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Saturday Poem: ‘Lines for the Fortune Cookies’ by Frank O’Hara

I think you’re wonderful and so does everyone else.

Just as Jackie Kennedy has a baby boy, so will you—even bigger.

You will meet a tall beautiful blonde stranger, and you will not say hello.

You will take a long trip and you will be very happy, though alone.

You will marry the first person who tells you your eyes are like scrambled eggs.

In the beginning there was YOU—there will always be YOU, I guess.

You will write a great play and it will run for three performances.

Please phone The Village Voice immediately: they want to interview you.

Roger L. Stevens and Kermit Bloomgarden have their eyes on you.

Relax a little; one of your most celebrated nervous tics will be your undoing.

Your first volume of poetry will be published as soon as you finish it.

You may be a hit uptown, but downtown you’re legendary!

Your walk has a musical quality which will bring you fame and fortune.

You will eat cake.

Who do you think you are, anyway? Jo Van Fleet?

You think your life is like Pirandello, but it’s really like O’Neill.

A few dance lessons with James Waring and who knows? Maybe something will happen.

That’s not a run in your stocking, it’s a hand on your leg.

I realize you’ve lived in France, but that doesn’t mean you know EVERYTHING!

You should wear white more often—it becomes you.

The next person to speak to you will have a very intriquing proposal to make.

A lot of people in this room wish they were you.

Have you been to Mike Goldberg’s show? Al Leslie’s? Lee Krasner’s?

At times, your disinterestedness may seem insincere, to strangers.

Now that the election’s over, what are you going to do with yourself?

You are a prisoner in a croissant factory and you love it.

You eat meat. Why do you eat meat?

Beyond the horizon there is a vale of gloom.

You too could be Premier of France, if only… if only…

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Classics Club #99: ‘Daisy Miller’ by Henry James

The penultimate book on my Classics Club list was one which I had read before but wanted to revisit – Daisy Miller by Henry James.  I first read the novella a couple of years ago on my Kindle, but thought that I would borrow a pretty edition from my local library this time around.

Daisy Miller – ‘a moral tale of youthful spirit’ – was first published in Cornhill Magazine between June and July 1878, and was made into a very slim book later the same year.  Until I began my re-read I remembered little of the story, but as soon as I had made my way through the first few pages, entire vivid scenes came to the forefront of my mind.  Its opening backdrop sets the tone: ‘At the little town of Vevey, in Switzerland, there is a particularly comfortable hotel.  There are, indeed, many hotels; for the entertainment of tourists is the business of the place’.

One of our protagonists, the eponymous Daisy Miller, is a young woman from New York, who is introduced into European society: ‘She was dressed in white muslin, with a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-coloured ribbon.  She was bare-headed; but she balanced in her hand a large parasol, with a deep border of embroidery; and she was strikingly, admirably pretty’.

Rather than following Daisy for its entirety, Daisy Miller is told with the perspective of a man in his late twenties named Winterbourne in mind.  James initially asserts that he is ‘an extremely amiable fellow, and universally liked…  When certain persons spoke of him they affirmed that the reason of his spending so much time at Geneva was that he was extremely devoted to a lady who lived there – a foreign lady – a person older than himself’.  James’ characterisation, which continues in this manner, is sublime.

James is incredibly perceptive about the relationships which are built between his characters, particularly in the instance of Daisy and Winterbourne: ‘She gradually gave him more of the benefit of her glance; and then he saw that this glance was perfectly direct and unshrinking.  It was not, however, what would have been called an immodest glance, for the young girl’s eyes were singularly honest and fresh.  They were wonderfully pretty eyes; and indeed, Winterbourne had not seen for a long time anything prettier than his fair countrywoman’s various features – her complexion, her nose, her ears, her teeth.  He had a great relish for feminine beauty; he was addicted to observing and analysing it; and as regards this young lady’s face he made several observations’.

Whilst Daisy Miller is an incredibly short book, and rather a quick read, it is rich and perfectly crafted.  I enjoyed it just as much the second time around as the first; the sign, for me, of a true classic.

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Du Maurier December: ‘The Doll: Short Stories’ by Daphne du Maurier ****

I have wanted to read The Doll: Short Stories ever since its publication in 2011.  Most of the stories within this book were, says Polly Samson’s introduction, ‘written early in Daphne du Maurier’s career, yet they display her mastery of atmosphere, tension and intrigue and reveal a cynicism far beyond her years’.

The Doll is made up of thirteen stories in all.  The title story was written when du Maurier was twenty: ‘It was the first thing she wrote in Fowey,’ Samson tells us, ‘having fled the distractions of a family life steeped in tittle-tattle and the Theatre.  It’s a story of obsession, and the submerged anxieties of the young writer’s mind run through the pages like wine through water’.  She believes that ‘all the themes in her later great novels can be seen here in embryonic form’.  Samson’s introduction is nicely rounded, and it does not give too much away in terms of plots and characters.

The Doll is an incredibly dark collection of stories; possibly the darkest in du Maurier’s entire oeuvre.  From the very first tale, du Maurier sets each scene marvellously; they are vivid, sometimes horribly so.  Describing the ‘barren, rugged’ island of St Hilda’s, for example, she writes: ‘The island rises out of the sea a queer, misshapen crag, splendid in its desolation, with a grey face lifted to the four winds.  It might have been thrown up from the depths of the Atlantic in a moment of great unrest, and set there, a small defiant piece of land, to withstand forever the anger of the sea’.  She builds each story beautifully, to the extent that the reader is soon quite absorbed in each subsequent tale.

