“I think all artists should read and travel,” Adger Cowans writes in his deeply engrossing memoir. And he more than practices what he preaches, taking readers on what continues to be a most adventurous, breathtaking life, full to the brim.
Known primarily as a photographer, he unspools a cornucopia of exciting moments, harrowing incidents, and significant personalities. Like his imaginative camera work, Cowans is just as inventive as a storyteller, and the episodes he recounts are almost visual, cinematic.
A vivid example of his ability to capture a poignant moment occurs in his chapter upon arriving in Tangier, a picturesque city in Morocco. “Morocco’s magic is timeless and potent,” he begins. “I felt the presence of ancient peoples from the moment I stepped off the ferry—men riding on horseback, people selling leather bags and herbs. The smell of mint tea and livestock permeated the air. Men were gesturing and crying their wares, “Aji, Aji! Come here. You want hashish?”
There are many such beckonings and temptations that Cowans readily succumbs to, and a few of his own creation. But let us return to the opening quote. “When you get stuck in rut, open a book, listen to music, go to a museum or explore something new, it doesn’t matter where.”
And explore Cowans does from one end of the globe to the other with mesmerizing stints in Brazil, Suriname, France, and across the U.S., none more intoxicating than his ventures in California and New York City.
Many of these opportunities to travel came at the request of filmmakers who employed him to provide stills for their productions. In this capacity, Cowans works with such notable directors as Francis Ford Coppola, John Cassavetes, Bill Duke, Sidney Lumet, and Alan Pakula, to mention but a few of them.
These shoots also allowed him to hobnob with a coterie of movie stars, and the luminaries included Katharine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway, Anthony Quinn, Wesley Snipes, Avery Brooks, and Danny Glover.
Each of these encounters becomes more than chance meetings and Cowans takes full advantage of them in learning the lessons of films and how to navigate the tricky world of entertainers and their often-inflated egos. Almost without exception, no matter where he travels, Cowans’ idyllic journey is interrupted with danger and pain. During his stay among the Djuka people in Suriname he contracts malaria; during a motorcycle trip from the West Coast to New York City, he is nearly killed when a car runs him off the road; and there are bouts of dysentery, and, even an out-of-body experience.
Most heartbreaking is when Cowans relates how his cameras were stolen. This happened on several occasions. There were at least three assignments where plans to work with a film crew ends in disappointment after the all the equipment is stolen, none more disturbing than when all of the crew’s equipment suddenly disappears during their trip to Saint Paul de Vence near Nice, France to film a concert date featuring the great Sun Ra and his Arkestra.
And it would be remiss not to mention his own musicianship, especially on trumpet, guitar and flute.
The setbacks weave in and out of more enjoyable engagements, particularly Cowans’ romantic evenings with an assortment of lovers. After a while, given the book’s structure, you are not sure of the sequence of affairs and when they actually happened.
Clearly, it’s a minor distraction since the stories he tells are so compelling, so absorbing that it makes little difference when they happened—your attention is riveted. Part of Cowans’ allure may be the extent to which he keeps to his credo—“Art is emotional, not visual.” Anyone who has seen his works, his photos or paintings, will attest to feelings that emanate from them, especially his impressions of water that are pervasive in his portfolios
Given his perambulations, the countless number of associations and political proclivities, it’s not surprising that he became affiliated with such black artists’ organizations as AfriCOBRA and the photographers of Kamoinge. From his first Leica camera to the momentary tenure at Ohio University, to spending valuable time with Gordon Parks, Cowans has marked a most productive and accomplished path in a little more than 80 years that began in Columbus, Ohio to Connecticut, where he currently lives.
At the close of his book, he writes, “Last night I was thinking about my childhood again. I know it was the love and the care I received from my mother and my father that gave me the courage to do what I’ve done. I always felt I was two people: the outside one everyone sees, the physical me, and another something inside of me, an inner guide. It isn’t me. It’s the spirit within me. When I mentioned this to my family and friends, they looked at me strangely, so I decided to keep it to myself. One thing I’m sure of, age is not a deterrent to the creative process.”
Indeed, and we are glad you didn’t keep all of this to yourself.
There was one missing aspect of Moore’s exceptional book detailing the ups and downs of author Mario Puzo, in his quest to be recognized as a gifted writer of refined, literary novels; a quest that he never fully was able to achieve.
The world of literary fiction books in the 50’s and 60’s was centered in Manhattan and it was mainly a world of WASPS, Jews and a few other Northern Europeans. They were the writers, editors, agents, and critics of books, magazines and newspapers. There were also a few late-night NYC local television shows that featured authors. (One famous night I stayed up late to watch enfant terrible Truman Capote when he was asked what he thought of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road? “That was not writing; that was typing.” he said in that famous voice of his in one of the greatest literary put-downs in American history! I laughed my teenage ass off.)
