Chronicling the other good war

Hotel Florida coverVaill, Amanda. Hotel Florida : truth, love, and death in the Spanish Civil War. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

style ***1/2
substance ***1/2

It is very dangerous to write the truth in war, and the truth is very dangerous to come by. – Ernest Hemingway

Three quarters of a century on the Spanish Civil War exerts a considerable pull. The deluge of novels, movies, histories, plays, biographies and other forms of creative expression shows no sign of diminishing, and the war itself continues to resonate with idealists, leftists and students of history as a great moment for humanity, a symbol of resistance to totalitarian fascism.

But, as with all wars, the Spanish Civil War was far from black and white: historians debate whether the right side won and cite terrible crimes committed by both sides. In any event what was strictly an internal conflict in 1936 quickly became something more complex. The Soviets backed the legitimately elected Loyalist (Republican) government. Italy and Germany sided with Franco’s right-wing (Nationalist) insurgents, with Hitler rehearsing air power strategies he later employed in the invasion of Poland. And, for better or worse, the great Western powers – the U.S., France and Britain – chose not to intervene directly. The war raged for nearly three years with estimated casualties of between 500,000 and 1,000,000 killed.

Franco and the Nationalists won, but for the vanquished Loyalists there was a silver lining: it’s been said that the Spanish Civil War is the exception among wars in that the losing side got to write the history, and write it they did, solemnly cautioning that even in good wars good doesn’t always prevail. Certainly the writerly characters who clustered ‘round the Hotel Florida and environs were overwhelmingly partial to the Loyalist side, and much the same could be said of author Vaill’s vaguely Loyalist-sympathetic account.

Sometimes moving, all too frequently horrifying, Hotel Florida tells its story in a popular prose style but maintains a quasi-scholarly patina with the photos, historical maps, and substantial bibliography and endnotes. And in the end, like the Spanish Civil War itself, the book’s message has implications for our own, even more complicated era.

But Hotel Florida’s content is personal rather than political or philosophical, and Vaill’s chatty, pointillistic telling presents the war through the experiences of an unlikely collection of writers, actors, intellectuals, prostitutes, Russian generals, war profiteers and other hangers-on who collected at or passed through Madrid’s Hotel Florida. Actually the hotel itself maintains a rather low profile in the narrative.

The war is told primarily through the prism of three couples: the writers Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, documentary photographers Robert Capa and Gerda Taro, and the Republic’s chief censor Arturo Barea and his Austrian assistant Ilsa Kulcsar.

Other, unexpected characters breeze in and out of the Florida’s lobby: the spy Kim Philby; Hollywood actor Errol Flynn; British poet Stephen Spender; American novelist and Hemingway bête noir John Dos Passos; French writer-aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; and American poet and wit Dorothy Parker. Spain was the place to be, and all who were there claimed to have come to find the bare facts of what was happening in the civil war [1]. However, many were far more comfortable with falsehood and misinformation. An exception was George Orwell, who was actually involved in the war itself, fighting for a time on the Loyalist side.

Indeed, per Hemingway’s aforementioned quote [2] and the book’s revealing subtitle, we might say that the central conceit of Hotel Florida is the question of truth versus propaganda, and for the six principals within truth and accuracy were slippery commodities: the truth that mattered to them was the one that would win hearts and minds outside Spain, in particular the U.S. and Britain. We shouldn’t forget, however, that, whatever their artistic and personal failings, these individuals did risk their lives to influence mass opinion and political will for what they saw as a just cause in those isolationist times.

Hemingway’s bravado and undoubted charisma notwithstanding, and for all the other colorful characters who inhabit Hotel Florida, it’s Martha Gellhorn who emerges most vividly in these pages. She eventually married Hemingway, but the marriage lasted only five years. Her journalistic career included covering D-Day, the Russo-Finnish war, Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, and the guerilla uprisings in Central America. In the 1950s she settled in England where she became a kind of mentor to a younger generation of writers and journalists. Diagnosed with cancer, she committed suicide in 1998.

A far from perfect human being and a writer who had her own issues with accuracy and truth, Martha Gellhorn nonetheless ultimately came to represent the prototype of a modern, independent woman and relentlessly probing journalist, qualities not always fashionable even in the Twenty-First century.

martha gellhorn photoIn 2001, a prize was established in her name, to be given to journalists who tell ‘an unpalatable truth, validated by powerful facts’. The list of the winners is indeed impressive, but one name stands out: the 2011 winner, none other than the founder of WikiLeaks himself and our own era’s symbol of the shifting nature of journalistic ethics and accuracy, Julian Assange. Martha must have been turning in her grave. Then again maybe she was smiling.

