Sunday, January 31, 2021

Xo Orpheus: Fifty New Myths (1).

This entry is really the first one that has to stand on the shoulders of others.  In particular it was the work of the Truth Inside the Lie blog that brought the whole thing to my attention.  I once recall reading that the basic function of criticism was to stand as a mere sideshow for the main attraction of the story itself.  I'm willing to admit a lot of truth in that statement.  At the same time, even if literary criticism can never be the main event, there's grounds enough to call it a vital function, in and of itself.  When a review is written in such a way that it makes the reader decide to pick up their own copy, then I'm afraid the only logical conclusion is that a genuine service has been provided.  That deserves at least some kind of recognition, even if just for a job well done.  That just leaves the main event itself.  The book in question was an anthology collection entitled Xo Orhpeus, by Kate Bernheimer.

The review of that book from Truth Inside the Lie is perhaps best described as an all-purpose overview.  The potential buyer is given a neat and concise series of summaries regarding the anthology, and its contents.  Each item in the text is given its own brief description, along with a recommendation of whether each individual entry is good or bad.  The results for the  review itself are commendable.  The main reason for this is down to the way information is handled in the critique.  All the relevant information the reader needs to know about each story in the collection has been condensed with a skill that perhaps can be considered worthy of actual print journalism.  The critic appears to have an instinctive skill for what needs to be kept in, and what elements can be labeled as secondary enough that they can be left out.  The final product gives the reader enough information, delivered in the right way that is capable of rousing enough curiosity to enable to the reader to want to find a way to get their hands on a copy of their own.  Such then is the basic function of criticism when its done well.

I bring all this up just to highlight the fact that I'm afraid I've had to go at Bernheimer's book in a very different fashion.  For whatever reason, I've found it better to take the text one item at a time, rather than all at once.  This method of approach can have its own advantages.  For one thing, the fact that we are dealing with an anthology, and not a novel, allows the critic some leeway in how they want to handle the text.  The very nature of the material allows you a bit more freedom to pick and choose which is the best doorway into the content itself.  I think my real reason for not tackling the whole damn thing all at once is pretty simple.  For some reason, my mind is better at examining a story when it's limited to just one narrative at a time, rather than altogether.  I just have that turn of mind, the kind which likes to unpack as many details of a story and hold them up to the microscope for a while.  

The more I can limit my attention to just one item of text, all's well.  I seem to have more trouble turning all the trees into a forest.  If that's a weakness of some sort, I'm sure I don't know what to do about it.  I'm not saying its impossible for me to provide the kind of concise summary of the contents of a book.  If that were the case, this blog probably wouldn't even exist.  It's just that the task becomes a lot easier after I've digested a single text.  When it's a question of being asked to perform the same task on a book which is really a number of differing texts, then I can see it as a lot more of a challenge.  This issue just gets compounded by the question of whether or not an anthology can be said to be operating under any possible kind of guiding principle.  The presence of such a main theme can help to make things a lot easier, at least as far as I'm concerned. 

I've said that the short story collection offers a number of differing doorways into its subject matter.  The one I've chosen for my purposes is the front entrance.  I want to focus on Bernheimer's introduction to the whole anthology for a number of reasons.  A lot of it has to do with her main topic of discussion.  Bernheimer's entire book is concerned with the matter and nature of myth.  It is, in essence, an entire, complete short essay on the subject.  What she has to say about the topic colors her choice for the contents of the anthology as a whole.  It just makes sense that her views on the issue might be worth digging a bit into in their own right.  It might be interesting to find out what Bernheimer's views on myth can tell us not just about the topic itself, but maybe also the outlook of the editor.  I suppose the real question, however, is not just whether the anthologist or editor is able to verbalize or state her thesis.  In addition, I'd argue there are two other matters that are involved here.  The first is whether Bernheimer is able to live out her thesis.  The second is how well her main idea stacks up to the reality of everyday life.  There may be some interesting answers in regard to the last of these three questions.

