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Summer Reading 2011

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Reviewed here: Remembering Mr. Shawn's New Yorker; In Pursuit of Silence; Trauma Farm; Hitch-22; Last Train to Memphis; Elvis: In the Twilight of Memory

Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art of Editing by Ved Mehta, 1998

Ved Mehta first came to my attention years ago with his marvellous New Yorker articles about growing up in India. Being blind, he developed what he called, if I remember correctly, a type of "face vision": he was able to tell that he was getting close to objects by changes in the air around his face. He thus allowed himself tremendous freedom of movement, terrifying his family by racing around the city on his bicycle. His articles about his childhood also included fascinating scenarios such as the one in which one of his giggling sisters was preparing for her first meeting with a potential husband in an arranged marriage.

Before these articles appeared, I now learn, Mr. Mehta had had a long career as a New Yorker writer. And it comes as very good news to find out that he eventually wrote a memoir about his years at the magazine. If ever you wanted to know what life was like behind the scenes at that august and celebrated organization, this is the book that will satisfy virtually every aspect of your curiosity.

For Mr. Mehta, it all started back in the late 1950s, when he was an Oxford graduate, doing post-graduate studies at Harvard. He’d previously published an autobiography Face to Face but wasn’t having any luck selling a whimsical piece that he wanted to write about his visit to India after several years of study abroad. One day he was discussing the article’s possibilities with Norman Cousins, the editor of The Saturday Review and a friend of Mr. Mehta’s father. Mr. Cousins suddenly jumped up, made a phone call, then handed over the phone and told Mr. Mehta that William Shawn, the New Yorker editor, was on the line, waiting to hear about the article. Mr. Mehta had, of course, heard of The New Yorker and its legendary editor but he wasn’t very familiar with the magazine, feeling it was too sophisticated for him. But Mr. Shawn invited him to drop in for tea that afternoon. After a long and very cordial meeting, Mr. Shawn said the India piece didn’t sound like a New Yorker article but he would read it when it was written. He did, he loved it and decided to publish it.

Soon, Mr. Mehta found himself installed in one of The New Yorker’s cubbyhole offices as one of the magazine’s regular contributors. And so he began to live the dream of some thousands of writers across the world. But it didn’t take long for the dark side of the dream to assert itself. Being a New Yorker writer didn’t mean financial security. The writers weren’t paid for a piece until it was actually accepted for publication. In the meantime, they were allowed to draw on a monthly allowance, the amounts of such withdrawals being deducted from their eventual pay. This meant a writer could live in constant dread of never being able to catch up on his withdrawals if he or she didn’t sell enough articles to the magazine.

And Mr. Mehta had his own particular fears. Every time he submitted an article in those early years, he fully expected that it would be rejected outright. Most of them weren’t. But some failures did occur. Like an article that he laboured over at great length on the prospects for a desalinization process. On reading it, Mr. Shawn simply declared that, since the desalinization method was so expensive, he couldn’t see the relevance of publishing the article. A piece of short fiction that Mr. Mehta submitted was rejected. It also seemed that every published article of his had a way of attracting threatening law suits – most of which The New Yorker ignored in its majestic way.

But the anxiety they caused Mr. Mehta was quelled only Mr. Shawn’s reassurance. There’s no question that something like a Platonic love affair developed between them. Mr. Mehta virtually admits as much. "I am aware that I sound as if I had fallen in love with Mr. Shawn," he says. But, he explains, it wasn’t like being in love with a woman, when you feel the loss of a sense of self and all your wishes and desires are subordinated to her. That kind of love’ can be seen as a sickness. The love for Mr. Shawn, by contrast, was a sign of health, in that Mr. Shawn’s kindness and generosity, his lack of preconceptions and of condescension helped Mr. Mehta to discover his true self as a writer.

Still, Mr. Mehta was so in awe of Mr. Shawn that he could never come to address him by his first name, even though Mr. Shawn had invited him to. (Hence the somewhat formal sound to the title of this book.) One thing that becomes clear to the reader – to this one, at least – is that a lot of Mr. Shawn’s concern for Mr. Mehta had to do with the fact that the latter was blind. Not only did Mr. Shawn provide Mr. Mehta with a typist who was at his beck and call but Mr. Shawn also hunted around Manhattan for a suitable apartment for his young protg. It’s hard to picture the distinguished editor taking time off from his very pressing duties to do something like that for any other writer.

On this point of Mr. Mehta’s blindness, though, I have a slight problem: he reports on things as if he were not blind, as if he were seeing them through his own eyes. For instance, he’ll say that, at a certain party Mr. Shawn was wearing a blue suit and that he sat on a sofa and held hands with his wife, Cecille. Granted, Mr. Mehta may have developed great perspicacity by virtue of his other four senses – as he says he did – but how can he have known that Mr. Shawn was wearing a blue suit and holding hands with his wife? Mr. Mehta does eventually touch on this question. He makes passing references to an amanuensis who helps him on a daily basis and, from time to time, he’ll mention hiring readers to assist him. He also gives full credit to a woman who joined him on one of his trips to remote areas of India, helping him to round out his reportage with her impressions. But questions like the one about the blue suit and the hand-holding still occasionally cropped up in my reading of this memoir.

Which is not to denigrate the writing in any way or to say that it doesn’t provide great pleasure. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it has the great virtue of reading like New Yorker prose – smooth, elegant and crystal clear. You never stumble over syntax or meaning. Thanks to Mr. Mehta’s expos, if it can be called that, you get some insight into how The New Yorker managed to produce such chaste, pristine prose week after week. The various proofs of every article went through a battalion of editors and checkers, over and over again. You can see how that would weed out even the minutest flaws and discrepancies. To Mr. Mehta’s astonishment, he discovered that editors even gave serious attention to the sounds of words before approving a sentence, as though they were dealing with musical compositions. The New Yorker had an agreement with the printing plant that changes could be made up until a certain time on the morning of the actual printing, although alterations at that point would be very expensive. Mr. Shawn phoned Mr. Mehta one morning just before the time was up to ask, whether, all things considered, "left-wing intellectual" was quite the right description of someone.

