invisible until recent years.

Here is a link to the article (access required) at Project Muse

Publication: Thunder of the Sun (a story)

A new short story.

Morton Pike, worldwide bestselling author of historical sea novels, has lived a life of luxury and globe-trotting adventure. But now Pike is 83 and things have changed. His lifelong readers hate his new books, sales are falling, and his family life has become a tangle of bitter feuds and lawsuits.

Amid this turmoil, two ambitious juniors from Pike’s literary agency have a provocative idea. Can they persuade Pike to allow ghostwriters to write his novels? The deal could be worth a fortune, but will Pike be willing to abdicate his throne?

Set on Pike’s estate on the remote tropical coast of Queensland, ‘Thunder of the Sun’ tells the story behind the bestsellers.

Available in all ebook formats at Smashwords and for Kindle at Amazon

“A snobbish young man with more confidence than sense, a hard-working woman with a young son, a greedy old man grasping tightly to life… Matthew Asprey Gear lifts the lid on the seamy world of blockbuster fiction and finds that it stinks. Sharp-eyed, sardonic, and funny, this is a tale to gasp at and laugh over in equal measure.” – David Manderson, author of Lost Bodies (2011)

[Cover design by Anna Sark, based on a modified photograph by Vicuna R (CC BY-SA 2.0)]

Open Seas: American Bacchanal

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Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde by Loren Glass. 272 pp. Stanford University Press, 2013 [latterly republished as Rebel Publisher by Penguin, 2018].

Barney Rosset’s Grove Press published some of the most important and controversial writers of the 20th century and almost single-handedly conquered literary censorship in the USA. It did this with bravura and style. So where are the tributes, the retrospectives, the museum exhibitions? A small group of recent books and documentaries have begun to counter the strange neglect of Grove’s legacy. Loren Glass’s Counterculture Colophon, republished in paperback as Rebel Publisher, goes beyond Grove’s famed obscenity trials and explores its successful dissemination of avant-garde literature in postwar America.

In my twenties I used to find old Grove Press titles in obscure corners of Gould’s Book Arcade in Sydney’s Newtown. It was appropriate. Proprietor Bob Gould was a veteran Trotskyite and anti-war activist who’d battled Australia’s embarrassingly provincial censorship in the old days. That regime had been tougher, more narrow-minded, and more enduring than in the USA. Several times raided by the New South Wales Vice Squad, Gould had been charged in 1969 for selling posters of erotic Aubrey Beardsley drawings. After a long and ridiculous trial he was fined fifty cents.

Literary censorship effectively ended in Australia with the election of the Whitlam Government in 1972, although films were still occasionally banned. In his later years Gould would sit white-bearded and gruff behind the front counter of his chaotic, warehouse-sized bookshop. The shop was a perenial haunt for seekers of the happy oblivion of late night browsing under cold white flourescent bulbs. The size of his inventory was in absurd excess of anything manageable or sensible — a million or so disorganised books, towering in the shadowy upper-floor aisles or spilling across the dirty linoleum. In my experience he never refused to buy or exchange a pile of old books. His acquisitional habit was nothing short of a mania. “Bob wanted to have more books than anyone else on the planet,” his daughter Natalie told the Guardian in 2017. That’s why I consider it a matter of quiet pride that Gould once deemed my own book-buying habits as “pathological.” (I was at the time rummaging in a box beneath a trestle table at a huge charity book sale; Gould, evidently on his own scout, had lifted the tablecloth and squinted at me with disdain.)

Those Grove Press books I discovered in the vast depository at Gould’s were relics of the US censorship wars and its bacchanalian aftermath. Many had been printed in the US long before the Australian Government would have permitted their import. I was intrigued by the mystery of their trans-Pacific journey to Newtown. Gould sold categories of books that would never turn up elsewhere in Sydney; he’d also at some point acquired caches of books published behind the Iron Curtain by Progress Publishers (Moscow) and Seven Seas Books (Glinkastrasse, East Berlin). Most of these titles had sat on his shelves for years with pencilled prices oblivious to inflation.

