Friday, October 14, 2016

Hector Reproaching Paris, by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1824)

We close our brief visit with painter Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859) with his 1824 picture, Hector Reproaching Paris, which now resides in the Amiens Museum.

Your Correspondent must confess to never having seen this picture in person, and the photographic representations I’ve been able to find online are not great.  But, it is so interesting that I couldn’t let our look at Delorme pass without a few thoughts on it.

We had written about the very formal Neoclassical Empire style, and how Delorme seemed to separate himself from that tradition a bit, thanks to the influence of his love for Italian Renaissance painters such as Michelangelo and Raphael.  This picture here, with its rigid formalism and tableaux-like staging, is more in line with the style of Delorme’s time, but he still manages to incorporate some Renaissance-Mannerist thinking.

Those who remember their Iliad, recall that the whole disaster was predicated on Paris falling in love with, and taking away, the beautiful Helen of Troy.  Her defection leads to a cataclysmic war, one that takes the life of Paris’ brother, Hector, who is killed at the hand of Achilles.

Delorme’s picture illustrates the scene where Hector breaks into the lovers’ apartments to call Paris to war.  (In the text, Paris is already preparing for battle when Hector enters, but Delorme creates more drama with his staging.)  Delorme’s craft perfectly captures the differences between Hector, the warrior, and Paris, the lover.

The world of Paris and Helen is one of love and sensuality, presented in a pale, golden light.  A statue of Aphrodite (Goddess of Love) holding a dove (symbol of peace) stands in the background, while fragrant blossoms are strewn about the floor and the table is set with food and drink.  On the floor is the lyre that Paris has dropped; he stands partly on it, as if burying his worldly pleasures.  The sensuality of this realm is underscored by the nudity of Paris and Helen; particularly that of Paris, who is caught between the opposing worlds of love and war.  In an ironic touch, Paris grows more naked still – he is removing his wreath – before donning his helmet and armor.

Paris is in marked contrast with the placid and serene beauty of Helen.  She is the lynchpin of the entire tragedy, but remains a passive object to the passions around her.  More important, this perfumed world of love and pleasure is rightly her realm, and she is perfectly at home in it.  It is the figures of Hector and Paris who are the aliens or partial visitors to this space.  (Indeed, note how her pose is similar to the statue of Aphrodite in the background.)  The peacock feathers strike a note of vanity, while the leopard skin on the bed adds a bit of wild carnality.

Hector, depicted largely in shadow, appears as a representative of war, complete with red mantle.  The shield and spear are near-black outlines (the spear being particularly phallic) – this darkness announces the darkness of war.  Indeed, the right-hand side of the canvas, where Paris reaches for his armor, is also dark; the lovers exist in the shadow of war.

Delorme relies on chiaroscuro, more a Renaissance than Neoclassical technique, to provide the contrast between the worlds of love and war, of indulgence and discipline, and of pleasure and duty.  More important, the shadowy figure of Hector is supremely out-of-place in the world of Paris and Helen.

As we saw with Hero and Leander and Cephalus and Aroura, Delorme clearly always sides with the lovers.  I’m with him.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hero and Leander, by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1814)

We see here a very different type of picture by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859), Hero and Leander, painted in 1814.

This is a Greek myth telling of the love between Hero, a priestess of Aphrodite that lived in a tower in Sestos beside the Hellespont (Dardanelles, today), and Leander, a young man from Abydos on the opposite side of the strait.  Leader fell in love with Hero and would swim every night across the Hellespont to be with her.  She would light a lamp at the top of her tower to help lead the way for him.

Aphrodite was the Goddess of Love, but Hero was a virgin.  Leander tells Hero that Aphrodite would not value the supplication of a virgin, and convinces her to let him make love to her.  Their love affair lasts through the summer; but on one stormy night, the waves buffet Leander, who becomes lost; the storm also blows out Hero’s guiding light.  Leander drowns, and when Hero sees his dead body, she throws herself over the tower’s edge, uniting them in death.

This tale has been popular with painters, poets, troubadours and writers for thousands of years.  (One wonders if the seed of Romeo and Juliet can be found within it.)  Of the many literary retellings of the story, perhaps the best known was by Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593).  In Marlowe’s version, Leander is spotted during his swim by Neptune, who confuses him with Ganymede and carries him to the bottom of the ocean.  Neptune is clearly besotted by the young man.  Marlowe writes of "[i]magining that Ganymede, displeas'd, [h]ad left the Heavens ... [t]he lusty god embrac'd him, call'd him love ... He watched his arms and, as they opened wide [a]t every stroke, betwixt them would he slide [a]nd steal a kiss, ... And dive into the water, and there pry [u]pon his breast, his thighs, and every limb, ... [a]nd talk of love," while the boy, naive and unaware of Greek love practices, protests, "'You are deceiv'd, I am no woman, I.' Thereat smil'd Neptune.”  When Neptune realizes his mistake, he brings Leander back to the shore, giving him a bracelet that would keep him safe from drowning.

