Sunday, March 24, 2024

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Twice told Tales (1851): David Swan.

First introductions are always the most important.  It's the first impression a person leaves on you that can sometimes wind up counting the most.  That's shallow as hell, I know.  Yet it also doesn't stop such results from being an on-going fact of human nature.  It also doesn't get rid of the truth that sometimes bad first impressions exist for a whole lot of very good reasons.  Some of us carry a palpable sense of threat around with us, like the dangerous warning sign it is.  Whenever that happens. first impressions can be a matter of life or death.  At the same time, this need to make a good introduction is always in need of balance.  Sooner or later, most of us have to learn to look beyond the surface appearances of the people we meet in order to get to know them.  This is another inescapable fact of life.  So you you've got these two social demands vying for attention and always competing and/or cooperating with one another.  When it comes to introducing the reader to a new author, the task of making a good first impression counts for a hell of a lot more than normal.  The trouble with artists is they come with this built-in expectation that a proper sense of entertainment has to always be a part of the package.  They are always supposed to be "on-stage", with the lights up, and the audience waiting for the show to begin, in other words.  So when it comes to a writer like Nathaniel Hawthorne, the modern reader needs just the right introduction to get interested.

If I had to find the right words to describe the writer under discussion here today, then the good news is I don't have to do this job on my own.  Turns out the words of author Rosemary Mahoney can do a better job of giving readers the best first impression of Hawthorne than I ever could.  That's why I want to let her words take over for a minute or two.  I'll just set the stage for Rosemary by letting the reader know that it all started one day while she was at the check-out like in a now defunct bookstore chain, and she got into one of those brief moments of animated discussion with the cashier.  It's the kind of conversation you can expect to find in even the most commercial of bookseller retails.  The kind of informal discussion that can only mean anything to someone with a genuine love for books, in other words.  Mahoney was just handing over her purchases to the clerk behind the counter, when the guy noticed it was a collection of short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Twice Told Tales.

"Remember 'Young Goodman Brown'?" I said. Nick stretched a startled finger at me.  "Oh, my God.  Freaky!  That's actually what I was thinkin' of!  And 'The Minister's Black Veil.'  Beneath the bland fluorescent gloss of Borders lights Nick seemed to bask in the pure spooky pleasure of Hawthorne's stories, like a child delighting in a fleeting fright..."And how 'bout..." he raised a knowing brow, "...'Wakefield'?...That one creeped me totally."  "Me too," I said, which was true: totally and memorably, the story "Wakefield" had creeped me.  I asked Nick what else he liked to read.  Vonnegut, Stephen King, Harry Potter.  As I prepared to leave, he passed my book over the counter and said with almost wistful affection, "I hope you enjoy them!"

"When I first read them - in, of course, high school - I had not really enjoyed Nathaniel Hawthorne's short stories.  With it's required reading lists and its parochial and obsessive emphasis on symbolism, structure, metaphor, and all the rest of it, high school had a way of tainting the classics; it turned books into tests and clumsily clawed apart their art.  It was difficult to relax into any book with the exacting eye of a teacher watching and waiting for the usually elusive "right" answer to pop out of my mouth; when, now and then, answers did pop, they popped in anxious fists not dissimilar in style to the process of reverse peristalsis.

"Under the circumstances, I read Nathaniel Hawthorne with one eye on the clock and failed to recognize the beauty of him until I was thirty-four years old, free of the scholastic tax, and living in a solitary lighthouse on a tiny island in Maine with no electricity, no telephone, no human company, and nothing to read but a motley collection of books marooned on a rickety shelf beside the fireplace in the lighthouse parlor.  The fire was long unlit, and the shelves, softened by the ocean damp, bowed like hammocks under their burden.  In their midst was a collection of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, a musty hardcover mildewed with fog; it had tissue-thin pages and tiny type and the portentous density of the Bible.  It smelled of bedsheets, brine, damp dust, and mice, and sadly of school.

"One night, driven by boredom and depression, I sat at the kitchen table and by the yellowish light of a kerosene lamp began, skeptically, to read these stories.  "Wakefield," "The Minister's black Veil," "The Hollow of the Three Hills."  I read for an hour or so, hunched and squinting over that cinderblock of a book, and at some imperceptible moment during the hour my mood shifted from boredom to fearsome unease.  Something made me look up from the book.  I had the powerful sense that a pair of glittering eyes just outside the house was watching me with sinister interest.  I could feel them fixed upon my figure.  The sensation was so strong that I got up, locked the door, and slid the curtain across the black, rain-spattered windows.  I turned up the flame in the lamp, pushed the book under a pile of dishtowels, and although I tried to think of pleasant things, the rainwater that funneled down the drainpipe in gusts and knocked on a trim board at the base of the house kept sounding like heavily booted footsteps.  

