Stephen Sondheim has provided those who love musical theatre with their best reason to continue the affair. As composer and lyricist, as sheer theatrical intelligence, he stands alone in a theatre where audiences seem to want to see cats cavort, lions rule, and designer barricades mesh, where they are content to leave the theatre not even "whistling the scenery" as one wag said but whistling the costumes. As Madame Armfeldt the aging grand horizontale sang in A Little Night Music,
Where is style?Passion in the art, indeed. The answer to those sobering questions is here tonight.
When Stephen Sondheim graduated from writing lyrics for other people's music as he did for Julie Styne in Gypsy and Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story, the age of rock and roll was setting in with its reduction of musical form to simple ostinato and lyric invention to endless repetition. The contemporary popular idiom that had been available to Berlin and Porter was gone. His solution--the contemporary musical that was set in earlier eras and that nevertheless was neither opera nor operetta--Sweeney Todd in the 18th Century London and A Little Night Music in 19th Century Sweden. In these works the sheer musical intelligence is bracing. In Sweeney Todd we hear a whole range of English music--from Dowland and Purcell through Gilbert and Sullivan to the music hall and the buskers. In A Little Night Music we hear langorous sinuous waltzes more reminiscent of Ravel and Prokofiev than of Strauss--waltzes that remind us that though the stretch from the ballroom to the bedroom may be short, it's a minefield. The music grows on repeated hearings for it is not the work of a tunesmith but of a sophisticated, serious composer.
But ah, the lyrics. Even the casual theatre goer remembers the great Sondheim soli: Send in the Clowns, Not a Day Goes By, Losing My Mind, but I would like to say a few words about the ensembles. In Company three young women sing a plaint called You Could Drive a Person Crazy; they are speaking to Bobby who is good in bed but can't commit--a condition not unknown in the Western world. They sing in wonderful Andrews Sisters close harmony, and only later does one realize that these three women probably do not know each other--they share a song only because they share a status. In Sweeney Todd two men share a paean to female charm, Pretty Women--they are Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street and his customer, a judge who had sent Todd to prison and raped his wife during his absence. The song is meltingly lovely, but Sweeney is preparing during it to give his customer a close, terminal shave. And finally and most thrillingly there is the great Someone in a Tree from Pacific Overtures. In this musical play which is about the opening of Japan to Commodore Perry's fleet, a boy and a warrior remember the day the treaty was signed. The boy, now an old man, watched from a tree--he could see but he could not hear a word. The warrior was under the floor boards of the treaty house--he could hear but not see. Yet each felt that he was part of the event, part of history. Even if they only heard floorboards creek or see cups of tea being drunk. I was there, each claims--excited witnesses on the margins of the momentous. And from this privileged margin they proclaim their importance and derive a theory of history: They sing
It's the fragment. Not the day
This extraordinary song is about historiography--I know of no other song in any musical work that would dream such a subject could be set to music. It is a masterpiece.
Stephen Sondheim has won just about every honor for which he is eligible--Drama Desk, Drama Critics Circle, the Kennedy Center. The awards gain luster for having his name attached to them. There is even a Stephen Sondheim society--in London, of course (PO Box 15032 SW 18). His work is constantly revived and although he is no fan of opera, the Houston Opera is doing A Little Night Music this year with Frederica Von Stade, Evelyn Lear, and Thomas Allen and Sweeney Todd has also entered the repertoire. A revival of Follies last year sent theatre lovers scurrying to Millbum, New Jersey. His work will live because its quality admits no dating, no tarnish. Future generations will owe him what we all owe him--the debt of pleasure, vibrant, enriching pleasure. While others have given me as much pleasure as he has, they knew they were doing it at the time. This is my chance to say thank you, and I can only say it in words that paraphrase his. Three old friends toast themselves in Merrily We Roll Along by singing
Here's to us
Here is to Stephen Sondheim
Back in the early Fifties, before I was drafted into the army during the Korean War, I wanted no more than to do six daily strips and a Sunday page and do something the equivalent of "Peanuts" or "Pogo" or any of the other strips I admired. What changed that was getting drafted and discovering that there was a world outside my Jewish family in the Bronx, or my oppressive teachers in the Bronx, or the Bronx in general. What there was was this world of mindless authority as represented perfectly by the United States Army, where it became clear really for the first time in my life that these people really didn't care about me. In those days, and I'm sure they do it now, they didn't talk about men, they talked about bodies. "We need twelve bodies to go down to the firing range, and clean up the targets."
And the sense of depersonalization, the sense of stupidity, the sense of arrogance among people who had no right to be arrogant, threw me into such a juvenile and I guess truly adolescent dither, that I had no way out short of desertion, suicide or drinking myself numb, but to write my way out of it and draw my way out of it. And that thrust me suddenly into the world of satire. I did a cartoon, a long cartoon story, about a four-year-old boy named Monroe who got drafted into the Army by mistake and tried to convince the authorities that this was a mistake, that he was four, and they didn't believe him. And by the end of the book they've convinced him that he's wrong and they're right.
The act of doing Monroe changed my view of what a cartoon should be or what my career should be. I knew that I couldn't go back to the commercial world of comic strips which had to please editors of newspapers and had to please editors of syndicates and where you could not seriously comment, truly comment, on the world in which I was living. And the world in which I was living did not appear anywhere that I saw in print. It certainly didn't appear in the daily papers. So I decided I would try to write books of cartoons, just like Monroe, or books on the bomb, or books on other issues that bothered me. Books on relationships. And I did a few of these and got nowhere.
