Telling About the Vikings, T.S. Eliot, and The Signature

Telling About the Vikings, T.S. Eliot, and The Signature

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By Stuart Mitchner

Instructions for living a life:
   Pay attention.
   Be astonished.
   Tell about it.

—Mary Oliver (1935-2019)

When I saw Mary Oliver’s “Instructions” chalked on a stone bench in Princeton’s Marquand Park the other day, I was thinking about the signed copy of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal (1987) offered for sale at next month’s Friends of the Princeton Public Library Book Sale.

What could be less astonishing than a 35-year-old ghostwritten bestseller by the former president? The only thing really worth paying attention to and telling about is that copies in the same or lesser condition as the library’s are selling online for $18,000 to $45,000. But when you think of it, isn’t the lure of large library book sales the possibility of being astonished? You go in hoping that the book of your wildest dreams will turn up, and sometimes it does. Or, better still, you find a treasure you didn’t even know you were looking for, which happened to me when I embarked on this column about a book I have no interest in. Rather than devote an entire article to The Art of the Deal, I thought of something my wife and I have been binging on, an astonishing television series about the Vikings, where I discovered, incredibly enough, a book of poetry by T.S. Eliot.

A Viking Summer

It’s been a Viking summer in our house. Along with the Saxons, the Northmen have given us some fascinating television in The Last Kingdom (2015-2022) and Vikings (2013-2020), which we have yet to finish, although it’s hard to imagine the series surpassing the 14th episode of Season 4, “In the Uncertain Hour Before the Morning.” If that seems an unlikely title for a show about the blood and thunder pagans of the north, it’s because the line comes  from Eliot’s poem “Little Gidding.” Series creator Michael Hirst has admitted “sneaking” passages from Four Quartets into Vikings “because the lines are about time. Eliot thought the time past and time future are both contained within time present. I thought that that was really what I was talking about within the show — connecting past, present and future.”

As the episode’s title suggests, the endgame conversation between the captive King of the Vikings Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) and King of the Saxons Ecbert (Linus Roache) takes place in a subdued hour-before-morning communal spell “in the intersection of the timeless moment” the two characters are sharing; it’s an extraordinary reunion since Ragnar has cause to put Ecbert to death on the spot while Ecbert has no choice but to find a politically expedient way to have Ragnar executed. The intensity of the looks and words exchanged, the pauses, the nuances, reveal a unique fellowship based on the love both men feel for Athelstan (George Blagden), the young Anglo-Saxon Christian monk captured by Ragnar in the first season and arguably the most sympathetic character in the series. Once you learn that the episode takes its title from Four Quartets, it’s possible to imagine that Hirst had the actors reading aloud together from the poetry prior to the filming; the mood the poem manifests is that immersive. It helps that Eliot is, says Hirst, a favorite poet of Roache’s.

So compelling, so true to the character, is Roache’s Ecbert, that when he speaks Eliot’s lines on “time present and time past” you never doubt that words from a book published in 1943 are his personal musings, and now, thanks to a television series set in the 9th century (“Near the ending of interminable night / At the recurrent end of the unending”), you find yourself reading Four Quartets aloud. As I was reading I was startled by some lines in “The Dry Salvages” that seemed to speak to the subject I began with — a signed book of little value in itself, being sold for large sums because it’s signed by a twice impeached former president who is the subject of multiple criminal investigations: “Observe disease in signatures, evoke / Biography from the wrinkles of the palm / And tragedy from the fingers…”

“Be a Little Wild”

I’m wondering if last week’s FBI search of Mar-a-Lago has impacted the already inflated market value of a signed first edition of The Art of the Deal. To see where the value lies, observe the signature on the marbled endpaper, which is directly across from the quote atop the jacket copy: “I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big.”

“Be astonished, pay attention, tell about it,” from Mary Oliver’s poem “Sometimes,” could have been my mantra during the Trump years. Writing here on May 11, 2016, after he won the Republican nomination, my way of “telling about” the moment was to bring in Shakespeare and The Marx Brothers, Coriolanus and Duck Soup. When the president kept outdoing himself, it was an excuse to reread Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Ibsen’s Enemy of the People, or to revisit Dr. Strangelove and The Twilight Zone, improvising on the connections, the wilder the better. As the Donald says in The Art of the Deal: “Sometimes it pays to be a little wild.”

The Signature

The signature on the Friend’s book sale copy of the first edition is classic, a bold and brazen statement apparently accomplished with a blue felt-tip marker, evidence that it was signed at the time of publication. Take a closer look and it’s more than a statement, it’s a monument in miniature. Or a trap. Or the skyline of Trump City. Some have found it “terrifying.” It’s been compared to a failed polygraph, a barbed-wire wall, a cry for help. The signature on the copy for sale is a no-way-in no-way-out nightmare. Zoom too close and it’s like putting your head in the mouth of a shark. Say what you will, it’s worth looking at and thinking about, it’s a creation. Of the American presidents since Roosevelt, Obama’s is the only signature of comparable size, and it’s as open and free as Trump’s is shut and scary.

The Nuclear Codes

According to Jane Mayer’s July 2016 New Yorker article about Trump’s ghostwriter Tony Schwartz, The Art of the Deal “expanded Trump’s renown far beyond New York City, making him an emblem of the successful tycoon.”

Mayer quotes Schwartz saying, before the 2016 election, “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is. I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

In The Art of the Deal French President François Mitterrand “turned out to be a dangerous man. What can you say about a guy who goes around selling nuclear technology to the highest bidder. It’s the lowest anyone can stoop.”

The American Dream

And just now I noticed the blurb on the front of the Ballantine Books paperback, from The New York Times: “Trump makes one believe for a moment in the American dream again.”

Curious to see the rest of the paragraph, which appeared in the print edition of the December 7, 1987 Times, I found the sentences preceding the “American dream” — “Jay Gatsby lives, without romance and without the usual tragic flaws. The secret really seems to be hard work, thorough preparation, detailed knowledge, careful planning, tight organization, strong leadership, dogged persistence, controlled energy, good instincts and the genetic ability to deal.” The last line of Christopher Lehman Haupt’s review: “It’s like a fairy tale.” As Jake Barnes says at the end of The Sun Also Rises, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

———

I found the quote from Michael Hirst in a November 2016 interview on creative screenwriting.com. The Friends of the Library Book Sale will be September 16-18. I’ll be writing more about it closer to the event. Other signed volumes will include In the Arena by Richard Nixon, The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher, My Life by Bill Clinton, and What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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