Leander arrives at Hero’s tower.  She answers the door to find the youth nude, and after much love talk, consummate their relationship.  The poem ends with dawn approaching; Marlowe was never able to finish his epic; he would be murdered in a barroom brawl before completion.

Delorme would no doubt have been aware of Marlowe’s text, and it’s possible to see where it informed his painting.  With his delicate curls, beatific smile and shimmering, supple body, Leander is quite beautiful.  Hero anoints his tresses with perfume (or, perhaps, sweet-smelling oils) taken from the open box beside them, a particular irony, seeing that the youth is doomed to drown.  Take a moment to look at how wonderfully Delorme delineates each of Leander’s fingers (on Hero’s shoulder).  These are not the fingers of a Samson, but, rather, a pretty boy.  And though he looks up at Hero with adoration, he is a little … sappy.

The most splendid component of this picture is the glorious Hero.  Once again Delorme harkens back to Raphael for inspiration of the heroine’s face.  But it is in the depiction of her voluptuous (and, frankly, sexual body) that the quality of the picture rests.  It is no mistake that the centerpiece of the entire painting is Hero’s mons veneris; it lies dead-center in the picture, and Delomre’s use of light draws the eye’s attention directly to it.  It is also the center of the figure, and the playful gestures of both her arms and her legs seem to stem from it.  (Even the application of perfume is code for what is going on, as the couple rejoices next to an open box.)

Delorme’s coyness extends to the background, where he has a makeshift curtain block the background window; he places the lyre at the base of Aphrodite’s statue.  In the symbolism of ancient Greece, Orpheus was able to play the lyre in such a way as to knock down stone walls.

This is a witty, beautifully constructed picture.  Not inexplicably moving, like his Cephalus and Aurora, but accomplished nonetheless.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Cephalas Carried Off by Aurora, by Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1851)

Here is a wonderfully (and unexpectedly) tender painting by an artist we have not covered before, Pierre Claude Francois Delorme (1783-1859).  He is not as well known in the United States as he should be, but his relatively small oeuvre is replete with delicacy and grace.

Delorme was born in Paris and was a student of Anne-Louis Girodet-Trioson (1767-1824) – who was, himself, a student of Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825), whom we have covered many times in these pages.   The influence of both Girodet-Trioson and (once-removed) David are readily apparent.  Delorme was, in many ways, an exemplar of the classical style of painting of the Empire period.  He painted a number of significant works, including pictures for the palaces of Versailles, Fontainbleau, Neurilly and Compiegne, as well as various Parisian churches.

Like his masters, Delorme produced pictures featuring monumentally sculpted figures in a posed, almost tableaux-like composition.  His interests were historical and mythological, like others of the period, and he sought to tell universal truths about people through evocations of a more sublime ideal.

However, Delorme parts company with his contemporaries because he also carries within his worldview an earlier, Renaissance ideal.  Following his apprenticeship, Delorme spent many years in Italy, where he became enamored of the works of such later Renaissance figures as Raphael and Michelangelo.   The influence of these painters – more human, more emotional, more fluid -- lent his work an added depth; almost as if the Mannerist experiment added a touch of humanity and emotion to what is a technically brilliant, but emotionally cold, school of painting.

The story of Cephalus and Aurora is told in Book Seven of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Cephalus, an Athenian hero, falls in love with Procis, and marries her. Shortly afterwards, while hunting deer, he catches the eye of Aurora, Goddess of the Dawn.  Though a Goddess, Aurora was sexually adventurous and was frequently attracted to young mortal men.  Descending from her mountain home, Aurora carried Cephalus off with her. However, on finding that he remained faithful to Procris, she allowed him to return home, privately swearing vengeance. She caused a spirit of jealousy to infect their marriage and this eventually resulted in the accidental death of Procris who suffered a wound inflicted by Cephalus with his enchanted hunting spear. 

For a story with such a tragic ending, this is an exceptionally sweet and affecting picture.

Let’s start with Aurora.  The debt to Raphael is particularly strong in this picture, as is evidenced by the serene beauty of Aurora, and the delicate pansexuality of the putti.  The gossamer quality of her hair, along with the placidity of her gaze, mark Delorme’s Aurora as a Renaissance figure.  Look, too, at her delicately drawn feet, and the diaphanous quality of her dress, which renders her leg visible.  This is draughtsmanship of a high caliber, and the subtlety of the lighting effects are clearly influenced by Late Renaissance (or Mannerist) painting.

Cephalus also looks more like a Renaissance figure than a figure from the French Empire era.  Delorme paints a male figure of heart-breaking beauty.  Look at the graceful lines of the body and the angelically handsome face; it’s impossible to look at Cephalus without a sense of awe at his transformative beauty.

Delorme achieves this with strategic lighting effects:  his strong brow and sensitive line of nose are well lit.  The light then accentuates the wide, capacious breast, lilting down to the stomach and growing darker, darker around the powerful legs.  The artist also hints at the width of his body by the hot, white light of the right knee, popping up behind the shadowed foreleg.