There are several things that publishers tell you. In some way it's a sign of hope when you're very young if they say, "You're very close, we like it very much, it's not quite good enough. If you do a couple more we think you'll have it." But they weren't telling me that. If they told me that, I'd go home and fantasize the next one and say, "I'll really get them this time." But what they were telling me in those days was, "This is terrific. We don't know how to publish it. We won't publish it. We don't think anyone would buy it. It's a shame your name is not Saul Steinberg or William Stieg. Then we could publish it." So what they were telling me was, the work was terrific but the problem was me, I wasn't famous enough for them to publish me. So I had to find a way of becoming famous in order to get my books published. And I didn't know then that you could commit suicide and that was a wonderful form of self-promotion and get things published that way. Instead I went to The Village Voice, which was just beginning then, and showed them my work, and they liked it very much and we reached an agreement where they agreed not to pay me and they also agreed not to edit me. That was the best deal I'd ever been offered. And I arrived at the present form of the cartoon simply because I found it much too difficult to take the books I had done and break them down into sequences that would make any sense in the six or eight panels I had space for in the newspaper. So I decided to do a few introductory cartoons before starting on the books and thirty years later I'm still doing the introductory cartoons. And so, the notion of what I have finally arrived at The Voice wasn't an overt choice, but something I stumbled into, and that's exactly how I got into theater.
People were always telling me in the early years of the cartoons that these cartoons are really theatrical, they are truly real, this is the way people really behave, they'd be a natural on the stage. And finally I let myself be convinced, and they were put on the stage in Chicago, and I thought they were awful because they were more cartoony than they were on paper. They were less real than they were on paper, and it seemed to me that the cartoons as cartoons had no place on the stage, and that if I was ever going to put anything on stage again it would have to be a real play. I would have to write a play.
But I had no intention of writing a play, ever, because I loved theater, went to theater a lot, and what I had found out over a period of years is that plays I loved closed in a week, and the plays I didn't love were hits. And I thought that if I ever wrote a play that I really liked, it would probably close in a week. I had enough masochistic urges in other areas not to want to go into theater and really bleed all over the floor. I went into the theater nevertheless, against my will, because something happened... the assassination of John F. Kennedy. That plus the following week, Ruby shooting Oswald, gave me such a sense of profound depression and upset. Not so much because of the fact of Kennedy's assassination, which was horrible enough. Kennedy, as a president, meant little to me. I had attacked him even before he was in office. But because of what it said to me about the country. I felt that Kennedy plus Ruby and Oswald signified a country on the verge of a national nervous breakdown. It told me something I didn't want to know and didn't know how to express, and I tried expressing it in cartoons, and it never seemed, because of the space and the limitations, to get across what I really wanted.
So I started work on what was going to be a novel called Little Murders, that was going to speak to this deep feeling that I had, and I hoped to expiate it. Well, I spent something like three or four years on this novel-- it was my second novel, I had written one before. The first novel, Harry, the Rat with Women, was very simple, it was very straightforward. It was fine as far as it went, but it didn't really prove I could write a novel. I was going to prove it with this book, so there were about six or ten pages on descriptions of snow. I felt that people really should know what snow looked like from my point of view. And endless nonsense like that. And I just got into a logjam on the book. The snow didn't take me very far. And I'd forgotten what the hell I was writing about. And four years later I had this mess of pages and nothing to do with it. I couldn't figure out what the hell I was doing.
So I went off to Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, looked at everything I had written over the years, discovered what a mess it was, because I had not really read it altogether at that point, went into town, got a bottle of scotch, finished that, got up the next morning, realized I couldn't go home the next day because I'd had a farewell party there the day before. So I decided, the hell with it, I would try to dramatize these characters, at which point, after a couple of days, I discovered to my surprise, amazement and utter joy, that I was a playwright. And that I enjoyed the theater form as much as any form since I first started drawing cartoons. I felt at ease with it. I felt wonderful about characters getting into trouble so I could get them out of it. I found no anxiety at all about getting into boxes I couldn't get out of because I was utterly confident I could find a way out of it. There was just a sense of certainty I had about the play form that I never had about the novel, never had in any way, manner or form. And although I knew that as the play was going on that it was probably going to close in a week, the fate of it seemed not to have anything to do with the act of committing it.
Well, the play got on. It would open on Broadway on the second night of Passover. I was accosted by a gossip columnist on the street afterwards in absolute fury, and he said, "How can you use language like that on the stage on the second night of Passover?" The critics agreed with him. The play closed the following Saturday. And I was proven right. But it didn't seem to matter. When the New York Times asked me how I felt about the flop of my first play I said, "I'm just gonna keep bringing it back until you guys get it right." Well, the play came back, first in 1969, in a very successful off-Broadway run, and it is now (1987) about to be revived, it's opening again in New York next week for the first showing in 18 years, and it's a wonderful production.
As I said, theater was not something I had intended to get into, and I might have been blessed not to get into it because, having become an addict, I seem to be an addict without an audience. There's something strange that's happened to the theater audience in the twenty or twenty-five years since I've been writing plays, and that is that the sense of a unified audience, of speaking to a constituency, has disappeared, and audiences have become so splintered, so fragmented, that there's no sense of need anymore. When I was writing Little Murders, I thought, "This has to be heard. This has to be seen. I have something important to say." And there was some knowledge of an audience being there who could receive this message.
