Tag Archives: Shakespeare

What if Shakespeare Had a Sister Who’d Written His Plays?

250px-Shakespeare

“Excuse me?” I said. “Could you say that again?”

The seventeen-year-old high-school-senior son of my best friend sighed.

Loudly.

“What would have happened if Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father and married his mother?” said Andrew.

“Your English teacher gave you that as an essay exam?”

“Right, and I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to answer that question,” he said.

“You see why I told him to call you?” said my best friend Rebecca, on the extension. “You’re the Shakespeare expert, not me.”

“That’s your essay-exam question?” I said.

“Right,” said her son. “And it doesn’t make any sense to me.”

“Did you read the play?”

“We read it, discussed it, and saw the movie.”

“Then you know Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle Claudius in Act 1, Scene 1.”

“Of course, I know that,” said Andrew. “He doesn’t kill him till the end of the play.”

“Then your answer is, ‘If Hamlet had killed his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father told Hamlet that Claudius had killed Hamlet’s father, we’d have no play’.”

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet ©

On the extension, my friend started laughing. She said she was going to leave the remainder of the conversation to us and hung up.

Her son was not laughing.

He was sincerely distressed.

“I can’t write, ‘there’d be no play’,” he said. “I’ll get an F.”

“You can write whatever you want,” I said, “because it’s such a stupid question that even people who’ve never read the play can answer it any way they want to and still get an A. Because there will be no wrong answers.”

There was silence on the other end of the phone.

Hamlet is interesting because we want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill his Uncle after the ghost of his father tells him that his Uncle Claudius murdered him and married Hamlet’s mother to become King himself,” I told my friend’s son. “We want to know why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he acts guilty seeing a re-enactment of the actual murder in a play written by Hamlet to ‘catch the conscience of the King’. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he catches his Uncle alone at his prayers. Why Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius after he finds a letter on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern instructing the King of England to kill Hamlet for Claudius so that Hamlet, who is the heir-apparent, cannot ever become King of Denmark. Why, in fact, Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius until the very last act of the play and then only after Claudius accidentally kills Hamlet’s mother when she drinks the poison intended for Hamlet, and Laertes, who’s challenged Hamlet to a sword-fight, tells Hamlet that he’s been poisoned with the tip of Laertes’ sword by Claudius’ order.”

“So, I was right,” said Andrew, “it is a stupid question.”

Laurence Olivier as Hamlet ©

It’s more than a stupid question for a literature class.

It’s the typical inane “What-If School of Life” question.

What if the dog hadn’t stopped to take a nap while he was racing the hare? What if Julius Caesar hadn’t been killed by the Senators? What if Cleopatra hadn’t deserted Marc Antony and he’d won the last of the Roman Civil Wars? What if the British had won the Revolutionary War? What if the South had won our own Civil War? What if Kennedy had not been assassinated? What if Helen Keller had not caught the disease that made her deaf, dumb, and blind?

All of these questions are totally pointless. Because, as we know, these things did happen, and it is more important to understand why they did happen than to discuss some alternative history or fantasy story that did not occur.

Still, it amazes me the number of people who constantly do this. Not just literature teachers who don’t know anything about analyzing literature, or students who haven’t read the assigned literature but want to talk a lot so they’ll get a good grade. Not just historians or supposed history buffs, either.

Reporters and talk-show hosts do it: What if country singer Dolly Parton hadn’t grown up poor? What if serial killer Ted Bundy hadn’t escaped twice and had been caught sooner? What if FEMA had sent money and trailers to the victims of Hurricane Katrina sooner? What if SuperStorm Sandy had missed New Jersey completely?

Sports announcers do it: What if the receiver had caught the quarterback’s pass? What if the quarterback’s pass hadn’t been intercepted? What if the basketball player had made that last-minute 3-point-basket and won the game? What if the game hadn’t gone into overtime? What if professional cyclist Lance Armstrong’s teammates had never revealed that he illegally doped while winning all those Tour de France races?

In fact, virtually everyone who has nothing important to say about what did, indeed, happen, does it. Sometimes, I think they do it just to hear themselves talk. The problem is, they’re not saying anything interesting.

Mainly because, whether in literature or history or another event in life, those things did happen. So why do they want to discuss fantasy topics when the actual events are so much more pertinent?

I honestly do not know.

