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

Open Seas: Welles on the March!

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Marching Song: A Play by Orson Welles with Roger Hill; edited by Todd Tarbox. 178 pp. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

Like a few other American giants—Mark Twain and Duke Ellington come to mind—Orson Welles left behind vast archives of unreleased work in varying states of completion. He’s been dead for thirty-five years but we’re still catching up with his oceanically ambitious—albeit frequently frustrated—creative life.

The latest rediscovered Welles work is Marching Song. This play about the radical abolitionist John Brown was written in 1932 with some help from Welles’s teacher and lifelong friend Roger Hill. It was only staged twice in 1950 by the amateur drama club at Welles’s alma mater, the Todd School for Boys. Its publication caps a decade’s worth of posthumous treats including the Too Much Johnson workprint (amusing silent comedy sequences filmed in 1938), the half-hour Merchant of Venice intended for TV (1969), and, most prominently, the Netflix reconstruction and completion of his feature The Other Side of the Wind (1970-76). Meanwhile, paintings and drawings from Beatrice Welles’s personal collection have been exhibited and published by Titan Books as Orson Welles Portfolio, and two books of transcribed conversations remind us that Welles was one of the world’s great talkers. Not a bad haul for Welles fans—and more pieces to fit into an unfinishable jigsaw puzzle.

One of those books of conversation, Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts (2013), was edited by Hill’s grandson Todd Tarbox. Now returning with his edition of Marching Song, Tarbox argues for a better recognition of Welles the writer, and wishes that Welles’s “newspaper and magazine articles, radio and print essays, movie scripts, speeches, and letters were bound between the covers of a book.” Welles certainly deserves a Heminges and Condell to compile this notional Orsonian First Folio, although it’s certain to be thick as a telephone book. In the meantime Tarbox has made a laudable gesture towards that ambition with this slim volume, a very good quarto indeed.

Writing was an essential first step of the creative process for almost everything Welles made for film, television, radio, or stage, but he only occasionally wrote specifically for publication. This is why despite a scattering of published books in various languages—plays, screenplays, dubiously-credited novelizations—Welles’s writing exists in relative obscurity. Perhaps inspired by Shakespeare’s example, he seemed not very concerned with his writerly legacy. Only a few of his plays were actually published, namely Moby Dick–Rehearsed in 1956 and a volume bundling two short plays (The Unthinking Lobster and Fair Warning) in French translation in 1952. Others, such as Time Runs… (1950), were performed but never published. A number of additional plays await both premiere staging and publication, an opportunity for enterprising theatre directors. (I examined the late 1950s cold war comedy Brittle Glory at the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin a few summers ago.)

Written by a seventeen-year-old, Marching Song is by definition juvenilia, although that might not mean very much when speaking of the precocious Orson Welles. Tarbox’s volume contains the complete play accompanied by reproductions of Welles’s set sketches and photographs from the 1950 Todd Troupers production (directed by Tarbox’s father, Hascy). There is also a long and engaging introduction by Tarbox that explores Welles’s crucial relationship with Hill. It quotes in full poems Welles wrote for school publications as well as generous passages from the Highland Park News column he wrote as a teenager—including a lively dispatch from Japan. Most valuable of all are the letters Welles wrote to both Hill and his guardian Maurice Bernstein on a painting tour of Ireland in 1931. We encounter the boy in thrall to Irish culture and on the verge of his first professional experience on the stage (“Scores” of additional letters from Welles’s youth, once in the collection of Beatrice Welles, are now archived at the University of Michigan.)

Marching Song‘s 1857-59 setting predates the action of Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles’s back-to-back recreations of post-Lincoln America. The play is unsurprisingly ambitious. Welles’s sketches illustrate his plans for innovative sets and lighting. Keeping in mind the preliminary condition of all of Welles’s scripts, certain to be transformed by the happy “accidents” of production, this extant draft is a tad talky and expositional, with a swollen dramatis personae. It is no apparent lost masterpiece, although with its speculations by journalists on the true nature of John Brown, a charismatic and dangerous ‘great man’, it certainly seems like a model for future Welles dramas.

Tarbox’s epilogue, ‘The Social Conscience of Orson Welles,’ helps contextualize Marching Song as an early entry in Welles’s long agitation for racial justice. He includes fifteen pages of transcripts from Welles’s 1946 radio commentaries on the scandal surrounding Isaac Woodard, a black World War II veteran brutally blinded by a policeman in South Carolina. It is valuable to have these stirring texts in book form for the first time. The epilogue makes a helpful supplement to Michael Denning’s study of Welles as a radical political artist in The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996).

Edinburgh, April 2020

Originally published at Wellesnet: The Orson Welles Web Resource on April 6, 2020.