But the real heart of the picture is Aurora’s hand, placed lovingly on the breast of Cephalus.  This component, if nothing else in the picture, is the work of pure genius.  That one touch denotes romantic love, sexual passion, possession, gentleness and protection.  The impression transcends the emotional and moves into the range of the elemental.

Artist Leon Kossoff (born 1926), would often look at the paintings of great masters, sketching his own conceptions of the art before him.  He would often sit before a painting of Cephalus and Aurora (though, the one he gazed at compulsively was by Poussin).  One day, he had a transformative experience before the painting, which he remembered thusly: It seemed as though I was experiencing the work for the first time.  I suppose there is a difference between looking and experiencing.  Paintings of this quality, in which the subject is endlessly glowing with luminosity, can, in an unexpected moment, surprise the viewer, revealing unexplored areas of self.

That is exactly how I react to Delomre’s depiction.  That glowing quality of luminosity completely takes me by surprise, and I feel as if I’m keying into some extraordinarily powerful emotional undercurrent.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, by Glen Weldon (2013)

A few weeks ago, we looked at Glen Weldon’s delicious The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.  We enjoyed it so much, we moved onto Weldon’s earlier book on the world’s first superhero, Superman: The Unauthorized Biography.  With Batman, Weldon had hoped to put nerd culture into some type of larger perspective; his Superman book is less ambitious, but more focused and successful a production.  If you are a Superman buff, it is highly recommended.

We here at The Jade Sphinx have always much preferred Superman to his darker counterpart.  This is a prejudice we suspect that Weldon shares, as his book on Superman is relentlessly amusing, affectionate and reverential.  Superman’s creators, Siegel and Schuster, says Weldon, saw their creation as quite simply, the ultimate American: a Gatsby who’d arrived on a bright new shore, having propelled himself there by burning his own past as fuel.  The Old World could no longer touch him, and now it was left to him to forge his own path.  Throughout the book, Weldon’s prose seems charged with a powerful nostalgia for a simpler, and perhaps wiser, America.  One that still believed in heroes and other symbols of hope; and, we suspect, one where childish delights were viewed in perspective by adult fans, and not with the soul-crushing scrutiny of today’s Perpetual Adolescents.

One of Weldon’s strongest passages concerns science fiction writer Larry Niven’s 1971 essay on the possible outcomes of Superman having sex with Earth women.  The essay, Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex, made excruciating (and amusing)  conclusions, and it can still be found and makes for great reading.  But Weldon places this now 45 year old work in contemporary perspective:  The gag, of course, is the deadpan, painstaking manner in which Niven lays out his thought process.  This is where you end up if you take this stuff too seriously, he seems to say: killer sperm from outer space.

Looking back on Niven’s humorous essay today, it’s impossible to see it as anything but a chilling harbinger of the high-level weapons-grade nerdery that would seize comics in the decades that followed.  All too soon, legions of fans and creators adopted Niven’s let’s-pin-this-to-the-specimen-board approach and proceeded to leach humor and whimsy and good old-fashioned, Beppo the Super-Monkey-level goofiness out of superhero comics, leaving in their place a punishing, joyless, nihilistic grittiness.

Weldon sees Superman as an ever-changing figure, who always reflects a constantly evolving America.  The New Deal crusader of the late 1930s is different from the patriotic boy scout of World War II, and very different indeed from his Jet Age counterpart.  What Weldon sees as the core of Superman is not his persona, but his motivation.  And that is, simply, that Superman always puts the needs of others over those of himself, and he never gives up.  That is the definition of a hero.

Weldon also posits that Superman has long ago transcended the various media that deliver him to us: he has become an idea that is bigger than the comic books, cartoons, TV shows and movies that feature him.  It is an idea that has weathered 75 years, and Weldon predicts that will last at least another 75 more.

It is this protean quality that makes Superman much like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula or even Ebenezer Scrooge: each generation can find something new and vital to say about him, and, in doing so, say something about their own era.

Fortunately, Weldon is also laugh-out-loud funny.  We had the giggles paging through most of this book.  Here he is on the sexy aesthetic of Legion of Super-Heroes artist Mike Grell: Detractors have dinged Grell’s designs for their Ming-the-Merciless collars, bikini bottoms, and pixie boots (and that’s just on the men) – and it’s true that in some panels, Legion HQ crowd scenes seem more like the VIP lounge at Studio 54, but his designs made the book look like nothing else on the shelves.

Here he is on Superman writer Marv Wolfman’s prose: Wolfman proceeded to slather on the pathos, gilding the emotional lily so fervently it makes Dickens’s death of Little Nell read like an expense report. 

It would be hard to imagine a better guide through Superman’s complex history, and we look forward to hearing from Glen Weldon again.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Law of the Desert Born, A Graphic Novel, by Louis L’Amour

Here’s a first for The Jade Sphinx, a review of a graphic novel, and it’s a humdinger, Law of the Desert Born, adapted from a Louis L’Amour (1908-1988) short story of the same name by Charles Santino (working off a script by Beau L’Amour and Katherine Nolan), and illustrated by Thomas Yeates.  Even if you have never been the ‘type’ to try a graphic novel (i.e., novel in comic book form), you should try this one.  Not only is it a model of the craft, it is a spectacular Western, as well.