Now, when I think I have something important to say, I can't figure out who'd want to hear it. And often there's a sense of discouragement about getting into it at all, and I will proceed, but with a willful suspension of reality, knowing that this will probably disappear because the people aren't there to receive it. And so it makes doing this work harder. There was never money in theater, never much for the sort of things I write, and now it's harder because there's less of an audience. And I find that, oddly enough, over the years, my first form, the cartoon, which decreased in importance as I wrote first for theater and then for films, has taken on greater importance to me. And the audience there seems to be stronger and better than it has been in years.
Screenwriting is almost always a thankless form because however good a script one writes, you are the creature of the studios and the director. Unlike the theater, where the writer owns the play, in films it's the studio that owns the screenplay. And I'm sure it will not happen, but it would be quite possible for William Kennedy to be fired off Ironweed if they decide they don't want it to go in his direction. And he can say nothing about it. That's the way it works. They give you a lot of money and they give you no rights, as opposed to the theater, which gives you no money and all the rights. And what American writers tend to do, because they have little choice, is to go back and forth between these forms making a living out of films and doing their serious work in either fiction or theater. Occasionally, a movie will come together and be absolutely wonderful and that's rare, but mainly what screenwriting is about is the director wanting a bunch of lines to take his character from the burning car wreck into the helicopter, and have the characters say one or two things to each other before the next crisis.
After the presentation, a reading from the play, "Elliot Loves," and a discussion of individual drawings and cartoons, Feiffer answered questions from members of the audience.
Q: What do you read to stay informed in order to write your cartoons?
A: Less and less. It doesn't seem to really take very much to be informed any more. I just have to remember what happened thirty years ago and then I write it set for today. It seems to me that the tragic and dispiriting part of the present time beginning with the Reagan years is that it seems to be a rerun of the arguments that I lived through most of my adult life. And it doesn't take reading the newspapers to be informed, it takes reading my diary and remembering what I said twenty-five years ago. Other than that, I read what everybody reads: The New York Times and a couple of journals. But I also depend very much on National Public Radio and shows like "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered."
Q: What's your opinion of newspaper strips like "Doonesbury" and "Bloom County"?
A: Well, I'm a fan of both. But I don't think Berke Breathed should have gotten the Pulitzer Prize for cartooning. There are people like Tom Toles out of Buffalo, Doug Marlett in Charlotte, North Carolina... we are in a very good time for political cartoonists. There's some very good work being done. And Bloom County, which as I say I enjoy, is mainly like Johnny Carson wisecracks. It's not what the form is about or should be about. I like Trudeau's work better, but I think his work is tougher, stronger, more political, more pointed and I think he's quite courageous.
Q: How do you break into cartooning nowadays?
A: I wouldn't know how to begin breaking into it. I didn't know how then. I certainly don't know now. I think the only way you do it is to do anything. You go around and take your lumps and sooner or later, assume you're gonna wear them down. If you're good, that generally happens. But you can't start with the top papers, the top magazines, the top publications. It's good to begin with the alternative press, and don't worry about making money. You're not gonna get any for a long time.
Q: How do you keep your material fresh?
A: It's a good question and it's something I thought about from the very first day I started. You know, I watched people I was crazy about like Al Capp and Walt Kelly, makers of brilliant strips, burn out after 12 years. And it seemed to me the reason was these men were expected to be brilliant seven days a week, six days and a Sunday page, in a way that no other creative artist was expected to. And I knew that if I wanted to last, and I really did want to last, I couldn't do better than they. I couldn't do six dailies and a Sunday page, so from the start in syndication when they tried to get me to do more, I said I would only do one a week. The catch there was that doing one a week only took a day and a half, and then I had all these other days and it got a little boring, and I was getting bored with even doing that, and I think the work was suffering. And until I started writing plays, I don't think the work got good again. I think there's a feedback that goes on between work in different forms. I work on a system of avoidances. If I have a cartoon deadline, I work on a play and if I have a play deadline, I'll work on a screenplay. And I'm always keeping myself from finishing what I'm supposed to do at that exact moment, and that somehow keeps me alert, alive and on the run.Jules Feiffer Reading
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Transcript of The Book Show (January 11, 1994)
Smith: Welcome to The Book Show. I’m your host Tom Smith of the New York State Writers Institute which is located at the University at Albany and is part of the State University of New York system. My guest today is the internationally renowned Canadian fiction writer, Margaret Atwood. Margaret Atwood is a prize-winning poet as well as a celebrated novelist. Among her many literary works are the much-acclaimed novels, Surfacing which was published in 1973, Lady Oracle which appeared in 1976, The Handmaid’s Tale which came out in 1985, and Cat’s Eye in 1988. Her new book recently published by Nan Talese-Doubleday is a delightful and delicious, wise and compelling novel entitled The Robber Bride which is already a best seller like The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye were. Margaret Atwood, welcome to The Book Show.
Atwood: Thank you.
Smith: And congratulations. The story is very funny and at the same time it’s strangely moving and like the villainess of the piece, Zenia, it’s quite beguiling. Let me ask you right off the bat, your title, The Robber Bride refers or alludes to the Grimm Fairy Tale, The Robber Bridegroom about a maiden-devouring monster. Is that how this fable, this contemporary fable began, with the gender reversal of that fairy tale?
Atwood: Well, no it didn’t actually begin that way, but that got into it fairly early on. One of the reasons it’s called The Robber Bride is that one of the three women from whose point of view we hear the story has twin daughters and when they are about five they decide that all of the characters in all of the stories that they are hearing have to be female. So, of course, if all of the characters are female then you’re inevitably going to have a female villain as well.