My friend Rebecca and I were once teaching Literature for a Saturday Classics Program at a well known and respected University where adult students who had dropped out of college when they were younger did intensive coursework all day long every Saturday for two-three years to finish their college degrees. The literature component was designed so that professors from different fields taught the same work each week from their own perspectives and backgrounds. An anthropology professor discussed the work during the first class of the day, a sociology professor during the next class, a psychology professor during the third class, Rebecca and I during the fourth and fifth classes – as the literature professors.

We thought it was an intriguing approach, though Rebecca and I combined our 2 two-hour sessions into 1 four-hour afternoon session since we were both literature professors and wanted the students to lead the discussions themselves. It’s the only way we had ever thought of to ensure that students would actually read the work: make the students themselves lead the discussion for the entire period at least once during the quarter, and grade the rest of the class on their participation in the discussion every single time.

No essays. Just discussion. On the assigned topic. We did it with our college students at our respective universities, who were only 18-22-years-old. We could certainly do the same thing with adult students who, being more mature and having more life experience, would, theoretically, bring even more insight into the literature.

We thought the entire approach to the Classics Program was unique, and it worked well.

Until we got to King Lear.

Geoffrey Rush as Lear, 2016 ©

The first question the student Discussion Leaders asked when they got to our literary analysis component of the program that week was this one: “What if King Lear hadn’t divided his kingdom in Act 1 Scene 1 and told his three daughters that he’d give the largest part of the kingdom to the daughter who said she loved him the most?”

Rebecca, with wide eyes, glanced over at me just a moment before I interrupted the Leaders.

“And what if Shakespeare had a sister who’d actually written the plays?” I said.

The students stared at me, obviously confused.

“That’s an example of how irrelevant your question is because King Lear does divide his kingdom,” I said. “Go on to your next question.”

The Leaders huddled together, whispering, shuffling their papers, flipping through the pages of the play. The rest of the class moved restlessly.

“Go on to your next question,” I said. “Any question. From any part of the play. You don’t have to start with the beginning.”

After several more minutes of whispering and hesitation, one of the Discussion Leaders finally spoke up.

“What if King Lear’s daughter Cordelia hadn’t died?”

“She does die,” I said. “Go on to a legitimate question.”

“What if Cordelia had said she loved her father the way he wanted her to?” said the other leader.

“She doesn’t,” I said. “What are you guys doing? You’ve already been discussing King Lear all day. Talk about anything that hasn’t been answered to your satisfaction so far.”

Derek Jacobi, as Lear and Pippa Bennett-Warner as Cordelia ©

Everyone in the class suddenly became obsessed with their copies of the play, turning pages, apparently taking notes, silent. Silent. Silent. Rebecca and I looked at each other. We both instantly and intuitively knew what was wrong.

“How many of you have not read King Lear ?” I said, and, to our dismay and horror, every hand in the class eventually went up.

“What have you been discussing for the last six hours today?” said Rebecca.

“In Don’s [the anthropologist’s] class, we spent the first hour going around the room telling how our week went…”

“Just today?”

“No, we do that every week.”

“And the second hour of Don’s class?”

“We talk about how our classes are going.”

“What about in Lowell’s [the sociology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“We talk about current events.”

“But this is the Classics Program,” I said. “You’re supposed to be discussing the assigned literature from different perspectives.”

Silence.

“What do you discuss in Allen’s [the psychology professor’s] class?” said Rebecca.

“How we feel about school,” said one of the students. “As adults.”

“And how we felt about college when we were younger and why we never completed our degrees…”

You get the picture.

Pete Postlethwaite as Lear ©

I told them to start reading King Lear. I didn’t raise my voice, but my displeasure was clear. While they read, Rebecca and I redid the syllabus for our part of the Classics Program, for the remainder of the quarter. They would be discussing King Lear next week. The week following that, we would divide the class period in half, with two hours about one work, and two hours about the other, so that they would remain on schedule with the other teachers and the assigned literature in the program. When we passed out the revised syllabus, the students looked glum.

As soon as we dismissed class that day, all the students went straight to Don, Lowell, and Allen: To complain that we were “forcing” them to read King Lear.

Don, who had originally designed the program, called me and Rebecca in, protesting our approach. We politely but firmly protested his “What-If” approach as unprofessional, un-academic, and unacceptable. Don insisted that we let the students discuss whatever they wanted to discuss.

We offered our immediate resignations.

Don, Lowell, and Allen were all horrified. They wanted us to let the students discuss anything they wanted — except the literature, apparently, but they didn’t want us to resign. Rebecca and I insisted that they could teach the literature themselves since they were going to permit the students to discuss everything but the literature in question. That was when we learned that none of the other three professors had read the literature. Any of it. All quarter long.

