Dec. 12, 2013


by Billy Collins

Yes, that's Orion over there,
the three studs of the belt
clearly lined up just off the horizon.

And if you turn around you can see
Gemini, very visible tonight,
the twins looking off into space as usual.

That cluster a little higher in the sky
is Cassiopeia sitting in her astral chair
if I'm not mistaken.

And directly overhead,
isn't that Virginia Woolf
slipping along the River Ouse

in her inflatable canoe?
See the wide-brimmed hat and there,
the outline of the paddle, raised and dripping stars?

"Constellations" by Billy Collins from The Trouble with Poetry. © Random House, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of French novelist Gustave Flaubert (books by this author), born in Rouen, France (1821). He's best known for the novel Madame Bovary (1857). He grew up in a middle-class family. His father convinced him to go to law school, but he dropped out. So his father bought him a house on the Seine, and Flaubert devoted the rest of his life to writing. After his father died, he moved back in with his mother, where he lived until he was 50 years old.

He was a perfectionist and spent hours at his writing desk every day. It took him about five years to write Madame Bovary, the story of Emma Bovary, a doctor's discontented wife, who longs to experience the passion, excitement, and luxury she has only read about in novels. She has affairs, racks up debt, and ultimately takes her own life with arsenic. He wrote carefully, working long hours, agonizing over each word. He wrote to his mistress, the poet Louise Colet: "Happy are they who don't doubt themselves and whose pens fly across the page. I myself hesitate, I falter, I become angry and fearful, my drive diminishes as my taste improves, and I brood more over an ill-suited word than I rejoice over a well-proportioned paragraph."

Most of Flaubert's novels were unsuccessful — they didn't get good reviews, and they sold poorly. A Sentimental Education (1869) sold fewer than 3,000 copies in its first four years in print. But he became hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially among writers like James Joyce.

After Flaubert's death in 1880, the novelist Henry James published an homage to him, writing, "The horror, in particular, that haunted [Flaubert] all his years was the horror of the cliché, the stereotyped, the things usually said and the way it was usually said, the current phrase that passed muster. Nothing, in [Flaubert's] view, passed muster but freshness."

In 1911, The New York Times reported that Madame Bovary had been voted by the French as the "best French novel." In 2007, editor J. Peder Zane published a book called The Top Ten, in which he asked 125 contemporary writers to name what they consider "the ten greatest works of fiction of all time," and Madame Bovary was number two, after Anna Karenina.

Flaubert said: "Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work."

And, "To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost."

It's the birthday of British playwright John Osborne (books by this author), born in London (1929). He grew up in a working-class family, and his father died when he was young. When he was 16, he quit school and began acting with traveling companies. He started writing plays when he was 19, and his first play was produced when he was 25. Two years later, he came out with his most famous play, Look Back in Anger (1956). It's a bleak play about a 25-year-old man named Jimmy Porter who lives in a tiny apartment with his wife and business partner. Jimmy owns a sweets shop, but he has no real hope for the future, and he becomes involved in a love triangle with his wife's friend. The play was revolutionary in British theater. Before Look Back in Anger, most plays in England were classics, melodramas, or genteel, drawing-room comedies. They usually had a likeable main character for audiences to identify with. Osborne changed all that. The term "angry young man" was coined to label the discontented British youth of the 1950s, and Osborne inspired a generation of writers, artists, and musicians.

It's the birthday of painter and printmaker Edvard Munch, born in Løten, Norway (1863). He was a sickly child; his mother and favorite sister both died of tuberculosis when Munch was a boy, and he was still a young man when his father and brother died as well. Another sister went mad. "I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies — the heritage of consumption and insanity — illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle," he wrote in his journal.

He created a 22-painting cycle that he called Frieze of Life A Poem About Life, Love, and Death. He referred to his paintings as his children, and whenever he sold one of them, he always painted a replacement, to keep the cycle complete. Munch intended the Frieze paintings to be seen as universal, rather than personal, portraits of humankind, and he often tried to convey inner psychological states through distortions of color and form. His most famous painting, The Scream (1893), influenced the German Expressionist movement of the early 20th century.

Munch had a nervous breakdown in 1908, ending up in a sanitarium. He gave up drinking and managed to gain some tranquility in the second half of his life, but later paintings never recaptured the passion of his earlier, tormented period. "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness," he once wrote. "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. [...] My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art."

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