1950s and 1960s Grove editions are worth collecting if only for their consistently stunning dust jackets or paperback covers designed by Roy Kuhlman, which should be as fetishized, reprinted, and monographed today as Reid Miles’s contemporaneous LP covers for Blue Note. Over the years I’ve bought a smattering. Although I can’t say I got around to reading them all, they give a representative indication of the publisher’s mission. (None of these books, you may notice, was written by a woman.) I’ve owned Grove’s unexpurgated editions of classic banned books—Henry Miller’s Tropics (1934-39), Quiet Days in Clichy (1956), and the Rosy Crucifixion trilogy (1949-59), Jean Genet’s Thief’s Journal (1949), and Frank Harris’s My Life and Loves (1922-27). I bought Breton’s Nadja (1928), Ionesco’s plays, Brecht’s Caucasian Chalk Circle (1948), André Pieyre de Mandiargues’s The Girl Beneath the Lion (1956), and Borges’s Ficciones (1956) and A Personal Anthology (1961). Grove also published young American writers, and because its imprimatur seemed a sufficient recommendation I ended up with either the very good or the very dated (and sometimes a mix of both): Robert Gover’s Here Goes Kitten (1964), Michael Rumaker’s Gringos (1967), the Tales of LeRoi Jones (1967), and the works of San Francisco Bay Area novelist Floyd Salas, whose novels Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967) and especially What Now My Love (1969) remain on my shelves. In fact, I ended up publishing Floyd’s more recent work when I edited the journal Contrappasso. Probably the best of all my Grove bargain buys were The Olympia Reader (1965) and The Evergreen Review Reader 1957-1967 (1968), two fat anthologies derived respectively from the backlists of Maurice Girodias’s Paris-based English-language press and Grove’s wonderful house journal. The range of important international writers in each, amid the odd merely pornographic item, is extraordinary.

Loren Glass’s Countercultural Colophon draws on Max Weber’s concept of a ‘charismatic community’ to explain how Grove functioned under Barney Rosset’s leadership. Grove seems to have been less a commercial business—although it had its share of bestsellers—than a creative manifestation of Rosset’s lifelong political agitation and enthusiasms for sex and experimental art. Born to great wealth, Rosset was both an admirable class traitor and a singularly heedless businessman. He ultimately “squandered his entire fortune on Grove Press.” Bravo.

In the 1950s avant-garde art was slowly seeping into the American mainstream. Glass cites Serge Guilbaut’s research on abstract expressionist painting and how it contributed to New York’s eventual dislodgment of Paris as the international cultural centre. Grove’s literary activities down in Greenwich Village paralleled this historic shift. Glass writes:

“Grove effectively siphoned cultural capital from Paris to New York in the 1950s and 1960s, reprinting and translating authors it had acquired from Éditions de Minuit, Éditions Gallimard, Éditions du Seuil, and the Olympia Press, thereby establishing a reputation as the premier American disseminator of European avant-garde literature, especially drama. However, Grove championed the idea of an indigenous avant-garde as well, providing an early publication venue for the Beats, the New York school, and the Black Mountain school, publishing multiple scholarly studies of American jazz, adopting abstract expressionist designs for its book covers, and affirming the San Francisco Bay Area as itself a ‘cultural capital’ in a burgeoning national scene.”

According to Guilbaut, the wide acceptance of the American avant-garde in the McCarthy era relied upon the supposed political neutrality of both its intellectual champions and the aesthetics of abstract expressionism itself. Grove, however, was increasingly a vehicle for radical politics alongside its radical literature and essentially repoliticized the avant-garde in the countercultural 1960s.

Glass’s chapters, grounded in the cultural politics of the postwar world, cover a variety of Grove’s activities. They published a stunningly cosmopolitan ‘world literature’ that ranged from the novels of Beckett, Genet, and Alain Robbe-Grillet—the “triumvirate of Parisian late Modernist literary innovators”—to works that emerged from “the decolonization of the European empires and the inception of the American century.” Grove promoted leading international experimental playwrights (Beckett, Artaud, Ionesco, Arrabal) and sold countless books by “marketing the printed text in conjunction with student performances.” Meanwhile Grove’s numerous biographical and critical works celebrated and helped to cement their canon of contemporary writers.

