Dorothy West’s The Living Is Easy

Dorothy West (1907-98) is often called the youngest writer of the Harlem Renaissance, particularly close to Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes. Her novels were few and far between (The Living Is Easy in 1948, The Wedding in 1995), though she published some short fiction, some of it collected in The Richer, the Poorer (also in 1995) and regular columns in the Martha Vineyard Gazette (some collected in a 2001 collection. Her work, in marked contrast to most Harlem Renaissance writings, deals with the very hue-conscious African American bourgeoisie (which included sleeping car porters as well as attorneys, physicians, and entrepreneurs—affluent only relative to the mass of blacks pouring north).

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As a child, West lived on Brookline Avenue in Boston. She was educated at the Girls’ Latin school in Boston, where she was born and where she died, though she lived in Martha’s Vineyard from 1943 on. I find her first novel, The Living Is Easy, offputtting. Its protagonist, Cleo, is a sneaky, power-hungry, greedy older sister, who dominated her three younger sisters growing up in the South. She latches onto “the black banana king,” Bart Judson, whose skin is much darker than hers.

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(cover of reprint edition with drawing of author by Richmond Barthé)

After producing dark-skinned daughter, Judy, she finagles a large house where she can sleep separately from him and gather her sisters, each of whom is married and has one child (including one boy, Tim, who is blond and whom Cleo wants not to see). What Cleo told Bart would be short visits turn into permanent residencies, so that none of the house can generate rental income, and so Cleo can boss around a large family without the unpleasantness of having sex with her dark-skinned husband.

Skin hue is very, very important to the characters in the novel, and to the “black bourgeoisie” throughout the US, not only in Boston). Cleo despises most of the immigrants from the South, loving and hating her own sisters and their shared rural, poor background. Bart provides for Cleo’s family, provides affection to Judy that Cleo does not, but eventually looses his business in the face of competition from supermarkets. Cleo robs him, lying about most everything, starting with the amount of rent she pays the white owner of the house, who is proud of the Boston abolitionist tradition, but appalled by the mass migration of Irish people to the neighborhood.

Bart is based on West’s father, Isaac Christopher West, though I have difficulty believing anyone could be so successful in business and so easily ripped off by a wife who provides him neither affection (often calling him “Mr. Nigger,” alternating with “Mr. Judson”; I don’t recall her ever first-naming him). The other male characters are also hard for me to believe. Adelaide Cromwell’s useful afterword to the 1982 Feminist Press edition establishes the basis of other male characters on real people, the best-known (if not very widely) being journalist Monroe Trotter, the model for Simenon, a self-righteous “race man” whom Cleo manipulates into marrying a former bordello-keeper with a Catholic vocation. There is a shooting by one of Cleo’s brothers-in-law, and the physician is caught doing abortions in addition to his cancer research.

I think I am making the novel sound livelier than I felt it was while reading it. A lot of the action is in the last fifth of the volume. Cleo’s contempt for males runs through the book, both in dialog and in indirect discourse, frequently labeling others “niggers” and “darkies.” Cleo is a racist, classist, lookist, man-hating liar and cheat, destroying her sisters’ marriages and arranging a loveless one between Simenon and “the Duchess” (who finances his paper that has neither a black nor a white audience.

 

BTW, the tittle is either ironic or misleading. The living was not easy for any of the characters, except Bart before Cleo got her hooks into him. West was an understudy in “Porgy and Bess,” and must have taken the title from “Summertime (and the living is easy…”)

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Bleak portrayal of alienated Japanese high-school students, ca. 1994

The Japanese “River’s Edge” (Ribazu ejji, 2018; not the 1986 Keaunu Reeves) movie with the same English name) strikes me as brutalistic rather than naturalistic. It is set in the economic nadir of 1994. There are frequent scenes of rough sex and even one scene of full-frontal male nudity (usually even any pubic hair is forbidden to Japanese film-makers).

