Rare B Sides: “The Search for Henri Le Fevre”

[This post is part of a series on literary works deserving of a wider audienOrson-Welles-Show-1941ce.]

What is writing? What is literature? There’s a lot of people asking that question lately, especially after that little prize for Bob Dylan last week. I won’t delve into whether Dylan’s songs are great literature (I’ll save that for another time.) But one thing’s for sure: good writing has never been just about words on a page. It comes in many forms. Great writing can be found in a song or a movie script or a video game. So far, in this blog, I’ve talked about obscure pieces of literature, Rare B Sides, that have moved me. They’ve all had one thing in common: they were pieces meant to be written down on a page. Now, it’s time to take the lens out a bit more. To start throwing in some great writing that wasn’t printed in a book. Today, we start with a radio play.

Now, the radio play—like silent movies—is a literary form whose glory days have (likely) come and gone. And like old films, they need a bit of patience and understanding to go through because the pacing of storytelling is different from what it was in the past. But as they say “time is the best editor” so many of the radio plays that are still listened to and shared are pretty decent. And just like it’s important to preserve and celebrate old books, it’s important to preserve and celebrate old films, music and radio. 

I’ve have had no interest in radio plays up to this point. But I was caught in a big traffic jam back into the DMV on a Sunday night, when I flipped the radio dial to WAMU. Airing that evening was a classic: “The Search for Henri Le Fevre.”

Just like a movie, a radio play requires a small army to work well. But it all begins with a script. And the writer of this script was Lucille Fletcher, who wrote several radio plays including a script that eventually became a Twilight Zone episode. Then, there was the music, written by Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann wrote the scores for several Hitchcock movies. And then there’s the acting talent: starting with Orson Welles and his cognac- and cigar-lacquered voice. It’s hard to think of a richer, more ambient voice than that. It’s as if he was born to do radio. So there you go: a little Twilight Zone, a little Hitchcock and a little Welles all wrapped together. Bring those three talents together (writing, music, acting) and you’ve got an entertaining 30 minutes of radio. 

But what is it about? We’ll here’s the short setup:

A man [Henri Le Fevre as voiced by Welles] who has just finished writing a symphony hears the exact same symphony on the radio…He had just set down the last note on paper, he was happy and weary and full of peace. There was a radio near the couch, he sat down and turned it on and felt great horror as he heard the music playing on the radio, the music that he had just set down on paper.

That sets up the story: we’ve got a plot, character and setting. And something that will keep it all going: How is it that this piece of music which he just wrote down is already being broadcast? Well, Henri has to begin a long, painful journey to try to find out. And when he does it’s not clear if the revelation will bring him peace or destroy him. You’ll have to listen in to find out.

Now, the specific version I heard was the Orson Welles 1946 broadcast for the legendary Mercury Summer Theatre. (There’s an earlier version from 1944). You should be able to access it at the link above. If not, Amazon seems to offer it for sale, if you can’t find it anywhere else. But in my experience you should be able to track it down on YouTube or via Google pretty easily. You’ll be glad you tracked it down, it’s a fun little piece of  literature to listen to.

See you next time,

Darius


If you like radio plays and want to dive deeper, check out WAMU’s Big Broadcast. They play old-time radio plays starting at Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Eastern. They even archive the broadcast for a whole week so you can come back to it later. It’s a great way to unwind on a Sunday evening.  As the website says:

Host Murray Horwitz brings listeners shows like Gunsmoke, The Jack Benny Show, The Lone Ranger, Suspense, Fibber McGee and Molly, and Dragnet, placing them in the context of the time and linking the shows to current entertainment and events.

It’s well worth a listen.


Wouldn’t be a Rare B Side post without a Rare B Side: Here’s Jack White running through the old blues classic by Son House, Death Letter Blues. Dig this version.

That Death Letter—Man!

Rare B Sides: The Jealous Extremaduran

[This post is part of a series on literary works that deserve a wider audience.]

[Spoiler Alert: This post contains plot elements from Cervantes’s “The Jealous Extremaduran.”]

And I’m back, so let’s dive right into it…Here’s another work that deserves a wider audience: “The Jealous Extremaduran” by Miguel Cervantes.


Velazquez_Lunch

I read Don Quixote a long time ago, back in high school. I found it uneven and a bit loooong. But its central idea, the characters and certain scenes were pure genius. I’d highly recommend it to anyone, as long as you have patience and can lay your hands on a good translation. The novel piqued my interest and I wanted to learn more about Cervantes and his other works. His life reads like something out of the Three Musketeers: He was a soldier who fought at Lepanto, a slave of Algerian pirates, a tax collector, a small-time conman and—last but not least—a writer. In fact, his life was much more adventurous than his famous, befuddled protagonist, Don Quixote. Anyhow, I was looking for other stuff to read from the Spanish master and about the first thing to pop up were his Exemplary Novellas—little tales mostly set in Seville, Spain. Thumbing through the Table of Contents I landed on “The Jealous Extremaduran.”

It is the tale of one Filipo de Carrizales, a Spaniard who makes his fortune in Peru and returns to his native Seville to settle down at the age of 68. He contemplates getting married, but decides against it, knowing he’s far too jealous for such business.

…he was so terrified that he felt like a mist driven by the wind. By nature he was the most jealous man in the world, even without being married; the mere thought of marrying was enough to arouse his jealousy, weary him with suspicions and startle him with imaginary evils, so much so that he resolved at all costs not to marry.

But, as fate would have it, he sees a young girl, Leonora, at a window and is smitten. He falls for her and reasons to himself:

‘She is only a girl; her youth may be sufficient to set my suspicions at rest. I shall marry her; I shall shut her up and train her in my ways, and so that she won’t know anything else but what I shall teach her.’

