In a recent Sports Illustrated article, the magazine acknowledged the name, Muhammad Ali, not only because of his stellar achievements in the ring, but also, his fearless integrity in his daily life. The boxer stood up against the might of the U.S. government, citing his Muslim faith, about serving in the military in an unpopular war.
This is why we continue to be fascinated by him long after he hung up his boxing gloves. We love heroes.
Currently, two books join the seemingly endless series of printed text on the 74-year-old boxer, who once proclaimed himself, “The Greatest.”
One book, Approaching Ali: A Reclamation in Three Acts, deals with the aging icon, retired and battling the ravages of Parkinson’s disease, and out of the spotlight.
Diagnosed in 1984, he has dealt with the symptoms of the degenerative condition for most of his life. The book, written by veteran sportswriter, Davis Miller, chronicles their friendship going back to 1964 when the sickly 11-year-old Miller used “The Champ” as a catalyst for self-improvement, pulling himself out of a deep funk following his mother’s sudden death.
“Ali has been the most reliably large planet in my solar system, the astronomical constant, my friend and great subject,” writes a grateful Miller, thinking back to his meaningful encounters with the boxer.
He credits his admiration of Ali because he provided the spark for his evolution from a confused youth, to a competitive athlete, and finally, a prominent writer.
Their friendship, currently nearing its third-decade mark, had its origin when Miller, in his late thirties, visited Ali’s home in Louisville, Kentucky, to pay tribute to the three-time boxing champion.
Miller finds himself warmly welcomed by Ali, his brother Rahaman, and their mother, Mrs. Odessa Clay. He wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about that day, the sparring session on the lawn, the family meal, and the visitor reading stories to the boxer. This article was selected by the late Pulitzer Prize winning David Halberstam as one of the finest American sport stories of the twentieth century.
The story, “My Dinner with Ali,” leads off the book in an expanded form.
One wonders how Davis Miller got so close to the boxing icon. Ali, known for his generous nature with his fans and friends, explains it this way in 1993: “I don’t talk much; that’s not my way no more. But you’re wise, serious. I feel it rumblin’ around you. You make me think, and talk.”
In retirement, Ali thinks about his glorious past, his natural gifts as a boxer, his historic milestones on the way to greatness. He began training at age 12, won six Kentucky Golden Glove titles and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. In an incredible upset, he won the world heavyweight championship at age 22 from hard-hitting Sonny Liston in 1964.
Later that year, he joined the Nation of Islam and became a minister. In 1967, he was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title because he refused to be drafted into the military because of his religious beliefs. He was arrested and convicted. He didn’t fight for four years until the Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
Upon his return, there were several unforgettable fights that sealed his legacy: the trio of brutal Joe Frazier battles, and the legendary bout with the previous unbeaten George Foreman. However, the layoff slowed his hand speed, reflexes, and footwork. It was after the savage conflict with Frazier in 1975 that the first Parkinson’s symptoms appeared, and his performance in the ring became erratic. He lost the title with the Leon Spinks first, then regained his crown but was defeated by Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. The boxer retired with 56 wins and five losses.
What sets Miller’s book apart from the tributes written by Norman Mailer or George Plimpton or Hunter S. Thompson is the abundance of pure emotion centered on the mythic figure. There are some scenes that portray the humanity and compassion of the boxer. Ali, in a crowd of people at Miami International airport, pulls money out of his wallet to give to a woman whose purse was stolen; Ali, with his wife Lonnie and his mother, welcoming the author to breakfast.
Ali, during Desert Storm, traveled to Baghdad to talk with Saddam Hussein and brings 15 U.S. hostages home. Ali also entertained Miller’s son by doing magic tricks, which saddens the boy, who cries, saying he wishes the former boxer wasn’t sick.
However, as the book indicates, Ali and Frazier sit on the opposite end of the table with the Champ’s rival still fuming: “He can’t talk no more, but he’s always trying to make noise.” Now older and wiser, Ali regrets calling Frazier a gorilla and an Uncle Tom. He admits he was “arrogant, cruel, out of control.” He wants Frazier to forgive him for his insults, but his one-time foe never will.
Certainly, Miller’s book is bittersweet in detailing the physical decline of “The Greatest,” but it is above some of the others with the chronicle of daily life of Ali out of the ring. His friendship with the boxing icon seems genuine with no agenda or motive to exploit the champ.
