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Thursday, 23 October 2014

JAZZ ICONS #11: Wes Montgomery


Of all the many and varied excitements of jazz, surely none is more dramatic and stimulating than one of those rare occasions when a new star of major importance suddenly bursts through from nowhere, to full-scale recognition.  In the even rarer instances when such a newcomer also offers a startlingly different and revitalizing approach to his instrument, the impact is of course all the greater.  Such is the case with the lightning-swift emergence of Wes Montgomery.

from the liner notes for
Movin' Along (1960)

The sound is unmistakable.  It's warm but powerful, quiet and at the same time inviting and supremely, almost magically supple.  Note follows note with a kind of graceful fluidity born of the combination of astounding virtuosity and the ability to capture the emotional essence of a tune in a way that remains a benchmark in jazz improvisation even to this day.  It's a sound that's influenced literally dozens of guitarists - including Grant Green, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lee Ritenour and Emily Remler to name just a few - and will continue to do so for as long as anybody continues to play and seriously study the instrument.  The fact that it was created by a musician who was almost entirely self-taught, who developed and perfected his technique in obscure mid-western nightclubs while holding down a physically demanding day job as a machine operator, only makes what he managed to accomplish in just eight, immensely productive years that much more remarkable.

John Leslie 'Wes' Montgomery was born in Indianapolis, the capital of the US state of Indiana, on 6 March 1923.  Little is known about his early life except that he grew up in Indianapolis, attended school and married his wife Serene there in 1942, and that he was one of four siblings - Thomas (who died at sixteen), Monk (born 1921), Buddy (born 1930) and a younger sister named Ervena.  All four Montgomery children were blessed with musical ability - Thomas had been a drummer prior to his death, and Ervena would eventually go on to perform as a singer under the name 'Lena Montgomery' - and it was with his brothers Monk (bass) and Buddy (vibraphone and piano) that the future guitar virtuoso would make his earliest recordings, including Fingerpickin', his hastily assembled debut LP, released by Pacific Jazz in 1957.

The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1961)
FULL ALBUM - 6 Tracks

Montgomery first began to 'mess around with music' at the age of twelve, teaching himself to play a four-stringed instrument known as the 'tenor guitar' before falling under the spell of Charlie Christian - at that time the most famous and most widely imitated guitarist in the country thanks to the many, soon-to-be legendary recordings he was making as a member of the Benny Goodman Orchestra and as a member of the various small groups the white clarinettist and bandleader liked to record with on the side.  Despite having received no formal training as a guitarist and allegedly never having played the six-stringed version of the instrument before (a claim which has yet to be verified), the newly-married Montgomery bought himself a secondhand guitar and amplifier (paying for them with money borrowed from his brother Buddy) and dedicated himself to learning all of Christian's solos note for note, developing an unorthodox fingering technique along the way which, according to jazz critic Scott Yanow, allowed him to play what he was hearing by 'plucking the strings with the fleshy part of his thumb, using downstrokes for single notes and a combination of upstrokes and downstrokes for chords and octaves.'  Playing in this 'quieter' fashion also made him more popular with his neighbors, some of whom had objected to the all-night practice sessions he regularly conducted after working his eight hour factory shift each day.  Within a year he was proficient enough to begin playing professionally, gaining a reputation as a kind of human jukebox for his ability to reproduce Christian's solos with such unerring and seemingly effortless accuracy.

It was his encyclopedic knowledge of Christian's music that earned the guitarist his first full-time professional job as a member of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra, which he joined in 1948 and would tour and occasionally record with until 1950, when the stress of being away from his young and growing family saw him return to Indianapolis.  The father of eight children, Montgomery found another full-time job as a welder for a company that manufactured radio parts, sleeping for six hours after his shift ended at 3pm before going off to his 'other' job as a musician, routinely playing in the city's jazz clubs until the early hours of the following morning.  While this punishing schedule did not make him famous, it did provide him with the space and time he required to further refine and develop his unique, thumb-dominated 'strum and pluck' technique - a technique which had become that of a genuine virtuoso by the time he was heard by visiting tenor saxophonist Julian 'Cannonball' Adderley at an Indianapolis venue called The Missile Club in 1958.  Adderley immediately recommended him to Orrin Keepnews, A&R Director of the New York label Riverside Records, who signed him in 1959 and would go on to produce many of the albums - including The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959), The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960), Movin' Along (1960) and So Much Guitar! (1961) - that would establish his as the most exciting name to emerge in jazz guitar since the untimely death of Charlie Christian at the age of twenty-five. 

