Proust’s coffee

Although fifteen years later [Marcel Proust] would recall his year as a soldier with total delight, as “a paradise,” at the time he complained bitterly and his mother had to write him consoling, babying letters, telling him to think of the twelve months as twelve chocolate squares.

Imagine the guys in the barracks finding your letters from your mom telling you to think about your year as twelve chocolate squares.

In his short biography of Custer, Larry McMurtry mentions a few other short biographies he judges fine, including with a characteristic lack of false modesty his own biography of Crazy Horse, and this Edmund White biography of Proust.

So, I got it and read it.  Wonderful act of compression.  Thoughtful, succinct, at times funny, human, gentle, this book is a great guide to the man and artist, what his work meant and what he was after.

Thought this was wild:

In 1911 Proust became a subscriber to Théàtrophone, a service that held a telephone receiver up at a concert, which allowed people to stay at home and hear live music on their receivers.

The few hundred pages of Remembrance of Things Past I was supposed to read in college (“Proust, Joyce and Modernism”: a class I chose to take!) were tough going for me.  Proust won’t be hurried.  This guy didn’t even get a job  until he was in his thirties.  This was an unpaid job, as a librarian, and eventually he got fired for being out sick too much.  Proust is not interested in going at anyone’s pace except the languid pace of a man lying in bed, leisurely following the meandering paths of his own memory.

Proust always claimed that he had a bad memory and that, besides, a carefully reconstructed recollection, prompted by photos or shared reminiscences, was invariably colorless, Only an involuntary memory, triggered by a taste or smell or other sensation, could erase the passage of time and restore a past experience in its first, full effulgence.

Proust’s world was pretentious and can seem ridiculous.  Proust himself was a great mimic, reducing people to fits of laughter with his impressions.  He loved collecting anecdotes and gossip, grilling waiters for details (Proust was an extravagant tipper.)  White says that Georg D. Painter’s Marcel Proust: A Biography, the one-volume edition, is

so amusing that it could be used as a source for a stand-up comic.

I’ll be looking into this claim.

How about Proust’s maid, Céleste?

Céleste’s great anxiety was Proust’s morning (or afternoon) coffee.  It had to be ready the moment he rang for it, but the preparation took at least half an hour, since he liked the water to be dripped, drop by drop, through the grounds in order to produce the thickest, strongest possible “essence” of coffee.  Nor could he bear for it to be reheated…

This is after Céleste had been standing up for hours listening to Proust recount gossip he’d collected on “rare midnight sorties,” Proust waiting til midnight to go out because he was so afraid of dust.  Well, White tells us we read Proust because he knows that

only the gnarled knowledge that suffering brings us is of any real use.

Maybe Céleste pondered that while she remade the coffee.

Leaving the house was a challenge for Proust, but near the end of his life he made an outing to see Vermeer’s View of Delft:

On the night before he died Proust dictated a last sentence: “There is a Chinese patience in Vermeer’s craft.”

White tells us.  Man Ray took a picture of Proust right after the author died, you can see it here if you’re so inclined.  I’m told by the Met that Cocteau wrote of the scene:

Those who have seen this profile of calm, of order, of plenitude, will never forget the spectacle of an unbelievable recording device come to a stop, becoming an art object: a masterpiece of repose next to a heap of notebooks where our friend’s genius continues to live on like the wristwatch of a dead soldier.

True despair hours:


Unities across trades

comedy and hog farming, from this article in Hobby Farm.


Thalia

Whenever I need a boost in either comedy or idyllic poetry I just call upon the muse Thalia


Gods of the Modern World and the Cartoon History Of The Universe

José Clemente Orozco painted these crazy frescos at Dartmouth around 1933.  My pal Larry Gonick sends a vivid closeup:

photo: Larry Gonick

Gotta check these out.  If you haven’t read Larry Gonick’s Cartoon History Of The Universe:

Strongest recommend!  Epic achievements in bringing history to life by both artists.

 


The wild man and his “wildies”

From Comedy’s Greatest Era (1949):

Sennett used to hire a “wild man” to sit in on his gag conferences, whose whole job was to think up “wildies.”  Usually he was an all but brainless, speechless man, scarcely able to communicate his idea; but he had a totally uninhibited imagination.  He might say nothing for an hour; then he’d mutter “You take . . . ” and all the relatively rational others would shut up and wait.  “You take this cloud . . .” he would get out, sketching vague shapes in the air.  Often he could get no further; but thanks to some kind of thought-transference, saner men would take this cloud and make something of it.  The wild man seems in fact to have functioned as the group’s subconscious mind, the source of all creative energy.  His ideas were so weird and amorphous that Sennett can no longer remember a one of them, or even how it turned out after rational processing.  But a fair equivalent might be on of the best comic sequences in a Laurel and Hardy picture.  It is simple enough – simple and real, in fact, as a nightmare.  Laurel and Hardy are trying to move a piano across a narrow suspension bridge.  The bridge is slung over a sickening chasm, between a couple of Alps.  Midway they meet a gorilla.