And that, plain and simple, was the reason they constantly asked the students “What-If” questions that didn’t have anything to do with what had occurred in the literature, or asked them about things that had to do with their personal lives or with world events every week.

Don Warrington as Lear ©

Though the students had protested when Rebecca and I changed the syllabus, they discovered that they liked King Lear after they read it. They wanted to discuss the play itself and the characters’ motivations. Same thing happened when we got to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The rest of the quarter, the students began insisting that Don, Lowell, and Allen discuss the literature from the anthropological, sociological, and psychological perspectives — as the Classics Program had been designed. Don, Lowell, and Allen were very unhappy.

The students, however, thrived. They became excited about the works they were reading. They understood why the Classics had interested people for so many centuries. They liked literature, many of them for the first time in their lives. Quite a few of them even switched their majors. To Literature.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet ©

And what happened to Rebecca’s son Andrew with his essay-exam question about Hamlet ?

He wrote an essay on his interpretation of why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle Claudius after the Ghost of Hamlet’s father informed Hamlet of Claudius’ murder in order to become King.

Andrew’s teacher was so impressed that she read his essay aloud to the rest of the class, gave him an A+/100%, and re-assigned it to the rest of the class, asking them to come up with their own interpretations — supported by the play, of course — about why Hamlet did not kill his Uncle upon learning the truth of his father’s murder.

Andrew was happy and proud. The teacher never gave that kind of assignment again. The students were annoyed at first: they had to write a second essay, and some of them, no doubt, had not read the play – only watched the film. But Andrew reported that the same thing happened in his class that had occurred in the Classics Program: the students began to like the literature, to discuss it heatedly and in an informed manner, and to continue their discussions during lunch and after school.

Now that’s the kind of intellectual discussions that I find fascinating.

No matter the topic.

Not the What-If-This-Had-Never-Happened kind of discussion.

Why talk about those things when the “why did this, in fact, happen, and what were the consequences of its happening?” talks are more intriguing?

As the narrator says in the film version of Jane Austen’s classic Mansfield Park, “It could have all turned out differently, I suppose, but it didn’t.”

images

updated August 2017

Share

4 Comments

Filed under Actors, Art, Authors, Books, Classics, Film Videos, Memoir, Movies/Films, Music Videos, Music/Song, Reading

My Dinner with Patrick (Stewart)

The meeting of two personalities is like
the contact of two chemical substances:
if there is any reaction,
both are transformed.
Carl Jung, Swiss psychologist (1875 – 1961)

Unknown-1

“Patrick Stewart called,” said my Hollywood agent one day after I got home from University. “He wants to know if you can swing by Los Angeles on your book tour so that he can have dinner with you.”

I was flabbergasted. Though Patrick and his production company, Flying Freehold, had held the option on my first novel — The Kommandant’s Mistress — for a few years, and though we had often spoken for long periods on the phone — about all sorts of topics, including my novel — I never dreamed that I would meet him, let alone have dinner with him.

Kweb-1

I was also stressed. Not being a famous author, my New York publishers had always asked me to pay for my book tours: I had saved a long time on my English Professor’s salary to do the tour for my second novel; all the flights, hotels, and bookstores had already been set up.

How could I add another city at the last minute?

The expense would be tremendous.

After I explained the situation frankly to my Hollywood agent, Lisa, requesting that she not ask Patrick for the money, she called my New York agent, who called my publisher, who called the publicist. Three hours later, Lisa informed me that the publisher would pay for the Los Angeles part of the tour — flight, driver, and hotel — if I would be sure to promote both books — The Kommandant’s Mistress as well as Only with the Heart — while I was in Los Angeles.

H cover web 2012

Especially at the reading that Patrick and his (then) wife Wendy would be attending.
“Patrick’s coming to the reading?”
“How else is he going to meet you?”
“At dinner.”
“He’ll take you to dinner after the reading. But he said he’ll meet you at the bookstore cafe beforehand.”
“Before the reading?”
“It’s in his neighborhood,” said Lisa. “So, I’ll be there, too.”

I was more nervous than I’d been at my very first public reading several years before, in New York. You see, I don’t just “read”: I perform. Like an actor. Except that I’m a writer.

Patrick Stewart is the actor. A fine actor. Now he was going to be at my reading? How could I possibly perform in front of him? I already couldn’t eat anything before a performance (neither can he, as I discovered). How would I be able to eat anything afterward? I had no idea.

