Midnight, and the time immediately thereafter, does weird things to me. My mind’s free associations become flesh. The brain works in zigzag, side-step dances that are modernist and uncontrollable.
So, tonight I was nursing a vodka martini and reading Joan Acocella’s marvelous, un-putdownable new collection of essays Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints, and wondering over and over again why this work seems to be being passed up in the critical eye, while Clive James’s lesser—though twice as long—collection Cultural Amnesia seems to practically churn out reviews and critical attention on its behalf. The general subject of the collections—profiles/critical examinations of (mostly) 19th- and 20th-century artists and thinkers who have radically shaped intellectual and cultural life—are the same. Both are enriched by a colloquial, incisive prose style. The books even share some of the same subjects (Stefan Zweig, Italo Svevo) and concerns (how an artist’s life does, and does not, shape her aesthetics and the morals expressed by her art; the recovery of “lost” or neglected artists).
Where James grafts his vaguely neoconservative (and certainly anti-socialist) political leanings onto the artists, even when the person under discussion operated before the existence of communism, Acocella allows her subjects room to breathe. She has political consciousness, to be sure, but her writing is more informed by her curiosity and by the artist’s intent than a desire to project her own agenda. Perhaps because she’s a dance critic, Acocella has the sly ability to move briskly and succinctly in her essays, but also to describe in such rich, luscious terms that her subjects come alive. She has electric, quick-witted prose. James sometimes does as well, but his often too-brief essays (four or five pages on Sartre, a good portion of which is devoted to denouncing him) feel like snapshots rather than Acocella’s fully fleshed-out paintings. Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints has 31 essays—one’s on writer’s block; the best on the subject that I’ve read—while Cultural Amnesia has 100, but Acocella’s is the deeper, richer book.
Anyway, it’s 2 a.m., on a Sunday night before a holiday, and I decided to flick on the TV for a second before bedtime. And there’s Clive James on BookTV, chatting about Cultural Amnesia at the New York Public Library (recorded 26 March 2007). He has lots of bonhomie and good quips, but he’s not terribly convincing. Sorta like his book.
I flip the channel to Turner Classic Movies, and there’s The Battle of Algiers, a movie I’ve never seen. But I instantly know it from the milieu, the black-and-white visuals, and the conversation about strikes and terrorism. Sure enough, my TV guide confirms it. My mouth drops open.
Why is this so bizarre? Well, last night I had ordered a gourmet pizza from the new upscale pizza restaurant named Sal and Mookie’s. I ate there a few weeks ago. The name discomforts me. In Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, the central location of the movie is Sal’s Pizzeria. Sal (Danny Aiello) is an Italian-American who owns and runs the pizzeria; Mookie (Spike Lee) is his delivery boy. Sal’s operates in Bed-Stuy, a primarily black neighborhood in Brooklyn, and a pivotal conversation turns on Mookie’s complaint that, while Sal’s has photos of countless Italian-Americans, it doesn’t have a single image of an African-American, despite the fact that blacks are the restaurant’s primary customers.
The movie ends with Sal’s Pizzeria being burnt to the ground in the midst of a race riot that leaves an unarmed black man dead. I like Sal and Mookie’s food but, driving over to pick up my pizza, I wondered what on Earth would possess a restauranteur to name his pizzeria after such an association. I even said out loud: “It could be worse. Someone could name their new French bistro The Battle of Algiers.” In The Battle of Algiers, a French restaurant gets blown up by a terrorist.
And, there on the screen at 2:15 a.m., is The Battle of Algiers.
Two oddball associations within the span of fifteen minutes is too much for me. I’m going to bed.