“But our little son Siegfried caused us a lot of worry. Everything he picked up he threw down again, until one day, when he was crawling around the City of Amsterdam [hotel], he picked up a hammer. His old grandfather gave him a nail, just for fun, and the boy set the nail up and drove it into the floor with one blow. From then on, while other little boys were playing with rattles and teddy bears and running around, Siegfried would lie on the floor and throw a tantrum until he got his hammer and nails… He didn’t talk, he didn’t even recognize his mother or me, and as long as he was awake the City of Amsterdam would tremble with the blows from his hammer, and the floor was full of the nails he’d driven into it. I found our weekly visits unbearable, and each blow would drive me to distraction, because I could see right away that this child, this guest who was my own son, was a cretin and would always be a cretin. … But there was more to it than a little boy obsessed with pounding nails into the floor. Whenever the air-raid siren went off and everyone else rushed into the shelter, Siegfried got excited and glowed with pleasure. And while other kids were messing their pants out of fear, Siegfried would clap his little hands, laugh, and pound nail after nail into the board they’d brought into the cellar for him, and suddenly  he was beautiful, as though the convulsions he had suffered as a baby and the defect in his cerebral cortex had vanished. And I, who had served the Emperor of Ethiopia, was pleased that my son, though he was feeble-minded, could prophesy the future of all the German cities, because I knew that most of them would end up exactly like the floors of the City of Amsterdam hotel. I bought three kilos of nails, and in a single morning Siegfried drove them all into the kitchen floor. In the afternoon, as he was driving nails into the rooms upstairs, I would carefully pull the nails out of the kitchen floor, rejoicing secretly as the carpet bombing of Marshal Tedder drove bombs into the earth in exactly the same way, precisely according to plan, because my boy would drive nails in along straight lines and at right angles. Slavic blood had triumphed once again, and I was proud of the boy, because although he hadn’t spoken a word yet, he was already like Bivoj, a hammer in his strong right hand.”

p. 158-9, I Served the King of England, Bohumil Hrabal

“God bless us, every one!”

It’s one of my Christmas traditions to read Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve (somewhere between last minute present wrapping, panicking over the Christmas lunch, and rewatching the Muppet’s Christmas Carol), so I better go get started on that.

“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach!”

Merry Christmas internet-world.

 

“You’re a bad banana with a…greasy black peel!”

imageNo other time of year seems to lend itself better to redemption stories than Christmas; It’s A Wonderful Life, A Christmas Carol, even the story of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, that perennial redemptive favourite by Theodore “Dr. Seuss” Geisel, needs little introduction, so here’s some Grinchy information!

Which Grinch is which?
While the story has retained all its Seuss-y rhyming glory even after nearly 60 years, it’s become difficult to separate the original with the popular image – largely influenced by the 1966 TV Special, adapted by Suess’ friend and famed Looney Tunes animator Chuck Jones.  The original Grinch is drawn in black and white, red eyes the only colour given to him, while it was Jones who gave him his now-famous sickly green shade. Even some of the most iconically Grinch-y facial expressions can be attributed to the 1966 special instead of the book.

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The real Grinch?
The Grinch is the first adult (not to mention the first villain) to be a lead character in a Dr Seuss book, stating he’s put up with the Whos’ Christmas-ing for 53 years. Seuss was 53 in the year he wrote and published the book – so it’s hardly a long bow to draw to compare the two – but Seuss himself made explicit his identification with the Grinch in a 1957 article in Redbook: “I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noticed a very Grinch-ish countenance in the mirror… So I wrote about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”seuss grinch

The Grinch: second-rate bible-basher
Written and published within a single year, 1957, Geisel claimed the Grinch was one of his easiest to write. With most of the book finished in a mere matter of weeks, the ending was a different matter – Geisel later stating, “I got hung up getting the Grinch out of the mess. I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some biblical truism… Finally in desperation… without making any statement whatever, I showed the Grinch and the Whos together at the table, and made a pun of the Grinch carving the ‘roast beast.’… I had gone through thousands of religious choices, and then after three months it came out like that.”

It’s hard to imagine the ending any other way – a lovely, simple realisation with a lovely, simple resolution. It’s a grumpy old-person kind of thing to complain about the commercialisation of Christmas, but with Australians spending somewhere between just over $1000 and $2500 each over the holiday season, depending on who’s estimates you believe, it’s hard not to have those inklings (…maybe my horror at those figures says more about me, count this as an admission of my poverty). If it’s not just me, maybe that’s why How the Grinch Stole Christmas has remained a favourite for as long as it has – the Grinch’s attitude at the start of the book is all too easy to sympathise with, but we can all do with a reminder of the fundamental truth of the season:

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“… that should be obvious to anyone who has not grown up ass-backward, as most Americans have.”

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My CV is in desperate need of re-writing, so obviously I spent the day reading Gore Vidal’s essays instead. His essay “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” originally published in 1981, is a wonderful read – not just for Vidal’s gleefully acerbic wit, but for its insight into the not-so-joyful history of the gay experience in the US – and how some things haven’t changed all that radically. Ostensibly it’s Vidal’s review of Renaud Camus’s book Tricks, but he locates his review in a comparison of homophobia to anti-Semitism, and a criticism of the deeply homophobic, perpetually horrified nature of the American middle-class, embodied by the shrill Midge Decter article “The Boys on the Beach”.

