Jun. 21, 2013

Walking in the Breakdown Lane

by Louise Erdrich

Wind has stripped
the young plum trees
to a thin howl.
They are planted in squares
to keep the loose dirt from wandering.
Everything around me is crying to be gone.
The fields, the crops humming to be cut and done with.

Walking in the breakdown lane, margin of gravel,
between the cut swaths and the road to Fargo,
I want to stop, to lie down
in standing wheat or standing water.

Behind me thunder mounts as trucks of cattle
roar over, faces pressed to slats for air.
They go on, they go on without me.
They pound, pound and bawl,
until the road closes over them farther on.

"Walking in the Breakdown Lane" by Louise Erdrich, from Jacklight. © Henry Holt and Company, 1984. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the summer solstice and the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, the longest day and shortest night of the year.

It's the birthday of philosopher and writer Jean-Paul Sartre (books by this author), born in Paris (1905). This giant of existential thought was also a well-known prankster during his days at the École Normale. He and a friend dropped water balloons from the roof onto dinner guests in tuxedos, shouting, "Thus pissed Zarathustra!" He sometimes showed up naked to official functions, and he vomited on the feet of a school official. After Charles Lindbergh successfully flew across the Atlantic, Sartre and several of his friends announced to the media that Lindbergh would be receiving an honorary degree at the École Normale, then one of them impersonated Lindbergh and convinced the media that he was at the school. There was such an uproar when it turned out to be a hoax that the school's president was forced to resign.

In 1964, Sartre was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature, but he refused it. When he died in 1980, 50,000 people turned out on the streets of Paris to pay their respects.

He wrote: "I was there, standing in front of a window whose panes had a definite refraction index. But what feeble barriers! I suppose it is out of laziness that the world is the same day after day. Today it seemed to want to change. And then, anything, anything could happen."

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan (books by this author), born in Aldershot, England (1948). His father, a working-class Scot, worked his way up to an officer's rank in the army, so the boy grew up all over the world, including Singapore, Germany, and Libya. He later said: "It was a very fractured background in that respect, and I think my early fiction was unlike mainstream British fiction in that it wasn't located in place. ... I had not come from the usual roots of the English class or educational system. ... I must be the only writer in Britain who did not go to Oxford."

He liked to read, but he'd never even thought of being a writer until he heard about a creative writing program in East Anglia, taught by the writer Malcolm Bradbury. As soon as McEwan began to write, he found it came rather easily to him. At that time, most English fiction was tasteful and polite. McEwan said: "Contemporary English fiction was so nicely modulated and full of observation about class and furniture. ... I wanted much more vivid colors. I wanted something savage." So he filled his first book, First Love, Last Rites (1975), with short stories about incest, infanticide, and bestiality. His first novel, Cement Garden (1978), is about a group of children who hide their dead mother in the basement by covering her with cement, so they can go on living without parents. His novel The Innocent (1988) featured one of the lengthiest scenes of human dismemberment in contemporary literature. Critics in England were shocked and started calling him Ian Macabre.

His big breakthrough novel was Atonement (2001), which was made into a film in 2007, and his other novels include Amsterdam (1998), Solar (2010), and Sweet Tooth (2012).

It's the birthday of American critic and novelist Mary McCarthy (books by this author), born in Seattle, Washington (1912). Both of her parents died from the flu epidemic in 1918, when she was six years old. She and her three younger brothers were sent to Minneapolis to live with "a severe great-aunt and her sadistic husband."

After graduating from Vassar in 1933, she wrote book reviews for The Nation and The New Republic and then became a theater critic and editor of Partisan Review. She left her lover Philip Rahv to marry literary critic Edmund Wilson in 1938. Wilson encouraged her to begin creative writing.

Her autobiography, Memoirs of a Catholic Girlhood (1957), focused on the horrible early years at her abusive uncle and aunt's Minneapolis house and then her happier adolescent years in Seattle. In 1962, she published The Group, about eight recent Vassar graduates. It stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for nearly two years.

McCarthy had a fierce feud with the playwright and memoirist Lillian Hellman, whose birthday happened to be the day before hers. They traded catty remarks in the press; Hellman said in The Paris Review, "Miss McCarthy is often brilliant ... but she is a lady writer, a lady magazine writer." And on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, McCarthy famously said about Hellman, "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'" Hellman sued her, but died before the suit was settled.

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




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