Oct. 5, 2013


by Robert Frost

A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady's fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

"Unharvested" by Robert Frost, from The Collected Poems. © Holt Paperbacks, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

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It's the birthday of the avant-garde novelist who wrote under the name Flann O'Brien (books by this author), born Brian O'Nolan in Strabane, Ireland (1911). He supported himself as a civil servant. He was always impeccably dressed and was a very productive worker, and no one guessed that he was working on one of the strangest strange novels of the 20th century.

That novel was At Swim-Two-Birds (1939). It has three beginnings and three endings and the three different strands run alongside each other for the length of the book. It's about a man writing a novel about a novelist, and it borrows many elements from other works of fiction, including cowboys, Greeks, and characters from the novels of Charles Dickens. The first printing of At Swim-Two-Birds sold a little more than 200 copies. The Germans bombed the warehouse where the remaining copies were stored, and so they were destroyed. O'Brien was terribly depressed and didn't publish any more fiction for 20 years. But some of the most prestigious writers in Europe got their hands on those first 200 copies, and it's believed that At Swim-Two-Birds was the last novel that James Joyce ever read. The book has since come to be regarded as a masterpiece of experimental fiction.

It begins, "Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes' chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression."

It's the birthday of one of the few writers ever to become the leader of a country, Czech dramatist and president Václav Havel (books by this author), born in Prague (1936). He was born into an affluent family, and as a teenager, he watched as his family's property was seized by the government when Communists took control of the country.

He was prevented from attending college, so he took a job in a chemical company and joined a literary underground society, passing around books that had been banned by the government. In the 1960s, he wrote a series of absurdist plays — including The Garden Party (1964) and The Memorandum (1965) — that attacked the Communist Party, describing the way in which the Communists were ruining the language by introducing all kinds of euphemisms and clichés.

After a brief period of greater freedom in Czechoslovakia during the late 1960s, Soviet troops invaded and imposed hard-line Communist Party control over the government. Havel's plays were banned. He was arrested twice, thrown in jail, and then forced to earn a living stacking barrels in a brewery.

He continued writing plays, though, including The Mountain Hotel (1976), about a windowless resort in which vacationers spend all their time remembering and forgetting the same things. He also continued to receive money from the production of his plays abroad. He used the money to buy a Mercedes-Benz, which he drove to his job at the brewery every day.

Havel kept protesting the government, refusing to go into exile the way so many other writers and artists in the country did. He said: "The solution to the situation does not lie in leaving it. Fourteen million people can't just go and leave Czechoslovakia." He spent the 1980s in and out of prison, writing plays that he couldn't see performed in his own country.

In 1989, after another arrest and imprisonment, he was released early because thousands of artists protested to the prime minister. He'd become a national hero. After the collapse of the Communist regime, he helped negotiate the transition to democracy, and in December of 1989, he was elected president, the first noncommunist leader of his country since 1948.

Václav Havel said, "If you want to see your plays performed the way you wrote them, become president."

He finished his second term and stepped down from power in 2003. He died, aged 75, in 2011.

It was on this day in 1789 that women in Paris led a march on Versailles. Throughout the fall, the price of grain had been rising, and there was a shortage of bread. Ordinary people were starving, and anger was high. On October 4th, the press reported that there had been a huge banquet a few days earlier at the palace of Versailles to celebrate a new group of officers. According to reports, the banquet had been decadent, with an abundance of rich food and good wine. Even worse, they reported that the drunken officers had trampled on the tricolor republican cockade, and that it had been done with the approval of Queen Marie Antoinette (which was probably not true, since the royal family had departed the feast long before any revelry began). This news was the last straw for Parisian women who were struggling to get food on their families' tables.

On the cold, rainy morning of October 5th, a group of women began to march across the city, from the markets in east Paris toward the city center, the Hôtel de Ville. A girl started off the march by beating on a drum, and soon churches across the city were ringing the tocsin, the alarm bell. More and more women joined the march, about 6,000 by the time they reached the Hôtel de Ville. The women had armed themselves with whatever they could find, from muskets and swords to pitchforks and broomsticks. Most of them were regular workingwomen — laundresses, fishwives, or market women. According to false accounts written at the time, the crowd was composed largely of prostitutes and cross-dressers, a report made up because people didn't want to believe that normal women would do anything so radical.

A few men joined in, including a national guardsman named Stanislas Maillard. He had been an active participant in the storming of the Bastille in July, so he was respected by the women. The women were planning to burn down the Hôtel de Ville and hang several government employees, but Maillard convinced them that their real issue was not with these city officials but with the royals at the palace of Versailles. There, he said, the women should demand that the king and queen return to Paris to be with the French people, rather than stay removed in their beautiful palace. So the crowd turned and marched 13 miles in the rain to Versailles, a journey of about six hours, gaining more and more marchers as they went. About 20,000 members of the National Guard decided to follow in support, and once the crowd reached Versailles, they found even more supporters waiting for them.

The marchers arrived at Versailles in the evening, and a small group of market women were allowed inside to speak directly with King Louis XVI. He agreed to supply them with food, but the crowd wanted more. Throughout the evening, the king agreed to more and more demands, but the marchers remained unsatisfied. At about 6 a.m. the next morning, they found their way through a small unguarded gate and stormed the palace. A royal guard shot a young woman, and in return guards were attacked. Two were killed and their heads placed on pikes. For hours there was total chaos, with the king and queen locked in a bedroom. Finally the royal family appeared on the balcony and agreed to one of the original demands of the women: to return with them to Paris.

That evening, a crowd estimated at 60,000 people marched back to Paris. The king, queen, and their young son were at the front of the procession in a carriage, surrounded by women carrying laurel branches. Then came the National Guard, with wagons filled with grain and flour, and finally thousands more women, still carrying their weapons. Walking in the rain and up to their ankles in mud, the women chanted that they were bringing "the baker, the baker's wife, and the baker's boy."

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