Thursday, October 27, 2005

Random Magic- Reader Notes: Celestial Roll Call: Writers Featured in Random Magic

I'm backdating this entry to keep it off the front page of my blog, but it connects to this post. This is long, but it has some really fun info, so I hope you read it. :)

Reader Notes: Celestial Roll Call: Writers Featured in Random Magic

Wouldn’t it be nice to meet your favorite writers at one big literary party? In Random Magic, that’s exactly what happens!

Callie, the First Muse, is friends with every writer ever born, and so it’s not unusual at all for her to throw a bash attended by, say, Mark Twain or Edgar Allan Poe.

In fact, you’ll meet both writers at one of Callie’s parties – along with their fellow party guests, Charles Baudelaire, Lord Byron, Noël Coward, H.P. Lovecraft and Dorothy Parker.

Here are some five-minute bios about some of the writers mentioned in Random Magic, including P.G. Wodehouse, Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Brontë sisters, and, as noted in the book, an assortment of gloomy Russian poets:

Plum (P.G. Wodehouse): Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, whose body of work includes dozens of quirky, satirical novels and collections of short stories. He was also a playwright and lyricist.

His work was often dismissed by critics as being lowbrow literature, simply because so much of it is just plain funny, and thus, not Serious Literature.

However, anyone who’s picked up a work by Wodehouse knows just how much mastery he had over the English language, and how skilled he was in devising delightfully preposterous and entertaining plots and predicaments. His family and friends called him Plum.

Although critics weren’t always appreciative, Plum’s work was and is a perennial favorite with other writers, including his contemporaries Rudyard Kipling, Hilaire Belloc and Evelyn Waugh, and future writers Zadie Smith and the late Douglas Adams.

Dosty (Fyodor Dostoevsky): Writer, essayist and philosopher, whose profound understanding of the human psyche and soul are seen clearly in several classic works: Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, and The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky described himself as a dreamer when he was a young man, but his later character was marked by several tragedies and hardships, including the death of his mother, the murder of his father, poverty, a stint in the army, fits of epileptic seizures, his imprisonment in a Siberian prison, and the death of his wife Maria Dmitrievna and brother Mikhail.

He was also condemned to death by firing squad, and only reprieved at the very last moment, a life-altering event he recalls with vivid and horrifying clarity some 20 years later, in The Idiot. He detailed his grim experiences in a Siberian prison camp in the novel The House of the Dead.

Writer Virginia Woolf said of Dostoevsky’s works: “The novels of Dostoevsky are seething whirlpools, gyrating sandstorms, waterspouts which hiss and boil and suck us in. They are composed purely and wholly of the stuff of the soul. Against our wills we are drawn in, whirled round, blinded, suffocated, and at the same time filled with a giddy rapture.”

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was also an appreciative reader, praising Dostoevsky as "the only psychologist from whom I have something to learn.”

(1898 oil portrait of Mark Twain by Ignace Spiridon)

(Twain's wife Olivia, a.k.a. Livy)

(Mark Twain House, 351 Farmington Avenue, Hartford, Hartford County, CT - Interior, first floor, library, east wall with fireplace and mantle)

Twain (Mark Twain): Novelist, essayist and humorist. Born Samuel Langhorne Clemens, he chose the pen name Mark Twain as a memento of his days working on riverboats.

The phrase “mark twain,” was riverboat slang meaning that the water ahead was “two fathoms deep,” and thus, deep enough for the safe passage of ships.

During his time on the river, Twain experienced a tragedy which haunted him for the rest of his life. He’d convinced his younger brother Henry to come work on the river, but Henry was killed when the steamboat he was working on, the Pennsylvania, exploded.

Twain had seen details about Henry’s death in a dream a month earlier, which triggered his lifelong interest in parapsychology.

Although he was a sharp, incisive and logical thinker, he was also an intuitive person who followed his instincts.

For example, when his friend Charles Langdon casually showed Twain a photograph of his sister Olivia, Twain fell in love with Olivia at first sight and said she was the woman he would marry. He was right. His marriage to “Livy” lasted 34 years, until her death.

Twain’s best known for his novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but also wrote funny, satirical books about his ramblings around the world, including Roughing It, Following the Equator and Innocents Abroad.

Highly intelligent and ever-curious, he had a lot of famous political chums, but liked to pal around with less famous but much more interesting people, like Serbian inventor Nikola Tesla, whom we can thank for his experimental fiddlings in the lab – because it brought the world a little phenomenon called electricity.