The obscenity trials are covered in detail, and so is Grove’s support for radical politics (Latin American revolution, Black Power, and the Post-Colonial struggle) through the publication of books by Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Fidel Castro, Régis Debray, and many others. Grove’s attempt to transform the movie business was far less successful, although its American distribution of the sexually explicit Swedish film I Am Curious (Yellow) (1967) became a controversial hit after a brief banning in 1969. Glass elaborates the important contribution Grove made to academic film culture in the USA by publishing the scripts and critical commentary on the most important foreign language art films including Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad, Rashomon, and The 400 Blows. Pre-VHS, these books “provided a curriculum for film studies courses during this foundational period; it also helped establish the cinematic text as a legitimate object of close reading modeled on the formal analysis of literary texts.” Glass identifies these books as the prototypes of the deluxe DVDs released by the Criterion Collection.

Although remarkably progressive in its publication of explicitly homosexual works by Genet, William S. Burroughs, and John Rechy, Grove’s support of radical emancipation was not unlimited. It published few women writers, its company structure was male-dominated, and its relentlessly libertine agenda was sometimes at odds with the contemporary feminist movement. Opposition to Grove’s “popularization of pornography” did not only come from the church and conservative groups. “By democratizing access to previously forbidden texts,” Grove had made the question of obscenity “more directly accessible to political, rather than moral or aesthetic, critique.”

Nevertheless, Rosset’s successful legal campaign to defend his right to publish the unholy trio of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, and The Naked Lunch enabled freedom of the written word in America. Counterculture Colophon is a worthy but not uncritical study of a rare independent publisher who transformed American culture.

Edinburgh, May 2020

[Header image: detail of Roy Kuhlman’s cover design for Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Parama]

 

 

Open Seas: From the Clyde to Silverado

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The Amateur Emigrant & The Silverado Squatters by Robert Louis Stevenson. 231 pp. Folio Society, 1991 [1883, 1892, 1895].

Throughout my life I’ve often found myself, purely by chance, in the former haunts of Robert Louis Stevenson. When I was a blonde-haired lad of five I scurried across the white beaches and slid down the cascading waterfalls of Western Samoa, his ultimate destination. This was no precocious literary pilgrimage across the Pacific from Sydney; my mother won this trip to paradise in a competition run by a brand of canned tropical fruit. Ironically, amid the wild bananas and pawpaws of Samoa, I quickly discovered canned fruit was passé. The Samoan kids showed me how to pierce a freshly fetched coconut with a machete blade and drink the milk fresh out of the shell.

I was also taken the long way up Mount Vaea, above Vailima, to visit Stevenson’s tomb, famously engraved:

Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

More recently I compared 1980s Samoan experiences with Nicholas Rankin, a decidedly more intentional follower of Stevenson’s itineraries, indeed the author of the excellent Dead Man’s Chest: Travels After Robert Louis Stevenson (1987) . We discovered he’d beaten me to the tomb by three years. In contrast to us both, the peripatetic Paul Theroux didn’t bother to make the climb up the hill when he visited Vailima, grumbling in The Happy Isles of Oceania (1992) that graves depress him, destinations “for pilgrims and hagiographers.”

When I moved to Edinburgh I again found myself in Stevenson’s old vicinities. I briefly lived up the street from his school in Canonmills and worked around the corner from 17 Heriot Row, the Stevenson family home from 1857. But Edinburgh, suffering “one of the vilest climates under heaven,” was not for the sickly yet adventurous Stevenson. “For all who love shelter and the blessings of the sun,” he wrote, “who hate dark weather and perpetual tilting against squalls, there could scarcely be found a more unhomely and harassing place of residence.” He sought epic New World landscapes and Pacific island landfalls, as well as the “virginity of sense” granted to the outsider. Valuable stuff for a writer. My apparently reverse Stevensonism—fleeing the sun of the Pacific for Scottish gloom—is probably just another form of the same seeking.

