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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 06/11/2001
Volume 2, Number 8
Something happened to me while I was on the way to writing this column. I meant to be writing about Roy again and how we seem to live on this double level of reality with part of ourselves manifest in this familiar world and an even larger part of ourselves sharing the unmanifest reaches of something far more mysterious. But then out of the unmanifest came this story of myself and my novel THE BLOWTOP . It appeared in the Sunday Weekly of a newspaper chain that reaches right across Canada. Yes, there were a series of interviews. I knew it was coming one of these days. And I'm used to seeing my work reviewed. But when I saw it, it was like looking into a mirror that cast a rather surprising reflection. Not because of some minor inaccuracies, those are present in almost all news accounts. But because it reached back so many years. It was like seeing myself in profile for the first time, or from the other side. Maybe even from the back. After all, it was part of the Golden Age, even part of my life while doing Superman and Batman. It's about what the other hand was doing at the same time, way back then. I thought I'd like to share it with you. And hear your comments as well. -- Alvin
Reinventing ALVIN SCHWARTZ
Fifty years ago, the man behind Superman wrote a would-be literary blockbuster that wasn't. Now his book has been rediscovered.
In January 1948, Alvin Schwartz's wife was celebrating his first one-woman show at Peggy Guggenheim's Art of This Century, his first son was about to be born, and his first novel, The Blowtop, appeared in print. Set among the dirty unmade beds, habitual drug use and disaffected lives of Greenwich Village in the post-war, post-atomic bomb era, Schwartz's The Blowtop combined existentialism, abstract expressionism and violence in a revolutionary way.
Jackson Pollock was convinced he was the novel's painter protagonist. The New York Times hailed Schwartz as the "first conscious existentialist" in North America. He felt he was on the verge of being discovered. However, bad luck and a bit of naivety kept The Blowtop, and Schwartz , from earning lasting acclaim.
Although he kept at his poetry, and worked on a second novel, any notoriety he gained was as a writer of the comic strips Superman and Batman during what's known as the Golden Age of Comics. He wrote comics until 1958, when he quit after a new editor at DC Comics ordered Schwartz to write a story in which Superman loses his powers and Lois Lane gets them. Schwartz switched to the ad business, then in 1969, he moved to Montreal with his second wife Kay and their combined family of five kids. For 30 years he researched and wrote docu-dramas for the National Film Board. And today, at 84, he continues to write fiction from his little house in Chesterville, southeast of Ottawa, where he and Kay live, The Blowtop long forgotten.
Recently Alvin Schwartz was handed another chance at fame. Fifty years after it was first released, an American publisher has re-issued The Blowtop.
"Maybe something can come of publishing the book. Maybe we'll get Alvin back to the attention of the world of literature, maybe we'll bring him back into some kind of historical perspective," says David Wilk, president of the LPC Group, the leading distributor of independent publishers in the United States. It operates Olmstead Press, which two years ago began re-publishing out-of-print classics including Harlan Ellison's Deathbird Stories, Janet Dailey's Heiress and Green Millennium by Franz Lieber. Schwartz's book remains the most intriguing to Wilk, partly because of what the author represents.
"I was enthralled with the idea that here was this book more than 50 years old that was lost to history, that was a precursor to the Beats, and that the author, this absolute gem of a man, is still living," he said.
The book, published last month, is adorned with marketing slogans that he hopes will draw readers. "Classic! Back in print! The original Beat novel that became a cult classic among Columbia University students including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg." Or "Legendary! A bestseller in Paris. Taken up by followers of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir."
Wilk admits that some of these claims may be "Alvin's fantasy" but if they're not "literally true" they're certainly "psychologically true."
As Schwartz tells the story, his book really was all that. And now he is one of the few witnesses left to that time in history when musical, artistic and writerly conventions were being torn apart and reconstructed.
It's always a strange journey to meet Alvin Schwartz, who all these years later still seems better suited to a Greenwich Village loft rather than a bungalow in sleepy Chesterville, which supplies most of the workers to the giant Nestle plant at its centre. The last time I interviewed Schwartz it was to discuss An Unlikely Prophet, a memoir about the experiences generated by his years writing Superman. The book, published by MacMurray & Beck, dealt largely with spiritual guides, imagined existences and Tibetan monks. Some critics said it suggested a new vision of reality. The book sold well among comics aficionados, where Schwartz is known as the "oldest living writer of Superman," but his intended audience were those interested in more spiritual pursuits.