That query illustrates what Mr. Mehta extols as one of the great virtues of The New Yorker and of its editor: nothing was published, he says, without the agreement of the writer. In this respect, it appears, Mr. Shawn was scrupulous to the point of being fastidious. When Mr. Mehta commented ruefully, after Mr. Shawn had shepherded one of his articles to completion, that now it was Mr. Shawn’s piece, rather than Mr. Mehta’s, the former said that, on the contrary, he had only helped to bring out Mr. Mehta’s individual voice more clearly. That’s the point of the subtitle of this memoir. Apparently, though, not all writers were as amenable to proposed changes as Mr. Mehta was. It’s amusing to eavesdrop on Mr. Shawn’s battle to persuade film critic Pauline Kael to change "ass" to "derrire" and "crap" to "ordure".

Quite another kind of skill was required for soothing the ravings of The New Yorker’s drunks, neurotics and psychos. (Mr. Mehta can be surprisingly candid about the personal demons of some of the writers.) Many times, when some kind of fiasco was brewing, the editor had to abandon his literary labours and come running in the combined capacities of father confessor, psychiatrist, doctor, nanny and school principal. The emphasis, in Mr. Mehta’s telling, is always on the extreme courtesy and gentleness of the editor. He could be very firm with people, but always in the kindest possible way. When something of a staff mutiny was brewing over some opinion pieces that many of the magazine’s writers considered unsuitable, Mr. Shawn listened attentively to everyone’s objections, then announced very simply that he didn’t see how a magazine could be edited by a committee. In other words, his word was final.

In fact, it wouldn’t be too much to say that it was his own mind that shaped The New Yorker. If he felt an article was interesting, it was published, and that’s all there was to it. Sometimes, he admitted, an article might be of interest to no more than twelve readers. But as long as he thought the article should see the light of day, it did. He acknowledged that The New Yorker was a "miracle", in that it had always kept to the high road and had never resorted to controversy or sensationalism in order to boost sales. It shouldn’t have survived the commercial constraints of the publishing business. But it had, because it was true to itself, he felt, and he was determined to keep it that way.

Ultimately, as we know, he couldn’t. New ownership of the magazine entailed a demand for changes, with the result that Mr. Shawn’s celebrated career at the helm for more than three decades ended in 1987. Maybe it’s to be expected that Mr. Mehta, given his loyalties, isn’t much impressed with subsequent developments at the magazine (at least up to the 1998 publishing of this memoir). I find it hard to say whether or not what happened was inevitable. In terms of personal consequences, it certainly is regrettable that it ended so ignominiously for Mr. Shawn. But, when you’re dealing with the tricky combination of art and business, who can say which decisions are the right ones? The magazine has – thankfully – survived. It’s much changed, admittedly, and nothing like as flawless as it used to be, but it still provides a steady stream of excelling writing and lots of must-read articles. Would it have continued to do so under the ageing Mr. Shawn or under the editors he would like to have groomed as his successors? I don’t know. But there’s no gainsaying the glory of his years as editor.

As for his character, there's no question that what we have here is a cause for canonization. I can think of only one point for a devil's advocate to raise. And that would be the affair with Lillian Ross, one of The New Yorker’s writers. Tucked away in her own apartment, she acted as more or less an alternate wife to Mr. Shawn. Mr. Mehta makes no mention of this dubious aspect of his subject's life, except for one passing reference to the "intimate" relationship between Ms. Ross and Mr. Shawn. Since Mr. Mehta obviously knew about it, you have to wonder if it was fully honest of him to omit this rather large blemish from the glowing portrait of his hero. Perhaps Mr. Mehta’s justification would be that the affair had nothing to do with his writing for The New Yorker or his relationship with Mr. Shawn.

Even so, a person trying to appreciate Mr. Shawn’s contribution to the world of arts and culture can’t help wondering about this anomaly in his character. (In reaching my own conclusion about the mystery, I'm helped by his son Allen's memoir Wish I Could Be There, reviewed on the Dilettante's Diary page titled Fall Reading 2010.) It seems that Mr. Shawn was a very sensitive person who got himself into a situation where he was being unfair to two women but he couldn’t see any way out of it without causing great pain to one or the other of them. Sometimes, apparently, life can't be tidied up, even by somebody who’s so meticulous about crossing all his t’s and dotting all his i’s.

Footnote: In response to my review, I received this comment from Mr. Mehta about his not mentioning the Shawn-Ross affair: "I grew up in a world and an era when one didn't discuss people's private lives. Maybe we lost something by leaving such matters out of a piece of writing, but I think on the whole, we gain something." Quite! It's just that, because so much more is known about the matter these many years later, it inevitably raises questions in the mind of anybody interested in the amazing character of Mr. Shawn.

 

In Pursuit of Silence (Social Studies) by George Prochnick, 2010

A book about silence – sounds good to me! (Pun intended) Some would even say that my life might be construed, in some important ways, as a flight from the cacophony of contemporary civilization.

