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Thursday, 25 June 2015

WRITERS ON WRITING #67: Barbara Pym


I admire those people who can produce a new book regularly every year.  I've found it more difficult as time goes on.  I suppose it's easy for anyone to produce their first novel‚ it's all there inside you and only needs to be written down.  Also a second and third may be just under the surface and comparatively easy to dig out.  After that it becomes more difficult, unless you're prepared to go on writing exactly the same book with only slight variations, over and over again.  And people are always very ready to tell you anecdotes from their own experience - which, in their opinion, would be just the thing for one of your novels.  Readers who don't like your kind of story sometimes suggest plots or subjects for you in the hope that you may write something different.  And sometimes, especially when things aren't going well, it's tempting to give it a try.

 

Finding A Voice [Talk recorded 8 February 1978 for BBC Radio]

 

Click HERE to visit the website of THE BARBARA PYM SOCIETY, an international association dedicated to preserving this very British novelist's literary legacy and providing information about her work and life.

You might also enjoy:

BARBARA PYM Excellent Women (1952) 
DOROTHY WHIPPLE Someone at a Distance (1953) 
WRITERS ON WRITING #34: Dawn Powell

Thursday, 18 June 2015

POET OF THE MONTH #29: Tim Seibles


TIM SEIBLES, c. 2010






SLOW DANCE


Some days I can go nearly an hour
without thinking of the taste
of your mouth.  Right now, I’m at school
watching teenagers fidget through a test.
Outside, the sky is smoky and streets are wet
and two grackles step lightly in yellow grass.

Two weeks ago in Atlantic City
I stood on the boardwalk
and looked out across the water –
the railing was cool, broken shells
dappled the beach – I had been
playing the slot machines
and lost all but a dollar.  I
tried to picture you in Paris,
learning the sound of your new country
where, at that moment, it was already night.

I thought maybe you’d be out
walking with the street lights
glossing your lips, with your eyes
deep as this field of water.
Maybe someone was looking at you
as you paused under the awning
of a bakery where the smell
of newly risen bread buttered the air.

I remember those suede boots
you wore to the party last December,
your clipped hair, your long arms
like the necks of swans.  I remember
how seeing the shape of your mouth
that first time, I kept staring
until my blood turned to rain.

Some things take root
in the brain and just don’t
let go.  We went to
a movie once – I think
it was 'The Dead' – and
near the end a woman
told a story about a boy
who used to sing:  how, at 17,
she loved him, how that
same year he died.  She
remembered late one night
looking out to the garden
and he was there calling her
with only the slow sound
in his eyes.

Missing someone is like hearing
a name sung quietly from somewhere
behind you.  Even after you know
no one is there, you keep looking back
until on a silver afternoon like this
you find yourself breathing just enough
to make a small dent in the air.

Just now a student, an ivory-colored girl
whose nose crinkles when she laughs, asked me
if she could 'go to the bathroom,'
and suddenly I knew I was old enough
to never ask that question again.

When I look back across my life,
I always see the schoolyard –
monkey-bars, gray asphalt, and one huge tree –
where I played the summer days into rags.
I didn’t love anybody yet, except maybe 
my parents who I loved mainly when they
left me alone.  I used to have wet dreams
about a girl named Diane.  She was a little
older than me.  I wanted to kiss her so bad
that just walking past her house
I would trip over nothing but the chance

that she’d be on the porch.  Sometimes
she’d wear these cut-off jeans, and
a scar shaped like an acorn shone
above her knee.  In some dreams I would
barely touch it, then explode. 

Once in real life, at a party on Sharpnack Street
I asked her to dance a slow one with me.
The Delfonics were singing I’ll never
hear the bells and, scared nearly blind,
I pulled her into the sleepy rhythm
where my body tried to explain.
But half-a-minute deep into the song
she broke my nervous grip and walked away –
she could tell I didn’t know
what to do with my feet.  I wonder
where she is now, and all those people
who saw me standing there
with the music filling my hands.

Woman, I miss you, and some afternoons
it’s all right.  I think of that lemon drink
you used to make and the stories –
about your grandmother, about the bees
that covered your house in Africa, the nights
of gunfire, and the massing of giant frogs
in the rain.  I think about the first time
I put my arm around your shoulder.  I think
of couscous and white tuna, that one lamp
blinking on and off by itself, and those plums
that would brood for days on the kitchen counter.

