In Memoriam: Frances Wolfe

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Frances Wolfe laughs with her daughter Bridget during a reading in March 2017 (Peter Hedlund).

Frances Wolfe — a mother and a baby sister, a voracious reader of short stories and a somewhat pestering patron of the downtown library, a lover of poetry and Willie Nelson, a gardener, a back-deck-sitter, a birdwatcher, a fierce and only reluctantly unarmed enemy of black squirrels, a churchgoer, a caregiver, an unapologetic snoop where the neighbors were concerned, a former Republican, a former Catholic, a former wife, a former smoker, a former teacher, a feminist and a liberal, a knowledgeable and at times overenthusiastic fan of Hawkeye basketball, a cardplayer, a southpaw, a virtuoso storyteller, and a memorable scoffer at so many things she deemed “just a bunch of nonsense,” including but not limited to her son’s cats, Korean food, left turns, and the I-74 bridge — died at her home in Davenport, Iowa, on March 24, 2020. Oh, and the Internet. She hated the Internet. …


The great Jewish novelist struggles, beautifully, to write a memoir.

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Aharon Appelfeld

In this terrifying and beautiful memoir, The Story of a Life, published in 2003, Aharon Appelfeld does more than tell his life story (although, with his elliptical style, which can be rather like a narrative form of Swiss cheese, it sometimes seems as if he does less than that, too): the Israeli writer and Holocaust survivor battles history itself.

Of course, the Holocaust is everywhere these days, employed in all manner of fiction and film for purposes large and small.¹ Philip Roth puts it to original use in The Plot Against America, in part to twist the rope on what might otherwise have been the dull story of a Newark boyhood. …


Vietnam’s most famous dissident publishes her fifth novel in English.

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Duong Thu Huong

When it rains on page 1 of Duong Thu Huong’s No Man’s Land, published in 2005, you know something’s up. That’s because in Vietnamese novels, the heavens are always trying to shoulder their way into the action, dousing characters with water or setting the odd fire, usually in an attempt to prove they’re wise to danger ahead or perhaps the cause of it. (Elsewhere in No Man’s Land, which, believe it or not, is a painstakingly realistic novel, a ghost shows up to taunt his killer, and the moon gets away with tempting a man to abandon his disabled wife.) On page 1, though, it’s raining, a “strange, violent storm,” “icy water and hot vapor,” “everything dissolved and merged in the flood.” …


Sherlockian “scholars” pay tribute to the sleuth by pretending he actually lived.

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At the end of an otherwise spirited introduction to The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes, John le Carré seems a little defensive.

“Do not be dismayed,” he warns us for no particular reason. “Nobody writes of Holmes and Watson without love.”

Now, imagine you are someone who has just plunked down $75 for Leslie S. Klinger’s massive two-volume compendium of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous stories (published in 2004), 1,900 pages full of annotations on everything from Victorian public schools to Holmes’s sex life, not to mention the Sherlockian arcana (redundant, I know) tackled in the appendices. …


Underestimate the novelist Carolyn Chute at your own risk.

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Carolyn Chute at home

We’re all familiar with the author archetype, wherein a great writer is squeezed like a lemon — usually by the movies — into a sour but user-friendly cliché: the reclusive J. D. Salinger–type, appearing in both Field of Dreams and the more recent Finding Forrester, the tipsy Faulkner effete (Barton Fink), the restless, sex-stuffed Bacchanalians (Henry & June), and the hopelessly romantic Bard (Shakespeare in Love). Think of them as cinematic shorthand in an age that likes its sentences short and punchy. …