Stevenson’s permanent departure from Scotland was not until 1887, but back in 1879 he’d boarded the SS Devonia for New York City and almost immediately taken the Union Pacific railway to San Francisco. His quest was to marry Fanny Osbourne, but Stevenson doesn’t mention that in his account of the journey, The Amateur Emigrant. He claims a journalistic objective, “an anxiety to see the worst of emigrant life.” He followed it up with The Silverado Squatters, an account of his colourful honeymoon. These books were not originally published entire or in chronological sequence. The Silverado Squatters appeared in 1883, the same year as Treasure Island, but The Amateur Emigrant was not published as a complete book during Stevenson’s lifetime. The ‘Across the Plains’ section was published as a stand-alone book in 1892. The author’s account of his Atlantic crossing, which appeared in a posthumous 1895 essay collection, was by then significantly abbreviated by his over-cautious editors. The earliest complete publication from the Amateur Emigrant manuscript was in From Scotland to Silverado (edited by James D. Hart, 1966), which not only coupled it with its sequel but included between them a four-part essay ‘The Old and New Pacific Capitals’ (i.e. Monterey and San Francisco). The Folio Society’s 1991 edition of the two books also restores the full manuscript text of The Amateur Emigrant (plus some lost passages from the 1883 magazine serials of both books) but strangely omits the buffering essay. I usually find Folio Society volumes cumbersome and pretentiously designed, but it is a thoughtfully edited text, a necessity for books with such a complicated textual history.

I admit I’ve not yet sailed in Stevenson’s wake from Scotland to America, so I had a lot to discover. The first part of The Amateur Emigrant, the Atlantic crossing, is an intellectually rigorous and cliché-busting set of observational essays on the motives and aspirations of the Scottish diaspora in the late 19th century. Stevenson vividly sketches the Devonia‘s dreadful steerage conditions of claustrophobic confinement, illness, and indifferent neglect by the ship’s officers. The common grub is porridge and “soup, roast fresh beef, boiled salt junk, and potatoes.” He elects to travel by second cabin, and explains why the extra two guineas is worth paying—supplied bedding and dishes, a table (upon which he wrote ‘The Story of a Lie’), and marginally better food. Officially a gentleman, he’s entitled to a grim ‘Irish stew’ and what appear to be the scrapings of plates from the saloon. He can choose between coffee or tea; the only perceptible difference is “a smack of snuff in the former” and “a flavour of boiling and dishcloth in the second.” Instead of mere duff twice a week he’s entitled to “a saddle-bag filled with currants under the name of plum-pudding.”

Suppressing his slight snobbery, Stevenson enjoys the community of the steerage passengers and their nightly singing, dancing, and tale-telling. He confesses hostility when a couple of saloon class passengers deign to visit down below. The poor emigrants defy Stevenson’s expectations. They are neither young nor adventurous, but “for the most part quiet, orderly, obedient citizens, family men broken by adversity, elderly youths who had failed to place themselves in life, and people who had seen better days.” They’d suffered hard times. “We were a company of the rejected; the drunken, the incompetent, the weak, the prodigal, all who had been unable to prevail against circumstances in one land, were now fleeing pitifully to another; and though one or two might still succeed, all had already failed.”

I have Scottish ancestors whose New World emigrations—to Australia rather than to the United States—both pre- and post-date Stevenson’s sailing on the Devonia. No plum-pudding for them; whether they were large families with babies feverish with pneumonia, or loners like my grandfather’s grandfather, they were all squashed into steerage. The latter, a Shetlander, emigrated around 1865 after an obscure youth as a lowly ship’s trimmer that had taken him to far-flung locales “beyond the telegraph cables and mail-boat lines,” as Conrad would put it in Lord Jim. Perhaps he’d already glimpsed the Pacific. I can’t particularly speak for the extent of my ancestors’ desperation nor their motives beyond a better life under the eucalypts, but Stevenson here provides a provocative glimpse into contemporary ordeals.

The second half of The Amateur Emigrant is titled ‘Across the Plains’ and recounts the rail journey across the continent. Stevenson was seriously ill and this leg of the trip was sometimes as uncomfortable as the Atlantic crossing. Awaiting a ferry across the Hudson River to the Jersey City railway terminal, cramped inside a chaotically crowded shed, he saves a child’s life from a crashing barrowful of spilled boxes. He is pushed along in a “dense, choking crush.” On board, the plains of Nebraska provoke a more existential dread in their endless monotony. Stevenson essays his fellow travellers and condemns the widespread “a priori” hatred of the Chinese, who are assigned to their own carriage.