And, in keeping with my expectations, this book did please me – in some ways. Author Prochnick starts with a visit to a Trappist monastery in Dubuque, Iowa. Monasteries are some of the few places in our world where silence is honoured and I love them for that. Mr. Prochnick’s tribute to this monastery is very satisfying. His account of experiencing two minutes of silence in Israel on Holocaust Memorial Day is very moving. Among the descriptions of such scenarios, we get intriguing factoids about the science of sound and hearing. Did you know it’s the gaps between words that enable us to make sense of spoken language? I bet you didn’t have any idea that it’s during the silent passages in music that our brains, while listening, tend to be most active. And here's a real ego-booster for us silent-seekers: apparently, silent meditation helps people’s brains to function more efficiently in that they have learned to filter out distractions.

As for those distractions, Mr. Prochnick delves into some of the causes of and reasons for so much of the noise in our world. He interviews people who program background music for department stores. He visits "boom car" competitions where the sole object of the game is to see whose car can make the most noise. Do I really want to read about these people? No. Somewhat more pertinent to me is Mr. Prochnick’s review of the few successes and mostly the failures of anti-noise legislation. I also found the chapter on methods of sound-proofing enlightening. At one point, Mr. Prochnick's quest takes him to a college for deaf people, to gain some appreciation of the special qualities of architecture designed for them. In the end, Mr. Prochnick says that perhaps, instead of fighting noise, the best we can do is try to establish more places devoted to silence: Japanese gardens, for instance.

Not a conclusion I would object to. To tell the truth, though, I didn’t read all of the intervening chapters very carefully. Mr. Prochnick has written his book as a personal quest and I simply didn’t find him engaging enough to be carried along on the journey with him. Instead, his writing kept making me think not of a co-traveller but of a journalist who’s scrambling to cover all the bases, to come up with enough material to make a book. (It takes seven pages to list all the people he consulted.) Granted, much of the material could prove helpful to people – city planners, architects, artists – who want to know more about the balance between noise and silence. But Mr. Prochnick’s constantly citing studies which "may prove" this or "might prove" that, or hypotheses suggesting that "perhaps"our ears developed according to such and such an evolutionary impulse. All the speculation doesn’t really grab me.

So what kind of a book would I have preferred on the subject of silence? Maybe something more contemplative, more poetic. Perhaps the problem is that, when it comes to silence, there really isn’t much to say.

 

Trauma Farm (Memoir) by Brian Brett, 2009

Once you’ve heard about Brian Brett, you can’t forget him. He had a very difficult childhood and youth because of an aberrant gene that meant he had no male hormones. The condition was eventually diagnosed as Kallman’s Syndrome but, in the meantime, it made for a lot of conflict with a world that didn’t understand him. Nor did the conflict subside when he began taking testosterone (See my review of his book about all that, Uproar’s Your Only Music, on Dilettante’s Diary page dated July 10/05.) Now he’s a well-known British Columbia poet and he’s been living for nearly twenty years on a rugged, old-style farm on Saltspring Island, where he and his wife Sharon, who also works as an ER nurse, have raised kids, innumerable animals and various crops.

His account of this life, Trauma Farm, offers lots to enjoy and even to admire: the feeling of living close to nature; the independent spirit; the grim, fatalistic humour; the indomitable ego; the slapstick comedy of many catastrophes. You find yourself sinking into the rhythm of the life when he describes such a thing as, for example, the willow tree with all its virtues. There’s a Walden Pond quality to the reflections. The personification of animals can get a bit cutesy at times but you can’t help being convinced of Mr. Brett’s deep feeling for them. (Mind you, I think it’s a bit much when he speaks of humans as "simple-minded" compared to cows.) We pick up interesting lore about crops like apples and about phenomena like the interplay between the life cycles of tent caterpillars and wasps. He deplores the breach of our connection with nature and he shudders for the future of humanity. It’s notable that, in spite of lingering medical difficulties stemming from his birth condition, he shows no self-pity; in fact, the matter is only referred to a couple of times. And the last two chapters make for a very beautiful meditation on the wonder and astonishment at being a living creature on this amazing earth.

Not that the picture Mr. Brett paints of farm life is an idyllic one. It comes through very clearly that life on this farm is a constant struggle against formidable odds. There’s never time to do all the necessary work; things get done on an emergency basis. He makes the salutary point that farms – and especially gardens – never measure up in reality to our fantasies of what they’re going to be like. (Speaking of the imagination-vs-reality thing, we hear so much about the house and the barns that a few photos or drawings would have been very welcome.) It was an eye-opener to me to read about the endless battle with predators: rats, raccoons, eagles. And to hear that gentle, brown-eyed deer are wrecking the ecology of Saltspring Island.

As for another destroyer of natural habitats, Mr. Brett speaks of Vancouverites who blithely pick up their packaged meat at the grocery story without any thought of the cruel treatment likely meted out to the animal that provided the meat; yet these same people shed copious tears at the suggestion of a cull of the aggressive and invasive Canada Geese that are contaminating the city’s lagoons and driving rare ducks away. I wanted to jump up and cheer at that line. (The last time a Canada Goose looked good to me was back in the 1950s when it was on the airmail stamps my mother put on her letters to the USA.)

And yet, this was one of those books that I kept reading mainly in order to settle a nagging question: was the book going to get better or worse?

Part of the problem could be that Mr. Brett’s writing isn’t up to the task he’s taken on. Some of his comic scenes work well but, in others, it’s hard to tell what’s going on. The narrative skill isn’t polished enough. For a poet, Mr. Brett has a disconcerting way with words. He speaks of a very gifted vet who has a "flagrant" touch with an injured dog. In a discussion of how diseases leapt from animals to humans, he speaks of the "more agreeable" immune systems of some livestock. When he says that he and his wife "motored" to the Okanagan, you wonder if he’s purposely trying for an archaic effect. Syntax can be skewed at times: "While urban people tend to hold a bucolic view of rural life, but the idyllic farm of children’s tales has also had a long history of barbarity and ugly practices;" [sic]

For all his love of nature, Mr. Brett can be carelessly imprecise in his description: saying that a pig can dig out a "four-foot tree stump", he fails to tell us whether it’s four feet wide or tall. At one point he refers to "permaculture" but doesn’t define it until 16 pages later. At another point, if I’m reading correctly, he says that he doesn’t keep horses on the farm any longer. Later, though, he refers to a horse that clearly still lives on the farm. You keep thinking that maybe Mr. Brett’s a better poet than a prose writer but, of the four or five poems he includes, only one seems anything other than unremarkably bland. And the reason that one poem stands out may be that it presents such a striking scenario: a farmer lying beside a dying lamb.

