Germaine Greer on Mrs. Shakespeare

To preface an examination of Ann Hathaway (not the actress, but the 16th c. Mrs. Shakespeare) with a discussion of a former student's feelings about penetrative sex might seem off-topic, but it suits Germaine Greer to a G--gender issues are tantamount to her scholarship. Her academic career in England has centered on Elizabethan drama, but the Australian author of The Female Eunuch (1970) has her antennae well-tuned toward misogyny in all its guises and ages.

Half Elizabethan, Half 21st Century
The ostensible occasion of this "On Point" podcast episode is Greer's 2008 book,  Shakespeare's Wife (just released in paperback), but it takes 9 minutes for host Tom Ashbrook and Greer to get back to the Elizabethans, and although they manage to stay there for about half the interview, the conversation creeps back to contemporary feminist issues and the phallocentrism of corporate culture. Whatever century she's commenting on, Greer is never dull, and she gives the lie to the "feminists have no sense of humor" stereotype by laughing often. The 45-minute episode is available from WBUR's site and, at least of this posting, from the "On Point" iTunes listing.

Reclaiming Ann Hathaway
At Minute 10 Greer gives a vivid account of the moment that she was provoked by Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World (2005) to take up the rehabilitation of Ann Hathaway. Since there are so few direct records of the Shakespeares' ménage, most details must be construed. Greer riffs interestingly on Elizabethan mores around marriage (Ann was the "right" age at 26, and Will was "too young" at 18), and she presents (the few) Hathaway family facts that led her to believe that Ann might have been the "great catch," not Will (Minute 18), even though she was pregnant when they married. Greer refutes the older-woman prejudice by citing the concordant presentation of older woman-younger man romance in the plays, and waxes a little creepy on the attractiveness of teenage boys (Minute 20). After studying parish records on Elizabethan infant mortality rates, Greer posits that Ann must have been quite strong both to survive the birth of twins, and to keep them alive (Minute 17).

The Inspiration for Portia?
Greer suggests that Ann Hathaway might have been like Shakespeare's Portia of Belmont--a clever and desirable woman of property--and dares to conjecture that perhaps Hathaway even financed the First Folio (Minute 22). Greer opines that Hathaway may not have been illiterate, a fact which she feels her male colleagues find abhorrent (Minute 25). Since the data is so scarce for either side, Greer at least gets credit for putting forth a more positive portrait of the woman who had the wit to marry the insolvent and hugely talented William Shakespeare.


Flannery O'Connor's Listenable Life

If the time to read 400+ pages of Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor is hard to find, you can listen to a flock of amusing anecdotes recounted by biographer Brad Gooch in this short audio interview with WNYC's Leonard Lopate (podcasted on iTunes on 3/10/09 and also available on WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show site).

"Fiction as an Extreme Sport"
The interview is well-paced without being brusque.  In under 20 minutes Lopate gets Gooch to recount incidents that depict many of O'Connor's distinctive qualities, including what Gooch calls her "intact" girlhood and contrariness in Georgia, her cartooning talent, the early loss of her father to lupus (the illness that also ended her life at 39), her "between-the-lines" Catholicism, her attitudes toward other writers (including Emily Dickinson! at Minute 19), her education, her inspirations and mentors, and the author's complicated relationship with her Milledgeville milieu. Her lifelong affection for the wingéd is not discussed, but you can read about O'Connor's precocious chicken wrangling in the first chapter, available as a .pdf from the Amazon page for Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor (too bad about the flightless title). 

Everything that Endures
In the discussion of rivals and influences (Minutes 7-10), Gooch mentions O'Connor's penchant for making shocking zingers and the stark, Sophoclean quality of her writing. He also talks about the unforgettable incidents in her stories, and the unsettling mix of comedy and tragedy that leaves readers unsure how to react. Perhaps that is one of the reasons O'Connor's work endures without fading--there is no namby-pambyness or mandarin prose to muffle the ruthless engine of human action and spiritual retribution. (For an interesting discussion of the timelessness of O'Connor's work and its religious armature, check out this essay/review by Terry Teachout in "Commentary").

39 Peacocks
Lopate repeatedly refers to O'Connor as "odd" or "eccentric" or "strange." Well, perhaps it was odd to attend daily mass at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in a 15-pound muskrat coat, or to raise 39 peacocks after illness forced her back onto the farm in Georgia (oddities gleaned from this article, which includes a portrait of the artist with bird), but her work has earned O'Connor the following of some decidedly cool cats, including Bruce Springsteen, Conan O'Brien, and Tommy Lee Jones (Minute 13:50).  It's a shame Mary Flannery O'Connor didn't live long enough to see her middle name become a mono-moniker of literary excellence, brand-worthy of two mentions in a single title.


