Jun. 8, 2011

The Things

by Donald Hall

When I walk in my house I see pictures,
bought long ago, framed and hanging
— de Kooning, Arp, Laurencin, Henry Moore —
that I've cherished and stared at for years,
yet my eyes keep returning to the masters
of the trivial — a white stone perfectly round,
tiny lead models of baseball players, a cowbell,
a broken great-grandmother's rocker,
a dead dog's toy — valueless, unforgettable
detritus that my children will throw away
as I did my mother's souvenirs of trips
with my dead father. Kodaks of kittens,
and bundles of cards from her mother Kate.

"The Things" by Donald Hall, from The Back Chamber. © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of composer Robert Schumann, born in Zwickau, Germany (1810). His father, August Schumann, was a publisher and bookseller, and encouraged his son's literary and musical talents. But August died when Robert was a teenager, and his mother wanted him to study law instead of either music or literature, so he went off to Leipzig. He hated law, but he found a piano teacher, a man named Friedrich Wieck. Wieck was amazed by Schumann and believed he could be one of the best concert pianists in the country, and Schumann ended up abandoning his career in law.

In 1830, when he was 20 years old, Schumann badly and permanently injured his right hand. There are all sorts of theories about how he injured himself, but no one knows for sure. After that, Schumann had no choice but to pursue a career in composing instead of performing. He wrote music, and he also wrote his own brand of creative music criticism—in his first published criticism, a group of imaginary characters discussed a Chopin piece.

A few years later, Schumann fell in love with Freidrich Wieck's daughter, Clara. She was nine years younger than Robert, and she was an accomplished pianist—she had been performing in public since she was a young girl. They met in secret for awhile, but when her father found out, he was furious. He liked Schumann well enough as a pupil but he absolutely refused to let him marry Clara. The couple ended up in a court battle with Friedrich. Friedrich claimed that Clara was unfit to head up a household; and he accused Schumann of many things, including being lazy, socially awkward, a terrible musician, a bad writer, a drunkard, a liar, a mercenary, and having bad handwriting. In court, Schumann was calm and reasonable while Wieck acted completely insane. The court dismissed all the charges against Schumann except his tendency to drink, and asked Wieck to come up with absolute proof that Schumann was in fact an excessive drinker, but Wieck stalled again and again and finally the court ruled in favor of Robert and Clara.

After the wedding, Schumann was so relieved and happy that he began one of his most creative periods of composing. Inspired by his marriage, he wrote 168 lieder, or songs for voice and piano. During the next 15 years, his compositions included symphonies, an opera, and pieces for children. He raised seven children, and mentored young Johannes Brahms. His work was appreciated, but he was never truly famous. In performance he was overshadowed by Clara, considered a more talented pianist. Eventually his mental health deteriorated—he heard voices, saw visions, had music dictated to him by the ghosts of dead composers. He attempted suicide, and asked to be placed in a mental institution, where he spent the last two years of his life.

After his death, Clara devoted her life to popularizing her husband's work, and now he is considerably more famous than she is.

He said, "Talent works, genius creates."

And, "People compose for many reasons: to become immortal; because the pianoforte happens to be open; because they want to become a millionaire; because of the praise of friends; because they have looked into a pair of beautiful eyes; for no reason whatsoever."

And, "Artists, like some mothers, frequently love those of their children best who have caused them the greatest pains."

It's the birthday of the editor who ushered in the Golden Age of Science Fiction: John W. Campbell (books by this author), born in Newark, New Jersey (1910). His father was an electrical engineer, and Campbell was interested in science from the time he was a kid. He started writing science fiction when he was 18, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and published his first story a year later.

He wrote under his own name and a pseudonym, Don A. Stuart. His work includes the novella Who Goes There? (1938), about a group of researchers in Antarctica who discover an alien buried in the ice. The alien has the ability to inhabit the body of anyone it attacks, to such a convincing degree that it is impossible for the researchers to recognize which of them are still themselves and which are now aliens. It was made into the film The Thing From Another World (1951), its remake The Thing (1982), and later this year, a prequel, also called The Thing.