Among other literary deficits, none of the characters come through very strongly. Mr. Brett often refers to the members of a Byron family, as though they’re important local fixtures, but I never got a very clear fix on any of them. As for Mr. Brett’s relationship with his wife, I’m not here to refute what any man says about his marriage. But the rapport between Brian and Sharon comes across as a tiresome cliche: the practical, down-to-earth, sensible woman who grudgingly and resignedly puts up with a wacko husband.

But the more fundamental problem with the book, it seems to me, is that Mr. Brett has decided to make his memoir do double duty as a brief history of farming. Hence, the book is structured as though it’s taking place in one very long day during which memories of eighteen years on this particular farm are interspersed with disquisitions on farming methods throughout the ages and on the dangers currently threatening agriculture. The one-day structure doesn’t work to much effect. (No reason, for instance, why you should be talking about any particular subject in the morning instead of the afternoon or evening.) Given the historical/sociological slant, the writing can get boringly prosaic at times – as when, for example, we’re getting a survey of breakfast habits for humans throughout the world.

What mars the book more seriously, though, is the way that Mr. Brett keeps throwing in jibes about everything that currently militates against the viability of the small, independent farm. You could whip up a pastiche of his writing in this vein just by tossing in words like: government, agribusiness, corporation, science, sterility, regulation, paranoia, pesticide, toxic, poison, factory farming. It’s not that I’m in favour of all those things. It’s just that Mr. Brett seldom offers a thoughtful consideration of the issues. It’s as though he’s talking to a group of friends and he knows they’ll respond with knee-jerk horror to all his buzz words. On the second last page of the book, he speaks of the need for a balance between factory farming and traditional farming but that’s virtually the first hint of any such reasonableness.

One exception to Mr. Brett’s broadside attack, to the lack of specific argumentation, would be the passage where he talks about Genetically Modified crops. In some detail, he explains how the independent farmer can be held liable if seeds from GM crops nearby drift into his field and start growing. The independent farmer – the victim, really – can be sued for damages and all his own crops can be burned. Such is the stranglehold that agribusiness has on the country’s legislators.

Apart from a very informative passage like that, the writing on social and political issues is mostly intemperate and self-serving. City-dwellers are always shown to be dumb when they visit the farm. When Mr. Brett’s bragging about the great community spirit on Saltspring Island, you want to ask: do you think we city-dwellers don’t ever help our neighbours? do you think our communities aren’t humming with volunteer activity? To me, the man’s smug self-satisfaction crosses a line when he prides himself on the fact that he and his wife "haven’t joined the tracksuit-wearing porkers trolling today’s supermarkets." From the photo on the book’s jacket, it doesn’t look like Mr. Brett is any model of fitness. You wish he’d had an editor who could have helped him to avoid alienating readers. On the other hand, the guy insists so much on his stubborn, cussed nature that he’d probably fire any such editor.

 

Hitch-22 (Memoir) by Christopher Hitchens, 2010

Christopher Hitchens has had a long and distinguished career as a controversial contributor to many publications and as an author of many books. (See our review of his attack on Mother Theresa, The Missionary Position, on Dilettante’s Diary page dated Aug 2/10). But it’s probably his screed God Is Not Great that has come closest to making him something of household name – a name reviled in some of those households and revered in others. I haven’t read that book, although I did read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Mr. Hitchens’s buddy in the war against religion (see review on DD page dated May 21/07). Now that Mr. Hitchens is battling esophageal cancer, maybe we should see what the old reprobate has to say about his life in retrospect.

Right off the bat, the book confirms my impression that many famous Brits come from very odd family scenarios. Not that there was anything untoward about Mr. Hitchens’s actual beginnings. He and his younger brother, Peter, were born to Yvonne and Eric Hitchens, an unexceptional British couple, around the mid-point of the twentieth century. Granted, Yvonne kept her Jewishness secret and Eric was so reticent that his oldest son could, in later life, remember very few quotes from him, other than the injunction that a man should be wary of a woman with thin lips but value one with eyes set far apart. Because of Eric’s service in the navy during the Second World War, the family referred to him as "The Commander". The one quote from him that, says his son, sums up the man was his statement that the war was "the only time in my life when I really felt I knew what I was doing."

Apparently, Yvonne didn’t find The Commander’s uncertainty about postwar life all that entrancing. In middle age, she left him for a former Anglican minister. Shortly afterwards, the couple were found dead in a hotel in Athens. It was first reported to Christopher that his mother had been murdered by her lover but it was soon determined that they had died in a suicide pact. The son’s last contact with his mother had been a telephone conversation that had had a slightly confrontational side to it, on his part. He’d been dismissive and flippant about her plans to emigrate to Israel with her love. And so, with this discovery of his mother’s end, this "howling, lacerating" moment, as he calls it, began a nightmare that appears to have plagued him for the rest of his life.

