Category Archives: Literature

Nothing to drink / We just lost our shirts

LIFE, By Keith Richards with James Fox, Illustrated. 564 pages. Little, Brown & Company. $29.99.

I’ve just finished the first piece of non-work-related reading I’ve been able to read in months — the autobiography of rock-n-roll titan, Keith Richards, Life. What can I say about this work? What. To. Say. Well, for me it was a very quick read. Because it’s well-written, surprisingly solid, articulate and engaging, I found myself blazing through the book, even picking it up with just a few minutes here and there to spare because I was genuinely interested to learn what “Keef” had to say about his exploits, the Stones, his pals, music and technology, and countless other things. But it’s also too long. By around page 400 or so, I was ready for it to end. I reckon everyone will have certain things they’re waiting to learn about in Keef’s sixty-odd unbelievably unbelievable years. For me, I wanted to read about Ron Wood’s entry into the band and see how Richards would finesse the awkward and at times awful, music-wise, decades of the 80s and 90s for the Stones. There’s a good amount of narrative on Ronnie Wood. Not really what I expected, but interesting all the same. Richards portrays the 80s and 90s as far more sparkling than I would, and he glosses over albums from that period that I would have liked to read about, and which to my mind deserve more time, e.g., Tattoo You and Emotional Rescue.

Overall I liked Life, but by the end Richards’s bravado and self-descriptions as an outlaw were a bit aggravating and a bit unlikely, if not dubious. I admit, I enjoyed reading his tales of drug use (and abuse). But his obvious lack of humility and lack of generosity for folks in his past and present whom he thinks can’t “hang” with him — partying-wise, musically, loyalty-wise — throughout this book both grew old and made me wonder why, ultimately, he wrote all of this. He’s particularly hard on Mick. No surprise there. Greil Marcus’s review in the Times Literary Supplement captures Richards’s invective against Jagger nicely:

Yes, there is the publicized disdain for Mick Jagger. It comes to nothing. Often it seems forced, a hook of scandal or gossip to sell the book. When it feels true, it also curdles. One can get the sense that if Richards truly holds his lifetime partner in contempt, it’s because unlike Richards, or Brian Jones, Anita Pallenberg, Gram Parsons, Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts, or so many more, Jagger never became a drug addict. He stepped back from the abyss; he never went all the way; he was always in control. He never reached for the absolute – as Marianne Faithfull recalls Richards saying, when she told him that she had finally quit heroin, “Ah, Marianne! But what about the Holy Grail?”

Marcus’s review of Life is generally pretty fair. He writes nicely about Richards’s musical discoveries that effectively made the sound of the Stones and created timeless numbers like “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Satisfaction,” “Before They Make Me Run,” and the rest. And I think he’s onto something in his review as far as the verbal abuse of Jagger is concerned. By the end of the book I was eager to read Mick’s take on Keef’s antics over the past half century. This morning I found this on “Please Allow Me To Correct a Few Things: Imagine if Mick Jagger responded to Keith Richards about his new autobiography.” Who knows if Jagger actually wrote this or not — it’s purportedly something Jagger wrote to former Stones’ bassist, Bill Wyman, who’s been the official archivist of the Stones for some time, but was “mistakenly” sent to the famous music critic of the same name, Bill Wyman.

Even if this was penned by music critic Wyman, and not Jagger, it is a spectacular read, especially after having read Richards’s book. But one needn’t read Life first to appreciate the sentiment that Jagger (if he in fact wrote it) relates in this rejoinder. Jagger comes off as so much more mature, generous, and self-aware than Richards’s portrayal of him in Life. I’m interested to hear what EMP’s readers think (whether you’ve read Life or not).

Having said all this, I would recommend Life to anyone who likes the Stones, Keith Richards, tales of sex and drugs (i.e., rock-n-roll), and autobiography. I’m not a bigger Rolling Stones fan now than I was before reading the book. But I do have a bigger appreciation for Keith Richards. He’s far more thoughtful and funny than I ever knew.

E. Gene Smith

This obituary appeared in the New York Times, finally, on 28 December 2010. E. Gene Smith was not just an extraordinary scholar; he was, by all accounts I have read and heard (I never met the man, though I know folks who knew him well), he was also an extraordinarily generous and kind human being. I personally cannot claim that without Mr. Smith’s lifelong efforts to preserve Tibetan literature I would not be able to do what I do today, as, for example, most Tibetologists in the western world today rightfully claim (see, e.g., David Germano’s remarks in this obit). But a handful of my teachers over the years, at least one of which has played a significant role in my professional career to this day, are enormously indebted to the labors of Mr. Smith. So I’m a generation or two removed from E. Gene Smith in terms of my professional pursuits. All the same, I am awestruck by his vision, his achievements, and his magnanimity. This obit is clearly superficial in its coverage of E. Gene Smith’s life and work. Yet, I think anyone who reads just these few paragraphs about the man will be moved.

