Saturday, June 9, 2012

Elegy

Ray Bradbury (1921 - 2012)


As the planet Venus made a rare transit across the face of the sun last week, Ray Bradbury died in California. Past ninety, having suffered a stroke thirteen years ago which left him with significant mobility issues, he was still making public appearances and writing; The New Yorker just printed his last published work in their June 4 edition, an article entitled "Take Me Home".
I would [listen] to the grownups, who on warm nights gathered outside on the lawns and porches to talk and reminisce. At the end of the Fourth of July... it was the special time, the sad time, the time of beauty. It was the time of the fire balloons.

Even at that age, I was beginning to perceive the endings of things... I had already lost my grandfather, who went away for good when I was five. I remember him so well: the two of us on the lawn in front of the porch, with twenty relatives for an audience, and the paper balloon held between us for a final moment, filled with warm exhalations, ready to go.

...I helped take the red-white-and-blue tissue out of the box and watched as Grandpa lit a little cup of dry straw that hung beneath it. Once the fire got going, the balloon whispered itself fat with the hot air rising inside.

But I could not let it go. It was so beautiful, with the light and shadows dancing inside. Only when Grandpa gave me a look, and a gentle nod of his head, did I at last let the balloon drift free, up past the porch, illuminating the faces of my family. It floated up above the apple trees, over the beginning-to-sleep town, and across the night among the stars.
For most persons whose relation to culture is primarily visual and electronic, Bradbury's name will be a footnote in an online literature course -- Currents In 20th Century American Pop Fiction, or some similar title which use test questions like, "Did works by classic authors Danielle Steele and Jacqueline Susann have an effect on popular television series like 'Dallas', or 'Falcon Crest'? Discuss."

They'll recognize his name but few will have his books on their Nooks or Kindles unless it was, you know, "assigned reading". And Stephenson or Gibson or Wallace are just way better writers than, you know, those fifties guys anyway...

And, who really has time to read; I mean, you know? they'll ask, riding on busses or walking on the street, eyes down at the screens of their iPod Touches or Androids, ear-buds already in place, thumbs tapping to move seamlessly between texting (u wanna + rully m so shur) and queuing up that Rihanna - Pitbull dance mix they'd downloaded (luv way u lie + so cool).

Remote as some event before the Industrial Revolution -- stuff that old guy wrote, yeah; whatever -- Bradbury's name evokes only a faint ripple in their consciousness. And yeah i gotta get a dress + we goin club 2nite go 2 H&M w/me...

I'm not using these images, and the sarcasm that goes with them, to be The Barking Dog (Ya goddamn know-nothin' kids, get off my lawn !!), but to underline Bradbury's passing with obvious irony: His work described the web of our 21st century post-modern, consumerist, technological world very well, over fifty years before it arrived.



I encountered Bradbury almost by accident. Frequently ill as a boy, I was given large numbers of library books and left alone to read in bed. This was a classic moment: Parent goes to library; asks librarian, "What do you have for a nine-year-old who reads at a high level for his age?"; and instead of being fobbed off with 'Boy's Own Adventure Stories' or something similar is handed Brabdury's Martian Chronicles; that kind of moment.

It was classic for me, too. While I knew the standard Carnegie Library in our small town, which was only four blocks from my house (built, coincidentally enough, just a short time before Bradbury was born in 1921), until being handed a pile of library books (Heinlein's Tunnel In The Sky was in there; so was Sherlock Holmes and Robert Louis Stevenson), I only knew it as a place with... well, lots of books in it.

But after, I made the connection between the world inside these novels, and the library. In that, I understood this place for what it was -- a vault of dreams; a sage on the top of a mountain -- whatever you wanted to know could be inside, and usually was; and ultimately, it was a refuge and a second home when my first one wasn't so good.

I could run there, or be home again, in less than five minutes. When I hear the word, "library" today, that building is what I see in memory: A building in soft, tan brick, with cast ceramic tile details and Corinthian columns, like hundreds of other Carnegie libraries built across America, and a large oak tree (well, most trees look large to an eight-year-old) beside it, on a streetcorner near the center of our small town.


The fiction stacks were left and right off the main entrance; in the center was the glass-fronted librarian's office and a small area for 'special collections' and adults-only fiction (yes, you could read Lady Chatterly's Lover or 'Tropic Of Cancer'; but you had to be an adult, and you had to ask for it). I spent hundreds of hours in the gently enforced quiet of that relatively small building, sitting at a heavy wooden table identical to those in every Carnegie Library, exploring other worlds, places, times and ideas -- and escaping from my own.

The next book of Bradbury's I found was Dandelion Wine, his story of a boy, Douglas Spaulding, living through his last green Illinois summer, before a dawning adolescent awareness begins to overwhelm the perceptions of childhood. Bradbury's themes of light and dark magic that lives in ordinary moments (themes which would appear later in Something Wicked This Way Comes and Dark Carnival); and an overarcing sense of nostalgia, of change and loss waiting just up ahead which Douglas feels all through that summer.

