Saturday, June 4, 2016

Murió un grande de la literatura: "el Mozart de la pradera"


El prolífico escritor norteamericano Jim Harrison murió hace apenas un mes y no nos enteramos. !Que pena! Hemos estado muy ocupados con los políticos. Harrison fue llamado "El Mozart de las Praderas", pues fue un hombre que vivió en el Oeste y escribió sobre estas tierras salvajes, su cultura y su estilo de vida rebelde y libre. Aquí un articulo sobre su creación literaria publicado en The New Yorker.


MARCH 30, 2016
Jim Harrison, Mozart of the Prairie





This essay is adapted from “The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers,” a memoir by Terry McDonell that will be published by Knopf in August.

The first chapter of Jim Harrison’s first novel, “Wolf,” begins with a two-page sentence. Jim said it was vanity, that he wanted to show it could be done, because he was a young writer and hungry. That was in 1971. A few years later, when I was starting to work with him, I asked if his editor had tried to do something with that first sentence.


“Of course,” he said, wearily, as if in my tragic inexperience I was unable to grasp the basic construct of editing him. Jim did little revising and was proud of it. Rewriting was for people who hadn’t worked everything out early—not for Jim, who insisted he always thought things through before he wrote anything down. As for editors, why should he let them fool with his choices? They were not, as he had explained to me when we first met, writers. He also liked to note that he was a poet and “editors don’t change poems.”

“I wouldn’t change any of your poems either,” I said, but when it came to his journalism I wasn’t so sure. Being above editing was a pose some writers found situationally useful the way some children are “allergic” to lima beans. It was the foot Jim liked to get off on, and, sure enough, we tangled over copy our first time around. I was at Outside magazine and suggested that his lede on a piece about Key West was really the second paragraph and that the first paragraph should be the kicker. He hung up on me.

I got an immediate follow-up call from his agent, Bob Datilla, a tough, reasonable guy.

“You want to pull the piece?” I asked, after his declension of my shortcomings.

“Of course not,” Datilla said. “We just want to be on the record that you’re a dumb shit. (Pause.) But Jim can be difficult, too.”

“So we’ll all think about it?” I said.

“Exactly.”

I’m not sure how much we all thought about it, and we never discussed the piece again. Maybe Jim didn’t notice. But I learned to tread lightly or risk being told, as I once was, by him, “you lynched my baby.” As we worked on more pieces together, we talked about other things, like what we were having for dinner, as much as about what we were reading. My working relationship with Jim, my growing friendship with him, was nourished by even the mundane details of his life.

Some writers set themselves up so they can work with a view—the mountains, the sea, a river, perhaps an interesting cityscape. Others work closed-in, with no distractions, just their desk and whatever they have on the wall in front of them. Jim lived on a farm in Lake Leelanau, Michigan, fifty miles from where he was born. There was also a cabin on sixty acres off a two-track road five hours north by car, beyond Grand Marais on the Upper Peninsula, where he sometimes retreated to write. But he worked best from two to four in the afternoon in a tight place like the one-room ranch cabin in Patagonia, Arizona, with small windows and a twenty-year out-of-date calendar on the back of the door, the winter place Jim’s early screenwriting money had paid for. A journalist sent from New York to interview him had walked with Jim the half mile from the main house to the writing cabin and asked if it was a movie set. This turned into a story Jim would tell about what he saw as the double misunderstanding about his work, because no, he wasn’t in the movie business. Not really, anyway.

The stories about Jim’s adventures writing for film began when Jack Nicholson loaned him thirty thousand dollars to live on for the time it would take to write three novellas that might make good movies. They could also be published together as a book, which was more important to Jim. He had a draft of “Legends of the Fall” in ten days and was done with the second, “Revenge,” in another two weeks. “The Man Who Gave Up His Name” came a little slower and was the only one that didn’t become a film. It was about a just-retired Midwestern C.E.O. named Nordstrom who visits Manhattan to see his betrothed daughter, does battle with coke dealers, and moves on to the Florida Keys, where he finds work as a chef and dances all night with the waitresses.

But it was the title novella, “Legends of the Fall,” the one that Jim said he wrote in ten days, that became his big ticket. The then editor-in-chief Clay Felker ran it in Esquire at twenty-three thousand words in 1979, followed by “Revenge” at a thundering thirty thousand words. The magazine appeared bolder than it had been in years, and Jim seemed to have invigorated American fiction. The traditional four-thousand-word short story, the staple of M.F.A. programs and all the major magazines, looked claustrophobic in comparison. Jim’s vocabulary was not tricky, although his sentences went long and were compound (rather than complex). It was a surprising style, clear, and one reviewer said you could see through it down to the bottom of his meaning. For years after, the prominent blurb on the paperback editions of all of Jim’s books was from Bernard Levin, in the Sunday Times of London, about the “Legends of the Fall” collection: “Jim Harrison is a writer with immortality in him.” Immortality is a big word, but Jim’s friends, his rivals even, just nodded and looked forward to the next book.


