Monday, November 28, 2005

Dragon Meets Giraffe:

My often surreal Sudanese encounters began at a delicious Lebanese lunch in New York with a diplomat who was helping me obtain my visa. She had grown up in Khartoum, the daughter of a medical doctor who took her with him on his rounds out in the countryside, where she remembered watching jockeys racing ostriches. She introduced me to the tobe, the 13 feet of black (for sadness and traveling) or white (for work) or colorful fabric every Sudanese woman wraps around her hair and body. (In Sudan, among thousands of colorful tobes, I never saw two alike, as though every woman was a garden or a national treasure wrapped in her own flag.) My diplomatic friend also told me about the civil war that had raged since Sudan's independence in the 1950s, and she acknowledged "rumors" of slavery still in the south. I had already received a lurid no-go advisory from the US State Department. Sudan seemed an alien world, problematic and totally unfamiliar. But when the diplomat asked about my background and I told her I had written Enter The Dragon, she was stunned silent. Then she gathered her wits and told me, "You know, when I was a girl in Khartoum and my father bought us a VCR, our tape of Enter the Dragon was the first thing stolen from our house."

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A memory evoked by the statue of Bruce Lee unveiled yesterday in Bosnia:

I was in Khartoum, perhaps the last American to get a visa into Sudan, retracing the journey of Zarafa. I kept off the streets at night and made friends who looked out for me by day: a Muslim taxi driver, Mohammad, who adopted me as his daily daylong fare; and William, very tall with facial scars that identified him as a Nuer tribesman, who worked at my hotel. I had arranged for a government functionary to accompany me to Sennar on the Blue Nile, and William surprised me by knowing about the trip before I could tell him.

"Be careful of your friends with the turbans," William told me. "If, at the last minute, they can not go with you, you do not go."

"Thanks, William," I said, not as worried as he wanted me to be. "What could happen?"

"They will put you in the cannibal pot."

"I'm too skinny to eat."

"They will make soup."

The night before I left for Sennar, Thanksgiving eve, I was returning later than usual to my hotel and Mohammad asked if we could stop at a mosque for his evening prayer. The mosque had glass walls and I got out and stood on the sidewalk watching the crowd of men praying in the light inside, kneeling and bowing in faithful unison. The street was dark with night in the trees but there was still light in the sky. A man walked by and our eyes met and, shocked at the sight of me, he stopped and shouted at me in Arabic. His diatribe attracted a few other men who joined him in heckling me. They were between me and the car and I was stuck, instinctively holding up my hands to placate them, when Mohammad appeared and stepped in front of me. The men yelled at Mohammad and he yelled back, and suddenly the hecklers went silent and looked around amazed at each other. Then they all stepped forward and each man shook my hand.

I was as amazed as they were. "Mohammad, what did you say to them?"

"I told them you wrote Enter The Dragon."

To see and read more about Bosnia's Bruce Lee:

Sunday, November 20, 2005

My friend, Aleco Noghes:

The kindest, most elegant man I have ever known was Aleco Noghes, monégasque tennis champion and bon vivant in exile. He died in his 80s, a decade after having happily returned to live along the Corniche overlooking Cap Ferrat, repatriated with the menagerie of stray dogs and cats he had collected over his years in California. In California he'd had a large garden that kept him busy with the lawn and roses and two or three orange trees - "mon allée" - shading the little path from his patio to his pool alongside his tennis court.

"Do you miss your garden in LA?" I asked him soon after he moved back to Eze.

"No, it is a paradise here. The ten acres of hillside around the house are too steep for gardening and the dogshit rolls downhill!"

When I first met Aleco he was in his mid-50s and looked like Hemingway at the same age, with an affable French-accented charm that disappeared when he went to work on the tennis court. On one of his birthdays, after we drank my gift of Dom Perignon, I challenged him to a tennis match in which, to handicap him and lower the hopeless odds against me, he would play against my racket with the empty champagne bottle. He laughed, but his eyes narrowed at the challenge and suddenly he was someone else as we took to the court and he gave me set point, 40-love, 5 games to 0, his serve. All I needed was to take that first point or somehow just the first game for the match, which, of course, I did not. During the rest of the set I may have won a trimphant point or two, but he demolished me 6-0 with his repertoire of aces and topspin and trick bounces, power and junk.

Of the top players then in tennis, Aleco particularly admired Ilie Nastase. "Nastase is something somewhere else, "Aleco said, "playing a game all his own, an artist. But his genius is temperamental and this keeps him from being a champion."

"What makes him a genius?"

"I watch him receive the ball and I see three possible returns. He sees five."

My favorite memory of Aleco is one day on the court when he wore an old, beautifully faded milky red sweater. I asked him how long he'd had the sweater; he told me it was older than I was and, seeing how impressed I was, he summoned me to the net for one of our typical philosophical discussions, during which he always reached over the net to hold my forearm while he made his wonderfully lengthy point.

