A B-Minor Marathon

bach-mass-gardinerIn an earlier post, on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, I said in passing that I am not the kind of classical music aficionado who owns multiple interpretations or performances of a work and gets wonky about the relative merits of them.  I feel that I don’t have the ear, and certainly don’t have the training and the critical lexicon to do that kind of analysis.  As I’ve been listening to more and more (especially) Baroque music lately, I’ve found myself spending more and more time scouring the web for basic information about musical forms or for definitions of terms I feel I’ve known all my life without ever truly knowing what they mean (like obbligato or ripieno).

As an aside, I’ve been blown away by how useful Wikipedia has been in this quest for knowledge.  The basics are all there, plus a lot of history.  And when it comes to individual composers, I’m still trying to absorb all that is on offer.  It’s not just that there’s a brief biography of Bach available, or a complete listing of the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis—amazingly useful for recommendations of the “If you liked that, try this” sort.  There’s a guide to the cantatas, and all two hundred plus seem to have individual pages that describe instrumentation, composition, relationships to other works by the master, and sources for the texts.

I also discovered the International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), a vast treasure horde of remarkably good scores for many of the works I was becoming interested in.  I think that when I found a complete, readable score to the Bach Mass in B Minor, I knew I’d fallen down a rabbit hole.  Or perhaps the sensation is better described as having experienced the musical equivalent of bungee jumping: a terrifying leap, a rush of sensation and information, a sudden reversal towards my starting point, and a final spinning sense of exhilaration.  (For the record, those are all second-hand assessments, as I’m far too old and, well, chickenshit, to fly off a bridge like that.  But I’m willing to take the leap for Old Johann.)

Score on one side of the screen, and Wikipedia’s lovely guide to the structure of the Mass in B Minor on the other, I started spending hours and hours listening, trying to become familiar with the music, trying to master its styles and transitions, its highs and lows.  If I could do that with Rubber Soul at the age of 13, surely I could attain some kind of mastery now.

I’m not sure I’ve succeeded, but I sure am having fun.  And along the way I started reading about the history of the performance of the Mass, and that led, perhaps inevitably, to listening to multiple versions of it.  The version that I owned, performed by the New York Philharmonic led by Alan Gilbert, was big and bold, and when the Gloria began, or the serenity of the Crucifixus suddenly gave way to the bounding, jagged lines of Et Resurrexit, I had no trouble imagining all the heavenly choirs rejoicing.

But my tastes run to chamber music rather than to symphonic bombast, and when I began to read about some of the “radical” interpretations of the Mass that followed its revived popularity in the middle of the twentieth century, I thought I might find a version that spoke directly to my love of the small ensemble.

bach-mass-harnoncourtI started with Nikolaus Harnoncourt’s 1968 recording, the first to use period instruments.  But it turned out that there was more to Harnoncourt’s reconstructive techniques than simply wooden flutes and valveless horns.  He began a process of stripping away what I’ve come to think of as the symphonic quality of interpretations of the Mass.  The various parts of the Mass we’re composed over a more than twenty-year period from the early 1720s to the late 1740s.  While performance of some parts of it during Bach’s lifetime can be documented, history seems fairly clear that the work was not performed in its entirety until well over a century after Bach’s death.  In the meantime, Beethoven happened (among others).   Perhaps more importantly, the tradition of the mass being sung purely as a part of a religious rite gave way to the performance of “religious” music in the secular venue of nineteenth-century concert halls with their need to provide large ensembles to fill large spaces with sound.  And that sound, not the ceremony, became the focus of the experience.  So when Harnoncourt stripped the size of the chorus down to sixteen singers in some parts, and performed with as few as six string players, he made a radical departure from the practice of the previous hundred years, which tended to accord great works great (sized) ensembles to carry their majesty.  And yet, as I listened, I felt no diminution in majesty.  There are parts that strike me as less distinguished–the basso solo in the “Qnoniam” section of the “Gloria” lacks verve in my ears, as does the tenor aria of the “Benedictus.”  But the historical significance of Harnoncourt’s re-interpretation is unchallenged.

bach-mass-rifkinAn even more radical re-interpretation of the Mass was soon to follow.  As a teen-ager, I knew Joshua Rifkin as the man who scored Judy Collins’ haunting albums of the late sixties and who performed the piano rags of Scoot Joplin for Nonesuch Records.  I was ignorant of his “serious” music credentials and his scholarship until I began reading about his 1982 recording of the Mass in B Minor.  Working from copies of performing parts in Bach’s own hand, Rifkin put forth the theory that Bach had not intended to have the Mass sung by a large choir at all.  Instead, the five soloists (two sopranos, alto, tenor, and bass) would have joined together to sing the “choral” parts of the Mass—those that are written for multiple voices and not explicitly for one voice (or two in the case of the three duets).  In creating a sounds that aligns with my concept of “chamber” music, Rifkin also reduces the size of the instrumental ensembles, doubling up only on violins among the strings and otherwise adhering to the number of parts for brass and woodwinds specified in Bach’s score.  The sound of this interoperation came as a shock the first time I listened to Rifkin’s recording–and still does, to be honest.  The spareness of both the vocal and instrumental lines gives a sense of intimacy but more, allows my ear to absorb individual melodic lines more easily.  There is a sinuous complexity to the melody of “Et in terra pax” from the “Gloria” that had eluded me in more richly padded versions, a crispness to the basso continuo in the opening bars of the “Laudamus te.”  By the time I’d finished listening to Rifkin’s version, I wondered if I would ever be happy to return to the Alan Gilbert interpretation with the New York Philharmonic that had been my first recent encounter with the Mass.