NB: Click on the image to read the piece; you should have a magnifying glass option to enlarge once it appears in a new window.

Kafka, a Fletcherizer and Müllerizer, who knew?

It’s been years since I’ve read something this arresting in the NY Times. Elif Batuman’s lengthy piece about the ongoing legal battle in Tel Aviv over Franz Kafka’s literary estate, “Kafka’s Last Trial,” is simply superb. If you are, were in the past, or have thought about becoming a Kafkologist, this is the kind of essay that will have you running to your library to reexamine The Trial or The Castle or, even better, Kafka’s Diaries, all the while scratching your head, wondering why on earth you ever stopped (or postponed) thinking about such a fascinating person and his perplexing oeuvre. To this day I can vividly recall, mentally and physically, the odd pleasure and sartori-like realizations that I experienced, though never could articulate, when for about two months in college I carried around Kafka’s Diaries in my backpack and read aphorism after aphorism, short-short story after story, thinking that I had discovered the Dada Rosetta Stone. I thought I was learning immense amounts of information from this fellow, yet I never quite knew where to shelve it in my mind nor where to use it. Even more important at the time, I felt as though I was peering into Kafka’s life with crystal clarity. For example, I still remember well that Kafka penned in his Diaries to have claimed inspiration from the life and deeds of Alexander the Great when he churned out the most memorable word snapshot: “Crocodiles who with their urine burned down trees.” I’m still at pains to explain why this seems to me as apt an association with Alexander as I’ve ever read. But it does, and I admire the mind that made it. Not sure if I understand it entirely though, or what it might really reflect about Kafka’s life.

Batuman’s essay is well worth the investment of time to read. Kafka couldn’t have scripted the legal wrangling that persists over his work and, in effect, his legacy any better than the tale Batuman unfolds as he recounts his encounters in Tel Aviv courthouses, among literary historians, philologists, museum curators and, most baffling and critical of all among the gaggle of real life characters whose lives appear to be suspended in K-land, the daughters of the lover of Kafka’s friend, Max Brod. Sometime before he died, Brod apparently bequeathed his Kafka archive to his secretary and lover, Ether Hoffe, and for years her surviving two daughters, Eva and Ruth, have been fighting to establish themselves as legal guardians of what remains of Kafka’s literary legacy. The two women couldn’t be more different: Eva is portrayed as the “catlady” who lives alone with anywhere from 40 to 100 cats and Ruth is a tony, fairly well-to-do grandmother.

Eva and Ruth, who fled Nazi-occupied Prague as children, are elusive figures who keep out of the public eye. The fact that they are represented by separate counsel reflects Eva’s greater investment in the case. While Ruth married and left home, Eva lived with their mother, and with the papers, for 40 years. Her attorney Oded Hacohen characterizes Eva’s relationship to the manuscripts as “almost biological.” “For her,” he told me, “intruding on those safe-deposits is like a rape.” (When asked whether Eva had used the word “rape” herself, Hacohen looked a bit tired. “Many times,” he said.)

By the bye, most of the ambiguity and strangeness that revolves around Kafka’s life and writings is attributable to Max Brod. Batuman’s essay bears this out nicely. Brod single-handily made the world know about Kafka. He also ostensibly betrayed Kafka’s wish to burn all of his writings after his death and instead, when he fled Prague because of Nazi encroachment, he shuttled those papers off to Israel, where he met Esther Hoffe and joined the Zionist movement (and by proxy implicated Kafka, through control of his work and legacy, in Zionist ideology as well, which may or may not have been a desire of Kafka’s). Brod and Kafka were friends back in Prague, to be sure, but Brod’s ambitions and Kafka’s ambitions couldn’t have been more different. And the complex and somewhat odd controversy that now engulfs the Kafka braintrust is really the work of Brod. Batuman captures the friendship of Kafka and Brod well, and he brings into focus the troubling yet sine qua non figure that Brod represents for anyone who enjoys K. In the end, Batuman opines, “Maybe there is no Kafka beyond Brod.”

Esther Hoffe and Max Brod