"Do you remember the blazer I wore to our soirée on your birthday?" Aleco asked me.

"Yes; double-breasted; beautiful. In your white trousers, you looked like a tennis yachtsman."

"Exactly me, in a former life. My tailor made that blazer for me before the World War II."


"Michael, listen to me. You, I, we both love our dogs who will not live as long as we love them. Our children grow up into their own lives and leave us. Never mind what women do to us all our lives. Michael," Aleco said squeezing my arm, "everything we love will break our heart. Take care of your clothes. They
are your only friends!"

Monday, November 14, 2005

Remembering Maxine Dickey:

I was visiting Jim and Maxine Dickey in South Carolina, soon after Robert Penn Warren and his wife had been there. Maxine and I were partners in crime and literary gossip and I always stayed up late with her, post-soirées, while she washed her beautiful beloved dishes brought back from Italy and never let me help. This particular time we started talking about Red Warren and his recent visit, during which he had read and held forth at the University of South Carolina where Jim was genius-in-residence. Maxine got strange, asking me again and again if I really liked Warren and his work; and I kept telling her yes, yes, especially the poems for which I was not alone in thinking he deserved the Nobel Prize.

"But why do you keep asking me if I like him?"

"It's important. You really like him?"

"Yeah, I keep telling you. One of my ambitions as a writer is to meet him."

"Oh, I'm so glad."


"Because Michael, darlin', I didn't change the sheets."

Sunday, November 13, 2005

From my novel THE CHRISTMAS KID, my favorite lie:

I should not have gone on and on...about working on the shrimp boat out of Key West and tending bar on Caroline Street and living with the girl who sang in the bar and who owned a 50-year-old blue macaw named Luigi. Every night was a party in the bar and we always slept past noon. Luigi woke us every morning with operatic arias, which he sang in the magnificent tenor voice of my girl's beloved deceased singing instructor. Key West is the southernmost piece of America, 375 miles farther south than Cairo, Egypt, and 90 miles north of Cuba. Summers get so hot there that the shrimpers sweat off their tattoos. The best time was the month around the autumnal equinox, after the worst heat and before the worst tourists - hurricane season. Key West is situated right in the middle of Hurrican Alley, vulnerable to Gulf, Atlantic, and Caribbean storms. After a hurricane Key West was a paradise of rainbows. There were rainbows everywhere, wherever you looked, of all sizes: rainbows in raindrops caught in spiderwebs; rainbows laced amid steaming frangipani, festooning the dripping branches of the ceiba tree (source of kapok), the strangler figs, the screw pines, the wishbone cactus; neighborhood rainbows reaching from block to block of the little town; transoceanic rainbows arcing over the entire island with one end out in the Atlantic and the other end out in the Gulf of Mexico. Puddles reflected rainbows in scattered pieces all over the streets. The sunlight, that blazing stormlight after a hurricane, was so amazingly, miraculously beautiful, with the air so clear and clean, that every time you saw it was like seeing things and pure colors again for the first time. My girl rode her bicycle up Duval Street under the rainbows, splashing through the rainbows with Luigi on her handlebars. Luigi was a bicycle expert, spreading his brilliant turquoise and yellow-flashing wings wide, wider than the handlebars for balance, yellow-breasting proudly into the wind in front of my girl and belting out Pagliaci. When hurricane season ended the tourists came and carried Luigi's fame back with them. Only Hemingway was a more renowned denizen of Key West. Hemingway had known and loved Luigi in the old days and had taught him a bawdy little Spanish ditty that Luigi still screached full blast exactly as he had learned it in Hemingway's voice. But only at dawn; and as a result the oldtime conchs, the born-and-bred native Key Westers, would swear they had heard Papa's ghost singing the sun up again. One night while my girl and I were away at work in the bar, robbers broke into our beach shack and kidnapped Luigi. When we came home feathers still floated in the air. Luigi had put up a fight. For heartbroken days my girl and I collected every feather and added them to the others we had always so carefully saved and never sold, not one, no matter how much the tourists offered. We searched the island, listening desperately for the slightest wisp of familiar melody, grieving, tormented by sudden false hopes from radios and the whole panoply of contemporary electronic musical reproduction. We couldn't eat. We couldn't sleep. One morning at dawn, lying weeping together in our hammock, we thought we heard Hemingway. Then we heard Pagliaci and Luigi flew in through the leeward window clutching in one talon what we discovered was a human ear. It was a left ear, savagely amputated with streamers of ripped flesh caked with the same blood that stained Luigi's powerful black beak and the black and yellow feathers of his throat. Ecstatic as he was to see us, Luigi refused to relinquish his gory trophy, viciously defending it from our attempts to take it away from him while he stood on it and ate it in shreds. We suspected transients, but kept an eye out from then on for a local van Gogh. After that came the star-crossed part of the story. My girl had a hit record and chose her career over me and Luigi. She became a household name. Luigi died of missing her. I buried him at sea and cast our fortune of his collected feathers to the Gulf Stream.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