Smith: Well, Zenia is not only a man-eater, but it seems to me she eats just about everybody.
Atwood: She’s very hungry.
Smith: I want to ask you certain things about the development of this story. But Zenia, she’s been a destructive presence in the lives of very different middle-aged Toronto women, Tony, Charis, and Roz. Is Zenia something of archetypal trickster because she seems to appear and disappear and reappear and takes many forms and guises in their lives? They met in college in the early 60s and then in the successive decades she does a number on each one of them. She seems to be a magical archetypal trickster figure.
Atwood: Well, she is certainly a slight-of-hand artist and let me just say that in the early 70s I worked for a small literary publishing company in Toronto that was named the House of Anansi. It was named that after the African trickster god because one of the founders had worked in Africa and knew about this trickster figure. There is an organization in Canada called the Committee to Re-establish the Trickster. One of the guiding geniuses behind it is Thompson Highway who is a native Canadian playwright and the trickster appears as a sexually ambivalent figure in one of his plays. Although Mr. Jung more or less dismissed trickster figures as not being important in his pantheon of archetypal figures, in fact, every culture seems to have had such a figure or god. There is no particular reason why such a person cannot be female since such characters usually shift their shape.
Smith: Zenia not only appears and disappears and reappears in their lives--I mean as people do--but she literally appears. I think she comes in Tony’s window one night. And she just sort of appears in that magical way--unannounced.
Atwood: Well, there is a fire escape and a tree involved. She doesn’t just fly.
Smith: I don’t want to suggest that there is anything implausible about The Robber Bride but she is quite a force--Zenia. Now you once said that your novels, all your novels begin with a scene or image, in the gestation and evolution of the writing of the story. This one too? The Robber Bride too?
Atwood: Yes, this one too. But the scene went through some transformation. The Handmaid’s Tale began with the hanging scene and then that scene migrated to the back of the book. A very similar thing happened here because at the back of the book there is a scene involving a very artsy craftsy ceramic urn in which Zenia’s ashes at that time are placed. That urn started out as an ashtray, and then it turned into an urn and moved to the back of the book. It started out at the front of the book. So you see how things get moved around in the process of writing. But I had also been thinking of writing a female military historian for some time.
Smith: You have a poem do you not?
Atwood: Yes, it precedes the novel and it is the voice of a military historian who is female so it has been an interest of mine for a number of years. The question was what kind of a book would she appear in.
Smith: I was wondering about the scene which is toward the beginning of the book in the Toxique Restaurant in Toronto. The historical flashbacks of the three characters are sort of framed by the lunches in the Toxique Restaurant. I wondered if that scene, where Tony and Charis and Roz see Zenia once again, five years after she’s suppose to have been blown up in Beirut, was the germination of the story.
Atwood: Well, it got written fairly early. But as you can see it got written three times from three different points of view because in the beginning of the book each of the three characters gets up, has breakfast, goes to work, and then meets the other two for lunch. So we get all three of them seeing the entrance of Zenia and each one of them has a different reaction. Charis, for instance, who doesn’t really believe in death, thinks that Zenia is in fact dead and is just making a re-entrance as a spirit. Then after a while she figures out that this person actually has a body. But that is not Tony’s first thought at all. Nor is it the thought of Roz. So each one of them sees her walk in, but each one of them has a different reaction and each one of them very selflessly decides that in order to protect the other two she alone will take Zenia on.
Smith: Incidentally, does the Toxique Restaurant exist in Toronto? If it doesn’t, it should.
Atwood: Well, that’s what I think. The most amazing things happened. It doesn’t actually exist yet, but I keep saying it will, it will. Restaurants like it exist. It’s kind of a blend of several of them. I got a letter from England saying, oh, we’re so excited. Did you name the Toxique after our restaurant which has the very same name? Somewhere in Somerset or Kent and I’m invited for a free meal if I happen to be in the region. So, this restaurant exists in England.
Smith: Well, I’m sure that there’ll be one in Toronto.
Atwood: It’s also the name of a novel by Francoise Sagan, believe it or not.
Smith: You mean the Toxique Restaurant. Is that right?
Atwood: She wrote a novel a long time ago called Toxique which is the French word for toxic. And I think of it as a blend of toxic and boutique. It’s in the boutique area of Toronto.
Smith: Now among other things The Robber Bride is a war story. I mean it begins in time present at the brink of the Gulf War, October 23 1990. The principle characters are all three, I must say all four although Zenia’s something else again, war babies. They were born during the war and their lives have been lonely and orphaned and in some way abandoned by their mothers. Tony is a military historian as you said and, of course, there’s the battle of the gender wars, the battle of the sexes in which Zenia is a double-agent. I was fascinated by the whole notion of this as a war novel, but a guerrilla war. Tony is saying, Zenia had been in her life, she had also been at war and then she goes on to say, "an unofficial war, a guerrilla war, a war she may not have known she was waging but a war nevertheless. Who was the enemy? What past wrong was she seeking to avenge? Where was her battlefield?" I’ve been haunted since I read the book about this notion of this on-going guerrilla war that seems to be deeper or longer than simply the gender wars or the battle of the sexes and I just wanted to ask you about that.