Twain was both studious and entertaining, and his humor was -- and still is -- especially appealing to folks with a hearty appreciation for the dryly comical.

In 1897, for instance, he spoke to the Concordia Press Club in Vienna as a special guest, on “Die Schrecken der deutschen Sprache” (“The Horrors of the German Language”) -- delivering the speech in fluent German.

Many of Twain’s works are satirical, light and humorous, but after several personal tragedies, including the death of his beloved Livy, his last works took on a darker, more grimly philosophical tone.

In 1909, his close friend Henry Rogers died suddenly, a further blow to a man still mourning the early death of his brother, and the more recent deaths of his wife and three of his children.

In the same year (1909), the stoic but embittered Twain was quoted as saying: “I came in with Halley's Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year (1910), and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don't go out with Halley's Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: 'Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.'”

Interestingly, as with the dream of his brother’s death earlier in life, this prediction was also accurate.

He’d been born on November 30, 1835, exactly two weeks after the comet's closest approach to Earth, and he died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910 in Redding, Connecticut -- a day after the comet's closest approach to Earth.

Modern-day historian Robert Middlekauff says that, despite the fact that the cheerfully cynical Twain died 100 years ago, his work "remains irresistible," for one very good reason. According to the good professor, Mark Twain was simply "incapable of writing a dull sentence."

The Brontë sisters
(Painting by their brother, Patrick Branwell Brontë, circa 1834. From left to right, they are Anne, Emily, and Charlotte; Branwell originally painted himself between Emily and Charlotte, but later painted himself out. There is still an outline of his form in the pillar.)

Charlotte Brontë

The Bells (Emily Brontë): Novelist and poet, best remembered for her only novel, the passionate and gloomy Wuthering Heights. During her lifetime, she published under the pen name Ellis Bell.

The Bells (Charlotte Brontë): Novelist, and the firstborn of the Brontë sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and the youngest, Ann), all of whose novels became standard works of English literature.

She was the last surviving Brontë sister, as both Emily and Anne, as well as their brother Branwell, died young. Charlotte, who wrote gothic romance Jane Eyre, wrote under the pen name Currer Bell.

The Bells (Anne Brontë): Baby sister to Emily and Charlotte, and the author of Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Agnes Grey was based on her own experience working as a governess; her father was a poor clergyman, so his daughters were well-educated but without means.

Although only in her early 20s when her books were published, both novels were well-received and popular. Unfortunately, her second novel was also her last, as she died of tuberculosis a year later, at the age of 29. Anne wrote under the pen name Acton Bell.

(Portrait of Charles Baudelaire, 1844) Artist: Emile Deroy (1820 - 1846)

Baudy (Charles Baudelaire): French poet, critic, and translator – and licentious gadabout, carouser and opium eater. In between all that lush decadence, however, he managed to write a brilliant book of verse, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil).

Although folks in his day were appalled by his lush, erotic and darkly passionate verses, The Flowers of Evil later became a standard of French literature. Although immensely talented, Baudelaire died in poverty.

Several of his poems were inspired by and dedicated to dancer Jeanne Duval, his mistress of 20 years, including: Le balcon, Parfum exotique, Le serpent qui danse and La chevelure.

[Links for Baudy poems:
The Balcony:
Parfum exotique
Le serpent qui danse
La chevelure]

Dot (Dorothy Parker): Writer, poet and wisecracker, who wrote for The New Yorker and was a founding member of the Algonquin Round Table. []

Her political involvement with left-wing politics landed her on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s. [link:]

Although she was a published poet, screenwriter and established theatre critic, she was better known for her disastrous love life, problems with depression, love for the drink -- and a world-weary, sardonic wit that helped her deal with all the rest of it.

For example, in 1925, editor Harold Ross was struggling to keep The New Yorker magazine afloat, running it on a shoestring budget, in an office with just one typewriter.

Harold happened to run into Dorothy one day, and said, "I thought you were coming into the office to write a piece last week. What happened?"

Her excuse: "Somebody was using the pencil."

She died of a heart attack in 1967. She was cremated, but her ashes remained unclaimed, ending up in a few offbeat places, including her estate attorney’s filing cabinet, for the next 17 years.

As if she’d anticipated even this final indignity with gleeful black humor, prior to her death she’d requested that her epitaph should read: “Excuse my dust.”