The late Gary Cooper (1901-1961) used to opine that he loved Westerns because, when they were good, “there was an honesty about them.”  Though they sometimes devolved into simple stories about white hats vs black hats, more usually there were shadings of complexity and subtlety.  Great (and even really good) Westerns are only ‘plot driven’ in the same manner as great literature: we are the sum of our motives and the consequences they drive us to.

Law of the Desert Born takes place in New Mexico, 1887, during the worst drought that anyone can remember.  Rancher Tom Forrester has his access to the Pecos River cut off by the son of his old partner, and he convinces his foreman, Shad Marone, to rustle cattle on his land.

Shad squeezes his poor employee, Jesus Lopez, a half-Mexican, half-Apache on the run from the Fort Marion prison in Florida, to do his dirty work.  Lopez, a scout and tracker for the army, helped relocate the Chihenne and Chiricahua Apaches for the government, and was repaid for his loyalty with a one-way trip to the same gulag.

When the rustling is discovered, Lopez takes the fall.  Tensions escalate, and Forrester is fatally injured by his enemy; Shad kills the rival rancher in revenge and goes on the run.

Now, the sheriff must release Lopez from jail and allow him to use his skills as a tracker to lead the posse to Shad.  Lopez guides them through miles of trackless badlands, into a crucible to test their courage and skill.  But, as the story continues, the question becomes: what are Lopez’s real motives?

This is great stuff.  Both Shad and Lopez are equal parts hero and villain, and the sheriff is both compassionate man of justice and unthinking hardcase.  The townsfolk that make up the posse are like most humanity – neither hero nor rogue, just simply people trying to get along.

L’Amour also dispenses with many of the tropes that would degrade the core integrity of the tale: there are no deadeye gunslingers, or rancher’s daughters to provide love interest – nor even any clear indication of whether either side was right or wrong in the issue of water rights.  What it all is … is very complicated.  Much like life.

The book comes with a wonderful coda from Beau L’Amour on the differences between this adaptation and his father’s original pulp story, and details his efforts to get the story made into a film.  It also has some valuable biographical data on his father, and notes to put the whole story in historical perspective.

Now, a graphic novel lives or dies on its illustrations, and I’m delighted to report that Yeates’ pages are wonderful.  Rendered in stark black and white, Yeates has created a pen-and-ink wash world of stark landscapes, wide vistas and intense close-ups.  He creates his pages with a cinematic flair; if anyone ever did make a movie of this, they could simply tear the pages out and stuff them into the camera.

Yeates’ anatomy does sometimes seem to be slightly off, but any slight failures of draughtsmanship are more than made up by his genius for composition.  His pages are not a static series of regiment panels, but, rather, a dynamic expression of motion and story on the page.  It’s a textbook lesson on how the form is done.

This oversize hardcover is a great addition to the library of any Western or comic fan, or, indeed, anyone who likes a good story.

Friday, September 30, 2016

“Artist” Jeff Koons Scams $8 Million for Coloring Book #4

"Artist" Jeff Koons (left) and Owner of the Sacramento Kings, 
Who Will Go Unnamed to Save Him Further Embarrassment

The latest Jeff Koons (born 1955) assault on public taste and mores just arrived in sunny Sacramento, CA.  And in doing so, he made a cool $8 million.  Nice work if you can get it.

The sculpture, Coloring Book #4, was just set into place outside the Golden 1 Center, standing on a pedestal near what will be the main entrance of the arena’s northwest corner. 

Coloring Book #4 is 18 feet tall, and is part of his Coloring Book collection, a series the artist said was inspired by the (hardly Renaissance-worthy) notion of a child coloring out of the lines of an image of Piglet.

Just take a moment to let both the money involved and the inspiration to sink in.  Good?  Let’s proceed.

As the huckster artist explained to The Sacramento Bee in 2015: I hope that a piece like Coloring Book can excite young children who are going hand-in-hand with their mother and father and with their sisters and grandparents to a sporting event (at the arena), that all generations can find some contemplative interaction with the piece.

Or something.

Most of this latest attack on public taste was funded by the Sacramento Kings; the city of Sacramento also threw away $2.5 million for its share of the public financing of the Golden 1 Center.  (This money came from the Art in Public Places program, which clearly has a very loose definition of both “art” and “public places.”)

I must make it clear that my disgust with this has little to do with city fathers spending $8 million on art.  Actually, I think city, state and federal governments should increase arts spending, not cut them.  Art spending increases, say I!

What I find so clearly offensive is spending money on bad art, or worse still, non-art.  Think, for a moment, about “public art projects” (for want of a better term) of earlier times, and compare them to the rubbish pushed down our throats today.  Where are projects with the sobriety, seriousness and artistic virtuosity of the Jefferson Memorial, the Tower of Pisa, Notre Dame … good heaves, we could even make a case for Mount Rushmore… 

But we do not create public work like this, mainly thanks to Modernity’s flight from beauty, the decadent and debased language of contemporary art criticism, and the sick influence of money by uneducated, tasteless collectors.