I remember holding you against the sink,
with the sun soaking the window, the soft call
of your hips, and the intricate flickers
of thought chiming your eyes.  Your mouth,
like a Saturday.  I remember your
long thighs, how they
opened on the sofa, and the pulse
of your cry when you came, and
sometimes I miss you
the way someone drowning
remembers the air.

I think about these students
in class this afternoon, itching
through this hour, their bodies new
to puberty, their brains streaked
with grammar – probably none of them
in love, how they listen to my voice
and believe my steady, adult face,
how they wish the school day would
hurry past, so they could start
spending their free time again, how
none of them really understands
what the clock is always teaching
about the way things disappear.


(? 2004)





The Poet:  The following biographical statement appears on THE POETRY FOUNDATION website.  [It is re-posted here for information purposes only and, like the poem re-posted above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.]

Poet Tim Seibles was born and raised in Philadelphia. He earned a BA at Southern Methodist University and an MFA at Vermont College of Norwich University.

Seibles approaches themes of racial tension, class conflict, and intimacy from several directions at once in poems with plainspoken yet fast-turning language. In a 2010 statement he shared in
From the Fishouse, Seibles states, 'I think poetry, if it’s going to be really engaging and engaged, has to be able to come at the issues of our lives from all kinds of angles and all kinds of ways: loudly and quietly, angrily and soothingly, with comedy and with dead seriousness...Our lives are worth every risk, every manner of approach.'

Seibles is the author of several collections of poetry, including
Body Moves (1988), Hurdy-Gurdy (1992), Hammerlock (1999), Buffalo Head Solos (2004), and Fast Animal (2012), which won the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize and was nominated for a 2012 National Book Award. His work has also been featured in the anthologies In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African American Poetry (1994, edited by E. Ethelbert Miller and Terrance Cummings), Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009, edited by Camille Dungy), and Best American Poetry (2010, edited by Amy Gerstler).

Seibles’ honors include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center, as well as an Open Voice Award from the National Writers Voice Project. In 2013 he received the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Award for poetry. He has taught at Old Dominion University, the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA program, and at Cave Canem.

Seibles lives in Norfolk, Virginia. 


Click HERE to read another poem by TIM SEIBLES on THE POETRY FOUNDATION website.

You might also enjoy: 
POET OF THE MONTH #25: Josephine Miles
POET OF THE MONTH #20: Anna Swirzczynska 
POET OF THE MONTH #8: Mohammed Bennis 


Thursday, 11 June 2015

THE LATE GREAT ORNETTE COLEMAN


ORNETTE COLEMAN, 1959


Although it's a word often used to describe jazz musicians, only a handful truly deserve to be known as 'pioneers.'  

Texas-born Ornette Coleman, who died today from a heart attack at the age of eighty-five, was one such musician - a musical rebel who redefined not only the playing of his primary instrument, the alto saxophone, but also redefined jazz in a way comparable to what Louis Armstrong achieved during his heyday in the mid-1920s.  No one sounded like Coleman before Coleman and no one has ever really succeeded in sounding like him since.  Heavily influenced by the blues, he used and transcended that influence to inject the sound of the human voice into much of his playing, creating a style that could soar, wail and moan as the situation demanded while remaining uniquely avant garde and, in a sense, undefinable. 

Coleman and Armstrong shared another connection through their use of collective improvisation - something that was the norm in the early years of jazz but had more or less died out by the time Coleman singlehandedly revived the concept with his radical, game-changing 1960 LP Free Jazz featuring his core quartet consisting of himself on alto saxophone, trumpeter Don Cherry, bassist Charlie Haden and drummer Billy Higgins and a guest quartet featuring saxophonist Eric Dolphy, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, bassist Scott La Faro and drummer Ed Blackwell.  Like it or loathe it, the wild, seemingly directionless music this 'double quartet' created made Coleman a controversial and divisive figure - one whose apparently 'free' or 'naïve' style of playing saw some of his fellow musicians ridicule him as someone who 'couldn't play at all' or 'was jiving' - but he nevertheless went on to transform the idea of what jazz could and, more tellingly, should be for generations of musicians and fans alike.

