Wilde on Washington

Oscar Wilde was never one to mince words about America and American heroes. He was at his acerbic best when he wrote the following in his essay “The Decay of Lying,” published in 1891. To wit:

“The crude commercialism of America, its materialising spirit, its indifference to the poetical side of things, and its lack of imagination and of high unattainable ideals, are entirely due to that country having adopted for its national hero a man, according to his own confession, was incapable of telling a lie, and it is not too much to say that the story of George Washington and the cherry-tree has done more harm, and in a shorter space of time, than any other moral tale in the whole of literature.”         

Meeting Algren

Remembering my one encounter with Nelson Algren. From “Chicago Sketches.” Today is his birthday. He was born on March 28, 1909.

aliteraryreeder

After a filling meal of pierogis and sauerkraut at the Busy Bee restaurant in Wicker Park, I crossed Damen and hurried through the park, past the smack heads and other lost souls, arriving at the party at about nine. When I walked into the cramped apartment on Evergreen, I recognized him immediately from the photo on the jacket of my copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. Algren was sitting restlessly on a chair in the kitchen talking to a tall blonde named Dottie. He took long drags on his Marlboro and was sipping from a glass filled with what looked like rye.

A guy that I knew, Bill Schmidt, an old beatnik who owned a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on Wells, sat nearby and asked me if I would like to meet the writer he called Lord Nelson. Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and Bill introduced me to…

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Borges and Joyce

Jorge Luis Borges, the great Argentinian writer, wrote a wonderful poem about James Joyce. It is simply called James Joyce. Here it is in an English translation:

In one day of mankind all are the days

Of time, from that unimaginable

first day of time, when a formidable

God prearranged the days and agonies,

to that other day when the perpetual river

of earthly time flows round to its headwaters

the Eternal, and is extinguished in the present,

the future, the past, the passing—what is now

mine.

The story of the world is told from dawn

To darkness. From the depths of night I’ve seen

at my feet the wanderings of the Jews,

Carthage destroyed, Hell, and Heaven’s bliss.

Grant me, Lord, the courage and the joy

I need to scale the summit of this day.

Joyce and Borges had much in common. Each writer challenged the literary establishment with boldness and innovation. Both were plagued with progressive vision loss. They each spent many years in exile from their native lands. They both died and were buried in Switzerland.   

Aloysius The Great

Aloysius The Great (Propertius Press), the debut novel of John Maxwell O’Brien, is an utterly enjoyable and delightful read. It is an homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, with allusions to Joyce’s masterpiece sprinkled throughout the book. I found it to be a divine human comedy that blends the acerbic wit of Oscar Wilde with the madcap humor of Mel Brooks. It definitely is a novel out of the common groove. But it’s a groove where you will want to be.     

PM

Herman Roth, in Philip Roth’s novel,The Plot Against America, brought home with him, every afternoon after work, PM, the new left-wing New York tabloid that cost a nickel.” Its wonderful slogan was “PM is against people who push other people around.”

The main investor in PM, which began in 1940, was Marshall Field 111, who eventually became its publisher. It was a spunky, highly literate afternoon daily that had I.F. Stone as its Washington correspondent. Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) contributed more than 400 cartoons on the editorial page of PM. Among the contributing writers were Erskine Caldwell, Dorothy Parker, Malcolm Cowley, and Ernest Hemingway. Ben Hecht wrote for it an off and on-again column called 1001 Afternoons in New York. Walter Winchell, the highly popular columnist for The New York Mirror, wrote columns for PM under a pseudonym, criticizing 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie’s isolationist views after The Mirror had censored him from speaking out on the matter.

Unfortunately, PM, had to shut its presses down in 1948. It was unable to sustain financial sustainability in the highly competitive metropolitan New York City market.                  

Rabbi Mendel

Rabbi Mendel, a man in his mid-forties with unforgettable cerulean blue eyes, opened the small black trunk and took out three stick puppets. The evil Haman was wearing a tiny felt, three-cornered hat affixed to his head. Brave Mordecai looked august in a diminutive robe made from corduroy. Beautiful Queen Esther looked stunning with orange hair made from knitting yarn, topped by a cardboard diadem.

Our Hebrew class Purim party was about to begin. Rabbi Mendel skillfully manipulated the stick puppets as he related to us the Purim story in his heavily Yiddish-inflected English. We all cheered and rattled our groggers in glee when Mordecai knocked down Haman and dragged him across Rabbi Mendel’s desk to the toy gallows to be hanged. Good was once again triumphing over evil in a story told by Jews for more than two thousand years.

Rabbi Mendel had stared evil straight in the eye just a few years before in Poland. The Nazis spared him from immediate execution because he was a master tailor, and they needed him to make uniforms for the German Army. He survived Auschwitz because of his needling skills, but his wife, two daughters, and parents were all put to death in the gas chambers there. Underneath his cot in the concentration camp barracks, he had hid the Purim stick puppets that he had made for his daughters in better times.

After Auschwitz was liberated, Rabbi Mendel lived in a displaced persons camp in Germany where he taught tailoring at an ORT school. He came to Chicago in 1949, sponsored by a second cousin. He got a job as a tailor in a men’s clothing store on Roosevelt Road, and, to make a little extra money, he was hired by Congregation Bnei Ruven to teach Hebrew to young Jewish boys twice a week after their public school courses.

Bnei Ruven was an orthodox Lubavitcher shul, and although no one in our family was observant, this synagogue at 13th and Kedvale was the only one left to serve the dwindling Lawndale Jewish community. My parents wanted me to have a sound foundation in Judaism and the Hebrew language, so I was enrolled in the Hebrew school at Bnei Ruven. I had Rabbi Mendel as a teacher, and, although he was not officially a rabbi, he had been a former Yeshiva student and was steeped in the knowledge of Torah and Talmud. Everyone called him Rabbi Mendel out of respect.   