However, there were few Italians to speak of. As a result, look at this bird eye’s view of some of the important books of the 50’s, to see what I mean: Patricia Highsmith, Strangers on a Train (1950), C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), James Jones, From Here to Eternity, 1951, Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time (1951), Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Patricia Highsmith, The Price of Salt (1952), Bernard Malamud, The Natural (1952), Flannery O’Connor, Wise Blood (1952), Barbara Pym, Excellent Women (1952), John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952), Kurt Vonnegut, Piano Player (1952), E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web (1952), Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man, 1953, Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (1953), James Baldwin, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), Gwendolyn Brooks, Maud Martha (1953), William S. Burroughs, Junky (1953), J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories (1953), William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954), Wallace Stevens, Collected Poems (1954), Richard Matheson, I Am Legend (1954), Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man (1955), Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955), Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories (1955), John Ashbery, Some Trees (1956), Gerald Durrell, My Family and Other Animals (1956), Dodie Smith, The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956), James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room (1956), Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems (1956), John Cheever, The Wapshot Chronicle (1957), Roland Barthes, Mythologies (1957), Bernard Malamud, The Assistant (1957), Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957), Truman Capote, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1958), Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana (1958), Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958), T. H. White, The Once and Future King (1958), Robert Bloch, Psycho (1959), Philip Roth, Goodbye, Columbus (1959), William S. Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959), Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House (1959), John Knowles, A Separate Peace (1959).
This was quite an array of exceptional literary talent. Just looking at these titles, you can see that this was an incredible output never seen in America before, and this was just a snapshot of an even larger output. Also, note that black Americans writer’s names were also called, although there were almost no blacks working in the literary world as editors or publishers or agents during this period. What they had going for them, besides talent, was the enormous roar of Brown vs The Board of Education and the start of the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
However, in the literary world of New York City in the 50’s and 60’s, where were the Italian Americans, whose names were rarely called in one of the most exciting literary times in American history?
Here is how Moore fully capsulized the 50’s and early 60’s: “To be an aspiring writer in those years was to have at least some sense of being at the red-hot center of a vibrant, important, national culture. Regardless of whatever had accompanied anyone’s quest to become a published author, it was clear in season after season that strong talents could be remembered, and superlatives works were able to make it through the pipeline of the publishing industry.”
Puzo’s first attempt to join this crowd was his first novel The Dark Arena. He was turned down by several publishers but was finally picked up by Random House. Writes Moore, “Random House, the largest and at that time the most prestigious American publisher, brought The Dark Arena on January 20, 1954. They paid a tiny sum in the form of an advance. By this time Mario was again working full-time at a Civil Service job.”
I should point out that Puzo was married and had three young children to feed at this time.
The novel went nowhere. Writes Moore, “Critiques of The Dark Arena ranged from laudatory and welcoming to dismissive and downright insulting. The novel provoked serious reactions, one way or the other.”
It wasn’t until 1964 was his second novel, The Fortunate Pilgrim put in production. It seemed that Mario Puzo was on his way to fame and fortune when the book was finally published.
“When published in January 1965, the novel received the praise all writers long for,” writes Moore.
The New York Times, The Saturday Review of Literature and, many other magazines and newspapers heaped honors on him. One critic even compared him to Hemingway. And, to top it off, a noted Hollywood producer, John Foreman, took him to lunch.
“John Foreman was dynamic,” Mario recalled. “For three hours he talked about my book, how he loved it. How he was determined to do a movie. He quoted all the best parts. As he left, he said he would call my agent the next day and arrange the financial details of the contract. Nobody ever heard from him again.”
In the end, The Fortunate Pilgrim, made even less money than his first novel. His first novel from 1955 netted him $3, 500 and the second one in 1965 netted him $3,000. Writes Puzo to a friend, “I was going downhill fast. Yet the book (The Fortunate Pilgrim) received some extraordinarily fine reviews. The New York Times called it ‘A small classic.’ I immodestly think of it as art.”
For the next few years, Puzo wrote pulp fiction for men’s magazines that were several steps down from Playboy. He also now had five off-springs to support. Mario soon became a master of this kind of fiction and was able to keep his head above water and feed his growing family. But still he pined for recognition as an important writer.
Puzo tried hard to find another publisher for a novel he had in mind, with no takers. Yet a publisher set off a chain reaction by remarking that “If Fortunate Pilgrim had only had a little more of the Mafia stuff in it the book would have made money.”
The passage of time had not dimmed America’s perennial fascination with gangster tales. What we had in the 50’s was televised congressional hearings about organized crime, and in the early 60’s we heard the testimony of Joseph Valachi, a lifelong criminal. Writes Moore, he had “deep roots in the Sicilian-based East-Coast mob network who explained in his testimony what Cosa Nostra was all about.” The American public also had the hit television show The Untouchables to watch weekly.