'I don’t think that sound has a style,' Coleman told jazz writer Don Snowden in 1984.  'The human voice doesn’t have a style, it has a language, and sound is the same way.  We make the style once we find the sound that takes the form of the idea.'

Few musicians have ever had ideas as profound and at the same time provoking as Ornette Coleman or, for that matter, the courage and intelligence required to successfully pursue them, in spite of what was sometimes fierce opposition, for close to sixty years.  He inspired legions of musicians - including Lou Reed and Jerry Garcia - and is now widely recognized, along with his contemporary Charles Mingus, as being one of the most innovative US composers of the twentieth century.



Ramblin', 1960
ORNETTE COLEMAN [alto saxophone]; DON CHERRY [pocket trumpet]
CHARLIE HADEN [bass]; BILLY HIGGINS [drums]
From the 1960 Atlantic LP Change of the Century  


Click HERE to visit the website of US jazz multi-instrumentalist and composer ORNETTE COLEMAN.  You can also click HERE to read his obituary in the LA Times.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM Nightmare Alley (1946)



Rinehart and Company first US edition, 1946




Ever since he was a kid Stan had had the dream.  He was running down a dark alley, the buildings vacant and black and menacing on either side.  Far down at the end of it a light burned, but there was something behind him, close behind him, getting closer until he woke up trembling and reached the light.  They have it too - a nightmare alley.  The North isn't the end.  The light will only move further on.  And the fear close behind them.  White and black, it made no difference.  The geek and his bottle, staving off the clutch of the thing that came following after.
  In the hot sun of noon the cold breath could strike your neck.  In having a woman her arms were a barrier.  But after she had fallen asleep the walls of the alley closed in on your own sleep and the footsteps followed.



The Book:  The world of the old time carnival - or 'carny' as it was more popularly known - is a world as dead to us in the twenty-first century as those of vaudeville, ragtime and the silent cinema.  But in the Depression-ravaged USA of the 1930s carnivals and the 'carnies' who ran and performed in them offered curious, entertainment starved audiences an affordable mixture of cheap thrills, magic and the occult with a generous sprinkling of humor, hokum and good old-fashioned voyeurism thrown in for good measure.  The object was to lure the rubes in with acts like your fortune teller or your geek - a man, usually an alcoholic or a drug addict, who would sit in his own excrement, bite the heads of live chickens or do pretty much anything else required of him so long as he was regularly supplied with liquor or drugs - and then screw them out of every nickel they had via your concession stands and your pre-rigged games of chance.  By the time anybody realized they'd been swindled the show would be on its way to the next hick town, opening its alley, or midway, up to a new audience of suckers who couldn't wait to spend their hard-earned cash to see Sailor Martin, the Living Picture Gallery or Mamzelle Electra, the Girl Who Defies The Lightning come out and strut their stuff.

This is the world inhabited by Stanton 'Stan' Carlisle - a young would-be magician who specializes in card tricks - and those he performs with in the 'Ackerman-Zorbaugh Monster Shows.'  Unlike the thousands of lonely and unhappy children who dream of running away to join a circus or a carnival, Stan has actually defied his widowed father's expectations and done it, determined to learn as much as he can about human greed and gullibility in preparation for the day when he'll finally be ready to try his luck on the more prestigious vaudeville stage.

Stan is a fast learner.  Born with the intelligence to match his youth, ambition and blonde good looks, he realizes the real money is to be made not by dazzling the rubes with card tricks but by telling them what they want to hear as a 'mentalist' or mind-reader.  He helps Madam Zeena, the carnival's current mentalist, with her act, secretly passing along the coded messages which allow her to magically 'see' their innermost secrets and later sell them the horoscopes that provide a steady source of additional income for herself and Pete, her once famous but now burned out and alcoholic husband.  Determined to learn all of Zeena's tricks - and certain that he stands no chance of getting Molly Cahill, the beautiful but naïve girl otherwise known as Mamzelle Electra, into bed with him any time soon - Stan decides to makes a play for the older woman, delighted to find that Zeena, who's as lonely as she is kindhearted, is only too willing to educate him both in and out of the bedroom.  