[1] I kept waiting for Somerset Maugham, another ubiquitous character in those times, to turn up, but no. Perhaps his Tory tastes were not simpatico with the leftist leanings of most of the Florida’s clientele. Or more likely his high maintenance lifestyle was simply averse to the untidy realities of war.

[2] Hemingway’s above quote assumes a bitter irony: the great man himself didn’t always seek out the truth, especially if doing so might be dangerous, a much-cited example being his unwillingness to cover the bombing of Guernica.

Further reading: George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia, Mariner, 1980.

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My writing process blog relay

I’m continuing the Internet phenomenon of My Writing Process Blog Relay. Diana Stevan tagged me last week. I’m excited to report her first book, A CRY FROM THE DEEP, is set for publication in October 2014. HOORAY!!! Way to go, Diana! I’ll be hitting the buy-with-one-click button the day it comes out. Thanks for the tag, Diana.

So … ready or not …

1) What am I working on?

Kay Francis photo 2 (revised)I’m currently working on Peril in Paradise, the third in the Kay Francis mystery series. More about it, including a couple of sample chapters, can be found here. It’s set in 1932, has the film industry as a backdrop, and it focuses on what’s considered her finest film, Trouble in Paradise. It’s been a lot of fun to work on, and I’m sad to see the writing part coming to completion. But now I’m fussing with the cover design, which is (maybe) more fun than writing the novel – don’t tell anyone I said so!


2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

My novels are more or less traditional as they follow the basic formula of crime and mystery fiction. They tend to the cozy mystery in style and structure, though I flatter myself that the new novel has more of a Chandler-esque feeling to it. I think of my stories as pretty reader-friendly: lean prose and modest length (usually two hundred pages or less). What I think is different is that the sleuth of my main mystery series is the 1930s actress Kay Francis, very famous in her day but alas largely forgotten today. It’s not unheard of to have a movie star as a sleuth but it’s not that frequent either.

As for my blog it’s fairly conventional, mostly a pan-cultural blog with an emphasis on writing, book and movie reviews. My subtitle says ‘writing and related matters’ though basically it’s whatever I’m interested in at the time and need to vent an opinion on, in that sense not so different from most bloggers.

3) Why do I write what I do?

The best question of all, I suppose. Not so long go I did a more philosophical think piece on why writers write, which is dominated by Orwell’s take on the subject. He says it so well if in slightly wordy fashion, so I’ll quote only this short excerpt:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

And while this passage is a little overwrought, to my way of thinking it’s still very much to the point and I’ll only add: hear, hear!

As for the specific material I write, I’ve always been a fan of old movies, films noirs in particular and so that preference must have metamorphosed into a love of the American hardboiled mystery story. More recently I’ve developed a fondness for the classic British detective mystery, often referred to as the cozy. 

4)  How does my writing process work?

For my blog I pretty much leave it up to inspiration. Writing a novel is a bit more complex  :-) I’m a pantster at heart. I don’t outline, but begin with a general idea and usually work outward from the middle, often starting with a set piece like a garden party or gala reception where there can be lots of suspects. Being a classic movie buff I tend to see – and hear – my scenes as movies, and try to structure my dialogue with a rhythm which suggests 1930s movies: fast paced, slangy, not a lot of fat.

I create a Word file called ‘Notes’ where I put my, well, notes, and go back to them and insert in the story as necessary. I’ve heard great things about Scrivener, but haven’t used it. For cover design I use the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), which I understand compares favorably with Photoshop without all the bells and whistles, but in any case it does everything I need in cover design software, and I sure like GIMP’s price better!

Mechanics: control freak or no I’m a firm believer in the indie route for myself. It allows me full editorial, and design, control. Also marketing – the how, why and when. I use CreateSpace to design the books, which for me is little less than a gift from the divine: I can create my own books, go back and revise as necessary and print on demand for a relatively reasonable cost as there’s very little up front financial investment.

Who’s up next week on the My Writing Process blog tour?

I’m please to say the next to writers to appear on the blog hop will be Carol Balawyder and Patricia Smith-Wood.

