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Friday, April 13, 2012

Olio

Today's posting is a hodgepodge. Let me start it by asking a question: If you could visit any time in the past, when would it be?

While reading Stacy's Schiff's biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry along with his Wind, Sand and Stars1, I was struck by the life-styles and morés of the first part of the 20th Century in France, so different, both here and abroad, of our own early 21st Century. The reading of both books is reminding me of other aerialists, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart2 as well as earlier pioneers, specifically Denys Finch-Hatton and Beryl Markham3. These two led me to Out of Africa and Leaves of Grass4, a memoir written by Isak Dinesen, aka Baroness Karen von Blixen, upon which the 1992 movie starring Robert Redford (Denys Finch-Hatton) and Meryl Streep (Isak Dinesen) was based. This week I watched it again for probably the twentieth-umpti-umpteenth time and was, again, as always, transported back to the years between 1910 and 1920, the time period that I would most wish to visit.

I would enjoy visiting Karen’s farm at the foot of the Ngong Hills. I just might also enjoy—although I have long espoused slacks and jeans—wearing a long, linen skirt topped with a starched white long-sleeved blouse graced by a tie, accessorized by a wide-brimmed straw hat as I travel into town in a horse-drawn carriage driven by a Kikuyu houseboy. I’d enjoy riding the plains on horseback, with large Russian wolfhounds galumphing alongside. And while I would not carry a rifle and would certainly not kill anything living, I might even enjoy spending a warm night or two dining under the stars by a roaring fire during safari; or spending long hours in an overstuffed chair listening to Karen relate one of her many stories. And, of course, I’d wonder at the dawn skies as a newly-minted bi-plane flew overhead. Besides the time and the place, as I am sure it is evident, I would have most wanted to meet Karen Christentze Dinesen.

In 1912, at the age of 27—she was born on April 17, 1885—Dinesen married Bror Blixen, the brother of her then current paramour—he for her money, she for his title—and immigrated from Denmark to Africa to run a coffee plantation, funded by her mother. The Baroness continued to manage the farm after Bror left to pursue other salient interests—women and safari hunting. I need not go into details. You can follow the basic plot by seeing the movie. To truly understand the subtle nuances and suggested references, you really need to read two books: Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman—a remarkably scholarly in-depth biography—and the subject’s memoir, Out of Africa and Leaves of Grass.

Her life in Kenya between 1912 and 1931 were years shadowed by the threat and eventual onslaught of WWI, presged by events that led to WWII. It was an era of stalwartness and change, bookended by gentility and harshness—real life “stuff” of which both pleasant dreams and stark nightmares are made. It was an era of dressing for dinner in shimmering frocks frilled with lace and wide satin-lapelled tuxedos; sipping drinks on patios while listening to Mozart played on a gramophone; high tea under porch fronds with visitors who bring on horseback gifts of meat and foreign delicacies. It was a time of lasting friendships, as well as fleeting encounters with nomadic natives; a time to assist the growth of a country, a time to practice laissez-faire. And to think that Dinesen was in the middle of it all! Thank goodness she had the hindsight—and the talent—to write about it.

While Dinesen and von Blixen were beginning their coffee plantation on the high plains of Africa, the nightmares of over 3,000 people were unfolding in the northern Atlantic Ocean. As we all know, this weekend somberly celebrates the Centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic—at the time the largest and most luxurious passenger ocean liner in the world.

Two books and a story come to mind. One is the fabulous Dirk Pitt novel, Raise the Titanic! by one of my most favorite adventure writers, Clive Cussler. He has penned more than twenty-one novels that relate the daring-do adventures of, well, one of the most sexiest men in literature. While categorized as fiction, this book is, in fact, based upon true accounts of the original search for the remains of the Titanic , still lying nearly two miles deep under cold, oceanic waters5. The second book, A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord, recounts the terrifying two and a half hours between when the mammoth ship first slammed into the iceberg and finally upended and ingloriously sank. This, too, was, in 1957, made into what is now a classical and essential movie6.

My own story? Well, a number of years ago, I attended the exhibit of Titanic artifacts hosted by the Franklin Institute. At the beginning of the “tour”, I—like all other visitors—was handed a boarding slip of a real passenger or crew member. At the end of the exhibit, we could compare the names with those on an “honor wall” to see whether we survived. I—the teacher of music to Teddy Roosevelt’s children in the White House—did. However, I scanned the wall to see if there were other names that I would also recognize.

My father’s name was listed under Crew. Thomas Vincent McInerney. Deceased. I certainly did not expect to see it! Whoever this “McInerney” was, he didn’t make it—having been sealed up in the bowels of the drowning ship while stoking the boiler. He died along with countless others in steerage who also suffered the same ignoble fate. Needless to say, I went white as a ghost—having, of course, come nearly face-to-face with what turned out to be, according to urban legend, one of my ancestors. Stoker/Fireman McInerney, as my research has since uncovered, was born in Ireland, but had immigrated to Liverpool, seeking work with the White Star (now Cunard) Line. He was originally slated to sail with another ship, but because of a coal shortage, was shunted, like many other employees and passengers, to the Titanic., thus sealing his—and their—fate.

