Thursday, 17 June 2021

THINK ABOUT IT #68: Augusten Burroughs

The truth is that nobody is owed an apology for anything. Apologies are lovely when they happen. But they change nothing. They do not reverse actions or correct damage. They are merely nice to hear.
This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More for Young and Old Alike (2012)
Click HERE to visit the website of North American memoirist, essayist and screenwriter AUGUSTEN BURROUGHS.
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Thursday, 10 June 2021

POET OF THE MONTH #69: Rosemary Tonks

c 1966

Now for the night, liquid or bristling!
When owls make the ink squeak at my window
And my bedroom that can bone my body of its will,
Drinks out my brains on pillows.
Like a bather caught and skinned by rollers
I shall toss for an eternity in surf,
When the air-eating spirit in my nostrils
Is maddened by its heavy coat of earth!
Now for your rest, eyes where my passions lay
Waterlogged in flashing muscles all day
Well below the waterline and plotted in their acids,
Salt mortice sets your lids.
Baked on Hell's rubbish heap I go on smouldering
With my spirit at its bread of breath
Incapable of beating out the flames!  And hatches
Are raised cautiously by all the sense…
O once you have taken this draught of black air
You would be glad of infinity to get your bearings!
Ten years in your cafés and bedrooms
Great city, filled with wind and dust!
Bedouin of the London evening,
On the way to the restaurant my youth was lost.
And like a medium who falls into a trance
So deep, she can be scratched to death
By her familiar — at its leisure!
I have lain rotting in a dressing-gown
While being ravaged (horribly) by wasted youth.
I have been young too long, and in a dressing gown
My private modern life has gone to waste.
Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (1963)
The following information appears on the website of The Poetry Foundation.  [It is re-posted here for information purposes only and, like the poems re-posted above, remains its author's exclusive copyright-protected intellectual property.
English poet Rosemary Tonks was born in Gillingham, Kent.  Her father, an engineer, died in Africa before Tonks's birth and she was sent to boarding school as a young girl.  In the late 1940s, Tonks married Michael Lightband, also an engineer.  The couple lived in Calcutta, where Tonks had paratyphoid fever, and Karachi, where she contracted the polio that withered her right hand.  Tonks taught herself to write and paint left-handed and wore a black glove on her right hand.  After a stint in Paris, the couple returned to London in the mid-1950s and Tonks began mixing with literary society.  During this period, Tonks wrote two books of highly acclaimed poetry, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms (1963) and Iliad of Broken Sentences (1967).  Tonks claimed affiliation with French poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, and her poetry was edgy, metropolitan, and laced with acerbic wit.  Critic Cyril Connolly noted then that 'Miss Tonks's hard-faceted yet musical poems have unexpected power,' and she was generally considered one of the best female poets of her generation.  Tonks also wrote six novels, including Opium Fogs (1963) and The Halt During The Chase (1972), and reviewed widely.
Her mother's sudden death in 1968 sparked a spiritual and personal crisis in Tonks.  A series of personal catastrophes followed, including the near-permanent loss of her vision and the collapse of her marriage.  Tonks's decades-long search for spiritual truth led her through a variety of practices, religions, and gurus, though she eventually found comfort in the New Testament.  In 1980 she moved to Bournemouth, England, where her aunt lived, and became increasingly reclusive.  Tonks burned her last unpublished novel manuscript along with a collection of priceless artifacts from the Far East bequeathed to her by another aunt.  In October of 1980 she traveled to Jerusalem to be baptized.  Going by her married name, Mrs Lightband, and for the most part eschewing her former life, she lived in Bournemouth until her death in 2014.