It didn’t take long for Puzo to catch on. All those years writing pulp fiction to feed his family, as well as writing a literary masterpiece like the Fortunate Pilgrim you can almost see the lightbulb going off in his head: why not combine both into one novel?
The results were The Godfather, which became the bestselling book of all time worldwide, next to the Bible, and two of the greatest movies ever made in Hollywood. The middle-aged, overweight father of five, with the same wife until her death, finally made quite a name for himself. M. J. Moore also has made quite a name for himself by writing this excellent book.
When I first saw The Collector in the arts section at Vromans Bookstore in Pasadena, it might as well have been flashing, “Read me.” Trusting my instincts, I put a hold on the book at the library and within a week it was mine to read. It’s a book right after my own heart—I loved reading it.
What a turbulent century the 20th was! starting in 1914 with the assassination of the Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand and start of World War I, then the Russian Revolution of 1919, and following that, Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the beginning of World War II; following that the Cold War with its tensions between Russia and the United States, Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, and all the turmoil in the Middle East, leading to 9/11 in 2001.
Throughout the century Russia led the way in radical changes; much of the action has had to do with the struggle between capitalism and communism.
What with Expressionism and Impressionism, the end of the 19th and early 20th Centuries saw huge changes in the way art was rendered. Paris, France, was at the center of the art revolution. But art needs buyers to flourish. Foremost among the foreign buyers was the middle, sickly son of wealthy merchant capitalists, Ekaterina and Ivan Shchukin, Sergei Shchukin.
All the five Shchukin sons were collectors. Nikolai, the oldest, collected silverware and old paintings, Pietr, history and art. He had an underground tunnel gallery built from his house to another wing of it. Dimitry, an effeminate bachelor, collected old masters. Despite the enormous wealth at their command, Ivan, the youngest, was the only wastrel of the group, living a lavish life in Paris before his untimely death.
Sergei alone collected the modern art of his time—the work of Monet, Derain, Degas, Renoir, Courbet, Pissarro, Matisse, Gauguin, and Picasso. He housed his burgeoning collection at his Trubetskoy Palace, 8 Zamanensky Lane, Moscow, not far from the Cathedral of Christ the Savior.
He sired four children with his wife Lydia, a famous beauty, and another child, a daughter, Irina, with his second wife, Nadezhda.
Collecting new paintings was Sergei’s passion, and in this occupation, he showed remarkable discernment. He would often place a newly acquired painting in his palace and live with it until interest was converted to love. Perhaps the most difficult painting to acclimatize himself to was Matisse’s La Danse, that abstract painting of five red nudes dancing in a circle with a blue and green background.
Sergei endured his sorrow over losing his wife Lydia by taken a safari across the Sinai Peninsula.
Early in the 20th Century, the Russian Revolution loomed, casting its shadow especially over Russian kupechestvos, (capitalists.)
In the wake of the revolution, Sergei and his family fled to Nice, then to Paris, where he bought a large apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement and where he and his wife Nadezhda continued to entertain other members of the white Russian expatriate community. There he was obliged to resume buying modern art for its walls, much to the delight of the artists from whom he purchased work.
On January 8th, 1936, 17 years after the revolution forced his family to flee, at the age of 82, Sergei Shchukin died in Paris. He had never returned to Russia again. His only worry had been that the Bolsheviks might sell off his collection, as they did that of the czar’s family. He got his wish—the wonderful paintings he had collected are now part of the Hermitage collection in St. Petersburg.
My criticisms of this wonderful book are few. I wish it would have included more photographic plates, especially of paintings discussed in the text. And, occasionally the text seemed to be clumsily translated.
All in all, I would highly recommend this fine book to all with an interest in modern art and the fine art of collecting it. The book gave me new insight into the Russian soul.
Fortunately, I had almost finished reading The Source of Self-Regard before Namwali Serpell’s “On Black Difficulty: Toni Morrison and the Thrill of Imperiousness” (SLATE, March 26, 2019) came to my attention.
The words "difficult" and "imperiousness" themselves possess a degree of difficulty, and they can enlighten and obscure at the same moment. Serpell contends, “Toni Morrison is difficult. She's difficult to read. She's difficult to teach. She's difficult to interview. Notwithstanding, the voluminous train of profiles, reviews and scholarly analysis that she drags behind her, she's difficult to write about. But more to the point, she is our only truly canonical black, female writer, and her work is complex. This, it seems, is difficult to swallow.”
Like Lady Macbeth, Serpell protests a bit too much. She is imperious in her yearning "for that specific human, black, female freedom to feel at ease to be difficult." She is at once right and wrong.