H.P. (H.P. Lovecraft): Howard Phillips Lovecraft was an author of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. His works were dream-like, grim, cynical and deeply pessimistic.

This worldview was likely due to several tragedies in his early life. In 1893, when H.P. was only three years old, his father became psychotic and was hospitalized at Butler Hospital in Providence, Rhode Island, where he died three years later.

His grandfather's death in 1904 left the family in such dire financial straits that they lost their family home and were forced to move to cheap accommodations at 598 Angell Street, in Providence.

The young H.P. was deeply affected by the loss of his father, grandfather, and family home. Just prior to his high school graduation, he later claimed, he’d suffered from a “nervous breakdown.”

In 1919, his mother was also committed to Butler Hospital. She died in 1921, as a result of complications from gall bladder surgery, and H.P. never recovered from the loss.

Later in life, he was also deeply affected by fellow writer Robert E. Howard's suicide. Robert was one of H.P.’s closest friends, and a member of “The Lovecraft Circle,” a group of writers and other creative people brought together by correspondence via H.P., who enjoyed introducing his friends to each other and encouraging them to share stories.

In 1936, H.P. was diagnosed with cancer and lived in constant pain until his death a year later.

His macabre, eerie works were directly inspired by his night terrors and he was a fan of the works of fellow horror writer, Edgar Allan Poe.

H.P. invented the idea of the Necronomicon, a grimoire allegedly written by the mad mystic, Abdul Alhazred. The lure of a secret book of magical power was so strong that many readers believed the book actually existed.

Although his readership was small during his lifetime, his work exerted a powerful influence over succeeding generations of writers of horror fiction.

Contemporary horror author Stephen King acknowledges his debt to the master craftsman of creepy fiction, saying that H.P. was "the twentieth century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale."

(Frontispiece of Byron for Byron by Ethel Mayne, 1913. Engraving by T. Lupton after painting by Thomas Phillips.)

Gloomy George (Lord Byron): George Gordon Byron, later Noel, 6th Baron Byron, of Rochdale, FRS, and commonly known as Lord Byron, was a poet and one of the most notorious literary figures of his day.

His best-known works include the poem “She Walks in Beauty” [] and “The Sea.” [].

A later chapter header in Random Magic includes two lines from “The Sea,” in tribute to this stormy poet whom lover Lady Caroline Lamb called “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

Lord Byron also wrote Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. His works are still widely read and influential, both in the English-speaking world and in translation.

He was famous – or perhaps infamous – not only for his vivid, passionate and sensual writing, but also for his debauchery, debts, scandalous love affairs, and self-imposed exile, in later years, from his native country (England).

His self-imposed exile was due to his disgust with being an object of censor and salacious gossip, although it has to be admitted that he did make quite a fine mess of things in his private life.

During his lifetime, the darkly handsome, temperamental writer was one of the most well-known “celebrities” of his day.

He had a reputation for being wildly extravagant, unconventional, moody, flamboyant and controversial, but also for being adventurous, courageous, passionate and loyal; his loyalty was often brief, but while it lasted, his devotion to a lover, friend, or cause was profound and complete.

He formed enduring friendships with school chums John Cam Hobhouse and Francis Hodgson, corresponding with them until the end of his life. He was friends with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and Shelley's future wife Mary Godwin, later Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein.

Although the poet was dashing, well-spoken and generous, he was also given to extremes of temper; on at least one trip, his traveling companions were so confused by his mood swings that they thought he was mentally ill. He enjoyed travel and adventure, especially traveling by ship.

His love affairs were complicated at best, and generally theatrical, picturesque and a bit absurd.

For example, while wintering in Venice, Italy, he fell madly in love with his landlord, Marianna Segati. He then promptly decided that he
was, instead, madly in love with a local married woman named Margarita Cogni, who left her husband to shack up with the unrepentant sensualist.

Due to their fighting, he spent most of his nights in Venice sleeping in his gondola; when he finally asked her to leave him, she threw herself into a canal.

When he broke off his affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, she started calling on him at home disguised as a page boy, at a time when the slightest disregard of social conventions could ruin them both.

One day, she scribbled “Remember me!” on a book he’d left lying on his desk. As a retort, Byron penned a poem entitled “Remember Thee! Remember Thee!,” concluding with his terse thoughts on the subject of his former lover: "Thou false to him, thou fiend to me.”

