Penman No. 261: High and Low in La La Land


Penman for Monday, July 24, 2017


BENG AND I have been fortunate to have visited many of the world’s major art museums—the Louvre, the Prado, the Met, the Tate, and the Art Institute of Chicago, among others—so I was glad for the chance to visit another great one, the Getty, in Los Angeles last week. we were on our way to visit our daughter Demi in San Diego, but decided to stop over in LA for a few days for Beng to meet up with old schoolmates and for me to finally take a longer look at La La Land. In all these years that I’ve been going to the US and passing through LAX, I’d never actually stopped in LA long enough to do the tourist thing and look up at the HOLLYWOOD sign or march down the Walk of Fame near the TCL Chinese Theater.

So when the chance presented itself through Beng’s friend Rose, we dropped off our bags at Rose’s place in West Covina and rode out to do some sightseeing—but first, of the highbrow kind. The Getty and the newer Broad Museum have been on my to-do list, but we had time this time for just the Getty—and I would quickly realize that “just the Getty” was the silliest thing to say.


“The J. Paul Getty Museum” is actually two places in LA all at once—the Getty Center, a complex on a hilltop in the Brentwood area, and the Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, which houses the Getty’s Greek, Roman, and Etruscan collections.


But before we go any further, a word on the benefactor of these palaces of art, Jean Paul Getty (1892-1976), once the world’s richest man, thanks to his daring and foresight in buying a 60-year lease on Saudi oil. Despite his fabulous wealth, he was notoriously stingy, reportedly begrudging his fifth wife the medical expenses for their son who later died, and installing a pay phone at his English villa. When his grandson and namesake JP III was kidnapped in 1973, he dickered and paid only as much ransom as could be tax-deductible, and gave the rest as a loan to his son.

How such miserly men join the ranks of the world’s greatest philanthropists will remain a mystery for psychologists to plumb, but I’ll take it as a form of restitution. Getty had the villa, which fronts his home, built in the early 1970s to house his overflowing collection, but ironically he never saw it, dying in England. The Center, about a 20-minute drive down the beach and reachable by a funicular tram, opened in 1997. Remarkably, entrance to both venues is free; you just have to pay for the parking.

While I prefer modern art—from the utter simplicity of a fish by Brancusi or the melancholy of Hopper’s “Nighthawks”—I never fail to be awed and amazed by the workmanship and luminosity of the earlier masters. The Getty Center’s exhibits of Renaissance and Neoclassical art did not fail to impress. Most stunning of all for me was the work of an artist I’d never even heard of—Giovanni Battista Lusieri (1755-1821), whose A View of the Bay of Naples, Looking Southwest from the Pizzofalcone towards Capo di Posilippo, a monumental landscape with an equally kilometric name, displays an uncanny awareness of both the largeness and the smallness of things. True to her art-restorer self, Beng came to within half an inch of many masterpieces, scrutinizing the restorer’s technique, until the guard had to shoo her away.


The villa, on the other hand, was as much to be visited as an artwork in itself as the pieces it contained. I was mesmerized by the beauty and delicacy of Roman glass, and by the almost contemporary pixilation of the mosaics, but like Mt. Vesuvius towering over Herculaneum—the villa’s inspiration—Getty’s shadow hovered over everything. Not surprisingly, he’s buried somewhere on the premises.


We left LA for San Diego the next day, but not before indulging my small wish to cruise down Hollywood Boulevard for an encounter with the stars—at least those at one’s feet. While we never got to meet the likes of Gal Gadot or Emma Stone (not even Vin Diesel or Dwayne Johnson), we did spot several Spider-Men and lesser icons strutting on the street, ever ready for the next selfie. I had the feeling that I was going to meet a galaxy of these superheroes in San Diego, where Comic-con was due to open in a few days. (And with any luck I hope to be able to report on and from that event next week, as I did last year.)

 My readers will understand if I admit that, back in Hollywood, I planted my feet on the star of a reality-TV host named Donald Trump; it was, after all, a sidewalk, with all the stars meant to be stepped on—some, perhaps, more so than others.


(Photo of J. Paul Getty from Celebrity Net Worth; Lusieri painting from Wikimedia.)