Of course, this wasn’t my father, but his great-uncle and, if I counted correctly, my great-grand-uncle, for whom my father, so I am told, was named. Ancestral records indicate that generational children of the McInerney clan were all given the same names—Thomas, Joseph, Vincent, Harry, Margaret, Gaynell, Douglas—so I am assuming that this “myth” could quite easily be true.  And, so you see, I have a connection—albeit sadly—to the main events of 1912, which makes this weekend for me all the more poignantly meaningful.

Well, this has been a potpourri, isn’t it? A motley stew of books and movies—and stories—about what, to my mind, are events and lives in history that should be honored and remembered during this gloriously and, finally, warm spring weekend.
 


May you take the time to pause, reflect, and remember.  And may you forever enjoy the books and/or movies you are currently reading and watching. May they, too, be, for you, an olio of poignancy.
~~~~~~
1
Wind, Sand and Stars is not so much an adventure story, but a philosophical view of aviation--the artistry of it, its pioneers--co-mingled with a few of the author's experiences. It's a fine memoir. Like all good literature, it is one read to savor; its reflections to ponder.
2 Apparently, there is yet still to be another search for her and her navigator, Fred Noonan, who were lost while trying to land on Howland Island. A piece of strut, a shoe heel, and a few other personal items believed to be that of Earhart’s was found on what is now Gardner Island, about 300 miles southwest of Howland. It is there that modern investigators believe she and Noonan actually landed and lived as castaways.
3 Markham was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, East to West. She, too, is an author, having penned West with the Wind, and is the subject of a documentary of the same name.
4 I have a rusty trade paperback, a Vintage International Edition, published in October of 1989 and acquired from a local bookstore in July, 1992. This is the third or fourth version of Out of Africa in my library. A large-print edition, still retained, and still well-read, bears the well-chewed marks of my first Basset, FrankieA. My first edition copy of Thurman’s biography was a yard sale acquisition in 1982—$2.00 paid for what I understand is now worth many, many, many times more.

5 Apparently, Cussler, founder of NOMA (National Organization of Marine Archaeology), partook of that search. I have and have read just about every book Cussler has ever written and am looking forward to escaping into his latest Isaac Bell novel, The Thief (Putnam, Inc., New York, NY)
6 For an interesting insight into why we are so fascinated by the story of the sinking of the Titanic, please refer to Daniel Mendelsohn’s article, Unsinkable: The Titanic as Myth, in the April 16, 1012 issue of The New Yorker Magazine (New  York, NY). The premise states that of all the events and people in modern history, the most written about are Jesus Christ, the American Civil War, and the Titanic. This issue also contains a wonderful fictional short story, Transatlantic,  by Colum McCann—a beautiful rendered tale about two pilots who dared, after WWI to be the first to fly across the Atlantic Ocean.

1:09 pm edt          Comments

Monday, April 9, 2012

Double Stuff

A dear friend, Betty, prefers biographies over novels. She'd rather read about the interesting life of a real person instead of the fictional account of an imaginary character. In some respects, I tend to agree with her; provided the biographer is writing about another author. My adage is that the more one knows about a writer, the more one can more thoroughly enjoy his/her books.

For as long as I can remember, The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944) was my most favorite read. A well-worn and tattered hard copy of it graced the top shelf of our hall secretary and, religiously, I would take it down to read it each Christmas. I became particularly enamored of it when I read the original French edition during my Senior year in high school. Two years ago, I purchased for myself The Little Prince Deluxe Pop-Up Book, a delightful rendition, first published in 2009 by HMH Books (ISBN: 978-547-26-69-3). The unabridged text was translated by Richard Howard, and the creative three-dimensional pop-ups are exact renditions of the original illustrations by Saint-Exupéry. Even without the drawings and the pop-ups, the story—written in 1943, just a year before the author was shot down over the Mediterranean by German reconnaissance planes at the tender age of forty-four—is a triple treat of allegories, adult whimsy, and uncanny prophetic text.

What I have just recently come to learn was that Saint-Exupéry —who was an avid aviator—not only wrote The Little Prince, but penned a number of other books and novels before it. Most notably, Wind, Sand and Stars1, a memoir based upon his experiences serving on a French airbase in the Sahara Desert shortly after World War I. This and other intriguing facts of Saint-Expuéry 's life are increasing my once limited knowledge and appreciation of this enigmatic author.

And how am I arriving at this knowledge? By reading Saint-Exupery: A Biography by Stacy Schiiff, a noted American biographer who, among others, penned the internationally acclaimed biography of Cleopatra in her 2010 best seller,
Cleopatra: A Life 2. Schiff is both a scholarly and talented writer, who has the rare ability of translating what could easily be dry, dull facts into spritely, interesting, and often amusing anecdotes. Her book about Saint-Expuéry reads very much more like a novel than it does a chronicle of his life.

As a child, as well as a young adult, Saint-Exupéry (pronounced sant-ex-ooo-per-ee) was precocious, vane, and spoiled—although he did possess a innocent tenderness and a highly intelligent willfulness. He was disorganized—his room was always a disheveled mess, strewn with all sorts of papers and paraphernalia—yet dog-mindedly determined to learn to fly airplanes. At the age of twenty-one, while serving his required stint as a member (rampant) of the ground crew in the aviation branch of the French military, he persuaded his superiors to allow him to take flying lessons, funded—as was just about everything else his life—by his widowed mother, Madame de Saint-Exupéry, an almost impoverished member of the French upper-crust. Saint-Exupéry himself carried the ancestral title of Comte (Count), which he rarely used.

It was his love of aviation, as well as his passion for reading and writing, that launched (pun intended) his literary career during which he penned and illustrated nine books—including The Little Prince—whose themes and motifs center around his experiences as a pilot. If you read a bit of Schiff's biography—I am about a third of the way through, having started it Saturday afternoon, found it intriguing, spent most of yesterday reading it, and intend on finishing by the end of this week (having gluttonously ripped through This Much I Know is True in just three days last week)—and then read The Little Prince, you will come to realize that it is not just a children's story, per se, but is a symbolic, satirical allegory that pokes fun at adults and adult society—specifically that of Saint-Exupéry during the first half of the last century. And if you continue on with Wind, Sand, and Stars, you will come to appreciate all the more so his writings that espouse his love of flying.

Schiff has an uncanny ability to bring her subjects back to life with her very easy-flowing style of writing, replete with salient details backed by intense and well-documented research. She is, and rightly so, the recipient of numerous awards, grants, and accolades, including the Pulitzer Prize for Vera (Mrs Vladimir Nabokov).
 While I am finding Cleopatra: A Life more of a scholarly, historical rendition of Cleopatra's life—although there are some tongue-in-cheek moments—I am finding Saint-Exupery: A Biography a more entertaining and jocularly exuberant read, much like the personality of the tall, stalwartly-built, blond young man about whom, it seems, she has so lovely and lovingly written. Although, Schiff does at times get bogged down in overly-detailed text, which I am learning to skim over.

Reading most of her passages, however, I can easily picture Saint-Exupéry in my living room: his huge frame slouched in his characteristically chic-bordering-on-almost-shabby attire in an overstuffed easy chair, munching on cheese-stuffed croissants—a ream of papers upon which he has just scribbled and drawn strewn haphazardly around his feet. He is about to relate to me yet another daring and fascinating flying feat—one of the many that crammed his brief, but adventure-filled life—as told through and by an equally gifted storyteller3.

It is, indeed, a pleasure to read about one of my most favorite authors, whose life is written by one of my more favorite biographers. Both of them together comprise a regal double-sweet treat.

