Thursday, December 19, 2013

Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout -- Many Thoughts

A good way to begin this would be to give you the chance to read the NY Times' review of Olive Kitteridge back in April of 2008, before the Pulitzer, because this blogpost will not be a review, but a review will help as background.

A couple of years ago I became familiar with Olive Kitteridge because I understood it was a novel in stories, a form I was working in with my set of stories tentatively titled Forty Martyrs Suite, as in a "suite" of stories.  I was very interested in how Elizabeth Strout might pull this form off, because I found that I had painted myself into a corner with my effort. I felt compelled to write a capstone story that "pulled it all together."  I was all worried about keeping the set not random-seeming--in other words making a novel of a set of short stories but keeping each part of the novel a stand-alone story.  This matter didn't concern the author of Olive Kitteridge at all.  Her character Olive pulled it all together by her very existence. In the review from the Times, Louise Thomas says that Olive was a big woman and large personality and seems to operate on the book like a planet, influencing all the stories with a gravitational pull to the center.

In my recent reading of the book, I took a careful look at the last story, "River," which joins Olive (spoiler alert) after the passing of her husband Henry.  She frequently thinks to herself that at 74, she doesn't mind dying so long as it is quick.  After a stroke, Henry lingered a number of years in a rest home, incapable of communication or of even letting Olive know he was consciously present.  She didn't want that for herself, for sure.  In the story's opening, she nearly runs over Jack Kennison while backing up, and this sends her into her usual judgmental spiral, calling him an idiot (to herself).  People would say of Kennison that he was always happy to let the world know he was well-off and went to Harvard, and Olive couldn't understand why he and his wife would ever have bothered to settle in a house they built that wasn't even on the water.  "Idiots!"

The story in other words gives us, at its opening, the usual Olive, full of opinions about people and almost never generous ones.  Circumstances however unfold that place Olive with Jack, the most unlikely of persons for her to be with, and all things being equal, she observes, he probably wouldn't have picked her either.  And somehow her recent loneliness helps her understand how she cuts people off, occasionally hurts them, and drives them away (as she'd been doing with her grown-up son ever since he married the wrong woman and moved away), but Jack would not be driven away even by her insults, which he was capable of answering back with equal pointedness, something Olive was not accustomed to and which settled her down. So after this booklength tour of normal human interaction in Crosby, Maine, the story ends up with Olive and Jack together, teaching each other a few things they've been needing to know for most of their lives. It is apparent in "River" that Henry wasn't right for Olive, unable to stand up to her and get her to realize and summon her best self. But Jack, depressed about the loss of his own wife, and worried about being alone to the end (because after the way he treated her, his gay daughter wasn't likely to come back to him), reached out to Olive and touched something in her that hadn't been touched before, yes even at that late stage.

This story, "River," is most likely why Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer, but we have to read the whole book for the last story to work as it does, for us to see the effect Jack has on Olive, who is, to say the least, a hard case. The story works mysteriously.  Not a capstone. Not a culmination. Not a resolution.  Rather, a gorgeous display of Elizabeth Strout's uncommon command of how human beings are.

I wish I could say this story solves my problem in Forty Martyrs; rather it gives indication that I have more work to do so that my last story in this novel-in-stories provides a revelation that makes the journey worth it without presuming to solve anything. It could be I have a couple more stories to write before I arrive at a clear view of the close.  Anyway.  I am convinced that this form, in fiction, is one of the most satisfying to read.  If you haven't, read Olive Kitteridge, and then get back to me here in "comments" so we can talk about it.  :-)

Sunday, June 30, 2013


Pilar, Hemingway's fishing boat, built for him in the 1930's, in this picture is completely reconditioned and displayed on what used to be the tennis courts at Hem's house in Cuba, Finca Vigia.  Pilar now belongs to the Cuban government, along with the old estate which up until fairly recently (not sure when actually) had been sitting there undisturbed since Hemingway got outta Dodge in 1960 with the revolution overtaking the island.  I don’t think Hem knew he might never see the place or the boat again.  Paul Hendrickson wrote a book, Hemingway's Boat:  Everything He Loved in Life, And Lost covering the Pilar years, 1934-1961. (Skidmore turned me onto it a few months ago and I have it on Kindle now and am much enjoying it.)  I have read the Hotchner and Baker bios of Hemingway, and probably, sorry to say, am more drawn to the biography than I am to Papa's original work.  With each biography I read, a new dimension of Hemingway opens up.  I think probably to some extent, short of 100%, each of the bios is true (and we benefit from the varying angles the writers take), but Hendrickson's book is different and quite compelling.  For one thing, it is by no means told chronologically.  For another, Hendrickson went out and found some of the surviving relatives and the old friends from the Pilar phase.  Because it's ostensibly about the years Hemingway had Pilar, there is a lot of fishing in it, and many runs from Key West to Cuba and Cuba to Bimini, a lot of competitions, boxing, trying to catch the biggest blue marlin, and literary stuff by the bushel (Hemingway and Fitzgerald had the same editor at Scribner's, the fabulous Max Perkins).  Perkins, thus, was the meat in the sandwich between these two modernist literary giants who also were jealous back-stabbing drunken jet-setters, one with killer instinct, one not.  Guess which is which.  