Jim was interested in visiting the graves of writers and sometimes travelled for that purpose. Out of that came the idea—mine—of a literary travel column, which became “The Raw and the Cooked” when Jim turned it to food—his idea. It was also Jim’s idea to borrow the title from the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, and his idea that “opposites drawn from everyday experience with the most basic sorts of things—e.g., ‘raw’ and ‘cooked,’ ‘fresh’ and ‘rotten,’ ‘moist’ and ‘parched,’ and others—can serve a people as conceptual tools.” Heavy lifting, but then suddenly on-the-nose and droll when applied to, say, cuisine minceur, which Jim wrote was “the moral equivalent of the foxtrot.” After a massive lunch at Ma Maison, in Beverly Hills, with Orson Welles, Jim wrote he had to “brace his boot on the limo’s doorsill to hoist the great director to the curb.”

Food, cooking it and eating it, had always been central to Jim’s writing in that it offered a “commensurate and restorative joy.” His days fishing and hunting, especially with close friends, were, as Jim Fergus described in his introduction to his “Art of Fiction” interview with Jim for The Paris Review, “devoted to planning, shopping for, preparing, discussing, and finally eating one breathtaking meal after another, at the end of which preliminary discussions and preparations for the next meal begin almost immediately.” Jim’s e-mails often noted cooking truths such as the impossibility of finding Gambel’s quail or antelope in the supermarket—or that “in my youth there were so few presents that I liked, mostly a jar of herring or a small orange.”

“The Raw and the Cooked” began in SMART, in late 1988, moved with me to Esquire, in 1990, and ran up twenty-nine columns there—all of them about joy, obsession, love, sex, family, landscape, life, death, and all of the confusing reasons why there is nothing better than having something good to eat. Most publicly ambitious of all of Jim’s meals was a thirty-seven-course lunch prepared by the French chef Marc Meneau from recipes drawn from seventeen cookbooks published between 1654 and 1823. Jim wrote that the meal lasted “the same amount of time as the Varig flight from New York to Sao Paulo.” The piece ran in The New Yorker in 2004, and gourmands still talk about it. Chefs loved him too, because he cooked himself, with great attention to detail and respect for the most normal of foods.

Eventually, Jim wore some of this on his face, and with the blind eye from a childhood accident and the disappearing teeth that he refused to replace, he could look a bit weathered, but he was still handsome, in the manner of a mahogany stump. He put on some weight, which annoyed him, and he watched it in his own way, explaining that a two-hour walk in the woods earned him a thirty-two-ounce rib eye. Tom McGuane said that if he added up all the weight Jim had mentioned losing over their years of correspondence, it would top two thousand pounds.

During the last week of 2013, Jeff Baker of the Portland Oregonian asked Jim about his health and was told, “About a B-minus.” The headline on the piece read: “Jim Harrison says he writes more books because he ‘stopped drinking half-gallons of vodka.’ “ That quote was Jim’s answer to a question about what critics were calling his “astonishing” late-career productivity. Jim was seventy-six and had agreed to a phone interview with Baker to support the publication of his “Brown Dog” collection, his thirty-sixth book. In the course of two decades, he had written six novellas about the Brown Dog character that critics liked to paint as Jim’s alter ego, and likened to a “21st-century version of Huck Finn.” Well, maybe, if Huck were an itinerant laborer, drinker, and trout fisherman of mixed Chippewa-Finnish blood. Jim told the New York Times that Brown Dog was “unimpeded,” and that he had wanted to write “a totally free man, which means he is poor but doesn’t care.”

When Jim sold the farm in Michigan to move to Montana, he wrote to me that he was thinking about an essay:

In the past decade there had been an influx of the very wealthy replacing the farmers and commercial fishermen . . . and I had this weary leftist notion that I no longer wanted to live on a farm I couldn’t afford to buy. I didn’t want to become the kind of stale geezer who orders a pamphlet from Popular Mechanics on how to carve a violin out of a single block of wood. It takes no more money and effort to make a good movie than a bad movie but sometimes a bad movie like life is in the cards.
Jim’s books had always sold very well in France, and when I heard that “Mozart de Prairie” was the headline of a story about him on the arts front of Le Monde, I looked for it and found many pieces in French newspapers about him, but none with that headline. Maybe it was apocryphal. If it had run, I hoped the photo was the one of Jim as a young poet in overalls without an undershirt, leaning back with his arms spread across the side of a farm horse. He was smoking in that picture, but you could see the body of a gymnast, which he had been in high school and college. Jim became famous for his fiction, celebrated internationally as a storyteller of genius, but through all the years, and the novels and novellas and films that came with them, he remained a poet, his life syncopated with contrapuntal complexities and the chromatic cadences of rural landscapes. “Mozart de Prairie” was a brilliant headline, even if it never ran.

From the book “The Accidental Life,” by Terry McDonell, copyright © 2016 by Terry McDonell. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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