~~~~~~
1 I have a trade paperback edition, published in 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, Orlando, FL. The translation into English is by Lewis Galantière, and has been cited by The National Geographic Society as a "top ten adventure book of all time". Also purchased for Christmas 2010, I intend, after I finish Schiff's biography, upon reading it to ascertain if this claim is true for me.
2 ©2010 by Stacy Schiff. Little Brown and Company, Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. This first edition was Christmas 2010 gift. It is a very revealing read of the life of one of the most famous and intriguing women in history. I am dabbling into this one, reading in it in fits and starts since January of last year. I am, again, a third of the way through it, but intend to finish—and maybe blog about—it this summer.

3 The more I read about him, I am not so sure that if I actually met him, that I would like Saint-Exupéry as a companion, so much as I now enjoy his company as an author.  
12:26 pm edt          Comments


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June J. McInerney, the host of this Literary Blog, is an author, poet, and librettist. Her currenty published works include a novel, a book of spiritual inspirations, two volumes of poetry, stories for children (of all ages) and a variety of children's musicals. Her titles include:

the Schuylkill Monster: A Novel of Phoenixville in 1978
The Prisoner's Portrait: A Novel of Phoenxville during World War II
Forty-Thirty 
Rainbow in the Sky
Meditations for New Members

Adventures of Oreigh Ogglefont
The Basset Chronicles.
Cats of Nine Tales
Spinach Water: A Collection of Poems
Exodus Ending: A Collection of More Spiritual Poems

We Three Kings

Beauty and the Beast

Bethlehem

Noah's Rainbow

Peter, Wolf, and Red Riding Hood

 

 

Originally from the New York metropolitan area, June currently lives near Valley Forge Park in Pennsylvania with her constant and loving companions, FrankieBernard and Sebastian Cat. She is currently working on her fourth novel.

June's novels can be purchased at amazon.com, through Barnes and Noble,
at the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area,
and 
the Gateway Pharmacy in Phoenixvile, PA
.

For more information about her musicals, which are also available on amazon.com,