It wouldn’t be fair, though, to say that that tragedy was the cause of his becoming a contrarian. Long before his mother’s sad end, he had been stirring up trouble in his schools, campaigning for left-wing causes and upsetting educators with his anti-establishment views. One thing he’s surprisingly candid about regarding those school days is his involvement in homosexual activity. Although he says he’s glad to have found in adulthood that he’s not gay, Mr. Hitchens eagerly partook of the only form of sex that was on offer in all-boys schools. (On this subject, he takes up Gore Vidal’s distinction between homosexuality and homosexual acts.) Being blessed with rather refined, not to say effete, good looks, Mr. Hitchens had plenty of offers coming his way. He even admits to falling very much in love with another boy, although the physical contact between them didn’t amount to much other than fondling. Still, it was enough, when discovered, to put him in deep doo-doo with the school authorities.

He survived that crisis, mainly because his parents, appeared to be more embarrassed about the affair and more eager to forget it than he was. In his early manhood, Mr. Hitchens says, he enjoyed occasional homosexual acts, even though he was primarily pursuing women. No doubt, the author considers his gay dalliance a relatively minor theme in the overall picture of his life. Still, I can’t think of any other public figure who has described so honestly a feature of growing up in certain cultures that has often been alluded to but seldom owned in a personal way.

Admittedly, though, that’s not the major thrust of the book. Nor is his attitude to religion. He never misses an opportunity for a sarcastic crack about religious leaders but he doesn’t enter the fray in any sustained way. This remark, in a chapter where he answers people who dismiss a life without religion as meaningless, sums up his thoughts about religious faith: "...if one sought to define meaninglessness and futility, the idea that a human life should be expended in the guilty, fearful, self-obsessed propitiation of supernatural nonentities...but there. Enough."

Most of the book could be considered as a kind of apologia by way of explaining how the young leftist gradually migrated to a position that some would consider much further to the right, if not "neoconservative". In his youthful enthusiasm, he’d attended things like an immersion in the socialist culture of Cuba for young lefties. What was it, then, that prompted Mr. Hitchens’s shift away from the left? A variety of things. One of the first was his anger at the Western world’s lackadaisical response to the fatwah invoked on author Salmon Rushdie. As for 9/11, Mr. Hitchens bridled at the suggestion from some leftists that the US had somehow brought on the attacks by virtue of its supposed arrogance. And then there were the wars in Iraq. Largely from his personal experience of the country, Mr. Hitchens became convinced that the unspeakable tyranny of Saddam Hussein should be opposed with as much force as necessary. Did Saddam not have weapons of mass destruction? Then that made it all the more strategically opportune to attack him! Mr. Hitchens’s only regret about his discussions with Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld’s deputy at the Pentagon, about a possible Iraq invasion was that he (Mr. Hitchens) failed to ask about appropriate follow-up – the aspect of the operation that, as it turned out, the US bungled most notably.

The result of Mr. Hitchens’s political evolution is that we end up with a former leftist in the somewhat paradoxical position of being an apologist for US military intervention – what Mr. Hitchens himself calls a "pro-government dissident." In short, he feels the world needs America’s values and its military to back them up. He has become so convinced of the rightness of what America stands for that he became a US citizen in 2007. The last few chapters of the book appear to be largely an attempt to elucidate how his changed outlook has embroiled him in controversies with such luminaries as Edward Said, Susan Sontag and Noam Chomsky. The going in these chapters can be a bit tough for readers who aren’t fully plugged into the issues or as cognizant with all the factors as Mr. Hitchens is. It feels here as though he’s talking to a close circle of fellow intellectuals.

You have to give him credit, though, for his vast knowledge of the world and his personal experience of so many parts of it. Whether you agree with his various positions or not, you have to stand in awe of his tremendous expertise on so many subjects. Inevitably, though, there’s a quality to the writing that can be off-putting. First, the long-winded-British-intellectual-witty style. A kind of dancing around with words instead of delivering the message plain and unadorned. It’s like a pitcher in a cricket game: tremendous winding up and gyrating before the ball is actually delivered. For example:

The other paradox is that the very multiculturalism and multiethnicity that brought Salman [Rushdie] to the West, and that also made us richer by Hanif Kureishi, Nadeem Aslam, Vikram Seth, Monica Ali, and many others, is now one of the disguises for a uniculturalism, based on moral relativism and moral blackmail (in addition to some more obvious blackmail of the less moral sort) whereby the Enlightenment has been redefined as "white" and "oppressive," mass illegal immigration threatens to spoil everything for everybody, and the figure of the free-floating transnational migrant has been deposed by the contorted face of the psychopathically religious international nihilist, praying for the day when his messianic demands will coincide with possession of an apocalyptic weapon.

Phew! But maybe that’s just the kind of riff that’s expected of any wordsmith of Mr. Hitchens’s renown. The aspect of the writing that’s somewhat more irritating is the constant negativity. And yet, to say that Mr. Hitchens is a contrarian is hardly to level a criticism, because it’s the prickly nature of his approach to most things that has made his career. It comes naturally, he explains: he’d rather prolong an argument than risk being bored. And it’s hard to get all prudish and judgmental about a guy who readily admits that there’s a "meretricious, want-it-both-ways" side to himself.

Still, the polemical quality of the writing does grate. His opponents are always made to look like idiots and fools. (The "pious born-again creep Jimmy Carter"....???) Nobody’s right but Mr. Hitchens. Regarding the Salman Rushdie incident, for instance, he excoriates the publishers and booksellers who wouldn’t stare down the Islamists and publish the book anyway. It’s as if Mr. Hitchens can’t credit that any of these people could have had legitimate reasons of their own – the safety of their families, the stability of their businesses, and so on – for declining to get involved in the fracas. And yet, at one point, Mr. Hitchens notes what he considers a despicable trait of left-wing journalism: "...if your opponent thought he had identified your lowest possible motive, he was quite certain that he had isolated the only real one." A very perceptive observation, but I can’t escape the feeling that it could apply to Mr. Hitchens’s modus operandi at times.