Judged an overnight success by those who had no idea of how long he'd been playing nor under what circumstances he'd been obliged to develop and refine his technique, Montgomery soon became an in-demand studio musician and a headlining live act in his own right, appearing in clubs across the country with his own trio as well as in a trio that featured his brothers Buddy and Monk whose previous band, a quintet called The Mastersounds, he had occasionally recorded with during the 1950s.  He was also invited to join the band of saxophone giant John Coltrane - an invitation he turned down - and appeared as a featured sideman with the Wynton Kelly Trio, formerly the backing band of Miles Davis, another well-known admirer of his inimitable and now immediately recognizable guitar style.  

The early 1960s saw the guitarist appear frequently as a sideman on record dates by, among others, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, trumpeter Nat Adderley (brother of 'Cannonball' Adderley) and soul-jazz organist extraordinaire Jimmy Smith.  In April 1963 he entered the studio to record what would be released as Fusion, his penultimate LP for Riverside and one that, unusually for the time, featured him performing beautifully-rendered ballads with full orchestral accompaniment.  Although no one may have realized it, the relative success of this LP established a formula that would be exploited with even greater commercial success by his new record label Verve, with whom he signed in 1964 following the death of Riverside founder Bill Grauer and that label's subsequent filing for bankruptcy.

Here's That Rainy Day (1965)
Tempo, ABC TV
London, 7 May 1965

From 1964 until his death four years later Montgomery would record a series of highly successful 'crossover' LPs for Verve and then for A&M Records which saw him increasingly eschew jazz material in favor of cover versions - lushly orchestrated by arranger/conductor Don Sebesky - of the sometimes less-than-memorable pop hits of the day.  His fifth Verve LP, Goin' Out of My Head, went gold and would go on to win him a Grammy Award for 'Best Instrumental Jazz Performance' of 1965 - a nomination thought to be undeserved by some who had followed his career since his Riverside days and saw his new direction as being a cynical betrayal of the 'pure' jazz upon which his reputation as an improviser had originally been built.  The move from Verve to A&M Records, another pop-oriented label co-founded by the guitarist's one-time collaborator Herb Alpert, saw this process confirmed by the 1967 release of A Day in the Life, the title track of which - a Lennon and McCartney tune which had recently appeared on The Beatles' LP Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band - became an enormous hit on AM radio and saw the album itself go on to become one of the biggest-selling 'jazz' LPs of all time.  

Montgomery, a shy and diffident man who had never learned to read music and played everything he played by ear and instinct alone, publicly sought to distinguish his later commercial music from his earlier work and the alienating impact his runaway 'pop' success was having on both disappointed jazz fans and on his own artistic integrity.  'There is a jazz concept to what I'm doing,' he explained to journalist Gary Giddins shortly after the release of A Day in the Life, 'but I'm playing popular music [now] and it should be regarded as such.'  The controversy did not harm his record sales in either his native USA or in Britain and Europe, both of which he successfully toured in 1965, performing a largely jazz-based programme to festival audiences who, by all accounts, could not get enough of him.  In time, however, it became obvious that he felt trapped by the conventions of the 'easy listening' format and longed to return to his former, more improvisational style of playing - something he was able to do consistently on stage even if he was not able, or willing, to do so in the studio.

Wes Montgomery died at his home in Indianapolis on 15 June 1968 during what was a rare break from touring and recording.  He told his wife he felt unwell when he woke up that morning and fifteen minutes later he was gone, victim of a massive coronary which killed him almost instantly.  While it's tempting to speculate on the direction his music might have taken had he lived, there's no evidence to suggest that he would have abandoned what had become a highly lucrative commercial formula to return, at least in the short term, to recording so-called 'pure' jazz - a style of music that was in serious decline by the late 1960s thanks to the worldwide dominance of rock music and one that would soon face a new threat as the emerging fusion movement began to gain momentum.  The point is not what the guitarist would or might have done had he lived, but what he actually did manage to achieve during the eight years which saw him rise from obscurity to become one of the world's most genuinely admired musicians.  Compromises may have made between art and commerce, with jazz being the loser in many respects, but as DownBeat critic Pete Welding once put it:

He couldn't play uninterestingly if he wanted to. Time and time again...his supple sense of rhythm, his choice and placement of notes, his touch and tone raise what might have been in lesser hands merely mundane to the plane of something special, distinctive, masterful.

And that, as anyone who has ever heard the music of this extraordinary musician must certainly agree, counts as no mean feat by anybody's standards.

 How Insensitive (1966)
GEORGE DEVENS [vibraphone]; RAY BARRETTO [congas]
From the 1966 Verve LP Tequila

Click HERE to visit the official website of WES MONTGOMERY sponsored by Resonance Records.  You can also click HERE to listen to more of his music on YouTube.

Special thanks to everyone who took the time to upload this music to YouTube.  Your efforts are appreciated by music lovers everywhere. 