Although their relationship quickly blossoms into an affair, Zeena insists on keeping it a secret from their fellow performers and the inebriated husband she pities but retains a genuine fondness for despite his lack of prospects and his altogether pitiable condition.  This arrangement doesn't suit Stan, who believes the best thing for everyone would be for Pete to simply roll over and die, allowing him and Zeena to become a permanent double act.  Angry and jealous because Zeena has refused to spend the night with him, Stan gives Pete wood alcohol to drink, hoping it will knock his rival unconscious and keep him that way for as long as it takes Zeena to give him what he wants.  But the raw spirit does more than knock Pete unconscious.  It kills him, confronting Stan with the prospect of being arrested for his murder even though it was never his conscious intention to take the older man's life.  

Signet Books, 1949
Luckily for Stan, everyone accepts the verdict that Pete's death was an unlikely if not completely surprising accident.  In time Stan and Zeena are able to resume their affair, with Zeena continuing to teach her ambitious young lover how to read minds by studying people's body language and learning to find the subtexts in the questions she has them write on slips of paper before offering them what are supposed to be 'cold readings' of their problems and their futures.  Stan masters these tricks just in the nick of time, using them to save the carnival when the local Sheriff attempts to shut it down after receiving an anonymous (and false) tip-off that Molly is doing a striptease act.  Stan talks fast and well, pretending to read the Sheriff's mind and assuring him that the 'dilemma' he's currently facing will ultimately resolve itself in his favor.  The law departs and Molly, grateful to Stan for saving her from jail and no longer able to deny her attraction to him, allows him to make love to her in the back of Zeena's van.  Far from feeling angered or hurt by this betrayal, Zeena welcomes the new arrangement, confessing that she always expected the 'young people' to get together some day.  With Zeena's approval gained, Stan makes plans to marry Molly and swap the dog-eat-dog world of the carnival for the more glamorous, high stakes world of vaudeville.

Time passes and Stan, with Molly serving as his eye-catching assistant (but not yet legally his wife), begins to make quite a name for himself as 'The Great Stanton' on the national theater circuit.  While Stan knows he should be happy with his success and the substantial amounts of money his carefully rehearsed mind-reading act brings in each night, he feels restless and dissatisfied, increasingly distracted by the memory, suppressed since boyhood, of watching his mother have sex with her lover in the woods near their family home.  Nor does it help matters that vaudeville is on the way out, obliging him to take his act into the homes of wealthy and gullible 'believers' who are happy to pay himself and Molly to provide them with suitably 'spooky' entertainment during their cocktail hours and dinner parties.  But why settle for being just another entertainer when, with a little refining of his technique and a bit more flim-flam, he can set himself up as a spiritualist, able to communicate with the long-departed loved ones these rich fools are stupid enough to believe are 'trapped in the realm beyond the grave'?  Molly is against the idea, certain it can only lead to trouble, but Stan insists on them developing a new spiritualist act where his innate skills as a smooth-talking con-artist can be put to better use for both their sakes.  Understanding that a touch of religion will make him more respectable and therefore more legitimate in the eyes of his 'followers,' he reinvents himself as 'Reverend Carlisle,' acquiring a house in upstate New York from one of them that he transforms into the US headquarters of the Church of the Heavenly Message - his own private religion with its own weekly radio program to help him reel in even larger numbers of dupes, rubes and dime-donating suckers.

Successful though he is, Stan now finds himself plagued by nightmares triggered by the memory of his mother's betrayal and subsequent abandonment of him when he was a boy.  Seeking to purge himself of these sometimes terrifying dreams, he returns to his hometown to visit his sick and dying father, hoping that his new status as a 'man of God' will prove once and for all that he's permanently outgrown the wounds inflicted on him by his strict upbringing and years of social and sexual repression.  But, instead of easing his mind, his visit home only brings more bad memories to the surface, leading him to conclude that it was his father who killed his dog Gyp - the only creature he ever truly loved - in a fit of jealous rage after learning that his mother had run off with her lover.  After confronting the old man with this revelation and nearly killing him with the shock of it, Stan leaves town again, this time vowing never to return.

