When you can’t stop turning the pages of a poem, it’s not a poem; it’s a novel. Homer’s Odyssey is a novel. Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso is a novel.
You don’t need stage directions to be a play. Frost’s “Home Burial” is a play. Chekhov’s “Mire” is a play.
Novels in which language is more important than plot are poems. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves is a poem. Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge is a poem.
For every literary work about killing yourself, there’s a film about being saved from suicide: For every Crime and Punishment, there’s Docks of New York by Josef von Sternberg. For every Madame Bovary, there’s City Lights by Charles Chaplin. For every Jude the Obscure, there’s Boudu Saved from Drowning by Jean Renoir. For every Death of a Salesman by, there’s It’s a Wonderful Life by Frank Capra. For every The Sound and the Fury, there’s Bringing out the Dead by Martin Scorsese.
King Lear seems more film than play.
Riddles are fundamental to great works of art—Oedipus Rex, Macbeth, Jane Eyre, The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, Citizen Kane.
All fiction is detective fiction. Someone finding out the solution to a crime, the answer to a puzzle, the riddle of identity.
The problem with detective fiction is that its solutions never resonate. Nothing lingers after a puzzle is solved.
The Shawshank Redemption is a transfigured version of The Count of Monte Cristo. Red Redding is the Abbe Faria. Andy Dufresne is Edmond Dantes.
The Hand That Rocks the Cradle reimagines Othello. Brazil transmutes 1984. A remake is a failure of the imagination.
As Good As It Gets: a version of Of Human Bondage with the clubfoot emotional instead of physical.
Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop is a version of Shakespeare’s King Lear with the grandfather as Lear, Nell as Cordelia, Kit Nubbles as Kent, Chuckster as Oswald, Miss Monflathers as Regan, echoes of Edmund in Fred Trent and Quilp, and the Fool reincarnated in Dick Swiveller.
Salinger rewrites Shakespeare, not Twain. Holden is more Hamlet than Huck: the mad prince at Pency Prep, hating phonies and suppressing incest wishes.
Haven Kimmel’s version of The Confessions of St. Augustine is titled A Girl Named Zippy. See the vision of Jesus in the tree.
The Flintstones rewrites The Honeymooners. Fred Flintstone = Ralph Cramden. Barney Rubble = Ed Norton. Wilma Flintstone = Alice Cramden. Betty Rubble = Tracy Norton.
Thoreau is Hamlet washed in Wordsworth.
We do the things we want to do and don’t do the things we don’t want to do. Hamlet doesn’t avenge his father’s death because he doesn’t want to. If he really wanted to, he would. When he kills Claudius, he’s not avenging his father’s death; he’s avenging Gertrude’s.
Most poets writing about their desire for God’s presence in their hearts would use the imagery of invitation. John Donne’s “Batter my heart three-person’d God” uses the imagery of invasion: battering ram, invasion force, usurped city, closed entry, captured protector, wrong marriage, imprisonment, attack. In Donne’s poem, God the invader storms the gates of the soul, breaks down the door of the fortified castle of the heart, steals away the former bride of sin, and, claiming her for his own, locks her in the prison of his infinite love and rapes her until she is chaste. Donne’s sonnet is less a holy sonnet than a barbarian one.
In Dickens and in Shakespeare, we find dignity where we don’t expect it: every minor character, howsoever comical, is treated with humanizing respect.
The problem with The Merchant of Venice is not Shylock but Gratiano. The problem with Our Mutual Friend is Fledgeby. A work may not want to be anti-Semitic, or racist, or misogynistic, but if it contains an anti-Semite, or a racist, or a misogynist, it gives voice to hatred, and, perforce, it is.
The eighteenth century was all middle shots, the nineteenth century was all long shots, the twentieth century is all close-ups.
Samuel Johnson, excessive rationalist, kept one cobwebby corner of his mind for irrational belief—ghosts, God, miracles, Hell.
Until the entry of Sam Weller, Pickwick Papers is an explicit parody of episodes in Boswell’s Life of Johnson, complete with Mrs. Thrale (Mrs. Leo Hunter).