Atwood: Well, if you think of all of the four characters, Tony, Charis, and Roz are all hooked into the fabric of society although tenuously as you say. They were war babies. The missing father is a factor in all of their lives. Two of the fathers come back altered by the war. The third one never comes back, and in fact, the war never ended it just moved around and it is still going on. We are still living the effects of the Second World War. Look at Yugoslavia. It shifted around. And the guru of war these days is John Keegan who says that in the future wars are much more likely to be guerrilla wars then they are to be the kind of everybody in, huge conflict that we had last in the forties. So all of the characters are hooked into society, each one of them inherits. Tony inherits from her parents. Charis inherits from her grandmother. And Roz inherits from her father. So they all have a hook into society. But Zenia doesn’t. Zenia is in a way in complete free fall. As far as we know, she has no family. She doesn’t have any financial fallback of that kind. She is in the Robin Hood position. I mean she is essentially an outlaw.
Smith: And she robs the rich.
Atwood: She robs the rich and doesn’t give to the poor.
Smith: She robs the three women not only of their men, although one of them alas comes back, and she robs them of money among other things. Now I must say there is a wonderful footnote to the war story part of this because time present is on the brink of the Gulf War. But the epilogue, the outcome, the second funeral of Zenia which takes place in Lake Ontario is November 11, which is November 11, 1991, which is of course what we used to call Armistice Day down here. It’s now Veteran’s Day but the day that the first World War ended. I thought that was a great touch.
Atwood: We have an even better name for it. We call it Remembrance Day.
Smith: Yeah, Remembrance Day that’s a better name.
Atwood: So much can fit into that idea of Remembrance Day. I mean what exactly are we going to remember. Well, it doesn’t say so we could remember anything at all.
Smith: Is Zenia a projection of the inner life, the dark side, the repressed fears and desires of the three women because there are all kinds of signs to that? I think Tony says once, I’m paraphrasing, I shuddered because it was too close to what I thought. Is she some kind of shadow of each one of them?
Atwood: Well, she gets the shadows of each one of them. In other words they project on to her a good deal of their psychic material, but we do that in our lives, too, primarily on to two kinds of people. We’ll leave the political leaders out of it for the moment and the movie stars. But we project on to people our psychic contents, number one, when we fall in love and suddenly those people that we are falling in love with become much bigger than life, and more charismatic and more wonderful and they glow with a soft inner light and, number two, people that we hate. They become much bigger and much more threatening and more evil than they probably are in real life. So Zenia, presenting a more or less blank screen, and then helping people along with her suggestions about herself is like a great big movie screen for the psychic lives of the other characters.
Smith: She’s like a mirror? I think the mirror figure is what one of the characters refers to, what is she doing on this side of the mirror, something like that, and it seems that Zenia certainly is this for Tony, Charis, and Roz. This kind of character presents the mask that we want, tells us what we want to hear and that’s why she’s such a chameleon.
Atwood: And that’s why she’s so successful as a con artist. Because that is essentially what con artists do whatever form their con takes. They’re offering you something that you want and the difference between that and a legitimate transaction is that they aren’t really going to give it to you. They are going to take the money and run. But you have to want it first or you wouldn’t let them in the door. You know if you’re not in the market for a refrigerator, you’ll just say, no, thank you very much I already have one.
Smith: And that’s absolutely true with her. After the three historical remembrances of their past, their girlhood’s etc. their traumatic experiences with Zenia, then you come back to time present October 23, 1990 and those encounters are absolutely shocking and staggering because Zenia has the truth. I mean she has given you the illusion . . .
Atwood: Hang on a second here. Can you believe somebody who has lied so much?
Atwood: They don’t know whether to believe her or not.
Smith: Yeah, you’re right.
Atwood: They don’t know.
Smith: Well, isn’t it Tony who says a little later on, Zenia is history. And, of course, what you can believe of history is the question that she hasn’t solved and perhaps none of us has. In that sense the revelations that Zenia gives to them staggers them, particularly the details about their sexual egos and vanities and all of that. I felt there was something cathartic about that. . . I mean I was absolutely horrified, but I said, you know every once in a while when something involuntarily shocks your worst fears, your worst images of yourself out, why there’s something truly cathartic about it. I felt that that was true of that last part of the book.
Atwood: Well, it is true as Lewis Clyde says, we’ll get back to your trickster idea. But the trickster is also the messenger of the gods as Mercury, in the Olympian pantheon who is, number one, the god of thieves, number two, the god of money, number three, the god of communications, and number four, because he’s the god of communications it is he who brings the messages. I remember Mercury because he used to be on the front of our telephone book in the early 50s. There was Mercury with his wings and his staff and wound around his middle and coyly concealing his private portions was a great big telephone cable. Did you have a telephone book like that?
Smith: I remember that some years ago. I was always fascinated by Mercury, especially all the cables strangulating the messenger. And I always wondered how to read that.
Atwood: Well, there he was flying through the air.
Smith: The three heroines or principle victims of Zenia’s seduction are wonderfully developed as characters in they’re own right. Now Tony, tiny Tony, a military historian--talk about against type--she who can read like a historian should, she who can read backwards as well as forwards and who has a relief map of Europe in her basement. Then there’s the spiritual Charis--now that character could be a trendy new age joke. She works in a boutique, I think it’s called Radiance and yet her story I found genuinely tragic. And Roz, overweight Roz from the high-powered money world is absolutely delightful especially with her twin daughters and her son Larry. How could you resist not writing whole novels about each one of them because I was very taken with each one of them?
Atwood: Well this novel is perfect for recessional times because it does have three for the price of one. You get each of those stories and three whole different life stories.
Smith: And of course Zenia gives each one of them the past that is her alleged past that they want. She has three different passports to the Second World War and beyond.
Atwood: That’s right.
