The Opposite of Loneliness [Literature 2]

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Finally back (once again) to the world of blogging, I thought long and hard what I wanted my first post since my almost six-month hiatus to be like. Definitely not one declaring that I have crawled out from under my rock another time (been there, done that). Instead, I decided to write about something that recently impressed, inspired, and awed me which is why I will talk about Marina Keegan’s book The Opposite of Loneliness.

Published in 2014, the book came out two years after Marina’s tragic death only days after her graduation from Yale. As sad that it is and as shocked I was when I learned of the circumstances, that is not what I want to focus on in this post but rather cherish the amazing work she has left behind.

I’ve got to be honest, reading this collection of both fictional & non-fictional essays written by someone who, unfortunately, did not even turn 23 (!!!), I couldn’t help but be a bit envious. I’ve already mentioned on this little blog that it is one of my biggest dreams to be able to work in writing – in whichever shape or form. Whether for a newspaper or magazine, books, or for TV/film. The only problem: I’m not really convinced that I’ve got what it takes. Or can actually write (well) for that matter. That’s the reason why I picked up The Opposite of Loneliness in the first place; I wanted to see (and compare) what someone my age was capable of producing. Needless to say, I was impressed. Not only is her style fresh, witty, and just simply really good but Keegan also had an incredible knack for assessing what’s going on around her. As a student about to graduate from university this summer I could relate to the stories, plots, and characters she so vividly created. At times, when I marvelled at her ease and confidence, I thought to myself: You’re definitely not as good. Far from it. Though I am not giving up on my dream as of yet I know I’ve got a loooong way to go.

What probably stood out the most for me is Marina’s optimism. Especially the essay which gave the collection its title and was in fact her graduation essay urges to keep a postive outlook on life. Me being the total opposite, a person who tends to concentrate on the negative a little too much, I felt encouraged to read a person my age’s thoughts on exactly the things that worry me. While I’ve come to realise already that I’m definitely not too old for pretty much anthing (in terms of what I can achieve in life), Marina’s heartfelt address to her fellow students was exactly what I needed to give me that last assurance(see quote below).

My advice to all budding writers, students, and lovers of books and literature: go out and get that book. Maybe you won’t connect with it as much as I did but I believe there is something to draw from it for everyone.

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Generation X – Tales for an Accelerated Culture [Literature 1]

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I stumbled upon Douglas Coupland’s 1991 novel Generation X – Tales for an Accelerated Culture by accident while on my weekend getaway to London. Simply wanting to roam a bookstore, I wasn’t really looking for anything in particular but I decided then and there that I would get a book I’ve never heard of nor was already dead sure I would like. There it was, sat on a table with other books collectively labelled “Cult Classics”. It sparked my interest, especially, because I love reading about society and culture and although some writings on certain generations can be quite frustrating (Millennials, everyone!!), I still find them fascinating.

Generation X is an interesting book for several reasons. The thing that first catches your eye? The images and terms often included at the bottom of the page. The mostly sarcastic or witty “comics” and the explanations of his word-inventions, which are affectionately referred to as ‘Couplandisms’ by fans, are usually related in some form to either a character or storyline in the respective chapter. Some of these word-creations found their way into the vernacular; in fact, Coupland is credited for popularizing (not coining, as some sources falsely state) the term ‘Generation X’.

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“Don’t worry, Mother…If the marriage doesn’t work out, we can always get divorced! – Good to know.

Photo 08.04.15 22 34 02Some of my favourite terms include:

McJob: a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one.

Virgin Runway: A travel destination chosen in the hopes that no one else has chosen it.

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Terminal Wanderlust: A condition common to people of transient middle-class upbringings. Unable to feel rooted in any one environment, they move continually in the hopes of finding an idealized sense of community in the next location.

Native Aping: Pretending to be a native when visiting a foreign destination.

About the novel itself: Generation X is a framed narrative consisting of short stories that are centred around a general idea or principle. Among the titles are: “Our Parents Had More”, “Dead at 30 Buried at 70”, and “Purchased Experiences Don’t Count”. The book follows a group of friends, Andy, Dag & Claire who have all escaped their old hum-drum lives to live close to the Californian desert. They are all 20 something, educated, somewhat unhappy with their current life, disillusioned with society and capitalism, and in search of a more fulfilling way of living. Part of their coping mechanism in this mean, dreadful world is to tell each other stories; some of them true, others made up in order to bring a message across. I personally enjoyed the “true” stories most as they gave one a better idea of who those characters indeed are, what they’ve been through, what they are wishing for.