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The main character, whose point of view is frequently presented, is Wakakusa Haruna (Nikaido Fumi {Himizo]), who is something of a faghag, rescuing a stripped, badly beaten, and tied-up gay victim of bullies, Yamada Ichiro (tv star Yoshizawa Ryô), twice. Yamada years for a younger athlete and their school, and has an eger, naïve girlfriend, Tajima Kanna (Morikawa Aoi), who provides him no social cover.

Yamada has another gal pal, bulimic model and tv regular Yoshikawa Kozue (Sumire), who seems to have romantic/sexual feelings for Wakakusa. Yohikawa knows of Yamada’s “treasure,” a corpse along the river, and Yamada shares this secret with Wakakusa.

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Wakakusa has to be aware that the leader of the bullies is her supposed boyfriend, the not just oversexed but quite kinky (with another girl, Wakakus’s friend), Koyama Rumi (Doi Shiori). By the end of the movie, there is a second corpse (seeming killed twice or thrice in one night!), and no one is even close to being happy. That is, there is no catharsis for the alienated characters or the audience. The latter has to tie up unexplicated loose ends, while the camera prefers to linger on a polluting, brightly-lit-at-night factory across the river.

Until near the end of the movie parents are almost entirely invisible and offer no guidance (let alone supervision) to their anomic offspring.

Unilluminating interview segments with the characters interrupt the narrative(s), but the framing and editing of the narrative are far too “arty” for anyone to mistake the movie for a documentary. The movie directed by Yukisada Isao (Sunflower, Parade, Crying Out Love in the Center of the World) movie is based on Kyoko Okazaki’s 1993-94 manga series (i.e., was contemporary with the storyline’s time). It was shot in the old-fashioned television 4×3 ratio by Maki Kenji.

 

The Japanese trailer at http://movie-riversedge.jp/. The film is currently streaming in the US on Netflix.

 

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

WWII US fire-bombing (of Germany)

Born in the Bavarian Alps in 1944 (too late to remember anything of World War II) and long a professor at second-rate English universities, W. G. Sebald wrote a series of essayistic fictions illustrated by grainy photographs he took of mostly peopleless vistas or of odd documents. His books have been rapturously reviewed in the Anglophone world, less rapturously in reviews in his native language. His “novel Austerlitz, which I found unreadable, won a National Book Critics’ Circle Award after Sebald’s death in 2001 in an automobile accident.

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In 1998 Sebald lectured in Zurich on what he heard as a loud silence about life in the Third Reich as the US Air Force attempted to level German’s cities (choosing saturation firebombing civilians to aiming at military targets in Japan, Germany, and Austria). When I visited Berlin six months ago (and other German cities earlier), I was puzzled by the completeness of reconstruction. In photos from just after Germany’s surrender in 1945 and in the backdrop of several movies I’ve seen or reseen in the last year (Germany, Year Zero; The Search; Foreign Affair) it looks that in vast expanses of German cities there were no roofs left. Now it looks like there are many pre-WWII buildings, and I don’t know whether this is more the preservation of the facades of the buildings or reconstruction.

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Although the postwar German looking forward to reconstruction rather than backward to destruction is his topic, in On The Natural History of Destruction Sebald does not touch on my preservation/replication puzzle. His puzzle is the failure of natives and alien visitors to cognize the extent of destruction: “About six hundred thousand German civilians fell victim t the air raids and three and a half million homes were destroyed; at the end of the war seven and a half million people were left homeless, and there were 311.1 cubic metres of rubble for every inhabitant of Cologne and 42.8 cubic metres for eerie inhabitant of Dresden—but we do not grasp what it all actually meant. The destruction, on a scale without historical precedent, entered the annals of the nation only in the form of vague generalizations as Germany set about rebuilding itself…. It has largely been obliterated from the retrospective understanding of those affected.