Somehow, I got through the reading/performance, with Patrick sitting right in front of me, so close that our knees touched, with the all-female audience visibly swooning each time anyone looked at him or he asked me a question in that magnificent voice of his. While I signed books afterward, Patrick and Wendy went to the restaurant to get a table. My agent Lisa waited at the back of the bookstore to take me over to dinner.

The driver who’d been assigned to me was very annoyed. She wanted to know what she was supposed to do. Her job was to take me to the bookstore readings and back to the hotel afterward. Was she supposed to just sit in the car the entire time I had dinner, or was she also invited to dinner? I signed books, chatted with my fans, and anxiously sought any sign of Lisa, who had disappeared. 45 minutes later, I’d signed the last book, thanked the bookstore owners and employees for sponsoring the reading, and discovered that the driver was gone.

“She said to tell you she’ll pick you up at the hotel tomorrow morning at 10 to take you to your four readings,” said my agent Lisa, who had returned. “Patrick will take you back to the hotel after dinner.”
“Patrick?” I said. “Not you?”
“No, I have to leave dinner early. I’m going to New Orleans tomorrow and I haven’t packed yet. Don’t worry. Patrick knows where the Holiday Inn is. He drove instead of walking in case you needed a ride back afterward.”

My nerves, already jangled, were now stretched even tauter. As we walked across the street to the restaurant, I asked Lisa if Patrick and his wife had been pleased with the reading. She told me she hadn’t been paying attention to them, but, rather, to me, and that she had been very impressed. Instead of being reassured, my feeling of foreboding increased.

images

At the crowded restaurant, Friday night diners packed the lobby and bar. We struggled through the group until someone grabbed my shoulder from behind: Patrick. Before my glass of wine had even arrived, the maitre d’ sidled up to Patrick to quietly inquire if his entire party had now arrived. He informed him that it had. Before all the others, we were taken to a table which had been reserved — empty — for at least the last hour since no one had known how long my reading would last and thus had not known what time to make the reservation. My cheeks turned redder than my hair as people openly stared while we were seated at the table in the center of the over-full restaurant.

The table was unbelievably small. It reminded me of those tiny, outdoor tables in Paris at the sidewalk cafes. When I wasn’t bumping my knees against Patrick, on my left, I was banging them into his wife Wendy, on my right. I suddenly wished I’d ordered something stronger than a glass of wine. Before I had another sip, however, Patrick began his “performance.” Charming and gracious, he began telling me a story.

Clearly, he meant to entertain me.
It wasn’t just dinner: it was a dinner party.
For the first time that evening, I was relieved and began to relax: I do “dinner party” well.

“Did you know,” said Patrick as he speared a forkful of Caesar salad, “that when Joseph Conrad was dying, he spoke aloud to his characters as if they were in the room?”
“Really?” I said. “In what language?”

images-5

Everyone at the table except me froze.
Patrick’s fork was mid-air, dangling salad.
My agent’s eyes were wider than an owl’s.
Wendy’s mouth was hanging open, literally.
My first faux pas.

images-3

“What language?” said Patrick, who is extremely well read, and not just in Shakespeare.
“Polish or English?” I said, though my agent was shaking her head at me for some reason. “Did he speak any others?”
“Not that I’m aware of,” said Patrick, his fork still poised between his plate and his mouth.
“So, in which language did he speak to his characters?” I said, eating some of my own salad and taking a sip of my wine while awaiting his answer.

Patrick’s wife Wendy began to laugh.
He put down his fork.
My agent closed her eyes momentarily.
I bashed my knees against both Patrick’s and Wendy’s, apologizing repeatedly.
Patrick gazed at me.
I returned his look.
He leaned slightly toward me.

images-1

“You know, in all the years I’ve told that story,” he said, “no one’s ever asked me that question.”
“You’ve told that story a lot?”
“Only about a hundred-million times,” said Wendy, “and that’s just in the ten years we’ve been together.”
“You’ve told that story a hundred-million times and no one’s ever asked you what language Conrad spoke in?” I said, completely forgetting my manners and whom I was addressing.
“Not a hundred-million times,” said Patrick.
“Close enough,” said his wife.
“And no one’s ever asked you that question?”
“Not once.”
“It’s probably not important,” said my agent, Lisa, smiling pointedly at me.
“It’s not the most important question, no,” I said. “I was just curious.”
“It’s not the most important question?” said Patrick.
“Not to me,” I said.
“What is?”
“First I have to know what language he spoke in.”
“What language do you think he spoke in?” said Patrick, moving closer.
“Polish.”
“Why?”
“Because he was dying.”

images-6

Patrick looked around the table.
His wife and my agent both busied themselves with their food and drinks.