Once called, “The Louisville Lip,” he is very quiet among family and friends, the disease rendering him silent. As Miller writes, “he no longer aches with the ambition and the violence of a young god; some of his ego has been thankfully been washed away.”
Muhammad Ali is not a deity, not a hollow myth, but human. Ali admirers and students of American culture will find this a totally engaging, informative book.
The second Muhammad Ali book, Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, is an essential volume to understand the significance of the 1960s and the black equality campaign.
Its authors, Randy Roberts, a distinguished professor of history at Purdue University, and Johnny Smith, an assistant professor of American History at Georgia Tech, explore the complex friendship between the boxing champion Ali and the Black Muslim firebrand Malcolm X, placed in the context of the turbulent times in which they lived.
Well researched, the writers poured over the private papers of Malcolm X, Alex Haley, who co-wrote the run away bestseller, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, FBI files, government surveillance reports, State Department records, and interviews of friends and associates of both men.
In that research, they discovered a common thread in the pair, a trait of multiple identities. As for the boxer, they cite the passivity of Cassius Clay, the religious novice of Cassius X, and then the fully formed practitioner of Elijah Muhammad's harsh doctrine.
Even his associates say there was an aura of mystery around him, “the riddle of Cassius Clay.”
With Malcolm, he was “a man of many masks,” with identities of the quiet Malcolm Little, the hustler Detroit Red, the redeemed Malcolm X, and after his trip to Middle East, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
When interviewed by the media, the unaware Clay seemed unpolitical, saying: “I’m a boxer, and I don’t really don’t want to do anything to do with the civil rights program right now.”
Although young Cassius Clay was exposed to the teachings of “The Messenger,” Elijah Muhammad, as far back in the late fifties, he received a record by Louis Farrakhan shortly after that, titled “A White Man’s Heaven Is a Black Man’s Hell.” He memorized its lyrics and themes. Following a visit to a NOI meeting in Detroit, Clay was impressed by Malcolm’s blistering talk on the history of slavery, house Negroes and field Negroes, Christianity as “the white man’s religion,” and the Bible as “the book of poison.”
While Clay was preparing for a bout with Sonny Liston, Malcolm X appeared on the scene and saw something of substance in the boxer. He saw himself in Clay, because they possessed similar traits: boldness, self-assurance, confidence, and pride. He knew the power of the media-hungry fighter, who could be elevated into a messenger of black pride, self-determination, and the teachings of Elijah Muhammad. They became fast friends.
Malcolm X and Ali were like very close brothers,” Dr. Ferdie Pacheco, Ali’s doctor, said. “It was almost as if they were in love with each other.”
As the sixties continued, protests and riots mounted, and Malcolm X’s stature grew in his aggressive sermons and media statements. One newspaper called him, “the angriest man in America.” He agreed, saying that “my hobby is stirring up Negroes.” However, Elijah Muhammad and his circle, wanting him to stick to religion rather than politics and civil rights, started resenting the popularity of the glib spokesman. That was not helped when Malcolm X said to the press that the killing of JFK was a matter of “chickens coming home to roost.”
After being disciplined, Malcolm X made an accusation about “The Messenger” having illicit relations with several secretaries, engaging in lavish spending, and other irregularities. He realized he might be killed so he tightened his bond to Ali, but word came down that Muslims should have no contact with Malcolm X. Ali stopped taking calls from the former spokesman.
Alex Haley, author of Roots and along with Malcolm’s autobiography, quoted Ali in September 1964: “You don’t buck Mr. Muhammad and get away with it.” It seems Haley exploited the split between the men to add to drama to increase sales.
Isolated and ridiculed by former friends and members of the NOI, Malcolm X was in fear for his life, as well as those of his family. There was a firebombing at his home in New York. Finally, the spokesman was killed at the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem on February 21st, 1965, by a team of enforcers.
This is a thoughtful, bold, and provocative book about a friendship between two controversial figures who shaped the future of black culture. The chapters on Ali’s life and career are superb, full of punch and verve, along with the anecdotes about ”The Messenger” and the Nation of Islam. They bristle with colorful detail and haunting revelations that leave you with chills, all rushing to that fatal, grim outcome.
On the one hand Jimmy likes having his nine-year-old daughter around, treats her more like a sidekick, partner in crime, a son. When he’s not putting her down by calling her “dummkopf” (she gets straight A’s) or “Dracula” (she has crooked teeth) he’s dragging her along to duck shoots, afternoons of using rats for rifle practice, hours of hanging out in the car while he’s fencing stolen air conditioners and TV’s.
