In Anthony Burgess’ short story The Endless Voyager, a businessman throws away his passport and wallet mid-transit and, unable to enter any country, spends the rest of his life shuttling from airport to airport. He eventually goes mad. Today, of course, such a traveller might stave off purgatorial insanity by dabbling on his iPhone or netbook. In our ongoing feature, guests select the six cultural clicks that might sustain them in an interminable succession of departure lounges.
Today’s guest is the literary blogger par excellence Patrick Kurp…
The quintessential modern nightmare, worthy of J.G. Ballard: To be marooned in an endless succession of airport terminals, reduced to a diet of inedible food, unlistenable music and inhuman architecture. But we, readers of The Dabbler, are hearty folk, resilient and resourceful. We come prepared. Our survival-pack is just “Six Clicks” away:
Click 1 – Chekhov
Readers who absorbed the commonplace that Anton Chekhov is a quaint miniaturist, a gray-pallet painter of wistful sadness, have been sold an unfortunate bill of goods. Most of Chekhov’s stories, even the saddest, are reliably funny. The good tubercular doctor was a lady’s man with a bottomless appetite for the human comedy. Nabokov described his forebear as “a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique.” For a thoughtful laugh or tear, go here to read 201 Chekhov stories in the venerable Constance Garnett translations.
Click 2 – Howlin’ Wolf
Born Chester Burnett in White Station, Miss., Howlin’ Wolf mixed menace and strength with bawdy good humor, and that’s part of the reason he’s my favorite blues singer. His covers of such Willie Dixon songs as 300 Pounds of Joy (“Hoy! Hoy! I’m the boy! / Three hundred pounds of heavenly joy!”) and Built for Comfort (Not for Speed) belie the grim reputation of the blues. This is joyous, danceable music, though Smokestack Lightning, performed here in England in 1964, is more on the menacing side. Wolf is accompanied by his longtime guitarist Hubert Sumlin and on bass by Dixon…
Click 3 – Henry Vaughan: The World
The World by Henry Vaughan has the most thrilling first line of any poem I know: “I saw eternity the other night.” It’s the off-handedness of Vaughan’s words, as though he were relating some homely commonplace,that for forty years has cheered me. We’re mistaken if we read Vaughan’s poem as recounting a mystical vision in the manner of William Blake. Vaughan is calling for our repentance. We’re asked to contrast our human state – “Wit’s sour delights,” “the silly snares of pleasure,” “weights and woe” – with our eternal reward. “The World” is a profoundly hopeful – not optimistic — poem.
Click 4 – It’s a Gift
The funniest film W.C. Fields ever made was It’s a Gift, shot in 1934. At sixty-seven minutes, it barely qualifies as a feature but is not freighted with the filler and customary Hollywood twaddle that mars even The Bank Dick (1940). Fields plays Harold Bissonette, proprietor of a small-town grocery. In this scene, Mr. Muckle, a blind and almost-deaf man, enters the shop, demands his chewing gum be wrapped, and proceeds to demolish the store with his cane. Fields, sounding like Samuel Beckett, said in an interview when the movie came out: “I never saw anything funny that wasn’t terrible. If it causes pain, it’s funny; if it doesn’t, it isn’t.”
Click 5 – Paul Desmond
Paul Desmond is the Mozart of jazz. The alto saxophonist, best known for his tenure in The Dave Brubeck Quartet and as the composer of Take Five, possessed a peerlessly lyrical tone. His playing is cool and witty and invites thoughts of elegantly beautiful women on a sunny afternoon in June. Here Desmond performs a languid Poor Butterfly with the Jim Hall Quartet in 1963. (A pedantic note: The music for Poor Butterfly was composed in 1916 by Raymond Hubbell, inspired by a song in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. The forgettable lyrics are by John Golden. How many songs can you name covered by Frank Sinatra, Willie “The Lion” Smith and Julie Andrews?)
Click 6 – Paul Klee
“Colour possesses me. It will always possess me. That is the meaning of this happy hour: colour and I are one. I am a painter.” And let’s be grateful he was – Paul Klee, that is. No painter, not even Matisse, so moves me with sheer vibrant color. The Swiss painter remains linked in my memory with leaves of buttery yellow on a locust tree in the fall of my freshman year. It stood outside my dormitory room at the time I was discovering Klee’s paintings in the university library. Skip the mystical readings of Klee’s paintings and simply revel in Signes en Jaune.