Click HERE to read more poems by British poet and novelist ROSEMARY TONKS posted on the website of The Poetry Foundation.
You can also click HERE to read several intriguing posts about ROSEMARY TONKS posted on the excellent 'forgotten literature' website Neglected Books.
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Thursday, 3 June 2021

THE WRITE ADVICE #152: Patrick White

For better or worse, I have begun another book.  It is slow and painful, and not a bit what I want to say, but that is always the way, I'm afraid.  Also the prospect of having it with me for months, if not years, disgusts me — until I begin to realise that when I am not in that state I really feel rather lost.  It is a case of one misery or another.
Letter to (his cousin) Peggy Garland [25 January 1950]
Click HERE to read a 2019 article by Australian writer MADELEINE WATTS about her fascination with the work of fellow writer (and Australia's only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature) PATRICK WHITE (1912–1990).
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Thursday, 27 May 2021

THINK ABOUT IT #67: Doris Grumbach

Alone, I discovered myself looking hard at things, as if I were seeing them for the first time, or seeing them properly for the first time.  I wondered if solitude promoted this activity, or whether it was a result of having more time for everything, more time to look and see, more to concentrate on what I was seeing.
      I was interested in this question because so often in the past I had thought it preferable to be accompanied to the theater, to the opera, to the ballet, on travels and vacations.  I had thought that there was a value to having someone along to 'share' (how I have come to hate the flat, soft, sentimental sound of that word) the experience.  But I began to see in these weeks alone that a greater value lay in hearing and seeing from within that mysterious inner place, where the eyes and ears of the mind are insulated from the need to communicate to someone else what I experienced.  The energy necessary to express myself to someone else seemed to have been conserved for the harder look, the keener hearing.
Fifty Days of Solitude: A Memoir (1994)
Click HERE to read The View from 90, a thought-provoking essay about solitude and the aging process by DORIS GRUMBACH originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of The American Scholar.
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Thursday, 20 May 2021

EDWIN O'CONNOR The Edge of Sadness (1961)

Loyola Classics, 2005

Then one night, or very early one morning –– it must have been three o'clock or so –– I awoke in the darkness and, surprisingly, I was neither drowsy nor fuddled.  I was wide awake; I had come from dead sleep into an almost preternatural alertness: I was trembling.  This passed, but I could not go back to sleep.  I tried what had come to be my unfailing remedy; it failed.  And so I lay there, forced to think, and finding myself in one of those brief cool spaces of lucidity that now, to tell the truth, I did not particularly welcome.  And what I thought about was of course myself:  as I was now, nearing fifty, the respected pastor of his parish who was in fact a solitary drinker in his room, dazed most of the time, indifferent to his people, irresponsible in his duties, a spiritually arid priest for whom the wellsprings had dried up, for whom life had been reduced to a problem of concealment and routine.  And then the inevitable contrast:  the young priest of not too many years ago, zealous, devoted, with fresh and unimpeded hopes, whose parish was his life, whose days were active and busy and full of joy.  How had the one become the other?  The distance between them was the distance between the poles, yet it had been eclipsed, and in no time at all.  How?  Why?

The Novel:  It has often been said that the most difficult thing for a novelist to describe with any degree of accuracy is a sunset.  While I'd be the last person to dispute this claim – nothing encourages the use of cliché and hyperbole, it seems, more than the effort to describe natural phenomena –– I would venture to suggest that the only thing more difficult to describe is a spiritual crisis.  The fact that Edwin O'Connor managed to do this so compassionately and engagingly in his 1961 novel The Edge of Sadness should serve as an example to writers everywhere that attempting the impossible is not always the literary mistake it may at first appear to be.

This long, generous and deceptively complex novel –– O'Connor's third and the winner of the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction –– tells the story of Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic in his late forties who has recently become the pastor of a semi-derelict barn of a church called St Paul's located in an unnamed northeastern city bearing a strong resemblance to Boston.  Hugh's previous parish, the wealthier St Raymond's located in the same part of the city, has now become the responsibility of his childhood friend and former seminary classmate John Carmody, a man whose father –– a wily, grasping, shamelessly manipulative old reprobate named Charlie –– appears to epitomize everything that's wrong with both the modern world and the Church's ongoing struggle to reconcile the traditions of its past with the realities of life in a North America increasingly disinterested in turning to religion as a source of unity, fealty and moral strength.

