[Typecast]

“You were born to play that part!”

“I saw Ms. X___, and she said, ‘That’s what it must be like to be in one of his classes!’”

“That part was written for you!”

Yes, there were compliments, for which I am grateful, and all of which I could better hear after setting aside my natural predilection for self deprecation—why is it that I will always be more aware of my mistakes than my successes? I found some easy connections with Fagin: “What happens when I’m seventy?”; my current novel is about a gang of thieves; like Fagin, I am a teacher. However, I am not the outsider he has no choice to be; if I am, I choose that route. After the play, I washed off the make up, hung up the pants with gaping holes at the knees, and when Monday came, I put my pressed blue shirt with metal stays in the collar when I returned to classes. A costume is a costume

Still, some of the compliments rankled. That’s hard to admit, because it feels as ungracious to write as it must sound. I was delighted by the kindnesses that came my way. But no dear reader, I am not Fagin. Neither was Clive Revill, Ron Moody, Jonathan Pryce, or Rowan Atkinson, though all did excellent work in the role. Hear me out.

Once upon a time, a friend assessed another friend’s new book without reading it. The new book centered on a novice (an aspiring nun) who had stigmata (wounds that mirrored those suffered by Jesus on the cross). Previous efforts by this same writer included westerns and a book of short stories that had been described as “hardware store prose”—so, maybe a novel about a nun was unexpected. The pre-baked critique was along the lines of “What does he know about women?” As it turns out, the book fully understood the struggles of its protagonist and included passages of luminous, protean prose. It was just plain—and absolutely not plain—good.

Writers wander into new territory warily. Those who have long and successful careers tend to work the same plot of land—even if that plot covers ten thousand acres. Dickens stands out as the exemplar—popular beyond imagination and perpetually revisiting themes and character types—all those damned orphans, all those criminal step-fathers. But think of Austen, James, King, Grisham, Tyler, Hoffman, Rice. A writer like Virginia Woolf whose vision may be singular, but whose books vary in structure and approach, is rare. Joyce? Calvino? “Calvin-who?” you ask. Exactly.

And it isn’t just writers. I had a minister who sermonized that “The one thing was figuring out the One Thing.” Most of us spend years figuring out who we are and then hew tightly to that semi-self-defined course. In the public sphere, politicians who change their minds are lambasted by their critics. Over the course of the recent pandemic changing guidelines and responses drew salvos from all quarters. People want One Thing; anything more draws complaint and criticism.

Fuck it. We change. Life changes. Only an idiot sails into a hurricane (I’m thinking of you, dad) because that was the course he set months in advance. Granted, change is not easy, except when we are young and change is a daily and inevitable event—the voice, the hair, the height, the hormones. What’s the line from “Bittersweet Symphony”—“I’m a million different people from one day to the next?” A million may be too much, but just when you think, “Finally, the One Thing!” along comes life. Maybe we should take a lesson from all those years of change. Maybe.

At the end of the play, Fagin sings, “Can somebody change? It’s possible. Maybe it’s strange, but it’s possible.” Okay, I’ll own that connection. But really, possible? I can’t help but think that it would be horrible to be one person all one’s life. I clamor for the fourth and fifth act—or the 1001 Nights. I splash in Heraclitus’s river, changed and changed and changed again.

Why else write? Even these pieces are meant to dip into the river. Even when I visit and revisit a work of art, my parents, love, teaching, or writing—they are all stops at some bend, newly dug by the course of time. The writing barely binds them together.

“But they’re all about you.” As if. They’re just stories, ramblings and meditations on this strange journey. And really, they are all for you—the same as when I sang as Fagin. I’m singing to you, kid. Always.

Writer at play

I was in my classroom one morning in April of 2021, but later in the month, so no fooling. and Mike Hughes, the director of my school’s theater program, stopped by. “I have an idea,” he said and asked whether I had been on the stage or sang. “We’re putting on Oliver! next spring, and I think you would be a good fit for Fagin.”