“Studies have shown that people have the accent of the area in which they lived when they’re 5-7 years old,” I said. “Other studies have shown that no matter how many languages they become fluent in, people always count in their native language. Unless they grow up bi-lingual. Nobody knows why. They just know that they do. So, if Conrad was dying, he’d be speaking in his native language. Not in English.”

“Now, what’s the important question?” said Patrick.
“If he was speaking in Polish, and we know none of his characters spoke Polish, even the ones who were bi-lingual,” I said, not even noticing my agent’s deliberate coughing, “was it like God speaking to His creations, who were unable to understand Him?”

Unknown copy

Patrick swallowed and put down his fork. Everyone at the table stared at me. I blundered on, wanting to know the opinion of an artist I respected so much.

“Even if his characters could hear him, did they realize who he was? Did they know he’d created them, given them the lives they’d led, forced those difficult moral dilemmas on them, let them suffer, killed them? Did they try to answer him, like humans praying to God, not understanding anything He said back to them? Did he feel abandoned? Betrayed? Did they feel the same way?”

Patrick immediately turned to my agent, saying, “Lisa, what do you think?”
“I think I would have to be really drunk,” she said, pouring more wine into her glass, “to even begin to understand what she just said.”
Patrick looked across the table at his wife.
“Wendy, darling, what about you?”
“I think there’s not enough alcohol in the world for me to participate in this conversation,” she said, waving her hand at us. “Why don’t you two talk about the things you like, while Lisa and I discuss the things we like?”

Wendy and Lisa began talking about Patrick and Wendy’s wedding (three months previous) and the honeymoon (on Fiji). Wendy had brought photographs. I looked at Patrick. He looked at me. He raised his eyebrows and waited.

images-2

“Sometimes,” I said, horrified to hear my voice begin to crack and to feel tears in my eyes, “I feel monstrously guilty.”
“About what?” said Patrick.
“Because the only life I gave Rachel [in The Kommandant’s Mistress] was as an inmate in a Nazi concentration camp, being raped by Max [the Kommandant], just so I could try to answer the moral and ethical question, ‘What would you do to survive an inescapable situation?’ ”

Patrick was silent for a moment.
“What was the answer to that question?”
“That you never know what you’re capable of until you do it.”
Suddenly Patrick gripped my hand, squeezing it hard, his voice and eyes intense.
“Rachel’s forgiven you,” he said. “Trust me. I know she has.”
When he released my hand, I realized that Wendy and Lisa were staring at us.
So was almost everyone else in the restaurant, including the waiter standing slightly behind Patrick with another bottle of wine.

“Is she always like this?” Wendy said to Lisa.
“You read the book,” said Lisa, shrugging. “What do you think?”

Patrick moved his chair closer, obviously happy with me. I felt a strange sense of peace.
Did Patrick grant me Rachel’s absolution or his own? I don’t know.

I do know that we spent almost 5 delightful, intellectually stimulating hours over that dinner, discussing everything from Moby-Dick to Shakespeare’s plays (both of us prefer the tragedies), from my accent to his homeland (whose dialect/accent he hides), from acting to writing, from novels to films. Patrick was gracious, intuitive, charming, intelligent, incredibly well-read (unlike some actors, who only read scripts, screenplays, or “treatments” and never the actual books they’re based on), insightful, and funny. I knew that he would make a wonderful Max, just as he had made a marvelous Ahab.

Unfortunately, though the film was funded, it was never made (Hollywood politics). Patrick released the option, and we haven’t spoken in over seven years. That’s simply how it works in Hollywood: if you don’t have a project together, you don’t have contact with each other. And in Hollywood, authors are not very well respected unless they’re bestsellers. Most authors who have books optioned never talk to or meet the actors/directors who acquire the rights to make their books into films; most books that are optioned never even make it to the first day of “principal photography,” as it’s called, when the author gets paid.

I got to talk to Patrick the first time on the phone because he wanted to talk to me about my novel. I got to talk to him after that because he’d just finished filming Moby-Dick and I’ve read the novel at least a dozen times, even writing a poem called “Ahab’s Wife”: he wanted to know my take on his Ahab. I got to talk to him many times afterward because I’m a Shakespeare scholar: we could discuss some of the works closest to his heart.