Smith: For each one of them. Now on the other hand, the male characters don’t figure as prominently and they seem marginal. Are they symbolic?
Atwood: The men are the loot.
Smith: They’re really objects?
Atwood: Well, usually in a real war what gets killed is the men and what gets stolen are the women--in wars as we have known them over the past 2000 years. But because this is one in which we reverse the genders, the men get to be the loot. You know that there are a lot of men who will enhance their own notions of their own sexual prowess by stealing their friends’ girlfriends. Well, there are women who do that too. It’s a form of power to make off with somebody that one person of your same sex values.
Smith: The men are objects or loot as you say and they really don’t stand a chance. On the other hand I found them differentiated. For the benefit of the people who have not yet read The Robber Bride I must say this is not a man-trashing book at all. But the vision of men that you have throughout is really very interesting.
Atwood: The female characters indulge these men and make up excuses for them because if you love somebody and value them and want them back you can’t believe it was them who did it. Right? You have to believe that it was this other person who came and stole them rather than that they walked off willingly with the third person. So the women, in fact, take a quite indulgent view of these men and see them as putty in Zenia’s hands and Zenia finally says to them, look these guys made choices of their own.
Smith: Absolutely true. It’s like the three women really are not only protecting them but in some way like a mother buffers them from reality, from history not just from some of the truths that Zenia really catalyzes in this way.
Atwood: Well, the women quite frequently--this is true of women in real life situations--think that men have all of this power. But when it comes down to a particular man they happen to be involved with they’re quite likely to feel that this person is more fragile than they are and that they have to therefore indulged this person and cover up and rearrange reality a bit to make it easier for him. You find all of these women doing this. Sound familiar any female listeners?
Smith: Well, let me say to all readers who like not only very beautifully written books but also very thoughtful and haunting books that The Robber Bride, recently published by Doubleday, will be a really great delight. And Margaret Atwood, thank you so much for joining us. We’ll look for more magical and meaningful stories from you in the future.
Atwood: Well, Thank you.
Smith: This is Tom Smith saying so long until next time on The Book Show.
Award-winning novelist Kaye Gibbons once said of Flannery O’Connor’s fiction: “The precision of her language and the boundless depths of her thought have consistently amazed me. Her ability to see joy as well as tragedy in the everyday goings on of ‘good country people’ has often redeemed me.” Gibbons could just as easily have been offering a description of her own work, for Gibbons’ novels also tell tales of ‘good country people,’ and portray their stories with a generous eye that most often sees courage in difficult circumstances.
Gibbons’s latest book, due this May, is entitled On the Occasion of My Last Afternoon.
Probably the best known of Gibbons’s novels is her first, Ellen Foster. This novel, written when Gibbons was only 25, won the Sue Kaufman Prize for first fiction and a citation from the Ernest Hemingway Foundation as well as wide acclaim. Recently Ellen Foster along with another Gibbons novel, A Virtuous Woman (1989), have been named to Oprah Winfrey’s reading club list.
Ellen Foster tells the tale of eleven-year old Ellen or ‘old Ellen’ as this first-person narrator refers to herself. We enter Ellen’s world just before her kind-but-despairing mother commits suicide and she is left alone with her mean, hard-drinking father. But this sad event only begins Ellen’s troubles, which as one reviewer noted, border on the gothic. She escapes from her father’s molestation attempt to search for a home. She finds one with a kind teacher only to be taken away by the courts and sent to live with a grandmother who vents her grief at her daughter’s death by treating Ellen poorly. The grandmother dies and Ellen is sent to live with a self-absorbed, ungenerous aunt who eventually turns her out of the house. Despite this list of tragedies that befall Ellen, Gibbons uses the first-person narrator expertly to focus the reader’s attention not on the misery of Ellen’s life but on her resourceful and good humored handling of it. Here, for example, is Ellen’s response to Christmas on her own:
Although I did not believe in Santa Claus I figured I had a little something coming to me. So on Christmas Eve I went with Starletta to the colored store and bought myself some things I had been dying for and paper to wrap them with . . .
It made my heart beat fast to shop. The store was all lit up with Christmas cheer and shoppers with armloads of presents.
I got two variety packs of construction paper, a plastic microscope complete with slides, a diary with a lock and key, an alarm clock, and some shoes.
When I got home I wrapped the presents and wondered if I ought to wrap something laying around the house for my daddy. I did not have enough paper. He did not come home that night anyway.
I wrapped them at the kitchen table and hid them.
When I found them the next day I was very surprised in the spirit of Christmas.
This remarkable voice makes for the novel’s mix of humor and pathos. Equally adept is Gibbons’s handling of Ellen’s racism. For most of the book Ellen convincingly draws self-esteem from the fact that no matter how bad her life is at least she’s not colored like her friend Starletta. In the end Ellen realizes her misconceptions about colored people. This ending completely satisfies and then astonishes as one realizes how difficult such a conclusion is to pull off.
Each of the four novels that follow Ellen Foster delve into the depths of what Gibbons has called “around-the-house and in-the-yard fiction.” Gibbons’s characters, many of them women, inhabit such homefronts. These women’s lives are marked by difficult circumstances: poverty, sickness, mental illness, and ill-treatment by men. Always Gibbons displays a generosity toward her characters that makes the reader admire them not for their saintliness but for their humanity.