Sebald’s title is what Lord Zuckerman intended to write when he went to survey the destruction immediately after the war, but he found himself unable to write of his impressions. Similarly, on their returned from American exile, Thomas Mann and Bertholt Brecht barely noted the destruction in their post-exile writings. Fellow Nobel laureate Heinrich Böll was an exception in writing a novel about the experiences of civilians in the last year of the war, but it was not published for another forty years

After Sebald’s lecture (which was published in German in 1999), the then-living German winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Günter Grass published a novel focusing on civilian casualties from 1945 (Soviet bombing of a ship of refugees) that has just appeared in English as Crabwalk and Jörg Friedrich’s Der Brand) (“The Fire”) has been a best-seller in Germany. Grass contends, against Sebald, that the memory of feeling impotent and frightened has been passed down to younger generations and explains the massive German opposition to Bush’s Iraq adventure.

Although I understand the importance of testimony, that is, records of what it was like to live through traumas and admire such works as Before Night Falls, Land of the Green Ghosts, Loss Within Loss, and Diary of a Political Idiot), I understand that most people would rather block memories and get on with trying to (re)build lives than examine just how horrible their trauma was, and that other observers feel inadequate to the task (as, for instance, Lord Zuckerman did in making his way through the rubble). My impression of holocaust literature is that more of it has been produced thirty-plus years after the liberation of concentration camps than during the immediately following decades.

In addition to the general reasons for not picking at psychic scabs, there are two reasons more specific to the obliterated Third Reich for Germans not to have written (extensively) about destruction of German cities. The first is guilty conscience: ”We actually provoked the annihilation of the cities in which we once lived” by initiating air attacks on civilian populations (first in Guernica during the Spanish Civil War, most memorably in the London blitz) and by the attempted “final solution.” The second is that any discussion of German suffering is seized upon by neo-Nazis (or unreconstructed ones still alive) as an apologia for Nazi modes of operation. Sebald writes at considerable length (and with withering scorn) about some of the letters he received from Germans expressing the view that Germans were the primary victims of World War II.

Sebald’s expanded Zurich lecture was published in German with an essay on the postwar German writer Alfred Andersch. The American edition also includes essays on Jean Améry, an Austrian Jew who joined the Resistance, was tortured and sent to Auschwitz and who wrote the kind of specific, dry cataloging of what he saw that prefigured Sebald (as in the quotation above), and playwright Peter Weiss (Marat/Sade) whose “The Investigation” incorporated testimony from war crime trials concerning Auschwitz.

Sebald tended to ramble (literally in The Rings of Saturn), as I complained in reviewing Vertigo, Natural History is somewhat miscellaneous, but like Emigrants consists of variations on a discernible theme (exile in that, experiencing the losing end of WWII here).

Sebald was a discerning literary critic and has interesting things to say about all the writers he discusses. His surprise at their number being small seems exaggerated to me in that the factors I’ve mentioned were known to him, and I’m puzzled that a writer so obsessed with photographs does not discuss the documentary and fictional films showing the rubble and the rat-like behavior of Germans living in holes.

©2003, Stephen O. Murray

 

Imaginative, poignant stories of the last part of WWII in Japan

Nosaka Akiyuki (1930-2015) is known in the West almost entirely for the 1988 anime adaptation of his story of children after the 1945 firembombing of Kobe, “The Grave of the Fireflies” (Hotaru no Haka) by Takahata Isaho), Nosaka was also a member of the Japanese Diet (legislature) and a pop singer. And another of his works was the basis for Imamura’s dark comedy “The Pornographers” (1966).

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The stories in The Cake Tree in the Ruins include seven that the same press (Pushikin) published as The Whale That Fell in Love With a Submarine, the leadoff story, a very poignant story anthropomorphizing a jumbo male sardine whale. After being ignored by female whales, he fixates on a Japanese submarine, tries to mate with it, and starts following it up and down and al around.

