Monthly Archives: February 2014

Gertrude Stein on Football, from an interview in the ’30s, care of the excellent Biblioklept blog.

INTERVIEWER: You saw the Yale-Dartmouth game a week ago Saturday didn’t you? Did you understand that in the American way or the football way or how?

STEIN: IN the American way. The thing that interested me was that the Modern American in his movements and his actions in a football game so resembled the red Indian dance and it proves that the physical country that made the one made the other and that the red Indian is still with us. They just put their heads down solemnly together and then double over, while on the sidelines the substitutes move in a jiggly way just like Indians. Then they all get down on all fours just like Indians.

INTERVIEWER: But those jiggles are just warming-up exercises.

STEIN: It doesn’t make any difference what they are doing it for, they are just doing it, like the way the Indian jiggles in the Indian dance and then there is that little brown ball they all bend down and worship.

INTERVIEWER: But the ideas in that is to get the ball across the goal line.

STEIN: But don’t you suppose I know that, and don’t you suppose the Indians had just as much reason and enjoyed their dancing just as much?

Stein always strikes me as trying entirely too hard.  Going for this oracular height of describing Americanness/Americanity but often coming off as pretentious and obscure.

A good read — What movies feel different to you at different parts of your life?  Link goes to many film critics, some who don’t really understand the question (journalists with reading comprehension? no!), but some are appropriately thoughtful.  In The 400 Blows, for example, I agree: when watching it in high school or college, I was focused on the parents at all.  Growing older, you become aware of how adults are portrayed in those coming of age movies.  A few suggest that eras change perceptions of a film – the countercultural liberations of the 60s might feel foolish or quaint much later.

For me, I might pick La Dolce Vita, a movie that’s long been important to me, introduced by my good friend and roommate in the second half of college.  Appreciated popularly for its glamor and decadence, its invention of the word paparazzi, its buxom blonde in the Trevi Fountain, to us, aided by our situation in a massive, conservative state school, we understood Marcello’s sense of disconnect between who he was and what he wanted to be.  Watching it again recently, I’m still struck by the characterization, the sense of bemusement hiding a darker undercurrent of being lost.

This is shown in the appearance of Marcello’s father, whose provincial desire for a good time is sidetracked by failing health (and age).  But it really comes out with the episodes about Steiner, Marcello’s friend from a past he still clearly idealizes.  We first run into Steiner playing organ in a church, chided by the priest for a decidedly non-ecclesiastic piece he jaunts off, and later Marcello goes to one of his house parties, where his guests are impressively intellectual and run circles around Marcello’s wife without intending to (if I remember correctly).  We also meet Steiner’s beautiful children in a scene of gauzy domesticity.  Steiner’s name is not a mistake — it reflects German Romanticism and the cerebral traditions of the north.  Stein, it should also be said, also means ‘stone’ in German.

We return to this narrative thread later when Marcello later learns that Steiner has killed himself and his children.  Marcello is forced to protect Steiner’s wife from learning this horrible fact directly from the hounding press on the street, while trying to process it himself.  It’s a wretched scene that thankfully Fellini does not dwell upon.

It wasn’t until this last viewing where the impact really hit me.  Having a wife, and now a son, and having piled those years behind me, Steiner’s death, his murders, the whole thing, was crushing.  The episode is pivotal to the film – Marcello is basically not the same after this, and thematically the reasons are clear.  Steiner was a friend, but also an idol  His was the intellectual life Marcello had lost, as well as the domestic bliss he had failed to find with his wife, whom he clearly doesn’t like.  With Steiner gone, and in such a horrifying way, what else is left?

So, it wasn’t until I had larded unto myself those immovable, needed things, that the ice drenching impact of the episode became clear to me.  Affecting, too, how the character arc changes, and the structure of the film, which is highly episodic, takes a severe bend.


Speaking of novels that end before they end, Wilkie Collins’ rightfully celebrated novel of that title is a book I may never finish.  The bad guys convincingly win, and basically it takes a good outsized Victorian coincidence/mistaken identity for the tides to turn.  The book is so complete (if unsatisfying) at that point I couldn’t move on.

In an attempt to better understand postwar/contemporary American fiction, I’ve set out on Thomas Pynchon’s V. An impressive novel that has left me flummoxed, he wrote it at 24 (I’ve never been more acutely aware of an author’s age before), and is apparently some kind of key to later works, or at least Gravity’s Rainbow. What a strange key that must be.

Largely I’ve been put off by it, despite what should be a natural affinity – a nerdishness, a devotion to history, an underlying fussiness. Its paranoia doesn’t come through to me and it feels overall obscure. I don’t see how the parts hang together and its rambling plot does it no favors, leaving us with set pieces that can be impressive (nose job, the priest lording over the civilization of rats) but are too disconnected to make much sense. The novel never sets up what ‘normal’ is and so, at least for me, the moral horror of the 20th Century or the mechanization of modern life, or whatever Pynchon is getting at, is never able to properly destabilize and horrify. We start out lost.

There’s also a slight thing I’d need to look at closer: the carefully described Stencil portions, reaching back into history to trace who ‘V.’ is… Seem to be in a full 3rd person omniscient POV. But, this puts Pynchon’s narrator in a godlike position, doesn’t it? And so the obscurity of meaning is malicious rather than edifying, right?

What I’ve most responded to, so far, has been the rhythm of the Benny Profane portions, him and his buddies, the Whole Sick Crew. There’s this sort of this bebop, forward-leaning wildness that reminds me for some reason of Animal House, especially its slobs v. squares ending (the stately parade torn apart and reordered by our heroes).

But I’m only a bit past halfway. What really has gotten me around to this post is the Mondaugen section. Essentially a long recounting of the atrocities perpetuated on the peoples of present-day Namibia by invading Germans in 1904, it’s basically stopped me dead in my tracks. The episode is so horrifying, so alarming, it feels out of place in the book. Yes, I understand the point: here, somehow, is the birthplace of all 20th Century atrocity. But it overthrows the genial, dumb madness of the Benny Profane sections especially that I wonder what the book has been doing up until this point at all. Indeed, how it will recover. Then, there’s that recognition of Pynchon’s 3rd person omniscient POV, and I’m left wondering why the decisions have been made to show what we’ve been shown. Each section is its own brand of muddy, and now the entire book is shown in its muddiness. At some point, to me, this is not a feature, it’s a bug. I understand that ultimately we’re to wonder how V. is never known or understood to be known, but either the Benny Profane sections are too ambling to provide a proper backdrop, or we need some acknowledgment for why the narrating voice is so mute in the face of a suddenly horrifying, soul-rending portion.

Ultimately I will come away impressed and jarred. But I’m not sure I’m the type to sort through a man’s box of receipts and other trash, trying to figure out what he’s been up to.