Hugh and John are essentially suffering from the same feelings of inertia and emotional malaise.  Hugh, no longer certain of himself or of his vocation as a priest, is merely going through the motions, his solitude and occasional lapses into a kind of stultifying melancholy relieved only by the mildly comical if sometimes annoying presence of his zealous young Polish-American curate Father Danowski and their lazy if frequently absent handyman.  John, a good priest who's respected without really being loved by his parishioners, is also questioning his vocation as a cleric, unable to reconcile his desire for a monastic life devoid of anything but the most limited human contact with the demands his parishioners place upon him and the feelings of resentment and even contempt these are beginning to inspire in him.  For both men, being a priest has come to mean conforming to the expectations of their respective flocks, people from whom they feel as isolated physically and culturally as they do emotionally and spiritually.

In a series of lengthy, mostly dialogue driven scenes O'Connor shows us Hugh Kennedy's life –– his reunion with John's sister Helen and the other members of the Carmody family at Charlie's eighty-second birthday party (which is in fact the habitual old liar's eighty-first birthday party), his frustrated and frustrating attempts to reach out to the increasingly embittered John, his interactions with the pedantic and sometimes astoundingly naïve Father Danowski who has yet to have the wool removed from his eyes and views himself as being much wiser about the world and its ways than he actually isWe also learn about the death of Hugh's father –– a man he loved and respected for telling the truth about 'smiling' Charlie Carmody, whom he once described as being 'As fine a man as ever robbed the helpless' –– and how this long expected event affected him, causing him to neglect his duties and seek solace in alcohol before his Bishop, recognizing that something had to be done, sent him to a Church-run facility in Arizona where, little by little, he slowly began to recover without, unfortunately, regaining his sense of purpose.

As grateful as he is for the Bishop's intervention, and for the continuing friendship of John and Helen, Hugh can't help but be aware that being assigned to a rundown parish like St Paul's is also a test for him of sorts.  By sending him to an outdated, poorly attended church in a no longer prosperous neighborhood, the Bishop hopes to discover if Hugh will one day regain the strength and insight needed to allow him to resume his duties at St Raymond's.  Hugh, however, feels ambivalent about returning to the place where he disgraced himself even if St Raymond's was perhaps the one parish in the world where he felt he legitimately belonged.  While his faith in God remains as strong as ever, despite what he admits are his bumbling efforts to pray and his substandard preaching skills, he remains disconcertingly aware that much of what he's done since returning from Arizona has been little more than marking time, his way of pretending he's engaged and committed when, in reality, he is neither of these things and has not been for a very long time.

Although Hugh has the perfect opportunity to speak of his feelings to Helen when they spend a day together discussing Charlie's fondness for pursuing hidden agendas, John's difficult personality and the seemingly carefree lives they led as children, he typically fails to grasp it.  Instead of sharing his misgivings with his friend, Hugh continues to present the same gregarious front to her and to everyone else he encounters while privately struggling with the same inescapable spiritual conundrumsIs he a true man of God or only a kind of caretaker, palmed off with the unpromising task of babysitting a struggling parish because that's all he's good for?  Is it his task to mouth the words that will provide a kind of easy, drive-thru absolution to those, like Charlie, whose past transgressions are beginning to catch up with and obsess them now their lives are drawing to a closeOr is he at St Paul's simply to serve out his probation by acting as an unpaid campaign employee for Helen's son Ted who wants to run for public office and hopes to use the Church to connect with his future constituents and distribute his party's literature to them?  Where, amid his feelings of lethargy, uselessness and indifference, can Hugh truly be said to be performing God's work?