In her fifth book, Sights Unseen, Gibbons gives a moving sketch of Maggie, who is a manic-depressive. This character, seen through the eyes of her daughter, manages very little of the practicalities of her life. She does not fulfill the narrator’s wish for a good mother or even an adequate one. But she does have her peculiar triumphs, including vanquishing the harsh patriarch who so unyieldingly dominates through much of the novel. Once again Gibbons’s first-person narrator uses language that traces all the emotional nuances as she portrays her mother doing her best with a less-than-envious lot. In this novel, like all of her writing, Gibbons reminds us of the indomitable spirit of our humanity.
Ernesto Cardenal has lived a life as fascinating to any student of biography as his poems are engaging to literary critics and writers. The controversy that has surrounded Cardenal has often arisen out of attempts to reconcile the various roles by which he is identified (poet, priest, revolutionary, statesman, promoter of the arts) and the seemingly conflicting ideologies for which he has stood at different points in his life (Christian, Marxist, nonviolent, militant). Cut-and-dry categories are convenient when and where they can be applied, but frustrating when they merge in a single person, especially when some of these categories traditionally stand in opposition to one another.
The kind of coalescence of roles and ideals found in the life of Ernesto Cardenal is also naturally evident in his poetry. It is what Robert Bly referred to when he called Cardenal's poetry "impure, defiantly, in that it unites political ugliness and the beauty of imaginative vision." But when it comes to a general estimation of his gifts as a poet and his contributions to contemporary poetry (especially in the Spanish language), he is less controversial and there is greater consensus. Choice magazine has called Cardenal "one of the world's major poets," a sentiment that has been echoed in other quarters.
Cardenal was born on January 20, 1925 in Granada, Nicaragua. He studied literature first in Mexico City and later at Columbia University, where under the tutelage of Lionel Trilling, Carl Van Doren and poet Babette Deutsch he developed an interest in American poetry that would lead to his translation into Spanish (with his compatriot José Coronel Urtecho) of poems by Walt Whitman, Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, among others. A resulting anthology, together with a later translation of American poets published in 1963, came to have a significant influence on Nicaraguan poetry. After concluding his studies and living for a time in Paris and Madrid, Cardenal returned to Nicaragua at the age of 25, already with a growing reputation throughout the Spanish-speaking world as a poet and critic.
Over the next seven years, while remaining immensely productive as a man of letters, he became politically active. In 1952 he was jailed for publishing an epigram that attacked the dictatorial Nicaraguan president, Anastazio Somoza, and two years later he was involved in the abortive conspiracy to assassinate Somoza, who declared Cardenal an outlaw in 1957 for his support of the Sandinista front. That same year Cardenal entered the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky. In 1965 he was ordained a priest and founded a Christian commune, Our Lady of Solentiname, on the island of Mancarrón at the southeastern end of Lake Nicaragua, where he continued to play an active part in resisting the Somoza government. In 1977, after their involvement in an attack on the barracks of the National Guard in nearby San Carlos, Somoza attacked and destroyed the Solentiname community, killing many of its members. After the victory of the Sandinista front in July 1979, Cardenal became the Minister of Culture for the Revolutionary Nicaraguan Government, vigorously promoting literary workshops and arts activities throughout the country until he resigned the post in 1988.
Cardenal defines himself as a Christian-Marxist whose first calling is to serve God. But to Cardenal serving God does not mean leading a cloistered spiritual existence divorced from everyday realities. On the contrary, it means being politically committed and involved in the struggles of ordinary people against repressive systems of government. In Cardenal's case this involves not only the people of his native Nicaragua, for whom he was an important revolutionary figure, but also the disenfranchised in any repressive society. Though he speaks of and for the peoples of Latin America through his verse, the scope of Cardenal's message is not limited by national or even regional borders.
Ernesto Cardenal's poetry, then, should be seen not as a second calling, but as an integral part of his first and perhaps his only calling. It is a tool for the larger spiritual mission (in part evangelical, in part revelatory and prophetic) to which he has dedicated his life: conversion and enlightenment.
Conversion experiences mark two of the major defining moments of Cardenal's own life, first when he came to Christianity in 1956 and joined the Trappist monastery in Kentucky the following year under the spiritual guidance of poet and religious philosopher, Thomas Merton, and later when he came to Marxism during a three-month visit to Cuba in 1970.
To Cardenal the doctrines and precepts of Christianity and Marxism do not mutually exclude one another. In fact, he has often commented that it was through Christ and the Gospels that he came to Marxism. These defining experiences of conversion lie at the heart of his mission. He works toward converting others in a manner that both enkindles and heightens spiritual and political awareness, which he sees as of a piece. As he said in an interview with Hugo Moreno in the December 1993 issue of Bookpress: "Whoever says that the Gospel is not political knows absolutely nothing about the Gospel. Ghandi, for example, taught that if a religion is not political, it is nothing. And the same can be said of all other human endeavors, including poetry of course."
Cardenal's spiritual mission has at times led to his being openly at odds with the very Church in which he is an ordained priest. Over the years he has been admonished and reprimanded by the Vatican, on at least one occasion by Pope John Paul II himself, over his decision to hold public office, and over his promotion of Liberation Theology. In its aims Liberation Theology is utopian in that it seeks to return Christian culture to the practices of early Christianity by blending Christian and Marxist ideals, opposing the Church's hierarchical structure, and approaching the Gospels from within a context of class struggle. In a 1983 interview with Teofilo Cabestrero he explained his controversial and seemingly irreconcilable aims in strikingly simple terms:
My obedience is to God's will. If in my case and in these circumstances I see that God's will is expressed through the historical conditions of this revolution, then I consider that my belonging to the revolution is my obedience to God. (as quoted by Russell Salmon in his Introduction to Golden UFOs, Indiana University Press, 1992)
Cardenal's poetry, then, must also be read within the context of a spiritual mission that is anything but reticent. It involves not just political awareness but activism, the common thread that ties together his expansive and diverse body of work.