You might also enjoy:
JAZZ ICONS #2: Django Reinhardt
JAZZ ICONS #9: Lee Morgan
JAZZ ICONS #10: Bernie McGann

Thursday, 16 October 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #56: Joyce Carol Oates

I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes . . . and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.  Or appears to do so.

Women Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews (1989) edited by GEORGE PLIMPTON


Click HERE to visit an website devoted to the life and work of US novelist, critic and academic JOYCE CAROL OATES.

You might also enjoy: 
WRITERS ON WRITING #51: Marianne Moore 

Thursday, 9 October 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #21: Kingsley Amis



Between the Gardening and the Cookery
Comes the brief Poetry shelf;
By the Nonesuch Donne, a thin anthology
Offers itself.

Critical, and with nothing else to do,
I scan the Contents page,
Relieved to find the names are mostly new;
No one my age.

Like all strangers, they divide by sex:
Landscape Near Parma
Interests a man, so does The Double Vortex,
So does Rilke and Buddha.

'I travel, you see', 'I think' and 'I can read'
These titles seem to say;
But I Remember You, Love is my Creed,
Poem for J.,

The ladies’ choice, discountenance my patter
For several seconds;
From somewhere in this (as in any) matter
A moral beckons.

Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart
Or squash it flat?
Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart;
Girls aren’t like that.

We men have got love well weighed up; our stuff
Can get by without it.
Women don’t seem to think that’s good enough;
They write about it.

And the awful way their poems lay them open
Just doesn’t strike them.
Women are really much nicer than men:
No wonder we like them.

Deciding this, we can forget those times
We stayed up half the night
Chock-full of love, crammed with bright thoughts, names, rhymes,
And couldn’t write.

from Collected Poems 1944-1979 (1980)

The Poet:  Kingsley Amis was born in South London in 1922 to lower middle-class parents who could never quite come to terms with the fact that they weren't as genteel as they pretended to be.  He was drafted into the British Army in 1942, interrupting the scholarship he'd won to read English at Oxford University to serve in the Signal Corps in northern France.  He published several poems while at Oxford and also began his friendship with fellow poet Philip Larkin – a friendship that was to endure for the rest of their lives and go on to become one of the most celebrated in all of modern English literature.

Amis married Hilary (known to everyone as ‘Hilly’) Bardwell in 1948 and moved to Swansea with her after receiving his degree, where he worked as a university lecturer for the next few years while writing his first unpublished novel.  His first published novel was the groundbreaking Lucky Jim, which appeared in 1954 and was immediately hailed as a classic by the critics, becoming a bestseller among the young, who had apparently been waiting for a book which poked fun at universities and other previously off-limits symbols of Establishment (with a capital 'E') authority.  The book subsequently became, along with John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger, one of the cornerstones of what was known as the ‘Angry Young Man’ movement - a label Amis disliked and hotly disputed whenever critics attempted to apply it to his work. 

Despite producing three children together – Philip, the future prize-winning novelist Martin, and Sally – Amis and the long-suffering Hilly (he was by this time an alcoholic and a serial philanderer who still got upset after learning that she had been having an affair of her own) divorced in 1965 so he could marry fellow novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, who would leave him in 1980 and go on to divorce him three years later, citing ‘unreasonable differences’ as the reason for their split.  Amis proved to be a prolific, funny and increasingly curmudgeonly writer throughout his career, publishing almost one novel per year until his death in 1995, including The Old Devils which won the 1986 Booker Prize for fiction and was later successfully adapted for television. 

In addition to his novels and Collected Short Stories, Amis also published a memoir, several volumes of poetry, non-fiction on subjects ranging from science fiction to his ultimately disastrous love of alcohol, a James Bond novel (titled Colonel Sun and published under the pseudonym 'Robert Markham’) as well as editing two poetry anthologies including the highly regarded The New Oxford Book of Light English Verse.  He was the most famous man of letters of his generation and was knighted for his services to British literature in 1990.  A major biography by Zachary Leader, who also edited his Collected Letters, was published by Johnathon Cape in 2006.

Click HERE to read more poems by KINGSLEY AMIS at the website.

You might also enjoy:
KINGSLEY AMIS That Uncertain Feeling (1955)
POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Świrszczyńska
POET OF THE MONTH #4: Ford Madox Ford

Thursday, 2 October 2014

IRWIN SHAW The Troubled Air (1951)