When push comes to shove, he finagles things to his advantage and occasionally to his family’s. He helps Gloria’s half-sister, who’s 16, obtain an illegal abortion, thereby saving her from a doomed marriage. He teaches Gloria to shoot straight and to fight for herself. What else is there on the plus side? He’s obviously bright and street smart, and we sense he really does care about his daughters, especially Gloria.
On the other hand, the balancing bar is hitting the ground. Jimmy is a bully, a bigot, a racetrack gambler, a con man, a macho pig with violent tendencies, and someone who steals from his own family. He may also be a wife beater. While his wife works the night shift at an eyeglass factory, cleans houses, and takes care of all household matters, he does occasional landscape work.
He’s lazy. He’s a big drinker, so is his wife, and we can’t blame her for that. In later years, he’s on and off prescription Librium, dealing drugs and smoking pot. He calls women, including those in his family, “whores,” while he sleeps around, and terrifies them regularly by driving recklessly while drunk, waving guns around and firing them in the house. He defends his best friend who just happened to 86 his ex-wife and a guy she picked up in the bar. He’s quite a fellow and there’s even a hint he may have abused his older daughter when she was four.
Yet. . .Gloria Norris has written a terrific, compelling, captivating story about her childhood, with Jimmy at the center of all the drama. And, what a voice! Growing up in his household, she was always afraid, always “managing” her father, forever vigilant. She spends countless hours “outthinking” him.
Inspired by a friend, she fights to get out. She wins a scholarship to Bennington, transfers to Sarah Lawrence and becomes a producer and scriptwriter (and now author), who rubs shoulders with the likes of Brian de Palma, Marty Scorsese, Robert de Niro and Woody Allen.
Your father is your father, Norris seems to say, and she works her darndest to prove that she’s come to terms with hers. Jimmy endured a strict Greek upbringing, knowing that his parents did not really care for him. We see the intergenerational trail of dysfunction. Families: they’re complicated! Norris says, here’s mine; here’s what I had to live with; and look how I turned out.
She’s done an admirable job in presenting the characters of her childhood in such a vibrant fashion, and taking us along on her journey as she escapes From the Projects of New Hampshire to forge a new life for herself in the big time.
We cannot help but laud her generosity of spirit. She refrains from blaming her father or her mother, who is but a weak pawn in the family drama, incapable of protecting her children, and a determined enabler. We pity this woman, wrenched from a quiet sheltered life on a farm in Nova Scotia and married to the first man she met, who happened to be a madman. She never rebels, never manages to separate from Jimmy, because, she knows, he needs her and she’s the only one who will stand by him.
Buried in Acknowledgments at the back of the book, third from the bottom, is Norris’ last tribute: “And last, but most definitely not least, I am indebted to: . . . .My father, Jimmy, who taught me to appreciate books and movies, who sat for hours of interviews and who said, ‘Crucify me, if you have to, to get the goddamn story right.’”
Readers, she got it right.
It’s hard to write about something as complex as Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. In fact I approach this review with trepidation. I know that others won’t agree with Nafisi’s position, and I fear that so much has been written about the book already. Is it necessary to write another review? Reading Lolita in Tehran was published in 2003 and became a best-seller. The world of Iran that Nafisi depicts—post-revolutionary Iran—is bleak, chaotic, and indisputably bad for women, yet Nafisi writes with a tenderness that is extraordinary.
I try to avoid best sellers, even when I think their subject may be of interest (hence my objection to Eat, Pray, Love, which undoubtedly I would have enjoyed if it hadn’t gotten so much attention). And so I avoided Reading Lolita in Tehran, a book that I felt was force-fed to freshman and women in reading groups alike, until the stars aligned and I felt that I could avoid the book no longer.
The cover depicts two women, eyes downcast wearing the veil or hijab, which is a requirement of all Iranian women when going out in public. With heads bowed, they look at once composed, serious, and submissive, yet the women are beautiful and alluring—perhaps more mysterious to western eyes because of the veil.
I bring up the veil, not because as a westerner I gawk at the cultural and religious symbol, but because the veil is crucial to Nafisi’s own position. She couldn’t stand being required to wear a veil. A brilliant scholar and popular teacher at a university in Tehran, she balked at the restrictions placed on female students and faculty alike and eventually quit her job.