Here’s the skinny: I had a small part in a school play in the 6th grade and again in the 8th grade (King Ferdinand in a historical pageant). My mother made my costume—a cape—by ironing brown stripes onto a cheap yellow beach towel. In high school, I sang in the choir—we sang four days a week, and I could read the music for about a year. There was a play in Philadelphia—an avant-garde piece about the French Revolution; I was recruited by regular customers at my restaurant in Manayunk for this strange one-night venture. The congregation I served might remember me singing “Jingle Bells” during a holiday service and when a minister asked me to mime a juggler while she read Robert Fulghum’s “The Juggler.” Another holiday performance. That’s my resume.

Maybe you’ll argue that teachers are always on stage, and up to a point, that’s true. But one of the reasons we teach is to have our own meager fiefdom to direct what we will. Whether you do it, either as a sage on the stage or facilitator par excellence, your class is your own. Every class reflects its teacher, and even Bibliographic Methods could have been a lively and engaging experience (it wasn’t). Putting yourself in the hands of a director and in service to someone else’s vision—all those words, all that music—requires an entirely different discipline.

The closest I ever came was reading my work in front of a live audience. I recall the first time at a Friday night graduate school event. I was anxious, and the poet Ruth Stone told me that anxiety was an appropriate emotion any time you do something meaningful. Later, when I read for a panel of judges, I admitted my nerves—I am always too honest about such things—and was counseled by them to treat them like my students. I was a young teacher at the time but already a classroom performer. I once swam across a run of tables to demonstrate the difference between simile and metaphor. Either one does, or one does not do—there is no “like.”

The short of it—I have virtually no experience on the stage. Did I tell Mike Hughes that? Yes. I visited him in his office to confirm that the only time I sang in front of people and actually made an effort was when I sang “Angel from Montgomery” with two students at an open mic event. His colleague, who had heard me, commented that I could good relative pitch. As if I knew what that was.

However, a teacher’s job is to get out of the way and let our students succeed or fail on their own terms. When I mentioned that I had been “recruited” to take part in the school musical, someone I had just met suggested that I should let a student take the part. Even if I had been invited, even if I knew that my school was currently short on depth, was I extinguishing a nascent flame? Nonetheless, I asked my colleagues, and they trusted that the request came from a place of need and respect.

But, what was I thinking? How much I can possibly suck crosses my mind at every rehearsal. If I haven’t performed, I have watched my share of excellent and delightful performances. And star turns that should have been eclipsed. We all have. This is not simply “imposter syndrome” run wild. I have done nothing like this before.

Daring and humility are uncommon psychic partners, and I am often genuinely ambivalent. People who almost know me make the mistake of either seeing my geysers of chutzpah or my lakes of self-doubt. In “The Waking,” Roethke writes, “This shaking keeps me steady”; my two minds do that dance. If only there were just two. In the second of his thirteen ways, Wallace Stevens offers this:

I was of three minds

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

A writer must learn to inhabit at least two minds—the writer’s mind and the reader’s mind. A fiction writer is even more fractured. We are, as often as possible, out of our minds. I was going to write, “Perhaps I embraced this too late in life, but better late than, well, you know.” I spent years in the maelstrom of one, then the other, then the other. And then, and then, and then. I have learned how to push the storm forward or in some direction. I won’t get stuck swirling on one spot, a dervish without purpose.

What does this have to do with playing Fagin? Taking a risk and facing doubt expands the mind. And learning to do something new—working at it and, possibly, finding success—opens the world. I could claim that I took on the part of Fagin—leader of a band of thieves—because he has something to do with the characters I am writing about (thieves). While this is true, doing something I had never done before—committing to a process and seeing it through to its end—drove my choice.

A writer must explore possibilities—this is the heart of Socrates’s dictum about the unexamined life. Too often, people quote “the unexamined life is not worth living” to justify the attitude that life is like a buffet and every morsel must be piled onto one’s plate. “I tried it” is not the same as “I examined it.”

And so, I played. I will continue to play. As should you, dear reader—and dear writer. There are worlds to examine and lives to live.

Playing Fagin

In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantelshelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging.

