Photo by Brooke Estis Bleyl

Friday, October 9, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 162

The Shelleys ascended Vesuvius on December 16, 1818. Mary didn’t write much about it in her journal. Go up Vesuvius and see the rivers of Lava gush from its sides, she wrote—we are very much fatigued—& S is very ill – return at 10 o’clock—[1]
But a day or two later, Bysshe left a more detailed account in a very long letter to his friend Thomas Love Peacock. The Vesuvius portion consumes nearly two full pages. In it, we learn that he thought it was the most impressive expression of the energies of nature I ever saw—second only, he said, to the glaciers near Chamonix, France—the Mer de Glace that had occasioned that key scene in Frankenstein.
He and Mary rode mules to the Vesuvian summit, but Claire Clairmont (yes, she was still with them) was carried in a chair on the shoulders of four men, much like a member of parliament after he has gained his election ….
He describes the trail, the views, and the thick heavy white smoke emerging from the crater. He waxes eloquent about the lava and heat. [T]here are several springs of lava, he wrote, & in one place it gushes precipitously over a high crag, rolling down the half melted rocks & its own burning waves; a cataract of quivering fire.
They stayed on the summit a while, enjoying the sunset. We descended by torch light, he tells us.
On the way down he somehow became ill (a state of intense bodily suffering) and had some unkind words for their guides—complete Savages, he writes. You have no idea of the horrible cries which they suddenly utter, no one knows why, the clamour the vociferation & the tumult.
And Claire apparently annoyed her carriers, for they threatened to leave her in the middle of the road …. Only a threat of a beating changed their attitude.
But then—unexpectedly—these “savages” began to sing some fragment of their wild & … sweet national music, the effect is exceedingly fine—[2]
And the Romantic poet finds Romance in the “savages” of Vesuvius.

I had read the Shelleys’ and Dickens’ accounts of their ascents before I made my own, and it probably would have helped if I had read some more current accounts of the trail to the summit of the mountain that killed Pompeii. But I didn’t. And so I was a bit nervous about my hike. Could I do it? And—more ludicrously—would the mountain erupt while I was up there?

[1] The Journals of Mary Shelley, 244.
[2] The Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, vol. 2, 487–88.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Net Dreams

It was probably due to a conversation I'd had earlier yesterday in the men's locker room out at the health club. As I was dressing to head out to the Suffering Area (exercise room), I was talking with a guy at a nearby locker--a guy I see a lot; we talk; we don't know each other's name; that's another story. He's a runner and likes to hit the trails outside. I told him I used to run a lot (4-6 miles/day), but now ... knee, ankles, dotage (I did not mention that one).

So ... later ... asleep last night, I have a tennis dream.

I've written here before about my tennis life (such as it was): began to play in boyhood, played on the Hiram College tennis team (1963-66; we sucked, so I fit right in), worked as a tennis instructor at a couple of boys' camps in the Adirondacks (near Lake George), coached for a couple of years at Western Reserve Academy (around 1980), joined the Western Reserve Racquet Club in Aurora, where I played Early Bird for many years before knee--shoulder--ankles--etc. told me It's Time to Quit.

Hiram College tennis team, 1966
(I'm 3rd from the right, front row)

Oh, and in 1969? My first date with Joyce Coyne was in mid-July, playing tennis down in Firestone Park, near her home. I fooled her. She married me.

I haven't touched a racket in years--don't even own one now.

So ... last night's dream ...

I am on some courts I don't recognize playing a person I knew in the dream but cannot remember now. I have not played in a while. For some reason I'm using a plastic racket--a kid's toy of some kind--plastic strings, etc. I quickly break two of them. Then make a move to get my old Dunlop (wooden frame) that I used Back in the Day.

Dunlop-armed, I return to the court, which has somehow shrunk to Lilliputian size (well, not quite that small) and try to tell my opponent that it's pointless to play. He wonders why.

I wake up.

Okay, Freudians, have your fun ...

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 161

Ascending Vesuvius was often on the itinerary of people visiting Naples—and still is. There are myriads of published accounts of it (and I will write about the Shelleys’ experience—and mine—in a bit), but one of my favorite appears in Charles Dickens’ memoir Pictures from Italy, 1846, the story of his year-long sojourn and travels with his family in that country (1844–45).