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Many of the stories involve an animal and a human, as in “The Parrot and the Boy” “The Elephant and Its Keeper,” and “The Old She-Wolf and the Little Girl.” The one nonfiction story, “A Balloon in August” is not without poignancy, either, though Akiyuki does not invest the balloon with emotions.

Most of the stories end with death, sometime gratuitously (IMHO). The only one with a happy ending is the title tale in which a tree grows from cake crumbs and nourishes some children who survived the intense fire-bombing of civilian populations by the US. A 1945 fire-bombing (that the author surived) killed Akiyuki’s adopted father. A sister and a step-sister died of starvation.

Many of the children’s fathers died in distant (colonial) wars, including the one who dug a bunker that his son cherished and his mother heedlessly had filled in after WWII (“My home bunker”). There is also one story set away from Japan, “A Soldier’s Family,” which resonates with “Fires on the Plains” in showing the desperate hunger of troops cut off from resupply.

The stories lack bitterness, though often sardonic about Japan’s military endeavors. Nor is there any explicit condemnation of the US targeting of civilians.

©2019, Stephen O. Murray

Alan Arkin terrorizing a blind but resourceful Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn was very, very good in two 1967 movies. She received an Oscar nomination for the more popular one, “Wait Until Dark.” As a frightened by resourceful blind woman, she was menaced by the seemingly trustworthy, soothing Richard Crenna (in a sort of Cary Grant turn, see “Charade,” a corrupt former cop (Jack Weston) and a psychopath in dark glasses (in one of his three disguises) played by Alan Arkin. Arkin also had a very good year, being nominated for the best actor Oscar as a Russian submarine commander run aground on Long Island in “The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming.”

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“Dark” is obviously based on a stage play (in marked contrast to the traveling around the south of France in “Two for the Road.” Initially, it seems to share having a mean, spoiled young girl, though Gloria (June Herrod) turns out to be useful rather than horrid.

There have been so many sadistic criminals on screens since 1967, that Arkin is less shocking that he was to 1967 audiences, with the exception of one scene.

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There is little opening out from the apartment—really, only to a VW van across the street parked in front of a phone booth that gets a lot of use from the plotters. (As in “Charade,” Hepburn does not know what she has and what she has does not belong to her husband or the three conspirators to get the prize.) The play that was filmed was written by Frederick Knott, who also wrote the frightened woman “Dial M for Murder” that Alfred Hitchcock adapted to the screen.

Hepburn was often paired on screen with much older men (Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire). Her husband here was played by Efrem Zimbalist Jr., who was a mere eleven years her senior. And her ostensible romantic interest through much of the film, Crenna, was only two years her senior.

Nasty as her psychological (and, eventually, physical) assailants are, it is difficult to understand why Hepburn does not lock/bar the door while they are out. For that matter, I don’t understand why she is so determined to hold onto the doll, knowing that the woman for whom her husband held it is dead. Or why she does not remove their advantage of lighting sooner. But, if one can suppress such questions and go with the flow, the movie is frightening and perhaps inspiring.

If the Oscar went to a Hepburn that year (it did), it went to the wrong one (Katharine for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”). Much as I adore Audrey Hepburn (a lot!) and knowing that she was going to stop making movies, if I had an Oscar ballot, I’d have to mark it for Edith Evans’s harrowing performance in “The Whisperer,” however. And I’d have nominated Arkin for a supporting actor award.

I wish that Arkin, Crenna, and Hepburn had more good roles in subsequent years (I was a fan of Crenna in the TV series“Slattery’s People” in the mid-1960s and in Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1972 “Un flic”, also the 1984 “Flamingo Kid”).

Alan Arkin is fairly interesting recalling feeling bad at having to torture the radiant Hepburn. Her then husband and producer of the movie, Mel Ferrer, had little of interest to say. It did not take this movie to establish that she could act (try “The Nun’s Story,” if not “Two for the Road”!).

©2019, Stephen O. Murray