Oct. 26, 2011

A Cat's Life

by David R. Slavitt

Her repertoire is limited but fulfilling,
with two preoccupations, or three, perhaps,
if you include the taking of many naps:
otherwise she is snuggling or killing.

"A Cat's Life" by David R. Slavitt, from William Henry Harrison and Other Poems. © Louisiana State University Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the playwright John Arden (books by this author), born in Barnsley, England (1930) who was bookish and well behaved until he joined the army, where he said, "I heard a lot of stories which I found rather distressing and not what I thought the army was for." He came home and started writing plays that attacked British conformity. He's best known for his play Serjeant Musgrave's Dance (1959), about four deserters from the British army who try to persuade the local people in their town that war is pointless. John Arden said, "Theater must celebrate noise, disorder, drunkenness, lasciviousness, nudity, generosity, corruption, fertility, and ease."

Today is the 64th birthday of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (books by this author), born in Chicago (1947), the daughter of a man who sold draperies and was so frugal that even on the coldest winter nights in Illinois, he would turn the heat in the house off, and then wake up early in the morning to warm the house back up before everyone else arose. Hillary grew up in a middle-class suburb of Chicago, where she was in Girl Scouts, played sports, wrote for the student newspaper, and participated in student government.

Her father was a Republican, and she started her political life as one also, campaigning for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 Presidential Election. Her first year in college she was president of the Wellesley Young Republicans student group, but within a couple years, influenced especially by the events of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Vietnam War, she shifted her political views. As a junior in college, she campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, running on an anti-war platform.

Her senior year, she wrote a thesis about the strategies and tactics of a radical community activist --- which, while she was First Lady, the White House suppressed. That year, she also became the first student ever at Wellesley to deliver the formal graduation address, and it was so well-received that people in the audience clapped for seven minutes. Her speech made national headlines and she was interviewed on talk shows and featured in a Life magazine profile.

She traveled for the summer and then started law school at Yale. It was at Yale that she met Bill Clinton, and the first time she saw him was at the student center there. She heard a loud, southern voice saying "and we grow the biggest watermelons in the world!" --- and asked her friend who that was, and her friend answered, "Oh, that's Bill Clinton, he's from Arkansas. That's all he talks about."

She's the author of It Takes A Village (1995), about the responsibilities of communities to see that children succeed. She's also written an autobiography, Living History (2003), for which she was paid an advance of $8 million by the publisher. The book sold over a million copies within the first month it was published.

It was on this day in 1900 that Henry James (books by this author) wrote his first letter to the budding novelist Edith Wharton (books by this author), beginning a long friendship. Wharton was an admirer of James's work, and she sent him one of the first short stories she ever wrote. He wrote back to say that he liked the story but that she shouldn't write about Europe if she didn't live there. He said, "Be tethered in native pastures, even if it reduces [you] to a back-yard in New York." His advice inspired her to write about the New York society she'd grown up in, and the result was The House of Mirth (1905), which became her first big success.

They remained friends for the rest of James's life, but while Wharton became more successful, James's novels sold less and less well. When he learned that she'd used the proceeds from a recent book to buy herself a new car, he joked that he hoped his next book would provide enough money for him to buy a new wheelbarrow. But he always appreciated her friendship, and once wrote to her, "Your letters come into my damp desert here even as the odour of promiscuous spices ...might be wafted to some compromised oasis from a caravan of the Arabian nights."

Andrei Bely was the pseudonym of Russian novelist and poet, Boris Nikolayevich Bugaev (books by this author), who was born in Moscow on this day in 1880 to a prominent intellectual family.

He is best remembered for his 1913 novel, Petersburg, the book of which Vladimir Nabokov said, "My greatest masterpieces of twentieth-century prose are, in this order: Joyce's Ulysses; Kafka's Transformation; Bely's Petersburg ..."

Petersburg is a story of conspiracy and betrayal set during the 1905 Russian Revolution, when massive political and social unrest spread across the country. In the book, a group of radicals plan to assassinate a senator with a time bomb disguised as a can of sardines, but the bomb is lost, the conspirators only manage to destroy someone's study, and their attempt at revolution becomes a farce.

