Friday, January 25, 2013

A shadow on Steinbeck's Nobel; Monroe dines and dances with Dinesen

"When asked if he felt he deserved it, he replied 'Frankly, no.'"
Noticing that we have two 100th anniversary editions of books by John Steinbeck reminded me of an intriguing article in the Folio Society's newsletter about his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature. Steinbeck used to be a staple in high school English classes (did you read him?) and is certainly as iconic an American author as they come. But it appears that the committee—and even Steinbeck himself—were conflicted about awarding him the prize:
In January the world learnt that in 1962, the year American author John Steinbeck won, Karen Blixen, Robert Graves and Lawrence Durrell were also nominated. This has restarted the debate which raged at the time as to whether Steinbeck was worthy of the prize at all. The New York Times were shocked that a writer of ‘limited talent’ prone to ‘tenth-rate philosophizing’ was even nominated.
In 1962 the Nobel committee was split over the prize as there wasn’t ‘any obvious candidate’; they claimed they were in an ‘unenviable situation’ – Graves was considered too much of a poet (a poet had won the year previously), Blixen had died that September (making her ineligible) and it was considered too soon to give Durrell the prize (his only novels of note being The Alexandria Quartet). This left Steinbeck, previously nominated many times and hugely popular (despite the misgivings of the literary establishment), to take the prize. His literary credentials may have been suspect to some, but there is no doubt that his influence as a writer remains supreme – his books are still massively popular, particularly with schools. Steinbeck himself was skeptical of the prize: when asked if he felt he deserved it, he replied 'Frankly, no.'
 I so wish Blixen (Isak Dinesen) had eked out her tenuous existence just a little bit longer! What an utterly distinctive author—and personality. I'll never forget the scenario described in Nancy and Edward Sorel's Brief Encounters when she met up with Marilyn Monroe, due to the kind offices of Carson McCullers.
On the fifth of February, 1959, Carson McCullers gave a luncheon. She seldom entertained anymore, her health was so precarious, but Isak Dinesen was in town--New York, that is—for the first (and only) time, and there were two women she wanted to meet. McCullers was one. The other was Marilyn Monroe. Dinesen mentioned this to McCullers when they were introduced at a literary function, and Carson said nothing could be easier. She knew Marilyn, she said, and there was Arthur Miller at the next table; she would ask a few old friends as well. It was a little disconcerting to learn that "Tanya," as Dinesen preferred being called, lived on oysters and white grapes, washed down with champagne — so perhaps a souffle, too, she told her cook, in case the other guests found that fare meager.
On the day, the Millers called for Dinesen in their car, late — when was it otherwise with Marilyn? Monroe did look luscious in her black sheath with the pronounced decolletage and fur collar. Tanya (Dinesen), who weighed eighty-odd pounds, wore an elegant grey suit, her head swathed in a turban. After lunch she told one of her tales about being young in Kenya and killing her first lion and sending the skin to the King of Denmark. It was a hard act to follow. But Marilyn had a story, too, if a less heroic one: She was giving a dinner party, using her.mother-in-law's recipe for noodles, but it got late, the guests arrived, and she had to finish off the noodles with a hairdryer. Marilyn was always best in comic parts. Then Carson, as she told it later, put a record on the phonograph, and she, Tanya, and Marilyn danced together—on top of the black marble dining table, she said. Blame it on the oysters and champagne.
Speaking of favorite writers,  do do do read this letter from the hospital by Dorothy Parker. Why can't she have been cloned?? ("And, above all, there is the kindhearted if ineffectual gentleman across the hall, where he lies among his gallstones, who sent me in a turtle to play with. Honest. Sent me in a turtle to play with. I am teaching it two-handed bridge. And as soon as I get really big and strong, I am going to race it to the end of the room and back. ")

13 comments:

  1. Steinbeck was certainly talented, but he really is best enjoyed before you attain 30 years of age. After that, his moralizing will wear out its welcome with many readers. Isak Dinesen, on the other hand, was a writer with almost supernatural gifts. Much as I love those other ESOL authors Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Conrad, Dinesen’s ability to write in English was practically without peer. Although her works are still in print, Dinesen has become officially underrated in recent years. Thanks for the Marilyn Monroe story---it would be a gem even if it were only half-true.

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    1. SO GOOD to hear from a fellow Dinesen devotee!! A re-reading is in order.

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  2. Steinbeck was, in my opinion, fabulous. I agree that he's best enjoyed early and often. "Of Mice and Men" and "East of Eden" should be required high school reading for years to come...

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  3. The acts of committees are often unfathomable. It is distressing to read that this one considered Steinbeck to be "the best of a bad lot." Such dismissiveness is disrespectful to the work and scholarship of these four candidates.

    Time is a better judge of the worth of anyone's work. Steinbeck wrote about characters who were uniquely American, against the uniquely American landscape that evolved after settlement, still raw and pitted with traps laid by man and nature. His characters still stand out, strong and stark in my memory, whatever the flaws in his narrative.

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  4. And thanks for the gravity-defying letter of Dorothy Parker. Clearly, whatever her doctors were working on then did not contain her wit.

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  5. As a Daedalus customer, I would like to report that the gathering occured a block away from here in South Nyack. Miller has written that the dancing on the table might have been "an exaggeration". A more sedate picture is in the McCullers biography and elsewhere online.

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    1. So cool! 3 ladies--even smallish ones--on a table does stretch credulity, but it's fun to imagine.

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  6. Who said, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story?"
    Well, that's why they call them screen legends--because their reputations are made of lies and damned lies. But what fun it is!

    Are there books that one grows out of? I mean other than the obvious--comics and Harry Potter.
    What do the avid readers of Daedalus think?

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    1. I watched one of my favorite films, Children of paradise, at two different times, separated by many years, and had very different reactions to the characters and situations. I know this would happen with books I've read in the past, but there are so many I haven't read calling out to me--and the time left to read the thousands waiting on my bookshelves is ever narrowing (lament of a lifetime of book collecting).

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    2. I've had one such experience with music. When I first heard Tchaikovsky I thought he was the summit of all creation. Ten years later, I can hardly listen to him.

      When the character Niles Crane in Frazier said much the same thing, it occurred to me this might have something to do with his music, and not just my general grouchiness affecting my hearing.

      I wish I knew if anyone else has been similarly disillusioned.

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    3. Me. I was just listening to a Tchaikovsky symphony the other day & thinking, wow this is claptrap and I never want to hear it again. Then I was listening to an opera on the local college station & loving it ... come to find out it was Eugene Onegin, which I'd heard excerpts of but not that part.

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    4. Maybe what Rossini said about Wagner applies to Tchaikovsky too--that he has "wonderful moments and dreadful quarters of an hour."

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    5. great quote! Wagner is coming up in a future post; stay tuned.

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