His nightmares, however, keep recurring, becoming so frequent that he's forced to seek help from Dr Lilith Ritter, a professional psychotherapist.  Expecting her to be a withered old crone, Stan is delighted to find that the therapist is young and attractive and, even more appealingly, that she fully shares his cynical attitudes in regard to the easily targeted greed and gullibility of their fellow human beings.  After they become lovers, Lilith confesses that she has information about a millionaire industrialist named Ezra Grindle stored in her files that, if used correctly, has the potential to make them both rich beyond their wildest dreams.  Stan, who has found both his soulmate and his perfect sexual partner in the sadistic therapist (who proves to be a superior type of con-artist in her own right), is only too glad to help her defraud the industrialist of $150,000 by granting the old man his fondest wish - to be forgiven by and 'physically reunited' with his long-lost sweetheart, who died at the age of nineteen after undergoing the abortion he insisted she must have.  The success of this plan hinges on Molly and her willingness, or not, to cooperate with Stan's request that she play the role of the dead girl and allow Grindle to have sex with her.  Molly refuses, telling Stan it will change the way he looks at her forever if she cooperates with his plan, never guessing, in her usual trusting way, that he intends to desert her the minute he and Lilith get their hands on the old man's money.  But Stan's persistence soon wears Molly down, his promise to marry her and give her the child she's always wanted making the sacrifice of sleeping with a sleazy old man an acceptable if not in any sense desirable one as far as she's concerned.

The night of the 'final séance' arrives, only to see a terrified Molly blow the whole deal when an over-excited Grindle tries to have his wicked way with her a second time, forcing Stan to step in and beat him unconscious.  Certain he'll be exposed as a fraud and sent to jail for what he's done, Stan leaves the frightened girl to fend for herself and flees to Lilith's office where he expects to find her and the money Grindle has already handed over to her waiting for him as arranged.  Afraid that Lilith might also be implicated in his crime, Stan insists she run away with him, only to have her admit that Grindle has no inkling she knows the truth about him and the catalytic role he played in the death of his long-dead sweetheart.  Lilith gives Stan a bag filled with the $150,000 and the $5000 she was keeping in reserve as traveling money and tells him to go to another city, where she'll contact him after things simmer down.  Stan leaves for the railway station, resisting the temptation to open the bag until he's safely locked inside a toilet stall where, to his horror, he learns that Lilith has pulled what carnies call 'the gypsy switch' on him, replacing all but the outlying $50 bills with $1 bills, leaving him just $383 with which to make his getaway.  

In the ensuing nightmare sequence, Stan imagines himself back in Lilith's office, being told that his attempt to destroy his father on his visit home was, like his unwitting destruction of Zeena's husband Pete, an attempt to permanently eradicate the 'father figure' whose presence prevented him from living out his repressed Oedipal fantasy of having sex with his mother.  This revelation, which in another sense also applies to the way he's treated Grindle, proves too much for him to bear, shattering what's left of his composure and sending him to the brandy bottle to find whatever solace he can find in it.

The failure of his scheme to defraud the industrialist and the loss of his soulmate also means that the frequently drunk Stan is forced to lie low and start all over again.  He goes back to mind-reading, working in a bar called the Pelican Club for drinks and whatever he can wheedle out of the customers by providing the same kind of 'cold readings' Zeena taught him to give back in his carny days.  But Stan can't stick with the job or, in fact, with any job for long.  Obliged to keep moving to stay one step ahead of the law, he finds himself becoming a hobo, riding freight cars and falling, more and more, under the numbing if welcome spell of alcohol.  Then one night a Sheriff who's already warned him to leave town once picks him up again, dragging him into a nearby alley where he intends to beat him senseless before throwing him back in jail.  Frantic with fear and close to insane, Stan retaliates, using a Japanese wrestling hold learned from another carnival performer to choke and kill his soon helpless attacker.  

New York Review Books, 2010
Sick and alone, Stan sneaks out of town and finds his way to the country home of Zeena - whose home address he spotted by chance in a magazine advertisement - where she now earns a good living selling mail order horoscopes.  His sorry condition induces Zeena to forgive him for the great wrong he did to Molly, who, she informs him, fled to her for protection just as he's done but has since married a gambler and given birth to a healthy and adorable baby boy.  Under Zeena's guidance, Stan pulls himself together and makes plans to return to the carnival circuit, where he hopes to find work as 'The Hindu Magician, Allah Rahged.'  But he abandons this plan when he learns that Lilith has married Ezra Grindle - news that sends him running back to the bottle and this time for good. 
 