As a result, this essay won't have much choice except to come off as a discussion between a pair of book nerds debating on a pet subject of theirs. This isn't the sort of deal that's going to bother me all that much.  I'm the kind of guy who actually likes to think about literary matters.  I'm also smart enough to know that places me in a distinct minority.  That means the real challenge is how do you make a discussion of myth at least sound entertaining?  If I'm being honest, all I can do is follow the writer's lead and share my own two cents on it.  The good news is Myth is another favorite subject of mine.  Whether the reader feels the same is a different matter.  I suppose the real trick is to learn what is it about myth that is able to hook and reel the audience in.  A lot of it is down to enthusiasm, and the proper ability to convey it.  This is something guys like Tolkien or Joseph Campbell were good at.  They knew how to talk about myths in a way that managed to engage a sizable cross-current of the world audience.  Whether Kate Bernheimer or I can do the same remains to be seen.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Mank (2020).

 Amadeus is one of the first films I can recall watching.  That's no joke, by the way.  It's all true.  My parents introduced me to that flick, and its subject, when I must have been no older than 8.  It's in retrospect that it begins to sink just how rare and odd that kind of circumstance is.  Most family households would think of waiting a goodish number of years down the road until trying to get their kids into such high concept art.  I think the one excuse my folks will ever have is that they were still somewhat in the thrall of what I like to call a late 70s Woody Allen phase.  The upshot is that I grew up knowing at least something about Mozart and Classical Music before I even knew the musical genre existed as an actual concept.  Here's the real point, though.  Some of you reading this are probably thinking, "Yes, but how can you trust that you really know anything about the life of Mozart, or Salieri, for that matter?  How can you be sure the film is an accurate reflection of the life of either composer"?  If anyone out is entertaining thoughts anywhere close to what I've just written above, then I hear what you're saying.  I also can't pretend I'm all that surprised.

Milos Forman's 1984 film has long since entered into the realm of canonical masterpiece status.  That hasn't stopped fans and critics from arguing over its historical veracity.  On the contrary, it really does seem as if it's that very love and acclaim for the movie that keep these debates alive, and in turn guarantee it at least some kind of immortality.  It's probably earned all the praise and criticism in the best way possible.  A lot of that is down to sheer narrative skill.  Even the biggest skeptics are able to applaud Forman and Schaefer's imaginative capabilities, and talent for dramatic characterization.  To this day it still has to be one of the rare examples where a motion picture is recognized for its literary qualities.  Some other films aren't that lucky, however.  

Let's take the case of David Fincher's Mank, for example.The genesis of this project just strikes me as somewhat unique.  It's got to be the first movie I've ever seen that was generated out of a debate among cinema critics.  The starting place seems to have been a New Yorker essay written by the critic Pauline Kael.  It was titled "Raising Kane", and its main purpose was to try and debunk an idea called the Auteur Theory.  It was a concept popularized by critics and filmmakers during the French New Wave of the 50s and 60s.  It's basic thesis was that the director is the one ultimately responsible for the creative idea and final product behind any given film he or she is able to create.  It is just possible to see how this concept can be applied to other creative formats, such as writing or painting.  On the other hand, it could be possible to mount a converse argument.  There is nothing to keep the observer from making the inference that the Auteur theorists were just taking the concept of the writer as sole creator of the finished story, and applying that idea to the director of a film.

Andrew Sarris was one of the influential writers on movies that was a huge believer in, and proponent of, the New Wave theory.  He spent a lot of his time trying to introduce the concept into the conversation of the American mainstream.  He made it the paradigm, or lens through which he used to compose his article on various films that came under his inspection.  Sarris would judge every motion picture according to how well the director as Auteur was able to make the final product succeed.  In all of this, Kael appears to have more or less been Sarris's opposite number.  She seems to have held a distinct disbelief in the idea of the director as Auteur.  Her view seems to have been that film was too much of a collaborative effort for there to be any one single sole voice at the helm.  At least that's what appears to be the case she was trying to make.  My own reading of her essays reveals a very shaky and ill-defined criterion for what a film is, and what makes any given example work and fail.