I enjoyed Rabbi Mendel’s class and learned much from him, but two months after the Purim party, in May 1955, my family moved to West Rogers Park.  I often thought fondly about Rabbi Mendel and his puppets, especially at Purim time. Many years later in 1978, I was attending a book signing of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Shosha at the old Barbara’s Bookstore on North Clark, when I glanced at a man of perhaps seventy who looked somewhat familiar. As I approached him, I knew by those cerulean eyes that it was Rabbi Mendel.

He remembered me, and after the book signing we went out for a cup of coffee. He told me his life story, inspired by the storytelling of his literary hero Singer, with whom he had been conversing animatedly in Yiddish earlier that evening. It seems that Rabbi Mendel had a nice career as a tailor with one of the major downtown department stores. He remarried and had a son and a daughter, both of whom as children delighted each Purim in watching their father perform his stick puppet show.            

In Memoriam: Harry Mark Petrakis

Harry Mark Petrakis passed away last week at age 97, and the heartfelt  tributes are still coming out this week. It’s time to share mine. I only met Harry once. It was at the National Hellenic Museum on October 4, 2014, when he received the Fuller Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. It was appropriate that the celebration took place in Chicago’s Greektown, the neighborhood that he set so many of his stories in and loved so very much.

Don Evans, the Founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, put together a wonderful program book in which he wrote five beautiful pieces on the life and work of Harry. Don had gone to Harry’s home in Chesterton, Indiana to interview him. Don wrote: “Even into his 90’s, Harry is as much or more the writer as he ever was—one whose words still sparkle with stories born in agony and sacrifice, forgiveness and love.”

The Fuller Award ceremony was an evening to be treasured. Friends and family came up to share fond memories of Harry. Excerpts from his stories were read. You could see the quiet joy in the expression on Harry’s face as he sat there taking it all in.

A couple of weeks after the event, I told my friend Jerry Yusen about it. Jerry had been a friend of Harry’s literary agent. The next week, Jerry came to my home and gifted me seven books of Harry’s. All first editions, four of them signed by Harry. I’ve read six of them, and I’ll eventually get to the seventh.

In Stelmark, a book that Harry subtitled “A Family Recollection,” he writes: “For if the riddle of the player’s art is how a man can so project himself into a play that he weeps for the anguish of the king, there is a greater mystery in how a writer reshapes into stories the dreams, joys, and terrors that have shaped him. As he works building this strange and haunting life, the panic, fury, and desperation are driven out of him. Finally, he writes, as I began to write, with a curious calmness and resignation, no longer hopeful of anything, but content in those rare, matchless hours when my heart seemed like a honeycomb of joy.”

Thank you Harry, for sharing your words and heart with us. May your memory always be a blessing.                          

The Post-World War 2 Generation of British Women Writers

In my recent reading, I have enjoyed some of the novels of British writers Bernice Rubens and Penelope Fitzgerald. They, along with Iris Murdoch, Muriel Spark, Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively and Brigid Brophy represented a group of post-World War Two women novelists that shaped British writing for a generation. Here is what Louis B. Jones has to say about this group in a review of Ms. Fitzgerald’s book The Gate of Angels in the New York Times on March 1, 1992: “Provided, of course, that she’s of a certain class, the British woman writer has always occupied a very comfortable room of her own. In her dexterous hands, the postwar British novel has become a most elegant, wicked artifact. Her ascendancy can’t be credited to modern feminism alone, advanced though our era may be. Always, historical circumstances have blessed the British woman writer with a strength and mercy that incarnate Authority, especially out here in far-flung ports.”          

Movie Recommendations

I am recommending two movie adaptations of novels that are currently streaming. The first is The Bookshop, adapted from Penelope Fitzgerald’s Booker Prize shortlisted novel written in 1978. It is a wonderful story, set in a small coastal East Anglian town in the late 1950’s, of a World War Two widow’s struggle against adversity to keep her bookshop going. The second movie is The White Tiger, a novel by the Indian author Aravind Adiga, which did win the Booker Prize in 2008. It is an enthralling tale, set in the India of the first decade of the 21st century. It depicts the adventures of a low-caste young man who rises from abject poverty to become a successful entrepreneur. While there is much humor in the film, there is also a disturbing dark side to it. The Bookshop can be found on Amazon Prime Video. The White Tiger is on Netflix.               

Mrs Eckdorf In O’Neill’s Hotel

It was such a pleasure reading once again William Trevor’s 1969 novel, Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel. Set in Dublin, it chronicles the misadventures of Ivy Eckdorf, a London-born photographer who has traveled the world, who takes on the task of photographing the comings and goings at O’Neill’s, a place that had essentially become a house of ill repute. This book was the first of five novels by Trevor to be nominated for a Booker Prize. Four reached the shortlist. But alas,Trevor never won the Prize.

What I especially love of Trevor, in both his novels and short stories, is his descriptions of people and places. He writes of Mrs Eckdorf: “She had eyes of so pale a shade of brown that they were almost yellow, and two reddened lips that were generously full and now were parted in a smile. There was a gap between her teeth, precisely in the centre of this mouth, a slight gap that an ice-cream wafer might just have passed through.”

And he writes of O’Neill’s Hotel: “In the pillared hall of the hotel, with its balding maroon carpet that extended up the stairs, eight chairs echoed a grandeur that once had been. They were tall, like thrones, their gilt so faded and worn that it looked in places like old yellow paint, their once-elegant velvet stained with droppings from glasses of alcohol.”