Today, instead of meeting in Chesterville, we're huddled together in a tiny library halfway between downtown Ottawa and his home. Kay is shopping nearby at a gardening store.
Schwartz is a compact man with a humble beard, a powerful intellect and a tour de force memory. He'd rather discuss abstract painters, philosophical movements and the meaning of life than driving conditions or the weather. Although, he's up on all that too.
While children noisily devour story-books, he muses on the philosophical mindset of the 1950s, recalls a long night of drinking with Pollock, his relationships with expressionist painter Willem de Kooning and writer Saul Bellow, and how he once helped edit some of Anais Nin's memoirs.
He really should live at the centre of the action where students of history,
literature and philosophy could pick his brain. Wilk agrees. "I think being in the boondocks for all these years has meant he's lost to history."
Schwartz, who was born in New York in 1916, began his literary career while still in high school as a co-editor of Mosaic, a little magazine of the 30s that published luminaries such as William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Gertrude Stein. His poetry and criticism appeared in The American Scholar and American Imago. During the Depression he began writing comics to survive and was soon scripting the two leading newspaper strips of the day, Batman and Superman. While writing the seemingly low-brow strips, he began his first novel.
The Blowtop begins after the Second World War in Greenwich Village at a Sheridan Street bar with the apparently pointless shooting of a small-time marijuana dealer. The death involves all sorts of Village dwellers, including artists, writers, academics, who are caught up in a seedy, creative and angst-ridden lifestyle. Archie, an aspiring writer, becomes convinced the murderer was the painter Giordano, as he works to understand Giordano, he probes the sources of an art movement that was to sweep the globe.
Schwartz has written the introduction to the re-issue of The Blowtop. In it, he attempts to describe the roots of abstract expressionism, which he says really wasn't understood by critics. "Pollock was convinced he was the painter protagonist in this novel. He recognized, I think, the general outlines of the personality, although my real model, a less well-known painter, similarly demonstrated that fierce self-immolating drive to absorb into his work the continuing agony of a world still recovering from war.
"Both Jackson and Attilio Salemme, the other painter, had become part of that drive to eliminate representationalism and somehow take up into their canvasses and transfigure the detritus of World War II."
He was writing of existentialism at the same time that Jean-Paul Sartre and the French existentialists were taking on despair as the true human condition.
In his introduction, Schwartz points to this scene from the book involving the painter Giordano.
Giordano shook his head. He appeared struggling to lift himself above some level of obsession. "What is it? What is painting?" he demanded. "I'll tell you. It's my direct struggle with reality, with things, with space."
He paused and seemed to make an effort to continue. "Without it, I wouldn't be able to purify, to know closely the things that are left over". . . "Look at it! Slime and sediment!" He brought his hands together in a gesture of squeezing something. "Wrung out of life to make living clean enough to endure. What a monstrosity! Look hard at it! Isn't it horrible? There's all the filth of existence right before your eyes! God!"
Existentialism is usually seen as a philosophy focusing on the analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe. Each individual must assume responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad.
In his novel, Schwartz suggests a transcendent or conscious existentialism. Archie, somewhat "disaffected, wavering, immoral, is discovering, under duress the first stages of transcendence, of thinking beyond his situation." It leads Archie to act irrationally because he follows an idea not part of his situation. Giordano has transcended reality to the point of madness.
Although not published until 1948, The Blowtop was actually written in 1946, a year before publication of L'Etrangre, Camus' Nobel Prize winning novel. It, like Schwartz's book, dealt with alienation. At its heart, there was a seemingly pointless murder. An aimless young man becomes embroiled in the intrigues of a local pimp and ends up killing a man.
Schwartz says The Blowtop was not published until 1948 partly because of its controversial subject matter and partly because of problems with the publisher, Burton Hoffman, who returned from the Second World War deeply traumatized and unable to function as he once did.
When the novel was finally released in 1948, the publisher had inexplicably put it in a mystery jacket. A short time later, the publisher committed suicide.