Anyway, the upshot is that "Raising Kane" was written as a shot across the bow of the likes of Sarris and the Auteur enthusiasts.  One claim that made up part of the essay concerned the movie Citizen Kane.  Kael used her essay to make the claim that is was Herman J. Mankiewicz, one of the screenwriters, who deserved the singular credit for penning screenplay of the finished film.  I'm not sure how much any of this is still on the radar of public awareness in this day and age.  If this is the first any modern reader has heard of the conflict, then I volunteer for the position of the last guy to be shocked about it.  Nevertheless, the upshot of Kael's article was that it got just enough attention back in the day to kickstart a minor sort of turf war in film critic circles during the 70s.  It didn't take long for Sarris and others to respond in kind.  The result has been a series of skirmishes that have erupted here and there throughout the decades.  The whole argument is divided into two camps.  On the one hand, you have those like Kael, who argue that Mankiewicz is the real genius behind the greatest film ever made.  Then there are others like Joseph McBride who believe that credit should go more to Orson Welles.

One person who subscribed to Kael's essay was Jack Fincher.  He was the father of a son who would one day go on to make a name for himself in the industry.  The elder Fincher seems to have been in such an agreement with "Raising Kane", that at some point in time, he decided to go all out and write an entire screenplay meant to substantiate Kael's claims.  The name of the script was Mank, and it was Jack's wish that someday it get its time in the spotlight.  The father never lived long enough to see that dream fulfilled.  It would be sometime before his son, David, would be able to compile all the necessary resources to realize that vision.  The few questions that remain are what does this idea of the late Jack Fincher's mean, anyway?  More to the point, is it any good?

Sunday, January 3, 2021

The Luck of the Lynns (1952).

One of the perks of being a bookworm is that it can sometimes allow you to discover the unexplored corners of life.  I'm not talking about anything esoteric, so much as the avenues that got overlooked by time.  It doesn't happen often, however my own experience is that if you dig around the forgotten corners of the great library known as the world, you can come upon a text, or a name that can sometimes be so worth your time it's a wonder (and almost something of a crime) that there was never at least some kind of recognition.  That said, it's also possible enough to uncover a bunch of junk that probably should have stay in the trunk.  I'm not sure where the subject of today's post fits into this scheme.  I've talked about him once before.  From what I've been able to uncover about him, he never seems to have been one of the Big Names.  However, that didn't stop him from knowing at least some of them, and of making a few artistic contributions of his own.

Talking about someone like Roger Lancelyn Green can be a challenge.  It's one I've discussed before, here and there, on this blog.  One of the hazards of being an author is that even the the promise of publication can't guarantee any kind of Brand Name recognition or longevity in and of itself.  That's all up to how much the reading public decides whether it likes you or not.  Some of these scribbling types are able to garner a small handful of the audience.  This minor sort of fame might give off a brief sense of satisfaction.  At least there's someone out there who likes what you do.  The trouble with that type of circumstance is that there's no real assurance that even the best word of mouth reputation will grow from there.  Many of them never get beyond that initial step.  An author like H.P. Lovecraft, for instance, got lucky in that sense.  He started out as a sensation among a small circle of fans and friends, only to gain worldwide fame after his death.  A lot of the others who followed in his train are barely on the tip of the tongue anymore.  Who, for further instance, has ever heard of a moniker like Clark Ashton Smith?  That's got to be too fanciful to be real.  Right

Then of course, you have authors so obscure that part of the problem is being able to find any reliable background information on them.  The best example of this latter type is H.F. Arnold.  If the name sounds unfamiliar, that's no real surprise.  He's remembered today for publishing a short story called The Night Wire, and his reputation is kept alive mainly by fans of the Weird Circle of Cosmic Horror authors that center in and around the works of HPL.  The trick is a lot of folks know what Arnold wrote, and it's almost impossible to find any reliable info on his life.  The man himself remains a total enigma.  It's almost as if the story itself appeared out of thin air, complete with byline, and nothing else.  As a result, Arnold could be thought of as one of the most famous authors who wasn't there.

