Not fully replicated in Canada

June 20, 2013 by · 4 Comments 

The values of international modernism were also not fully replicated in Canada: the Great War tended to stimulate Canadian nationalism in the arts in a way alien to most English and American modernist writers. For example, the corrosive alienation about patriotism and national feeling found in works like Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) or Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) or in American expatriate Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) was not present to the same degree in the work of many of the young Canadian writers and artists who had come of age in the trenches during the Great War, men like poet John McCrae or man of culture Talbot Papineau (who both died during the Great War), artist A.Y. Jackson, or historian Harold Innis. Canadians had tended to emerge from the war with less of the wholesale cynicism of young British, French, and German and American veterans.

– Sandra Campbell, Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press

Here’s a question, and it is meant in all sincerity (because I don’t have the answer): Has Canada ever experienced a period of literary modernism? We have our postmodern writers, clearly: Ondaatje, Coupland, Kroetsch, Heti, Lent. But has Canadian writing ever truly engaged with modernism?

Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers has modernest elements, as does the poetry of Gwendolyn MacEwen, bill bissett, and bp Nichol. And in the visual arts we have mid-20th-century abstract expressionist painters such as Riopelle and Borduas.

But it’s probably safe to say that high modernism never caught on in Canada to the extent that it did in Europe or America. I wonder if Campbell is correct in her assessment that part of the reason for this is a less cynical, more patriotic demeanour among our cultural creators. And if this relative lack of cynicism was present in the past (compare, for example, Morley Callaghan’s novels and stories to those of his contemporaries, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Joyce), is the same true now?

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 26: “The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” by Will Self

May 26, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Tough, Tough Toys for Tough, Tough Boys

Tough_Tough_Toys_for_Tough_Tough_BoysWill Self’s comic fantasia updates Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age story, replacing gilded age diamond miners with late 20th-century inner-city drug dealers. Self adapts Fitzgerald’s themes of class and racial disparity, locating his story in London immediately following the first Gulf War.

The story focuses on two Jamaican immigrants – Bantu, known as Danny, and Tembe. Danny is a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, who returns to his family’s rundown London house with no prospects, and decides to fill his time by fixing up his family homestead. Drilling through the cellar wall, Danny makes a surprising discovery:

He squatted and brought a gloveful of the matter up to his face. It was yellowy-white, with a consistency somewhere between wax and chalk. Danny took off his glove and scrunged some of it between his nails. It flaked and crumbled. He dabbed a little bit on his bottom lip and tasted it. It tasted chemical. He looked wonderingly at the four-foot-square patch that he had exposed. The swinging bulb sent streaks of odd luminescence glissading across its uneven surface. It was crack cocaine. Danny had struck crack.

The idea of a house built on a foundation of crack cocaine is as patently absurd as the notion of a mountain that is a solid diamond, but Self’s technique, for all its satirical exaggeration, cleaves closer to a naturalistic presentation than does Fitzgerald’s. The verisimilitude in the dialogue (“You’re a fucking dead-head, Tembe, an’ ain’t that the fucking troof”) and the specificity of the setting help accentuate the comic effect of Self’s narrative, which starts out as a dream-like fantasia, but turns into an excoriating examination of the nature of addiction.

As with most of Self’s writing, the draw here is the language. Self is a bravura stylist, who never employs a plain turn of phrase when an ornate or rococo one will do. Often, this results in frustration; in this case, it works, perhaps as a result of the story’s relative brevity.

Self’s careful attention to language is in evidence right from the opening sequence, a reverie narrated from the perspective of Tembe, a low-level drug dealer in the employ of his older brother. Tembe imagines himself chipping away at the walls of the Ritz hotel in London, and finding that they are literally made of crack. Self employs purposeful alliteration (“hooting vans, honking buses”; “yellow finger flanges”; “Pyrex piping”) and deliberate repetition to set the scene and help create the mood for what is to come. Twice in the opening paragraph, the dream-hotel is personified with animal characteristics: in the first instance, a colonnade pierces the edifice’s “hard hide,” and in the second, the windows are likened to “luxuriant eye[s].” Anthropomorphizing the inanimate building has the effect of giving it agency, which anticipates the ramifications the crack-bedrock will have on Tembe later in the story.

This opening scene is recapitulated later, in a more naturalistic context, when Danny, having returned home from overseas, discovers the peculiar nature of his home’s foundation. The contrast between the realism of the presentation and the absurdity of the situation results in a reading experience that is at once familiar and uncomfortable; the more outlandish elements become subsumed in the carefully seeded ground, such that a reader is willing to accept them almost without question or hesitation.

