Apr. 16, 2011

Success Story

by Terence Winch

My clothes are perfectly contoured
to my body. my shoes & socks
fit just right. My cat is a delightful
intelligent animal. My apartment
is great. The right location,
cheap rent. I eat the best food.
My friends love me. I adore them.
My lover is terrific & beautiful.
The sun is shining. There are trees
even in the slums in Washington.
I have tons of money & a gorgeous
air conditioner. Great art hangs
on my wall. I live a spine-tingling life
of delirious sex & intense happiness.

"Success Story" by Terence Winch, from The Great Indoors. © Story Line Press, 1994. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the novelist who said: "If you can't annoy somebody, there's little point in writing." That's Kingsley Amis (books by this author), born in London (1922). When he was 32 years old, he published his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), a satire of British culture and academia. It was a huge hit in England, but the American reception was less glowing. His American publisher offered readers a complete refund (the book cost $3.50) if they didn't think Lucky Jim was funny, and sure enough, the publisher lost money as books were returned (although eventually the tide turned and Lucky Jim became a best-seller in America).

The feeling was mutual — if Amis wasn't popular in America, neither was America popular with him. In 1974, Amis said: "I think that the state of the English fiction written in Great Britain is deplorable, and that the state of American fiction is far, far worse. [...] Not a single American novelist has ever established an oeuvre."

Amis published more than 20 novels and was generally considered one of Britain's great comic writers. He was also something of an authority on drinking, both as a writer and as a drinker. A notorious alcoholic, he also wrote On Drink (1972), Everyday Drinking (1983), and How's Your Glass? (1984); all three books were published together as Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis in 1998. Amis wasn't a fan of wine, preferring spirits and beer.

He wrote: "The first, indeed the only, requirement of a diet is that it should lose you weight without reducing your alcoholic intake by the smallest degree."

And, "When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover."

And, "Wives and such are constantly filling up any refrigerator they have a claim on, even its ice-compartment, with irrelevant rubbish like food."

It's the birthday of children's writer Gertrude Chandler Warner (books by this author), born in Putnam, Connecticut (1890). She never finished high school, but during World War I, local school boards enlisted teachers to serve their country, and the Putnam board saw that Warner taught Sunday school and decided she could probably teach first grade. She agreed to try, and she taught 80 kids a day, half in the morning and half in the afternoon. She was good at it, and she ended up teaching in the same room for 32 years.

One day, when she was home sick, she thought up a story about kids who lived in an abandoned train car, and she brought it into her class to read to her students. She rewrote it until it was in extremely simple language that all her students could understand. In 1924, she published The Boxcar Children, the story of Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny, orphans who take care of themselves living off the land until they are reunited with their grandfather. Despite protests from adults — who thought the book was a bad influence because it encouraged children to think they would get along fine without adult supervision — The Boxcar Children was extremely popular, and Warner wrote 18 sequels. After her death in 1979, ghostwriters continued the series, and there are now more than 100 Boxcar Children books.

It's the birthday of actor Charlie Chaplin, born in 1889. Although Chaplin's birth certificate has never been found, it has always been assumed that he was born in London. Earlier this year, the Chaplin children shared a new piece of information about their father: He may have been born in a gypsy caravan. His daughter Victoria inherited a desk from her father, and when she had a locksmith open a locked drawer, she found a letter from a man named Jack Hill. He said: "Hello Charlie, If you would like to know, you were born in a caravan. It was a good one, it belonged to the gypsy queen who was my auntie. You were born on the Black Patch in Smethwick. So was I, two and a half years later. Your mum did move again with her dad's circus and later settled down in London but whereabouts I do not know."

The Black Patch was a bustling Romani community (the Romani are an ethnic group often called Gypsies) outside the city of Birmingham.

Chaplin's parents, both entertainers, split up when he was two years old. He lived mostly with his mother and half-brother, but his mother was in and out of asylums, and he spent time in a workhouse and then in a school for poor children.

He went on to become one of the most famous film stars of all time. He got a job in a play, The Painful Predicament of Sherlock Holmes, that turned out to be a surprise hit. He toured the United States with an acting troupe and got signed on to the movies. He starred in short films that featured slapstick comedy, and developed his signature character, the Little Tramp, a vagabond gentleman in an old coat, funny little mustache, and cane. He was convinced that a movie would be funny as long as he put a well-developed character in to a setting and let things evolve. But this improvisation was combined with intense control over other parts of the film — he insisted on going through every scene again and again with every actor until it was how he wanted it. His films included The Kid (1921), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Great Dictator (1940).

He said, "Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself."

And, "'I remain one thing and one thing only and that is a clown. It places me on a far higher plane than any politician."

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1852 that the Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev (books by this author) was arrested for writing an obituary for Nikolai Gogol. The young Turgenev had met Gogol briefly several times, but only spent substantial time with him once, about six months before Gogol's death. But he was shocked and sad to hear the news, and to hear that Gogol had burned his final manuscript shortly before dying. In a letter to the woman he loved, the opera singer Pauline Viardot, Turgenev wrote: "He revealed us to ourselves — he was in more than one sense the continuator of Peter the Great for us. ... One has to be a Russian to understand everything that we have lost ... Just imagine: the censorship here already forbids all mention of his name!"

Despite the censors, Turgenev went ahead and wrote a short obituary, and sent it to a St. Petersburg journal. Soon after, he wrote: "Running across the editor of the journal in the street, I asked him why he did not publish it. 'You see the sort of climate it is,' he replied allegorically. 'I'm afraid it can't be done.' 'But,' I observed, 'my article is a most innocent one.' 'Innocent or not, the editor replies, 'the point is that we've been forbidden to mention Gogol's name.' " Since he couldn't get the obituary published in St. Petersburg, he sent it to Moscow, and the censor there must have missed the uproar in St. Petersburg, because he approved it.

In his obituary, Turgenev wrote: "Gogol is dead! What Russian heart will not be deeply moved by these words. He is dead ... the man whom we now have the right — a bitter right conferred on us by death, to call great."

For these words, Turgenev was arrested on this day and put in jail. He was released after a month, but banished to the countryside, where he essentially lived under house arrest for almost two years. In letters to friends, he told them that the obituary was just an excuse to arrest him. His book of short stories A Sportsman's Sketches (1852) was a powerful, and popular, critique of serfdom, which the government of course did not appreciate. The Sketches had an important role in turning public opinion against serfdom, and in 1861, the system was abolished. Turgenev went on to write successful plays and novels, including Fathers and Sons (1862).

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




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