Hem aboard Pilar, age 50

Pilar was a beauty, Hemingway's own little clubhouse for action, fun, flirtation, and taking pot-shots at Nazi submarines. He actually owned a tommy gun.  One of the most interesting comments Hendrickson makes is about Hemingway's rapid deterioration.  He was just shy of  sixty-one when, clad in a red robe, he shot himself with both barrels in the foyer of his Ketchum, Idaho home.  His wife, fourth, Mary, had taken steps to prevent this, but not very energetic ones considering Papa was determined and perhaps genetically pre-determined.  The guns and the ammo were separated, the key to the gun cabinet in the basement not very well hidden.  

It was 1954 when Hemingway was in Africa and he and his wife (Mary) were involved in two separate plane crashes inside of a week (  Hemingway was terribly burned in the second one.  Hands, legs.  And burns like that affect the entire system.  He already had skin cancer, covered with his famous beard, probably because of all the rays he captured while navigating the Gulf Stream over 25 years.  He drank to excess (putting it mildly), Hendrickson offers, because he was uncertain, tormented, and packed inside himself a lifetime ton of Catholic guilt (see the Gertrude Stein quote at the bottom of this blog).  He was self-medicating, Hendrickson theorizes, but whatever --  all those malfunctions separately let alone combined aren't good for the brain.  I was saying above that Hendrickson quoted several friends of Hem who said he didn't seem to have a middle-age, how he was rather robust at 45 and in his fifties was an old man.  The picture of him above was taken at 50, before the plane crashes.

For about seven years, Hemingway lived in a corner suite of the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana.  This was his transition period between Key West (and his second wife Pauline) and Finca Vigia (Cuba) (and his third wife Martha Gellhorn).  He was drinking plenty, and, so he said in letters to his editor, Perkins, he was writing in the morning and fishing in the afternoon.  But we must remember my favorite observation from the Baker biography, that after 1930 and The Sun Also Rises, and certainly after the great A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway was more famous in America than Babe Ruth. Check it out:  He was a writer (!), more famous than the Babe.  After he got his boat in 1934, celebrities, politicians, movie stars, rich people of all stripes and genders, converged on him to deep sea fish, party, and cavort.  Writers are of two minds -- they need more privacy than most and get cranky if they don’t get it, but in reaction to that they can be party animals when they get away from the worktable, and in Hem's case, centrifugal force pulled him to his boat and the life of a jet-setter and gifted self-promoter. Well, so, the Hotel Ambos Mundos was a sort of writerly hideout where he got work done – probably more work done than he was accomplishing in the second floor study above the garage in Key West..  Mornings mostly.  In the afternoons he might be hosting someone on Pilar.  In the evenings and very late at night, often by himself, he cavorted in the seedy back streets of Havana.  Hendrickson confesses that he's not sure when the transition from Pauline and his three sons to the beautiful Martha Gellhorn actually began.  "Ambos Mundos" means "between two worlds."

Hemingway in the last year or so, only 59 or 60 years old.

He was born in Oak Park, IL, suburban Chicago, the son of a doctor.  I thought I read in the Hendrickson book that Ernest was raised Catholic, but I couldn't find it when I looked back. Thanks to Rollins College Hemingway scholar Gail Sinclair, I corresponded with Hendrickson and asked about that.  He clarified that Hemingway was not raised Catholic but marginally converted in the post-war period and then became only a bit more of a practiciing Catholic when he was married to Pauline and living in Key West.  Overall, Hendrickson told me, Hemingway never was particularly religious. This is a revision from my original blog in this space, based on Hendrickson's and Sinclair's input.  His father, worried about possible amputations because of the onset of diabetes (well, who knows what all he was worried about -- he did leave a letter but I never believe those) shot himself with a pistol in the master bedroom of the Oak Park house in 1928.  Five  Hemingways over three generations (email from Gail Sinclair) killed themselves, beginning with Hem's father and ending with his granddaughter Margaux. Few of those suicides were as natural as Ernest's, because for him life was lived large as a blood sport. At least 8 severe concussions in his life, including being blown up in WWI at the age of 19 or so, car wrecks, skylights falling on him, two plane crashes in a week, oh and don't forget the guy loved to box. And then there were the shock treatments.  Aboard Pilar trying to shoot a shark; he once shot himself in both legs with a pistol. 