The ironic distance between the realistic backdrop and the fantastic foreground also provides the mechanism for the story’s humour, which is plentiful. And Self underscores the racism of British society in his portrayal of a soldier who returns home without prospects, and discovers that the readiest means of advancement is by dealing drugs that are literally right under his feet.

“The Rock of Crack as Big as the Ritz” recalls Fitzgerald’s theme of unconstrained gluttony, but places it in the context of a chemical addiction. The Iranian customer to whom Tembe makes repeated deliveries serves as Self’s version of the Washingtons: an unreconstructed hedonist, he is first described as “playing with his wing-wang,” and later is seen crawling around on his carpet, his eyes hunting for phantom rocks like “crack-seeking radar.”

Tembe recognizes the Iranian’s behaviour as that of a true addict:

It began when you reached that point – some time after the tenth pipe – where your brain gets sort of fused with crack. Where your brain is crack. Then you start to see the stuff everywhere. Every crumb of bread on the carpet or grain of sugar on the kitchen lino looks like a fragment of ecstatic potential. You pick one up after the other, checking them with a touch of wavering flame, never quite believing that it isn’t crack until the smell of toast assaults your nose.

Despite recognizing the symptoms of addiction, Tembe capitulates to temptation and indulges in some of his brother’s supply, in the process coming to an epiphany about the nature of the product: “This is the hit, Tembe realised, concretely, irrefutably, for the first time. The whole hit of rock is to want more rock. The buzz of rock is itself the wanting of more rock.

Like the Washingtons in Fitzgerald’s story, Tembe is in thrall to an avarice that is ultimately self-defeating: the more he indulges, the more potent and destructive his hunger becomes. Only Danny remains immune to the lure of the drug, and only because he has internalized the first crack commandment, the one about not getting high on one’s own supply. The final scene in the story finds him in his basement, “chipping, chipping, chipping away. And he never ever touched the product.”

31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 25: “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” by F. Scott Fitzgerald

May 25, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From Tales of the Jazz Age

Tales_of_the_Jazz_AgeF. Scott Fitzgerald will forever be tied in the public consciousness to his 1925 American classic, The Great Gatsby (a title most people of a certain generation are likely familiar with only as a result of Baz Luhrmann’s garish 2013 3D cinematic extravaganza). But Fitzgerald was also a prolific writer of short fiction, much of it for magazines. These stories were mostly written quickly, for money. As a result, some of them are brilliant, some are virtually unreadable.

In the former camp is a longish story from 1922 that first appeared in the periodical Smart Set and that its author described as a “fantasy.” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” examines one of Fitzgerald’s quintessential themes: wealth, and the corrosive effect it can have on the lives of the people it touches. Not just wealth, in this case, nor even Donald Trump–style opulence, but a bizarre, almost surreal mirror of American greed. The family at the heart of the story makes Gatsby and the denizens of East Egg look like Tin-Pan Alley paupers.

The family in question is the Washingtons, and the association with American foundational mythology is surely not accidental. (Indeed, we are told that the “father of the present Mr. Washington had been a Virginian, a direct descendant of George Washington and Lord Baltimore.”) The patriarch is Braddock Washington, a forty-year-old “with a proud, vacuous face, intelligent eyes, and a robust figure. In the mornings he smelt of horses – the best horses.” Braddock Washington, we are informed, “is by far the richest man in the world.”

The purveyor of this information is Percy, Braddock Washington’s son (the elder Washington is rarely referred to except by honorific or his full name). Percy is a student at the aptly named St. Midas’ School, a private boys’ school half-an-hour’s drive (by “Rolls-Pierce motor-car”) from Boston. “St. Midas’,” Fitzgerald writes, “is the most expensive and the most exclusive boys’ preparatory school in the world.” The school’s exclusivity is inextricable from its cost; practically everything in this story is evaluated on the basis of its monetary worth.

Like The Great Gatsby, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is filtered through a sensibility that is separate from the ultra-wealthy subjects of scrutiny; unlike Gatsby, the story is cast in the third person, providing greater psychic distance and offering a somewhat more reliable perspective on events. This is significant, given the extraordinary nature of the tale: a first-person narration would have rendered it too outlandish to be trusted, but the relative reliability of the third-person narration acts as a balm to the reader’s credulity, and a means of grounding the absurd elements in a bedrock of plausibility.

The figure at the story’s heart is John T. Unger, a resident of a Mississippi town with the provocatively allusive name Hades. “Don’t forget who you are and where you come from,” John’s father advises him on the eve of the young man’s departure for St. Midas’. “You are an Unger – from Hades.” (In many ways, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is a kind of fantastical precursor to Gatsby: Mr. Unger’s advice chimes with the famous opening lines of that novel.)