To her, wearing the veil is a symbol of the imposed male hierarchy of the state, an unwelcome pulse-heightening, threating mandate that she finds excruciating. Nowhere in the book does she describe her religious beliefs but I believe her to be agnostic. Being forced into religion is simply not her style. It’s interesting that the veil becomes a crucial point for Nafisi.
After all, she could simply ignore the veil or wear it haphazardly as she does when forced to wear it with her hair streaming out of the cloth, or by bringing it up, she has been accused of drawing attention to a minor inconvenience, rather than a true social problem.
But the veil is not an empty symbol. Let’s remember that in France, schoolgirls are not allowed to wear the veil. And in Iran earlier generations of women were forced to take off the veil—Nafisi’s own grandmother was one of these women.
But it’s not the veil alone that Nafisi describes. The women in Iran are simply persecuted for everything--from wearing nail polish to having male friends, to carrying blush in their purses. In fact, one scene that stands out to me is when Nafisi’s daughter is inconsolable because her friend has been punished in grade school because her fingernails exceeded the acceptable length requirement. The world Nafisi describes is so painful, so raw, so brutish, and so impossible that it’s surprising that the women choose to go on at all. But of course we know that they do; they do go on
After Nafisi quits her job at the university, she urges some former female students and one male to join a secret book club. The books they read are censored in Iran —Lolita, The Great Gatsby, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Daisy Miller, and some books by Jane Austen.. Reading these illicit, western, so-called “corrupt” novels adds a heightened excitement to the meetings.
The girls arrive at Nafisi’s home, covered, jittery, and eager. Nafisi’s role, as subversive teacher, is to stretch them, to teach them, and to ease them into themselves. As they shed their robes and scarves, the girls emerge as bright butterflies—observant, intellectual, and, most importantly, willing to see how the classic novels relate to their own lives.
Their lives have not been easy. One young woman had spent several years in jail and suffered unspoken harm; another woman was married to a man who abused her and then would beg forgiveness; another was followed constantly by her younger brother, the male in her family, who controlled her every move. And there was a lot of tension in the group between girls who followed religion devoutly and those who only wore the veil only because they had to. But, all shared one thing—a great curiosity and love of books.
I really love the way Nafisi describes literature. This to me—even more than the personal qualities of the students, which Nafisi relates very eloquently, is the key to the book. I have rarely read a book that describes with such passion the vital importance of reading. It gave me goose bumps to read her unique description of reading, and how reading and living can be so deeply and fully connected.
One thing that, of course, seems startling is the choice of the book, Lolita. Because Nafisi is a feminist and because she was teaching girls to be feminists (in the broadest sense of the term, to accept themselves as women in all parts of their lives—emotionally, sexually, academically, and economically), I would expect a more forthright feminist novel, a novel that perhaps was a classic feminist text, one of oppression and redemption—but Lolita?
To me that had always been an “anti-feminist” text; a book about a brute, Humbert Humbert, who turned a young girl into his sex slave. How could a book like this appeal to a reading group of oppressed young women in Iran? Instead of focusing on the rape of the underage girl in Lolita, Nafisi focuses on the life of the girl, a life that became empty and lacking in agency.
So, in showing how Humbert Humbert conquers his prey, the author is showing what’s wrong. What Humbert Humbert lacks is empathy. He doesn’t understand the child he rapes and has no interest in her inner life. When we, as humans, are so selfish as to ignore another’s inner life, we are not truly living; we are dead within our own clouded, deluded vision.
At one point one of the young women questions her own interest in reading about flawed characters (in this case Madame Bovary who has committed adultery). In the college in Iran where many of these women had studied, a book with a main character who has committed adultery was considered a filthy, dirty book with “western ideas.” I thought the question of why we like flawed characters very interesting. Here is a bit from Nafisi:
“Every great work of art, I would declare pompously, is a celebration, an act of insubordination against the betrayals, horrors, and infidelities of life. The perfection and beauty of form rebels against the ugliness and shabbiness of the subject matter.”
And so it is in The Great Gatsby; instead of looking at the book as a book about lurid decadence, the book becomes a novel about the privilege of being beholden to a dream and the way a dream of any sort, whether it be the dream of great wealth or the dream of being free from the oppressive Islamic state in Iran, can be a noble way to live. Similarly, rather than seeing Daisy Miller as a silly girl, the girls in Nafisi’s reading group see her as brave, outspoken, a multitude of layers.
(At the end of Reading Lolita in Tehran, the author presents a suggested reading list. I have just begun to read it—the first up was the surprisingly refreshing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.)
