Perhaps you already know that a new edition of Lawrence Otis Graham’s provocative 2009 bestseller, Our Kind of People, was published not too long ago. The book deals with class distinctions among African-Americans and the issue of “passing for white.” I learned about the updated edition from my daily Delancey Place newsletter, but I remember the original book well. It resonated with me. And still does. Not only because I grew up hearing the term passant blanc (passing for white, passer pour le blanc) from my New Orleans relatives, but also because I lived in Atlanta when segregation obscured the fact that black communities were often divided along class lines.
No doubt about it—this was wrong. But more than that, it was taboo. Not even the play of light that turned Syl’s gilt-edged movie poster into a marquee could change that. When the sun struck the frame in a certain way, as it did now, the image seemed lit from within. Optical illusion. Nothing more. Still, the phenomenon uplifted him. Added a dose of reassurance to the otherwise unacceptable. But right was right, and wrong was wrong. And this was most certainly wrong. Improper. Unacceptable. Taboo.
That was not how either of them saw it, of course. But other people, whoever they were. Well.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anton Chekhov (1/29/1860) - His 5-Point Checklist for Creating Great Stories
Many decades before Kathy Bates tormented James Caan in the film version of Stephen King's Misery, Anton Chekhov wrote a far more touching story by the same title. Stephen King's Misery had to do with his addiction to drugs, with the Kathy Bates character demonstrating in fictional terms the writer's punishing relationship to his tormentor. In all likelihood, Chekhov's "Misery" will never make it to anyone's list of scary thrillers. And yet, there is something frightening and sad about the story of a lonely man ( a kind of cab driver) who has sustained a great loss no one wants to hear about. I once asked a professor why this was considered a great story. "Because it makes you cry," she said.
Chekhov's stories don't make a lot of noise - except of course when someone fires a gun. They reach down into the quiet, sad places of the human heart and show you what's lurking there. They look at longing, loss, anticipation and failed ambition. The real stuff of everyday life.
Although he would eventually abandon writing for the theater, Chekhov's collaboration with Stanislavsky yielded a five-point checklist every storyteller should know.
For every character in the story, you must show the following:
It's been quite a while since I've wondered why Chekhov's stories are great. If you read them, you find out why. If you are Raymond Carver, you read them, love them, imitate them. And when you die, newspapers around the world will refer to you as the American Chekhov.
I love Chekhov's "Lady with the Pet Dog." Also his plays, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Seagull.
I also love the fact that Chekhov represents a kind of ideal: the poet-scientist. He was a young medical student who started writing stories to support himself through school. Although he became world famous, he continued to practice medicine. He had a dual calling, and he answered both exceedingly well, treating wounded soldiers right up to his death in 1904. As another of my professors once said, "One would like to be like Chekhov."
Here's a Storify slide-show presentation that shows why. There are some good bits here, which include Anthony Hopkins, Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, and Laurence Olivier. If you don't know Chekhov's "Misery," Kenneth Branagh's reading (also here) is a fine way to get acquainted.
Edgar Allen Poe, the man who would later become father of the modern mystery story, was born January 19, 1809. Orphaned by the age of three, he suffered from alcoholism. He gambled heavily, got dismissed from West Point, and completed less than eight months at the University of Virginia. Because of the drinking, he also lost his editing job at the Southern Literary Messenger in 1838, but not before marrying his cousin, Virginia Clemm, two years earlier. He was twenty-seven, she thirteen.
The marriage did not last long. Virginia died in 1847, three years after Poe published what is arguably his most famous work: "The Raven." Her death drove him into deep alcoholism and drug use. He would follow his wife to the grave two years later, at the age of 40. Two days after his death, "Annabel Lee" was published in the New York Daily Tribune as part of his obituary.
"I was a child and she was a child
In this kingdom by the sea.
But we loved with a love that was more than love,
I and my Annabel Lee.
With a love that the winged Seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me."
What's all this got to do with Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita? Reader's of that novel know that "Annabel Lee" is Nabokov's inspiration and provides the rationale for Humbert Humbert's obsession with his so-called "nymphet." The doomed narrator of the 1955 novel believes that Lolita is the reappearance of his own lost childhood love. Without this understanding, Humbert Humbert is merely a pervert, child molester and, yes, murderer too. But with Poe's "Annabel Lee" providing the basis for his disturbed psychological state, readers can at least understand what's driving him to behavior that will lead to his undoing.
For this reason alone, we can refer to Poe as a seminal influence. But there are other reasons too: "The Pit and the Pendulum," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Fall of the House of Usher," "The Cast of Amontillado," and many more.
On the anniversary of his birth, then, here is a Storify slide-show presentation on the life and work of Edgar Allen Poe. You will find here readings of "The Raven" by James Earl Jones, Vincent Price, and Christopher Walken. There are also six creepy tales and a couple of animated shorts about Poe from the Peanuts characters and Mr. Peabody from the Rocky and Bullwinkle TV show.
Emile Zola, The Dreyfus Affair & Julia Louis-Dreyfus - A Coincidence of Names & Events on January 13
An interesting coincidence marks this day. January 13 is the birthday of TV actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose award-winning sitcom incarnations include Seinfeld and Veep. Her name, though forever associated with comedy, tends also to be a constant reminder of the infamous Dreyfus Affair, which rocked France between 1894 and 1906.
With all eyes on France following recent terrorist attacks against Jews and freedom of speech itself, it is interesting to note that on January 13, 1898, the French writer Emile Zola published his famous open letter, "J’accuse," which set in motion several years of controversy over what turned out to be the framing of an innocent man, Captain Alfred Dreyfus—a Jew, for espionage.
Dreyfus was to spend five years on Devil’s Island before being fully exonerated after several trials and the eventual exposure of high-level corruption within the French army and government. It was an act of free speech – Zola’s "J’accuse" – which questioned the initial verdict, exposing not only errors and inconsistencies during Dreyfus’ first trial and the deep-seated anti-Semitism that made him a scapegoat in the first place.
After publishing "J’accuse," Zola was convicted of libel and had to flee France to avoid imprisonment. Zola eventually died of carbon monoxide poisoning caused by the poor ventilation of his fireplace. Years later, on his deathbed, a roofer confessed that he had sealed Zola’s chimney, causing the great writer’s death in 1902, four years before Dreyfus was fully exonerated.
It was a very nasty business, all of this. To think about it now is unpleasant. And yet, as France reels over recent tragedies in Paris, one feels that things keep coming round again using different actors wearing different clothes. Which is reason enough, one would think, to appreciate that other Dreyfus, Julia, whose comedic antics take our minds off those things, if only for a moment within which we might breathe some other air - one free of anything save the possibility of humanity to reclaim itself.
There's a lot more to the Dreyfus Affair and Zola's role in exposing it, some of which is included in the Storify slide-presentation below. Click on the link within each slide for more information. Or skip to the end for Julia Louis-Dreyfus, whose 54th birthday we celebrate on this day.
Two Important "Firsts" for Women: Amelia Earhart & Toni Morrison. Will Ava Duvernay Make It a Third?
Why Simone de Beauvoir (1/9/1908) Became a Feminist, Her "Love Contract" with Sartre & Why Her Ideas Prevail
We know her for her book, The Second Sex, and her lasting relationship with Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. But there is so much more to tell. That's why I've used Storify for this one. Just click on any slide in the presentation below to drill into the content. The video, "Why I Became a Feminist" includes English subtitles. The lecture on her life and relationship with Sartre discusses their "contract," and her quotes are included here and there throughout.
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