Dickens

April 25, 2014

I noticed a woman on the elliptical reading a well-worn Penguin classic. Unusual as it is these days to read paperbacks, I asked her what she was reading and, between breaths, she said “Trollope.” I had never read Trollope—this was a few years ago—though he was on my list of authors I “should” read. My husband’s cousin in Seattle belongs to a “Trollope Club,” of which Trollope himself would have approved, except that there are women members. (They don’t wear crinolines, however.) The club studies all of Trollope’s 47 novels and his nonfiction (like Dickens, he traveled to America). The books are read in rotation, themes for discussion are assigned, biographies—new and old—perused. (The best is by Victoria Glendenning. ) Though nearly exact contemporaries, Dickens may or may not be mentioned; Trollopians consider him the lesser writer, and the lesser man. What they meant by this, I did not know, until I read Claire Tomalin’s riveting biography of Nelly Ternan, “The Invisible Woman,” now an inconsequential film directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes as Dickens.

Nelly Ternan was Dickens’ mistress of thirteen years, the woman for whom he persecuted and exiled his wife, and tormented his nine children. She was an actress, all of 18 when Dickens was first smitten, who gave up her career to become a well-kept woman, could never admit her benefactor/lover, probably did not love Dickens very much, and died without revealing their secret. Dickens' wife, Catherine, was equally enslaved, and then cruelly diminished, in a screed published by Dickens in London to wide circulation.

Strange, or perhaps not so strange, that I have never been able to read a Dickens novel with any pleasure or admiration, whereas Trollope satisfied instantly. Dickens’ women are Victorian stereotypes, for starters. Though unconventional and defiant in his personal and political life, and a man with a strong social conscience, Dickens was unable to release his women from their separate sphere into full personhood. Trollope’s women, on the other hand, are fully characterized in the most modern way. It was evident that he loved women, understood them, and experienced them as equals.

That all said, here is a writer—Charles Dickens—his name so well known it is iconic, a writer prolix and imaginative to the point of genius, the most famous, revered, best-selling author of his time, and beyond. Two of his books— “Great Expectations” and “A Tale of Two Cities,” a failed novel—are very often on the literature curriculum in the United States, well-placed in the classical canon, if we can believe in such a canon, which is questionable.

Had Claire Tomalin treated him fairly in her biography of Nellie Ternan? Yes and no. Are the man and the work inseparable? Yes and no. These questions surfaced as I was finishing the Nelly Ternan biography. Now its author has written a biography of Dickens himself. Obviously Tomalin had gathered a lot of material, but what else might have motivated her? Perhaps the issue of fairness, the challenge of understanding Dickens better, and the opportunity to give him voice and space in a re-assessment. It’s a touching effort especially when she describes his fulminating, fierce, afflicted temperament. He walked for miles and miles every day to release his tensions. He was a frantic worker, unable to settle in one home, always traveling and reveling, gregarious to exhaustion. And he was a performer; he loved the crowd.

Tomalin even reframes Dickens’ infatuation with Nellie. Was it a breakdown of sorts? It certainly seems that way as he never recovered from his furtive addiction. Even his appearance changed—his eyes and cheeks sunken, his brow furrowed. It was a sad ending to a fascinating life, and he died too young. Trollope, in contented domesticity, a kind man and equally prolix writer, outlived him by twelve years.

According to Tomalin, Dickens wrote three masterpieces: “David Copperfield,” “Bleak House,” and “Great Expectations.” The first two are psychically and factually autobiographical, narrated in the first person, close to Dicken’s heart and the wounded childhood he survived. They are much more than his usual money-making serialized entertainments, and I plan to return to them.

Data Dumping

April 17, 2014

I met my next door neighbor in the Laundromat, the perfect venue to talk about the struggles of the writing life—yes, we do our own laundry—and what we are currently working on. He didn’t have a book with him, which was unusual, because his most recent writing gig—when he is not casting Broadway shows—has been as a book reviewer for a well known newspaper which shall remain anonymous to protect the identity of my writer neighbor. I wouldn’t want him to lose his gig because of some of his remarks. He reviews nonfiction, mostly books about New York, because he wrote two books about New York himself, so now he is an expert according to his editor. I began my writing career in the same way: writing book reviews for The Times Educational Supplement in London. My husband got me the gig; he was writing feature articles. My editor, like my neighbor’s editor, was relieved to have an expert (an American teacher) in his stable of writers, in my case to review all the books about America, particularly American education, that arrived in his office. I didn’t consider myself an expert—far from—but my editor thought I was an expert. I did develop a vocabulary to talk about education and, after a while, this vocabulary and the subject itself, important as it is, bored me. As grateful as I was for the gig and the discipline of deadline and word count, I moved on, as I am sure my neighbor will also.

My husband was a movie reviewer for The City magazine in New York, and had to go to two or three movies a day for a couple of years. Having to sit through mostly terrible junk movies, he lost his appetite, his enthusiasm, his perspective and his sense of humor about the business. After he got thoroughly burned, he began to write his own screenplays, which was healing. He sold one and he is about to sell another. Screenplays have their own frustrations and challenges, however. They become, ultimately, so collaborative that the original writing gets lost. There are no editors in Hollywood, only producers, aka money men and women. Will the original script still convey the original writer’s intention? Will its armature disappear?

Books that don’t have decent editors can have the same de-humanizing, emasculating effect; they become junk books. Says my neighbor: “I feel as though most of the books I’m reading these days aren’t edited at all. Data is collected and dumped into the text. I am supposed to comment, to write something intelligible and informative, but all I want to do is dump them in the dumpster.”

