Monday, May 31, 2010

MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes

I just missed being drafted for the Vietnam war. I grew up in Lexington, MA and the irony of weekly and vivid anti Vietnam protests on the Lexington Battle Green is an active memory. Remember, this was 10 miles away from Harvard (a world away for me, alas) and what to this day is known as "The People's Republic of Cambridge". Gerald Ford had backs turned to him when he came to Lexington for the bicentennial of the American Revolution's Battle of Lexington: April 19, 1975. I was there. I remember.

But I lacked the maturity or the smarts to really understand what was happening in Vietnam back in the early 1970s. Being young doesn't always equate with being stupid or being self absorbed but it did with me. I didn't have the fire of the anti-war protesters tho they were seething all around me. About Vietnam I was largely ignorant. I suspect I didn't care.

I do now, after reading MATTERHORN a novel by Karl Marlantes, just published. Just published? Therein lies a tale. Matterhorn was long in the writing and even longer-nearly thirty years it seems inn finding a publisher. Marlantes was in fact a grunt in Vietnam-as this book reads nothing could have been invented. You are there. When the soldiers are "in the shit" so are you the reader. You wait for the catharsis. You wait for the, well, orgasm and it ain't there. There's very little redemptive about this novel except the devotion the men have for one and other, buried beneath the jokes and the insults and the violence but it is there. One soldier is eaten by a tiger, another had his legs blown off-they find his boots with his feet still in side. The brass wants quotas met and seem WAAAAY removed from the suffering of the soldiers on the line. Had this book been published in 1972 the war would have ended then and there. An enraged public, seeing it on the TV news every night would have found this novel even more powerful and immediate. I did. I hope you will too.

This is not an easy read. You will feel a great sense of accomplishment, you'll revel in the skill of the writer and if you are of a certain age you'll be angry and heartsick all over again. Don't miss Matterhorn. I thank my colleague Kassie Rose, WOSUs book critic, for the heads up.

Remembering Nicholas Nickleby

Recently one of our cable TV late shows featured the 1947 film version of Nicholas Nickleby, directed by Calvacanti ( what's the story THERE?). The film went on past my bedtime but I was able to enjoy the first hour before my eyes began to droop. It's on my list at our local library.

The Dickens novel is a great favorite of mine. It got me through a difficult period of my life over twenty years ago. My mother had just died unexpectedly and I found myself orphaned and un-morred at 29! I was also realizing that booze was taking over my life and that I would have to stop. I did. Stop. I got a lot of laughter and a lot of joy out of the Dickens novel. Around this time Broadway was abuzz from the Royal Shakespeare Company's 8 hour version of Nicholas Nickleby, and the $100 seat prize was a scandal (quaint today). I saw the TV version of this outing and loved it. But the Calvacanti version, billed as "the first talking film of Dickens's novel"-had the wonderfully stone faced-British actors and the over the top Vincent Crummles (Mr and Mrs) and the poor all seeing Smike.

About Smike. He was played by the British actor Aubrey Woods, then 20 years old. About ten years ago, after a Met Opera Quiz appearance where I was no doubt pompously talking about Jean de Rezske, I got a letter forwarded to me by the Met from Aubrey Woods-the British actor who was a fan of the Met broadcasts as heard on the BBC. We had a short and pithy correspondence and at one point he sent me the pages of the guest book he kept in his home: Larry Olivier, Dorothy Tutin, Ralph Richardson, Margot Fonteyn and Princess Margaret are among those who came to stay and left greetings. These letters and pages from Mr Woods were my closest brush with the famous. Perhaps infamous after English country weekends, if one believe the old novels and faux-old Mahsterpeice Theatre programs. Never mind. Mr Woods was gracious and kind and seeing his younger self in a classic film version of a beloved book, both funny and sad and above all entertaining, was a treat. Thank you, Aubrey Woods. I'm off to re- read Nicholas Nickleby.