Mar. 28, 2006

Love at First Sight

by Alan Ziegler

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Poem: "Love At First Sight" by Alan Ziegler from The Swan Song of Vaudeville. © Zoo Press. Reprinted with permission.

Love At First Sight

        It was a novelty-store and he went in just for the novelty
of it. She was in front of the counter, listening to the old
proprietor say: "I have here one of those illusion paintings,
a rare one. You either see a beautiful couple making love,
or a skull. They say this one was used by Freud himself on
his patients—if at first sight you see the couple, then you are
a lover of life and love. But if you focus on the skull first,
you're closely involved with death, and there's not much hope
for you."
        With that, the proprietor unwrapped the painting. They
both hesitated, looked at the picture, then at each other. They
both saw the skull. And have been together ever since.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of the novelist Russell Banks, born in Newton, Massachusetts (1940). He's the author of several novels, including Continental Drift (1985), The Sweet Hereafter (1992), and Cloudsplitter (1998).

He grew up in a run-down factory town. He said, "It was a blue-collar world ... where the idea of being a writer was like the idea of being a butterfly." His father was an occasionally abusive alcoholic. Banks said, "I don't remember not being physically afraid of my father. He didn't hit me that regularly, but often enough so the threat was always there. ... I hated my father, and I adored him. A relationship involving violence is incredibly focused attention—there's a heat to it that's almost erotic."

His father deserted the family when Banks was twelve years old. He managed to win a scholarship to college but he felt so out of place there that he quit after eight weeks and moved to Florida. He considered joining the communist revolution going on in Cuba but he got married instead. And then he began to notice that he was slowly turning into his father, drinking too much and becoming abusive to his own loved ones.

His marriage broke up and he moved back to New England where he found his father living alone. He took a plumbing job, which was his father's job as well, and finally got to know the man. It was only then that he began publishing the fiction he'd been writing since he was a teenager. His first novel, Family Life, came out in 1975.

Russell Banks said, "Some magazine was asking writers what they would have become if they hadn't become a writer, and I said that I would have been stabbed to death in the parking lot outside a bar in Florida at 24, or something like that. I really believe that, actually. I think writing saved my life."

It's the birthday of writer Nelson Algren, born in Detroit (1909). He made it through the University of Illinois, then drifted throughout the Midwest, hopping freights, working as a door-to-door salesman, playing cards and betting on horses that didn't win. He dressed in a slovenly manner and was rarely able to make the rent payment on his small apartment until the last minute. He eventually settled in Chicago, which he called "The City on the Make," or sometimes, "the lovely lady with the broken nose."

He said, "People ask me why I don't write about nature or the suburbs. If a writer could write the truth about one Chicago street, that would be a good life's work."

He wrote the novels A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1949).

It's the birthday of Maxim Gorky, the pen name of Aleksey Maksimovich Peshkov, born in Nizhny, Russia (1868). He is best known for his play The Lower Depths (1902), and his autobiographies My Childhood (1914) and In the World (1915).

In 1906 he arrived in the United States to campaign on behalf of the Russian Revolution. His visit was sponsored by Mark Twain who had written a pro-revolutionary essay called "The Czar's Soliloquy" the previous year, and who helped to found a group called The American Friends of Russian Freedom. Gorky was received like a hero, invited to speak publicly and offered hospitality by all sorts of prominent figures.

But when newspapers reported that the woman Gorky was traveling with was not his wife but his mistress, the hotel they were staying in turned Gorky out; honorary dinners and speeches were cancelled and further fund-raising efforts were judged to be in vain. Even Twain abandoned him. Gorky had to return to Russia.

It's the birthday of Frederic Exley, born in Watertown, New York (1929). He wrote one great book, A Fan's Notes (1968).

It's the birthday of writer Mario Vargas Llosa, born in Arequipa, in southern Peru (1936). He wrote Conversation in a Cathedral (1969), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1978) and The Feast of the Goat (2002). He ran for president against Alberto Fujimori and lost. He said, "Never again. Literature and politics are mutually exclusive. A writer is someone who works alone, who needs total independence. A politician is someone who is totally dependent, who has to make all kinds of concessions, the very thing a writer can't do."

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