Jan. 24, 2010

One of the Butterflies

by W. S. Merwin

The trouble with pleasure is the timing
it can overtake me without warning
and be gone before I know it is here
it can stand facing me unrecognized
while I am remembering somewhere else
in another age or someone not seen
for years and never to be seen again
in this world and it seems that I cherish
only now a joy I was not aware of
when it was here although it remains
out of reach and will not be caught or named
or called back and if I could make it stay
as I want to it would turn to pain.

"One of the Butterflies" by W. S. Merwin, from The Shadow of Sirius. © Copper Canyon Press, 2008. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Vicki Baum, born in Vienna (1888). She's best known for her novel Menschen im Hotel (Grand Hotel, 1929), about a random group of people who stay in a fancy hotel in Berlin for a weekend. The characters include a stenographer, an aging ballet dancer, a dying man, and a thieving baron. The story goes that Vicki Baum got a six-week job as a chamber maid at a Berlin hotel in order to do research for her novel.

Baum had already written four novels, but Grand Hotel made her famous. It was adapted into a play in Germany and the United States, and made into a movie starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Joan Crawford.

Vicki Baum said, "I felt and still feel that a writer should always have some profession which brings him into close contact with the realities of life."

It's the birthday of French playwright Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, (books by this author) born in Paris (1732). Today, we remember him for three plays he wrote about a clever barber named Figaro, who always saved the day, in the plays Le Barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville, 1775), Le Mariage de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1784), and La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother, 1795).

He said, "Where love is concerned, too much is not even enough."

It's the birthday of the novelist Edith Wharton, (books by this author) born Edith Newbold Jones in New York City in 1862. She came from a privileged family, and in fact many people think that the phrase "Keeping up with the Joneses" was a reference to her family, one of the most important of Old New York society.

Edith spent much of her childhood in Europe, and she enjoyed writing, and published some of her poems. She completed a novella called Fast and Loose when she was 15. But when she was 17, it was time for her "coming out" in society. And when she was 23, she got married to a wealthy man named Edward Wharton. With him, she could enjoy the lifestyle she loved, time to travel and time to write. But the marriage was an unhappy one. Edward did not understand his wife's literary or intellectual interests, and throughout their marriage he drank more and more. Edith was depressed, and so she focused even more on writing and published her first book, a book about architecture that she wrote with Ogden Codman Jr.: The Decoration of Houses (1898).

The Decoration of Houses was a big success and gave Wharton the confidence to move on to fiction, and she published several books of stories and novels. But her novels were historical fiction and didn't do very well. Her friend Henry James encouraged her to write what she knew, about being a woman in New York society, about the clash between old money and new money that had come with the Gilded Age. James said: "There it is round you. Don't pass it by — the immediate, the real, the only, the yours, the novelist's that it waits for. Take hold of it and keep hold, and let it pull you where it will."

Soon after, she published her first major novel, The House of Mirth (1905), about a woman named Lily Bart who is torn between her desire for the superficial pleasures of society life and an innocent belief in love and a moral code. She followed that effort with The Age of Innocence, and it won her the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. She was the first woman to receive that award.

It's the birthday of the poet Keith Douglas, (books by this author) born in Tunbridge Wells, England (1920). He started publishing poems at age 16. When he was 20, he joined the army and fought in North Africa. During this time, he sent poems back to England to his tutor at Oxford, who published them in a short volume called Selected Poems (1943). A year later, Douglas was killed at Normandy, and after he died, his journal from North Africa was published as a memoir, Alamein to Zem Zem (1946), which also included his poems and drawings.

It's the birthday of comedian John Belushi, born in Chicago (1949). He started out with the Second City comedy group in Chicago, then moved to National Lampoon's Lemmings,and eventually to Saturday Night Live. He starred in films like Animal House (1978) and The Blues Brothers (1980). He died in 1982 of a drug overdose, at age 33.

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




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
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