Of Cardenal's more than 35 books in Spanish, many have been translated into English, including Zero Hour & Other Documentary Poems (New Directions, 1980), With Walker in Nicaragua (University Press of New England, 1984), From Nicaragua with Love: Poems 1979-1986 (City Lights Press, 1986), Flights of Victory: Songs in Celebration of the Nicaraguan Revolution (Curbstone Press, 1988), and Golden UFO's: The Indian Poems (Indiana University Press, 1992).
His most recent book translated into English, Cosmic Canticle (Curbstone Press, 1993), is widely considered to be his great opus. Encompassing 30 years of writing and first published in Spanish in 1989 as Cántico cósmico, the poem runs more than 470 pages in John Lyons' English translation, and consists of 43 cantos. At the core of Cosmic Canticle is Cardenal's desire to provide a vision of cosmic development by drawing upon diverse frames of reference: the spheres of science (astronomy, physics, biology), history (human as well as natural), personal experience, mythology, philosophy, politics and theology, forming what José Coronel Urtecho has called "a scientific-poetic whole."
The immense scope of the poem, which "interweaves brilliant political-economic chronicle with panoramic spiritual information" (Allen Ginsberg), is eclipsed only by the striking originality of the poet's vision, reinforced by his abilities and range as a verse stylist and storyteller, leading Harold Pinter to proclaim Cosmic Canticle "a towering piece of work, an extraordinary achievement." Indeed, on the book's dust jacket the publisher warns readers that "to compare Cosmic Canticle--narrative poem, mythic song, epic--to any poetic work previously written is to diminish its originality." Yet even while it disavows any such lineage, or category, this very warning is strongly reminiscent of the kind of statement Milton makes at the outset of Paradise Lost where he promises to pursue "things unattempted yet is prose and rhyme," a well established epic convention which, whether intended or not, invites readers to contextualize Cardenal's poem in a tradition of grand epic works that runs from Homer to Dante to Ezra Pound.
The influence of Pound on Ernesto Cardenal is something the latter has freely admitted. It is especially evident in Cardenal's development of the Poundian canto as a subdivision of the long poem, which is as much characterized by tonal, rhythmical, syntactical, and other stylistic qualities as it is by any formal ones. "Canto" and "canticle" derive from the same Latin root, (canere, to sing), both denoting a song, though the latter is more frequently used in liturgical contexts, such as Canticle of Canticles (Song of Solomon) from the Bible. As critics such as Isabel Fraire have been quick to point out, Cardenal does not merely imitate Pound's canto form, he has refined it, making sparer use of Pound's techniques and investing the canto with a more delicate and controlled balance.
Together with Jóse Coronel Urtecho, Cardenal was the initiator and foremost proponent of the concept of exteriorismo in poetry, an aesthetic that can also be traced to Pound's influence, in how poetry presents the world, its objects and images, directly through things rather than abstractions. Another distinct feature of exteriorismo, however, is its overt revolutionary politics. In his prologue to Poesia nicaraguense Cardenal explains in some detail what he means by exteriorismo. It is worth quoting at length:
Exteriorism is the poetry created with the images of the exterior world, the world which we see and feel, and is, in general, the specific world of poetry. Exteriorism is subjective poetry: narrative and anecdotal, made with the elements of real life and with concrete things, with proper names and precise details and exact dates and numbers and facts and sayings. It is "impure" poetry, poetry that is, for some, closer to prose than to poetry, and they have mistakenly called it "prosaic," due to the fact that its subject matter is as ample as that of prose (and due also to the fact that, because of the decadence of poetry in the last centuries, the epic has been written in prose and not in verse).
Interiorist poetry, on the other hand, is a subjectivist poetry, made only with abstract or symbolic words like rose, skin, ashes, lips, absence, bitterness, dream, feeling, foam, desire, shade, time, blood, stone, weeping, night. . . .
I consider the only poetry that can express Latin American reality, and get to the people, and be revolutionary, is exteriorist. (as quoted by Russell Salmon in his Introduction to Golden UFOs, Indiana University Press, 1992)
So the overtly political and revolutionary themes that characterize much of Cardenal’s poetry also lie at the heart of his aesthetics. Some critics, however, have lamented that his very classification as a "political poet" has served to displace or diminish a much-deserved critical focus on Cardenal as an innovative stylist. His use of "cinematic" techniques such as accelerated montage and cross-cutting in his verse is original and innovative and his style seems to blend some of the best features of poets as diverse as Whitman and Pound while remaining distinct from either, and far from derivative.
Midnight in Solentiname,
(from Cosmic Canticle, cantiga 22)
Yes, some of Cardenal's influences as a poet and thinker do include Pound, Neruda and his former mentor Thomas Merton, with whom he studied theology as a novitiate at the Trappist Monastery in Kentucky from 1957 to 1959. Pound's influence is the most apparent. Merton helped Cardenal to broaden his spiritual awareness, and Neruda his understanding of how poetry could be revolutionary. But any attempt to pigeonhole his work in one tradition or another, one school or style, will inevitably frustrate a critic. As the lesson of his life reminds us, he defies easy categorization.
Steven Hartman is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at the University at Albany and a Program Fellow for the NYS Writers Institute.