Mourning Has Broken coverCarol used to teach Police Technology and Corrections at a college in the north end of Montreal. She is the author of Mourning Has Broken – A Memoir on Grief and three books in the field of English as a Second Language, the first of which was published by Harper & Row (1990), Pour Être Gagnant(e) (Beauchemin; 1991), Windows on Sci-Tech (Thomson Publishing; 1997). She’s also published short stories in The Anthology of Canadian Authors Association, Room Magazine, Entre Les Lignes, and Carte Blanche.

Her novel, The Protectors, was long-listed (25 stories out of 500) in the 2014 Crime Writers Association Dagger Novel Awards and is currently seeking a publisher for it. Carol’s blog offers thoughts on writers, writing and other topics. I much recommend it.
Her website is:

Easter Egg Murder coverPatricia’s career experiences including being an executive assistant in hospital administration, managing a multi-state telecommunications network for a large company, bank security operations, and computer technology. She became president of her own computer company in 1993. She and her husband operated the company until they sold it at the end of 2006. Since then, she’s devoted her time to writing mysteries. She lives in Albuquerque, NM with her husband, Don.

Her novel The Easter Egg Murder is a fictionalized account of the notorious half-century old murder of Cricket Coogler in Las Cruces, NM, still unsolved to this day. Patricia’s turns the true life story into a terrific mystery novel which I enjoyed reading immensely.
Patricia’s blog is here:

What do you think? Comments always appreciated.


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Brief candles: Nathanael West (1903-1940)

nathanael west photoAny dream was better than no dream, and beggars couldn’t be choosers.
 – Nathanael West, Day of the Locust

Fiction about the darker side of celebrity and pop culture is not exactly new – both the satirical Hollywood novel and its sibling, the bitter Los Angeles novel, have been around at least a hundred years [1]. But few authors have matched the standard set so high by Nathanael West in his pungently brittle The Day of the Locust [2].

Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister comes close in its similarly gleeful indictment wrapped in a patina of literary elegance, but it doesn’t quite reach the Westian heights. That being said, both Chandler’s and West’s Hollywood is a place where dreams come to die. The various losers, grotesques and other outsiders that populate Locust, waiting at the stop sign of life for their one big break, are first cousins to Chandler’s more attractive if equally flawed Orfamay Quest, Mavis Weld, and Dolores Gonzales.

West himself had a love-hate relationship with the film industry that mirrored his own contradictory nature: both a romantic and cynic; a plagiarist who was also a gifted, original writer; a savage critic of the Hollywood dream who never quite gave up on the dream [3].

West knew of what he spoke: he toiled as a writer of B scripts and like Locust’s hero Tod Hackett lived in dive hotels and run-down apartments. He knew all too well the labyrinthine mechanics of the movie business and the frustrations of the extras, bit players, assistant directors, and, lowest of all, writers. But mostly he understood the ‘locusts,’ the little people who were drawn to Hollywood, and especially of their potential for violence as a result of their pent-up, barely controlled anger over lack of success in the promised land.

“Magic is what I’m selling”

Tod Hackett, Locust’s hero and arguably a West self-portrait, is one of the few haves in a world of have-nots. A rather high-minded artiste just beginning his career as a set designer, he struggles to come to terms with going Hollywood, and appropriately his opus maximus, created on the sly, is a painterly tableau titled “The Burning of Los Angeles.” Along the way Hackett encounters various seedy and colorful characters, among them an actress neighbor who catches his eye; the actress’s father, a washed-up vaudevillian turned snake oil salesman; and a certain Homer Simpson, onetime accountant convalescing in California’s balmy climate. Monosyllabic cowboys, amorous Mexicans, and a curmudgeonly midget named Abe Kusich add to the mix.

Not many of the characters who populate Locust are likable, even the ostensible good guy Tod. But that was the idea: West wanted to portray the desperate low-lifes and perpetual wannabes existing under the façade of Hollywood glitz and glamour. Unpalatable the little people may be we still feel sympathy for them and this is part of West’s genius.

Like Chandler, West was a master of pure language and Locust teems with gems that roll off his supple pen. In what’s arguably the novel’s most famous passage we get a glimpse of the beautiful but vacuous Faye Greener, B actress and perpetual object of Tod’s desire.