The Silverado Squatters is a kind of sequel that picks up Stevenson’s Californian adventures in what would later be considered Jack London country. Stevenson had by now married Fanny and acquired a stepson, Lloyd (a future literary collaborator). The family decide to squat in an abandoned mine above the Napa Valley. Again, we learn almost nothing about Stevenson’s private life or the reasons for this unusual honeymoon. Resembling The Amateur Emigrant, the format is a series of thematic essays on his encounters and observations, with evocative sketches of this part of California. He visits a petrified forest exhibited by a far-drifting Scot and speaks to early Napa wine growers. Around Silverado he meets a set of frontier characters including a Jewish family—Stevenson here somewhat uncritically indulges in antisemitic stereotypes—and a class of “Poor Whites or low-downers.” One of these, a lazy handyman, a veritable “Caliban,” stirs the grumbling Tory in our narrator. The mine itself is remote, perilous, but perched over a spectacular natural landscape. At night the sky is so breathtaking “it seemed to throw calumny in the teeth of all the painters that ever dabbled in starlight.” Most magical is Stevenson’s account of the season’s one-off occurrence, the silent “sea fogs,” a rush of clouds into the mountains. It is, he writes, “as though I had gone to bed the night before, safe in a nook of inland mountains, and had awakened in a bay upon the coast.”

These are powerfully evocative writings. I’ve never been as far north of San Francisco as Silverado—I’ve merely cycled across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito—but precedent suggests I will again find myself walking in Stevenson’s footsteps up the mountain.

Edinburgh, May 2020

[Header image: detail from The Broomielaw, Glasgow (c. 1889) by John Atkinson Grimshaw]

Open Seas: Carlos Fuentes on Reflection

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The Buried Mirror: Reflections on Spain and the New World by Carlos Fuentes. 399 pp. Houghton Miflin, 1992; TV series written and presented by Carlos Fuentes, produced by Michael Gill. 5 episodes, 295 minutes. Sogotel, 1992.

Carlos Fuentes was not only a highly regarded novelist and intellectual but also a wildly charismatic explicator. He was perfect for the educational small screen. In fact, with such learning and panache, he sometimes seems too suspiciously perfect. In the very funny César Aira novella The Literary Conference (1997), a mad scientist attempts to clone an example of human perfection; he duly seeks the DNA of Carlos Fuentes (“the most unassailable and undisputed genius there could ever be; his level of respectability touched on the transcendent.”). Alas, the scientist accidentally clones Fuentes’s tie and plagues the landscape with giant silk worms. In addition to a lifelong commitment to left-wing causes, Fuentes was also a cosmopolitan bon vivant—Savile Row suits, luxury hotels, celebrity friends. He was famously dismissed by the Mexican critic Enrique Krause as a ‘guerrilla dandy’.

I admire Fuentes the man as well as his preference for point collars, but I’ve sometimes found his fiction to be a slog. That is true even of The Death of Artemio Cruz (1962), generally regarded as his best work. The experimental aspects of this Citizen Kane-inspired novel, which represent a corrupt politician’s dying consciousness by alternating between the first, second, and third person, strike me mostly as a set of self-consciously Modernist gimmicks. And as far as self-consciously Modernist gimmicks go, I found the book far less engaging than, say, Mario Vargas Llosa’s theoretically more challenging-to-read Conversation in the Cathedral (1969). Fuentes’s prose, at least in translation, can be baroque and opaque. Nevertheless, persistently intrigued, I’ve pushed through a handful of his books (Aura, The Good Conscience, Burnt Water, Diana, Vlad) and I’ve always kept a copy of his massive, self-styled magnum opus Terra Nostra (1975) on the shelf—unread, I admit, but hopefully not unreadable as some say.

Fuentes’s ambition was extreme. From what I can gather Terra Nostra attempts a synthesis of the entirety of Hispanic history in the form of an experimental novel about Philip II and El Escorial. Elsewhere he pursued a similarly encompassing mission. I have seen the list of readings assigned for a class he taught in Fall 1987 called ‘The Spanish American Tradition: History and Fiction’, a fat book of philosophical and historical extracts from Isaiah Berlin, Max Weber, Neruda, Nietzsche, Hegel, St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. I hope Harvard has kept tapes of the lectures.

The Buried Mirror returns to Fuentes’s epic vision in a much more conventional work of cultural history. This multimedia project was occasioned by the Quincentenary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas. It adopts the format minted by Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation (1969)—the large-budget documentary series hosted by its writer in a variety of scenic international locations, with an accompanying illustrated book. In light of the apparent ease of Fuentes’s cosmopolitan transit, it’s unsurprising he was commissioned to write and host this series in both Spanish and English editions.