"The waves crashing against the rocks just below the house kept sounding like desperate sighs.  Wide-eyed and mute and stiff with dread I sat on a wooden chair and stilled my own breathing now and then, the better to listen for more human noises.  The Twice-Told Tales had tipped me so thoroughly into Hawthorne's occult universe that finally, hot with apprehension and unable to support my own anxiety, I had to go upstairs to bed so that no one (who was not there) could see me.  I lay in bed waiting for the malevolent thud of Wakefield's footsteps on the lighthouse stairs.  I was, to put it mildly, totally creeped.  The next day, though, the book lying in its bed of dishtowels on the kitchen table was just a book, a block of paper bound in faded cloth, and the stories within it were just a series of shapely ink spots.  Daylight had soothed my imagination and dissolved my fear.

"Last night, in reading Hawthorne's own apologetic preface to these stories - a preface written in 1851 (long after the stories were composed and compiled) in a mood of retrospective correction and fatherly forbearance for his younger, supposedly less talented self - I was surprised and pleased to read this sentence: "The book, if you would see anything in it, requires to be read in the clear, brown, twilight atmosphere in which it was written; if opened in the sunshine, it is apt to look exceedingly like a volume of blank pages."  Hawthorne well knew what he had created: a series of sketches - for more than a few of the stories are snapshot short, miniscule in their scope...that depend somewhat on the mood and suggestibility of the reader; fabular inventions calculated to stimulate that part of the mind that thrives on, even craves mystery and wonder and terror (xiv)".  It's for these reasons that I thought it worth while to take a look at the writings of Nate Hawthorne.  He's one of those Big Names whose reputation is a combination of critical darling and mainstream obscurity.  He's a great writer who everybody hates, except for the rest of us who don't know why, or even who this guy is.

For the longest time, he was just a some byline on a handful of books that I've known more through reputation rather than any legit first-hand knowledge.  Strange as it may sound, I've never really read a single thing by Hawthorne until just recently.  I guess that makes me something of an anomaly.  I've managed to escape the curse that makes writers like him the scourge and bane of all high school and college student's existence.  I never learned a thing about this guy in either of the two main academic settings where his name is most likely to crop up.  The result is this kind of weird, blue moon style situation.  I'm allowed a privilege that I think few of Hawthorne's readers are given.  I'm in a situation where I have no other choice except to go into this guy's work with a more or less blank slate frame of mind.  I can just pick up any of his works that I might like, and then reach my own conclusions on what kind of stories the writer from Salem might be telling, and what he's trying to say in and with them.  With all this in mind, I thought I'd start out small.  I knew the first Hawthorne story I tackled on this blog would have to be both graspable and yet representative of the type of story he specialized in.  It had to be a simple narrative that also stood for the overall outlook and effect of all of his fiction, in other words.  I may have found the right specimen in the course of the curious story of "David Swan". 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

The Lost King (2022).

It opens with a familiar line of text.  "Based on a true story".  Right away, you know it's going to be one of those films.  The history of cinema doesn't want for lack of any biographical pictures.  It's a veritable cottage industry unto itself.  It's a select sub-genre whose origins seem to reach as far back as the beginning of the medium itself.  The first major (if not initial) biopic was Carl Theodore Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, way back in 1928.  It was a silent film, which means its an acquired taste these days.  It also went on to become one of cinema's first great blockbusters, a low-key version of Cecil B. DeMille before he was even a name.  Dreyer's film was also a first in another way.  It is just possible that this film marks the beginning of the long, infamous tradition of the clash between filmmakers and scholars over the accuracy of historical persons and events in an artistic medium.  There might be one or two elements of the subject the Dreyer film got wrong, for instance.  More than a few viewers were happy to point this out, and things have carried on in such a vein ever since.  Which means the same issue of being "True to Life" is bound to plague Stephen Frears' production of The Lost King.  It's story does center on a Maid, of sorts, but not of Orleans.  After being given proper warning from the "True Story" tag, we're given an extra bit of information from the opening credits.

The film, we're told, is not just based on a true story.  It's also "Her Story".  So long as we're playing the game of Art vs History, it might help to point out that even this initial statement counts as an example of "true so far as it goes".  Or rather "true" for a given amount of true.  In the strictest sense, what we're dealing with here is the story of a Maiden and a King, and the way the two somehow found each other.  That is still not quite the whole truth, however.  For you see, there is a third player in the make-believe dramatization of history that's about to unfold.  He's always hanging about in the wings of the film's narrative, always waiting, perhaps, for his own say on things.  He even gets name dropped more than once or twice, here and there.  However, in order to get the full picture, we have to take things in their proper order.  That means knowing when to start at the proper beginning of the whole affair.