Feb. 25, 2011

Driving Montana, Alone

by Katie Phillips

I smile at the stack of Bob Dylan CDs
you are not holding in the passenger seat.
Storm clouds have gathered. My "Wow" rises
over the harmonica for your benefit,
but you cannot see that one sunlit peak

in the midst of threatening sky. The road turns
wet at the "Welcome to Anaconda" sign,
and I pat my raincoat, loosely folded
where your lap should be. "Anaconda was almost
the state capital," I say, but that's all I know,

and you don't ask for more. You wouldn't mind
my singing and swerving onto the shoulder
for more snapshots over the car door.
And it's only when I get just south of Philipsburg
that your not being here feels like absence.

I want you to see these dark rotting barns,
roadkill of Highway One. It seems only you
could know why my eyes fill the road
with tears again when a flock of swallows
swoops through an open barn door
and rushes out the gaping roof.

"Driving Montana, Alone" by Katie Phillips, from Driving Montana, Alone. © Slapering Hol Press. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist who said, "Every grain of experience is food for the greedy growing soul of the artist." That's Anthony Burgess, (books by this author) best-known as the author of the dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962). He was born in Manchester, England, on this day in 1917.

He grew up a cradle Catholic in England, wanted to be a classical musician, didn't get in to music school, and majored in English literature instead. Then he joined the army. He resented authority, was not very well liked by his peers, and did things that got him in trouble. Once, he did not report back from leave on time, and the British military police hunted him down, treating him as a deserter. Still, he did well in the army and rose through the ranks. He was good at languages, and he held important positions in military intelligence and as an instructor. It was an incident that occurred during his unhappy army days of World War II that would inspire him to write A Clockwork Orange two decades later.

After the army, he got a job with the British colonial service, and was posted to Malaysia. He taught in a boys school, became fluent in Malaysian, published some books of literary criticism, and wrote novels for pleasure on the side. At the time, he thought of fiction writing as a "gentlemanly hobby," expecting to make no money from it.

From Malaysia he went to a teaching post in Borneo. He started to get headaches, and then one day he collapsed in front of the classroom while giving a history lecture. The Colonial Service flew him back to London, checked him into a neurological ward, and doctors proclaimed that he had a brain tumor — an inoperable one — and that he had one year to live. He also no longer had a job.

He might have spent his "terminal year" traveling, but he didn't have any money. In fact, he was determined to make money for his future widow, and decided he would do this by writing at a furious pace. He wrote five novels in the year following his diagnosis. It turns out that he did not have a brain tumor, and he did not die. He kept writing at a furious pace, though, outliving his wife by many years and eventually dying of lung cancer (he was a heavy smoker) in 1993, more than 30 years and 30 books later.

His wrote his most famous book, A Clockwork Orange, in just three weeks. He wrote it in 1962, but it was based on something that happened a couple of decades before, when he was in the army. He was newly married, and his wife was pregnant. One night, while he was at the army base, his wife was mugged by four young U.S. Army deserters in London. After the attack, his wife miscarried their child.

A Clockwork Orange is set in futuristic England and features a teenage anti-hero named Alex who leads his gang of friends on acts of random violence. Originally, the book had 21 chapters. He chose the number carefully, he said, for "21 is symbol of human maturity, or used to be, since at 21 you got to vote and assumed adult responsibility." But the American publisher didn't like the last chapter, the one where the anti-hero Alex — as Anthony Burgess himself describes it — "grows up and realizes that ultraviolence is a bit of a bore, and it's time he had a wife and a malenky googoogooing malchickiwick to call him dadada. This was meant to be a mature conclusion, but nobody in America has ever liked the idea."

Burgess was desperate for money, and he didn't really think his book was all that good. He actually thought the American publisher was "being charitable in accepting the work at all." So he accepted the cutting of the final chapter for the U.S. edition.

And then Stanley Kubrick bought the film rights, and it was the American version of A Clockwork Orange that he used as a basis for the movie --- the one without the final chapter of Alex's maturation and redemption. Kubrick's movie made Burgess' book a big best-seller. Burgess was grateful that Kubrick made him rich, but was sorry that his book "became known as the raw material for a film that seemed to glorify sex and violence. ... The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die." He said, "The implied view of juvenile violence as something to go through and then grow out of is missing ... and this reduces the book to a mere parable, whereas it was intended to be a novel."

Burgess was also a prolific literary critic. He wrote a couple of books that aimed to make James Joyce more accessible, including Here Comes Everybody: An Introduction to James Joyce for the Ordinary Reader (1965, also published as Re Joyce) and Joysprick: An Introduction to the Language of James Joyce (1973). He made selections for and published in 1969 an abridged version of Joyce's Finnegans Wake.

Rather than writing and rewriting drafts of a book, he finished revising one page completely before moving on to the next page. For his novels, he didn't do a whole lot of plotting — he would usually come up with a list of character names and a rough synopsis. When an interviewer asked him if he did something like write the big scenes first, Burgess replied, "I start at the beginning, go on to the end, then stop." He thought it was important not to overplan, and that it was important to trust in the act of writing itself.

He wrote long hours. Unlike many writers who swear by morning or late-night writing sessions, he preferred the afternoon best of all. He said: "It's a quiet time. It's a time when one's body is not at its sharpest, not at its most receptive — the body is quiescent, somnolent; but the brain can be quite sharp. I think, also, at the same time that the unconscious mind has a habit of asserting itself in the afternoon. The morning is the conscious time, but the afternoon is a time in which we should deal much more with the hinterland of the consciousness."

He once said that his ideal reader is "a lapsed Catholic and failed musician, short-sighted, color-blind, auditorily biased, who has read the books that I have read. He should also be about my age."

From the archives:

It's the birthday of painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir, born in Limoges, France (1841). He began painting when he was 13 years old, first on porcelain, then later painting on fans. He went on to form the style of painting known as Impressionism, along with the painters Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley. Renoir became severely disabled by arthritis starting in 1902, but he continued to paint. By 1913, he was completely crippled, and he instructed his assistants in creating several of his last sculptures. Renoir said, "The pain passes, but the beauty remains."

It's the birthday of the Chinese-American novelist and playwright Frank Chin, (books by this author) born in Berkeley, California (1940). He's the author of The Chickencoop Chinaman (1972), Donald Duk (1991), Gunga Din Highway (1994), and Born in the USA: A Story of Japanese America, 1889–1947 (2002).

In The Chickencoop Chinaman, Chin writes: "I am the natural born ragmouth speaking the motherless bloody tongue. No real language of my own to make sense with, so out comes everybody else's trash that don't conceive. … I am a Chinaman! A miracle synthetic! Drip dry and machine washable."

It's the birthday of opera star Enrico Caruso, born in Naples (1873). He worked in factories as a teenager, but he had a beautiful tenor voice and he ran away from home to sing. In 1903, he moved to New York to sing for the Metropolitan Opera, and by the end of his first season, audiences went into hysterics when he sang, mobbing the stage and screaming his name.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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