On Jan. 21, 1948, the Saturday Review of Literature described the book as "impressive" but beyond that it got no attention. Schwartz could only assume that the mystery-book reviewers who were given the book to review were perplexed by it and in no position to review its existentialism. The book died on the vine, although through his contacts with Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Wahl, The Blowtop was published in France (Les Editions de l"Elan Paris 1950) as Le Cingl, it became a bestseller.
"I remember the V.P. at the publishing house apologized for the book's treatment. I remember as clear as a bell his telling me that, if it was any consolation, it had become a cult book among students at Columbia University," recalls Schwartz.
Later he learned that Beat movement pioneers Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg had been at Columbia in 1948 discussing ideas that included abstract expressionism and French existentialism, exactly what The Blowtop tackled.
Schwartz and his current publisher extrapolate a bit, suggesting that Kerouac and Ginsberg must have made the book their Bible. Why else would they have been interested in those topics? Anyone who could contest the claim is long dead.
Says Schwartz: "I can only assume it's true." Adds Wilk: "I don't think he's far-fetched. It doesn't bother me to be going out on a limb. I knew Allen (Ginsberg) pretty well and he talked a lot. I don't know that he evccer mentioned this book, but maybe nobody ever asked him. It vould be Alvin"s fantasy. But there is another way of looking at it. It may not be absolutely true, but it's probably psychologically true. His book represented the ethos of that era really well. The way things work in culture are inevitable sometimes. It's not clear how things work. You have to take a leap of faith sometimes.
"Most writers don't become successful, they don't become famous. Sometimes it only happens after they're dead, mostly it doesn't happen at all. We think Alvin should get more attention. He's a living piece of culture."
While Schwartz is thrilled by the attention, he's hoping that another novel, No Such Mirrors, which will be published for the first time by Olmstead this winter, will actually earn him more attention. He began the book more than 40 years ago and it too had a rocky publishing past.
In it, he gives "the full story of what it was like to be an abstract expressionist or a painter in those days." He has a third manuscript, A Shattering Presence, which is his masterpiece. His agent, Bob DiForio, is still hunting for a publisher.
While Schwartz awaits his day in the sun, it's not true that people can't pick his brain. He writes a regular column for the Web site, World Famous Comics (www.wfcomics.com) called Exploring the Golden Age with Alvin Schwartz. He takes on Superman, Freud and even wrote a column entitled "Alvin"s dog Angus and his ability to fly." The site also serializes An Unlikely Prophet and contains excerpts from A Shattering Presence.
Ask Schwartz if he thinks he should have been famous, and there is no pause. "Probably," he says. He goes further. "I definitely feel A Shattering Presence is Nobel Prize material."
This may sound audacious, but not to Schwartz.
"Camus got the Nobel and I wrote my book first. Who knows if the circumstances were different?"
Shelly Page writes for the Weekly.
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Discuss this column with me at my Round Table.
|NEWEST||Vol. 2, #205 I have been away for months... (03/09/2008) |
|03/03/2008||Vol. 2, #204 Section 4 - A legal issue as well? |
|02/11/2008||Vol. 2, #203 Section 3 - Introducing Mr. Sattvapalli |
|02/04/2008||Vol. 2, #202 Section 2 |
|01/28/2008||Vol. 2, #201 Section 1 |
|01/14/2008||Vol. 2, #200 I've been away a long time. Not just from this column, but far earlier than that... |
|06/18/2007||Vol. 2, #199 Superman as more of a process than a fixed creation |
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|04/02/2007||Vol. 2, #197 Consciousness Visiting (Part II) |
|03/26/2007||Vol. 2, #196 Consciousness visiting. My arcane subject for today. |
|12/25/2006||Vol. 2, #195 Problems Crossing the Border |
|11/27/2006||Vol. 2, #194 Sometime in the mid-1940s, Dan Miller, proprietor of the local general store in the rural village of Springs, Long Island, New York, acquired a painting from his new neighbor, the painter, Jackson Pollock. I knew them both in those days. But it took me many years to figure out how it might have happened. |
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|10/09/2006||Vol. 2, #192 Superman didn't become the rescuer, the savior and upholder of the law because he was made that way on some other planet... |
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