Things come to a head at Christmas when Charlie, who for years has been threatening his family with his death, becomes gravely ill after suffering a heart-attack.  He asks for Hugh, presumably so he can be given the last rites, only to use their encounter –– which takes place while three of his four children and his despised son-in-law anxiously await news of his condition outside in the hallway –– as an excuse to wallow in self-pity, justify a lifetime's worth of unscrupulous behavior and, in the final ironic twist, demand to know if Hugh's father considered him a friend or an enemy.  And it's here, while engaged in the very human activity of telling a sick old man what he needs to hear so he can feel at peace with himself, that Hugh begins to regain an understanding of what his purpose is and to take his first faltering steps toward regaining it.  By lying to Charlie, telling him that his father had nothing but laudatory things to say about him, he is once again beginning to do his job –– offering hope, consolation and perhaps even the possibility of redemption to a sick, semi-repentant sinner.

Charlie recovers from his heart-attack and, for a time, Hugh's life resumes its normal hollow routine, punctuated by enquiries about the patient's condition and another confidential chat with Helen during which she asks if he ever considered abandoning his vocation to marry her –– an offer, she confesses, she would not have been averse to accepting at one time because it would have gotten her away from her father and the misery he inflicted, unintentionally or otherwise, on herself and her siblings.  Hugh says no, he never considered making her his wife, and Helen takes his answer as confirmation that she was right to pursue and marry Frank O'Donnell, her successful doctor husband, even though she liked him rather than loved him and married him largely because doing so represented her most convenient means of escape

Little, Brown first US edition, 1961
Awkward though this conversation is for Hugh, an even more difficult one awaits him when he visits John in the rectory of St Raymond's on New Year's Eve.  John, pale, distracted and looking far from well, does for him what, up till now, he's been too frightened, confused and emotionally paralyzed to do for himself –– challenge his behavior and reveal that, in nearly every sense, it has been based on an illusion.  ' "You're a sentimental man, Hugh: a romantic," ' John informs his friend.  ' "Whether you know it or not, you live in the past:  you feed on memories.  You think of the world as it was –– or as you think it was –– before anything happened to you:  before your father died, before you drank… We were talking a minute ago about the differences between us, Hugh, but I'll tell you what the real difference is.  It's that I may have turned my back on my parish, but you've never even turned your face on yours… And so what does it all boil down to?  Just this, that you don't do your job, either.  Only you don't do yours in a slightly different way, that's all." '

Hurt by these statements, which a contrite and regretful John soon apologizes for having made, Hugh leaves his old parish and returns to St Paul's and the moralistic prattle of Father Danowski –– dull little stories designed, he has recently come to see, to keep him, his 'boss' so to speak, up to date with what's happening in the lives of their parishioners.  'I'd slipped into regarding St Paul's,' Hugh later realizes while attempting, and failing, to offer a prayer for John, 'as being something of an interval:  a way station for me, in which my function was to mark time –– and wait.  Wait for what?  Again John had been right… Even if I didn't acknowledge it, this was really what I wanted:  to go back to the place I loved, to the people among whom I belonged.  And what's wrong with this –– except everything?  Because, if you're a priest, to speak of belonging in this way makes no sense at all:  it's as if, having been formally consecrated to God, you confront him with a condition of employment:  "I love you and will serve you to the best of my ability –– provided, of course, that you don't take me out of my yard…".'

This knowledge proves to be John's greatest gift to Hugh, one made all the more meaningful by the call the latter receives shortly after returning to St Paul's from a distraught Helen, explaining that her brother, not her father, has died.  The cause of death, it turns out, was an untreated duodenal ulcer that John characteristically refused to speak about, a condition he kept hidden from everyone until his curate found him lying in a pool of blood on his bedroom floor.  His death has a galvanizing effect on Hugh who, for the first time, begins to take a genuine interest in the affairs and the people of his new parish, visiting them and willingly discussing their lives and problems instead of avoiding them as he's been doing since his return from the responsibility-free sanctuary that was the Church-run retreat in Arizona.   