I got to meet him and have dinner with him in Los Angeles simply because he wanted to meet me and discuss what he wanted to do with The Kommandant’s Mistress, the film. My life partner Tom and I then got to spend the weekend with Patrick and his wife when he was doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? because it was being staged only an hour’s flight from where we then lived, because Patrick liked me, and so he invited us up as his guests.

My situation with Patrick Stewart was not customary. Patrick’s desire to have contact with authors whose books he optioned is not the norm in Hollywood. Most of the actors I’ve met since then are gracious, kind, intelligent, charming, talented, and clever, but understandably wary around strangers, even if they’ve optioned their books.

Of course, I was disappointed that Patrick didn’t get to make my novel into a film, and I still believe he would have been a wonderful Max. The fact that Hollywood politics prevented its being made, however, can never take away my first dinner with Patrick. Nor can anything take away our first face-to-face conversation about Joseph Conrad, authors, their characters, moral and ethical choices in unbearable situations, as well as the existence of God, forgiveness, and hope in art.

Me & Patrick
(No, I don’t look anything like this now since I lost over 278 pounds and the dorky haircut — I look like this:
ACS 12 Feb 2016 copy

but I swear, that is me with Patrick Stewart, and, yes, he has his arm around me. Though we discussed many things over the years that Patrick held the option to my first novel, we never discussed Star Trek: TNG or his role as Captain Jean-Luc Picard: sorry.)

 

Share

2 Comments

Filed under Actors, Authors, Books, Classics, Memoir, Writing

Books That Changed My Life

Unknown

Someone on Twitter asked, “What books have influenced you or made an impact?”

How could any serious reader answer that in 140 characters or fewer?

Influenced me? How? My own writing style? That’s easiest to answer. Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, anything by Alain Robbe-Grillet, anything by Chris Bojhalian, James Joyce’s short stories and the last (Molly) section of Ulysses.

Made an impact on me? Not sure what that means. Books you think about over and over? Books you read over and over? I don’t know. There are so many that I’ve read multiple times, for different reasons. Still, I couldn’t answer that in a Tweet. Or two. Or three.

What books irrevocably changed my life?

Ah, now that question I can answer.

When I was about 6 and T.S. Eliot died, the local newspaper ran a front page story about him, complete with picture and excerpt from his epic (and not always very good) The Wasteland. (When authors die today, they’re lucky if they’re mentioned on CNN’s ticker, momentarily, at the bottom of the screen during the morning news.) At 6, I tried to read The Wasteland excerpt myself, but couldn’t get it all, so I asked my mother who the man in the photo was. After she glanced at it, she said, “Some poet.”

Unknown-13

I asked her to read from the poem. She must’ve been in a really good mood that day because she actually did it. I was standing in the living room, looking up at a tiny window near the ceiling where shafts of sunlight poured in, watching the dust dance in the brilliant light, and listening to the most beautiful language I’d ever heard. I thought to myself, “One day, I’m going to write words like that, words that sound like music.”

My path as an author and life-long reader had just been chosen for me, and it began with poetry, specifically with Eliot’s The Wasteland, which you can read here, free, since it is in the Public Domain.

Unknown-5

When I was 8 and discovered Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales changed my life dramatically (this link will take you to the Prologue, free). My parents were always throwing my books away (after hitting me with them) because they thought the books were a waste of time since “women were supposed to get married and have babies so they didn’t need to read.” When I discovered a funny, dirty, interesting book written in English which they couldn’t understand (because it was in Middle English), it was an incredible epiphany.Unknown-8I was sitting at the kitchen table reading “The Miller’s Tale” and giggling hysterically over the arse-kissing part. My mother demanded to know what I was reading that was so funny. I obediently showed it to her. After a few seconds, she shoved the book back, asking, “WTH is this? It ain’t even in English.” I answered, “Old English” (because that’s what I thought it was). Her response, “You know, men don’t like smart girls. You ain’t never gonna get nobody to marry you if you keep reading crap like this.” (Only, being my mother, she didn’t say it quite so politely.)

