Sep. 18, 2014
Reading Anna Karenina
In middle age Tolstoy apprenticed himself
to a bootmaker. He labored at learning
the skills of that trade. Sometimes his fingers
bled onto the leather as he punched the awl
or drew the needle in the outline of a foot.
Blisters, he knew, are holier than ink stains.
The boots were ugly and they pinched,
Sonya complained, and she refused to wear them.
Yet she copied Karenina by hand
how many times? It was his words she loved,
how he formed souls out of air. Just breath.
She preferred the page's purity to his
restless hands. If he were a man made only
of words she'd give her whole self to him.
It's the birthday of Samuel Johnson (books by this author), born in Litchfield, England (1709). He was a sickly boy, and had been since the day he was born — "almost dead," he said. He contracted the lymphatic form of tuberculosis, called scrofula, when he was two, and because it was popularly believed that the touch of royalty could cure scrofula, he was taken to the queen. She touched him and gave him a gold medallion, which he kept for the rest of his life. Her touch didn't cure him, and neither did various disfiguring treatments that left him scarred. But he grew up strong and tall, and enjoyed walking, swimming, and riding. He was also very intelligent, proud, and somewhat lazy.
In 1735, he married a widow who was 20 years his senior. He set out to find an intelligent wife, since he was convinced that his parents' marriage had been unhappy because of his mother's lack of education. Around this time, he also started writing. He published some essays early in the 1730s, and began a play, the historical tragedy Irene. In 1738, he became associated with the first modern magazine — called The Gentleman's Magazine — and contributed poems and prose.
The 1750s were his most productive period. Not only did he write more than 200 essays for the twice-weekly newspaper The Rambler, but he was also at work on a monumental undertaking: a dictionary of the English language. The dictionary took him nine years to write, and he wrote The Rambler essays because they gave him a steady income; even though money was his chief incentive, he was still quite proud of those essays. He said, "My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine."
The dictionary was finally published in two volumes in 1755. Johnson's patron, the Earl of Chesterfield, had pretty much ignored Johnson and his project for several years; as a result, the dictionary entry for "patron" reads: "one who countenances, supports, and protects. Commonly a wretch who supports with insolence and is paid with flattery."
In 1763, Johnson met young James Boswell, who was 22. They didn't get along well at first, but they grew to be friends. Boswell kept remarkably detailed diaries, and he later wrote a comprehensive biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791). Boswell's scrupulous descriptions of Johnson's mannerisms led to a posthumous diagnosis of Tourette syndrome; his transcriptions of Johnson's many aphorisms made Johnson one of the most-quoted authors in the English language. Johnson said, as quoted by Boswell: "Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel." And, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." And, "A decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization."
It's the birthday of French physicist Jean Bernard Léon Foucault, born in Paris (1819). He invented the gyroscope and took the first clear photograph of the sun, and he introduced and helped develop a technique of measuring the absolute velocity of light with extreme accuracy. He is probably best known for originating the pendulum that demonstrated the earth's rotation.
In his book Foucault's Pendulum (1990), Umberto Eco wrote: "The Pendulum told me that, as everything moved — earth, solar system, nebulae and black holes, all the children of the great cosmic expansion — one single point stood still: a pivot, bolt, or hook around which the universe could move. And I was now taking part in that supreme experience. I, too, moved with the all, but I could see the One, the Rock, the Guarantee, the luminous mist that is not body, that has no shape, weight, quantity, or quality, that does not see or hear, that cannot be sensed, that is in no place, in no time, and is not soul, intelligence, imagination, opinion, number, order, or measure. Neither darkness nor light, neither error nor truth."
Today is the birthday of Swedish actress Greta Garbo, born Greta Gustafsson in Stockholm (1905). She grew up in a poor neighborhood, a shy child who preferred daydreaming and play-acting to school. When her father died of Spanish flu in 1920, she had to leave school and go to work to help support the family. Her first job was in a barbershop, as a "lather girl," and she also found work as a department store model. Her modeling jobs led to some small roles in advertising films for the store and for a local bakery.
While studying at the Royal Dramatic Theatre, she caught the eye of silent-film director Mauritz Stiller. He took her under his wing, changed her last name to "Garbo" and cast her in his film The Saga of Gasta Berling (1923). When Stiller signed a deal with MGM in Hollywood, he insisted on bringing his star with him. The studio set about to craft a persona for the aloof Swedish actress, portraying her as a woman of mystery, and though they had only agreed to put her under contract to get Stiller on board, they soon discovered that she had star potential.
Flesh and the Devil (1926) made Garbo an international celebrity, and it was during the filming that she met and fell for her co-star, John Gilbert. Garbo and Gilbert went on to star in a silent film adaptation of Anna Karenina, called Love (1927), as well as two more features, and got engaged. But Garbo called off the wedding at the last minute, and though she had a few high-profile relationships over the years, she never married.
Garbo traveled, and had many close friends, and she was fond of walking around New York City — but she did guard her privacy fiercely. Parodies of Garbo always include the line "I want to be alone," delivered in a heavy Swedish accent. It comes from the movie Grand Hotel (1932), and it's always been strongly associated with Garbo since she appeared so melancholy and solitary. But she once pointed out, "I never said 'I want to be alone.' I only said 'I want to be let alone!' There is all the difference."
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