Drunk and half-deranged, he approaches a carnival boss one day, only to have his slurred offer to appear as an 'added 'traction' tersely rejected by him.  'I got one job you might take a crack at,' the boss eventually tells him.  'It ain't much, and I ain't begging you to take it; but it's a job...Of course, it's only temporary - just until we get a real geek.'

Nightmare Alley was a bestseller when it was first published in 1946 and it's not hard to see why it was so popular, given its lurid combination of aberrant sex, carnival-related weirdness, hard-boiled crime and what, in the 1940s, was still considered to be the fashionably 'exotic' cult of Freudian psychiatry.  In the haunted, eternally frustrated, ruthlessly ambitious figure of Stan Carlisle Gresham created a character who both mirrors and embodies the most shameful aspects of American society and its unhealthy obsessions with power, wealth and the gleeful exploitation of the greedy, weak and ignorant.  As Stan bitterly confesses to Lilith at one point: 'I'm a hustler, God damn it...I'm on the make.  Nothing matters in this goddamned lunatic asylum of a world but dough.  When you get that you're the boss.  If you don't have it you're the end man on the daisy chain...They're all Johns.  They're asking for it.  Well, I'm here to give it out.'  Give it out he does, living out his dreams of success and acceptance only to see them transformed into living nightmares of impotent rage and savage self-loathing right before his eyes.  Stan may hate the rubes, the Johns and the suckers but the person he reserves his most passionate, most eviscerating hatred for is himself.  Try as he might to escape the damning memories of his past - in the arms of Zeena and Molly and in his blind masochistic devotion to the coldly calculating Lilith - these prove to be the one thing he can never escape, the one dark alley from which he can never hope to emerge safely into the light.



WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM, c. 1946
The Author:  In many respects William Lindsay Gresham lived a life as tortured and bizarre as that of Stanton Carlisle, his greatest and most enduring literary creation.  It was a life marred by violence and alcohol and, like Carlisle's, it ended in a tragic if not totally surprising fashion in a dingy Times Square hotel room on 14 September 1962. 

Gresham was born in Baltimore, the largest city in the eastern US state of Maryland, on 20 August 1909.  His family subsequently moved to Massachusetts but by 1917 they were living in New York City, in the borough of Brooklyn, where he graduated from Erasmus Hall High School in 1926.  Some believe that as a boy Gresham may have had a part-time job at Brooklyn's Coney Island Amusement Park but it's almost certain that, employed there or not, he would have spent a lot of time visiting its sideshows and freak shows, gaining his first taste of the atmosphere he would later recreate so vividly in his debut novel.

New York was to remain Gresham's home for the next seven years - a period which saw him work at a succession of odd jobs, including stenographer and freelance journalist, before trying his luck as a folksinger under the name 'William Rafferty' in the decidedly Leftist coffee houses of 1930s Greenwich Village.  Unable to make a steady living from music, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933 - the CCC was a New Deal program which provided young single men who were members of 'relief families' with steady but low paid work improving and maintaining America's parklands and other natural resources - remaining with the organization for an undetermined time (possibly six months, possibly twelve), before returning to New York where he found work as an advertising copywriter and as a part-time reviewer for the city's Evening Post newspaper.  He also married and began publishing his first stories in the pulp magazines whose circulation, in some cases, quadrupled as Depression-affected Americans sought relief in what, for increasing numbers of them, was the only form of escapist entertainment they could find or afford.

Gresham joined the US Communist Party in 1936, a decision that inspired him to travel to Spain the following year to serve the Republican cause as a member of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in that country's bloody and tragic Civil War.  It was in Spain, while working as a medic, that he met a fellow American volunteer named Joseph Daniel 'Doc' Halliday.  It was Halliday, a former sailor and male nurse who had also spent many years working in carnivals, who taught him about the world of freaks, geeks and con artists and introduced him to its colorful and highly specialized lingo.  Even before his return to New York in January 1939, Gresham was planning to write a novel set in a carnival - a world he saw as being the perfect reflection, in miniature, of the grim realities of life in modern-day America.