Roger Green seems to have escaped that level of literary fate.  It's possible to dig up some information on him, though what little there is remains patchy and scarce in places.  His date of birth can be traced to somewhere right around the end of the First World War, on Nov. 2nd, 1918.  This all happened in Norwich, to a couple listed as Helena Mary Phyllis and Maj. Gilbert Arthur Lancelyn Green.  The Green family itself is, or was part of the landed gentry of the English Upper Class.  It's lineage is reported to trace back all the way to the reign of Queen Elizabeth the First (web).  As is the typical case with most families of the nobility, there was a deeded and titled estate on which generations of the family grew up.  Roger appears to have been no exception.  His childhood was spent living in Poulton Hall.  It's was and remains one of those old English manor houses that can sometimes contain a storied history.  

It's nowhere near as vast or impressive as any of the old royal households, such as Hampton Court, and to be fair, that's kind of in its favor.  Unlike the grand, forbidding presences attached to an estate such as Beverston Castle, Poultan Hall's compact appearance tells of a more expansive and generous nature.  It's atmosphere is less that of the genuine Nobility, and more in the line of the Old County Squires.  It is just possible (once you've scaled the whole thing down to an appropriate size) to imagine a family of Hobbits emerging from its doors, maybe one of the Tooks or Brandybucks.  Perhaps that's why it seems fitting to discover that the old place has become the kind of setting that various artists like to arrange their projects in.  The house and grounds even served as a backdrop for a children's series known as The Owl Service.  This happened back in 1969, when its last owner was still alive.  It's somewhat telling about Green himself that he was willing to allow or open his own home to such a production.  It's also the dwelling that served as his first great window onto the world.  

Being the scion and heir of an old, established, military family was often viewed as being born into a fairly conservative milieu.  In England, that same framework still appears to be in operation today, at least among the ruing classes.  It is just possible to expect that Green would have experienced the same difficulties as those faced by a writer like E.A. Wyke-Smith.  The opening setting is almost so prototypical that it won't be too much of a surprise to learn that Roger grew up in the shadow of a strict, and authoritarian father figure.  Instead, the truth itself seems to amount to a more or less complete subversion of the trope.  Far from being a strict disciplinarian,  Arthur Green comes off as unconventional by the usual standards of the gentry.  His own son is able to provide the best possible snapshot of his upbringing in Poultan Hall through a brief snippet of memoir found in the opening pages of his later critical survey, Tellers of Tales.

"Being myself a rather bookish child, more often at home than at school owing to ill health, my reading played a very important part in my life.  It had always done so, as I was fortunate in having a father who delighted in reading aloud, began to do so long before I could read, and continued the custom, when occasion permitted, right up to the last year of his life when I was nearly thirty.  My own reading of children's book went on longer perhaps than is usual, and was succeeded by a delight in the story-tellers of the Nineties that I never lost; but it did not exclude other tastes, and I remember when I was fifteen or so reading Shakespeare plays and Tarzan stories alternately, and my reading lists of the time show an amazing variation between Stevenson or Haggard and Thackeray or Greek drama (8)".

If the interactions with his father were his first big influences, the second most important element in Green's introduction to Literature was the library housed on the estate.  This is one of the salient facts that marks Green's trajectory out as yet another type.  One of the commonalities to be found in the public statements of a lot of famous writers is how they all tend to go on, sometimes at a length which must seem absurd to casual reader, about the importance of libraries, or any kind of booksellers in their lives.  It seems to be one of the few, constant, real-life tropes that is able to unite an ongoing series of lives that are different in most every other respect.  Stephen King, for instance, noted that his education in books got started from at least two places.  One was the Stratford Library, in downtown Connecticut.  The other were the occasional bookmobiles that would drive through his hometown neighborhood of Durham, Maine.  For Ray Bradbury, meanwhile, it seems to have been the public library of Los Angeles that initiated him into the broader arena of world literature (Weller, 9).