Header image is a detail from The Last Moments of John Brown (1882–84) by Thomas Hovenden at The Met. Public domain.

Open Seas: Twain Goes West

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Roughing It by Mark Twain. 590 pp. Penguin, 1981 [1872].

I’ve recently come to the conclusion that Mark Twain is best read in dog-eared, mass-market paperback. You can keep your fancy collectable and critical editions — no point wearing white tie and tails to a hootenanny. That said, I once maintained more elevated bibliophilic tastes and over the years owned various pseudo-deluxe Twain anthologies such as the Folio Society’s shiny slipcased Treasury and a tall, half-leatherette collection from Readers Digest. My shelves once displayed a handsome pair of blue and grey cloth volumes (Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer) liberated from a Nelson-Doubleday set of complete novels. But my attitude changed recently when I read Roughing It in handy, democratic paperback format on the Brussels-Paris Megabus route. It did fine. Shortly after that, back home in Edinburgh, I decided to sell my copy of the unexpurgated Autobiography (the first pedantically annotated volume of three). The book dealer was admiring but despaired of its massive bulk and, with apologies, refused to take it. No shelf space.

Roughing It may be a hefty six hundred pages but, like all Twain’s travel books, should ideally fit in your pocket. Sure, the Iowa-California critical edition of 1972 features an excellent map of the American southwest on its endpapers, but it’s too cumbersome for the bus and especially the Megabus — and the stagecoach, for that matter. This is a book to read on your own travels or while lying on the beach. Tolerant of extended gaps in reading, it’s useful to have on hand for an idle moment.

Twain wrote his various books of comic memoir out of order. Roughing It narrates a fanciful version of his “variegated vagabondizing” from 1861-67, chronologically following the period he would eventually set down in Life on the Mississippi (1883), the story of his early manhood. In 1861 Twain went west with his brother Orion Clemens, newly crowned Secretary to the Nevada Territory. Twain covers episodes from his ill-fated career prospecting for gold and silver, his days as an often-desperate newspaper columnist in Virginia City, and his arrival in San Francisco. The book is relaxed enough to include such asides as a contemptuous history of the Mormon church. The last chunk of the book recounts his travels to Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands) in 1866. Plenty of humorous chapters can be read as self-contained fictions — ‘Buck Fanshaw’s Funeral’, ‘Bemis Finds Refuge in a Tree’, the story of the bandit Slade.

Roughing It is endlessly interested in the details of how things worked. “Information appears to stew out of me naturally, like the precious ottar of roses,” he writes. Here is the Old West in all of its grit, hardship, and natural majesty. It is not, as Twain puts it, “a pretentious history or philosophical dissertation.” Nor does it dwell on his personal life or development throughout these years. For that reason it pleasantly, rather than compellingly, rambles from place to place, adventure to adventure, joke to joke. The extended Hawaiian section, largely reworked from newspaper articles, would really be more suited to a separate book (the original articles were indeed posthumously  published as Letters from Hawaii in 1966). A reasonably satisfying conclusion to Roughing It is provided by Twain’s first success as a lecturer back in San Francisco, although ‘lecturer’ may be misleading; by the account here, he was a prototypical stand-up comic. The book itself, like a string of routines, endlessly delivers the punchlines. The young Twain’s observations and exaggerations are grotesquely racist on occasion, more concerned with pandering to the prejudices of his nineteenth century readership for laughs than with anything else.

I’m surprised this big baggy book has not been more frequently adapted for film and television. There’s no shortage of dramatic episodes, ambuscades, and ironic reversals — all set in the epic landscapes of the American southwest. A fine comic western could be strung together from this raw material.

Twain rarely flags as an entertainer, but this kind of episodic book inevitably tempts anthologists to dig for choice nuggets. In addition to Life on the Mississippi, Twain wrote three travel memoirs in a similarly expansive and picaresque format: The Innocents Abroad (1869), A Tramp Abroad (1880), and Following the Equator (1897). Charles Neider was the prominent Twain anthologist of the mid-20th century (in 1959 he edited the most readable version of the Autobiography from that mountain of rambling dictations more recently published verbatim, and in that unwieldy and shelf-clogging format, by the University of California). Neider selected his preferred moments from all five memoirs and put together 450 pages as The Travels of Mark Twain (1960). For casual Twain readers, backpackers and bus riders, it might be just right — and it is available in paperback.