Penman No. 115: The Clarity of Prose

Penman for Monday, Sept. 22, 2014


“THE CLARITY of Things” is the title of the new short story I finished a few weeks ago, which will soon be coming out in the Australian literary journal Westerly. The phrase has been ringing in my ears and suggested this piece about the value of clarity in prose—an element whose importance seems so obvious but which still escapes many writers, especially those who remain unsure of what it is exactly they want to produce.

I was thinking of this the other day as I was reading, with much delight, an old essay by the New York-based Luis Francia on Jose Garcia Villa, which begins thus: “Loved New Yorker cartoons. Hated its poetry. ‘Prose,’ he’d sniff.” The essay (in which I happily discovered that I shared with Villa not just a first name but an aversion to French food and cheese) went on to describe Villa’s fabled workshops, where he decried, Luis recalls, “the prose or narrative mentality. Anathema to the poet’s creed. He urged us not to read fiction, to purify ourselves, our poems, and have that lyric spirit fly unfettered.” There was, Villa and Francia agreed, too much bad prose going around, passing itself off as poetry.

It’s an admirable and entirely understandable stance, coming from a consummate aesthete like Villa. I don’t think there’s a real writer alive who won’t concede that, in the hierarchy of letters, poetry sits at the topmost tier; I often remind students too eager to proclaim themselves poets that there’s nothing harder to do well and easier to do badly than poetry. I’ve published a book of what I offer to be poems and I’ve won a couple of prizes for poetry, but I wouldn’t for one minute describe myself as a poet; I am not worthy.

That said, the writing of good and great prose—whether fiction or nonfiction—poses its own challenges, heedless of poetry’s demands for complexity, compactness, and layered meanings. For me, the charm of prose is precisely in its accessibility—or at least, in its seeming accessibility—and then, like stepping into a roomful of riches, in its delivery of even more than the view from the doorway may have suggested.

At its most basic, and also at its best, prose should be unflinchingly clear, which means it should be written with certainty and precision, if not efficiency, from physical description to philosophical musing. (I keep hearing the imaginary voice—ironically, he was a chronic stammerer—of W. Somerset Maugham, one of my early models, intoning in one of his treatises on writing: “Clarity, clarity, clarity!”) A blue sky should come off as blue, or shade into its proper variant; a crowded room should suffocate the reader. Clarity does not imply a singularity or inevitability of meaning, especially in fiction, which thrives on ambiguity; I don’t have to understand what I’m seeing, not right away, but I should know what I’m looking at—a wet street, an orange jacket, an old man’s face. Witness the prudish Miss Mijares in Kerima Polotan’s “The Virgin”: “Secret, short-lived thoughts flitted through her mind in the jeepneys she took to work when a man pressed down beside her and through her dress she felt the curve of his thigh”; she wished she were “in the movies, to sink into a seat as into an embrace, in the darkness with a hundred shadowy figures about her and high on the screen, a man kissing a woman’s mouth while her own fingers stole unconsciously to her unbruised lips.”

Some works, like popular songs, are best understood right away to be fully enjoyed.

On our flight to the US earlier this month, I gorged on the onboard entertainment, and dwelt in particular on an HBO documentary on the life and work of the lyricist-composer Stephen Sondheim, who reminded his audience that the difference between the poem and the song lyric is that the listener has to get the song on the spot, whereas the poem’s meaning can be teased out at leisure. (And sometimes meaning doesn’t matter as much as the music: try figuring out “Send in the Clowns.”)

Clarity often comes with concrete objects, but can be even more valuable when dealing with abstractions—ideas, feelings, complex notions often more surely grasped by the many-fingered poem. I’ve found that the most complex notions are best served by the simplest language. Clarity and simplicity are not always the same thing, but can’t be too far apart. There’s a much-quoted passage from C. S. Lewis’ The Four Loves that illustrates how simple words—with a few exceptions like “irredeemable”—can reach at the most complex of meanings:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket—safe, dark, motionless, airless—it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers of love is Hell.”

This also reminds us that good, clear writing begins with good, sharp thinking, which is perhaps the hardest task of all.