Friday, October 5, 2007

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

This Tuesday evening at 7:30 pm, the library book group will be discussing Michael Chabon's Pulitzer-Prize winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,
a big, generous book that was both an ode to the golden era of American comic books and a bravura epic that somehow managed to forge the disparate subjects of World War II, fictional superheroes, Harry Houdini and the Golem of Prague into a sad-funny-moving meditation on life and loss and the consolations of art.

(as Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times described it).

For a preview of our discussion questions, click
here and here.

Here is some background information on a few of the wonderfully disparate topics mentioned in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica's entry on golems, the word first referred to "an embryonic or incomplete substance" in the Bible (Psalms 139:16) and in the Talmud. In the Middle Ages, "many legends arose of wise men who could bring effigies to life by means of a charm or of a combination of letters forming a sacred word or one of the names of God." By the 16th century the golem had become a protector of persecuted Jews, like the golem of the Rabbi Low of Prague (the best known golem folktale).

From Prague and golems the story segues to New York City and its all-American version of the golem, the comic superhero. Sam and Joe's experiences in the comics industry mirror that of the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Siegel and Shuster sold the rights to Superman along with the first Superman story for $130, when they were only 24 years old (according to the American National Biography). Not until they were 62 years old were they given annual stipends and benefits, plus their name began to appear on all Superman products.

Dark Horse Comics has turned the story of the Escapist into a comic book called "The Amazing Adventures of the Escapist" - published in 3 volumes. The most famous escapist artist in history was Harry Houdini, who got his start in vaudeville, like Sam's father. To see film clips of some of his escapes, check out the PBS site about him.

Salvador Dali did in fact exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair in Queens, NY. To look at photos of his pavilion, click on this link to Amazon and click on See All Product Images under the photo of the book Salvador Dali's Dream of Venus. The story of the party that Joe and Sam attend at Longman Harkoo's must have been inspired by a talk of Dali's in London on July 1, 1936, at the Burlington Gardens. Dali wore a diving suit helmet with a car radiator on top of it. According to "The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali" by Ian Gibson, Dali got hot and asked someone to take off the helmet, which was stuck. "Dali later claimed that he had been on the point of asphyxiation when help arrived." (page 416)

Al Smith really did plan for the Empire State Building to have a dock for airships, but wind currents, the Chrysler Building's spire, and the safety of pedestrians below were but a few of the considerations that killed the idea. According to John Tauranac's book about the building, during World War II, volunteers like Sam patrolled the 86th floor and called Army Interceptor Command when they saw an airplane.

While there was no such thing as the Kelvinator Station in Antarctica, Richard Byrd did lead a U.S. Navy expedition from 1939-1941 in Antarctica. It is more likely that the British base Port Lockroy, established in 1943, inspired Chabon's Kelvinator Station. The Nazis did not have a base in Antarctica (see the March 2007 article in Nature).


Glo said...

I know this is an old post but i found it when i was looking for background on Kav & Clay and I wanted to save it until I finished the book. Thanks so much for the trivia and info! Really interesting stuff!

Anne said...

Thanks for stopping by. My colleague Ellen always comes up with intriguing facts about authors and their work.