This new attitude does not go unnoticed by the Bishop who, a month later, offers to return Hugh to St Raymond's, implying that a refusal will keep him at St Paul's until he dies and the old church, which the diocese has neither the funds nor the will to renovate, closes its doors forever.  This time, Hugh does not prevaricate.  He refuses the Bishop's offer to be sent back to his former parish and, after seeing him off, returns alone to the rectory.  'But now there was a difference,' he tells us and, more crucially, himself.  'This was the first time I'd ever stood, all alone, in the silence of this old building filled with little but the echoes of a past that was over before my own began, and looked around me, and slowly realized, at last, that this was mine and would be mine:  that it was my home for the rest of my life.  And with this at first I felt a touch of regret, an edge of sadness:  I knew that as long as I lived in Old St Paul's it would never mean to me what… St Raymond's had meant –– that it could never grip my heart and affections in the same way.  And then, out of nowhere, a single question came before me:  Was it ever intended to?… I had no direct answer, but possibly the question itself was enough, for slowly another feeling came in, rising over regret, a feeling that swelled until it was almost… what?  Joy?  Maybe that's too strong a word at this point, but it grew and grew until I felt it so strongly that I could feel nothing else:  an awareness, an assurance that while something was over forever, something else had just begun'

A novel like The Edge of Sadness would be unlikely to be published in today's world where the word 'priest' is automatically associated with the hundreds of ongoing paedophile scandals which continue to rock the Catholic Church and reduce its credibility as a religious and social institution to zero in the eyes of all but its blindest, most thoroughly indoctrinated devotees.  The idea that a priest might be a good man, albeit a man beset with all the usual flaws and weaknesses that come with being a functional human being, is one we find it difficult to accept in the twenty-first century where we're bombarded, and not without reason, by negative images of the clergy at every turn.  That O'Connor was able to create such a priest in Father Hugh Kennedy, making him troubled, charming and often slyly funny in the process, ranks as a remarkable achievement not only in literary terms but in terms of humanizing what remains, for many people, an inscrutable if not entirely arcane calling.   

Before The Edge of Sadness priests were generally portrayed as either genial do-gooders of the Hollywood Bing Crosby variety or as narrow-minded martinets all too prone to wielding power for its own sake and, on occasion, to callously abusing it.  Hugh Kennedy fits neither of these stereotypesHe stands as an honest creation who speaks honestly of what it means to devote your life to a principle and then try –– despite or perhaps because of your own flaws and weaknesses –– to live by it.  Rather than portray Hugh as someone crushed and ultimately destroyed by doubt, O'Connor pulls off the infinitely more difficult feat of showing us a man whose faith persists in spite of doubt, someone whose compassion for others goes hand in hand with the desire to better understand himself and, by doing so, those it is his duty to serve and console.  It is here that the title of the novel reveals its wider significance.  To stand on the edge of something –– sadness, temptation, the abyss of despair –– is not necessarily the same thing as to tumble headlong into it.

The Writer:  Edwin O'Connor entered the world on 29 July 1918, one of nine children born to Irish Catholic physician John V O'Connor and his wife Mary.  Raised mostly in the Rhode Island city of Woonsocket, he was educated by the Christian Brothers order at La Salle Academy in nearby Providence (he commuted there each day by train) before being accepted to Notre Dame University in Indiana where he planned to major in journalism.  

It was at Notre Dame that O'Connor encountered Professor Frank O'Malley, a brilliant drunkard of the classic Irish variety who, in addition to introducing him to the full range of Catholic thought and literature, also convinced him to switch his major to English and inspired his desire to write –– debts the younger man repaid by dedicating his third novel to him and making its protagonist an alcoholic in the hope his former mentor would follow his example and one day abandon the demon drink.  O'Malley's affliction also made a lifelong teetotaller of his star pupil, a highly unusual choice for a man of O'Connor's age, class and Irish Catholic background to have made in the post-Prohibition 1930s when heavy drinking was viewed as both an acceptable social ritual and a badge of masculinity.

O'Connor graduated from college in 1939 and found a job as an announcer and occasional disc jockey at Boston radio station WDRC, a profession ideally suited to someone possessed of his friendly, charming and outgoing temperament.  He remained in this job after the United States entered World War Two in December 1941, only to leave it in 1942 to join the Coast Guard.  He returned to Boston when the war ended in 1945 where, at the age of twenty-seven, he began writing his first novel –– a tale based on his radio experiences published in 1951 as The Oracle –– while eking out a semi-steady living as a script and story writer and occasional freelance journalist whose work appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and other nationally distributed publications. 