Let’s look at this $8 million piece of “art.”  It says … nothing.  It is a towering, misshapen mess, made of reflective material that mirrors its surroundings, but does not comment or improve upon them.  Even for the sake of argument, Piglet is invisible (for those Pooh fans hoping to salvage something from this debacle); and the contours and colors have no power of suggestion or reference.

Had Koons spent $1.95 on a bellows to blow color-tinted bubbles, the result would be much the same.  Here is a work without intelligence, without virtuosity, and without any internal coherence.  Simple human ethics should shame him out of the field of artistic endeavor, and make his name a byword for chicanery, hucksterism and bad taste.

Our feelings about Koons are best summarized by the late, great art critic and humanist Robert Hughes (1938-2012), who wrote (about including Koons in a new program on art): Jeff Koons [is included]: not because his work is beautiful or means anything much, but because it is such an extreme and self-satisfied manifestation of the sanctimony that attaches to big bucks. Koons really does think he's Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it. He has the slimy assurance, the gross patter about transcendence through art, of a blow-dried Baptist selling swamp acres in Florida. And the result is that you can't imagine America's singularly depraved culture without him. He fits into Bush's America the way Warhol fitted into Reagan's. There may be worse things waiting in the wings (never forget that morose observation of Milton's on the topography of Hell: "And in the lowest depth, a lower depth") but for the moment they aren't apparent, which isn't to say that they won't crawl, glistening like Paris Hilton's lip-gloss, out of some gallery next month. Koons is the perfect product of an art system in which the market controls nearly everything, including much of what gets said about art.

The United States is filled with artists, great artists, doing great work.  Work that really is about transcendence, connecting us with the sublime, and fostering the better parts of our basic humanity.  Why do we reward the Jeff Koons of this world, and not them?  When will art replace hucksterism, and when will the public rise in a body and reject this junk?

We have recently arrived on the West Coast, having left a New York where countless people spend a significant amount of time urinating on public art.  It may be the most base and unhygienic mode of criticism I have come across, but they were doing they best they could.  And looking at Koons’ latest ‘masterwork,’ the memory brought a warm, yellow glow.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Man With the Golden Typewriter; Ian Fleming’s James Bond Letters, Edited by Fergus Fleming (2016)

I came to an odd realization while reading the collected James Bond letters by author Ian Fleming (1908-1964), The Man With the Golden Typewriter, edited by Fergus Fleming – and that was I really like Ian Fleming, the man.

Odd because … well, are any self-respecting 21st century males supposed to like someone like Fleming?  A drinking, smoking, sexist, politically incorrect dinosaur?  Bosh to all that, we heartily reply.  The Fleming that emerges from his letters is a warm, intelligent, witty and engaging man, kind to a fault and capable of deep and sincere friendships.  If the Ian Flemings of this world are dinosaurs, then, bring back the dinosaurs, we say.

This indispensable look inside the mind of the man who created James Bond is neatly organized – each group of letters is filed under the titles of his 14 Bond books.  Interspersed between his thrillers, though, are chapters that collect letters between Fleming and Geoffrey Boothroyd (who consulted with the writer on guns and weaponry – and who makes a cameo in the novel Dr. No), mystery great Raymond Chandler, and Herman W. Liebert, librarian at Yale University and Samuel Johnson scholar, who worked with Fleming on mastering American slang for the US-based Bond books.

But the majority letters are between Fleming and Daniel George and Michael Howard, editors at Cape, the first publishers of James Bond, and William Plomer, South African-born poet who was Fleming’s friend and literary mentor.  These letters are a revelation because they illustrate how tenuous the entire James Bond enterprise was at its beginning, and how Fleming threw himself into thriller writing with a dedication and seriousness often lacking in his more literary brethren.

These editors did not always have the best judgement, we can now acknowledge with the gift of hindsight.  Editor Michael Howard did not particularly care for From Russia, With Love, now considered one of the two-or-three finest Bond novels.  Fleming replies:  Personally, I think I shall get a good deal of readers criticism such as yours, but I do think it is a good thing to produce a Bond book which is out of the ordinary and which has, in my opinion, an ingenious and interesting plot.  There is also the point that one simply can’t go on writing the simple, bang-bang, kiss-kiss type of book.  However hard one works at it, you automatically become staler and staler and very quickly the staleness shows through to the reader and then all is indeed lost.

Fleming was not after realism – and he gleefully acknowledges that in these letters.  But he did want to get his facts correct – if you read about something (anything – from deep sea diving to poisonous fish to Fort Knox) in a Fleming novel, know that it was researched and checked, and that Fleming strove to get it right.  It is also clear that Fleming attacked his work with complete conviction – as if, in writing about the preposterous, he could make it more believable by believing in it, himself.  This lack of irony is perhaps his greatest legacy as an author, and perhaps stamps him as the last serious creator of escapist fiction.