Random House first US edition, 1951

'Wait a minute,' Archer said, puzzled.  'I haven't done anything.  Nobody's accused me of anything.'
  'Not yet.'  Hutt came around from his desk and put his hand lightly and in a friendly manner on Archer's elbow.  He seemed dapper and insignificant standing up, away from the cold bulwark of his desk.  'But if you become known as a partisan of an unpopular group - for whatever innocent reasons - you must expect to have the searchlight put on you.  Your reasons will be investigated - everything about you will be investigated.  People you've forgotten for ten years will come up with damaging misquotations, memories, doubtful documents.  Your private life will be scrutinized, your foibles will be presented as sins, your errors as crimes.  Archer, listen to me...'  Hutt's voice sank even lower and it was hard for Archer to hear him even though he was standing next to him.  'Nobody can stand investigation.  Nobody.  If you think you can you must have led your life in deep freeze for the last twenty years.  If there were a saint alive today, two private detectives and a newspaper columnist could damn him to hell if they wanted to, in the space of a month.'  Hutt dropped his hand from Archer's arm and smiled, to show he was through being serious.  'There is a motto,' he said, 'I am thinking of putting up over the doorway here - "When in doubt, disappear." '

The Book:  With the exception of a full head of hair, Clement Archer has everything that a man of forty-five could apparently ever want or need.  A former college history professor and failed playwright turned successful radio director, he's as respected by his number-crunching network bosses as he is by the actors and technicians it's now his task to manage, rehearse and supervise on a daily basis.  He has a charmingly ebullient wife named Kitty who's expecting their second (very late) child and an eighteen year old daughter named Jane who's beginning to attract attention as both a beautiful young woman and an actress of great if as yet untested promise.  University Town, the syndicated program he directs, is a hit and has been for years, with its star Vic Herres - who is also his best friend, a former student who convinced him to abandon his mediocre academic career to try his luck in New York - consistently topping the polls as one of the most popular radio actors of his generation.

But this is 1950, a time in American life when nobody in the arts - indeed, in any industry - can afford to take their success or its trouble-free continuation for granted.  The Cold War is barely five years old and the government's obsession with rooting out and exposing Communists and anyone even remotely suspected of harboring Communist sympathies has already destroyed the lives of several of Archer's longtime colleagues in the entertainment business.  There are Reds lurking everywhere, it seems, and their numbers are growing by the day.  Five of these alleged 'traitors to democracy' even work on University Town, their voices heard by unsuspecting millions when the program is beamed out live across the nation every Thursday night.  Archer is given a list - a list which includes the name Vic Herres - and instructed by Leonard Hutt, the despotic head of the network, to fire them because they've been publicly named as 'Commies' by Blueprint, a reactionary scandal sheet funded and published by a group of wealthy so-called 'patriots.'

Whatever his other faults, Archer is, first and foremost, a man of principle.  Realizing that unemployment and the very real prospect of never working in their respective professions again awaits the actors and the composer who have served him so loyally and well for so many years, he asks for and receives a two week grace period from Hutt's cringing subordinate O'Neill - time he intends to use to do his own checking into the personal and political backgrounds of the people he's now expected to fire.

Instead of resolving the issue, Archer's investigations plunge him into an ever-deepening morass of political, moral and personal confusion.  Frances Motherwell, his leading lady, freely admits to being a Communist, citing the effects of the Depression and a wartime romance with a doomed but idealistic pilot as her motives for joining the party.  His acerbic black comedian, Stanley Atlas, acts cagey with him, refusing to admit to any specific Communist affiliation while refusing to specifically deny one either.  Herres, when confronted with the information the network has uncovered about his past, adopts a stoic attitude to the idea of having his career ruined on the basis of what amounts to not much more than hearsay and a lot of uncorroborated speculation.  

The most pitiable cases, however, are those of Alice Weller, an aging bit-part actress whose only 'act of treason' was to speak at a post-war peace conference, and Manfred Pokorny, an Austrian-born Jewish composer who was a member of his homeland's Communist Party for two weeks in 1922 - an affiliation he subsequently denied in order to gain entry to the United States after fleeing from the Nazis.  It's for these people that Archer feels the most compassion and, in a sense, the greatest sense of personal responsibility.  If the genuinely innocent are to be roped in with the fence-sitters and the self-confessed guilty, then where, if anywhere, can the line truly be drawn between traitor and 'loyal, patriotic American.'  And what of Herres, his wife Nancy and their two young sons?  How will they be affected by this slander and the damage it's bound to do to Herres' artistic reputation and his flourishing career?

Signet Books, c. 1952
Archer is distracted from his brooding by a plea from Pokorny - fat, unhealthy, shy and unfailingly polite - to borrow $200 from him so his lawyer can fly to Chicago and collect an affidavit from a former musical associate which might prevent him being deported back to Austria.  Archer lends him the money, just as he has lent Alice Weller and another disgraced journalist friend named Burke money, motivated as much by guilt as by the desire to see the poor, apparently friendless composer finally clear his name.  But Pokorny's plan, always a gamble, backfires, with the friend in Chicago - fearful for his own future as a fellow immigrant - refusing to sign the affidavit, meaning that Pokorny will almost certainly be stripped of his US citizenship and deported to Europe.  A visit to the Pokorny home, where Archer encounters and is abused by the composer's staunchly Communist wife, only serves to worsen what's now become an intolerable situation for everybody.  