I read that book at exactly the right time, for me; I tie my desire to write anything (including this post in this unknown little blog) back to the doors Bradbury opened with that novel. Dandelion Wine was my first experience of reading something which spoke directly to me, made a powerful connection between experience and emotions I hadn't been able to express, in a story written by a complete stranger. It was deep, personal and archetypal, my introduction to the power of language.


(And I can add: Don't believe anyone who tells you that words on a page are just that -- illusions, insignificant and unimportant; or, that they affect no one and nothing in the real world. All of that is utterly, manifestly untrue.)

I had no idea, at the beginning of the 1960's, that this was Bradbury's own elegy to his own last childhood summer: In the early Thirties of The Great Depression, his family was forced to move west from Illinois to Los Angeles as his father, a telephone company lineman, looked for work. Dandelion Wine grew out of short works that moved around similar themes, as did The Martian Chronicles.

Fourteen-Year-Old Ray And Marlene Dietrich:
A Fan Photo Taken Outside The Paramount Lot,
Hollywood, 1935 (New York Times)

Bradbury grew up in the Golden Age of pulp fiction, when some of America's greatest popular novelists were publishing pieces for half-a-cent per word before beginning to write full novels. The Iowa Writers School at ISU was a promise of the future and the writers' workshops of the WPA had only just begun.

Bradbury believed in his apprehension, his vision, of the world. and kept writing (as an old girlfriend once noted, "Persistence Overcomes Resistance"). With effort, and luck, he succeeded -- and was able to continue writing for over sixty years.

After Dandelion Wine, the next Bradbury book to grab me and spin me around was his classic, written before Dandelion. It's the single work that will guarantee Bradbury's name will enter an English-language pantheon of dystopian fiction, like 1984 and Brave New World, which disturbingly seems to have predicted aspects of the future: Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451.


Oskar Werner As Montag, Julie Christie As
Linda / Clarisse, In Francois Truffaut's
1967 Adaptation Of Bradbury's Novel (MGM)

I have an image of a twelve-year-old Bradbury, as deeply in love with the idea of books and libraries as I would be later, transplanted from Illinois to a much drier and smaller Los Angeles than exists today, watching a newsreel in a darkened movie theater in April or May of 1933. FDR had just begun his first term; in Germany, books banned by the nazi New Order were being publicly burned.

I have a feeling that those images affected Bradbury on a visceral level; for him, during his entire life, books were very nearly living things, and the sight of Brownshirts torching them must have been horrific. Years later, when trying to find an image for his disgust and fear over the era of McCarthy and the HUAC Committee (which targeted Hollywood, specifically, and writers, generally), he began describing a future society where any printed record of imagination and the past is illegal -- and at some point, the images of what had happened in Germany in April, 1933 resurfaced.

Fahrenheit 451, and its firemen dispatched to burn instead of putting out fires, is really a novella. It isn't a long work; not as long as Orwell's vision (published in 1949), and definitely shorter than Aldous Huxley's genetically-controlled future (published in 1932). Its genesis was a short story entitled "Bright Phoenix", which Bradbury wrote in 1947 (but not published until 1963).

He returned to the theme of a society burning books in earnest through another short story published in Galaxy Fiction in 1950, "The Fireman". Bradbury expanded it into a novella-length book, and it was published as Fahrenheit 451, the temperature at which paper ignites and burns, in 1953 (For those who believe books are just one more "investment opportunity", only 50,000 copies of that first edition were printed, and fewer than twenty thousand are known to exist).

Again, for me, the book had a significant impact -- and again, it was a case of reading something at the right time. It wouldn't be wrong to say that Fahrenheit crystallized what was a developing sense of questioning authority and popular delusions of crowds. When Truffaut's film version of the novel appeared in 1966, I was slightly disappointed that it didn't more closely resemble the book (Bradbury initially didn't care for it either; but I have a copy of it in my DVD library, and Bernard Herrmann's soundtrack is on my iPod).

That isn't an unusual occurrence in any pre-adolescent kid -- but in America of the early-to-mid 1960's, conformity and political orthodoxy weren't just axiomatic, they were mandatory. I lived near a large military installation; my father was an employee of the Federal government (the Department Of Justice, no less). The fear of being painted as a 'Red', the social stigma of being in any way different meant everything you think it does, and everything now pictured in films or teevee dramas about that era (It was different to live through it; history always is. Trust me).

One thing connecting with Ray Bradbury did for me was impart a love of books -- a blessing, mostly, but a curse when you have to move. I had owned Bradbury's books as paperbacks first, then started buying hardback editions in High school; a later edition of Fahrenheit 451 was the second 'actual' book I ever purchased (the first was Crichton's The Andromeda Strain) for what was a considerable sum for a book, then -- $5.00 -- and I still have it.

I also still have the things which reading the man's work gave me. There's an old Buddhist notion that when you need a teacher, they appear; you have to be willing to recognize and accept them. I encountered Bradbury's work at specific times when I needed what they had to give. Their impact was profound, then, and they opened other perspectives on the world: Right things at the right time.

I'm grateful for that. Wherever Ray is, Now He Knows What We Do Not. While I don't necessarily subscribe to a specific notion of an Afterlife, I hope that where he is that it's summer, and green; and that at some point he and his Grandfather will launch Fire Balloons into a soft dark sky, things of light and color and wonder, rising above the trees.