LIMA IN WINTER - La Venganza de los Incas:

Coastal Peru is a 1,000-mile-long desert, a beach in most places 50-100 miles wide sloping up into the foothills of the Andes. In winter the cold Humboldt Current comes up the coast from the south. Lima is uniquely cursed by high ground close in the east where there is constant tropical sun, the rising heat of which sucks cold air in and up off the Pacific. Too cold to contain enough moisture for rain, this air merely condenses into a chill gray mist, the garua, a drizzle that does not fall and hangs over the city as constant humid overcast. Winter in Lima can last from March to January. Weeks, months, lives pass without sun, and the city becomes a purgatory without shadows or stars. Mixed with the pollution of Lima's 8,000,000 congested people and traffic, the garua eats metal and fills lungs with more or less chronic bronchitis. Add the poverty that sluices people down out of the mountains into the whirling drain of the capital and Lima in winter is grim - a vision of what Los Angeles will be when we use up the planet. The living is cheap, though, and the Humboldt Current provides nutrients for the delicious variety of fish here. Summer comes in December when the sun is in the southern hemisphere and warmer currents come down the coast from the equator, and the equalizing temperatures of sea and land clear the garua. In years of El Niño the warmer equatorial currents last all year, killing fish but giving Lima a rare year-long summer.

Friday, November 04, 2005

My dear friend Carol Dickey, who gifts me with her ferocious and most original intelligence, teaches English in Paris; here she is on F. Scott Fitzgerald:

Fitzgerald is such a beautiful writer I can't bear sometimes to read him. When my students ask me what to read to learn about English, I often suggest FSF and my eyes always fill with tears, which makes them all very sad for me and of course totally afraid to read Fitzgerald.
RE needing to be on the ground:

My favorite example of why you have to go and see things for yourself happened in Spain. We were on our way south to Ronda, returning after long years of missing it, and drove down into the little valley of a pueblo blanco that was strangely Mediterranean pink in the glaring summer sun, more like the south of France than Spain. I thought that the whole town had been painted in some kind of Analusian folly...until a cloud passed in front of the sun and the entire village changed from pink to white...revealing that the pink was sunlight reflecting off the red tiles of roof terraces. We stopped on a mountainside and couldn't stop watching the town across the valley change colors with the passing clouds, unimaginably beautiful, again and again seeing new details that kept us there for a long time.
Le Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle, where the giraffe who walked to Paris is exhibited, has re-opened after renovation. Remembering the little plaque that formerly identified her only as "la girafe de Sennar," I am honored to report from the museum's Website:

"La visite guidée:

L'histoire de la belle girafe Zarafa est passionante: quel voyage au départ d'Egypte! Quelle vie intrépide aux cotés du roi Charles X!...C'est à voir et à entendre...tous les mardis et les jeudis...

Zarafa est le nom de la girafe naturalisée du Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle. Cette girafe est célèbre à plus d'un égard. C'est un cadeau diplomatique du vice-roi d'Egypte Méhémet Ali à Charles X et elle est la première girafe vivante à être arrivée sur le sol français. Après avoir traversé la méditerranée sur un bateau adapté à sa morphologie, Zarafa arrive à Marseille le 26 octobre 1826 où elle passe son premier hiver pour s'acclimater. Au printemps suivant, elle, et toute son escorte prennent la route pour Paris. Ce voyage durera six semaines. Arrivée à Paris, elle s'installe dans la ménagerie royale (actuel Jardin des plantes). Zarafa s'habitue très bien à cette nouvelle vie et s'éteindra dix-sept années plus tard (en 1845).

C'est une girafe de l'espèce massaï qui a été naturalisée sur une structure en bois. En 1931 le Muséum national d'histoire naturelle fit don de ce spécimen au Muséum d'histoire naturelle de La Rochelle."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Grateful tribute to Matthew Bruccoli, my friend and literary slugger:

Every year, for at least a couple of decades, I reread The Great Gatsby. But I was never lucky enough to read your definitive edition until I found it in a library in Lima, Peru. It is incredibly more beautiful without all those commas. I know it almost by heart, but I had no sense of Fitzgerald's phenomenal melodic length and rhythm. Thank you, Matt.