Unknown-9

Since I was only 8 but already associated “marriage” with “control”, I thought, “Oh, goodie,” and kept on reading (although I did cover my mouth to laugh more quietly). Since she hadn’t found the book offensive, she hadn’t thrown it away. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in Middle English was the first book that gave me some power in my life: if my parents couldn’t understand what I was reading, I could read it without punishment. It also began my lifelong love of learning foreign languages: I’d simply read books in languages my parents couldn’t understand. No “crime”, no punishment. Besides the fact that Chaucer’s writing gave me power and increased my love for language(s), I adored all the characters in The Canterbury Tales, especially the Wife of Bath, looking for her 5th or 6th husband while on a “holy” pilgrimage to St. Thomas à Beckett’s burial shrine. What a riot.

Unknown copy

Though I read virtually everything I could get hold of (mostly in secret), the next book that altered my life taught me about espionage and spy-cunning. I was 12 when Zeffirelli’s classic film Romeo and Juliet came out, and, like all the girls my age, I desperately wanted to see it. That wasn’t going to happen: there was nudity in it – OMG! I decided I wanted to do the next best thing. Buy the book. My parents guffawed: “I had to read Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar once,” said my step- (later adoptive) father, “and couldn’t understand it at all. If I couldn’t understand it, you can’t.” I was actually forbidden to purchase the book, and, furthermore, threatened with bodily harm if I was caught with it.

Unknown-2

That was when I learned to become a spy, an undercover agent, a female James Bond. I cased out my classmates, deciding relatively quickly that my partner-in-crime would most likely be the girl with shoe-polish-dyed-black hair who defiantly wore thick black eye-liner despite constantly getting detention for doing so. She was 2 years older than I, but still in the seventh grade because she’d skipped public school so much, she’d been held back two grades, and then sent to Catholic school after she’d been caught smoking her parents’ stolen cigarettes with a boy behind the family’s garage. Yep, she’d do.

She had an older brother who could drive to the nearest bookstore to buy the book for me. After I laid out my plan, she said she’d ask her brother and get back to me. The next day, in a corner on the playground, while looking in the opposite direction and pretending not to talk to me, she informed me that her brother had agreed but only on the condition that I also pay for his Coca-Cola (which came only in bottles that you had to uncap with metal bottle-openers, and which nobody called “Coke” back then). I was also instructed that I’d have to give her a “gift” for her part in this risky affair. I was specifically told what the “gift” was to be. I agreed to all terms and immediately handed over all my accumulated stash of allowance money (25 cents/week for all household chores, including laundry, cooking, cleaning up, etc.) Oh, by the way, her older brother instructed her to tell me that he got to keep any leftover monies for gas and his time. I had to agree that, since he was the only one with a car, said conditions seemed reasonable.

For over a week, I waited anxiously, worrying constantly that the plot would be discovered, and I’d be tortured into a confession, revealing my accomplices. Finally, one day, Shoe-Polish-Hair-Girl gave me our pre-arranged signal, tapping on her uniform pocket three times, nodding once. How my heart pounded as I watched the classroom clock, how slowly its hands moved until the bell rang for lunch and recess. Outside on the playground, My Girl and I casually passed each other. I dropped one of my mother’s redder-than-red lipsticks (that I’d stolen from her dresser) into my co-conspirator’s coat pocket while she slipped the coveted Romeo and Juliet into mine. I immediately ran the length of the playground, down the steps to the church beside the school (I, too, was sent to Catholic schools, though for a different reason: despite my family’s being Jewish, the schools were supposed to offer “protection” from anti-Semitism). I covertly slipped into one of the confessionals with the contraband book. Even at that age, the irony was obvious to me.

Unknown-3

In the dim silence of that curtained space, I gazed longingly at my treasure for as long as I dared, rapturously and repeatedly kissing the cover — which featured Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in a furtive, soulful embrace — before I began to dismantle the book. I tore off both front and back covers, ripped them to shreds, snuck out of the confessional, and crept around the empty church, depositing the shreds into separate waste-bins. Next I took the book out the opposite side door, away from the school’s playground, dropped it into the dirt, where I then stomped on it, bent it, ripped some of the pages (but carefully, so no words were obscured). I also scraped the spine of the paperback against the rough stone of the church until its print was illegible.

Success. It looked like some raggedy old book without anything to outwardly identify it. I returned to the schoolyard in triumph and immediately began reading. My Girl in the black eye-liner and dark red lipstick nodded once at me in passing. I nodded furtively before returning to my treasure.

Unknown-1

At home, I continued reading. Openly. Defiantly. Because neither my mother nor stepfather could tell what I was reading. I fell in love with Shakespeare’s language and with Romeo and Juliet’s story.