After finishing the book, I decided to check goodreads and see what others thought of the book. What I found was what I would call mixed reviews: some people seemed to love it, the rest truly hated it. The biggest issue for most was that the book is pretentious and the main protagonists are, to put it bluntly, a bunch of whiny, white, privileged people in their mid-twenties who are dissatisfied with the way things are. As one reviewer said: “Coupland is genuinely brilliant and there’s no doubt that he’s a fantastic writer. However, you wish that he would take his head out of his arse”. Another was even more drastic when calling Coupland one of the “most overrated one-trick-pony writers of all time. Pretty much all of his novels are pretentious, pseudo-intellectual crap masquerading as high-brow literature”. I do think these commenters have a point…the second example I’ve given here does go a bit far and as I haven’t read anything else from Coupland I cannot judge his other work (I put that comment in merely because I found it amusing) but overall, I feel that some of the issues of Generation X that are addressed fall a bit flat or are presented simplistically. This, however, does not mean I did not enjoy reading Generation X. It definitely outlines the struggles young people in the 90s faced and how the generational divide caused lots of misunderstanding and as a young person, I could understand (and have felt) their frustrations. All in all, Douglas Coupland’s Generation X is worth a read, whether or not one considers the characters obnoxious, simply for its portrayal of a youth culture that did very much exist and its insight into that generation’s aggravations and dreams. To end with a more positive feedback from yet another goodreads commenter: “This was the first novel that I read that questioned the American Dream or traditional values”.

Importance of Dreaming

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Langston Hughes

These are the first lines of Langston Hughes’ poem “Dreams”. I think it is so beautiful, meaningful, and at the same time very “accessible”. Although I love poetry I often cannot recite even my favourite poems – this is one of the few exceptions.

The poem actually consists of two quatrains; a fact which I was unaware of until just know! As I have originally first read, and ultimately fallen in love with, only the first four lines I decided to post only these, but in case you would like to read the whole, check it out!

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,

Her hardest hue to hold.

Her early leaf’s a flower,

But only so an hour.

Then leaf subsides to leaf,

So Eden sank to grief,

So dawn goes down to day,

Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost

This is one of my favourite poems. It reminds me of autumn (my favourite season). The imagery is beautiful, especially the last line: “Nothing gold can stay”.

At a local park near where I live (picture was taken by me today).
At a local park near where I live (picture was taken by me today).

Why Tennessee Williams’ life and work were so entwined

Thomas Lanier Williams III, better known under his professional name Tennessee Williams, is one of the most important and influential playwrights in the history of American literature. Apart from his plays, for which he is probably best known for, he also wrote novels, poems, short stories and his own memoirs. His most popular pieces have been adapted into films as well, starring famous actors of the 50s and 60s Hollywood. Not only the contents of his work but also his own life has attracted a lot of attention, for Williams was an open homosexual (something which was almost unheard of at that time) and had to deal with an alcohol and substance abuse addiction.
Thomas Lanier Williams III, better known under his professional name Tennessee Williams, is one of the most important and influential playwrights in the history of American literature. Apart from his plays, for which he is probably best known for, he also wrote novels, poems, short stories and his own memoirs. Not only the contents of his work but also his own life has attracted a lot of attention, for Williams was an open homosexual (something which was almost unheard of at that time) and had to deal with an alcohol and substance abuse addiction.

 

“People have said and said and said that my work is too personal: and I have just as persistently countered this charge with my assertion that all true work of an artist must be personal, whether directly or obliquely, it must and it does reflect the emotional climates of its creator.”

Those words written by Williams, taken out of his memoirs, prove that the author did fill his plays with personal experiences, a fact not uninteresting considering that the main themes in Williams’ dramas were alcoholism, mental instability, homosexuality and difficult family relationships.

My reason for writing about this is simply that Tennessee Williams is my all-time favourite playwright. I actually discovered him through the old film adaptions of his plays, Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Quickly I started reading his work and became completely entranced by his way of depicting the society he lived in, concentrating especially on dysfunctional families. To pick a favourite would be difficult as they have continually changed. At first I preferred The Glass Menagerie as it was probably the one I could best relate to and therefore understand. My sympathy went out to Laura and her situation and although I was by no means a recluse like her, I somehow identified with her. Now I guess it is a close tie between Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire. I have also written my final paper in English on Tennessee Williams with the main focus on how his life is comparable to his work.