To be sure, Morrison's fictions and non-fictions are not easy nor transparent. Her novels demand as much interpretive work as, for example, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Octavia Butler's Kindred. And her inscription of positions and perspectives in Playing in the Dark, The Origin of Others, and The Source of Self-Regard call for a kind of sweating provoked by engaging the moral meditations which Marilyn Robinson and Martha Nussbaum write.
And behind all the effort one hears a snide, accusatory, very American question: Is it worth it after all? Readers answer in accord with their degrees of cultural literacy. Whether they are thrilled or enthralled by imperiousness is a difficult question. Whatever the case, readers who lack genuine intellectual curiosity ought to leave the game and have the bravery to admit defeat. But imperiousness or arrogant assurance is a far cry from the blessed assurance readers can purchase with tears from James Baldwin's fiction and non-fiction and Ta-Nehisi Coates's non-fiction or with laughter from Maurice Carlos Ruffin's much-acclaimed We Cast A Shadow.
Serpell’s phrasing “she drags behind her” threatens to toss Morrison into “mules of the world” briar patch, and it serves to remind astute readers that Zora Neale Hurston is truly as canonical, black, female, and complex as Morrison. The implication that the world can afford only one canonical woman writer at a time is unmitigated, Eurocentric cows’ shit.
The Source of Self-Regard is Morrison’s debatably honest effort to specify her own limits and possibilities; it’s her confession that she’s a human being, not a mythological goddess who writes; her admission that no writer, female or male, is immune to debate. There’s indeed, as Morrison suggests at one point in the book, a difficult difference between a fact and a truth. Reading The Source of Self-Regard is a worthwhile exercise in discovering the ontology of such difference.
Rare is the novel that transcends the limits of space, time, and locale. In so many fictions (from William Faulkner's focus on a postage-stamp portion of Mississippi to Elena Ferrante's fixation on Naples, Italy) one place is an anchoring device.
In the realm of author Ed Pavlic, however, it’s drastically different. The world at large is the locale across which his fateful and yearning main protagonists move along, break away, relocate and reunite in far-flung areas ranging from Chicago to Kenya and points between.
Yet, it’s not just geography (in the superficial sense) that adds texture and complexity to this daring novel about star-crossed lovers. In fact, it's constricting to think of Another Kind of Madness as merely a novel.
Instead, one does this book justice by realizing that it's also Ed Pavlic's audacious musical composition (yes, you read that right.) Another Kind of Madness reads as prose fiction but to those with ears to hear, there is also a vibrant, multilayered, internationally flavored musical subtext. This gives his novel a unique tone.
Of course, there are traditional characters involved in narrative adventures— Ndiya Grayson is a professional young woman who’s back home in Chicago, unfulfilled and oddly frustrated by her seemingly enviable position at a high-end law firm. One night, she goes out and inevitably meets Shame Luther.
His life is a double life—Shame Luther works in construction by day but he's a gifted piano player by night. And the long-buried traumas of his life, as well as of Ndiya's, are gradually excavated and explored as they merge their lives, evolving together against the odds.
The musicality of this novel gives the story its pulse, tempo and flow. Words are like musical notes in this book. Sentences are more than sentences—they are shifting melodic lines.
Similarly, punctuation is used not just in the grammatical sense but also as a rhythmic tool for creating startling effects and ornamental enhancements. Readers who bring their own love of music to this novel cannot help but apprehend how the passages and pages are like a varied mix of Soul music, blended with Funk, Jazz, and the Blues.
There are mythic, intimate, psychological, and social tensions as Ndiya Grayson and Shame Luther confront their repressed pasts. They break new ground and risk a great deal by pressing on together. On a narrative level, even to a tone-deaf reader, their story will be engaging and propulsive.
However, for the fortunate readers who hear all the music between the lines, this novel promises the satisfaction that one finds when listening to Miles Davis's “Kind of Blue” album or the latter-day works of John Coltrane, who experimented so vastly with time signatures, overlapping themes and genres, and the very nature of idiosyncratic instrumental music.
Ed Pavlic has also created in his own way and just as boldly one hell of a story.
Here is a representative passage that hints at the sensuality and substance of the novel
And the tremor rises. Ndiya holds him by the thigh and around his back. He's so still she can feel the bed swing at the end of a long wire. She feels the ceiling holding back the sky. Neither of them move but he feels the tremor in the subtle, double grip and give of her pulse . . . She feels to him like a current has flashed into motion, like still water he waded into come alive. A slow, strong wind. He feels Ndiya Grayson shaking inside. And she's elsewhere. Anywhere. She's anywhere and he's everywhere else. There's a sudden, universal slowness. Her pulse shifts.
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