M. Perloff on W.B. Yeats: Sound and Sword

Free William Butler Yeats audio banquet! (Links below.)

A Plenitude of Poetic Discourse
Scholar-critic Marjorie Perloff knows the breadth of W.B. Yeats's poetry, from the folksy to the philosophical, from the personal to the political, and from the phantasmagoric to the idyllic. A Professor Emerita of English at Stanford, and a Scholar in Residence at USC, Perloff is also a fount of enthusiasm on Yeats--to listen to her is to become enraptured and curious. We are fortunate that Stanford professor Robert Harrison (Chair of the Department of French and Italian) had the wit record some of her knowledge and insight for his "Entitled Opinions" podcast, in an episode which includes both professors reading and discussing Yeats's work.

Sword and Self
Perloff also knows how to connect the Yeats biography to the Yeats oeuvre, down to an actual Samurai sword that he used as an image in his poem "A Dialogue of Self and Soul" (Minutes 17-25). She uses facts from his overflowing life as a poet, playwright, temporary radical, occult dabbler, mentor to Ezra Pound, midlife statesman, would-be superannuated stud, and late-in-life patriarch to explicate rather than reduce his poems.

Scansion and Meaning
Obsessed with sound in addition to meaning, Perloff scans like a savant, noting and explaining Yeats's trochees and spondees at will (don't worry--97% of what she says is fully accessible to the layperson). She also notes how Joyce inserted lines from Yeats's early poem "Who Goes With Fergus?" into Stephen Daedalus's head in Ulysses, in the scene where he walks along the beach at Sandymount and thinks: "and no more turn aside and brood upon love's bitter mystery" (Minute 10:15).

The Gorgeous Radical, The Easter Rising, and Nietzsche
Harrison and Perloff have selected an interesting and varied selection of Yeats's work, forgoing most of the anthologized predictables, encompassing poems that touch on Yeats's fruitless passion for Maud Gonne, his political journey, and his perpetual questing after the significance of life and afterlife.  Perloff is so enthusiastic and motivated to elucidate the poet and the poems that you get the feeling she could go on for weeks.  Nonetheless, this hour is a bounty in itself, even if some of the poems must be excerpted. (Here is a link to the entire text of Yeats's clear-eyed war poem, "Easter, 1916.")

Marjorie Perloff on W.B. Yeats, an "Entitled Opinions" audio episode recorded in 2006, hosted by Stanford University professor Robert Harrison. (The recording begins with Harrison reading Yeats's "The Leaders of the Crowd."  He introduces Perloff at Minute 5.) The conversation lasts just over an hour, and unless you're already an expert on Yeats, it will leave you with plenty to ponder, and wonderful language in your head.

The Poet Reads His Own Poems
If you fancy hearing Yeats read Yeats, you can find some crackly but interesting links on The Yeats Society of NY's audio page.

(Although episodes of "Entitled Opinions" are podcasted on iTunes here, the Perloff/Yeats episode is currently only available on the Stanford site.)

St. Patrick's Day: Ancient Poem & Modern Fid-Vid

The Hibernian "call to the dance" has been going on for centuries, viz:

"Ich Am of Irlonde"

Ich am of Irlonde
And of the holy lande
Of Irlonde.

Goode sire, praye ich thee,
For of sainte charitee,
Com and dance with me
In Irlonde."

(anon., 14th Century)

Fiddle and Dance Video
To view a mod and blessedly twinkle-free "Call to the Dance," check out this fiddling and stepping performance by the Leahy brothers & sisters (from YouTube).

Happy Saint Patrick's Day!


St. Patrick's Day Podcast: Edna O'Brien on Pre-Hedonist Ireland

As we approach the day of green beer and "Kiss Me, I'm Irish" buttons, it's refreshing to listen to the words Edna O'Brien wrote about an iced bun in a convent dormitory in her 1960 novel, The Country Girls. The author herself reads the excerpt in this January 2008 episode of the BBC's World Book Club podcast. The iced bun interlude begins at Minute 3:50.

Recountress Extraordinaire
Once again WBC host Harriett Gilbert orchestrates a rich audio portrait of an author in less than half an hour. She gives a succinct intro and asks questions that prompt O'Brien to reminisce about 1950s, pre-hedonist Ireland with wry exactitude. O'Brien also answers called-in questions, from World Book Club listeners in locales as un-Irish as Russia and Guam, with quick honesty and wit. She's so fluent it's easy to see how she could write a voice-filled novel like The Country Girls in under three weeks, though she says subsequent books took longer to compose.