It’s something about this impatience with people, the inability to be open to the other side of things, that made me feel that Mr. Hitchens would not make a good fiction writer. He’s not tolerant enough of human foibles. And just as this thought was dawning, along came a passage where Mr. Hitchens admits that he’s never been able to sustain fiction writing to any significant length. And yet, his chapter about his good friend, novelist Martin Amis, brims over with fond feeling. It’s not entirely with tongue-in-cheek that he refers to their "love affair." He notes, though, that there was nothing carnal about it, because at this point his (Mr. Hitchens’) looks had "declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me." The tales of hilarious outings with other writer friends prove very entertaining. So it’s not as if the guy is completely without human warmth. In fact, one of the most touching lines in the book comes in a parenthetical remark about receiving a note of condolence from Mr. Amis when Mr. Hitchens’ mother died.

A lesson for life: always when in doubt please do send letters of commiseration; at the very least they will be appreciated and at the best they may even succeed in their apparently futile ambition of lightening the burden of bereavement.

To encounter such a note of gentleness in the memoirs of a guy whom many people consider to be an ornery son-of-a-bitch can help to bolster your hopes for human nature. On the other hand, Mr. Hitchens puts the above advice in parenthesis. Maybe he doesn’t want us to take his sensitive side for the whole man.

 

Last Train to Memphis (Biography) by Peter Guralnick, 1994

Given the publication date, this bio isn’t exactly breaking news. What drew my attention to it was the rave response to the sequel volume Careless Love published somewhat more recently (1999). Apparently, author Guralnick is considered the definitive expert on the life and times of The King. So I decided it was time to bring some focus to memories that were rather diffuse and inchoate, to get some clarity on a great American legend turned tragedy.

Since we all know the general outlines of the story, there’s no point repeating them here. Let’s focus, then, on some especially interesting features of the book. One thing that startles me – and this comes mostly from the photos included – is that the guy was so young once upon at time. (Guess we all were, come to that!) In those first years of his fame, he was just a fresh-faced kid in his late teens and early twenties. It can be easy to forget that, if your first impressions of him come from a time when you were still a child and he loomed as this manly menace on the distant horizon. What makes it even harder to credit his original youthfulness are the final images you hold of him in your mind as the bloated forty-year-old.

Another thing that astonished me about his story, as related here, is the extent to which other people made his career for him. We all know now about the ruthless machinations of so-called Colonel Tom Parker. Most of us may not be so aware – certainly I wasn’t – of the constant, unswerving dedication of the two men who launched Elvis' career: Sam Phillips who first recorded him and Bob Neal, his first manager. If it hadn’t been for those two guys and their determination to push him on to success, we’d probably never heard of Elvis . He might have settled into a working class life and his career could have petered out except for jamming with his buddies, playing at the odd bar here and there. Not to say that he didn’t have the ambition for more. But those two loyal mentors saw him through all the discouraging pitfalls of the early years, the rejections, the flops, the false starts.

And that’s another intriguing thing about the bio – to learn that Elvis’ signature style didn’t burst fully-fledged from his throat and his guitar. Yes, that first recording of "That’s All Right [Mama]" that Sam Phillips caught, almost by accident after a frustrating and unfruitful session in the studio, the record that Dewey Phillips (no relation) played next night on his radio show, caused a tremendous uproar locally.* But it took a long time and many more attempts before his backers could start to get any sort of reliable product from Elvis . Trouble was, he actually preferred to sing ballads and spirituals. What the audiences wanted was the rougher, edgier stuff that was influenced by the black rhythms he’d picked up from his radio listening, i.e. what would eventually become known as "rock and roll".

To me, though, what’s compelling about Elvis isn’t so much the music as the man himself, the enigma that he personified. Let’s try to sum up some of the bewildering array of traits: definitely a mama’s boy (they talked baby talk to each other and she would wipe crumbs off his lips at picnics when he was a grown man); shy, polite and deferential to his elders off stage; yet when he got behind a mike, it was as if an inner demon busted out (he described it as something like "a surge of electricity" that went through him); capable of sudden outbursts of anger and violence, but nearly always following them up with profuse and abject apologies; conveying the image of devilish sexiness, yet forcing his girlfriends to sit and read the bible with him; taken by many young females as the epitome of manliness, yet fond of using eyeliner and mascara and wearing frilly shirts when no male in the western world would have dared to do so; (in highschool he once had his hair permed in the hope he’d look like Tony Curtis); bossy and possessive with his girlfriends in a mushy, sentimental way – as if he was playing the role of the hick loverboy, as he understood it – but always needing a coterie of buddies to keep him company; a guy who liked to think of himself as a James-Dean-type rebel but who was cowed and submissive towards his all-powerful manager, Colonel Parker;

One of the most puzzling of the contradictions about Elvis was that he had an uncanny knack for whipping his female fans into an erotic frenzy but claimed that he never intended anything improper. Disingenuous as he may have seemed on that score, Elvis once offered what strikes me as a cogent, intelligent, mature and open-minded defence of his fans. When an interviewer read him a column by Herb Rau in the Miami News that called Elvis’ fans "idiots," he responded:

....I’m not running Mr. Rau down, but I just don’t see that he should call those people idiots. Because they’re somebody’s kids. They’re somebody’s decent kids, probably, that was raised in a decent home, and he hasn’t got any right to call those kids idiots. If they want to pay their money to come out and jump around and scream and yell, it’s their business. They’ll grow up someday and grow out of that. While they’re young, let them have their fun....