Dickens' travels in Italy

He has quite a lengthy description of his ascent of (and adventures on) Vesuvius near the end of Pictures—and you can find the whole thing with an easy Google search (link)—but I want to include here two of his wonderful paragraphs about getting near the edge—and peering over—at a time when the mountain was spitting fire.
There is something in the fire and roar, that generates an irresistible desire to get nearer to it. We cannot rest long, without starting off, two of us, on our hands and knees, accompanied by the head-guide, to climb to the brim of the flaming crater, and try to look in. Meanwhile, the thirty yell, as with one voice, that it is a dangerous proceeding, and call to us to come back; frightening the rest of the party out of their wits.
What with their noise, and what with the trembling of the thin crust of ground, that seems about to open underneath our feet and plunge us in the burning gulf below (which is the real danger, if there be any); and what with the flashing of the fire in our faces, and the shower of red-hot ashes that is raining down, and the choking smoke and sulphur; we may well feel giddy and irrational, like drunken men. But, we contrive to climb up to the brim, and look down, for a moment, into the Hell of boiling fire below. Then, we all three come rolling down; blackened, and singed, and scorched, and hot, and giddy: and each with his dress alight in half-a-dozen places.[1]
I’ve alluded in other writing to this moment—the moment that writers cannot resist: peering over the edges which others fear to approach, feeling an irresistible desire while doing so, then returning, scorched, and hot, and giddy, ready to write the truths that they have witnessed. And survived.
The Shelleys’ experience was a bit less … fiery, and mine was … well … read on.

[1] The Oxford Illustrated Dickens, vol. 19 (New York: Oxford UP, 1987), 421.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

One of those mornings ...

I'm having one of them. One of those mornings that make me feel as if my life is nothing but a drawer of cluttered kitchen utensils, most of which I haven't used in a decade. Their only function seems to be this--to slice my fingers when I'm trying to find some spatula or bottle-opener that I do want.

On the scale of Human Tragedy, my morning has been inconsequential. Things that annoy and depress rather than alter anyone's world.

Earlier, for example, before I walked over to the coffee shop, I took a look at my checking account online and saw that--somehow--there were three payments to Kohl's in the last couple of days: 2 were for $175 (which is the amount I'd intended to pay--but just once), 1 for $210 (which was my total balance). WTF?

I also saw that the automatic payment for my subscription of the New York Times was twice as much as I'd expected? WTF?

So I did the best thing I could think of: I ignored all of this for a while, went over to the coffee shop, read the New York Times on my kindle (shared on FB a story about some contemporary novelists who will be writing versions of all of Shakespeare's plays), read the first twenty-five pages of a book that's already depressing me (The Teacher Wars: A History of America's Most Embattled Profession, 2014, by Dana Goldstein), and twenty-five more pages of Joy Williams' fine new short story collection (The Visiting Privilege). Then I walked home, knowing there was Kohl's to deal with. And the Times.

I went upstairs to see Joyce, at work on her computer, to say hi (she goes to the health club before I deign to open my eyes in the morning) and to brag that I'm now able to wear jeans with a 33-in waist again (I'd been up to 34--probably beyond). I saw she was frustrated with her Quicken program. I tried to help (I usually can), but this time ... failure. (An experience that does not brighten my day.)

Then I got on the phone with a representative of Kohl's, who told me they couldn't cancel the payments I'd made (so sorry!); all they can do is send me a check ("in a few weeks") that will refund the amount that exceeds the total balance due (I'll get $282 "in a few weeks"). That sucks. I'd not intended to pay the full balance this month, so I had to go take a dip in my (unimpressive) savings account to make sure I don't start getting overdraft notices.

Joyce is still on the phone with the bank. It's been about an hour.

Then there's all the clutter in my study. I'm sick of looking at it--but too weak of character to do much of anything about it. Too many things require decisions, and I'm not too good in the decision-making arena these days. Still, pieces of clutter speak to me in voices dripping with disapprobation and disdain: What are you going to do about me? Why haven't you looked at me in months? Why are you such a loser?

Some pieces try more emotional appeals--You used to want me ... You used to love me ...

What I need to do in here--in my study--would take hours. I think I'll just forget about it.