Feeling he must do more to help, Archer returns to the Pokorny apartment after dinner one night only to find the composer dead in his bath from an overdose of sleeping pills.  The next day a weary and depressed Archer finds himself becoming the scapegoat and the focal point of hatred for card-carrying party members like Mrs Pokorny and for patriots like Hutt and Sandler, whose company sponsors University Town and has begun to feel the pinch as its still unproven links to 'the Communist menace' begin to affect its reputation and, even worse, its profits.

At the same time, Archer's personal life begins to unravel.  Kitty challenges him about the money he gave Pokorny and the others - money they can ill afford to lose with the prospect of him losing his own job now a looming possibility - while Jane disappoints him by taking up with Dominic Barbante, the cynical writer of University Town and a well-known ladies' man.  Suddenly, the life Archer has enjoyed and taken for granted for so many years is gone, leaving in its place bitterness, suspicion, recrimination and fear.  Offered the chance to speak at a rally designed to unite the Communists and non-Communists against their common foe the US Government, he's at first reluctant to accept, fearful that doing so might further undermine his already shaky position with the network and the sponsor.  Yet his conscience refuses to allow him to remain silent and - following yet another bitter fight with Kitty during which she accuses him of being the dupe of Vic Herres and of being secretly in love with Vic's wife Nancy - he appears at the rally, speaking to a mostly hostile crowd who either despise him for being too weak to save the helpless Pokorny or too uncooperative for his own good and for that of the entertainment industry and, by implication, the country as a whole.

When Frances Motherwell, now converted back to the 'true path' of capitalism courtesy of Hutt, steps up to the microphone and begins to rattle off a long list of what she claims are undeniable proofs of Archer's Communist sympathies, he can do nothing but get up and leave the auditorium, aware, as a crying Nancy Herres follows him out to the elevator, that the information the self-serving and probably half-insane Motherwell has based her accusations on could have come from one source and one source only - his best friend Vic Herres.

Nancy confirms this belief as they trudge through the wintry New York streets together.  Although she still loves her husband and has resigned herself to staying with him no matter what, this doesn't prevent her from describing him to Archer as a fanatical Communist, somebody perfectly willing to sacrifice 'little things like a friend or a wife for the future of the world.'  He has used Archer in the same callous way he used Motherwell and the dead composer Pokorny - as pawns in a game he's determined his side must win at any cost.  'Forget him,' Nancy urges before she and Archer part for what they both realize, sadly, will be the final time.  'Write him off.  Don't see me.  Wipe us all out.  Please.'  Hurt and disillusioned, Archer arrives home to find his daughter trying to console herself for losing Barbante to an older woman (which shows just how much relationships have changed in half a century) and Kitty sleeping in the spare room to punish him for speaking at the rally and jeopardizing whatever may be left of their far from certain future.

The next day Archer is summoned back to Hutt's office, where he's all but flayed alive by his boss and by the equally irate Sandler for speaking at the rally despite their having expressly forbidden him to do so.  Hutt makes it clear that his failure to cooperate means the end of his career in radio, perhaps the end of his career as anything except a politically unsound 'fellow traveler.'  Archer, fully aware of this and more or less resigned to it after everything he's been subjected to so far, surprises himself by telling them both to go to hell and punching Hutt in his smug, well-fed face - an impulsive act that does nothing to aid his cause and forces a typically apologetic O'Neill to drag him from the room.  It's while he's speaking with O'Neill in the latter's office, listening to O'Neill's attempts to justify his own cowardly behavior as Hutt's hatchet man, that he receives a call from his daughter, telling him that Kitty has unexpectedly gone into labor.  Forgetting his own problems, he races to the hospital, answering O'Neill's offer to call him if he ever needs anything with the intentionally ironic question: 'Just what do you mean by anything?

Archer arrives at the hospital to find his wife in an immense amount of pain and literally fighting for her life.  Their child, a son, is born a few hours later, but Archer is told that the chances of the child surviving are minimal at best.  True to the doctor's word, the boy dies a few hours later - an event which, while tragic in itself, has the positive effect of reuniting him with Kitty and showing the latter how foolish she was to have placed her own selfish needs above those of persecuted individuals like Pokorny, Alice Weller and her own, unfairly maligned husband.  Leaving Kitty to sleep, Archer goes downstairs where he's confronted by Vic Herres, who has sought him out in a vain attempt to explain his reasons for betraying him.  