Did I understand it all? Of course not: I was 12 years old.

Have I loved Shakespeare ever since? Absolutely.

Unknown-4

His Romeo and Juliet taught me that love was tragic but beautifully written. Sigh. Again, with the beautiful language. Getting hold of Romeo and Juliet also taught me how to become a covert operative in order to deceive my parents so that I could read (almost) as many books as I wanted. It also taught me that, sometimes, the people you can trust most in the world dye their hair black with shoe-polish (until they can afford the real hair dye in a box like my mother used).

Although this first meeting scene is not as touching as the version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, it has a special place in my heart because it was this film which made me want to read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in the first place.

The love song, played in this video, was a top hit on the radio that year, and I adored the film when I finally got to see it. It’s Romeo’s and Juliet’s first meeting, from Zeferelli’s 1968 film. Since the play is in the Public Domain, you can read Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet free of charge.

Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist was my next life-changing book. And I  mean the book, not the movie. At fifteen, making plenty of money with all my baby-sitting jobs every night of the week and every single weekend, I’d bought the hardcover copy myself from another student who’d finished it. I removed the cover from the black hardback, and kept the spine lowered whenever I read.

One day, when I was about halfway through the book, my mother hung up the phone with my aunt, marched into the living room, and yanked the book from my hands. I protested vociferously. She claimed that my aunt had just read the book, or part of it, at least, and stopped, horrified by the scene where the satanically possessed daughter masturbates with a crucifix. Did I even know what masturbation was? she demanded loudly. I had to admit that I did not (my dictionary, also forbidden, was hidden under my mattress: I’d have to look the word up later).

My step-father then volunteered himself for the “awful task” of determining if I could finish reading the book I’d bought (though I’d already passed the crucifix-masturbation scene) by “bravely and unselfishly” reading it himself. After three weeks of annoyed but helpless waiting, I learned my sentence. My step-father announced that The Exorcist was, indeed, unfit for me to read. I was outraged. Not only had I bought the book myself but the very man who’d forced me to learn the actions (though not the words) for rape, incest, sodomy, and forced fellatio, was now deciding that I couldn’t read a book. My book. I crossed my arms over my chest, narrowed my eyes, and gave him, as they say, a look that could kill… (It never occurred to me to wonder when or how my parents realized I was reading a book called The Exorcist, I was so outraged by their taking it away.)

Though I’d never had study-halls before (too boring), I suddenly decided that I needed not one but two. The first in the morning and the second during lunch-period (I didn’t eat anyway). Both were granted because I was such a good, well-behaved, obedient student. I immediately purchased a new copy of Blatty’s book from another student and read it during my two study-halls, keeping the novel stored in my locker at school, never taking it home.

(Though we were technically too young to see the film version of Blatty’s novel when it came out, theater managers weren’t as strict as they are now about letting you into R-rated films as long as you looked like you were at least 17 (I was 15): we went with a friend’s older sister, who showed her ID, said she was our sister, too, and that we were all allowed to see the movie. The film version of one of the scenes that my stepfather objected to in the novel, though my parents themselves freely used such obscenities (and worse) was more horrifying that I’d imagined.

ISBN_0061007226

 

 

Peter Blatty’s novel The Exorcist taught me that “a room of one’s own” — despite Virginia Woolf’s insistence — isn’t always sufficient: what one really needs is an off-home hiding/storage area to which no one else has access or keys.

After I turned 16 and purchased a ’68 VW Beetle with over 100,000 miles on it — so I could get to work without paying one of my friends for a ride — that VW’s massive front-end trunk, which locked, became the new “room of my own”- the storage facility for all my books. The keys never left my body, even when I slept. One does what one must to survive. And blossom, even in the intellectual desert that was my family.

Other books have changed my life, and me, but those are a few that I remember most vividly, and which I’ve read (and taught) countless times over the years. Though I do not have the original Romeo and Juliet, having replaced it with The Complete Works of Shakespeare, I do have my first copy of The Canterbury Tales and of The Exorcist. These books are some that are dearest to my heart: not just because of their beautiful writing or their stories, but because they, literally, changed me, my view of life, and my ideas of what I could accomplish if I was determined enough (and it my accomplices-in-crime didn’t confess under torture).

images

What books have dramatically and irrevocably changed your life?
How?
I’d really like to know.

Use as many characters as you need.

Share

Leave a Comment

Filed under Authors, Books, Classics, Film Videos, Humor, Memoir, Reading, Writing