Edinburgh, April 2020

Publication: Essay on Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

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My new article at Bright Lights Film Journal, based on archival research at the University of Michigan and the Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin: At Sea, In Port, Up the River: Orson Welles’s Conrad Adaptations

See also a related interview with Ray Kelly at Wellesnet: Orson Welles’ fascination with the works of Joseph Conrad

Part of this work was presented at the Joseph Conrad Society conference in London in July 2019. See a report at Unproduced Orson Welles ‘Surinam’ script to be detailed by Matthew Asprey Gear at literary conference

Moseby Confidential: an extract, reviews, and podcast appearances

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Read an extract from Moseby Confidential: Arthur Penn’s Night Moves and the Rise of Neo-Noir at Bright Lights Film Journal: The Birth of Night Moves: Alan Sharp on the Edge of America

Reviews

Tony Williams at Film International
Jonathan Kirshner at Midcentury Cinema
Andrew Nette at Pulp Curry
Don Herron at Up and Down These Mean Streets
Andy Wolverton at Journeys in Darkness and Light

Podcast interviews

The Projection Booth (26 Sept 2019)
Films(trips) (31 Aug 2019)
Filmwax Radio, Episode 563 (4 Jul 2019)

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For more information see the book page at Jorvik Press

Open Seas: Shylock Must Die

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Shylock Must Die by Clive Sinclair. 192 pp. Halban, 2018.

Clive Sinclair seems to have taken to heart the hot tip Isaac Bashevis Singer gave him in the seventies: “Never begin a story until you are convinced that you are the only person who can write it.” Here was not just permission but an imperative to write about one’s idiosyncratic obsessions. In Sinclair’s case, a Jewish Londoner born in 1948, those included such things as John Wayne and Israel, Kafka and Tintin, anal sex and football. Sinclair’s seemingly incongruous lifelong enthusiasms proved to be a sustaining source of plots–many of his stories are the fictionalised travelogues of a far-seeking pilgrim–and also of enlightening metaphors. His unmistakable voice delivered all the necessary coherence, the singular vision.

When I interviewed him at his home in Chelsea in early 2011, I was surprised by the contrast between the cosmopolitan elegance of his prose–both in his fiction and in his emails–and unpretentious Clive in the flesh, who seemed already significantly older than his early sixties, evidently worn down by the grief and kidney disease of his middle-age. Yet his “soap opera from hell,” as he had memorably put it, had not ruined him. He remained kind, funny, and generous. He was still eagerly engaged with literature and politics as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. He’d pushed through into a long and fruitful second act despite the decline of the literary fame he’d achieved in the 1980s. The stories, I think, had become richer.

Clive died on March 5 but has left his readers with a final book, Shylock Must Die. As he had used the western genre in True Tales of the Wild West (2008), he latterly turned to Shakespeare’s Shylock as the spark for six occasionally interconnected comic stories that explore his classic themes of Jewishness and antisemitism, fathers and sons, illness and death. He freely ranges across the centuries and the map. There are fewer cowboys and less eroticism than usual. Several stories are populated by members of two twentieth century Anglo-Jewish families whose fishy names–Carp and Salmon–are courtesy of a facetious Prussian bureaucracy in long-abandoned Warsaw. The Salmons closely resemble the Sinclairs of Hendon in London, which means the ridiculously-named son Calman is Clive’s alter-ego.

This collection’s eponymous novella was first published in Death & Texas (2014) and reappears as the anchoring tale of the new book. As Wide Sargasso Sea challenged the Victorian trope of the Mad Woman in the Attic by giving us her point of view, ‘Shylock Must Die’ provides a rather more comic retelling of The Merchant of Venice through another set of Venetian blinds — those of Tubal, Jewish P. I. (“two hundred ducats a day, plus expenses.”) It turns out that Shakespeare’s dramatisation of the unusual legal squabble between Shylock and Antonio was highly selective and misleading. Antonio and Bassanio are, in fact, ruthless murderers of a Jewish boy and Shylock is a mensch, the pound of flesh a clause intended to fulfill “divine justice.” Meanwhile, Shylock’s disloyal daughter Jessica is the silly dupe of Lorenzo, who sells her to white-slavers bound for the Americas. Tubal is given the thankless job of rescuing her from a ship in Genoa. Jessica finally wises up and turns femme fatale.

‘Tears of the Giraffe’ is another tale of the generation gap. Two teenage Swedish Hitler enthusiasts will discover the inconvenient fact they have a Jewish mother during the Nazi era. The story is bookended by stage productions that suggest the mutability of Shakespeare. A German-language Hamlet at Elsinore itself in 1940 presents Claudius as a Shylock-type with “lank greasy hair, and a nose that could cut a path through the north-west passage.” When Claudius virtually confesses his murderous crime during the play-within-the-play, the audience/mob cries spontaneously “Kill the Jew!” Yet four horrible years later, when The Merchant is staged at Stockholm’s Royal Dramatic Theatre, Shylock is a sympathetic Swedish-accented victim.