The two men talk, with Herres making many intelligent points about the irrelevance of ideas like 'treason' and 'betrayal' in a world that refuses to save itself from the atomic bomb and continues to place profit and the economic stimulus that is modern mechanized warfare above the idea of bettering the lot of the common man.  'America is immune to everything,' he zealously tells Archer, 'including Fascism and the common cough, because God loves us so much.  Let me tell you something about America.  We're the most dangerous people in the world because we're mediocre.  Mediocre, hysterical and vain...We can't bear the thought that anybody anywhere else might be more advanced or more intelligent or better organized or be closer to the true faith than we are - and we're ready to knock down a hundred cities in one night to stifle our own doubts.  We're the ruin-bringers.  We lick our chops, waiting for the moment to start the planes off the runways.  All over the world when people hear the word America, they spit.  We call it freedom and we'll stuff it down their throats like hot lead if we have to.'  Archer obligingly listens to these arguments but remains unmoved by them.  He tells Herres they can no longer see each other, but he can't bring himself to hate the man who has been his closest friend since they first encountered each other as teacher and student back in the politically-charged, Depression-ravaged 1930s.  'You represent fifteen years of my life,' he reminds Herres.  'I've got to make myself remember what I believed about you for many years - that you were an extraordinary man - that you were valuable human material.'  Still, this doesn't prevent him from declaring that he'll fight Herres and his kind, just as he intends to fight the Government if necessary, because, at bottom, they're interested in one and the same thing - the acquisition and maintenance of power via fear, blackmail and political intimidation.  After Herres leaves, Archer goes back upstairs to his wife, unsure as ever of his future but realizing that he's survived, and will continue to survive, as long as he doesn't betray himself by turning his back on the struggle and abandoning his principles.

Open Road Integrated Media, 2012
To say that a novel like The Troubled Air is a product of its time seems trite, obvious and, some might say, redundant.  All novels, to a lesser or greater extent, are products and reflections of the time in which they were written, published and originally read (or undeservedly ignored as the case may be).  That said, a book like The Troubled Air seems to fall into a special category, dealing as it does with what was one of the most harrowing, socially destructive periods in modern American history.  It took a brave writer (and a brave publisher) to stand up in 1951 and declare that the actions of the House Un-American Activities Committee were morally reprehensible and, in fact, more 'un-American' than the alleged 'Communist menace' the Committee itself had been specifically convened to expose and eliminate.  

Clement Archer's dilemma was a common one during the first, politically turbulent half of the 1950s - to cooperate and 'play ball' with the Government or not cooperate with it, to betray your friends by 'naming names' or keep quiet and lose your livelihood and very possibly end up in jail as a result of exercising your constitutionally guaranteed right to say nothing that might incriminate you and everyone you'd ever been associated with, no matter how fleeting or incidental that association might have been.  Shaw captures the oppressive uncertainty of the period and the ebb and flow of its political rhetoric with remarkable even-handedness but it's on the personal level that the novel makes its greatest moral statements, showing how fanaticism and paranoia - regardless of which political ideology they claimed to be serving - could combine to destroy not only the public reputations of so many talented Americans (the majority of whom had no connections whatsoever to the Communist Party and had never formally joined it) but also the relationships of casual acquaintances, close friends and even husbands and wives.  The investigations carried out by HUAC and, later, by Senator Joseph 'Tailgunner Joe' McCarthy, did far more than exclude innocent men and women from their professions and deny them the means of earning a living.  They also drove wedges between individuals which remained in place for decades and, in some cases, remain ongoing sources of friction and bitterness more than sixty years later.  It's worth noting that of the three hundred writers, directors, actors and producers who were placed on HUAC's Hollywood blacklist, only 10% went on to clear their names and successfully rebuild their compromised careers.  What became of the other 90% is a story still waiting to be told.

IRWIN SHAW, c. 1965
The Author: Irwin Shaw was no stranger to HUAC or to the havoc it wreaked upon the careers and reputations of so many of his socially committed countrymen.  In 1951 he was named as a Communist in the right-wing anti-Communist pamphlet Red Channels because he signed a petition calling on the US Congress to review the convictions of fellow screenwriters Dalton Trumbo and John Howard Lawson - men who had been charged with contempt for refusing to cooperate and 'name names' (ie. inform on their friends) to the Committee, becoming members of what infamously came to be known as 'The Hollywood Ten' as a result of their refusal to be intimidated by their own, allegedly democratic Government.  Already a well-known radio scriptwriter and playwright whose 1936 play Bury The Dead (which he allegedly wrote in just three days) had enjoyed a successful run on Broadway, Shaw's name was placed on the Hollywood blacklist along with that of Trumbo, Lawson and many other 'politically suspicious' writers, directors and actors, prompting him to move to Europe where he lived and worked for the remainder of his life, writing bestselling novel after bestselling novel until his death from prostate cancer on 16 May 1984. 