John Campbell's most lasting contributions to science fiction came from his role as an editor. In 1937, the editor of the science fiction magazine Astounding Stories retired and hired Campbell to replace him. Campbell immediately changed the name to Astounding Science-Fiction (and later to Analog), and he transformed the magazine. He wanted to change its reputation from that of a pulp fiction publication to one based on real science. He recruited and championed writers like Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon. He demanded that the stories he publish have convincing science as well as convincing characters. He preferred uncomfortable ideas that would push readers, and he had no qualms insisting that his writers completely change the endings of stories if he didn't like them. Isaac Asimov said, "What he wanted were people who would write stories in which the science was realistic. Not realistic in the sense that they couldn't go out into the blue yonder, not realistic in the sense that they couldn't extrapolate wildly, but realistic in the sense that people who worked in science resembled people who actually worked in science. That scientists acted the way scientists do, that engineers acted the way engineers do — and in short, that the scientific culture be represented accurately."

Asimov said of Campbell: "When I first met him I thought of him as ageless. He was a tall, large man with light hair, a beaky nose, a wide face with thin lips, and with a cigarette in a holder forever clamped between his teeth. He was talkative, opinionated, quicksilver-minded, overbearing. Talking to him meant listening to a monologue. Some writers could not endure it and avoided him, but he reminded me of my father, so I was perfectly willing to listen to him indefinitely."

It's the birthday of best-selling crime novelist Sara Paretsky (books by this author), born in Ames, Iowa (1947). She grew up in rural Kansas. Her parents were brilliant but troubled. Her father was a microbiology professor at the University of Kansas, her mother a frustrated housewife who had never lived up to her intellectual potential. Her father was from New York, and felt alienated in Lawrence where there were few other Jewish people, so he decided they needed to leave the city. He moved Sara and her four brothers to a farm outside Lawrence, even though neither he nor his wife could drive, so they were more or less stranded. Her parents fought constantly, and her mother was an alcoholic. They paid for all four of her brothers to go off to college, but not for her.

Paretsky managed to get out—she went to the University of Kansas and then left for Chicago, where she did community service work. In Chicago, she met her husband, a widower, and helped raise his three children. She was raising children, working full-time, and volunteering when she decided to write her first novel. Her decision came after thinking about Raymond Chandler's work—and not because he inspired her. She was frustrated that most of his books, six out of seven, feature a wicked femme fatale. She said, "As I began reading general fiction, I saw it as women using their bodies to try and make good boys do bad things: it was just a constant in literature of all kinds. So I wanted a woman who could be a whole person, which meant that she could be a sexual person without being evil. That she could be an effective problem solver, as women are in reality but not very often in fiction or on the screen. And that who she was sexually had nothing to do with it, except that it made her more fully human. It just took me quite a long time to come up with a way of being able to do that. And the courage, really, to try and do it at all." So she wrote Indemnity Only (1982), a novel featuring a hard-boiled female detective, V.I. Warshawski, who is smart and good with a gun and also likes nice shoes and enjoys her sex life. V.I. Warshawski was such a popular character that Paretsky has written 13 more novels about her, including Bitter Medicine (1987), Burn Marks (1990), Blacklist (2003), and most recently, Body Work (2010).

She said, "Mysteries, like cops, are right up against the place where people's basest and basic needs intersect with law and justice. They are by definition political. That's one reason I like to write them as well as read them."

Indemnity Only begins: "The night air was thick and damp. As I drove south along Lake Michigan, I could smell rotting alewives like a faint perfume on the heavy air. Little fires shone here and there from late-night barbecues in the park. On the water a host of green and red running lights showed people seeking relief from the sultry air. On shore traffic was heavy, the city moving restlessly, trying to breathe. It was July in Chicago."

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




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