Oliver Twist, Chapter 8

When Dickens introduces Fagin, he is called “a very old shrivelled Jew.” Dickens names him as “the Jew” over 100 times in the text of Oliver Twist, calling him “Fagin” nearly 300 times. It is an antisemitic portrayal. George Cruikshank’s illustrations make this characterization resoundingly clear. Yes, Dickens savages the officious Beadle, Mr. Bumble, the weedling undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and almost everyone else. Only Mr. Brownlow and the almost angelic Oliver avoid the jaundiced teeth with which Dickens bites into the world of workhouses, thieves, prostitutes, official disdain, privileged arrogance and ignorance, and moral corruption. Nonetheless, the portrayal of Fagin stands out.

Plate 23 from Oliver Twist by George Cruikshank

Of course, Fagin is a criminal. He corrupts the orphans he gathers from the streets and turns them into a gang of thieves, prostitutes, and murderers. He takes as much as he can and relinquishes as little as possible to keep the gang assembled. But compare how Oliver is fed at the workhouse (“three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays”) and how Fagin greets him: sausages. While his love for his “dears” may be tainted with ill-intentions, it is genuine and genuinely creepy. How can he not love the boys and girls who bring him loot?

You may scoff at the idea of Fagin as benefactor and provider, but that is precisely what Dickens is after. If privileged Londoners don’t take generous responsibility, Fagin will father the youth. Dickens does not confuse right and wrong; Fagin is streaked with evil, and the London Constabulary captures and executes him. Dickens may have been a reform-minded writer, but he was no anarchist. But the reformer looms when on the morning of his death, Dickens shows: “A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarrelling, joking. Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.” There is no love for this crowd. No golden justice is meted out by a “hideous apparatus.” This is the bad punishing the bad.

I am thinking about Fagin because I am playing him in the musical, Oliver!. Lionel Bart reframes Fagin almost as comic relief, making him far less dark than in the novel. Fagin is still a thief, still a corrupter, but absolute villainy resides in Bill Sikes alone. One unrepentant, irredeemable “bad ‘un” is enough for a musical. Indeed, Fagin escapes at the end, leaving behind “friends and treasures” and contemplating change. It’s possible.

Alec Guinness as Fagin in Oliver Twist, 1948

Portrayals of Fagin have emphasized his Jewish-ness, and not for the better. A hundred years after George Cruikshank’s illustrations, the Anti-Defamation League protested Alec Guinness’s portrayal in David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of the novel. The film did not open in the United States until over ten minutes of Guinness’s scenes as Fagin was cut. Ron Moody was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Carol Reed’s 1967 film version, and the portrayal has not aged well. While faithful to the source, the source is problematic. Rowan Atkinson took part in the 2009 London revival, and he plays Rowan Atkinson playing Fagin, which considerably softened the antisemitic aspect of the role.

Ron Moody in Oliver! 1967

Dickens is not flawless, but he grew as a writer. His later characterization of villains focused more firmly on the actual villains of this novel—those who failed to honor their official responsibility. While Dickens always relied on quickly recognizable characters, he expanded beyond stereotypes and countermanded readers’ expectations. In Our Mutual Friend, Riah is Jewish and saintly—in James Mardock’s words an “anti-Shylock” and not just an anti-Fagin.

Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in Oliver! 2009

So, I will approach Fagin as a man who has carved out a niche in a broken society. While he advises Nancy that gin is dangerous to a “pure young girl,” he also knows that life is dangerous for everyone who lives outside the warm glow of privilege. Whether by choice, inclination, calling, or nature, if you live outside expected societal norms, you live at risk. I suspect that Dickens knew that Fagin’s Jewishness marked him as an outsider, and even though the portrayal is antisemitic, there is also sympathy. Dickens almost always stood on the side of the outsider. I will stand with that and see where it takes me.

Writing: Sludge and Frustration

I spent the past 24 hours writing in what I described as “sludge”–not exactly “ten million pounds of sludge from New York and New Jersey,” but close. It happens. I admitted this to a friend, who asked, “You’re not feeling frustrated?” I answered, “Frustration is part of writing. One cannot write without it.” Let me explain.

First, as you will recognize from previous posts, I used to sail on the ocean, heading back and forth from the Chesapeake Bay to Bermuda with my father. Setting aside the variability of the weather (from windless and flat to howling and mountainous), I was sick nearly every time I took the trip: 24-36 hours of plain and pronounced discomfort. I eventually discovered that a vertigo medicine helped settle the sea for me, but up to then I kept at it, and accepted the retching as payment for the joy. So, I have that experience to draw on.