Shaw was born Irwin Gilbert Shamforoff in the New York City borough of The Bronx on 27 February 1913, the eldest son of an immigrant Jewish couple named William and Rose Shamforoff.  It was Shaw's father, a real estate developer, who chose the family's Anglicized surname, possibly in the belief that a more Gentile-sounding name might help him attract a wealthier, non-Jewish clientele.  This instinct, if this was the case, proved to be the correct one from a financial point of view.  William Shaw's real estate business prospered, allowing the family to move to the slightly more respectable borough of Brooklyn shortly after his son's birth.  (A second son, named David, followed in 1916.  David Shaw would also go on to become a successful writer, winning a Tony Award for his contribution to the 1959 Broadway play Redhead as well as authoring dozens of TV scripts and the 1969 film If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.)  But the Shaws' prosperity did not last long.  By 1932 the business was bankrupt, a victim of the Depression which had forced hundreds if not thousands of small, independently operated businesses just like it to close right across America.  

By 1935 it was Irwin, not his financially ruined father, who was supporting the family, churning out scripts for popular radio serials like Dick Tracy and The Gumps while he wrote plays and stories for The New Yorker and other publications - including authentic classics of the latter genre like The Eighty-Yard Run and The Girls In Their Summer Dresses - that would soon see him establish a reputation as one of the most prolific and gifted writers of short fiction the United States has ever produced.  The following year saw the young author relocate to Hollywood where he wrote his first script, for a film about football called The Big Game, for RKO Pictures.    

The Young Lions, film poster, 1958
Brooklyn was an inseparable part of Shaw's life and served as both the inspiration and the setting for much of his early writing.  He attended its tuition-free local college, graduating from it with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934 after starring on its varsity football team, and continued to think of it as home until America entered the war and he was drafted into the army, in which he eventually attained the rank of Warrant Officer.  He spent the war years as a member of a Signal Corps unit, often serving in the thick of the fighting in North Africa and Europe while churning out articles for Yank and other military publications and somehow finding time to send dozens of letters home to his wife, the British-born actress Marian Edwards, in which he faithfully recorded everything he was seeing, thinking and feeling as and when it happened.  Much of this material would later find its way into his first novel The Young Lions (1948), which became an instant bestseller and was eventually turned into a prize-winning 1958 film starring Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift and Dean Martin.  (Shaw was not especially fond of the film, claiming that Brando's portrayal of the Nazi Christian Diestl made the character, and the German people, seem much more sympathetic than they actually had been both prior to and throughout the war.  The film's director, Edward Dmytryk, was one of those who had willingly 'named names' to HUAC in order to salvage their careers.)

Shaw's second novel The Troubled Air appeared in 1951, earning him the approval of the critics and once again sending his name racing to the top of The New York Times bestseller list.  Ironically, his success now began to work against him, with many of the same left-wing critics who had praised Bury The Dead and his powerful early stories accusing him of selling out - a charge that would be repeated ad nauseam throughout the ensuing decades as his reputation as a 'serious novelist' suffered, not as the result of any reduction in the quality of his work, but as a result of the widely-held misconception that anyone who earned large sums of money from their writing automatically forfeited whatever right they may have had to be considered an important 'literary' novelist.  It was an irony that was to plague Shaw for the remainder of his career, placing him in the awkward position of being too talented to be considered an outright hack and too popular to have his work deemed worthy of serious critical comment and academic evaluation.

IRWIN SHAW, c. 1975
His glamorous expatriate lifestyle no doubt contributed to the misleading perception that he was nothing more than a hedonistic playboy who, by the early 1960s, had completely sold out to commercialism.  Originally basing himself in Paris, where he and his wife - and, shortly thereafter, their son Adam - lived in a series of rented apartments, he moved to the Swiss ski resort of Klosters in 1954.  Klosters would remain his home for the next thirty years and see him become its unofficial international mayor, playing host to American friends like actors Deborah Kerr and Gene Kelly, film director Robert Parrish and fellow novelist James Jones and also to 'new' European friends like actress and writer Salka Viertel and Jacques Graubart, hero of the French resistance and a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp.  Most of his later work - beginning with Lucy Crown (1956) and including the blockbusters Rich Man, Poor Man (1970) and its equally popular sequel Beggarman, Thief (1977) - was written in Klosters, either in rented apartments or at the Chalet Mia, the home his wife received as part of her settlement when they finally divorced (for the second time) after thirty, very stormy years of marriage.  Shaw was, by then, an unwell and unhappy man, too old to drink and womanize as he'd done for most of his adult life and visibly affected by arthritis, which made it difficult if not impossible for him to sit at his desk and work each day.  