Clive sometimes mentioned his plans to write a lucrative novel about a detective to whom he would lend his own failed kidneys. It would be preceded by a prequel set in the detective’s dialysis-free childhood and inspired by the Tintin adventure The Castafiore Emerald (1962). He never seems to have found a worthy villain for his detective novel, but the prequel was achieved here as ‘A Wilderness of Monkeys.’ Calman Salmon is the detective-to-be. In 1961 the Salmons holiday in Venice’s Hotel Belmont, which has only recently re-opened its doors to a quota of Jews. Mr. Salmon buys a ruby necklace for his wife, which leads to an accusation of cat-burglary by an antisemitic Contessa, a trial, and a payoff that reaches into the present day.

The other stories take place mostly in our own era and fictionalise several Shylock-inspired peregrinations. One incorporates a 2012 performance of The Merchant in Hebrew by Jerusalem’s Habima Theatre at the Globe amid heavy security and persistent heckles. Clive told me how fascinated he’d been by the strange situation of Jews attacked for attempting to stage and watch an antisemitic play. Although not without sympathy for the plight of Palestinians, Clive resented the self-righteousness of the English protesters, many of whom he identified as antisemites, and “the unspoken assertion that if you were not with the hecklers, then you were a latter-day Shylock yourself, demanding your pound of Palestinian flesh.”

Other stories arose from his attendance at Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s mock trial of Shylock in the Venetian Ghetto in 2016 and a visit to the Venetian Resort Hotel in Las Vegas. In the Vegas story, a fast-moving political fantasy of the American West, his fictional hotel mogul Shy Lokshen — descending, of course, from Jessica and Lorenzo — creates a golem who becomes a Trump-like President. Incidentally, Clive emailed me in late 2016 to describe how much he had enjoyed taking a swing at a Trump piñata in Santa Cruz. Finally, ‘Shylock’s Ghost’ takes an ageing Calman to the Hendon film set of his son’s “reboot” of Merchant. He slips through a time portal and briefly visits his long-dead parents in the company of the 18th century actor Charles Macklin (in the guise of Shylock). Our narrator returns to the present but on the final page is fading away, appearing to his son “as insubstantial as a kodachrome.”

With a prefatory tribute to the late Israeli painter Yosl Bergner and a epigraph from Hamlet on the death of fathers, this is an unavoidably death-haunted book. And yet Clive did not allow the unappealing coming attraction to strip out the zest, humour, and searing intelligence he brought to all of his inimitable, individual, profoundly human stories.

 

[Image: Orson Welles as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice (1969)]

Publication: Orson Welles, ‘V.I.P.’, and other discoveries in Turin

TURINO

My report for Wellesnet on my recent Welles research in Turin.

VIVA ITALIA! – REPORT ON ARCHIVAL DISCOVERIES IN TURIN

by Matthew Asprey Gear

“A few weeks ago I visited Italy’s Museo Nazionale Del Cinema in Turin on a research project under the sponsorship of the Ernest Hemingway Society. While there I not only made significant discoveries to aid my project, but also had the chance to survey the highlights of a largely unexplored archive that should excite all Wellesians….”

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Ray Kelly of Wellesnet also writes on another discovery of mine:

LOST NOVEL CREDITED TO ORSON WELLES UNEARTHED IN TURIN

“A previously unknown English-language novel credited to Orson Welles has been discovered in the archives of the National Museum of Cinema in Turin.

“The bound hardcover typescript of V.I.P. ― mistakenly cataloged at one point by the museum as a treatment for the movie The V.I.P.’s  or V.I.P ― is an English version of Welles’ French novel Une Grosse Legume (A Big Shot), translated by Maurice Bessy and published by Gallimard Editions of Paris in 1953, according to Matthew Asprey Gear, author of At The End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City.”

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Appearance: John Updike Society in Belgrade

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On June 4 I presented a paper “Mustered Opinions: John Updike’s Non-Fiction Collections” at the Fifth Biennial John Updike Society Conference at the Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade in Serbia.

The abstract:

“John Updike was one of the most wide-ranging and conscientious book reviewers in the history of American publishing. For half a century he operated as a “psychotic Santa of volubility” (in the words of Martin Amis), producing hundreds of reviews and occasional essays for the New Yorker and other publications.

“Updike assembled compendiums of this non-fictional prose at regular intervals throughout his career: Assorted Prose (1965), Picked-Up Pieces (1975), Hugging the Shore (1983), Odd Jobs (1991), More Matter (1999), and Due Considerations (2007). Despite the seeming modesty of their titles, and the mock-apologetic tone of their prefaces, these collections are enormously ambitious and comprehensive.

“This paper critically examines Updike’s methods of collating his non-fictional prose, the efforts of a meticulous self-anthologist building a uniform oeuvre. It will discuss critical responses to Updike’s collections, as well as contrasting publication practices by contemporary essayists including Anthony Burgess and Gore Vidal.”

The program of the conference is HERE