Nafisi threads the lives of these girls throughout the book, and the girls share their joys and sorrows with the reading group. During one poignant scene a woman returns from her fiancé’s betrayal. She was supposed to leave Iran and was going to marry a young man who was studying in England. She walks freely in western clothes without her veil and feels light and expansive on their dates. But then the boy breaks up with her—was he a coward for not wanting a “non-traditional” Iranian wife?
The question of identity and how to behave is constantly being addressed in this book. As a western woman, I feel that I have a lot of choices but my choices are not as deliberate and consequential as the ones that these Iranian women have to make. Will they go to school where their handbags are searched at a checkpoint for a tube of lipstick? Will they look a man in the eyes even though that in itself could be cause for punishment? And, most pressing for this particular group of women, will they leave the country for a more “free life?” And, maybe most excruciating of all: What does it truly mean to be free? This is an existential question that is raised in the book, but resonates exponentially.
The author and many of the girls/young women in the book eventually leave Iran—Nafisi for America and John Hopkins and the girls for other foreign lands. The book ends right at that juncture.
Reading Lolita in Tehran now seems timely. Though the book was set in the 1990s and was published in 2003, many of the issues the book raises seem consequential. I’m still reeling from the shock of watching the documentary about Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot by the Taliban for attending school. I do not want to conflate the two situations, but what Malala faced and what the young women in Reading Lolita in Tehran went through have similarities (though Malala had it worse). Also, just this week, one of NPR’s stories featured a discussion about American women and the veil.
Should non-Muslim women wear it as a form of solidarity? Is the veil an inherently oppressive symbol? Even The New Yorker weighed in with an article about a woman’s complicated relationship with the veil. What all these women seem to agree upon is the importance of education…and how education, and especially books, can strengthen our deepest, truest sense of ourselves.
Tom Holland is a uniquely gifted author. He has been recognized time and again for his work, and not just for the Historical books he has written. The subject matter of his non-fiction seems to be centered around the Mediterranean Sea and the progress of Western Civilization.
To date he has covered from the Greek-Persian Wars through the founding of the Global Arab Empire. Recently Holland once again set his sights on the Roman Empire. In Rubicon, he told the story of Julius Caesar’s rise to power, and now in Dynasty, Holland continues the story of the house that Caesar built.
The descendants of Julius Caesar produced five rulers of Rome. The transition from the Republic (whose supporters cut down their would be leader on the ides of March rather than see him rule) to the Empire we all know it became is a subtle, but powerful, tale of ambitious, intelligent, and ruthless men and women. It is also a story of death, loss, and fear.
In the wake of civil war, a war that brutalized and shook the foundation of Rome to its core, the citizens desired any alternative to the shadows of their immediate past.
Octavius, now known better as Augustus, was young, but he dared to give the people what they wanted. The methods of his rise, as disreputable as they are rumored to be, led way to peace, a peace the Romans would give almost anything to keep.
Augustus put away his childish games when his power was solidified and became first man of the republic. His genius to play the system saw his rise to divine status and his chosen successor’s rise to leadership of the Senate and the whole of the Roman Empire.
The following four rulers of Rome were as diverse as they were eccentric. Each had peculiar characteristics that define their legacy. Tiberius, son of Livia, Augustus’ second wife, and the height of the ancient Claudian line, succeeded his stepfather. As a staunch and methodical general, he committed himself to Roman virtue, but Rome was not what it had once been, or what it was meant to be.
He strived to live the Rome ideal, but lived long enough to make a mockery of his ruling class with epic and mythical perversions.
Caligula was an expert at playing the game. Learning from Tiberius and being born a great-grand son of Augustus, the emperor, whose name means “little bootkins”, bided his time. When he was clear of Tiberius, his true nature became apparent. He was a playful ruler, but his games, his pleasure, lay in cruelty.
Claudius, a son of Tiberius and uncle to Caligula, was written off at a young age due to his disabilities, but out of the spotlight, he was a dedicated historian. When his opportunity came, he was quickly moved into power and he sought to use his knowledge do great things in Rome. As with others in the dynasty of Caesar, he grew suspicious and rightly so.
Nero was ever the actor. He loved to make a show of everything he did, from the murder of his mother to competing in the Olympic games. He secured himself as the end of the Dynasty with his actions.
Great ambition and strong character saw the Caesar Dynasty installed. Strong character and self-interest led to its downfall. Tom Holland carries along this history with great affection. At times you see the great admiration with which he holds these leaders of the world, perverted as they might be. But this enthusiasm fortifies the book. It is seen in his efforts to streamline and make narrative of the thematic and historic points he wishes to make.