Not everybody was convinced. It’s amazing, at this stage in our culture, when we’ve been exposed to so much of what can only be described as public lewdness, to be reminded of the furious opposition to Elvis . The Catholic press was particularly livid in its denunciations. A group of schoolgirls in St. Louis burned Elvis in effigy and offered prayers "as public reparation for excesses committed by teenagers." Certain sectors of Canadian society, generally known for a milder reactions to most things, weren’t any more appreciative. A Toronto Daily Star review of a concert amounted to a snooty put-down. The Ottawa Citizen reported that Notre Dame Convent school expelled eight girls for having attended a show in our nation’s capital. No less august a personage than Dr. Ida Halpern, music critic of the Vancouver Province, declared of one performance that it "had not even the quality of a true obscenity: merely an artificial and unhealthy exploitation of the enthusiasm of youth’s body and mind." A radio station in Halifax was so indignant that it gave away its entire supply of Elvis’ records in hopes of never hearing them again. His blas response? "I didn’t know there were any radio stations in Nova Scotia."

Some of the items in the odd parcel that was Elvis’ personality might cause a reader today to wonder about his sexual identity. Was it somewhat confused (more than the average guy’s, that is)? Sometimes the role of the indefatigable hetero stud seems a little strained. You wonder if, had he been living in a time and a culture that were more candid, more tolerant, about such things, he might have felt less impelled to buy into the image of the good ole boy. It’s a moot point, of course, because he lived in the time he did and, anyway, it was that image that his fans were buying. That, more than any musical talent, made his career. All we can say now, looking back at the man, is that he was as complex and mysterious as any human being can be.

In sum, you might say that he was an essentially likeable person with talent who couldn’t quite understand or control the tornado that he got caught up in. Of course, the characters of other people who figure largely in his story also come in for close scrutiny from author Guralnick. Gladys Presley does truly appear to be the doting – one might almost say ‘addled’ – mama of her only son that we’ve always known her to be. While she was unfailingly proud of her boy’s accomplishments, there was always an undercurrent of melancholy and worry in her attitude to him. She continually hoped that he’d settle down with a really nice girl, buy a hardware store or something like that, and start producing children. In that context, it’s notable that Gladys was always very welcoming and affectionate towards Elvis’ girlfriends. His father, Vernon, as is generally known, tended to be seen as standing somewhat apart from the loving bond between mother and son. A taciturn man, Vernon worked most of the time to support his family – more or less – but he never seemed particularly keen on the endeavour. He seems to have come into his own when his son became really famous, bought Graceland and gave "Daddy" credit for looking after things at home – whatever that meant.

As for the other major figure in Elvis’ life at the time, we now know much more about the scheming Colonel Tom Parker than "the boy" ever suspected. Most notably, the Colonel’s fifty percent cut of the takings which amounted to virtual extortion in an era when fifteen to twenty percent was the norm. Mr. Guralnick notes that the appellation "Colonel" was just an honorary title that the subject had asked to have bestowed on him by the Louisiana governor, a friend of his. This passage about the "Colonel" early on in Last Train gives grounds to suspect that the ultimate verdict on the guy won’t be very favourable:

His cold eyes belied his occasional warmheartedness; his absolute honesty in business affairs conflicted with the opportunism that always drove him to come out on top not just in formal dealings but in day-to-day affairs as well (he would spend a hundred dollars, it was said, to beat you out of a dollar).

Mr. Guralnick chooses to end this first volume of the fabled life at the point where Elvis leaves for his army service in Germany. This is the point at which, in the opinion of John Lennon, Elvis began to die. But there’s no hint of any such downturn at this stage of Mr. Guralnick’s account – apart from the fact that Elvis’ riot-inducing performances were beginning to seem routine. And, of course, there was the emotional wrench caused by his mama’s sudden death just before his departure. Otherwise, his life seems to be on an ever-upward ride. Which makes me wonder about the somewhat elegiac title of the book. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t have any literal or even figurative application to the story. Maybe it serves its purpose just by casting a somewhat haunting resonance over the proceedings.

All of which Mr. Guralnick has managed to convey with remarkable narrative consistency and factual fidelity. The book does have its drawbacks, though. In the early passages, for instance, it can be tough wading your way through the many names of country and hill-billy musicians who had an influence on Elvis, if you’re not already familiar with that scene. Later, it can be hard to keep track of the names of his many friends and their comings and goings. And sometimes you get far more information about business contracts than you really need. Some other details, however, aren’t well enough explained. Elvis’ use of makeup, for instance. You’re not sure when it started or why. Then there’s the question of his hair. He was tow-headed as a kid. At some point, there’s mention of his liking the fact that they dyed his hair in Hollywood. But, from the pre-Hollywood pictures, it already seems dark. Had it turned that way naturally or was he already dyeing it? And what about the tooth caps? There’s mention of them in passing but no explanation of when he first wore them or why. Mr. Guralnick refers glancingly to these items as though we’re expected to know already about them. Not all of us are such complete addicts for trivia. But surely it’s important for the definitive biography to explain such things in the case of somebody whose appearance was so iconic to the whole western culture.

As for the overall tone of the writing, it seems to be influenced by a certain "down home" idiom. For example: "...he started in to shaking his leg" and "Mrs. Presley bragged on him every chance she got." I suppose those colloquial phrasings could be considered to add local colour to the text. It’s just that they strike a slightly incongruous note in prose that’s impeccably correct, for the most part. And occasionally I find the portentous editorial asides – you know the king of thing, where we get hints of great things to come – unnecessary and melodramatic. Something that bothered me more was the frequent reference to what Elvis was thinking or feeling in certain situations where there’s no indication of how Mr. Guralnick knows. It’s as if he’s falling into the role of novelist here and attributing to a character thoughts and feelings that only God could be privy to, assuming the character hasn’t told anybody.

