Dec. 12, 2005

Couple at Coney Island

by Charles Simic

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Poem: "Couple at Coney Island" by Charles Simic from Night Picnic. © Harcourt. Reprinted with permission.

Couple at Coney Island

It was early one Sunday morning,
So we put on our best rags
And went for a stroll along the boardwalk
Till we came to a kind of palace
With turrets and pennants flying.
It made me think of a wedding cake
In the window of a fancy bakery shop.

I was warm, so I took my jacket off
And put my arm round your waist
And drew you closer to me
While you leaned your head on my shoulder.
Anyone could see we'd made love
The night before and were still giddy on our feet.
We looked naked in our clothes

Staring at the red and white pennants
Whipped by the sea wind.
The rides and shooting galleries
With their ducks marching in line
Still boarded up and padlocked.
No one around yet to take our first dime.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of Frank Sinatra, born in Hoboken, New Jersey (1915). Sinatra grew up in Hoboken, the son of Italian immigrants.

It's the birthday of novelist Patrick O'Brian, born Richard Patrick Russ in London, England (1914). He's the author of the series of novels that began with Master and Commander (1969) about the British navel officer, Captain Jack Aubrey.

It's the birthday of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, born in Rouen, France (1821). He was the son of a surgeon. His father dissected human cadavers at home, and Flaubert often climbed the garden trellis to look in on his father's work.

His parents persuaded him to attend law school, but he had no interest in a career. He said, "If I ever do take an active part in the world, it will be as a thinker and demoralizer. I will simply tell the truth: but that truth will be horrible, cruel, naked." It was around that time that Flaubert experienced his first epileptic seizure. His parents were horrified, but he was relieved, because the condition made it impossible for him to continue law school.

Instead, he began traveling around the world with his rich, intellectual friends, going on an extended journey through Southern Europe and the Middle East. While traveling, Flaubert worked on his first attempted novel, an elaborate historical romance set in the fourth century AD called "The Temptation of Saint Anthony." When he showed it to friends, they said, "We think you ought to throw it into the fire and never mention it again." They told him to write a novel about ordinary middleclass French society instead.

So Flaubert took his friends' advice and moved home with his mother to write a novel about the modern world. He had heard a story about a young married woman who committed a series of affairs and then died, leaving her husband with numerous debts, and that gave Flaubert the idea for Madame Bovary (1857).

It's the story of Emma Bovary, a provincial housewife who spends all her time reading romance novels. After marrying an ordinary country doctor, Emma Bovary realizes that her life will never compare to the books she loves, and so she begins a series of love affairs to stave off her boredom.

It took Flaubert five years to write the novel. As he worked, he became so obsessed with the style of his prose that he could barely finish a sentence. In letters to his lover, he wrote, "I write at the rate of five hundred irreproachable words a week... sentences keep itching without coming to a head... What a heavy oar the pen is!" At one point, he spent five days working on a single page. Part of what made the writing so difficult was that he wanted to describe even the most ordinary things in a new way. He said, "It is so easy to [write] about the beautiful but it takes more genius to say, in proper style, 'close the door.'"

Flaubert also found the novel difficult to write because he was so disgusted by his provincial characters. He once complained to his lover that the novel was driving him crazy, because he said, "I have to spend every minute living under the skins of people that I cannot stand."

That novel became a big success when the government attempted to censor it, and Flaubert won the court case. We still remember Madam Bovary as Flaubert's great masterpiece, but in his lifetime he was best known for his second book Salammbo (1862), a novel about pagan rituals and human sacrifice that became a huge best-seller when it was published, though it is rarely read today.

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."

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

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




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