But is industry enough to make me … like Fleming?  No, it is the many kindnesses chronicled throughout these letters.  People who provide information or help are often presented with thoughtful gifts, courtesy of Cartier.  When John Goodwin, founding president of the James Bond Club, wrote Fleming, he found himself invited to the set of From Russia, With Love.  Fleming entreats an editor friend to write about an ill, aging author ushering in her 80s, while signed books and sweet notes to fans are the order of the day.

Most telling, Fleming sends note after note after heart-attacks and illnesses, putting on a brave front, making jokes, and putting his friends at ease.  Here is one letter, recounting advice he received on recovering from heart attack:  Am receiving the most extraordinary advices from various genii. “Be more spiritual” (Noel Coward), “write the story of Admiral Godfrey” (Admiral Godfrey), “Be sucked off gently every day (Evelyn Waugh).  Over to you.

In these pages, we recently reviewed The Spy Who Loved Me, one of the greatest of the Bond thrillers.  Amazingly, this book was dismissed by many reviewers at the time, who wanted ‘the mixture as before.’  These reviews hurt Fleming, who wrote with a specific purpose in mind:  I had become increasingly surprised to find that my thrillers, which were designed for an adult audience, were being read in the schools, and that young people were making a hero out of James Bond when to my mind, and as I have often said in interviews, I do not regard James Bond as a heroic figure but only as an efficient professional in his job … So it crossed my mind to write a cautionary tale about Bond to put the record straight in the minds particularly of young readers.

He can also be needlessly self-deprecating, as he writes to Raymond Chandler:

Dear Ray,

Many thanks for the splendid Chandleresque letter.  Personally I loved yor review and thought it was excellent as did my publishers, and as I say it was really wonderful of you to have taken the trouble.

Probably the fault about my books is that I don’t take them seriously enough and meekly accept having my head ragged off about them in the family circle.  If one has a grain of intelligence it is difficult to go on being serious about a character like James Bond.  You after all write ‘novels of suspense’ – whereas my books are straight pillow fantasies of the bang-bang, kiss-kiss variety.

But I have taken you advice to heart and will see if I can’t order my life so as to put more feeling into my typewriters.

Incidentally, have you read A Most Contagious Game, by Samuel Grafton, published b Rupert Hart-Davis?

Sorry about lunch even without a butler.  I also know some girls andwill dangle one in front of you one of these days.

I had no idea you were ill.  If you are, please get well immediately.  I’m extremely ill with sciatica.

Fleming also mentions his many brother thriller writers, and clearly read deeply in the field.  He mentions Fu Manchu, Nero Wolfe, Richard Hannay, Mr. Moto and alludes to Simon Templar.  (He rather preferred Marquand’s Moto books to his more serious novels.)  This sense of continuity charming, and one wonders what Fleming would have made of the scores of Bond imitators over the years.

There are some problems with the book: it could have used an additional edit (one letter appears, verbatim, in two separate chapters), and the index is vague to the point of useless.   More amusing, Fergus Fleming closes with a list of Bond novels and Bond films, which is as pressing as telling Californians that they live on the West Coast.  But despite these few missteps, The Man With the Golden Typewriter is essential for Fleming devotees.

Readers interested in Bond are referred to these wonderful sites:  James Bond Memes at: and Artistic License Renewed at:

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books, by Nick Hornby, Introduction by Jess Walter (2014)

So, what makes a great (or even a good) critic?  One would imagine breadth of culture, cultivation of taste, a reverence for great work from antiquity to the present day, and discrimination.

And then, you could be novelist/reviewer, Nick Hornby (born 1957).  He has none of the above, as he writes here:

Something has been happening to me recently – something which, I suspect, is likely to affect a significant and important part of the rest of my life.  The grandiose way of describing this shift is to say that I have been slowly making my peace with antiquity; or, to express it in words that more accurately describe what’s going on, I have discovered that some old shit isn’t so bad.

Hitherto, my cultural blind spots have included the Romantic Poets, every single bar of classical music ever written, and just about anything produced before the nineteenth century, with the exception of Shakespeare and a couple of the bloodier, and hence more Tarantinoesque, revenge tragedies.  When I was young, I didn’t want to listen to or read anything that reminded me of the brown and deeply depressing furniture in my grandmother’s house.  She didn’t have many books, but those she did own were indeed brown: cheap and old editions of a couple of Sir Walter Scott’s novels, for example, and maybe a couple of hand-me-down books by somebody like Frances Hodgson Burnett.  When I ran out of stuff to read during the holidays, I was pointed in the direction of her one bookcase, but I wanted bright Puffin paperbacks, not mildewed old hardbacks, which came to represent just about everything I wasn’t interested in.

This unhelpful association, it seems to me, should have withered with time; instead, it’s been allowed to flourish, unchecked … I soon found that I didn’t want to read or listen to anything that anybody in ay position of educational authority told me to.  Chaucer was full of woodworm; Wordsworth was yellow and curling at the edges, whatever edition I was given.  I read Graham Greene and John Fowles, Vonnegut and Tom Wolfe, Chandler and Nathanael West, Greil Marcus and Peter Guarlnick, and I listened exclusively to popular music.  Dickens crept in, eventually, because he was funny, unlike Sir Walter Scott and Shelley, who weren’t.  And, because everything was seen through the prism of rock and roll, every now and again I would end up finding something I learned about through the pages of New Musical Express.