While I believe his deterioration happened because of celebrity, self-medication, concussions, burns, shock treatments, and probably some genetic inevitability (many signs his father was bipolar [using a contemporary term]), and began perhaps as late as 1950 (though Hemingway's book A Moveable Feast, some of his finest bitchy writing, appeared after his death, a good part of it was written in the 1940s; in the late 1950s part of his depression had to do with his mournful realization that he couldn't write anymore). Gertrude Stein, such a friend and admirer of his, ruthlessly turned on him as a disappointment much earlier than 1950 and made an enemy for life.  She said he abandoned his best literary self around 1925.  This is she, taken from Hendrickson's book:

When I first met Hemingway he had a truly sensitive capacity for emotion, and that was the stuff of the first stories; but he was shy of himself and he began to develop, as a shield, a big Kansas City-boy brutality about it, and so he was “tough” because he was really sensitive and ashamed that he was. Then it happened. I saw it happening and tried to save what was fine there, but it was too late. He went the way so many other Americans have gone before, the way they are still going. He became obsessed by sex and violent death.*

*Hendrickson, Paul (2011-09-20). Hemingway's Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-1961 (p. 277). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

I strongly recommend Paul Hendrickson's book about Hemingway and Pilar if you have an interest in the man himself. As a writer (though I'm not Hemingway of course), an Illinois boy, doctor’s son, and a failed Catholic myself, I was pulled through it like a man obsessed.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013



HIM:  Damn everything but the circus!  (To himself) And here am I, patiently squeezing fourdimensional ideas into a twodimensional stage, when all of me that's anyone or anything is in the top of a circustent... (A pause)
ME:  I didn't imagine you were leading a double life -- and right under my nose, too.
HIM (Unhearing, proceeds contemptuously):  The average "painter" "sculptor" "poet" "composer" "playwright" is a person who cannot leap through a hoop from the back of a galloping horse, make people laugh with clown's mouth, orchestrate twenty lions.
ME:  Indeed.
HIM  (To her):  But imagine a human being who balances three chairs, one on top of another, on a wire, eighty feet in the air with no net underneath, and then climbs into the top chair, sits down, and begins to swing...
ME (Shudders):  I'm glad I never saw that -- makes me dizzy just to think of it.
HIM (Quietly):  I never saw that either.
ME:  Because nobody can do it.
HIM:  Because I am that.  But in another way, it's all I ever see.
ME:  What is?
HIM (Pacing up and down):  This:  I feel only one thing, I have only one conviction; it sits on three chairs in Heaven.  Sometimes I look at it, with terror; it is such a perfect acrobat!  The three chairs are three facts -- it will quickly kick them out from under itself and will stand on air; and in that moment (because everyone will be disappointed) everyone will applaud.  Meanwhile, some thousands of miles over everyone's head, over a billion empty faces, it rocks carefully and smilingly on three things, on three facts, on:  I am an Artist, I am a Man, I am a Failure -- it rocks and it swings and it smiles and it does not collapse tumble or die because it pays no attention to anything except itself.  (Passionately) I feel, I am aware -- every minute, every instant, I watch this trick, I am this trick, I sway -- selfish and smiling and careful -- above all the people.  (To himself) And always I am repeating a simple and dark little formula...  always myself mutters and remutters a trivial colourless microscopic idiom -- I breathe, and I swing; and I whisper:  "An artist, a man, a failure, MUST PROCEED."
ME:  (Timidly, after a short pause):  This thing or person who is you, who does not pay any attention to anyone else, it will stand on air?
HIM:  On air.  Above the faces, lives, screams -- suddenly.  Easily:  alone.
ME:  How about the chairs?
HIM:  The chairs will all fall by themselves down from the wire and be caught by anybody, by nobody; by somebody whom I don't see and who doesn't see me:  perhaps by everybody.
ME:  Maybe yourself -- you, away up ever so high -- will hear me applaud?
HIM (Looking straight at her, smiles seriously):  I shall see your eyes.  I shall hear your heart move.
ME:  Because I shall not be disappointed, like the others.

                                                                                                      --  from "i  six nonlectures"
                                                                                                                         e e cummings