   Her invitation wasn’t to pleasure, but to struggle, hard and sharp, closer to murder than to love. If you threw yourself on her, it would be like throwing yourself from the parapet of a skyscraper. You would do it with a scream. You couldn’t expect to rise again. Your teeth would be driven into your skull like nails into a pine board and your back would be broken. You wouldn’t even have time to sweat or close your eyes.

   He managed to laugh at his language, but it wasn’t a real laugh and nothing was destroyed by it. If she would only let him, he would be glad to throw himself, no matter what the cost. But she wouldn’t have him. She didn’t love him and he couldn’t further her career. She wasn’t sentimental and she had no need for tenderness, even if he were capable of it.

day of the locust (cover)Nearly eight decades on West’s pithy observations and polished style still speak to us in our (post)post-modernist age that’s seen and heard it all. His pitiless description of a world where image is everything and paradise and the apocalypse exist side-by-side is stunningly spot-on. Moreover, his phantasmagoric vision of a commodified culture populated by natural food buffs, prostitution rings, shameless hucksters, quack doctors, soulless executives, aforementioned losers and castoffs, and cult religions like the Tabernacle of the Third Coming is remarkably prescient and strikes close to home [4].

Thus we have the final great set piece which concludes the novel – the mob riot at, significantly, a Hollywood première – combining as it does elements of religious frenzy and political extremism (the then-recent Nuremberg rallies may have been an inspiration). Reading The Day of the Locust makes us realize the Last Days may well be upon us, but the consolation is that they can be vastly entertaining.

Alas, West didn’t live to see his greatest novel become the cult favorite it is today. He died in 1940 at the age of thirty-seven, with his wife, in an automobile collision while returning to Los Angeles from a hunting trip in Mexico. One version is that he got careless because he was hurrying back for the funeral of his friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who had died the previous day, on Dec. 21, 1940. Other sources say that West was just a lousy driver. Whatever the explanation, in the space of two days, in the same city, America lost two of its best authors. The legend of Hollywood as a place that ate writers for breakfast was becoming all too true.

[1] Anthony Slide, The Hollywood Novel: A Critical Guide to Over 1200 Works with Film-related Themes or Characters, 1912 through 1994, McFarland, 1995; Nancy Brooker-Bowers, The Hollywood Novel and Other Novels about Film, 1912-1982 : An Annotated Bibliography, Garland, 1985.

[2] With Locust, West anticipated anti-Hollywood movies like Bad and the Beautiful, In a Lonely Place, and Sunset Boulevard which appeared a decade later.

[3] In 1939, the year West’s bitterly skeptical Locust was published, the film industry was at the peak of its cultural, economic, and creative power. Once again West’s contrarian vision was uncannily on the mark: the next decade was a downhill slide for the movie business from which the old studio system never recovered, all chronicled so deliciously in Otto Friedrich’s City of Nets.
I leave to others to sort out the political implications of West’s cultural critique. For two takes see: Jonathan Veitch, American Superrealism: Nathanael West and the Politics of Representation in the 1930s, Univ. of Wisconsin Pr., 1997; Mathew Roberts, “Bonfire of the avant-garde: cultural rage and readerly complicity in The Day of the Locust,” Modern Fiction Studies v42 n1 (Spring 1996), pp. 61-90.

[4] In its portrayal of a world gone wrong, Locust also anticipates the dystopian fiction so popular in our own time.

Further reading: Movie Tourist: The Day of the Locust; Nathanael West and the writing of The Day of the Locust; The View from the Upper Circle (review); Thomas Reed Whissen, Classic Cult Fiction, Greenwood, 1992, pp. 68-73.

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Noir de Boulogne

Editor’s note: the following is an expanded and updated version of a blog post which I did in 2012.

Bois photo 1

Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
 [Ladies of the Bois de Boulogne]. Les Films Raoul Polquin; un film de Robert Bresson; scénario et adaptation de Robert Bresson; une production Raoul Polquin. Based on Jacques le Fataliste et Son Maître by Denis Diderot. Originally released as a motion picture in 1945. Camera, Philippe Agostini; editor, Jean Feyte; music, Jean-Jacques Grünenwald; production design, Robert Lavallée. With: Maria Casarès, Paul Bernard, Elina Labourdette, Lucienne Bogaert, Jean Marchat.

style ****
substance ****

“There is no such thing as love, only proofs of love.”

When I first saw this film about ten years ago, it immediately went to the top of my list of best pictures you never heard of. Happily, Les Dames is better known these days, with much of the credit for its increased familiarity going to the Criterion DVD release in 2003.