Percy and John meet in second year, and John becomes intrigued by his classmate’s boasts regarding his family’s unfathomable wealth. “He must be very rich,” John says of Braddock Washington. “I’m glad. I like very rich people. The richer a fella is, the better I like him.” The dialogue between John and Percy is characterized by a kind of comic one-upmanship in which each tries to outdo the other with braggadocio about the riches they have encountered in their short lives, culminating with John’s claim to know a family, the Schnlitzer-Murphys, who own diamonds the size of walnuts. “That’s nothing,” Percy responds. “My father has a diamond bigger than the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”

What places this story outside the realm of naturalism is that Percy’s statement is not intended metaphorically: he is being quite literal. The Washington family resides at the pinnacle of a mountain in the Montana Rockies – a mountain that is unique in that it is one gargantuan, solid diamond.

Of this outlandish premise, Fitzgerald writes in a note, “I was in that familiar mood characterized by a perfect craving for luxury, and the story began as an attempt to feed that craving on imaginary foods.” Fitzgerald himself was no stranger to wealth, although his stories and novels are characterized by an often caustic, conflicted relationship to money. The author is like a kind of stealthy double-agent, operating among the monied classes, but critiquing from within their blatant self-regard and immoral devotion to excess. When John first arrives at the Washingtons’ chateau, his initial wonderment is tinged with unease verging on fear: “What desperate transaction lay hidden here? What a moral expedient of a bizarre Crœsus? What terrible and golden mystery?”

John’s worry turns out to be well founded. Fitzgerald’s critique of unbridled American wealth finds its ne plus ultra in the notion of a diamond the size of a mountain, which offers the family that claims it untold riches, but also threatens to bankrupt them should anyone else discover it. Braddock Washington’s father, who sports the ridiculously pompous name Fitz-Norman Culpepper Washington, hits on the crux of the problem:

It was an amazing predicament. He was, in one sense, the richest man that ever lived – and yet was he worth anything at all? If his secret should transpire there was no telling to what measures the Government might resort in order to prevent a panic, in gold as well as in jewels. They might take over the claim immediately and institute a monopoly.

Braddock Washington himself comes to a similar conclusion: “His one care must be the protection of his secret, lest in the possible panic attendant on its discovery he should be reduced with all the property-holders in the world to utter poverty.”

Fitzgerald’s satire is based in the essential contradiction at the heart of capitalism: although the family is the wealthiest in the world, the actual value of the diamond on which they reside is nil. Their fanatical devotion to preserving the secret of the mountain has divested them of any kind of basic morality: they see no problem in keeping black servants, whom they have managed to convince that slavery had never been abolished, or kidnapping or killing anyone who is in a position to give away the secret of the mountain’s provenance. “Cruelty,” Braddock Washington proclaims, “doesn’t exist where self-preservation is involved.”

Self-preservation, in this instance, equates to the preservation of all the creature comforts the Washingtons have come to expect as their due. But material gratification does not come without a price, in this case the isolation that accompanies the necessity of keeping the source of their wealth under wraps.

The love of money comes into direct conflict with love of a less craven kind when John begins to have feelings for Kismine, Percy’s sister, a relationship that provides the dramatic impetus for the reversals and plot twists of the second half. Along the way, Fitzgerald has much sport with his admittedly wild scenario, including one vicious dig at the Hollywood establishment: when John asks who was responsible for the layout of the family chateau, Percy responds, “I blush to tell you, but it was a moving-picture fella. He was the only man who was used to playing with an unlimited amount of money, though he did tuck his napkin in his collar and couldn’t read or write.” (Fitzgerald himself did some contract work writing for Hollywood, so his cynicism about the boorish folk who people the industry is well-founded.)

The story culminates in an air raid on the family compound, and the apotheosis of the capitalist ethos, a moment in which Braddock Washington tries – unsuccessfully – to bribe God. As John and Kismine face the prospect of returning to Hades to live in poverty, the implicit question involves what, precisely, constitutes hell on earth.

Fitzgerald’s mode in this story is satire of a particularly fantastic stripe, and the tone is comic. “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” is not as substantial as Gatsby and, as a result, not quite as damning in its condemnation of a particularly American kind of capitalist venality. However, as Fitzgerald notes about the story, “If you like this sort of thing, this, possibly, is the sort of thing you’ll like.”