The language of Petersburg is by turns comical, poetic, and abstract, the city in a landscape where "In this melting greyness there suddenly dimly emerged a large number of dots, looking in astonishment: lights, lights, tiny lights filled with intensity and rushed out of the darkness in pursuit of the rust-red blotches, as cascades fell from above: blue, dark violent and black."

Nothing in Russian literature up to that point had prepared Russian readers for Bely's novel, which mixed the scientific and rational with the intuitive and spiritual, an omniscient voice with the first person, adding music, color, past and present, and gleeful humor to a story of impending patricide. But although Petersburg is difficult to classify, critics have remarked that Bely's novel would be strangely familiar to contemporary readers who have seen the blend of fact and fantasy in The Black Swan or A Beautiful Mind, and that Bely's writing foreshadows the late American author David Foster Wallace.

Bely lived in poverty through the 1917 Russian Revolution, which led to the end of Tsarist Russia and the beginning of the Marxist regime. He worked as a lecturer in Moscow for a few years, traveled to Berlin for a few more, and returned to find himself denounced in the new Marxist view of literature.

Beryl Markham, (books by this author) born Beryl Clutterbuck on this day in 1902 in Leicester, England 1902, wrote just one book in her life. Her 1942 memoir, West with the Night, a singular work that prompted the following letter from Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) to his editor that same year:
"... she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and some times [sic] making an okay pig pen [sic]. But this girl who is, to my knowledge, very unpleasant ... can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers. ... I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody, wonderful book."

Hemingway, who typically savaged other writers rather than praising them, had known Markham from a safari he'd taken in Kenya, where she had grown up. Markham's family had moved to colonial East Africa when she was three. Markham learned to speak several African languages and how to hunt wild game with a spear, was once attacked by a friend's pet lion, and fought and killed a deadly black mamba snake.

Markham married a wealthy young Englishman named Mansfield Markham in 1927; the couple moved to England and Beryl gave birth to a son, but her marriage soon ended and she returned to Africa alone.

Back in Africa, Markham took her first plane ride with a friend who was a big-game hunter and a pilot, and it so thrilled her that she immediately decided she would learn to fly. Within months she'd earned her pilot's license, bought a plane, and began a career as a bush pilot, delivering supplies and passengers to remote areas, rescuing miners and hunters from the bush, finding elephants and game for wealthy hunters, and learning to land her plane in whatever forest clearing or field was at hand. After less than a year in the cockpit, Markham undertook a daring solo flight from Africa to England and from there determined she would complete a flight no one else had yet dared — a solo, nonstop transatlantic flight from London west to New York City, flying the entire way against the prevailing winds of the jet stream.

On the evening of September 4, 1936, Markham departed from London in a borrowed single-engine Vega Gull capable of flying up to 163 miles per hour and fitted with enough extra fuel tanks to go almost 4,000 miles without stopping. Two hours later she was seen passing Ireland, then spied by a ship at sea, and then spotted the following day over the tip of Newfoundland. And then she disappeared.

Markham's flight had almost ended earlier, in the Atlantic, when a fuel line froze in the high, thin, cold air, causing the engine to fail and the Vega to nosedive toward the ocean. Just above the water, the line warmed enough to allow gas through and Markham was able to pull her plane back to safety. The same thing happened again just off the edge of Nova Scotia, but this time Markham crash landed nose-first into a peat bog. With her plane now stuck in the mud, she climbed out and hailed a couple of fisherman, calling out, "I'm Mrs. Markham. I've just flown from England."

Markham was certain her flight would be considered a failure — she'd meant to land in New York, after all — but she was picked up by a U.S. Coast Guard plane, which she copiloted back to the city, and was driven in a motorcade through New York City in a flurry of confetti and ticker tape. She returned to England a celebrity and did not take up flying again.

Beryl Markham was many things, although she does not appear to have considered herself a writer, wondering at the beginning of West with the Night,
"How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there can be no other.'

"But there are a hundred places to start for there are a hundred names — Mwanza, Serengetti, Nungwe, Molo, Nakur. There are easily a hundred names, and I can begin best by choosing one of them — not because it is first nor of any importance in a wildly adventurous sense, but because here it happens to be, turned uppermost in my logbook. After all, I am no weaver. Weavers create. This is remembrance."

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
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
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  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
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  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
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  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
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