Maybe take a nap.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Frankenstein Sundae, 160

The Shelleys did not spend a long time in Naples. They arrived on December 1, 1818, left at the end of February 1819—three months. But their sojourn there was active—and, in one case, mysterious. They did lots of sight-seeing, reading, writing—their usual forms of recreation. And on December 16, they ascended Vesuvius.
I arrived in Naples aboard a Eurostar train, reading the novel Glenarvon as I went (well, and when I wasn’t staring out the window at the rushing countryside that displayed natural beauty, enormous wealth, abysmal poverty). Glenarvon, 1816, by Lady Caroline Lamb, one of Lord Byron’s former lovers, tells a fictional version of their relationship. In our day, abandoned lovers hop on Facebook and/or Twitter and fire away—or, if they’re involved with celebrities, they talk to gossip magazines or TV shows. Or maybe file charges.
She has some harsh words for the Byron figure (Glenarvon himself): That in which Glenarvon most prided himself—that in which he most excelled, was the art of dissembling. And lots of bitter regret: They know not the force of passion, who have not felt it—they know not the agony of guilt, who have not plunged into its burning gulf, and trembled there.[1]
The very copy I read.
Byron himself read the novel, and on February 7, 1820, wrote to a later mistress: Your little head is heated now by that damned novel—the author of which has been—in every country and at all times—my evil Genius.[2] By “Genius,” of course, he means “spirit,” the dark one that opposes the bright one, who, presumably, was his new lover, Teresa Guiccioli.
After my arrival on April 26, 1999, I ran around making arrangements—a hotel room, a ticket for an all-night train (in a couple of days) that would take me to Munich, directions to the start of the trail up Vesuvius. I also went to the address where the Shelleys had lived those months, but there’s a new building there now—no historical marker.
I was also feeling stupid. I knew—as I’ve written—very little Italian (I emphasize very), and the railway ticket clerk employed the universal strategy for dealing with someone who doesn’t know the local language: speak louder and louder and louder. All, of course, to no effect. But I went to bed that night with plans to “do” the volcano the next morning. After all, only a few years before, chasing Jack London’s life, I’d climbed the Chilkoot Pass from Alaska into the Yukon … so how hard could this be?

Below: Some of my photos from Naples, April 1999.

Address where Shelleys lived--obviously,
this is a newer structure.

[1] (London: Everyman, 1995), 143, 253.
[2] Translated from the original Italian in Between Two Worlds, vol 7. Of Byron’s Letters and Journals, ed. Leslie Marchand (London: John Murray, 1977), 37.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Sunday Sundries, 69

1. AOTW: Whoever came up with the idea that we'd like to see an advertisement on the LCD at the self-serve gas pump before we can start pumping. (I have figured out a workaround!)

2. It was the 120th anniversary of  the first publication of The Red Badge of Courage recently--a book (as I recall from my mom's teaching career) that used to be standard teaching fare. The explosion of YA novels in recent years has pretty much replaced the (short) novels that used to adorn the secondary-school English curriculum--from Red Badge to The Call of the Wild to Ethan Frome to Silas Marner to ...  (Frome, as you can see, recently appeared on my book-nerd calendar.)

Back in the summer of 2004 we English III (juniors) teachers at WRA assigned the Library of America edition of the works of Stephen Crane (1871-1900) for the "summer reading" that year. Although I'd read a lot of Crane (thank you, Dr. Ravitz at Hiram College!), I'd not read it all, so I spent the summer both reading all of his work and visiting some key sites in his life, including the towns of Port Jervis, NY, where he grew up (and where they have a Crane Walking Tour) and Asbury Park, NJ (which has a Crane home/museum); Joyce and I also went to Newark, NJ, to Evergreen Cemetery, site of his grave.

I'll do a longer post on Crane one day, including some of the photographs we have of various sites.

Oh, and I loved it that he played on the baseball team at Syracuse University! You can see SC right in the center (1890), his chin resting on his right fist.

3. Last night, Joyce and I saw Pawn Sacrifice, the film about the 1972 chess battle between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky in Iceland (trailer for film). I remember so many of the things the film portrayed (I was 28 years old at the time--a new father!), and I loved how they showed clips from old newscasts and talk shows (they even digitally replaced the actual Fischer with Tobey-Maguire Fischer in some moments from the Dick Cavett Show (link to that 1971 interview on YouTube)).

