12 Winters Blog

Side by Side by Sondheim, and Nabokov’s Bend Sinister

Posted in March 2010 by Ted Morrissey on March 28, 2010

One of the innumerable areas in which I’m woefully ignorant is musical theater, but I was spellbound last evening by a production of Side by Side by [Stephen] Sondheim at the Community Players Theatre in Bloomington, IL.  Among the amazingly talented players was Robert McLaughlin, an English professor at Illinois State University (and, as it happens, my dissertation chair).  The previous Sunday Dr. McLaughlin gave a 45-minute talk on Sondheim and his vast contributions to American musical theater, somewhat in commemoration of the composer and lyricist’s eightieth birthday.  Though the talk was brief, it gave me some insights into Sondheim that allowed me to understand and appreciate Side by Side more than I would have had I not heard it.  Dr. McLaughlin has written a book on Sondheim and his work, and he says it’s just about ready to go to his editor.  Though a neophyte fan of Sondheim, one of things about his art that I appreciate is his embracing subject matter because of its inherent interest to him — not because it was a commercial “sure thing.”  (As a part-time librarian, I see the claptrap that flows across our circulation desk from the likes of Nora Roberts, James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks — and I’ve considered writing similar nonsense in hopes of becoming wealthy, but I can’t bring myself to do it; I have too many other projects in mind, none of which has any genuine prospect of making me one penny richer.  It was Melville’s lament as he toiled on Moby-Dick, while the reading public clambered for another Typee or Omoo.  By the way, I only draw the lines of comparison between the likes of Sondheim and Melville and myself insofar as I too can relate to being drawn to the decidedly “noncommercial.”)

On another front, in a rather roundabout way I’ve been led to reading an early Nabokov novel, Bend Sinister (1947), via my interests in Gass, who knew Nabokov at Cornell in the 1950s.  It was Nabokov’s second novel that he composed in English; he’d been publishing in Russian since the mid ’20s.  Maurice Couturier calls Bend Sinister “one of the first ‘American’ novels about World War II” (Critique 34.4 p. 248).  I’m only ninety pages or so into Bend Sinister, but I’m struck by some similarities between its main character, Adam Krug, and William Kohler, Gass’s main character in The Tunnel.  For example, both are rather antisocial university professors who relish intellectual sparring with their colleagues.  Neither Krug nor Kohler thinks very highly of humanity, following the atrocities of the Second World War especially.  Intriguingly, in a section I read this morning, Krug has a recurring nightmare in which he dreams of “a tunnel of sorts”:  Nabokov writes, “The yawn of the tunnel and the door of the school, at the opposite ends of the yard, became football goals much in the same fashion as the commonplace organ of one species of animal is dramatically modified by a new function in another” (Henry Holt & Co. first edition, 1947, p. 63).  I hadn’t necessarily been looking to Bend Sinister as a direct source for Gass’s fiction, but some of the connections thus far are, as I said, intriguing.

I continue to gather notes for an article on the fallout shelter and its effects on the American psyche in the ’50s and ’60s.  I was hoping to have something publishable by May, but that seems unrealistic and sometime this summer is more likely.  Meanwhile, I continue to work on The Authoress, which goes well but slowly.  This afternoon I’ll attempt to make progress on one or both fronts, but I also should grade some research papers (my goal is to have all 90 or so graded by April 30).

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