He approaches her parents, who after some research, agree to the match. Eventually, the parents “hand her over” to Filipo “amid much weeping because it seemed to them that she was being led off to her grave.”

[For you writers out there keeping score: we now have the full set up. Two main characters, a setting in Seville and a plot with an inherent conflict (between Filipo’s desire for control and Leonora’s independence).]

Filipo buys a house for 12,000 ducats with “running water and a garden with lots of orange trees.” He shuts up all the windows facing the street, creating skylights instead. He creates high walls about the level of the roofs of the city so that everyone inside can see only the sky, not the rest of the city. He hires an “old, black eunuch” and servant woman to guard the only entrance to the house: a revolving door. Through this revolving door all food for the household must pass. Filipo locks Leonora away in this fortress inside the city, bringing two girls of her age into the house to entertain her. With that, Filipo locks the door.

By day he would be thinking; by night he would lie awake, patrolling and guarding his house…His whole house had an air of virtue and seclusion; even in the stories which the servants told in the long winter nights by the fireside, nothing lascivious was ever mentioned when he was present.

Time passes and all is well for a time. But a new character shows up, a young man named Loaysa. The narrator explains:

There is in Seville a class of useless, idle people usually known as men about town; these are the richer young men from every parish. Lazy, showy, plausible people, about whose dress and manner of living, and whose customs and rules of conduct a good deal could be said.

“Plausible.” I love that turn of phrase…Loaysa is one of these men, a virote, or young bachelor. Loaysa catches wind of the rumors about the beautiful Leonora and resolves to storm the house “by force or by cunning.” He leaves the town for a few days and returns disguised as a lame beggar with a guitar, stationed in front of the house’s revolving door. He begins to sing “cheerful Moorish ballads” and soon the prisoners of Filipo’s castle like a “flock of doves” come to “the lure of the guitar.”

I won’t reveal what happens in the end, but I found it particularly well-played by Cervantes. Suffice to say that the fortress is breached having tragic consequences for most everyone involved. Being Cervantes, he can’t help but insert a moral into his story (much like the last 5 minutes of every Brady Bunch episode).

This affair…illustrates how little one should trust in keys, revolving doors and walls when the will remains free.

It’s a trite ending, but “The Jealous Extremaduran” is a great read, full of little details from 16th century Seville and deftly drawn characters. It’s a heavier read than Don Quixote, but well worth your time, especially considering it’s a shorter piece. Check it out at your local library, bookstore or online the next time you’re itching for something new to read.


The track for today’s post isn’t exactly a “Rare B Side.” In fact, it was a number one hit in 1969. Still, it fits the subject matter of this post. So, here we go…Ladies and Gentlemen, The King of Rock and Roll:

Somethin’ ‘Spicious

See you next time,

Darius

Rare B Sides: The Invention of Morel

[This post is part of a series on literary works that deserve a wider audience.]

This is the first in a new series of posts I’ve been thinking about starting for a long time: Rare B sides. The whole point of these posts will be to share literary works that I think deserve a wider audience. They will usually—but not always—be works of fiction.

Think of it as the literary equivalent of listening to those rare B sides of your favorite musicians that are so hard to find.

First up is a B side that is not particularly rare, but does deserve a much wider audience: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares.


I’ve only recently been sucked into the world of Argentine and Latin American literature. The gateway for me, as it is no doubt for many others, was Jose Luis Borges. I still love his stuff, especially his poetry. And I’m very, very sparing with my love of poets.

I’ve been slowly branching out from Borges and one of the first things I discovered was The Invention of Morel. There are three compelling things about the work: the mood it casts, the slowly rising dramatic tension and the novelty of its central idea.

The mood (or tone?) is right there from the very first sentence.

Hoy, en esta isla ha occurido un milagro. [Today, on this island, a miracle occurred…]

The mystery deepens quickly and the mood builds in the next few sentences.

…Summer came early. I moved my bed out by the swimming pool, but then, because it was impossible to sleep, I stayed in the water a long time. The heat was so intense that after I had been out of the pool for only two or three minutes I was already bathed in perspiration again. As day was breaking, I awoke to the sound of a phonograph…

Beyond the marsh where the narrator lives there is a chapel, a museum and a swimming pool. The feel of the novel is deftly captured by this clip of a movie based on the book:

9 minutes, no words.

Soon, the narrator discovers other people on the island, including a “gypsy” woman who wears a scarf.

As I watched her, I could hear the ocean with its sounds of movement and fatigue close at hand, as if it had moved to my side.

As he unwinds the mystery of the island and its inhabitants, we’re sucked into his world by trying to guess the exact nature of the place. That brings in the plot, the slowly building tension. Will the narrator discover the true nature of the island and what will his reaction be? It kept me reading and reading until almost the very end.

Finally, there is the novelty of the idea. But what can I say about that without giving it all away? Even after it is revealed, it’s interesting to see how the narrator decides to react.

On a recent trip down to Buenos Aires, I knew I had to secure my own Spanish edition of the book. At the amazing, museum-like Ateneo, I found a beautiful copy with a beautiful cover.

It has a chronology, hand-written notes by the author and photos. Why is it that foreign editions are more desirable objects than American books? I plan to read it some day, but have to improve my Spanish first.

That’s about all for now, have to RUN. I hope that setup gets you interested in the book. It’s a great, atmospheric read that deserves more readers.

,DJ


What would Rare B Sides be without an actual rare B side? Here’s a great one from the Verve, So Sister.

“I wrote your name in dust…”