Many themes worm their way into du Maurier’s stories here, most of them manifested around love and all it brings with it – adultery, sexuality, crimes of passion, jealousy, sadism and obsession, for example.  The stories tend to become quite gruesome in places.  Du Maurier demonstrates the way in which outsiders can hld such power and influence, particularly in secluded communities.  With regard to characters, those found within the pages of The Doll are often unusual and unpredictable, and they leap into life almost immediately.  Of the main protagonist in ‘The Doll’, for example, the male narrator says the following: ‘Rebecca, when I think of you with your pale earnest face, your great wide fanatical eyes like a saint, the narrow mouth that hid your teeth, sharp and white as ivory, and your halo of savage hair, electric, dark, uncontrolled – there has never been anyone more beautiful’.  Du Maurier’s narrative voices are so well controlled, whether she is writing from the first or third person, and as a male or female.

Each of the stories in The Doll are quite different, and all are unsettling in their own ways.  The title story, for example, occurs when a notebook – its pages ‘so damaged by exposure [to the sea] as to render them completely illegible’ – is washed ashore and found by a doctor.  Of the dark prose contained within the notebook, he says the following: ‘Whether the wild improbabilities of the story are true, or whether the whole is but the hysterical product of a diseased mind, we shall never know’.  Throughout, atmosphere is built to the point at which it stifles.  Of the doll, Julio, in ‘The Doll’, for instance, Du Maurier says: ‘His face was the most evil thing I have ever seen.  It was ashen pale in colour, and the mouth was a crimson gash, sensual and depraved.  The nose was thin, with curved nostrils, and the eyes were cruel, gleaming and narrow, and curiously still’.

The Doll: Short Stories is well paced and incredibly creepy at times.  Interestingly, the stories feel very modern on the whole; one would not think that the majority had been penned during the 1920s and early 1930s.  Masks and veils are used throughout, and we are lulled into a false sense of security.  Elements are then revealed which are not at all expected, rendering this collection an incredibly memorable one.

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Du Maurier December: ‘The Flight of the Falcon’ by Daphne du Maurier **

The Flight of the Falcon was the penultimate book which I chose to read for my du Maurier December project.  First published in 1965, the novel is set in the fictional city of Ruffano in Italy, which was inspired by a real city, but contains a plot and characters of du Maurier’s own creation.

The Flight of the Falcon begins in the twentieth century, in an Italian city with an incredibly violent history.  The face of Ruffano is being modernised, around the focal point of its university.  In present-day Ruffano, ‘Austerity was banished.  The young, with all their fine contempt for dusty ways, had taken over’. The town has rather a sinister edge to it; there are those who follow students around at night, and a secretive society within the wider university organisation.  A student named Caterina tells our narrator the following: ‘But I’m sure of one thing.  I would never walk about Ruffano by night without at least half-a-dozen others.  It’s all right round here, and in the piazza della Vita.  Not up the hill, not by the palace’.  Parallels are drawn ‘through murder, humiliation and outrage’ from the very beginning between the present day and the story of Duke Claudio, the Falcon, who lived five hundred years before.

The narrator of the piece, Armino Fabbio – known as Beo – currently works for Sunshine Tours, and describes himself as a courier; a ‘guide, manager, mediator and shepherd of souls…  A courier can make or break a tour.  Like the conductor of a choir he must, by force of personality, induce his team to sing in harmony; subdue the raucous, encourage the timid, conspire with the young, flatter the old’.  The novel’s first main plot point comes when the body of a woman is discovered with a stab wound.  Those on the tour with Beo had seen her the previous evening, passed out drunk on a bench.  It turns out that she and Beo share a past connection, and Beo then has to deal with the fragmented memories of his childhood which become interspersed with his present: ‘I stood watching my grip, a wanderer between two worlds.  The one the via dei Sogni of my past, with all its memories, but no longer mine; and this other, active, noisy, equally indifferent.  The dead should not return.  Lazarus was right to feel foreboding.  Caught, as he must have been, betwixt past and present, he evaded both in horror, seeking the anonymity of the tomb – but in vain’.

The most interesting element of the plot comes when Beo, who returns to Ruffano and is employed as a temporary librarian, stumbles across a book which details the past of the city’s infamous Falcon, Claudio Malebranche: ‘A youth of outstanding promise, he became intoxicated by good fortune, and casting off his early discipline he surrounded himself by a small band of dissolute disciples, and dismayed the good citizens of Ruffano by licentious outrages and revolting cruelties.  No one could walk by night for fear of the Falcon’s sudden descent into the city, when, aided by his followers, he would seize and ravage…’.  The present and past stories converge through the guise of the town’s annual festival, entitled ‘The Flight of the Falcon’.

The elements of crime novel within The Flight of the Falcon tend to become glossed over after a while, and are not quite built up enough to keep the reader guessing.  Beo’s first person male narrative voice is believable, but it does not feel as compelling or as well built as those in books such as My Cousin Rachel and The House on the Strand.  I could have quite happily put The Flight of the Falcon down at any point and not picked it up again; I did not feel as though I particularly had – or even wanted – to know what was going to happen within its pages.  I did not feel an ounce of compassion on behalf of the narrator, even when he was descriving some of the sadder things which had happened to him, and there was a relatively detached air to the whole.

At first, The Flight of the Falcon is a relatively easy novel to get into, but the pace is rather slow and it does tend to become bogged down in details from time to time.  The dialogue is sodden with mundane and superfluous details.  It did not feel as though du Maurier was perhaps as comfortable with her setting as she is with those books which take place in the United Kingdom and in France.  I had the feeling throughout that something pivotal was missing from the novel.

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