Agee speaks of the side-splitting laughter that would erupt in silent movie houses, and how you just can’t get that level of laughter from “talkies,” no matter how funny.

the best of comedies these days hand out plenty of titters and once in a while it is possible to achieve a yowl without overstraining

but nothing like what the “ideally good gags” of the silent days would provoke.

Wasn’t sure I understood what levels of laughter in the movie theater Agee was talking about until I saw the Jackass movies:


Loved this comparison

As Zinoman puts it, “His smirking tone was so consistently knowing that he seemed as if he must know something.”  This was an attitude fit for the cynical mood of the 1980s, and Zinoman emphasizes Letterman’s significance as an avatar of cool noncommitment, a figure of his time.  In that, Letterman resembled that other pop-cultural phenomenon of the era, Jim Davis’s Garfield – the rotund cartoon feline also riven by self-doubt and haunted by grandiose fantasies of domination while projecting an aloofness that often verged on the cruel.

from Naomi Fry’s review of Jason Zinoman’s Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night in the Summer 2017 issue of BookForum.  (A little behind on my Bookforum).


Was the last joke Abe Lincoln heard funny?

I can’t be the first amateur historian / comedy writer to get interested in this question.

It’s presumed that John Wilkes Booth, who knew the play, waited for what he knew would be a big laugh line, which was:

Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.

Let’s back up a bit.

Lincoln, as errbody knows, was watching Our American Cousin at the time of his death.

The plot of Our American Cousin is a coarse but honest American goes to the UK to claim an inheritance and gets involved in the various shenanigans of his snooty distant relatives who are trying to keep up appearances and marry off daughters and so on.  Seems like a pretty good premise.   A Frasier-esque farce satirizing pretension and manners.

good source for these images is BoothieBarn, though not sure how to feel about the name

Our American Cousin was written by Tom Taylor.

He had a career as a lawyer and bureaucrat and magazine editor.

Our American Cousin doesn’t seem to have been his biggest hit, that might’ve been:

which isn’t a comedy. They made that one into a movie a few times, most recently in 1937.

Our American Cousin premiered in New York in 1858 and was a hit.

Stealing the show was Edward Askew Sothern as Lord Dundreary:

Askew Sothern almost hadn’t taken the part:

At first, he was reluctant to accept the role; it was so small and unimportant that he felt it beneath him and feared it might damage his reputation.[7][8] He mentioned his qualms to his friend, Joseph Jefferson, who had been cast in the leading role of Asa Trenchard in the play. Jefferson supposedly responded with the famous line: “There are no small parts, only small actors.”[9]

Huh.

After a couple of unhappy weeks in the small role, Sothern began portraying the role as a lisping, skipping, eccentric, weak-minded fop prone to nonsensical references to sayings of his “bwother” Sam. His ad-libs were a sensation, earning good notices for his physical comedy and spawning much imitation and merry mockery on both sides of the Atlantic. His exaggerated, droopy side-whiskers became known as “Dundrearys”. Sothern gradually expanded the role, adding gags and business until it became the central figure of the play. The most famous scene involved Dundreary reading a letter from his even sillier brother.

Sounds funny enough.  Kind of like this:

I can’t determine if Sothern was in the Ford’s Theater production, or if they got a different Dundreary.  Appears on this night Dundreary may have been played by one E. A. Emerson.

But top bill the Ford’s Theater night went to Laura Keene.

Born Mary Francis Moss, she married a former British Army officer who committed some crime or another and got transported to Australia on a prison ship.  To support herself and her kids she became Laura Keene, a popular actress.

She appeared with Edwin Booth many times, they even toured Australia together.

At this point, she lined up investors, along with an architect who specialized in theaters, and a new theater was constructed to her specifications. Named the Laura Keene’s Theatre, it opened on 18 November 1856. In 1858, Our American Cousin debuted in Laura Keene’s Theater.

A badass, as they say.  A strong female multi-hyphenate.

Some years later they revived the play for a kind of benefit night, and that’s how Lincoln ended up there.

John Wilkes Booth waited for a big laugh line:

Halfway through Act III, Scene 2, the character of Asa Trenchard, played that night by Harry Hawk, utters this line, considered one of the play’s funniest, to Mrs. Mountchessington:

Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal — you sockdologizing old man-trap.

Harry Hawk in costume:

I found that image through the website for The Persistence of Dreams, this four minute recreation movie of that night at the theater (warning: violence):

Sockdologizing was a made up word, invented in this play.  It seems that around this time people found the word “doxology” to be funny.  It may have been a play on that.

The phrase sounds weird to our ears.  But I bet if you heard it, delivered with solid timing by a charming actor like Harry Hawk, playing into the role of the lovably blunt Asa Trenchard, it was probably amusing.

Anyway, I conclude that yes, the last joke Abe Lincoln heard was pretty funny, even if it may not be exactly hilarious to us these many years later.