The failure of his marriage, which collapsed shortly after his return from Spain, led the heartbroken and now heavily drinking Gresham to attempt suicide.  Fortunately, the hook he'd tried to hang himself from pulled out of the wall, sparing his life and encouraging him to seek the aid of a psychiatrist.  Psychoanalysis seemed to give him a new lease on life, as did the job he found editing a 'true crime' magazine and the small amount of money he made from selling his stories to other pulp publications.  This was how he was earning his living when he met Joy Davidman, a poet and fellow Communist who, in 1938, had won the prestigious Yale Younger Poets Award for her collection titled Letter to a Comrade.  Davidman was far more famous than her future husband, a Jew of Ukrainian descent who had taught herself to read at the age of three and entered Hunter College at fourteen before going on to earn a Master's Degree in English Literature from New York's Columbia University.

JOY DAVIDMAN, c. 1945
Gresham and Davidman married on 24 August 1942 and by 1945 the marriage had produced two sons, David and Douglas.  By then the family was living in upstate New York, with Gresham continuing to drink heavily and indulge in numerous extra-marital affairs while he planned what would eventually be published in 1946 by Rinehart and Company as Nightmare Alley.  (The book, according to one source, took two years to conceive and only four months to write.)  Davidman herself had published a novel in 1940 and would publish a second, Weeping Bay, a decade later, the intervening years being a time of great personal hardship for her as she struggled to deal not only with her husband's many infidelities and worsening alcoholism but also with his abusive temperament and the violent rages that accompanied it.  Following one of Gresham's breakdowns, during which he'd telephoned her to say he had no idea if or when he'd be returning home, Davidman underwent a religious conversion (they had both long since abandoned Communism as being the solution to life's problems) that, in 1950, saw her begin a correspondence with the English fantasy writer and Christian apologist Clive Staples Lewis.  In time, she and Gresham became deeply influenced by Lewis's work, converting to Presbyterianism and regularly attending church in their hometown of Staatsburg.  

While his wife's conversion proved to be a sincere and lasting one, Gresham's did not.  He soon abandoned Christianity to explore Zen Buddhism, the I-Ching, Tarot cards and Dianetics, the early version of what's now called Scientology.  He continued to drink and spent extended periods drying out in New York's Bellevue Hospital, his experiences inspiring the setting for his second, even grimmer and largely ignored 1949 novel Limbo Tower.  He and Davidman separated in 1952, when she left for England to meet and eventually fall in love with CS Lewis, returning briefly to the US in January 1953 in what proved to be a futile attempt to save her doomed marriage.  She returned to England, and the author of The Narnia Chronicles (1950-1956) in November, granting Gresham a divorce the following year which enabled him to marry her cousin.  Davidman herself married Lewis in 1956 before succumbing to cancer in 1960 - events dramatized by William Nicholson in his 1985 television play Shadowlands and again in the 1993 feature film of the same name starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

Gresham and his new wife moved to Florida, where he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and seemed to find contentment for a time.  In 1960, following the death of Joy Davidman, he traveled to England to visit his sons, neither of whom he'd seen or spoken to since 1953.  Finding them happy and in good health, and very much little English gentleman rather than boisterous American boys, he abandoned his plan to take them home and left them in the care of Lewis, who subsequently made them his heirs.  

WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM, c. 1959
The last two years of Gresham's life were neither happy nor healthy ones.  Shortly after moving to the New York town of New Rochelle, he was diagnosed first with tuberculosis and then with cancer of the tongue, a condition which soon required that a section of this organ be amputated.  He also began experiencing problems with his eyesight which resulted in a diagnosis of steadily encroaching blindness, possibly triggered by his years of unrelenting alcohol abuse.  With nothing to lose and his children far away, he booked himself a room in the Dixie Hotel on Times Square, using the name 'Asa Kimball of Baltimore,' and took an overdose of sleeping pills.  By then he was an almost completely obscure writer, better remembered, if at all, for non-fiction works like Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1953) and Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959) than for his novels.  His last work, written while he fought his unsuccessful battle with cancer, was a book about bodybuilding titled The Book of Strength.  Strength - of purpose, if not of will - was something he apparently never lacked.  'I sometimes think,' he once told a friend, 'that if I have any real talent it is not literary but is a sheer talent for survival.  I have survived three busted marriages, losing my boys, war, tuberculosis, Marxism, alcoholism, neurosis and years of freelance writing.  Just too mean and ornery to kill, I guess.'     



