April 26, 2013
Book Notes - Blake Bailey "Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson"
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
Blake Bailey once again proves himself as our preeminent literary biographer with Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson. Bailey documents the fascinating life of The Lost Weekend author Charles Jackson, whose tales of addiction and gay life were ahead of their time, with compassion and poignancy.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Bailey offers clear-eyed, tart-tongued interpretations of Jackson's uneven oeuvre, setting them in a thorough, well-paced, entertaining narrative that features movie stars and intellectuals, evocative scenes of mid-20th-century literary life, and relationships that unfold with novelistic complexity. The result is another compelling portrait of a conflicted writer whose genius emerges in dubious battle with his demons."
In his own words, here is Blake Bailey's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson:
Charles Jackson--the alcoholic author of the most famous novel about alcoholism in American literature, The Lost Weekend--used to say that his only hobby apart from reading (and drinking, of course, which went with his two other hobbies) was listening to music. When his first novel was made into a classic movie by Billy Wilder, Jackson lined his walls with an enormous collection of 78 RPM records, including the entire vast oeuvres of Mozart and Beethoven, multiple portraits of whom hung among his other household gods (Shakespeare, Chaplin, Garbo, Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Garland) in his various bedrooms over the years. It would be dull, however, simply to list tunes by Mozart and Beethoven; let's take them for granted, then, except for one special selection at the top of our list.
Sonata 12 in F Major by Mozart: Don Birnam, the alcoholic hero of The Lost Weekend, has a "favorite daydream": to be the greatest piano player of all time. "He came out on the stage of Carnegie Hall," he fantasizes, "smiled, bowed, sat down at the piano, and awaited the assignment." Dressed in comfortable street clothes rather than the usual white tie and tails, the great Birnam has agreed to be challenged by a panel of music critics, who have racked their brains to produce a list of pieces that Don must play on the spot from memory before a packed audience. "Köchel Verzeichnis 331," Birnam calmly emends, when a critic tensely asks him to begin the program with Mozart's Sonata 12 in F Major.
"E is for Estranged" by Owen Pallett: I discovered Pallett while working on Farther & Wilder, and for a while I was in thrall to his dove-gray world (as Nabokov would have it, writing of Chekhov). "If pathos is borne, borne out of bullshit, / in formal attire, I'll score you a string ensemble," sings the quavery-voiced Pallett, channeling a narrator whose son is dying of Ketamine addiction and so forth.
"The Ballad of the Sad Young Men": While struggling to write a contemporary novel based on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Charles Jackson fell in love with this wistful tune about young tipplers who grasp for the first time that they're not so young anymore: "Sing a song of sad young men, glasses full of rye / All the news is bad again, kiss your dreams goodbye . . . " He particularly loved the line about their drinking and courting girls beneath a "grimy moon." There are several good versions of the song, but I think Shirley Bassey's is the best.
"Liebestod" from Tristan and Isolde by Wagner: Jackson's daughters remember that on certain nights music would resound about the halls of their elegant Federal-style mansion in Orford, New Hampshire, and indeed Jackson liked few things better than to get plastered and have a solitary Record Night behind closed doors (he would have loved the privacy of iPods). Once, he wrote a despairing short story titled "Liebestod" about a music-lover very like himself who has a final Record Night before killing himself. The story didn't sell, but it did give him an idea: a few days later his friends Roger and Dorothea Straus were house guests in Orford, when they were roused from sleep by the gorgeous strains of "Liebestod," followed by a knock on their door: "I must talk to you," said their besotted host. "I am about to kill myself." They talked him out of it.
"She's Leaving Home" by The Beatles: The last great musical discovery of Jackson's life was The Beatles. Humoring some young friends one summer night in 1968, Charlie deigned to listen to Sgt. Pepper (lowbrow, he thought) and was "stunned." Writing his estranged wife Rhoda, he singled out "She's Leaving Home" as an example of the Fab Four's genius: "The simple little song shook me through and through with its compassion, its tragedy, its understanding and love: it is as perfect as Madame Bovary, better than one of those good, English movies about middle-class life whose protagonist is usually a starving spinster, and it all takes exactly two minutes."
"Your Funny Uncle" by The Pet Shop Boys: One of the sweetest, saddest songs I've ever heard, about the funeral of a gay young man whose family never accepted him. This reminds me of poor Charlie in so many ways. When his beautiful sister, Thelma, was killed by a train at age sixteen, Jackson's spiteful neighbors in Arcadia (no less) spread a rumor that she'd been pregnant--that God "in his infinite wisdom" had taken her before the disgrace became obvious. And when Charlie himself committed suicide 52 years later, these same townsfolk responded quite the way Jackson had foreseen in The Lost Weekend: "All were ready with the 'Too bad but he's much better off' or 'Only wonder is he didn't do it sooner.'" This about the sweetest, kindest man that benighted place had ever produced--remembered by his neighbors, if at all, as little more than a drunk and a sissy.
Blake Bailey and Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson links:
Wall Street Journal review
Kirkus Reviews review
Library Journal review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New York Observer review
New York Times review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review
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