Matthew Bruccoli's definitive edition of The Great Gatsby is published in paperback by Scribners, with cover art from the first edition of 1925. (Matt owns the original painting of the cover, which Hemingway describes in A Moveable Feast: "...a garish dust jacket...I took it off to read the book.") Find it at:

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Adapting Enter the Dragon into a theatrical production, a glimpse into the process:

It's a wonderful opportunity to delve back into those characters, to deepen the story with the personal dynamics of the legend we now know as Bruce Lee - whose secret, greatest battle was with his own "inner spirit" - which makes him a metaphor for everybody and explains our vicarious wishful worship of any superlative human skill, the other side of which is the loneliness of the person who wields it and must lose it to defeat, age, etc. All these years later we have the whole mythology of Bruce Lee to draw on. Han could now be a more prescient villain, a God-like genius who personifies the inevitable tragic future of skill corrupted into power...which Bruce's character, Lee, least for now, because the test of his discipline will be lifelong. We could dramatize this, for instance, with the dramatic device of Lee shadow-boxing - "One's shadow," as Han could say, "is the only worthy opponent." - which evolves in the story to culminate, when Lee is alone in the cell after the fight with the guards, into a private night-before-battle duet-fight with his shadow...and he loses! And after the mass melee finale and Han's defeat, at the very end of the show, Lee is alone on stage with his shadow looming over him, menacing and inescapable.
WHY MADRID (written for my friends at the Travel Bookshop in London and first published in their Newsletter):

Americans always wonder why I choose to live in Madrid. Spaniards never ask, preferring conversation to direct questions. What there is to know about a person comes out in the course of an encounter, over a meal or a copa, or more gradually but just as inevitably in the brief daily chats where you get your newspaper, buy your bread, take your coffee. Manners are exquisite but deceptively informal, rooted deep in subliminal worry, with the easy open point being that no one remains anonymous. Men and women unfailingly trade two kisses, a peck on each cheek when meeting for the first time and by way of every greeting and farewell. Strangers are sure to say hello and goodbye to each other in elevators.

In the last century this national graciousness was honed by a brutal civil war and the subsequent dictatorship of Francisco Franco. After the mutual atrocities, and under the watchful eyes of Franco's military police and their neighborhood informants, it was better to get along and keep your private life and opinions quiet. Ironically, repression tempered Spain - con ganas, "with desire" - for an eventual democratic transition that was all the more historic for being unprecedented in its orderliness. The country had a long reflective time, 36 years of absolute autocracy, to prepare for the Generalissimo's demise in 1975; one proud legend has it that the night he finally died, statues of political figures all over Spain were quietly and symbolically replaced with telephone booths.

The telephone booths, as sudden links to the outside world, point up another irony of the Franco years: Fascist and nominally neutral during WWII, Spain was excluded from the post-war modernization of Europe and ostracised as a diplomatic pariah - enduring los años de hambre, "the years of hunger" - until it joined the United Nations in 1955. Also, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its spawn of sub-cultural activism came late to Spain, where public display of affection was a citable offense under Franco. Spaniards have caught up fast, but those 30 years outside the international mainstream arguably kept Spain more historically authentic, more stubbornly idiomatic and less homogenized - less Americanized - than her European neighbors who were earlier to put out the tourist trough.

The past is everywhere in Spain, even in the capital, constantly contradicting the future. Everyone's favorite example is lunch: While America and the rest of Europe grab a bite, most of Madrid still closes up shop at 2 and goes home for a proper meal and a siesta in the heat of the day, in the cold shorter days of winter as well. Business resumes at 5, ends at 8; dinner is at 10 and 9 is early to find a restaurant open. Your waiter will probably work there his entire adult life, a professional and proud of it. He is also a source of information about everything from the secret lowdown behind the local news to Madrid's notorious vagaries of spring weather - "Don't take off your overcoat until the 40th of May."- and he has timed the ebb and spate of city traffic to a science. His best kept secret - which he can't help sharing, drawing a map - is that for all the cars and their infernal pollution, and even with all the construction suburbanizing the outskirts of Madrid, it is still possible for a person to arrive at Barajas International Airport and walk west and south into the city, almost 10 miles, almost all of it through open country where the only sounds are birdcalls and the faraway bells of sheep and goats.

This continuity of life can be intriguing to an American, and maddeningly inert when it's time to get something done in a hurry or deal with any bureaucracy. But in the offices and corridors of paperwork, you find yourself, for good or ill, seeing the same faces; they remember you; a greeting elaborates into an exchange, something shared, even if it leads only to further debate. Then one day a small administrative favor solves the insoluble problem, and afterwards your friend the waiter celebrates your victory with a drink on the house, a second one just as you are getting up to leave. You settle back into your seat, your battle with the bureaucratic windmill more or less amicably won and now the occasion of a kindness. This is Madrid, this gift of an unexpected moment when you take another, more relaxed and appreciative look around. No wonder a recent study in the British Journal of Psychiatry has shown that Spaniards are less subject to depression than other Europeans - only 2.6% of the Spanish population, compared to 17% of the British - and actuarial tables give Spaniards a longer average life than Americans.

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