Second, I was a swimmer, and while I was not an Olympian, I practiced hard. Improvement came with pain, and I learned to adapt to the persistent ache in my shoulders, arms, and legs. During practices, the immediate feedback for how fast I was going came through either the proximity I had to faster swimmers, or, when I was one of the faster swimmers, from how much pain I felt. Pain—of a certain kind—equaled speed. There are, of course, other kinds of pain, such that denote injury and not improvement, and I was fortunate to avoid these until later in life.

Some days writing is just going to be like a bad day on the ocean, or a crap day in the pool. Some days my brain just does not connect to anything brilliant, or worse I think it’s brilliant, but I have done none of the necessary work of getting my characters in and out of rooms. I have left out simple gestures, and replaced action with explication.

Sometimes when sludge is all there is, I scrap large chunks. Sometimes it just takes connective tissue—so that the ideas get bound to motion. Sometimes, it is a signal that I am not being wild enough. Once I was told that a character was boring. Tough criticism, but, a sludge encrusted character needs to be set free—or buried.

So, frustration will happen. So will boredom, says the man who puts in 26-32 minutes on the elliptical six days a week. Raucous music keeps the heart rate over 160 bpm, and sometimes works for writing. And metaphoric raucous music too—add a crazy scene as needed. Even Dickens used spontaneous combustion to advance the plot.

But the frustration also comes when we get close to the sludge, and the sludge covers what we don’t want to engage. Sometimes we need to treat ourselves roughly when we write, and work what makes us, not just uncomfortable, but downright upset. The sludge can be like a makeshift bandage, covering some old hurt. Hey, you don’t have to own the hurt, but see it, and work it. Pain can clarify and properly unsettle the writer—and enliven the writing.

So, here’s to frustration. And writing through it.

Calling the Muse

Sing in me muse, and through me tell the story…

So began the first translation, by Robert Fitzgerald, of The Odyssey that I read. Later, I taught another translation, by Robert Fagles, that began:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns…

More recently, Emily Wilson offered this:

Tell me about a complicated man,/ Muse…

No matter the translation or framing of the tale and Odysseus, the poet turns to the muse to provide the story and the song. It seems like a quaint notion. These days we mine our lives for the sources of stories.

Even Gabriel Garcia Marquez, perhaps somewhat disingenuously, claimed that all the impossible elements of One Hundred Years of Solitude were true. His memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, reads like a revelation, and it makes all that seemed strange in his novel strangely normal—at least for that time and place. Of course, Marquez famously recounts the genesis of that novel—he was headed away on vacation with his family when he realized that the voice of the book was the voice of his grandmother telling incredible stories in the most matter-of-fact voice. He turned the car around and started the work that would define him as a writer. His grandmother was, in a way, his muse.

Why do writers have muses—things, people, animals—outside of themselves to give their work a nearly mystical, almost divine impetus? The writer faces inward and outward tidal forces. A writer works the tension between the inner voice—the thing that writes—and the outer world—what she or he writes about. Writers attempt to portray the outer world, even if it is a fantastic and impossible world, truthfully, crafting a vivid continuous dream in words, crafting it with the inner voice.

Of course, what a writer makes is not the world: it is an approximation, a copy, a simulacrum, an aspiring reality that with a combination of skill and luck convinces the reader. Or hoodwinks. I can never tell. Perhaps enchants. The writer makes a world, or something like a world, and populates it with minds and bodies, cities and mountains, oceans and sea monsters. Even if all these elements resemble something found in the real world—the world of the reader—each part comes from within the writer.

This act of creation is nearly divine. The writer is the maker of worlds. Even when Dickens charts London’s streets—we can locate Scrooge’s counting house and guess, fairly accurately, where his lonely lodgings were—they are shoved two inches to the left of the world we know. This London is not London. By creating a new world, the writer seeks to emulate the world that is, but also to replace it. For the time the reader enters the dream, it is a world that could be, not a world that is, and the dream reveals something particular, something full of twists and turns and complications.