Decter can only cope with two stereotypes: the boys on the beach, mincing about, and the drab political radicals of gay liberation. The millions of ordinary masculine types are unknown to her because they are not identifiable by voice or walk and, most important, because they have nothing in common with one another except the desire to have same-sex relations. (p. 314)

Decter should take a stroll down San Francisco’s Castro Street, where members of the present generation of fags look like off-duty policemen or construction workers. They have embraced the manly. But Frued has spoken. Fags are fags because they adored their mothers and hated their poor hard-working daddies. It is amazing the credence still given this unproven, unprovable thesis.  (p. 314)

Most men – homo or hetro – given the opportunity to have sex with 500 different people would do so, gladly; but most men are not going to be given the opportunity by a society that wants them safely married so that they will be docile workers and loyal consumers. It does not suit our rulers to have the proles tomcatting around the way that our rulers do. (p. 316)

The family, as we know it, is an economic, not a biological, unit. I realize that this is startling news in this culture and at a time when economies of both East and West require that the nuclear family be, simply, God. But our ancestors did not live as we do. They lived in packs for hundreds of millennia before “history” began, a mere 5,000 years ago. Whatever social arrangements human society may come up with in the future, it will have to be acknowledged that those children who are needed should be rather more thoughtfully brought up than they are today and that those adults who do not care to be fathers or mothers should be let off the hook. (p. 321)

“As he rang the doorbell, he wondered what he should feel, or more important, what he did feel but as usual he could not determine… he would have to wait until he could safely recall this scene in memory; only in the future could he ever discover what, if anything, he had felt: he existed almost entirely in recollection, a peculiarity of considerable value to him as a writer, though disastrous in his life since no event could touch him until it was safely past, until alone in bed at night he could experience in a rush all the emotions that he had been unable to fell at the appropriate time; then he would writhe, knowing it was again too late to act.”

p. 135, The Ladies in the Library, in Clouds and Eclipses, Gore Vidal

“…and loathsome canker lies in sweetest bud.”

imageClouds and Eclipses is the collection of Gore Vidal’s eight short stories, published in completion in 2006. Originally published as a collection of seven in A Thirsty Evil in 1956, those were joined by the eponymous story “Clouds and Eclipses”, a fictionalised episode from Tennessee Williams’ childhood involving teenage suicide, blackmail, and sexual misconduct. The story was left unpublished in 1956 at Williams’ (quite understandable) request, and forgotten entirely until 2005 when it was found among Vidal’s archived papers.

The eight stories are sparely written, with much of the action happening off-page – considered unsatisfying in some reviews I’ve read, but I prefer authors who don’t see a need to spoon-feed every detail to their reader. The potential for an “ooooh” or an “a-ha!” moment, no matter how small, makes for much more rewarding reading. Short stories aren’t my favourite genre, and while I don’t think they’re Vidal’s strongest suit, his customary clarity of observation, expert turn of phrase, and biting wit carry the stories over their lower points.

I was surprised by how frankly the stories addressed homosexuality – not that I’m particularly puritan, but I was expecting winks and nudges, a sly glance toward the camera, rather than the direct dealing Vidal gives us.  Not to say that they’re particularly joyful treatments (it was the 1950s, after all), but interesting to see such plain explorations of gay themes from that era.

The highlight of the collection by an absolutely mile is “The Zenner Trophy” – the most realistic and personally accessible of all the stories in the collection. Mr Beckman, a teacher dealing with his own heavily repressed homosexuality, is charged with expelling the star athlete of an elite boys highschool over some severe, unnamed breach of conduct – later revealed to be a relationship with another student. The boy in question, Flynn, has a refreshing self-assurance and lack of shame – “‘I still don’t see why what I want to do should ever be anybody’s business except my own… after all it doesn’t affect anybody else, does it?'” – a confidence which leads to uncomfortable realisations for the repressed Mr Beckman – “…he hated Flynn for reminding him of the long and tedious journey ahead, down an endless, chalk-smelling corridor where each forward step took him ever farther away from this briefly glimpsed design within a lilac day.” (p.73)

Gore Vidal’s biographer Jay Parini described Vidal’s books as “all acts of solo talking… whether it’s the voice of Burr or the voice of Lincoln, that’s just Gore talking. It’s Gore’s tone… So Gore has the one voice, but he puts different clothes or costumes on the character, but it’s just core… he’s not a real novelist like E.M. Forster, [who could] really tell a story and create dramatic tension and follow a theme.” (The ‘Degenerate’ Genius of Gore Vidal). I agree that there was a certain dramatic something lacking at times, and I’m interested to see how this plays out in his longer novels, but with a voice as interesting as Vidal’s, his constant presence might be sin worth overlooking.

While all of the stories might not be roaring, overwhelming successes, there’s enough lovely moments in each to make it a book well worth reading.

His own voice this summer had assumed the resonance of manhood, to the mild alarm of his uncle and aunt who had taken to studying him nervously, tentatively, as though afraid perhaps that, through some freak mutation, a barbarian had appeared among them, sprung from the discarded child’s body of their nephew to disrupt their gentle Christian circle with pagan deeds and sudden violence. (Clouds and Eclipses, p. 151)