Sadly, Shaw's literary reputation never recovered during his lifetime, although he's now beginning to be recognized as the uniquely gifted writer he was, one whose lifelong dedication to his craft was unjustly obscured by his earning power and his seemingly effortless command of dialogue, setting and narrative.  His attitude to what he felt to be his deliberate snubbing by the critics remained, for the most part, philosophical.  'Posterity makes the judgments,' he famously remarked in an interview published in The Paris Review in 1979, 'not The Saturday Review of Literature, or The New York Review of Books, or even the Sunday Times Book Review section. There are going to be a lot of surprises in store for everybody.'

Click HERE to visit the official author website of IRWIN SHAW, created and maintained by his son ADAM SHAW.  You can also click HERE to purchase a pay-to-download version of The Troubled Air from US eBOOK publisher Open Road Integrated Media.  To read a free online version of his brilliant, hugely influential short story The Eighty Yard Run please click HERE.

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Thursday, 25 September 2014

WRITERS ON WRITING #55: Julian Barnes

Novels tell us the most truth about life:  what it is, how we live it, what it might be for, how we enjoy and value it, how it goes wrong, and how we lose it.  Novels speak to and from the mind, the heart, the eye, the genitals, the skin; the conscious and the subconscious.  What it is to be an individual, what it means to be part of a society.  What it means to be alone.  Alone, and yet in company:  that is the paradoxical position of the reader.  Alone in the company of a writer who speaks in the silence of your mind.  And - a further paradox - it makes no difference whether this writer is alive or dead.  Fiction makes characters who have never existed as real as your friends, and makes dead writers as alive as a television newsreader.

Introduction to Through The Window: Seventeen Essays (and One Short Story) (2012)

Click HERE to visit the website of British author JULIAN BARNES.

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Thursday, 18 September 2014

POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Świrszczyńska



Our embrace lasted too long.
We loved right down to the bone.
I hear the bones grind, I see
our two skeletons.

Now I am waiting
till you leave, till
the clatter of your shoes
is heard no more.  Now, silence.

Tonight I am going to sleep alone
on the bedclothes of purity.
is the first hygienic measure.
will enlarge the walls of the room,
I will open the window
and the large, frosty air will enter,
healthy as tragedy.
Human thoughts will enter
and human concerns,
misfortune of others, saintliness of others.
They will converse softly and sternly.

Do not come anymore.
I am an animal
very rarely.

from Talking To My Body (1996)

Translated by

The Poet: Anna Świrszczyńska (pronounced 'Swirsh-tinsht-ka') - whose surname was sometimes abbreviated to 'Swir' in the West - was born in the Polish capital Warsaw in 1909.  Her family was artistically minded but poor, obliging her to go to work at an early age in order to help support it.  She continued to work while attending university, where she studied for and eventually gained a degree in Medieval Polish Literature.

During the 1930s she worked as an editor and as secretary to a teacher's association.  It was during this decade that she also began to publish her first, erotically-charged poems.  She joined the Resistance after the Nazis invaded her homeland in September 1939 and worked as a nurse during the bloody and ultimately unsuccessful Warsaw Uprising of August-October 1944.  During this time she was arrested by the Germans and made to wait an hour while they debated whether or not she should be executed.

After the war she moved to Krakow, where she wrote children's plays and stories and served as director of a local children's theatre until her death from cancer in 1984.  She was the winner of the Krzyz Kawalerski Oderu Odrodzenia Polski (1957), the Medal Komisji Edukacji Narodowej and many other prestigious Polish literary awards.

Click HERE to read more poems (in English) by ANNA SWIRSZCZYNSKA at website.

Ci, którzy lubią czytać polskie mogą kliknąć TUTAJ, aby dowiedzieć się więcej o jej pracy w swoim ojczystym języku.

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Thursday, 11 September 2014


To tell the truth, I can't help thinking that we already talk too much about the novel, about and around it, in proportion to the quantity of it having any importance that we produce.  What I should say to the nymphs and swains who propose to converse about it under the great trees of Deerfield is: 'Oh, do something from your point of view; an ounce of example is worth a ton of generalizations; do something with the great art and the great form; do something with life.  Any point of view is interesting that is a direct impression of life.  You each have an impression colored by your individual conditions; make that into a picture, a picture framed by your own personal wisdom, your glimpse of the American world.  The field is vast for freedom, for study, for observation, for satire, for truth.'...Tell the ladies and gentlemen, the ingenious inquirers, to consider life directly and closely, and not to be put off with mean and puerile falsities, and to be conscientious about it.  It is infinitely large, various, and comprehensive.  Every sort of mind will find what it looks for in it, whereby the novel becomes truly multifarious and illustrative.  This is what I mean by liberty; give it its head, and let it range.  If it is in a bad way, and the English novel is, I think, nothing but absolute freedom can refresh it and restore its self-respect.

'Letter to the Deerfield Summer School,' published in The New York Tribune [4 August 1889] 

Click HERE to view a list of the 10 best books by HENRY JAMES as selected by his latest biographer MICHAEL GORRA.

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