On learning to fail

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Instead, it is me trying to remember the beginning, sitting here with the lights turned low and the clicking hum of my ceiling fan, trying to remember. For Dr. Culver it had been like quoting Shakespeare or the Bible. Standing in the carpeted lobby at Symphony Hall in Chicago, we asked him something about the Shostakovich Cello Concerto. “Oh sure!” he exclaimed and vigorously hummed the opening bars in perfect tune. Even under such a shower of saliva we were dumbstruck. After that we tried to stump him, with names like Hindemith and Piston, but it never worked. It was as if a full symphony orchestra had taken up residence in his head, on a moment’s call. I, on the other hand, am forced to settle for the compact disc. The New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting; recorded live at Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo, 1979. I press play and I can hear it now, I can finally remember now. It begins as good symphonies do — quietly — and as all Shostakovich symphonies do — darkly. Moderato. D-minor. It begins with an anapest, or nearly an anapest — one short, then long — referring to Beethoven’s Fifth. And there is a low conversation among the strings: first the cellos, then the violins, in hushed tones. They are huddled in the back shadows, whispering over shoulders, periodically working themselves to a nervous pitch, the violins suddenly screaming — then just as suddenly cut off. The temperatures here are sub-zero, we are shivering, and there are these silences everywhere. Held breaths. Pianissimo. These are the moments most difficult for musicians to master because they are where the fear inhabits. The fear that causes us to play and to listen and to write and to read in the first place. And it is inside of these silences that I am able to sit once again on the cold tile of a second-floor classroom-turned-dressing-room. It is Variety Show my sophomore year in high school. I am dressed in a wretched black polyester tuxedo and next to me is Heather listening to her headphones again. She also plays violin and has bright, curly red hair. She looks a bit like a Raggedy Ann doll. I suspect that she is a smoker, partly because her dad is an artist. They sometimes give me rides home from Youth Symphony on Saturdays, driving across town in congested traffic, listening to the radio. They were surprised when I had not even heard of a group like R.E.M., and I can’t help it if I don’t understand why her father, even if he does paint, knows about music. This makes no sense to me. Now she asks me to put on the headphones because she has recorded this Shostakovich symphony off the radio. “Who is Shostakovich?” I ask, and she tells me that they played Symphony №5 in Youth Symphony last year, except that I hadn’t been in Youth Symphony last year. I listen and at first I hate it. I feel like I am listening to a skeleton. The bass tiptoes across the score while the woodwinds very carefully repeat the theme back, note for note. There is no room for error here, comrades. It is so quiet I can hear the audience shifting in their seats. I borrow the tape from Heather, take it home to my room in the basement, and listen to it again and again, playing it loudly, as if it were rock music. I do not understand that this is something Heather and I now share. Perhaps if I do I should fall in love with her as she has fallen in love with me, always referring to me in those melodramatic notes we pass as “dear friend.” After all, Shostakovich is no small thing to have in common. Many years later I would check out his memoir from the library and look at pictures of him. Dmitri Dmitryevich. He was small, wiry, with round, black-rimmed glasses, thin, bloodless lips, and streaks of black hair pasted across his head. He wrote about receiving two scathing reviews in Pravda in 1936 — reviews he attributed to Comrade Stalin himself — and the terrible, throat-catching fear that he had endured. The subjects of such reviews routinely disappeared. But he did not, an even more terrible fate, he surmised, for it only doubled, or maybe tripled, his fearfulness. This is how it was in Soviet Russia, he wrote. But in 1937 he triumphed with his Fifth Symphony. A Soviet artist’s response to just criticism is how he subtitled the work. Others have called it a complete capitulation. After the great pessimism of the first movement, the finale rejoices. “The rejoicing is forced,” Shostakovich wrote in his memoir, “created under threat, as in Boris Godunov. It’s as if someone were beating you with a stick and saying, ‘Your business is rejoicing, your business is rejoicing’…” For this reason, some see Shostakovich as a yurodivy, a “holy fool,” a jester. He is mocking us with this symphony. The audience at its premiere is said to have wept. And I do not care about his finale, anyway. I’m playing my tape so loud my mom is forced to ask me to turn it down (against her better judgment, it would seem, “because at least the boy is listening to something decent down there”), but I hear only the Moderato, the first movement. I hear its emptiness and its doubts. It is so melancholy, but not in a wistful way, not in a nostalgic way; rather, it is irascible, delusional, and manic depressive, characterized by furious outbursts from the brass sections followed abruptly by soothing chords from the violins. For me, it is lonely and full of omens. It is full of who I felt I was in high school. I did not learn to love Symphony №5 or ever understand it on a technical level. I press PLAY and I am listening to my mirror. I am sitting in the poorly lit high school cafeteria, late one evening after school, where we are practicing our string quartet. We are struggling with the Allegro finale of Shostakovich’s String Quartet №1 in C. This time I am playing viola (“only different from a violin,” Dr. Culver says, “because it burns longer”); in fact, this is the first piece I have ever played on viola. It is frantic and utterly overwhelming, but we are assured that it is “a little Symphony №5,” written just one year later, in 1938, and this is why we agree to learn it. I have trouble concentrating, though, because I am desperately in love with Michele, the first violin, and I know that she doesn’t love me, but instead a boy she affectionately calls “shithead.” (Wagnerian tragedy, this. I am turned black inside, so that Heather writes me a note saying that I am letting my feelings “slowly destroy” me.) And I can’t stop thinking about how this scene is so perfect: the four of us in the shadowy, abandoned cafeteria, our music echoing off the walls and plastic chairs. This is something I should write about, a Danse Macabre, describing the notes leaping off the pages and sliding down the stands. They fence on the salad bar, joust by the pop machine, and kiss under the skylight, before roving off to commit unthinkable acts of double-deed. My story unravels in rapturous and sinister fashion, plagued with doubt and unbearable emotion. I want to net Shostakovich with my words; I desperately want to decode and communicate the many colors, textures, and timbres his music realizes inside of me. Of course, such stories remain unwritten because I am too afraid to fail, because failure is inevitable, and I cannot bear it after failing on my instruments, failing to live up to my desires. This is the incidental music of my life. Several years later the four of us are together again, this time playing a wedding reception in a Knights of Columbus banquet hall. We wait until everyone is good and drunk and then we pull out String Quartet №1. We shock them, just like we wanted to, and amuse them, because this is our incidental music and not theirs. When I do finally ask Michele to the prom — we’re on the phone and I have the script of my question written out in front of me — she answers she’s not sure if she’ll be in town that weekend but she’ll let me know. She’ll call me. And already I can hear the timpani roll of betrayal. I later learn she played Shostakovich that night, a quartet gig I turned down. Now I wish that this is something that Michele and I do not share, I want to turn back the clock on Shostakovich, because how can she understand what it means to me? The violins are increasingly insistent with the second theme, they strike their octaves impatiently, until finally they settle down into a peaceful, almost beautiful, interlude. But a wind picks up, first in the violas, then the flute, punctuated by a pounding piano, swirling through the orchestra, picked up by the brass, and the martial announcements of the snare, a screaming crescendo. Fortissimo. And then it is gone. It is cold and it is quiet. I am sweating and shivering. This is my first semester at college and I have not played my viola since the previous spring when we performed Vivaldi’s Requiem for a church gig. One of my string pegs had broken, swelled up in the heat and humidity, then snapped in two. The string remained tightly wound, though, and during the performance I was forced to adjust the intonation with a pair of pliers we had retrieved from Michele’s truck. Now only recently has it been repaired and I am standing unsteadily in a tiny cubicle somewhere inside the music building. This year, for its first concert, the university orchestra shall perform Shostakovich’s Symphony №5 in D-minor, Op. 47, and I intend to be a part of it. Before me sit James Dixon, legendary conductor and friend of Leonard Bernstein, and William Preucil, director of violas. I begin to play my Schubert and am almost immediately cut off by a simple wave of Dixon’s hand. The verdict back so soon? “Brevity,” Dr. Culver, bearded and sage, so oft announced, “is the handmaiden of concision.” I bring my viola down from my chin and my hands sweat so that I think I might drop it. “What, Mr. Wolfe, did you say your major was?” Dixon asks. Clearing my throat: “English.” “Yes, yes, yes … We do have plenty of viola majors this year, do we not, Mr. Preucil?” In this rather unremarkable way, my career as a musician ends. The fortissimo has disappeared. The strings are muted now, con sordino, and we have found our interlude again. The violas and cellos are all the heartbeat we have, barely pulsing, while the flute solos, then the piccolo, the oboe, then the clarinet, the violas and the cellos are barely pulsing. There is not any more shivering, the air is too icy, and out of the highest register sounds the solo violin, with only the smallest touch of vibrato, fading on a high F. The last three and a half beats of the first movement are silent. …