On the other hand, Mr. Guralnick’s endnotes are so extensive, so scholarly and judicious that you come to trust him. Sources for nearly everything are meticulously referenced. In cases of conflicting evidence regarding certain episodes, Mr. Guralnick explains patiently why he chose the versions he did. The result is that you feel assurred that this first volume of Mr. Guralnick’s calm, dispassionate marshalling of the information on Elvis will probably never – barring the discovery of hitherto unknown sources – be surpassed.

* I can’t resist passing on this wonderful quote about the wild and crazy Dewey Phillips. Somebody who knew him said: "Sometimes I wonder if there is a real Dewey, or if he’s just something that happens as he goes along."

 

Elvis: In the Twilight of Memory (Memoir) by June Juanico, 1997

This book caught my attention by association with the bio by Peter Guralnick that’s reviewed above. June Juanico was the feisty teenager from Biloxi, Mississippi, whom Elvis spotted at one of his concerts in 1955. She spent the evening showing him her home town. When they bumped into each other about a year later, she became his girlfriend for a nearly a year. You could never say for sure whether any one girl was his "main" girlfriend at any time but Ms. Juanico figured prominently enough that a New Orleans radio station once announced that she and he were engaged. On hearing that while driving around Biloxi with Ms. Juanico, Elvis turned the car around and raced to New Orleans to deny the false report in a live on-air interview. Still, the two were pretty close. Ms. Juanico insists that, although their affair involved lots of fooling around, they never went "all the way." One time in a hotel room when they were just about to "do it", there was a tap on the door. It was Elvis’ mamma, Gladys, checking to make sure that everything was on the up-and-up, or rather, that something in particular was not up.

Meanwhile, Colonel Tom Parker was haranguing Elvis about his public amours, warning him that it wasn’t good to be seen to be attached to just one girl, and threatening him with ruin if he got anybody pregnant. So Elvis took to telling the press that Ms. Juanico was just one of twenty-five or so girls he dated. That didn’t particularly please Ms. Juanico. Nor did the arrival at Elvis’ home of special guests like movie star Natalie Wood. Eventually, Ms. Juanico got tired of the doubts and worries about Elvis’ long-term fidelity – not to mention his frequent absences while on tour and the long gaps between his phone calls – so she told him their love affair was over.

It should make a great story. First, there’s that peek behind the scenes at the intimate life of one of America’s most exalted royalty. Even more so, there are the classic resonances: a young musician on the rise, a small-town sweetheart, their burgeoning romance, then the gradual disenchantment as the guy’s career heads closer and closer to the stars, leaving her earth-bound. So why doesn’t the book work? Why does it take enormous commitment to plough through the pages and pages of obsessive detail about the affair?

Perhaps because it needs a better writer than Ms. Juanico to get beneath the surface of the story and to bring out all its drama. But I don’t think that’s the main problem. Ms. Juanico’s clean, spare prose does not a bad job of telling it like it was. And therein lies the real problem. It’s with some surprise and regret that I report this: the centerpiece of the show wasn’t all that interesting off stage. He liked silly jokes, he was very dedicated to his mama, he was ever-so sweet to his girl, his tastes in art and fashion were strictly kitschy, but there wasn’t anything very special about him apart from that mysterious transformation that came over him when he got behind a mike. His conversational repertoire ran to sheer banalities.

You can understand that Ms. Juanico may have had some problems re-constructing dialogue that took place forty years before she wrote the book, but her attempts to re-create Elvis’ speeches must convey something of their genuine flavour. Take the following passage, about a trip she proposed to a New Orleans beach:

‘Are you talking about Pontchartrain Beach, June? I’ve been there before, and you’re right, it is big! That’s what I want, baby. The bigger, the better. Let’s go! I can’t get away from ‘em, so I might as well join ‘em,’ he said, shrugging his shoulders. We all piled in the convertible and headed for Ponchartrain Beach – so named because of its location on Lake Pontchartrain.

A reader, this one, at least, can stand only so many pages of this kind of drivel. To be honest, then, not every page of the book got a close reading from me. When it looked like there was nothing in store but more fooling around, more inane kibbitzing, more beach parties, more Cokes and car rides, I skimmed rapidly down the page for possible nuggets of interest.

And there are a few. One scene, when the two youngsters are lying on the grass, looking up at the moon, has some depth and resonance to it. Along the way, Ms. Juanico does clear up (sort of) some of the questions about Elvis’ appearance: the matters of the tooth caps, the makeup and the dyed hair, for instance. We see a side of Elvis that doesn’t come through in Peter Guralnick’s more magisterial, arms-length portrait: the Elvis who was given to down-home vulgarity and swearing. As Ms. Juanico tells it, some of the supposed pals around Elvis were actually spies for Colonel Parker, a supposition that Mr. Guralnick doesn’t touch on. Elvis’ mama, Gladys, (whom Ms. Juanico called "Lovie," because of her middle name, "Love") comes through somewhat better here than in Mr. Guralnick’s work. She’s not quite so moody here, not so prone to despondency. Although always concerned for the safety and the future of her "boy", she’s capable of the odd witticism, of tact, and of teasing him on occasion. She’s also very affectionate towards Ms. Juanico. It’s obvious the two women loved each other.

It was likely very hard for Gladys to forgive Ms. Juanico for breaking up with her son, but the scene where the young woman tells him it’s over works very well as a dramatic confrontation. As the book’s title would suggest, there are some poignant scenes looking back, years later, at the final communications between the two former sweethearts. But you’d have to be a lot more avid for Elvis Presley lore than I am to find the book as a whole satisfying.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com