I suppose that is no surprise given the bottom line malaise of the publishing industry these days. Where have all the editors gone? Outsourced to Dubai, unfortunately. I had a fabulous, attentive editor in Robert Ellsberg (Daniel’s son) for “Another Day in Paradise,” but that was nearly a decade ago now. Sometimes my agent tries to edit, but she’s a literary lawyer whose expertise is negotiation and contracts. I have to take her advice if I want her to try to sell a project, but she’s not an editor. I ask writer friends to edit, but they are not editors. I ask my husband. He’s a fabulous editor—in fact we have a small publishing business—Mediacs—and he is Editor in Chief, a real editor—but he is very busy with other projects and his time is limited.

I anticipate more changes in the industry, big versus small, small consortiums of writers, designers, editors, and publicists, small businesses that care about their clients and the quality of the books they write. Conglomerate publishing houses won’t wipe us out because what matters is the work itself, the attention we give to the words on the page, and the writer who put them there.







A Book With Legs

April 8, 2014

Tags: Olympic champions, Austrian Olympic Champions, Holocaust

My mother had not wanted me to write the book; she was frightened. Frightened we would be sued, or threatened, or embarrassed, or exposed. She had become as secretive about Fritzi Burger, the Olympic ice skating champion, as Fritzi was about herself. They were cousins and had grown up together in Vienna. Two years between them, related through their grandmother, they looked like twins. They ice skated together, attended family gatherings, giggled together.

By her early teens, Fritzi had become a competitive ice skater and traveled a lot. She fell in love with a German tobaggoner and then met and married a Japanese businessman, a grandson of the Mikimoto pearl family. She disappeared as WW II began.

When I started an oral history with my mother, Fritzi’s name came up, and I started to search for her. I found her in Maine living with her second husband who had met her at the Tokyo Tennis Club in the 1960's. Fritzi had spent the war years in Japan, secure and protected even after the American occupation began and those close to the Emperor and the military were indicted for war crimes. The Mikimoto/Ishikawa clan were interviewed, but not indicted, probably because they were close to the Emperor. Fritzi’s collaboration with America’s enemies was amplified by her connection to the Reich; she entertained German officers when they came to visit the Japanese High Command to discuss armaments and strategies of global conquest. Had she dared, she might have been in a position to save some of our family, but there is no evidence that she revealed her Jewish ancestry, or mentioned the slaughter of her family. Did she know about it? Most certainly.

I didn't know all of Fritzi's story by the time I published “Searching for Fritzi” in 1999; there were many open questions about her. But some years later, thanks to the internet, I began receiving intriguing emails from Michael Ramsey, a former soldier in General MacArthur's occupation army. He had met Fritzi in Tokyo in 1947 and wondered about her. Why was she there? Why was her Japanese family immune to prosecution? Trolling the internet, Michael found my book and we became collaborators of a different sort. Together, we pieced together more details , and I hired a researcher in Tokyo. I wrote an addendum to the book, republished it as an e-book, and placed an article in a magazine in Austria published by the U. of Salzburg. After that, I began getting queries from German and Austrian historians. They still arrive, the most recent just a couple of weeks ago from a historian based in Berlin who lived in Japan for many years and can therefore make good use of the archives there. He told me that his quest began when he found “Searching for Fritzi" in his university library in Berlin. That surprised and pleased me.

In the journalism trade, we say that this has been a project “with legs.” One modest book, an attempt to trace a family story, and years later, I am still fielding emails, and meeting scholars and faraway relations for lunch when they travel to New York. Last week I met Fritzi Burger’s step-daughter, an interesting encounter. Working on her own memoirs, she had found the book on amazon and read it with interest, and astonishment. She had had no idea about Fritzi’s “Jewish” ancestry. What a surprise! How awful that she never even mentioned this, she said.

Indeed.

Sometimes a German academic is puzzled by my "friendliness," though we are colleagues, and so many years have passed. Perhaps there is guilt at their own family's actions during the war. I am not interested. What's important is what they are doing now, all of it in the spirit of historical accuracy, and reconciliation.

I think my mother would be pleased that "Searching for Fritzi" has done so well. Despite her initial resistance, she was proud of my accomplishment and relieved that we had exposed Fritzi Burger. What she anticipated did come to pass: I was threatened with legal action by Fritzi, but it came to nothing, and for good reason: I had written the truth.

Google Me

April 1, 2014

Thanks to Google, I googled, and found a logo.
Every so often I google myself, which may or may not be obscene, depending upon my obsession with the depth and reach of the search engine. How many minutes or hours I spend “googling”—a relatively new verb in our lexicon thanks to the corporation Google—will determine the innocence, practicality, or obsession of the activity. Googling –and of course even though there are other search engines, we are still “googling,”—is recommended for published writers, artists and musicians: Is anyone stealing our work? And because theft is almost impossible to track on the internet, it is gratifying to discover a perpetrator and demand payment. Gratifying, but rare. Usually a college professor somewhere has scanned something I’ve written to use in class. This is both a compliment and “fair use.” I do the same even though the university where I work has warned against it. In fact, so stern has been their mandate, that I feel guilty. Legally, I needn’t worry, but what about ethically? Am I cheating an author out of a royalty? Apparently not. The doctrine of fair use states that copies “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship or research, is not considered an infringement of copyright.”

Good. I’ll stop googling myself.

However, just for fun, before I go: I googled Google. Apparently, it’s a play on the word “googol,”coined by Milton Sirotta, nine-year-old nephew of U.S. mathematician Edward Kasner in 1938, to refer to the number represented by 1 followed by one hundred zeroes.

Is this an apocryphal story? Is there any way I can find out...by googling?

One more entry, then. In British slang, to “throw a googly,” a word borrowed from cricket, means to ask a hard or unanswerable question. This conjures an image of the founders of Google—Larry Page and Sergey Brin—playing cricket at Stanford as they designed this quite miraculous tool, which has become a verb, and an obsession, in less than two decades.

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