Of all the cerebral critics, Coleridge was, by far, the most obtuse.
From The Castle of Otranto to The Castle of Kafka, there is none like The Castle of Perseverance.
The Georgie Porgie nursery rhyme: a rape parable.
Wordsworth is always about loss and nostalgia for recovery.
Katherine Mansfield: Chekhov on quaaludes.
There is one thematic word in the first line of every story of Dubliners. In “Araby” the word is “blind.” In “Eveline” the word is “invade.”
The Awakening begins with birds and ends with bees.
The failure of Hart Crane wasn’t a failure of imagination, inventiveness, or verve; it was a failure of ear.
Stevens was the last credible rhetorical poet.
Joyce constructs his characters. Shakespeare inhabits his.
John Ashberry is a descendant of Edward Lear by way of Quintilian.
Harmonium: metaphysical DADA.
Laurel and Hardy + WWII = Waiting for Godot.
Surrealism: an irrational precision. In Surrealism, the egg of the unconscious was laid intact. In Dadaism, it dropped from the ledge of the ludicrous and went Splat. Modernism is its omelet, postmodernism its shell.
The hardness in James M. Cain is made of softness.
Every good novel is a psychomachia in which every character is a Blakean emanation.
Seymour Krim: spiritual father of Hunter S. Thompson.
Robbe-Grillet successfully used all the angles of cinema to help him write his books, but, alas, he did not think to use the hooks of books to help him make his movies.
The vision of The Iliad Book XXIII: the sporting arena can replace the battlefield, athletic competition will sublimate the martial urge.
Val Lewton’s Isle of the Dead: Bocklin meets Ibsen, predicts Bergman.
The father of Darth Vader is Red Lynch in Blake Edwards’ Experiment in Terror.
Experimental works are experimental in the same way conventional novels are conventional—continuously, monotonously, relentlessly.
The best meditation on the relationship between fiction and nonfiction is Max Havelaar: or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company by Multatuli.
What eternally recurs is our evolving attempts to make sense of what keeps recurring. This is the meaning of Kundera.
Adulation of crap: the graduate student disease.
Adulation of irony: the professor disease.
How much easier, simply because of length, it is to teach Jane Austen’s Emma than George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Emily or Charlotte Bronte than William Makepeace Thackeray, Hard Times rather than Bleak House, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man rather than Ulysses, Billy Budd, Foretopman rather than Moby Dick, Death in Venice rather than Doctor Faustus, The Metamorphosis rather than The Castle, Notes From Underground rather than The Brothers Karamazov, Chronicle of a Death Foretold rather than A Hundred Years of Solitude, Interviews with Hideous Men rather than Infinite Jest. Some great works are of an eminently teachable length—Heart of Darkness, The Awakening, The Great Gatsby, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Nausea, Miss Lonelyhearts, The Catcher in the Rye, Flaubert’s Parrot. Others are just too massive to consider—A Remembrance of Things Past, War and Peace, Don Quixote, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Thoreau’s Journals, The Brothers Ashkenasi, The Tin Drum, The Rosy Crucifixion, Journey to the End of Night, Life of Johnson. The sole, fundamental, and foolish criterion for a place in the teaching canon today is, sadly, length.
Eliot: I can connect nothing with nothing. Joyce: I can connect everything with everything.
Lear’s Fool speaks sensibly – that doesn’t turn him into the King.
If it bothers you that life is meaningless, read something Oulipo.
The best short story that’s not a short story: Case #129 in the twelfth edition of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis.
At the end of King Lear, Edgar says, “Look up, my lord.” It’s not a stage direction; it’s life advice.
There is no way to tell the figurative from the literal except by reference to corroborative visible activity. The sentence “the man was cleaning his plate” is indecipherable without reference to physical reality. If the man was at the kitchen sink with a dishrag and a dirty plate, the sentence would be understood to be literally true. If the man was eating, the sentence would be understood to be figurative. Even worse would be if “cleaning his plate” meant “storing things in memory,” for then there would be no available visible sign. That’s why William Byrd’s “I danced my dance” is not universally understood. Some see it literally as dance or exercise. Some see it as code or figuration for moving his bowels. Without having watched Byrd do his “dance,” there is no way from reading the phrase itself to know for certain what it means. Figurative language perceived as literal can only be understood as madness. “Take you me for a sponge, my lord?”