The book is more or less written in consecutive order in regards to the time passing, but within any section there may be time lapses, Holland uses to ground the points he wishes to touch on. Tom Holland does a spectacular job of bringing the various avenues of his research into a pointed story. The substance of Dynasty, is historical, and dense by nature, but the author dances through the period, informing the reader of all the interesting and intriguing details, the back stories, and even making note of the rumors and unknowable details that comprise this awe-inspiring time in history.
Holland has received praise for his translation of Herodotus’ The Histories, and Herodotus was known as the Father of History. It seems relevant that Holland continues to strive to bring history to the world in an interesting and narrative way. It seems as if he fathering a present age movement of exploring history through narrative.
Holden Caulfield may have softened juvenile angst with the assurance that even if you are a misfit you are somehow above it all. Then perhaps at 14 or 15 you discover On the Road and it explodes in your head like Gregory Corso’s “Bomb,” a poem shaped like a bomb that speaks to the conformity of the Cold War years and meaningless drills one’s hopelessly square teachers lead every Friday afternoon.
You may have so internalized the spirit of Sal Paradise, and especially Dean Moriarty, that you and your buddy one day split from your conservative white suburb and hitchhike up to San Francisco where a favorite aunt in Marin County lets you lay down your sleeping bags and even loans you her car to get into the city to soak up the vibes in North Beach (Haight Ashbury hadn’t been discovered yet), buy a baguette and block of cheese at an Italian deli, pay a bum a quarter to buy you a jug of Red Mountain Burgundy, and hang out in Washington Square.
The main deal, though, is getting to City Lights book store where it all began—vainly hoping to get a glimpse of Ginsberg or Corso, or at least Ferlinghetti himself. Of course not knowing what to say if you do encounter one of your heroes.
But the years pile on—the hippies replace the beats—and you go on to college. And after having read the poets who were inspired by Whitman, Keats, and Wordsworth you actually study Whitman, Keats, and Wordsworth— while informally keeping up with your childhood idols.
You hear the shocking news of Kerouac’s death while walking with a girlfriend across the quad. It doesn’t register to a callow freshman just how young the Beat icon was nor what a wasted life he actually lived—only that the man is gone.
Road was, after all, life affirming, and in its way so was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl because it was a shout out for what poetry could be when stripped of the pieties and strictures of a conformist society. Howl broke down the wall between what an artist was allowed to say and what he had to say. And Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg were among those who made this happen.
Two new books, and a reissue, sucked me back into that time and all three involve Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who at 96 is nearly the last Beat standing—though he protests that he was never really a Beat so much as an observer, chronicler and publisher of the primary poets and prose writers of the era that roughly started with the end of World War II, and lasted no more than a couple of decades.
I Greet You at the Beginning of A Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg—1955-1997 (City Lights Books: San Francisco), borrows its title from Emerson’s salute to Whitman, and traces a friendship and business partnership from the start of City Lights and Ginsberg’s reading at the 6 Gallery in 1955. The police busted the reading, Ferlinghetti was charged with peddling obscenity, and Howl wasmade forever famous.
The two became lifelong friends and for many Ginsberg became the public face of the Beat movement.
The book covers the trajectory of the relationship with helpful notes by editor Bill Morgan that fill Ginsberg’s Zelig-like public appearances at Vietnam protests, international writer symposiums, love-ins. In a letter dated February 6, 1964, he writes: “Boy I’m running round like a butterfly—not much poetry.” And month later: “I’m up to ears in work appointments telephoning, politics. get no writing done [sic]…”
If Ferlinghetti was ever an impatient editor-publisher there is little evidence of it here. Early on (October 24, 1959) he tells Ginsberg: “Take your time on new book manuscript—doesn’t matter if we’re late getting it out—the sooner the better, of course, but don’t rush it….”
A recurring theme, however, is Ginsberg’s desire to sign with a bigger East Coast publisher, one like Grove Press or even Knopf, with a wider distribution network than City Lights. More than once he bemoans the fact that only a handful of shops in New York carry his books. But in the end, he stays with City Lights for most of his career.
In 1973 The Fall of America won the National Book Award for Poetry—a tremendous accolade for both poet and publisher.