Although he treated some of his lovers scandalously, many of them forgave him, as his passion was true, genuine and deep -- while it lasted.

Even his own mother was quick to see his faults, but just as quick to understand that he was driven to distraction by an overly passionate nature, saying, “He has no indisposition that I know of but love, desperate love, the worst of all maladies in my opinion.”

He was an animal lover and stubbornly nursed his dog, Boatswain, who'd contracted rabies, until the dog's death, showing no fear of being bitten and infected. In 1808, he wrote a poem in honor of Boatswain, called, simply, “Epitaph to a Dog.”

At various times in his life, he also had a pet fox, monkeys, a parrot, cats, a crow, geese, peacocks, an Egyptian crane, a heron, a badger, a bear and a crocodile.

The idealistic but reckless poet fought alongside Greek rebels in their battle against the Ottoman Empire during the Greek War of Independence (1821-1830).

He died from a fever contracted in Messolonghi, Greece, during his last campaign.

The Greeks mourned Lord Byron deeply; a suburb of Athens was called Vyronas in his honor and his heart was reportedly buried in a memorial cenotaph in Messolonghi.

The rest of his body was embalmed and sent to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, and the Abbey refused to bury the poet for reasons of “questionable morality,” but he was revered in Greece as a national hero for his willingness to fight for a cause he believed in, even though it cost him his life.

He was buried at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottingham. It was only in 1969, 145 years after his death, that a memorial to him was finally placed in Westminster Abbey.

Shakes (William Shakespeare): William Shakespeare was a poet and playwright, widely regarded as one of the greatest dramatists in the English language. He’s often called England's national poet and the “Bard of Avon.”

His surviving works include 38 plays (including Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream), poems, and 154 sonnets.

(Reader note: You can find another tribute to Shakespeare at the end of Chapter 19 in Random Magic!)

His plays have been translated into every major living language and are performed more often than those of any other playwright in history.

Shakespeare’s dramatic plays influenced later writers Thomas Hardy, William Faulkner, Charles Dickens, Voltaire, Goethe, Stendhal, Victor Hugo and Herman Melville, and music historians have identified at least 20,000 pieces of music linked to Shakespeare's works.

Alexander Pushkin

Assorted Russian poets (Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, et al.): Although we don’t meet them in the book, Callie’s party quite likely included famed Russian writers Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov, both of whose works (and lifestyles) were influenced by Lord Byron – thus, in the book, they’re simply his good mates who came along for a roisterous night out.

(A copy photograph of the portrait painted by Oscar Halling in the late 1860's of Edgar Allan Poe. Halling used the "Thompson" daguerreotype, one of the last portraits taken of Poe in 1849, as a model for this painting.)

(1848 Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe at 39, a year before his death)


Poe (Edgar Allan Poe): Writer, poet and editor, famous for his lurid and dreamy tales of mystery and the macabre, and considered to be the inventor of the detective-fiction genre.

He was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone, unfortunately resulting in a life of straitened finances and poverty.

He was marked by the death of his wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. Only one confirmed image of Virginia exists, a watercolor portrait painted just hours after her death.

Her illness and early death are believed to be reflected in Poe’s poems “Annabel Lee,” and “Ligeia.”

The dark romanticism and bleakness inherent in his works were also reflected in his mysterious death.

On October 3, 1849, he was found wandering the streets of Baltimore, Maryland in a delirious state, “in great distress, need of immediate assistance,” according to the man who found him.

He was taken to a local hospital, where he died on October 7, 1849, never having been coherent long enough to explain what had happened. He was buried in Baltimore, Maryland.

Some sources say his final words were "Lord help my poor soul,” and others report that he’d referred to someone called Reynolds, but the actual cause of death has never been discovered, as all medical records, including his death certificate, were lost.

Adding to the mystery, an unknown figure in black has visited Poe’s grave every year, on January 19 (Poe’s birthday), since 1949.

Every January 19, in the early hours of the morning on that date, a person in mourning clothes, face hidden, carrying a silver-tipped cane, enters the Westminster Hall and Burying Ground in Baltimore, Maryland.

The person goes directly to Poe's grave, where he or she raises a cognac toast in tribute to the author.

Before leaving, the mysterious visitor always leaves three red roses and a half-bottle of Martell cognac on the grave.

A group of reporters and readers gather every year to observe the ritual –and it became apparent in later years that the latest visitor was a different person, but no one has ever attempted to harass or identify the mystery visitor, out of respect for the author.