The story itself is pitifully thin: a beautiful society woman plots revenge on a boyfriend who has jilted her for another woman. Never mind that she had already dumped him, sort of. Such are the vagaries of Hell hath no fury, and that’s basically our story line here.

Elina Labourdette photo 2
And for all the multi-textured riches that director Robert Bresson and cinematographer Philippe Agostini tease from such limited material, Les Dames is ultimately about atmosphere and character. Indeed, with one notable exception the stars of the film are its irresistible black and white look and the Paris locales [1]. Speaking of Paris, I’d be interested in the film’s production history. It was released in 1945, only a year after the Liberation, and was apparently filmed at least in part during the Occupation, but there’s not the slightest hint of the War. Perhaps this is only appropriate: the cloistered, well-heeled world of Dames, and the characters who inhabit it, can’t be bothered with trifles like warring nations and occupying armies.

Maria Casarès as The Princess in Orphée (1949)

There are good performances throughout. Though not a particularly memorable actor, Paul Bernard is competent and sympathetic as he glides through the role of the smitten playboy. Cary Grant lite, if you will. The wonderfully luminous Elina Labourdette gives an affecting, understated performance as the virtuous heroine with a shady past [2]. An added bonus is that she performs her dance numbers with convincing, light-footed panache. But ultimately the movie belongs to the intense, elegantly creepy Maria Casarès [3] as the sinister Hélène. With her thick, flowing black locks, Madame Grès and Schiaparelli wardrobe (dark tones, please), somnambulist movements and vampiric features, she’s the very embodiment of the noir spider woman. Apparently she was a legend on the Paris stage in the Forties and Fifties but alas made few films, and we’re the poorer for it.

But is Les Dames film noir? Well, maybe. There’s no crime, strictly speaking, but the spitefulness and maliciousness of the Casarès character borders on the criminal. Dames also has the requisite smoky look, along with themes of psychosexual obsession and betrayal, and, crucially, a formidable femme fatale. Then again, one could just as easily describe it as a comedy of manners where drawing room melodrama meets offbeat love story, all done in an eminently Forties style.

Maria Casares photo 2Whatever its genre, Les Dames is a terrific film: multilayered, subtle and strangely haunting, with a great cast, score and visuals. One caution: it has a restrained, quintessentially European tone and pacing (i.e. it’s slow). Thus if your tastes tend to car chases and explosions, better pass this one by.

[1] Curiously, in view of its noirish bonafides, including being the city where the term and concept originated, Paris has not been the setting for many films noirs. Rififi and Touchez pas au grisbi spring to mind but few others.

Elina Labourdette photo 1[2] Agnès is depicted as a celebrated nightclub dancer with lots of male suitors. In the context of the movie this may – or may not – be the familiar 1940s euphemism for a prostitute. The story line is a little murky and much is left open to interpretation. The same vague treatment is used to good effect in the suggestion of Hélène’s bisexuality as she eyes Agnès perform her dances with more then passing interest.

[3] She reached her cinematic zenith four years later as Death in Orphée, about as fatale a character as one can play!

Further reading:
Maria Casarès, Résidente privilégiée, Fayard, 1980.
Film Sufi
Film Couture: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
The Power of Resistance: Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne
Dress Inspiration: Les dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945)

In Les Justes of Albert Camus. Paris, Theatre Hebertot, 1949. [Photo Roger Viollet].

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The Brazilian photographs of Genevieve Naylor, 1940-1942 (book review)

Naylor book coverLevine, Robert M. The Brazilian photographs of Genevieve Naylor, 1940-1942, Duke University Press, 1998. Summary: while on a mission to further the U.S. government’s Good Neighbor policy with countries of South America, Genevieve Naylor produced a rare, unvarnished photographic record of Brazilian life in the early 1940s.

style ****
substance ****

In October 1940, Genevieve Naylor, a twenty-five-year-old photojournalist from New York, arrived in Rio de Janeiro with two cameras, one light meter, a black wicker suitcase, and the determination to document visually not just Brazil’s faces and places, but also to render an un-sugarcoated essence of its life. Thus she balked at her official charge to shoot images that showed Brazil as a modern, prosperous, capitalist democracy united with the U.S. as a bulwark against the totalitarian forces unleashed upon the world. In fact, Brazil in 1940 was a dictatorship, albeit a mild one, presided over by its ubiquitously visible President, Getulio Vargas. Moreover, Brazil was still officially neutral as to its stance in the Second World War.