Maxwell Perkins was a carpenter; his descendants interior decorators; their descendants wall painters; the descendants’ descendants maids.
Nabokov put no strength into his verbs; like an adolescent pursuing a floozy, he went after the really cheap effects: alliteration, description through proliferation of adjectives, explanation via slack adverbs. Neither did he ever pursue assonance or consonance. His prey was linguistic riddles and structural tricks. That’s why no sentence he wrote is memorable. Except this pun, the advice Humbert gives married Dolores in Lolita: “Be true to your Dick.”
Fury. Greed. Happiness. Intolerance. Vertigo. Suspicion. Repulsion. Contempt. Ecstasy. Glory.
City Lights. Citizen Kane. White Heat. Mad Love. Random Harvest. Brute Force. Sunset Blvd. Rear Window. Funny Face. Raging Bull.
One Fine Day. Two for the Road. The Third Man. The Four Feathers. Five Easy Pieces. The Sixth Sense. The Seventh Seal. Eight Men Out. Nine to Five. Ten to Midnight. The Eleventh Hour. Twelve O’Clock High.
The Green Child. The Orange Man. The Yellow Wallpaper. The Blue Hotel. The Red Laugh. White Buildings. Black Boy. The Violet Bear It Away.
The best year for films? 1928. Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March. Browning’s West of Zanzibar. Reisner’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. Pudovkin’s Storm over Asia. Von Sternberg’s The Last Command. Sedgwick’s The Cameraman. Wellman’s Beggars of Life. Chaplin’s The Circus. Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora. Wilde’s Speedy. Brenon’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh. Man Ray’s L’étoile de mer. Dulac’s La coquille et le clergyman. Von Sternberg’s Docks of New York. Vidor’s The Crowd. Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Leni’s The Man Who Laughs. Sjostrom’s The Wind.
The trochaic name: Albert Einstein. Phillip Marlowe. Tony Curtis. Hedda Gabler. Walter Matthau. Grover Cleveland. Jimmy Stewart. Eddie Haskell. Woody Allen. Thomas Hardy. Jerry Seinfeld. Aaron Copland. Andy Rooney. William Shakespeare. Wally Cleaver. Samuel Johnson. Barney Rubble. Perry Mason. Robin Williams. Humphrey Bogart. Archie Andrews. Allen Ginsberg. Mary Richards. Phillip Morris. Tony Danza. Steven Spielberg. Ronald Reagan. Jackie Mason. Walter Winchell. Wilma Flintstone. Norman Mailer. Noah Beery. Percy Shelley. Robert Herrick. Oprah Winfrey. Michael Landon. Billy Crystal. Gary Snyder. Whoppie Goldberg. Eddie Bauer. Audrey Hepburn. Henry Miller. Liam Neeson. Marlee Matlin. Ian Fleming. Edward Hopper. Wallace Stevens. Lindsay Lohan. Barbie Benton. Jesse Jackson. Dagwood Bumstead. Michael Jordan. Wilson Pickett. Humphrey Clinker.
Zeugma: to bolt the door and one’s food; to buy a gun and the farm; to sink in water and in debt; to mortgage one’s house and one’s good name; to forge an alliance and a check; to turn on your wife and your friend; to cut the mustard, the cheese, the baloney, a class, a finger, and a rug.
A hack is not necessarily a bad writer, nor is a hack necessarily an untalented writer. But anyone who writes solely to make money is a hack.
I don’t know which is worse—someone destroying a writer’s work after his demise or a writer’s urge to self-destruction on his own deathbed: Thomas Moore’s destruction of Byron’s Memoirs or Samuel Johnson in old age setting a match to the manuscript story of his life.
Can anything be learned from reading the biography of visual, theatrical or literary artists? Yes: the artist and the bastard are one.
If the fool would persist in his folly he would become—famous.