Williams has started writing at the age of fourteen as compensation for being lonely. In later years he brought aspects of his own life into his plays and sometimes modelled entire characters after members of his family. Here a brief biography:

Williams was born on the 26 of March 1911 in Columbus, Mississippi to parents Edwina and Cornelius Coffin Williams. He has a younger brother Dakin and an older sister Rose, with whom he had a very strong relationship and who was probably his only friend as a child. Growing up Williams had a difficult childhood with a heavy drinking father often away from home and if present very violent and his neurotic and hysterical mother who tried to rule over her children’s lives. In his memoirs, Williams has frequently stated that his maternal grandparents were often the only ones who provided a normal home for him and that he tributes all the good things that have happened to him entirely to them such as paying for his school fees. His beloved sister, after having had several mental breakdowns and showing other signs of psychic instability, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and underwent lobotomy after having been pressured by their mother Edwina to do so. This resulted in Rose being incapacitated and spending the rest of her adult life in a facility. Williams has never quite gotten over these incidents which might have been an adding factor to his alcohol problems in later life and he visited her regularly at the asylum as well as paying for her care. Tennessee Williams himself suffered from illnesses as a child which lead to him being more frail and weak than most of his age group. When aged 8, his family moved to St Louis, Missouri, where he went to school and also attended university taking journalism classes and started to write plays and essays. Not approving of his choice to become an artist his father takes him out of school and gets him a job at a shoe factory which Williams quit shortly after a nervous breakdown. He took up his education again and after having graduated with a “Bachelor of Arts” degree from University of Iowa, he worked on his first successful play “The Glass Menagerie” which was shown on Broadway. His next big hit in line was “A Streetcar named Desire” which would truly manifest the significant role he played in the theater world and from then on, he was generally accepted as the greatest playwright of his generation winning many awards such as the Pulitzer Price, the New York Drama Critics Award and a Tony. “A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” would turn out another hit for Williams, however, from then on his career slowly started to suffer. In addition to his dramas not receiving the same acclaim as they used to and getting negative critique, Tennessee Williams personal life was full of turmoil. In the late 1930s Williams has come to accept his homosexuality and wound up in numerous sexual encounters and relationships, his longest with Frank Merlo lasting 14 years. After their breakup Williams increased his already heavy alcohol and prescription drugs consumption and fell into depression after his former partner died of lung cancer whom he had looked after even though they were not a couple anymore. This concluded in Williams’s frequent hospitalizations and several stays at a mental health facility. Tennessee Williams’ life came to a tragic end when he died on February 25, 1983 in a New York hotel room, suffocating on the lid of one of his medication bottles.

 

Young Tennessee
Young Tennessee

His often tumultuous life and harmful lifestyle (in terms of health) inspired him to write some of the greatest plays of the 20th century and one among the reasons why I think they are so special is that he managed to silently point out the flaws in the society he portrayed without openly criticizing them which would have been achieved by having a character who is aware of what is wrong in society or having characters change their ways. This is almost never the case in Williams’ dramas, characters remain the way they are and it is up to the reader/ audience to reflect upon the plot and figure out what he wanted to convey. As mentioned earlier, Tennessee Williams’ main themes featured in his plays are dysfunctional families which often include domineering characters and sometimes domestic violence, homosexuality, alcoholism and very prominently mental instability.

Homosexuality

At a time when homosexual people were not as respected as nowadays and sometimes had to deal with degradation and isolation, Tennessee Williams never hid himself and was very open about his sexuality. The media was very interested and often questioned him about this part of his private life. Williams frequently put in aspects of the hardships homosexuals had to face for the price of living out their sexual preferences in his plays. For instance, in “A Streetcar Named Desire” Blanche’s ex-husband, a young man not quite aware of his feelings, is incapable of admitting the evident and sees no other way but to kill himself, especially after Blanche lets her opinion on this be known. Needing time himself to realize that he was attracted to men, Williams found it difficult at first to adjust and tried to conceal it. A similar storyline can be found in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in which Brick’s best friend commits suicide, having come out to Brick but having been rejected. Brick’s angry reaction to the indication that there might have been something between them and his accusation that their friendship was named “dirty” just shows how society at that time judged people who declared themselves homosexual. More notable plays containing this subject would be “Suddenly, Last Summer” and “Something Unspoken”. The first features main character Sebastian who is homosexual and is searching for possible hook-ups, whereas the latter is about two women too embarrassed to talk about what has once happened between them.