Thus to help firm up pro-American, anti-Nazi sentiment in Latin America, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 organized the Office of Inter-American Affairs, and appointed Nelson Rockefeller as its first head. Among the Office’s activities was to send an impressive collection of American cultural emissaries – painters, writers, singers, musicians, dancers, photographers, and filmmakers – on missions throughout Latin America. These included such film industry luminaries as Orson Welles, Errol Flynn, John Ford, and Walt Disney.

Naylor photo 1
Naylor’s three-year photographic assignment took her and her husband, the painter Misha Reznikoff, up and down the coast and interior of Brazil. Naylor’s independent spirit and artistic instincts rebelled against the politically correct subjects to photograph (which included wealthy residential areas, government buildings, yachts, beach scenes and golf clubs). As a North American Naylor was able to work with relative freedom, and she soon broke free and took pictures not only of the urban beau monde but also rural peasants, raucous carnival revelers, workers crammed into trams, and scenes of ordinary street life.

Robert Levine has selected a hundred of the most poetic of Naylor’s images and has provided minimal but crisply insightful commentary on each photograph. An added plus is Levine’s richly detailed introductory text which offers historical and aesthetic context. A minor criticism: an index would have been helpful in such a name and concept rich work.

Naylor photo 2
Naylor’s saga in Brazil, what with the politics, picturesque locales and the larger-than-life personalities, has all the makings of a great movie and the only mystery is that one has yet to appear [1]. There was plenty of color and drama along the way, including near riots upon the arrival of movie stars, Errol Flynn in particular, and an attempt on Orson Welles’s life by a jealous husband brandishing a gun. But for now we have the riches of the present volume, and indeed we are the richer for it. Brazilian photographs will delight photography history buffs and students of Brazilian culture, and is much recommended.

Naylor photo 3[1] To be precise there was a History Channel documentary, aired originally in 1997, that’s referenced in Brazilian photographs. Alas it seems to be only available in VHS, and further alas, not currently available commercially.

Further reading: Antonio Pedro Tota, [tr. Lorena B. Ellis], The seduction of Brazil : the Americanization of Brazil during World War II, Univ. of Texas Press, 2009. A selection of Naylor’s glamour photos from the 1950s can be found here.

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Why do writers write?

The Orwell thesis

Was it Hemingway who said famously that anyone who writes for a reason other than money is a fool? In any case Cynthia’s excellent post got me to thinking about this much discussed topic, and thus I was inspired to pen some thoughts in a blog post, focusing on Orwell’s take on the matter. Like Orwell I would argue that the motives are more complex and subtle than the purely financial, though this is a consideration.

Perhaps unique among the Twentieth Century’s great political thinkers, Orwell has managed to be a darling of both the Right and the Left. It’s instructive that commentator Christopher Hitchens, known for his alternatingly left- and right-wing views, held Orwell in such high regard.

Pursuing the political analogy, Orwell’s comments below apply equally to those who love – or hate – to write , but in either case feel compelled to do so. And while I find much of Orwell’s digression on writing a bit too, well, digressive, his basic points are well-taken and never go out of style. I offer a condensed version of his thesis below.

“Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

      (i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity … gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centered than journalists, though less interested in money.

      (ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story … The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons …

      (iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

      (iv) Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Then there’s this passage a little later:

“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”

I just love all those one’s. So British. And while this passage is a little overwrought, to my way of thinking it’s still very much to the point.

Anyone care to chime in? Why do we feel compelled to write? What is the motive? Where does it come from? What is the reward?

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‘That’s so cute’

In my experience, the term  cute is used mostly by women. To wit: “that little dog is so cute,” “the baby is so cute,” “isn’t that cute?” Accurate or no as my observation may be, cute is one of those maddeningly imprecise terms like ‘nice,’ ‘lovely,’ and ‘sweet,’ and if you’ll permit me a personal anecdote as an example … Not so long ago a youngish woman described my basic, stripped down cell phone model as ‘cute,’ which was her nice way of saying quaint, or old fogeyish, in any case decidedly un-hip. BTW in the intervening time I’ve upgraded to a sleeker, more modern looking phone, not with all the gee whiz features but not a total embarrassment either.

