The Small Rain

At Fifty

I’m turning 50 next week, and I have to say it's one of those milestones of aging that actually feels like one. Of course, one of the interesting things about being born in a year that ends in ‘9,’ is that you always hit a round number as a decade comes to its end. It was particularly notable to be turning 40 in 1999, as the twentieth century ended; if one lives to be 80, one will have lived 40 years in each century, a neat divide that is appealing for some reason. But, as a milestone age, turning 50 immediately caused me to wonder what works were also hitting that half-century mark. Here are a few notables I don’t mind sharing the milestone with:

The 400 Blows (Les quatre cent coups): François Truffaut’s debut film which helped to establish “Nouvelle Vague” cinema, following on the heels of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless of the previous year. When I finally got around to seeing this film, in my 30s, I was delighted by the character of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), to some extent Truffaut’s alter-ego, in his hapless efforts to get along in a school system and in a family situation where he feels alienated for no particular reason. Or rather the reasons could be many, but none are needed; the film simply gets right the feeling of youth in the post-war world having to make its own way because so much is changing. Particularly memorable, to me, was the scene when Antoine becomes enamored of Balzac and writes a homage that is essentially plagiarism, and is treated as such, but which is also a naive effort to emulate a master. The effort to pawn the bulky typewriter is also a classic bit of bathetic comedy. And that final shot against the sea lives on long after the film is over: Antoine looks equal to whatever life has in store for him, but also seems conscious of himself for the first time.

'Mack the Knife,' by Bobby Darrin. This song happened to be #1 on Billboard the week I was born, won the Grammy for Record of the Year, and by coincidence has long been one of my favorite songs of the pre-Beatles era. Darrin’s performance is so definitive, I’ve never been able to take seriously any other recording of the song. The horns kick and his delivery is so full of infectious energy while singing about such dastardly doings, or what my sister likes to call ‘murder and mayhem.’ Just listen to how he sings ‘spends just like a sailor.’ Five’ll getcha ten...

Kind of Blue, by Miles Davis (released the day I was born). This is an album I didn’t get to know till my 40s, but it’s one of those quintessential albums in the sense that it’s how I always thought a jazz album should sound. Bluesy, lyrical, melancholy, but with such brightness in the horns and grandeur in the piano, and with improvisatory playing that, no matter how often you play it (and I’ve put it on repeat play through a long night here and there), never quite becomes familiar. It’s simply a gorgeous record.

Naked Lunch, by William Burroughs. In fact, the version that was published in 1959, by the Olympia Press, is different from the version published by Grove in 1962, the latter being the version I read for the first time in 1980. What this novel does to the novel is unforgettable: it simply overruns notions of plot and characterization with bizarre scenes and hallucinatory prose. It’s as if all those expectations that there should arrive a fiction capable of entertaining readers who had spent time with Rimbaud and Lautréamont and Artaud, as well as Westerns and sci-fi movies, not to mention porn and sensational tales of gays, hookers, junkies and derelicts, were finally fulfilled by a writer who understood that, after Beckett, the purpose of prose was consciousness laid bare, bereft of any intellectual or moral solace. And yet funny as well, with the ghastly, mordant humor of the eternal outsider able, in the end and for no easily discernible reason, to address you, hypocrite lecteur, companionably. Wouldn’t you?

'The Small Rain,' Thomas Pynchon’s first published story, in a college mag The Cornell Writer. It’s not a very good story, but it is included in Slow Learner. As the work of a college student, it makes us reflect on how vulnerable all beginnings are. I mention it because TP released his seventh novel this month, fifty years after it all began. Cheers!