Green's own experience of this same process appears to be a Victorian - Edwardian spin on the same process as that undergone by the other two mentioned above.  If his father wasn't there to read for him, the young Roger could often be found browsing through the volumes contained in the house.  From the sound of it, that library appears to have been an example of one of those old, private collections that some of the higher nobility could afford to compile for their own amusement, leisure, and in some cases, a genuine interest in literacy and learning.  The results could sometimes amount to several whole rooms given over to the shelving and stocking of various assorted tomes.  It is from this age old enterprise that we owe the by now still somewhat familiar image of the classical library; a vast and echoing hall lined with shelves of various leather-bound volumes of forgotten lore; most of which tend to alternate in color from red, to green, to brown, and always with the titles highlighted and bordered in gilt-edged gold.  Green seems to have been lucky enough to have inherited a variation of this image.  As first Bradbury, and then King would later do, once the young lad was let loose in that living image, he seems to have taken to it with the natural skill of a salmon running in its main stream.

It is from this experience both of parental bedtime reading, combined with the discovery of the library that shaped the contours of Roger's mental architecture.  This is where his story conforms to type, as it fits in with an established pattern that may have begun as far back as the Renaissance.  It would often be the custom for middle and upper class families in England, before the advent of public education, to pass on their learning to both heirs and descendants by introducing them to the contents of these private libraries.  The practice probably isn't as widespread now.  However, at least before the beginning of the 20th century, this household practice of educating through the library remained more or less the sole means of giving a future to one's children.  In addition to Green, other names like John Ruskin, William Morris, Prime-minister Arthur Balfour, and Oxford scholars like R.G. Collingwood were able to achieve as much as they did because of their exposure to this tradition.

Just like Morris and Ruskin, Green's introduction to the library (just as a type, or thing in itself) fostered a love of the written word.  The passion grew enough to the point where it determined his future career.  The rest of it is surprisingly available in the public record.  That said, the record itself is scant, almost constipated.  If that counts as a fault, then it's mainly down to the lack of curiosity shown to the writer's own output.  The fact that he's remembered enough at all is something of a small miracle.  The relevant data is here laid out in full, as it provides a decent enough beginner's summary of all the salient points of Green's life and his once and future career.  The following is taken verbatim from the back of the book promotional material of the Puffin Books edition of Myths of the Norsemen.

"Roger was a man who loved storytelling and was fascinated by traditional fairy tales, myths, and legends from around the world...Roger was often ill, though, and couldn't go to school - so he spent lots of time at the family's manor house in the country of Cheshire.  His family had been wealthy, and there was a huge library in their house.  He spent many hours reading the old books in there, and this is probably where his love of myths and legends started...

"...Roger loved reading adventure stories and fairy tales, and as he grew up he became fascinated by the myths of ancient Greece and Egypt, and the legends of the Norse countries of Scandinavia.  He went on to retell their ancient stories in his books Tales of Ancient Greece, The Tale of Troy, Tales from Ancient Egypt and Myths of the Norsemen - a continuous story gathered from the ancient Norse folktales, ballads and poems...He was well known for his retellings of traditional stories.  Including those mentioned above, he wrote The Adventures of Robin Hood and King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, all published as Puffin Classics.  He also wrote many books for adults, including a biography of...J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan (262-3)".

That is the extent to which the public knows him.  In all, Green was responsible for six of these compilations from world mythology.  They comprise the sole number of his books that remain in print to this very day.  The result is an author who exists as sort of like an anomaly.  Very few people seem to know he even existed at some point in time, and so his books are never taken off the shelves.  The result is that they continue to make a steady enough profit to keep restocking their places in the racks.  The whole thing sounds like a series of impossibilities that keep happening with a persistent regularity.  The whole or complete truth, meanwhile, remains in obscurity.  It's like what the Puffin blurb observes above.  Green's life as an author encompassed a lot more than just a series of folklore collections.  He wrote material of his very own, for a start.  The fact that all of it has vanished from memory is what accounts for the length of this opening.  When you're dealing with an unknown quantity, first introductions tend to take a bit more time.  That's what this entire article amounts to, in a way.  

If Roger Lancelyn Green is an unfamiliar name on the lists of published authors, then it just leaves one question.  Where do you start?  Perhaps the best way to begin is to take things slow, and not all at once.  It's with this in mind that I think the best place to start is by looking at one of the first entries in his career as a writer.  He'd published just one other book before this one.  The Luck of the Lynns appeared on the shelves two years later.  The tale goes as follows.