Click HERE to visit the website of New York Review Books, the latest company to reprint Nightmare Alley (1946) featuring a specially-commissioned introduction by novelist, poet and WILLIAM LINDSAY GRESHAM biographer-in-the-making NICK TOSHCES.  A 400 page collection of GRESHAM's otherwise unavailable pulp pieces - including stories, essays and articles which have not been reprinted since their original publication - titled Grindshow: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham, was published by the Centipede Press in April 2014 and should be obtainable via your local library, bookstore or favorite online retailer.




The 1947 film version of Nightmare Alley - directed by EDMUND GOULDING and starring TYRONE POWER as Stan Carlisle, JOAN BLONDELL as Zeena, COLEEN GRAY as Molly and HELEN WALKER as Lilith Ritter - is now considered a classic of American film-noir and remains widely available as a Region 1 US DVD, as does Shadowlands (1993), the film based on the short, happy but ultimately doomed romance of JOY DAVIDMAN and CS LEWIS.



Fantagraphics Books, 2003

The book was also adapted by artist SPAIN RODRIGUEZ and published in graphic novel form by acclaimed US publisher Fantagraphics Books in March 2003.  Unfortunately, the only copies of this version of Nightmare Alley currently available are second-hand copies that vary greatly in price depending on their condition.  The publisher has never reprinted it and this is a pity because it's been described, by at least one online reviewer, as 'one of the greatest comics adaptations of a pre-existent work of twentieth century American fiction ever produced.'



You might also enjoy:
ELIZABETH TAYLOR A Wreath of Roses (1947)
MALCOLM KNOX A Private Man (2004)
GEORGES SIMENON Betty (1961)

Thursday, 28 May 2015

WRITERS ON WRITING #66: Laurie Graham


So hands up who was shocked, amazed and disgusted that Zoe Suggs's best-selling Girl Online was ghost-written?  Really?

First of all, Zoe is 24.  Book writing is a long haul job and very few 24 year olds have the necessary staying power.  Perhaps there was a time, when the world moved slowly, working days were long and Sunday sermons lasted an hour, but today, when people have the attention span of a puppy?  Naah.

Secondly, what do you imagine gets publishing executives out of bed in the morning?  The thought that today might be the day they discover the next Tolstoy?  Try again.

A book is now a commodity.  A writer needs to become a brand and most of us don't have the foggiest idea how to achieve that.  It takes a team.  The finished item may carry someone's name but that's just an eye-catching adornment.  It might help you to think of Girl Online as the literary equivalent of a jar of Loyd Grossman curry sauce.  Do you think Loyd fills the jars?

Publishing used to be reckoned a gentleman's profession. Now the accountants run the show.  Everything happens for a reason.  Prime shelf position is paid for.  The favour of a good blurb from a household name is called in.  Gravy trains are leapt on before somebody else grabs the last seat.

Ghost writing?  A perfectly honourable profession, particularly in the world of celebrity biographies.  There have been desperate times when I'd have had a go myself, but one editor friend counselled against it.  She told me I leave my fingerprints all over anything I write.  A ghost writer is required to park their ego and deliver copy cleansed of their own style.

And what about writers who employ a team of research elves?  What about publishers who 'commission' posthumous novels, like the new Poirot mystery?  Where do all these fit on the spectrum of veracity and transparency?  Darned if I know.  Somebody said to me, 'Nothing is what it seems.'

Perhaps it never was.

Publishing Shock Horror (blog entry)  [11 December 2014]



Click HERE to visit the blog of British novelist LAURIE GRAHAM.

You might also enjoy:
LAURIE GRAHAM The Ten O'Clock Horses (1996)
BARBARA PYM Excellent Women (1952)
WRITERS ON WRITING #15: Margaret Drabble