Ferlinghetti the publisher, Ferlinghetti the friend, and Ferlinghetti the writer are sometimes contorted in the relationship. While the publisher serves as banker, coach and promoter to the younger Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti complains that Ginsberg never comments on his own work. He sends his poem “The Old Italians Dying” to Ginsberg (January 1977), and perhaps predictably, takes offense with Ginsberg’s apparently heavy-handed editing. “You’ve made that passage a good poem in your own voice….” There was repetition, Ferlinghetti protests, because the poem was meant to be read out loud.
What makes this an essential book is that, unlike many books of letters, we mostly get both sides of the correspondence. It ends with Ferlinghetti’s tribute “Allen Ginsberg Dying”: “It’s in all the papers/It’s on the evening news/A great poet is dying/But his voice/won’t die/His voice is on the land….”
In Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals—1960-2010 (W.W. Norton & Company, 2015. Editors: Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson) we get a glimpse into the things that have mattered in Ferlinghetti’s life, as well as some of his insight into the writers of his circle.
While visiting Kerouac in New York in April of 1960 he writes: “Well Jack has nothing to do with Beat or beatnik except in the minds of thousands who read On the Road thinking he’s some sort of crazy wild rebel whereas he’s just a ‘home boy’ from little ol’ Lowell and certainly no rebel.” Of course myths often subsume and outlive their subjects.
Ezra Pound suffered from a public image of his own making. But he was revered by poets of the mid-20th century. In 1965 Ferlinghetti goes to a Pound reading in Spoleto, Italy, and he is profoundly moved: “The voice knocked me down, so soft, so thin, so frail…. I was surprised to see a single tear drop on my knee. The thin indomitable voice went on…. I went blind from...weeping.”
In a fascinating exchange in Moscow in 1967 with Zoja Voznesensky, wife of poet Andrei, she tells him that Ginsberg’s work is more concerned with the interior world while his addresses the outside. Through an interpreter Ferlinghetti understands her to say that the interior is “more important than the exterior…. Later I reflected on that, if she knew Allen better, she might realize that it was Allen who is in fact the extrovert, I the introvert….” Perhaps this is more loaded with meaning than Ferlinghetti imagines. Is it because he is an introvert that his poems seem less personal?
In the end, one wonders if both writers might have left richer legacies had they devoted more time to their poetry and less to public life. But what they have left us is a rich treasure.
City Lights released this past fall a 60th anniversary edition of the book that launched Ferlingetti as a poet: Pictures of the Gone World.
In Poem 26 he writes:
Reading Yeats I do not think
of Arcady and of its woods which Yeats thought dead I think instead of all the gone faces getting off at midtown places with their hats and their jobs and of that lost book I had with its blue cover and its white inside where a pencilhand had written HORSEMAN, PASS BY!
With the last words the epitaph from Yeats’s tombstone Ferlinghetti may reflect on his own mortality, the death of nearly everyone who he supported as a colleague and publisher, and on the future of books and bookstores. Perhaps there is something in the human spirit that will always make poetry.
A good novel, or, as in this case, a good set of novels, set in a historical time (as opposed to a historical novel) can tell more, I believe, about that period than a history book might tell. (The same is true of a good biography.) We can learn more from the Russian revolt of 1906 from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, or about working people in late 19th Century France from Emil Zola’s L’Assommoir than history books will tell.
Elena Ferrante was born in 1944 in Naples (as were also the two main protagonists of the Neapolitan Quartet, Lena and Lila.) She would have been 20 years old in 1964, when the United States entered into its miserable war in Viet Nam. At this time there was considerable political unrest in Italy with the Communists trying to unseat the remaining Fascists from government….
At the end of The Story of a New Name, the second book in the quartet (previously reviewed here, as was first, My Brilliant Friend,) Lila has left Stefano. After an affair with Nino, she is abandoned. When she becomes pregnant, she believes the father is Nino, until the boy’s physical characteristics reveal that Stefano is indeed his father.
Elena, meanwhile, has published her first novel, which has been well received, and she is engaged to Pietro, who comes from a well-respected academic family.
This is how she Lila escaped being an abused factory worker: She draws attention to the abject condition of the workers at the factory by writing about it, thus drawing the attention of the young socialists, who want her to be their voice.
But Lila, as usual, has other ideas. When she is humiliated by Bruno, the factory owner, she quits, and moves, with faithful Enzo and Gennaro, back to the old neighborhood, thus, becoming the one of the book’s title who stays, whereas Elena, who is now married Pietro by whom she has had two daughters, Dede and Else, lives in Florence, thus becoming the one who leaves.
