Monday, September 12, 2011

My 9/11 Story

Everyone has a story about where they were, what they were doing, and how they first learned about the collapse of the Twin Towers in Manhattan, and the subsequent attack on the Pentagon, but my story really began a few months before that horrific day.

In July, 2001, I had been working as director of new business for a prominent Beverly Hills staffing service. Business was good, but discernibly shaky starting in spring of that year, so there was no "new business" to be had.

My employer promised that we would "grow old and rich together" and, when it became quickly apparent that I was going to grow old, and he was going to grow rich, I promptly packed my bags, and headed for points north.

I ended up moving to a little country town that was nestled in the mountains, Ojai, where upon my arrival I finally got to do something I had wanted to do for about 20 years: find out more about a woman named Sylvia Beach, an American, daughter of a Presbyterian minister from Camden, New Jersey, who moved to Paris to fulfill her dream of opening a bookstore, Shakespeare & Company, and wound up becoming the first to publish the complete version of James Joyce's Ulysses.

The plan was to find out as much as I could about Beach and, of course, about James Joyce whose work I loved, and to write a stage play about it.

Before even unpacking, I decided to check out the town, and stopped into the local library to look for a book about Sylvia Beach.

On the wall of the library was a big poster of Shakespeare & Company, Sylvia Beach's bookstore, that was donated by a local artist. It was only supposed to be hanging there for a few weeks. How serendipitous, I thought, and asked the librarian if she had any books by Sylvia Beach, and she said, oh yes, there's one: Shakespeare & Company, her autobiography.

Well, I took a few deep breaths as this was the title I had intended for my play, and asked if she had a copy of the book. She told me there was only one copy, and it was over in Santa Barbara, about 30 miles away. I asked her to please call over there, ask them to hold it for me, and got into the car right away. It was my first time ever going to the library in Santa Barbara. I can't recall ever wanting to get my hands on a book that bad before, or since.

A few days later, walking down the street, I saw Malcolm McDowell sitting at a cafe having lunch with some friends. I felt like a character out of one of Cocteau's movies, "Le Testament d'Orphee," running into mythical figures on a busy boulevard in Paris.

When I gawked at him it produced such a memorable smirk that I immediately thought, I found my James Joyce! And, without his encouragement, it's likely the idea would never have seen the light of day. I needed an impetus to write the bloody thing, and there it was.

So, from late July through early September, I immersed myself completely in Beach's memoir, and read every biography of James Joyce I could get my hands on. What happened next was magical. Despite my own personal desire to write a stage play, Joyce came through for me as a character visually even more than verbally, and I felt compelled to commit the piece to the screen.

During the period we now know as 9/11, I was completely engrossed with writing the first draft of my screenplay that was intended to be as much an anti-war statement as a statement against censorship.

After all, Ulysses, a book widely considered the greatest novel in the English language, was banned throughout most of Europe when it was published on James Joyce's 40th birthday, February 2, 1922. The novel was banned under the U.S. Tariff Act, and copies confiscated by US Customs Officials, until December, 1933 when, thanks to Judge Woolsey's verdict, the book was allowed to enter the U.S. Notably, Ulysses was banned in Australia until 1953.

Ironically, the months leading up to 9/11 were spent working on a piece that reminded us of what it was like to live in a repressive climate, an intellectual environment that forced books like Lady Chatterley's lover from the shelves, and one that enabled an organization like PEN to form to defend freedom of expression. It was soon clear that, in the weeks, and months after 9/11, this country would regress to the state of faux patriotism, and egregious censorship that characterized the 1920's.

After those airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, something first witnessed on my computer screen, everything changed. The narcissistic, nationalistic, collective narcolepsy from which the planet suffered during the first and second world wars returned with a vengence.

In Ojai, American flags lined the main street. Ford Explorers brandished flag decals. We were back in the days of white picket fences, and apple pie. We had returned to the mindset that banned Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and one that found the Joyce's imagination execrable. Make no mistake, were it not for the Woolsey verdict precedent-setting ruling on pornography, Ginsberg's "Howl" would have been pulled from the shelves.

As a result of 9/11, America had suddenly returned to a worldview that would stop our better angels at the gate and demand to see a passport.

Curiously, much of what appears in my screenplay, the 1920's and 1930's following World War I, and the lead-up to World War II, the faux moralism, and faux patriotism, the wholehearted and full embrace of warfare. It's enough to convince anyone that Sylvia Beach would have found it as hard today as she did in the 1920's to have Mr. Joyce's novel distributed in the U.S.

What a sad statement, and what a sadder statement still that her story has yet to be told, and told as only I can.