Mapping a troubled history along the backroads of Iowa

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Over the Corn, Eastern Iowa, by Neal Wellons (Flickr)

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My father grew up fatherless in nearby Delmar. But his father’s grandfather, who landed in Lost Nation after leaving Kerry in 1847 and who became, according to his esteemed son the judge, “one of the largest landholders and most successful farmers” in the area — his spirit seemed to whistle through these fields. The Wolfes of Lost Nation. For a hundred years they spread like quackgrass across the township, raising farms, crowding the rolls of the Democratic Party, and marrying McGinn girls, and McAndrews. …


A man is always more complicated than his paper trail — especially when he’s your father, who walked out one day.

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Father and son, 1991

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The policeman, having just kicked open the back door, missed it. So did the EMTs and the out-of-sorts neighbor lady, her eyes all fear and water. Instead, it took Mom and Sara, with damp washcloths over their mouths, to finally notice it the next day — just sitting there on the table by the recliner in my dad’s house: a standard-sized manila envelope marked in Dad’s sloppy cursive:

Death.

Inside the envelope was a typed letter dated almost exactly a year earlier. …


Watchmen (Absolute Editions) by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins (DC Comics, 464 pages, 2005)

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Who’s watching Watchmen? Everybody apparently. This book — or comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it — has been picked apart endlessly in the decades since it was first published, every frame microscopically studied, its plot, characters, and symbols charted out no less elaborately than Ulysses’. Its fans, like fans of everything else, are intensely protective and argumentative. Reading a book like this now, for the first time, is likely to result less in actual criticism than in intellectual alignment. …


A large Irish family straddles both sides of the Atlantic — but what binds them together in the first place? In Part 5, two cousins find themselves separated by a civil war. (Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)

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Members of the Irish Republican Army, 1920s (National Library of Ireland)

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Markers of identity are not always straightforward, of course. Take the story of a man called Dick Woulfe. He was known locally as the Chemist and ran a pharmacy in Abbeyfeale. When the wind of rebellion whipped up early in 1916, he put his face to it. A few days before the Easter Rising, a German U-boat quietly surfaced and deposited three men at windswept Banna Strand, in County Kerry. Their leader, Roger Casement, was a mustachioed former British diplomat from Dublin who was running guns and wooing the Germans on behalf of Irish independence. Weakened by malaria, he was soon captured and executed. In Abbeyfeale, the Chemist got word that one of Casement’s comrades had somehow evaded the authorities and was holed up in Ballymacelligott, just east of Tralee. Woulfe dispatched one of his apprentices to borrow a local priest’s Model T, which was then cranked into action to rescue the fugitive. …

About

Brendan Wolfe

Author of Finding Bix (2017), Mr. Jefferson’s Telescope (2017), and Wolfe’s History (2019). Iowan in Virginia.

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