Lingerie and Liberty
Compatriot Ann Enright, who won The Booker Prize in 2007 for The Gathering, phones in a little excitedly to ask if the theme of dressing up in "fantastic clothing" in The Country Girls was a deliberate counterpoint to a repressive Catholic tradition, a question which doesn't quite strike home with O'Brien, who nonetheless dishes up a rhapsody on the slips "in wonderful colors" she'd seen in shop windows in the 1950s, before citing Kate and Baba's larger quest for freedom (Minute 13).

Joyce for Sixpence on Bachelor's Walk
When asked about the influence of women writers on her formation, O'Brien mentions the Brontës and Jane Austen, but she talks more vividly of the outdoor stall on Dublin's Bachelor's Walk, where for sixpence she purchased her first influence: T.S. Eliot's selections of James Joyce's prose (Minute 15:30). Interestingly, Joyce's 1922 Ulysses, with its onanistic niceties and adulterous Molly, was banned in the US and the UK but not in Ireland, whereas the The Country Girls' romantic and sexual yearnings (PG-13 by current standards) were considered "a smear on Irish womanhood" by many in the land of saints and scholars, including the author's mother, who considered it a "mantle of shame." The first book in the trilogy was formally banned based on the opinion of "four opaque men" on the government censor board (Minute 11 :30), as were the books she wrote after, which became more explicit and dealt with darker themes.

O'Brien moved to London in 1959. The besmirching and banning and burning (literally) of her books in Ireland convinced her to stay abroad. Though she continued to write about her native land, and though her works were unbanned in the late 70s, O'Brien remains expatriate.

Funny and Full of Life
If you're an Edna O'Brien fan, I recommend downloading the WBC episode to your computer so you can enjoy her humor and liveliness at any time of the year. Or load it onto your iPod for the next time you find yourself on a train, as Kate and Baba do in the excerpt O'Brien reads at Minute 18. The interview is bound to inspire you to go back to The Country Girls to read her sharp and funny scenes, and to check out her more mature works, such as her collection of short stories, Lantern Slides.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Country Girls nowadays is that it's not currently available for the Kindle--how can this be?


Marlon James Talks Sugar, Slavery and Night Womanness with NPR

Marlon James's The Book of Night Women has earned great print reviews plus emphatic web endorsements from Maud Newton and Bookdwarf, so I was pleased to find an audio interview with James at NPR's "On Point With Tom Ashbrook Podcast" (46 minutes total, available here on iTunes, and on WBUR radio page here).

Stop at 19:40 Before You Read
The first nigh twenty minutes of the episode serve as the perfect prewire for the book. As a bonus they display James's fluidity and depth as a literary conversationalist. No author-pomposity, and a remarkable tolerance for basic questions (I imagine students at Macalester vie to enroll in his classes). James explicates slavery in Jamaica vs. slavery in the U.S. with illustrative demographics. He dispatches the obligatory "dialect" issue gracefully, tossing off references to Austen, Twain, and Faulkner in the first minutes. (Quelle trio--imagine those three on a raft, or in a tree together.) Ashbrook's enthusiasm for the novel sounds genuine, if occasionally off-key in the moments when his radio-verve voice pumps up brutal incidents from the book. James, unfazed, reads the selected horrific excerpt at Minute 16 with matter-of-fact gravity (not for young ears).

Green-eyed Omen
By Minute 18:29 Ashbrook has set James up for a compelling introduction of Lilith, the character who took over as James started to write The Book of Night Women. He says, "She came on as this slave who sort of grew up with a taste of freedom, and did not appreciate losing it. She's very feisty, she's very spunky, she's also very, very rude--she doesn't take anything from anybody." Ashbrook mentions that Lilith's green eyes are from her white overseer father, and James goes with it: "It's sort of an open secret, but it's also kind of an omen, you know nothing good can come from this--these bright, green eyes that sort of look like they shine in the dark." 

The rest of the podcast episode has its moments, but also some less-than-on-point caller comments. To my taste it also contains too many spoilers, so I recommend saving Minutes 20-46 until after you read the book.  Particularly worth going back for is James's definition of "true womanness that makes a man scream" at Minute 22.

If you prefer a silent approach, you can also read an excerpt on Penguin's promo page. James's blog is here.