But getting back to the mysteries of cute, ….Two, mostly male it would seem, and actually quite similar usages, might be noted (not counting the below-considered meet cute):

- cheeky or impudent (used frequently in a sports context) : “if he tries to get cute with this defense he’ll get burned.”
- reckless, audacious, or self-consciously clever : “don’t try anything cute.” In fact I use this very sentence in my current in-process novel.

As for definitions, Am Heritage Dictionary, Fourth edition, gives us a brief, and bland:

cute adj. cut·er, cut·est
1. Delightfully pretty or dainty.
2. Obviously contrived to charm; precious: [He] mugs so ferociously he kills the humor; it’s an insufferably cute performance” (David Ansen).
3. Shrewd; clever. gives us a little more detail including the spinoff phrase meet cute and a new one to me, the noun version, the cutes. :

cute [kyoot] adjective, cut·er, cut·est.
1. attractive, especially in a dainty way; pleasingly pretty: a cute child; a cute little apartment.
2. appealing and delightful; charming: What a cute toy!
3. affectedly or mincingly pretty or clever; precious: The child has acquired some intolerably cute mannerisms.
4. mentally keen; clever; shrewd.
5. the cutes, Informal. self-consciously cute mannerisms or appeal; affected coyness: The young actress has a bad case of the cutes. cute, Informal.
a. (of a romantic couple) to meet for the first time in a charming or amusing way: In this type of movie the boy and girl always meet cute.
b. Also, meet-cute. a situation or occasion when potential romantic partners meet for the first time in a charming or amusing way: a classic Hollywood meet cute; his meet-cute with Jane in the bookstore.
Origin: 1615–25; aphetic variant of acute

No surprise that the venerable OED gives us the most thorough and most etymologically intense definition. I’ve provided a condensed version below.

1. Acute, clever, keen-witted, sharp, shrewd.
1731   N. Bailey Universal Etymol. Eng. Dict. II,   Cute, sharp, quick-witted.
1756   W. Toldervy Hist. Two Orphans II. 39   ‘You may think as you please,’ said parson Drill; ‘but I take him to be a very cute one’.
1777   C. A. Burney Jrnl. in F. Burney Early Diary (1889) II. 279, I didn’t pity the man for having such a cute answer made him.
1841   Dickens Barnaby Rudge v. 263   ‘He will be a ‘cute man yet,’ resumed the locksmith.

2. (orig. U.S. colloq. and Schoolboy slang.) Used of things in same way as cunning adj. Now in general colloq. use, applied to people as well as things, with the sense ‘attractive, pretty, charming’; also, ‘attractive in a mannered way’.
1857   ‘Porte Crayon’ Virginia Illustr. ii. 166   ‘What cute little socks!’ said the woman.
1879   F. R. Stockton Rudder Grange vi. 61   [The flat] was so cute, so complete.
1880   A. A. Hayes New Colorado (1881) vii. 97   The way that Smart Aleck hollered when we swung round some of them ‘cute’ curves.
1900   Daily News 15 Nov. 6/5   A small and compact wooden house, what the Americans would call ‘cute’.
1908   Daily Chron. 21 Apr. 3/3   American visitors who are used to wide rectangular streets are delightfully bewildered when I take them through sinuous byeways and tortuous alleys. They proclaim it ‘just too cute and lovely’.
1941   A. Huxley Grey Eminence ii. 18   The tiny boy..looking almost indecently ‘cute’ in his claret-coloured doublet and starched ruff.
1945   A. Huxley Time must have Stop (new ed.) vii. 77   A French accent so strong, so indecently ‘cute’, so reminiscent of the naughty-naughty twitterings of a Parisian miss on the English musical comedy stage.
1960   P. Mortimer Saturday Lunch with Brownings 92   She’s ever so cute—blue eyes.

An interesting variation is the word cutie, in the following example used almost certainly to describe a gay male, the unlikely source being Raymond Chandler, from his novel Farewell, My Lovely :

“I walked around and tried to see if anybody walked behind me in any particular way. Then I sought out a restaurant that didn’t smell of frying grease and found one with a purple neon sign and a cocktail bar behind a reed curtain. A male cutie with henna’d hair drooped at a bungalow grand piano and tickled the keys lasciviously and sang Stairway to the Stars in a voice with half the steps missing.”

Cute then is one of those sayings that can have multiple meanings, favorable or unfavorable, depending upon context . Like so many imprecise terms (beauty anyone?) what counts as cute is decidedly in the eye of the beholder.

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