I watched The Buried Mirror before a stint living in Buenos Aires. It was a useful crash course in Spanish American cultural history and also directed me to the best café in Plaza Dorrego, where I spent many afternoons reading at Fuentes’s table by the window. More recently I read the excellent book version, which definitely transcends the banal convention of the prosified television script. Fuentes emphatically describes the book as “not an outcropping of the series but a biography of my culture, which is really (I understood as I wrote it) a biography of myself.” Entirely complete in itself, the book has wound up the enduring incarnation of the Buried Mirror project; nearly thirty years later the TV series has fallen into obscurity (my low quality DVD copy, produced for educational institutions, had to be acquired through inter-library loan). Although originally written in Spanish, the book strangely does not credit an English-language translator. Perhaps Fuentes did that himself. His extensive annotated bibliography attests to “fifty years of reading” in this field.

Amid the celebrations of 1992, Fuentes’s guiding question was if Hispanic America had anything to celebrate? After all, it was a time of “inflation, unemployment, the excessive burden of foreign debt. Increasing poverty and illiteracy; an abrupt decline of purchasing power and standards of living. A sense of frustration, of dashed hopes and lost illusions. Fragile democracies menaced by social explosion.” Nevertheless, Fuentes’s answer is affirmative. What can be celebrated is an inclusive cultural tradition reaching back into the deep past of Iberia and absorbing influences from Jewish, Arab, and African sources (among many others). In The Buried Mirror, Fuentes follows enduring themes, symbols, and motifs, with occasional autobiographical asides. We meet him at the Gran Café de la Parroquia in Veracruz, where his father drank coffee, and outside his childhood residence in Washington, D.C.. Fuentes’s cultural canon does not seem particularly revisionist or radical, even to a cultural outsider like myself, although I was happy to be directed to Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, José Guadalupe Posada, and Eugenio Lucas Villamil. Fuentes is always on hand to furnish confident—perhaps too confident—interpretations of his case studies. He is a booster of the first rank. For the on-camera segments of the English language version, he seems to be translating his Spanish commentary on the fly, which means his delivery is often halting as he reaches for equivalent words with customarily emphatic gestures.

The project is divided into five parts/episodes. ‘The Virgin and the Bull’ canvasses pre-modern Spain, through the Moorish period and the Reconquista, to Columbus. ‘Conflict of the Gods’ switches to the indigenous American world and the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. ‘Children of La Mancha’ leaps back and forth across the Atlantic in the days of the Spanish Empire, exploring Cervantes, Velázquez, Goya, and the Baroque in the New World. Fuentes is especially insightful explaining religious syncretism via sculpture in Latin American churches. ‘The Price of Freedom’ covers the arrival of Latin American independence, tyrannical governments, and eventually the Mexican Civil War. By ‘Unfinished Business’ Fuentes’s commentary starts to drag. Rightly full of condemnation of US military interventions in the latter half of the twentieth century, the filmed version rambles as the author outlines his personal vision of a prosperous future Latin America.

“The mirror has power,” Fuentes says. “It can harness the sun, and it can show us ourselves.” The ruling metaphor of the title suggests that Spain and Spanish America have ceased to look at each other, ceased to recognise their deep-seeded cultural affinities and to imagine mutual futures. He asks: “Is not the mirror both a reflection of reality and a projection of the imagination?” He has no shortage of useful mirrors to summon from the Hispanic cultural tradition—Velázquez’s Las Meninas, the mirrors buried with the dead in Mesoamerican tombs, etc.—and is not hesitant to extend the metaphor: the pyramid of El Tajín in Vera Cruz with its 365 steps is, he declares, a “mirror of time.” He wonders if the failings of Spanish America as of 1992 can be alleviated by ceasing to follow Anglo-American and French political and economic models, and instead to forge something new grounded in the traditions of Spain and the New World. Nevertheless, this post-colonial vision of Hispanic unity is vague. Should it be based on Roman law? Or the supposed democracy of Spanish towns?

Spanish America has much changed since the pre-NAFTA days, but I think The Buried Mirror is worthy of revival. The book is easy to find but the documentary should be remastered in HD from the film source to make it viewable for contemporary audiences.

Edinburgh, April 2020