Tennessee with partner Frank Merlo at his house in Key West
Tennessee with partner Frank Merlo at his house in Key West

Alcoholism

Tennessee Williams’ probably biggest and most fatal vice were alcohol and prescription drugs. He has been addicted to them most of his adult life and mostly worked entirely under their influence. Like some of his characters he drank to shut out his conscience for he felt very responsible for not having stopped his sister from undergoing lobotomy. This is comparable to Brick’s and Blanche’s drinking out of guilt for not having prevented important people in their lives from taking the ultimate step. Another reason for the playwright’s heavy drinking was that it was the only way to cope with his struggles and keep his anxiety and nervousness in check, same as with Blanche for whom liquor has a soothing effect on her inner turmoil. Tom Wingfield is worth mentioning as he probably is the most accurate representative of Williams persona in any of his earlier plays. He already shows signs of heavy consumption which he has taken up to get away from his problems. Tennessee Williams father, just like the absent Mr Wingfield, was a drunkard too which has left a negative impact on young Williams.

Mental Instability

Nervous breakdowns and mental instability have been occurring in Tennessee Williams family for generations, he himself suffered from depressions and anxiety attacks. His sister Rose, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, was very similar to Laura in the “Glass Menagerie”. Both lived in their own worlds, were rather disconnected and detached from reality and tended to not be very sociable which resulted in them staying mostly at home. Same goes with Blanche who is described as very nervous, anxious, overwrought and at times hysterical and shows signs of irrational behaviour and mood swings. Whereas some characteristics of hers such as her illusions can be attributed to Rose, others however remind of Tennessee for example anxiety, nervousness and hysteria about which he wrote: “I am as much of an hysteric as Blanche”. Blanche’s distance to reality becomes obvious when she dresses up and acts as if she were a queen, an act which Williams has drawn from his sister Rose, trapped in her dream world, certain that she was the Queen of England. Another connection between Rose and Blanche would be that both end up being treated at an asylum. Although this happened after the publication of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”, an interesting parallel between Williams and Brick took place when following the death of his former partner of 14 years, the stage in his life which Williams refers to as his “seven year depression” commenced. During this phase his abuse of alcohol, tranquilizers and sleeping pills increased, greatly resembling Brick’s descent to addiction. Nervous collapse playing a significant role in another of Williams’ work “Suddenly, Last Summer”, Catherine is forced to stay at a sanatorium for not succeeding in disguising her disturbance concerning the circumstances of her cousin’s death.

Williams's sister Rose Isabel Williams
Williams’s sister Rose Isabel Williams

Family

As already mentioned, many members of his family have been turned into roles for Williams’ plays, exceptionally so in “The Glass Menagerie”. Starting with Tom having the same first name and a similar sounding surname as the author, they also both work at a shoe factory in St Louis but rather spend their time writing and have the habit to stay out late hitting the bottle. While in the play the father has absented himself years ago, William’s father Cornelius was still part of the family but often away travelling for his job. Laura, whose nickname given to her by Jim is Blue Roses, is the counterpart of older sister Rose who also struck up a romance with a young man working at the same branch as Tennessee and was comparably disappointed when it terminated. Mother Amanda, apart from the custom of being overbearing and overdramatic, takes after Edwina Williams, daughter of a clergyman, in respect to her Christian values and beliefs. Williams credits his mother’s “monolithic Puritanism” to be the origin of Rose’s mental tumult. An incident taken place on Rose’s first day as a receptionist during which she fled weeping to the lavatories, locked herself in and never returned to work after is fairly similar to Laura’s experience at typing class where she threw up on her first day and refused to go back again as well. “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” provides for more comparisons such as the loud, robust, harsh, bossy character of Big Daddy who was modelled after Williams own father Cornelius whom he sarcastically calls Big Daddy in his memoirs. Both are in an unhappy marriage and let out their anger at their wives who nonetheless tolerate their behaviour which Williams has shown in Big Mama’s line: “You never believed that I loved you? I even loved your hate”. Cornelius also saw himself, just like Big Daddy, as the king of his home, a notion they share with Stanley Kowalski, whose aggressive and violent attitude and preference for booze and poker are based on Cornelius as well. Furthermore, the DuBois family history is identical to the one of the Lanier Williams, both descendants of French Huguenots having settled in Mississippi. To conclude, in “Suddenly, Last Summer” Catherine is forced by her Aunt to undergo lobotomy, which was the same destiny impending Rose.