So, for Your Correspondent, (self-confessed snob, aesthete and reactionary), this is enough to disregard each and any of Hornby’s critical assessments.  To us, his seeing the world through the prism of rock and roll is especially damming – as that is surely a sign of a severely arrested development.

And yet…

And yet, Hornby clearly loves literature and is besotted by books.  It’s almost impossible to read his criticism and not come away with a deep and abiding admiration for Hornby and his own, peculiar aesthetic.  Even more telling, it’s almost impossible not to like him.  Here is a man of real warmth and charm, with a lively intelligence, a big heart, and a detestation of cant.

The reviews collected in Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books were written for The Believer magazine between 2003 and 2013; many of then were collected in two previous books: The Polysyllabic Spree and Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, but the current volume collects everything in one handy book.  He brings to his role as critic a lively intelligence, a sense of what makes fiction work, and great good humor.  Here is the opening of a typical column:

The advantages and benefits of writing a monthly column about reading for the Believer are innumerable, if predictable: fame, women (it’s amazing what people will do to get early information about the Books Bought list), international influence, and so on.  But perhaps the biggest perk of all, one that has only emerged slowly, over the years, is this: you can’t read long books.

At the start of each column, Hornby lists the books that he bought (and, at times, it would seem that he is keeping the publishing industry afloat single-handedly), and books read.  The two don’t always tally, but he will always tell you what led him to read the chosen books that month, and if they lived up to expectations.

A successful novelist (we here at The Jade Sphinx are especially fond of About a Boy and The Long Way Down), Hornby is wise enough to know that different writers with different styles all bring something to the table, and his indiscriminate taste allows him to find and recommend many terrific books we would otherwise overlook.

Perhaps the most significant bow in his quiver is the fact that he does not engage in critical smackdown.  When he doesn’t like something, he’s more likely to leave the reader chuckling than quaking at the quality of his venom.  Here he is on a comedic novel that he found decidedly unfunny:

On my copy of Michael Frayn’s The Trick of It, there is a quote from Anthony Burgess that describes the novel as “one of the few books I have read in the last year that has provoked laughter.”  Initially, it’s a blurb that works in just the way the publishers intended.  Great, you think.  Burgess must have read a lot of books; and both the quote itself and your knowledge of the great man suggest that he wouldn’t have chuckled at many of them.  So if The Trick of It wriggled its way through that forbidding exterior to the Burgess sense of humor, it must be absolutely hilarious, right?  But then you start to wonder just how trustworthy Burgess would have been on the subject of comedy.  What, for example, would have been his favorite bit of Jackass: The Movie?  (Burgess died in 1993, so sadly we will never know.)  What was his most cherished Three Stooges sketch?  His favorite Seinfeld character?  His top David Brent moment?  And after careful contemplation, your confidence in his comic judgment stars to feel a little misplaced: there is a good chance, you suspect, that Anthony Burgess would have steadfastly refused even to smile at many of the things that have ever made you chortle uncontrollably.

Sometimes it feels as though we are being asked to imagine cultural judgments as a whole bunch of concentric circles.  On the outside, we have the wrong ones, made by people who read The Da Vinci Code and listen to Celine Dion; right at the center we have the correct ones, made by the snootier critics, very often people who have vowed never to laugh again until Aristophanes produces a follow-up to The Frogs … If I had to choose between a Celine Dion fan and Anthony Burgess for comedy recommendation, I would go with the person standing on the table singing “the Power of Love” every time.  I’ll bet Burgess read Candide – I had a bad experience with Candide only recently – with tears of mirth trickling down his face.

Despite his critical liberality, there are some things that still fail to register with Hornby.  He does not understand the appeal of series characters (why read many James Bond adventures, he wonders, rather than just his greatest one?), and is immune to most genre fiction.  (Given the choice of a terrific science fiction novel, or a way-we-live now book about divorce, he’ll take the latter.)  But these foibles are few, and may even be evidence of his aesthetic maturity being great than mine own.

At any rate – Nick Hornby is a gifted novelist, and perhaps an even more gifted literary critic.  Readers interested in intelligent, thoughtful and amusing criticism could do no better than Ten Years in the Tub.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Waiting and Mad, by Charles Marion Russell (1899)

We finish our brief look into the internal workings of the mind of Charlie Russell, Cowboy Artist Extraordinaire, with this witty and wonderful picture, Waiting and Mad (1899).

People who have known Your Correspondent for some time have surely heard me say, “I’ve been married for 26 years and I’ve spent 23 of them waiting.”  As someone who regularly waits by the door, waits by the shower and waits in the car while my Much Better Half does whatever it is that he’s doing, the feeling in this picture is very familiar.  And I’m sure the look on my face is much the same.

Just to be upfront about it – I love this picture.   Though Charlie was merely a capable draughtsman of the human form, every detail of this picture speaks volumes.