Early in Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay Pietro comes to meet Elena’s family and ask for her hand in marriage—the comic gentleness with which he presents himself and curries the favor of Elena’s family is one of the more touching parts of the book. Though intelligent and well educated, Pietro is something of a bore.
“How much I had lost by leaving, believing I was destined for who knows what life. Lila, who had remained, had a very new job, she earned lots of money, she acted in absolute freedom and according, to schemes that were indecipherable….”
How I resonate with Elena’s lament—I’m among those who has left, again and again, and now know how much I have lost in so doing.
Sometimes the way out is through. Lila did not abandon Enzo or Gennaro. When they return to the neighborhood, Enzo starts a computer business and Lila is his partner.
Meanwhile, Elena, now married and living in Florence with Pietro and their two daughters, though an excellent mother, has fallen into lethargy and has lost confidence in herself as a writer, when Pietro brings Nino home. Since her childhood Elena has harbored a secret love for Nino. It’s Nino who has the wherewithal to inspire her to begin writing again. He tells her that she should not waste her gift.
“The waste of intelligence. A community that finds it natural to suffocate with care of home and children so many women’s intellectual energies is its own enemy and doesn’t even realize it.”
“When the task we give ourselves has the urgency of passion, there’s nothing that can keep us from completing it.”
Lena writes, “I had the impression that striving for Nino’s approval made the writing easier for me.”
When Nino, who is himself now married and has a child, comes to stay with Pietro and Elena, the inevitable happens—Elena and Nino begin the affair that’s been waiting to happen ever since they were children.
Nino, who resisted becoming like his womanizing father, has become him. Among his talents is a charm that makes him irresistible to women, even intelligent women like Lila and Lena. It’s a pity that so few men fall into this category, making it an open field for those who have it.
As the end of Those Who Leave & Those Who Stay Elena leaves Pietro and her two daughters for Nino. The Story of the Lost Child, then, tells how this situation resolves itself.
I felt encouraged reading about Elena. Even though the cost was high, she followed her heart and went to be with the man she loved. She valued her own desires over what duty dictated, and, for a while she was extremely happy.
Meanwhile, Lila had withdrawn into the life of the old neighborhood. She didn’t have the experiences Lena had—but, their friendship was too strong to be destroyed by the difference in their life styles.
Lena had to accept that Nino had two families, his family with Eleanora and their two children, Albertino and Lidia, and his family with her and her two daughters. Lena and Lila then become pregnant at the same time and both give birth to girls. Lena names her daughter by Nino Imma, and Lila names hers Tina. Tina is the light of Lila’s and Enzo’s life—she’s a quick, witty, and charming child. In comparison Lena worries that Imma is a little slow.
One day Lena comes home to find that Nino is making love to the woman hired to help with household duties. She learns from Lila and others that he is a philanderer worse than his father. He has had sex with many women since he’s been with her and has even propositioned Lila.
Separating from Nino is not easy for Lena. Nino (the rat) claims his inability to contain himself is the result of his exorbitant virility!
The titles of Elena Ferrante’s books are not willy-nilly--each reflects an essential aspect of its story. My Brilliant Friend can be either Lila or Elena, Lila because of her brilliance, her ability to learn quickly, Elena because of her extraordinary writing ability, which allows her to move within Italian society.
The Story of the New Name refers to the name, Carracci, which Lila takes when she marries Stefano—she becomes Signora Carracci, and she lives in a well-appointed apartment until she throws it all away to follow Nino. When Nino leaves her, she is rescued by Enzo.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay then refers to Elena, who leaves; after going to school in Pisa, she marries Pietro and moves to Florence; Lila not only stays in Naples but returns to the old neighborhood where she grew up.
As I read The Story of the Lost Child, I wanted to know who the child was who was lost? Was it Gennaro, Lila’s son by Stefano? Once she recognized his father was Stefano, she seemed to lose interest in him and he grew into a lost soul—in the fashion that sometimes happens to the children of the rich and famous. Was Ms. Ferrante referring to Nino? Because of his behavior and its consequences he could be considered lost.
One of Ms. Ferrante’s strategies is that of surprise—suddenly someone key to a story will reappear. This always surprised and delighted me.
As a book reviewer I have a tendency to tell too much of the stories that I review. So, in this case, I will not tell you, dear reader, who the lost child is. I will only say, when it becomes known, it is surprising, shocking, and devastating. It kind of breaks your heart.
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