Aug. 18, 2008

In Praise of Joe

by Marge Piercy

I love you hot
I love you iced and in a pinch
I will even consume you tepid.

Dark brown as wet bark of an apple tree,
dark as the waters flowing out of a spooky swamp
rich with tannin and smelling of thick life—

but you have your own scent that even
rising as steam kicks my brain into gear.
I drink you rancid out of vending machines,

I drink you at coffee bars for $6 a hit,
I drink you dribbling down my chin from a thermos
in cars, in stadiums, on the moonwashed beach.

Mornings you go off in my mouth like an electric
siren, radiating to my fingertips and toes.
You rattle my spine and buzz in my brain.

Whether latte, cappuccino, black or Greek
you keep me cooking, you keep me on line.
Without you, I would never get out of bed

but spend my life pressing the snooze
button. I would creep through wan days
in the form of a large shiny slug.

You waken in me the gift of speech when I
am dumb as a rock buried in damp earth.
It is you who make me human every dawn.
All my books are written with your ink.

"In Praise of Joe" by Marge Piercy from The Crooked Inheritance. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1958 that Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita was finally published in New York (books by this author). In 1955, Nabokov couldn't find an American publisher willing to print his novel, so Lolita was published by Olympia Press in Paris. Olympia was best known for publishing erotica, which worried Nabokov; he wrote to the publisher: "You and I know that Lolita is a serious book with a serious purpose. I hope the public will accept it as such."

Lolita was Nabokov's 12th novel, but only his third written in English. Nabokov was a butterfly collector, and after he emigrated from Russia, every summer he and his wife drove from their home in New York to the Rocky Mountains, because it had the best butterfly hunting. During one of these cross-country trips the idea for a story came to him, and while his wife drove, he sat in the back seat of their Oldsmobile and started jotting down notes on index cards about a man named Humbert Humbert and the 12-year-old girl he loves. Nabokov worked on the book for "five years of monstrous misgivings and diabolical labors." Sometimes he would drive the car to hotel parking lot and sit alone in the back seat and work because, he said, the back seat of a car was the only place in America with "no noise and no drafts." He wanted to make Humbert Humbert as realistic as possible, so he spent hours in the psychology section of the library reading case studies of obsessive and insane men. And he would sneak onto school buses to learn how American kids talked. But he got frustrated with the book and finally gave up; he took his manuscript and all his note cards to the incinerator behind his house and he was just about to throw them in when his wife stopped him.

Olympia Press only printed 5,000 copies of Lolita, and few critics really noticed its publication. Then the well-respected author Graham Greene said in the London Times that Lolita was one of the best novels of 1955. In response, the editor of another major London newspaper called Lolita "the filthiest book I have ever read." These remarks caught the public's attention, and more and more people started to read the book, enough people that the British government ordered customs officers to seize all copies of the book entering the country. Even France banned it, but readers still managed to find illegal copies. In 1958, G.P. Putnam finally agreed to publish an American edition, and it was a huge success. It sold 2,600 copies sold the first day. The New York Times published two contradictory reviews—one that raved about it and one that called it "dull, dull, dull" and "repulsive"—and after that, it sold even more. It spent six months as number one on the best-seller charts.

In an interview for Life magazine, Nabokov said, "I would say that of all my books Lolita has left me with the most pleasurable afterglow — perhaps because it is the purest of all, the most abstract and carefully contrived."

It's the birthday of the filmmaker and screenwriter Roman Polanski, born in Paris in 1933. When he was still young, his family moved back to Krakow, where his father owned a plastics business. The family did well, and Roman especially loved going to the theater. But Poland was occupied by the Nazis in 1939, just two years after the Polanski family moved back; and even though his parents didn't practice Judaism, and his mother was actually raised Catholic, they were technically Jews, so the family was forced into the Krakow ghetto. Roman and his sister watched through the window as a wall was built around their houses. Both his parents were taken to concentration camps, but the family had paid a Roman Catholic family to take in Roman. He traveled through the Polish countryside, living with different Catholic families, sleeping in cow stalls. But he went into towns and went to the cinema whenever he could, even when the only films were German and many Polish people boycotted them. After the war, he was reunited with his father, but he learned that his mother had been killed in a concentration camp.

Polanski went to Polish film school and his debut, Knife in the Water, was a huge international success. It was also the first major Polish film made after World War II that wasn't about the war. He moved to France and then to England, and he kept making films. He fell in love with Sharon Tate, the lead actress in his film The Fearless Vampire Killers(1967), and they got married and moved to the United States. Polanski directed and wrote the screenplay for Rosemary's Baby (1968), which was another huge success. But just a year later, Sharon Tate was murdered by followers of Charles Manson; she was eight months pregnant with their first child. Polanski made a violent adaptation of Macbeth (1971) and a couple of flops. Then he directed Chinatown (1974), his biggest critical and commercial success. But then in 1977, he was charged with sexual assault of a young woman and had to flee to France, and he's been making films there ever since. When he won the Best Director Academy Award for The Pianist (2002), he couldn't attend the ceremony because he would have been arrested if he entered the United States.

Roman Polanski said, "Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theater."

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




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