Dec. 12, 2011

Three for the Mona Lisa

by John Stone


It is not what she did
at 10 o'clock
last evening

accounts for the smile

It is
that she plans
to do it again



Only the mouth
all those years

letting on.


It's not the mouth

it's not the eyes
exactly either

it's not even
exactly a smile

But, whatever,
I second the motion.

"Three for the Mona Lisa" by John Stone, from Music from Apartment 8. © Louisiana State University Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Gustave Flaubert (1821) (books by this author), born in Rouen, France. He was a notorious perfectionist in his work, and once said, "I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it." In 1851, he began what would become his first published novel, and his masterpiece. Five years later, Madame Bovary (1856) appeared in La Revue de Paris in serialized form. It's the story of Emma, a doctor's wife, who is dissatisfied with her life and longs to experience the passion, excitement, and luxury she has only read about in novels. She has two long-term affairs, accrues insurmountable debt, and ultimately takes her own life with arsenic.

From Madame Bovary, chapter nine: "Deep down in her heart, she was waiting and waiting for something to happen. Like a shipwrecked mariner, she gazed out wistfully over the wide solitude of her life, if so be she might catch the white gleam of a sail away on the dim horizon. She knew not what it would be, this longed-for barque; what wind would waft it to her, or to what shores it would bear her away. She knew not if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, burdened with anguish or freighted with joy. But every morning when she awoke she hoped it would come that day."

A month after the final installment of Madame Bovary was published, the French government banned the book, and hauled Flaubert up on charges of offending public and religious morality. Flaubert and his lawyers defended the book, saying that, by exposing vice, the novel was actually promoting virtue. Flaubert was narrowly acquitted, and Madame Bovary was published in book form two months later. The publicity and scandal of the trial contributed to its success.

Flaubert wrote: "It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes."

It's the birthday of painter and printmaker Edvard Munch, born in Löten, Norway (1863). A sickly child, his mother and favorite sister both died of tuberculosis when Munch was a boy, and he was still a young man when his father and brother died as well. Another sister went mad. "I inherited two of mankind's most frightful enemies — the heritage of consumption and insanity — illness and madness and death were the black angels that stood at my cradle," he wrote in his journal.

He painted a 22-painting cycle that he called Frieze of Life A Poem About Life, Love, and Death. He referred to his paintings as his children, and whenever he sold one of them, he always painted a replacement, to keep the cycle complete.Munch intended the Frieze paintings to be seen as universal, rather than personal, portraits of humankind, and he often tried to convey inner psychological states through distortions of color and form. His most famous painting, The Scream (1893), influenced the German Expressionist movement of the early 20th century.

Munch had a nervous breakdown in 1908, ending up in a sanitarium. He gave up drinking and managed to gain some tranquility in the second half of his life, but later paintings never recaptured the passion of his earlier, tormented period. "My fear of life is necessary to me, as is my illness," he once wrote. "Without anxiety and illness, I am a ship without a rudder. ... My sufferings are part of my self and my art. They are indistinguishable from me, and their destruction would destroy my art."

Today is the birthday of British playwright John Osborne (1929) (books by this author), born in London. He wrote Look Back in Anger (1956), a reaction against the escapist drawing-room comedies of playwrights like Noël Coward. Osborne wanted to portray the everyday speech and harsh reality of working-class life. It was Osborne's third play, and he wrote it in less than a month; producers likewise wasted no time in sending it back to him, but artistic director George Devine was looking for new, post-war voices for the British theater, and he agreed to produce the play for the Royal Court Theatre. A reviewer for Punch wrote that Osborne "draws liberally on the vocabulary of the intestines and laces his tirades with the steamier epithets of the tripe butcher." Not all theatergoers — nor indeed theater professionals — welcomed this gritty new realism, and audiences and critics were sharply divided. George Fearon, the Royal Court Theatre's press officer, disliked the play, and told Osborne that it was impossible to market. In the play's press release, Fearon called Osborne "a very angry young man," and the label stuck. Eventually, all the antiestablishment British writers of Osborne's generation became known as the Angry Young Men.

From the play: "There aren't any good, brave causes left. If the big bang does come, and we all get killed off, it won't be in aid of the old-fashioned, grand design. It'll just be for the Brave New-nothing-very-much-thank-you. About as pointless and inglorious as stepping in front of a bus."

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
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “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
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
  • “Writing is very hard work and knowing what you're doing the whole time.” —Shelby Foote
  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
  • “Writing is like getting married. One should never commit oneself until one is amazed at one's luck.” —Iris Murdoch
  • “The less conscious one is of being ‘a writer,’ the better the writing.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is…that oddest of anomalies: an intimate letter to a stranger.” —Pico Iyer
  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
  • “I think writing is, by definition, an optimistic act.” —Michael Cunningham
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