Maguire was pretty good as Fischer (but better as Peter Parker), and we especially admired the performance of Peter Sarsgaard, playing a priest here (a Fischer intimate and supporter), an actor often consigned to psycho roles.

The women in the film were most entirely pawns (!), but so it was in Fischer's world.

I read a book not long about about his sad disintegration into his madness and political-outcast state. He embraced nasty ideas about Jews (he was born into a Jewish family) and other sorts of conspiracy-theory wackiness.

The producers/director had to deal with chess, of course, and they kept it simple, for most of us don't know much about it except for the very simple legal moves of each piece. I played some as a kid but generally lost to everyone except those to whom I taught the moves--and soon they where whipping my behind, too. Haven't played in years.

4. A word-of-the-day this week from was melee, and it reminded me that for a long time I mispronounced that word. In fact, when I married Joyce (and started writing bad poems to her), I wrote a sonnet, "The Freeway Cow," about, well, a cow we saw on I-80 on one of our visits to Des Moines, Iowa, to see my parents in the 1970s.

The final couplet indicates my ignorance of the pronunciation:

A freeway cow can start a steel melee:
Believe in brakes, and that shall make you free.

So it goes ...

5. Finally, this week I finished reading Salman Rushdie's new novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, a novel that, by the way, got a bit of a condescending review in the New York Times Book Review today (link to review). I liked it a lot better than did the reviewer at the Times.

It is a fantastic novel (in the sense of odd and remarkable; bizarre; grotesque), dealing with a near-future war caused by the opening of "slits between the worlds"--the upper world of the jinn (frisky, sometime evil, things that enjoy sex) and the lower (our) world. The narrator, by the way, lives 1000 years from now.

The story often satirizes the way we live our lives (he is especially harsh on religion--so be advised), and it is chockablock with allusions to both high and low culture (from The Tempest and Frankenstein to Mickey Mouse and Gandalf) and shows Rushdie's silliness, too (there's a character named Mac Aroni).

But, finally, it's a novel about love, about courage, about belief, about sacrifice. And although I could quibble about a few things here and there, I looked forward each time to resuming the reading. Like every other fine writer, Rushdie can make you laugh, cry, groan, think--on virtually every page.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Teardrops and South Pacific

Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brazzi
snuggle in the 1958 film

Okay, so I cried when it happened.

Yesterday, when we were preparing supper with our usual banter, the song "Younger Than Springtime" popped into my head (why? can't say)--and then "Some Enchanted Evening." I sang bits of both of them to Joyce (sounding very much like Ezio Pinza, by the way), and when I got to "Some Enchanted Evening," and those lines about "Once you have found her, never let her go," I grabbed Joyce and the tears flowed like (supply your own cliche) and my voice, ruined by emotion, no longer sounded like Pinza. More like pizza, if it could sing. Bad pizza.

We need some history for this.

When I was a kid, we had in our home the old 78 rpm records of the Broadway cast--Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza as, respectively (do I really need to add that? probably not), Nellie Forbush and Emile De Becque. I listened to it a few hundred times. A day. Later, we acquired the 33 rpm record, and I listened to it a few hundred times. A day. (Don't even think I'm exaggerating.)

the album of 78 rpm records
All of this was exacerbated in 1958 when the Brazzi-Gaynor film came out (link to trailer for the film). When I first saw it, I was staying with my uncle Ronald and aunt Naomi in Indianapolis for a week that summer. I would turn 14 later that fall, and let's just say--for the sake of decorum--that testosterone had declared itself the High King of my body (and mind--let's be honest).

At the movie, I could not stop staring at Mitzi Gaynor (look at the photo above and see if you can figure out why). My mind was aswirl with visions of Mitzi and me--and of our (erotic) future together on some remote (South Pacific) island.

So ... when I got home, I began listening to the record of South Pacific even more than had been my wont. (Why didn't I watch it? Well, for those of you who are chronologically challenged--i.e., born in the era of easy video recording--in 1958, no one had video recorders. You had to wait for the thing to show up on TV.)

Because of my continuous listening (and, no, not continual, which suggests periodic breaks), my family members were beginning to become somewhat ... impatient. Annoyed. And this would lead to a rather dramatic moment of Adolescent Frenzy (mine).

To be continued.