The Oracle was followed by a trip to Ireland and, in 1956, by the publication of The Last Hurrah, his best known and most commercially successful novel.  Based loosely on the life and career of corrupt Boston mayor James Michael Gurley, the book became a nationwide bestseller and added a new phrase to the English language.  Its success also made its previously cash-strapped author financially secure for the first time in his life, allowing him to buy his first car, a Porsche, and a summer home on Cape Cod.  O'Connor also became one of the producers of the film version of his book –– a film generally regarded as being the worst piece of cinema that its director John Ford and its star Spencer Tracy were ever associated with.  

O'Connor surprised everyone by following his bestseller with Benjy: A Ferocious Fairy Tale, a children's book published in 1957.  The book was heavily criticized for its black humour –– its fairy is a cigar-smoking drunkard –– and did not sell, a situation which may have encouraged O'Connor to sink too much of his time, effort and money into a series of Broadway musicals which likewise failed to charm the theater-going public.  Fortunately, his job as a television critic for two Boston newspapers helped to pay the bills and take some of the sting out of these setbacks while, genial as ever, he pursued a hectic social life among the city's power elite. 


It was not until the publication of The Edge of Sadness in 1961 and its subsequent winning of the 1962 Pulitzer Prize that O'Connor's reputation as a serious, thought-provoking novelist was finally restored.  Shortly after winning the award he surprised his many friends yet again by marrying a widow named Veniette Caswell Weil and becoming stepfather to her young son.  He did not publish another novel until All In The Family, based upon the life of the late President John F Kennedy, appeared in 1966, two years after another unsuccessful play titled I Was Dancing –– its protagonist was modeled after his favorite uncle who had performed for many years in vaudeville –– failed to click on Broadway.  Neither play nor book made O'Connor any money, a situation which placed him under considerable financial strain and eventually obliged him to sell his four floor, ten bedroom Boston townhouse (which also contained an elevator) in 1967.

O'Connor's financial difficulties –– he had been living beyond his means for years by this time –– may have led, according to some of his friends, to the cerebral hemorrhage which killed him, at the age of forty-nine, on 23 March 1968.  He left behind the incomplete manuscript of a novel about an elderly Catholic cardinal which, according to his biographer, would have been recognized as his masterpiece had he lived long enough to complete it.  His final published work proved to be the posthumous 1970 collection The Best and Last of Edwin O'Connor, featuring selections from his novels, stories, journalism and speeches chosen by high-profile historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

It is interesting, if a little troubling, to note that the writers who preceded and succeeded O'Connor as winners of the Pulitzer Prize –– Harper Lee for To Kill A Mockingbird in 1961 and William Faulkner for The Reivers in 1963 –– have never fallen out of favor since their respective books were published while his remains a largely forgotten name in the annals of North American literature.  The republication of The Edge of Sadness and The Last Hurrah seem to imply that this attitude is changing and that, in the twenty-first century, his best work is at last finding the sustained readership it has always deserved to find.  

Click HERE to read a review by JOSEPH BOTTUM of A Family of His Own: A Life of Edwin O'Connor, a biography written by CHARLES DUFFY and published in 2003 by the Catholic University of America Press.   

The Edge of Sadness was republished by the Church-owned Loyola Press in September 2005, while a new edition of The Last Hurrah was published by The University of Chicago Press in March 2016.  Both these books and the CHARLES DUFFY biography may still be available to borrow or purchase from your local library, bookstore or preferred online provider.   

Those interested in such things may also like to click HERE to view pictures of the lavish Boston home of EDWIN O'CONNOR which was offered for sale in 2011, the first time it had reappeared on the market since he was forced to sell it for financial reasons forty-four years earlier.

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GABRIELLE ROY Bonheur d'occasion [The Tin Flute] (1945)