While the writer uncovers the words that capture this world, she or he enters the world, and if the writer believes the words—and she must! he must!—then the inner world threatens to obliterate the outer one. After all, there is something about that outer world that the writer seeks to correct. The ghosts visit and Scrooge reforms—is literally made into someone new. This is the world that should be—where a miserly and selfish investor can become “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.”

The writer sees what could be, like Cassandra, the unheeded prophet of myth. Some writers simply disgorge the terrible truth of what is, like an oracle who disdains both irony and hope. There is no redemption, just inexorable weight—think of the novels of Stephen Crane, or Gustave Flaubert. Their worlds may be imagined, but the imagined reality is cautionary: there is no escaping this gravity. Let me pause to say that dystopian fiction while cautionary, by making the possible reality so obviously awful, opens a kind of door to redemption: all this could be avoided. The realist, on the other hand, sees no way around the unbearable truth.

Either writer—redemptive or admonishing—seeks some anchor outside the work. By locating the inner voice in some external force, a muse, whether divine or closer at hand, the writer can dissociate from that other world. It isn’t in me! It comes from Erato, or my lover, or my cat, or the messages on the television. The muse is a hedge against being swallowed by that inner world. Madness is a double edged sword, and there is divine madness in writing. “Much madness is divinest Sense,” Emily Dickinson begins her poem. The muse keeps the madness at a distance.

I am not suggesting that writers are mad—that trope has little interest or value to me. Writers bear the weight of vision, and seek ways to allay that weight. Some retreat from the world—the noisiness of life interrupts the vision that animates their existence. Some bound into the world—seeking febrile connections to the world, and allowing all those connections to illuminate their visions. Some stop writing, and I believe that even then they suffer. I know so. Vision is persistent and obstinate.

Sing, sing, or tell. We seek a trick, a magic act, inspiration to crack through the hard shell, and once again, create and fly. A muse, or otherwise, a simple spell of words to open the way.

Everything

There is an apocryphal story about Tolstoy and War and Peace. After receiving the galleys from his publisher, he checked them over, made corrections, and sent them, via courier, back to the publisher. Days later, he was out for a walk, and he cried, “The yacht race! The yacht race!” He had forgotten—as if anything could be forgotten in that encyclopedic novel—a scene that included a yacht race.

Novelists tell each other that story as a means of warning that everything—no matter what—in your mind while you are writing a novel, should go in that novel. Everything. Leave nothing out. Don’t start on another book. Everything now, in this one.

This conception of the novel: book as compendium, the thousand footed beast, as Tom Wolfe called it; has drifted in and out of vogue as writers tried more minimalist work, or work that focused on voice and character as carefully as a short story or novella. Most of my favorite authors: Joyce, Dickens, Marquez, Barth, Chabon; write rampaging maximalist novels that include golems, magnets, dinosaurs, computer-spawned heroes, newspaper headlines, thunderclaps, and the end of the world. It’s easy to think of their novels as rather shaggy, and that is part of their charm, and they wear their shag into the world.

The other side of the spectrum, while still not minimalist, contains James, Faulkner, and Woolf, who delve into the shaggy and unconstructed inner workings of their characters. They are shaggy insofar as they contradict themselves: at one moment feeling free and the next utterly constrained.

All the well. This is incredibly short handed analysis of these writers’ works. But it will have to do. I’m in a hurry.

Right now, and for the past two months, I have been at work on a novel, and I have been scribbling madly at this blog. I’m clearly violating the dictum of “Everything!” I can admit that many of the ideas in these blog posts have emanated from my fiction work. And the other way around. I find the jumping between one form and the other exhilarating and edifying. These non-fiction pieces give me time to puzzle through ideas before they end up in the fiction. Or I can chase down a mad hare that has run out of the novel here in the blog. Of course, sometimes, like when traveling to London, the blog is just a kind of public journal.

To be honest, everything, all of these thoughts, have, in one way or another, ended up in the novel. So far. Even London. Even the ideas about love. Everything. And although there is a story (oh, is there), it is like a snowball rolling down a hillside, picking up branches, mittens, and stray bits of dirt as it careens to the bottom. Even now, this.

Everything.