 

I do agree with Williams that true work of an artist is always personal whether they want to admit or not, whether it is apparent or not. Knowing more about an author and having familiarized oneself with their life, makes reading their work even more interesting and it will definitely make you appreciate it more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Life on the road: How I fell in love with Kerouac and wanted to join the Beats

one of Jack’s many quotes – and one of my favourites

I first heard of On the Road through a friend. It was in music class in which we had just learnt about the different variations of Jazz, Bebop being one of them. Lili, seated next to me, casually mentions that in the book she is currently reading the main characters enjoy Bebop and Jazz music (or rather go crazy listening to it). I was unaware that I would fall in love with this book and the characters involved.

After she had finished reading the book, my friend held a presentation on it in school which lead to me hearing for the first time of the adventures of a certain Jack Kerouac and the man who fascinated him so much, Neal Cassady. Being a passionate traveller with constant wanderlust myself, I was instantly intrigued by the spontaneity of their trips. Caught wondering what kind of person Kerouac had been, I decided to read the book as well. From the start, I was spellbound. I think it might have been because I identified with Jack. He seems like a normal guy who wants to break out of his ordinary life but seems hesitant to do so completely. He states that he has always been the one to follow behind others and observe, a position I felt I’ve held for most of my youth. Most likely therefore did he choose to flock around interesting (or crazy) characters that would sort of ensure that he would experience something extraordinary.

I won’t bore you with any details regarding the plot, however, if you do consider reading this masterpiece of the Beat Literature, I would strongly advise you to read On the Road: The Original Scroll for, apart from the included parts that had earlier been taken out of the first publication as they were deemed too graphic/provocative/etc.., the original feels more real especially as the actual names were used. The scroll was another thing that fascinated me, the fact that this book had been written on a metre-long roll of paper taped together. Little did I know then that I would get to look at the actual thing in person.

one of the earlier editions
one of the earlier editions
One of "The Original Scroll" versions (and the one I own)
One of “The Original Scroll” versions (and the one I own)

It happened… on a school trip to France in 2012. In my junior year of high school, after having studied French for three years, I went on a language course with my class. We spent 5 days in St. Malo, Brittany, near the Atlantic Coast and three days in the country’s capital Paris. Weirdly enough, on the first day arriving in France, while strolling along the aisles of a book store, one particular magazine in the newspaper section caught my attention. It was a limited edition issue by the magazine “Trois Couleurs” on Jack and “On the Road”.

sur la route

Without much consideration, I bought it. Flicking through, I noticed an ad about a museum exhibition with the title: “On the Road: from novel to the big screen” (ok, that’s the approximate translation from French into English). Although aware that it probably wouldn’t work out for me to visit it, I was getting more excited as I tried to figure out when and where this exhibition would be held. The answer was at the moment in Paris (in the “Musée des lettres et manuscrits”). I couldn’t believe my luck. Long story short, after convincing our teacher, Lili and I were allowed to leave the group to pay the museum a visit. What we did not expect what was awaited us there. The moment I went into the room of the exhibition was probably the closest I’ve ever come to a “fangirl moment”. Upon entering, the first thing I saw was what every passionate “On the Road” enthusiast dreams of: THE SCROLL. Well aware that this might sound very weird, it was one of the happiest days of my life. Not only for having seen it but because it came as a surprise. I couldn’t have anticipated it to be there, I thought the museum would just put a few photographs on display. Besides the scroll, there were requisites of the movie and some original letters and personal belongings of Kerouac himself.

The iconic beginning of On the Road: "I first met Neal not long after my father died..."
The iconic beginning of On the Road: “I first met Neal not long after my father died…”
Outside of the museum
Outside of the museum
Requisite: Scroll used in the movie
Requisite: Scroll used in the movie

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THE SCROLL
THE SCROLL

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I first met ....
I first met ….

Needless to say, my excitement lasted throughout my stay in Paris (and maybe still lingers on to this day). I bet most bookworms will understand – there is always one book that captivated you so much that it makes you want to know everything related to it. Seeing the actual scroll was a big deal for me. For others, it might just be an old, yellowed roll of paper. To me it’s definitely more.