In Random Magic, one of Callie’s closest friends is a shape-shifter, who travels in the form of a raven. His name is Nevermore.

Nevermore’s name, of course -- and the name of his cousin, Quoth -- comes from one of Poe’s most well-known poems, “The Raven”:

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling, By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore, ‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, ‘art sure no craven. Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore - Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!’ Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

Hosky (Oscar Wilde): Oscar Wilde was a playwright, poet, the author of several short stories and one novel. His nickname at school (Oxford) was “Hosky.”

His mother, Lady Jane Wilde, wrote poetry under the moniker ‘Speranza,’ (Italian for ‘hope’), home-schooled Oscar until he was nine years old, and held weekly salons; her guests included poets, painters, novelists and revolutionaries.

Oscar’s first public performance was in the drawing room of his mother’s Dublin, Ireland home, where the precocious two-year-old entertained his mother’s guests by reciting his full name: Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde. His mother thought he was a genius -- and he cheerfully agreed.

Oscar, though a brilliantly gifted writer, was even more famous for his scathing wit, clever quips and outlandish style, becoming one of the greatest “celebrities” of the late Victorian era.

Several of his plays are still hugely popular, including The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan, both of which have seen big-screen adaptations.

Wilde suffered a stunning downfall in the midst of his literary success when he was imprisoned for two years due to his intimate relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas.

While in prison, he wrote a 50,000-word letter for Alfred. A censored version of the letter was published in 1905, four years after Wilde's death, using the title De Profundis.

On his release from prison, Wilde sailed for Dieppe, France by night ferry and never returned to either England or Ireland.

His stay in prison was fatal to Wilde’s health. He was released in May 1897 and spent his last three years penniless, in self-imposed exile abroad, traveling under an assumed name. After his release, he also wrote one of his most well-known and darkest poems, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”

Wilde spent his last years in the Hôtel d'Alsace, in Paris, France. A month before his death, he’s quoted as having said, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go,” leading to the legend that the dying fop’s last words were, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.”

He died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900, and was buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux, but later moved to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

The relief on his tomb, depicting a male angel, was originally created with male genitals on display; in an odd twist, these, er, items were broken off and used as a paperweight by several generations of cemetery keepers, before they were finally lost.

Oscar Wilde’s tomb is a literary shrine for readers who visit the Père Lachaise simply to leave a kiss for Oscar; the stone walls of the tomb – and the angel – are covered with thousands of fresh and fading lipstick marks, and the base of the tome is daily scattered with handwritten notes and bouquets of flowers.

The epitaph is a verse from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

(Stage play, probably Private Lives, Noël shown on left)

Noelie (Sir Noël Peirce Coward): Born December 16, 1899, he was a playwright, actor, composer, director and singer, famed for his flamboyance, cheeky elegance and quick wit.

He started writing in his teens, and his body of work includes 50 plays, among them Private Lives and Present Laughter, which are still performed today.

He composed over a dozen musical theatre works (including the operetta Bitter Sweet), poetry, short stories, the novel Pomp and Circumstance, and a three-volume autobiography.

His stage and film acting and directing career spanned 60 years, and he received an Academy Honorary Award in 1943 for his naval film drama, In Which We Serve.

He was also a cabaret performer, performing his own tongue-in-cheek and jolly songs like “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” and “I Went to a Marvellous Party.”

By the end of the 1960s, he suffered from arteriosclerosis and struggled with bouts of memory loss. This affected his work in The Italian Job, and he retired from acting.

He died of heart failure in 1973, at his home in Jamaica, and was buried three days later in Firefly Hill, Jamaica, overlooking the north coast, his favorite view of his adopted island home.

Reader note: If you’re curious about the lives of any of the writers mentioned, please feel free to visit Wikipedia, which was a valuable resource in compiling these biographical profiles for your reading pleasure.

The biographical details of all these creative man and women are fascinating in their entirety. Happy reading!

And, lastly, it might not yet but January 19, but if you have a moment to spare, let’s raise a glass to Poe -- and Hosky, Shakes, Dot, Baudy, The Bells, Gloomy George -- and other departed friends, lovers, sarcastic quippers and mad geniuses.

Thank you for leaving us with so many wonderful words to savor, puzzle over, mull over, quote, recognize, laugh at, cry for, act out, act on, and devour with gratitude and appreciation. Huzzah!

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