The story is clear from the surroundings and the look of … sultry disgust on the Indian woman’s face.  Here is a beautiful and sexualized woman – notice the nearly exposed breast and the provocative curve of hip.  Her pallet is ready for company, but the fire in the foreground has grown cold (a witty joke), the dinner bowl is now empty, and the long pipe is cast aside and unused (ditto).  Like the wispy smoke from the dead fire, there is only a dissipating trace of something that was once hot.

Most delicious of all is the look on her face: a mixture of disappointment, fury, resignation and bored familiarity.  One has the distinct impression that this has happened before, and will probably happen again in the future.  And she knows it.

So … why do I like this painting so much?  Mainly because Charlie’s views on humanity were much smarter and commonsensical than the ways we are taught to think today.  Charlie knew many Native Americans in his time in the West, and genuinely liked them.  He was one of nature’s democrats – he judged people as individuals, and knew that, as groups, people are more alike than they are different.

Today, we are taught that our differences matter more than our similarities, and that our cultural peculiarities are some sacred carapace that protect us from being more like one another.  Charlie would’ve thought we were crazy (and I’m with Charlie).  This picture works so well because Charlie was able to capture the look of everyone who has ever waited for their wife or husband to show up.  It would be the same picture if the woman was in an Asian setting, or a Middle-European one, or in a contemporary American home: and that is Charlie’s point.  We’re all people, and we’re all more alike than we are different.

Charlies notions don’t have much currency in today’s world, but how much of commonsense does, nowadays?

Next week: New and Noteworthy Books  

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Loops and Swift Horses are Surer Than Lead, by Charles Marion Russell (1916)

Here is a wonderful action painting by our friend, Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926), the Cowboy Artist.  Charlie is a good saddle pal to us here at The Jade Sphinx, and Your Correspondent has been trying to get a sense of the man and his philosophy through his pictures. 

We can start with the obvious: the title of this work, Loops and Swift Horses are Surer Than Lead.  In the survey of Western Art we have done here over the years, we have had occasion to look at several pictures that include bears in an attitude of menace.  In fact, after Native Americans, bandits and over-zealous lawmen, perhaps the bear is the most frequently represented foeman in Western Art.

However, most any of Charlie’s contemporaries would take the obvious route, and paint a picture of Western figures shooting and killing the bear.  (Or, reaching for their rifles to do so, or putting them down after they have done so.)  Not Charlie.  His cowboy heroes, though obviously well-armed, rope and scare the bear away to safer climes.  Always more Roy Rogers than Clint Eastwood, Charlie didn’t see the West as a vast panorama of hardship and cruelty, but, rather, a boyish paradise of freedom and fun.

This is where Charlie differs most significantly from the artist frequently associated with him, Frederic Remington (1861-1909).  For Remington, the West was unending hardship, merciless desert and physical exertion, a battle for survival to be won or lost.  It is Remington, of course, who created in his work the now-familiar Western trope of the bleached steer skull that can still be seen in countless depictions of the West.  Make a wrong move, Remington implied, and you’ll end up the same.

If this picture is any indication, perhaps Charlie’s vision was the truer one.  Loops and Swift Horses now hangs in the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and is based on a true-life incident.  This painting came about by way of his friends, the Coburn brothers of the famous Circle C Ranch in eastern Montana, where they described the roping of a giant brown bear. Artistic license was taken when Charlie turned the bruin into a Grizzly, but the rest of the story was true right down to the landscape in the background: the scenic Coburn Buttes.

The dominant color of the picture is blue, but Charlie manages to mute or pop shades of it to represent everything from trees to sky to mountains, to foreground scrub.  Yes, the color never becomes monotonous or gimmicky. 

Charlie was also the master of figures in motion.  His horses move.  Many of our greatest artists have been able to depict horses of majesty, of size, of monumentality, but Charlie’s horses are seen in dramatic action, twisting or jumping with a febrile life of their own.  I can think of no finer painter of American horses than Charlie Russell
Finally, Charlie underscores the tumultuous action of the picture with a rainstorm in the middle-distant horizon.  Like all Western landscape pictures, the view-horizon is vast, going on for miles.  Thus the far-off rain storm underscores the ‘storm’ of action going on between cowboys, horses and bear. 

Speaking of movement, take a moment to look at the bear.  It twists and pivots on unsteady ground … you can almost feel the weight of the animal as it is pulled and slides down the natural incline.  The cowboys, too, move as if in motion, alternately pulling or swinging their lariats.  And notice the cowboy on the right, looking over his right shoulder, with right leg raised as counter weight to keep in saddle.

This is a really good picture, and something mysteriously akin to the essence of Charlie – not only is his West a world of action, freedom and camaraderie, but it can be a fairly bloodless one, too.  Charlie loved the animals he found out West (when visiting cities, he always went to the local zoo, where he said he felt most at home), and it’s not surprising that he would depict his heroes scaring away the threat of a grizzly, rather than killing it. 

Perhaps we should all take a page from Russell’s notebook, and produce work that preserves the best parts of ourselves (or, at least, the myth of the best part of ourselves).  The more I look at Charlie’s work, the more convinced I become that we need more artists like him now.