Banned Books Week: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

October 5, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

She was the first “nice” girl he had ever known. In various unrevealed capacities he had come in contact with such people, but always with indiscernible barbed wire between. He found her exceedingly desirable. He went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor, then alone. It amazed him – he had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity, was that Daisy lived there – it was as casual a thing to her as the tent out at camp was to him. There was a ripe mystery about it, a hint of bedrooms upstairs more beautiful and cool than other bedrooms, of gay and radiant activities taking place through its corridors, and of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered. It excited him, too, that many men had already loved Daisy – it increased her value in his eyes. He felt their presence all about the house, pervading the air with the shades and echoes of still vibrant emotions.

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald


December 2, 2010 by · 2 Comments 

There’s a saying: “Never judge a book by its movie.” Sometimes this is more true than others.

Rumours are abounding about Baz Luhrmann’s proposed adaptation of The Great Gatsby: Leonardo Di Caprio is reputed to be playing Jay Gatsby, Carey Mulligan is Daisy Buchanan, and, most contentiously, Tobey Maguire is Nick Carraway. Whether any of these casting choices pan out, and how appropriate they may be, misses the point altogether. Gatsby has been filmed twice already, once with Alan Ladd in the title role, and once with Robert Redford (the latter featuring a screenplay written by Francis Ford Coppola). What none of these adaptations reckons with is the fact that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1926 novel is essentially (and necessarily) unfilmable.

Fitzgerald’s chosen structure, which filters everything through the psyche of first-person narrator Nick, is quintessentially literary, and actively resists translation into a visual medium. For the same reason that heavily psychological or impressionistic writers like Henry James or Franz Kafka do not translate well into cinema, Gatsby – a literary novel if there ever was one – seems doomed to failure on the silver screen.

Tony Tanner highlights the book’s literary aspect in his introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition:

The extent to which the book is Nick’s version can hardly be overstressed. To be sure, he assembles his material from different sources. In addition to his own memory, there are documents, like the youthful Gatsby’s copy of Hopalong Cassidy with its Franklinesque “SCHEDULE” on the flyleaf and Nick’s own infinitely suggestive list of Gatsby’s guests of the summer of 1922, which is now “disintegrating as it folds,” suggesting perhaps the inevitable disintegration of other depositories of time – including the memory of the narrator. Then there is the long oral account of the first phase of the relationship between Gatsby and Daisy, given to him by Jordan Baker, and the accounts of Gatsby’s early life, Dan Cody and the war years given to him by Gatsby himself during the doomed and hopeless vigil after the night of the fatal road accident. But it is Nick who transcribes these accounts; how much he may be requoting his sources and how much translating them – transforming, embellishing, amplifying, rewording – we can never know.

Nick’s memory, the documents he catalogues, his recapitulations and embellishments, are inseparable from the manner in which he records them in the novel. All of what Tanner describes is conveyed through Fitzgerald’s manipulation of words on a page, and none of it can be translated into a visual medium without losing something integral.

Perhaps this is what the producers of the New York production Gatz were thinking. Running to more than seven hours, the show is a verbatim rendering of Fitzgerald’s text, executed in a manner that, according to the Guardian‘s Matt Trueman, is “deliberately ill-fitted to the stage.” Trueman quotes novelist Sebastian Faulks as saying that attempting to adapt a literary work to another medium is tantamount to “trying to turn a painting into a sculpture.” In the case of the verbatim rendering of Gatsby, Trueman finds the enterprise “ungainly and counter-intuitve.” However, these very qualities render the production impressive in Trueman’s assessment: “By refusing to make textual amendments, it retains the qualities, form and feel of a novel. But its brilliance as theatre stems largely from the difficulties of – and failures in – staging it as such.”

He continues:

By embracing the irreconcilability of novel and stage, smashing the two together awkwardly, Gatz sheds light on both. You come to understand the novel’s construction and the process of reading it, and learn about the mechanics of theatre. Gatz, I think, succeeds for two reasons: first, its defiance of the habitual conventions of “good drama,” and second, by admitting the very process of adaptation.

Perhaps this is the only way literary adaptations can succeed: by eschewing any attempt to erase the distinction between media and freely acknowledging the transposition of both form and content (the way Charlie Kaufman does in his cheekily titled screenplay Adaptation). Perhaps the only truly effective adaptation is a truly postmodern adaptation: one that remains entirely aware at all times of the distance between the adapted work and the original source material.

Or perhaps there really are literary works – The Great Gatsby among them – that can never fully exist in any other form than the one in which they were first created.

“I wouldn’t recommend sex, drugs, or insanity for everyone, but they’ve always worked for me”

February 5, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Courtesy of Life: a picture gallery of famous literary drunks and drug addicts. How come it doesn’t surprise me that Ayn Rand was a speed freak?

P.S. Three guesses who was responsible for the quote in this post’s title. (And, no: it wasn’t me.)