I needn’t have worried.  From the opening bars of Gilbert’s sumptuous arrangement, I was hooked all over on the grandeur of the sound, of a choir that gave credence to the notion of “heavenly.”  And so I decided to try one more recording, that of John Eliot Gardiner, which reviews promoted as vital and virtuosic.  And once more I found myself entranced.  Although both the chorus and orchestra are sizable, Gardiner’s version avoids the Teutonic pomposity of, say, von Karajan.  And when I discovered a video of Gardiner conducting the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir in a performance of the Mass at the Philharmonie de Paris from March of this year, my delight was complete, for it helped me to relive the moments last November when I saw this great work performed myself for the first time at Lincoln Center.

I’ve not quite emerged from this two-month immersion in the Mass in B Minor.  I’ve begun supplementing my listening with some serious reading, beginning with John Butt’s 1991 Bach: Mass in B Minor from the Cambridge Music Handbooks series, discovering in the process how woefully inadequate my musical training and my comprehension of theory and history is.  Butt also edited The Cambridge Companion to Bach (1997), a set of essays that explore cultural, religious, and musical aspects of Bach’s music.  So far, I’ve only read the chapters dealing with politics, Lutheranism, and philosophical movements in the 18th century, but already I am beginning to understand more about the composer’s strategies.

But more importantly, I’ve shed the notion that I began with that my investigations would lead me to a definitive, or even a favorite, recording of the Mass.    When I was a teenager and heard Stravinsky conducting The Rite of Spring for the first time, I never listened happily to Pierre Boulez again.  I expected the “truth” to descend on my with a similar éclat this time around.  And I’m happy to say that perhaps age does confer some wisdom.  Just as I didn’t need to accept Joan Brett Connolly’s interpretation of the Parthenon frieze as definitive or even necessarily accurate to enjoy the beauty of her arguments and to appreciate what she taught me about what religion and art may have meant in ancient Greece, I am content now to travel “in the realms of gold /
And many goodly states and kingdoms see,” to know that the treasures Bach offers are inexhaustible.

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Wiseman’s Gifts

wisemanA few years ago, as I was getting to know a new colleague at work, she spoke to me of her love of documentary films, and she rattled off the names of a few she had recently seen and enjoyed.  I had never been deeply interested in the genre, but her description of one of them, Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, intrigued me.  It tells the story of Mark Hogencamp, who, brain-damaged after an attack outside a bar and unable to work, begins to build in his back yard an elaborate scale model of a Belgian town during World War II, complete with dolls portraying soldiers and citizens.  He begins to photograph the miniature dramas he’s constructed in a way that makes them appear to seem to be documentary images.  The tale gets stranger and much more deeply affecting from there.  I was hooked, and have been searching out documentaries at the rate of about one a week ever since.

A little over a year ago I stumbled on one of the great directors of the genre for the first time, Frederick Wiseman, after reading reviews of his four-hour examination of higher education, At Berkeley (2013).  Since I hold an administrative job at a large public research university, and spend a portion of each day browsing the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, I was immediately attracted to the subject matter.  Knowing nothing about Wiseman, or even much about the film (including its length), I blithely ordered it up from Netflix and settled in to watch.

wiseman-At-BerkeleyWiseman’s “signature style,” as the reviews call it, consists of two fundamentals: he doesn’t identify anyone who appears in the film, and he provides no titles, subtitles, music, or other cues to provide context or commentary on what the camera captures.  He is also sparing of the kind of atmospheric shots the establish mood in a film; his selections seems, if not quite random, not quite revelatory either.  At Berkeley features scenes of students playing frisbee on the lawns, the gates of the University at Sproul Plaza, construction sites, a groundsman on a riding mower.  If you live or work on a college campus, these are the staples of ordinary life..

The heart of the film’s story lies in other such staples, and involves talking above all else.  The first big scene that I remember from the film is a lengthy meeting of senior administrators, including the University’s chancellor.  It is a protracted discussion of budgets, and given its setting in the fall of 2012, of how the University is to cope with repeated cuts from the state of California to its funding.  There is also some talk about growing unrest among the students in response to these budget cuts, and the possibility of a mass protest in the tradition of the 60’s Free Speech Movement.

And then suddenly we’re in a classroom, where a group of perhaps twenty students, their desk arranged in a circle, are being led by an earnest professor in a discussion of power in society.  The students are truly a diverse lot ethnically: a beefy white guy who might have been a high school jock, a woman in a hijab, a black woman who articulates her sense of injustice, a kid in track shorts and flip-flops, an earnest young man who hangs on every word but doesn’t speak.  These two scenes, of faculty and administrators and faculty and students, occupy much of the film’s first hour.

In another wrenching episode much later on, two engineering students are engaged with their advisor in a review of their work in building intelligent prosthetics for veterans of America’s wars in the 21st century.  The longer the scene went on the more I was impressed by the skill and intelligence that went into the work, the originality of the ideas that the students brought to bear on the problems.  But I was also more and more impressed by the fact that the young man did all the talking; the young woman sat silently, operating the device but adding nothing to the great flow of words that carry Wiseman’s film along.  And I began to realize how much silent editorializing the director was capable of.

wismean-national-galleryThis week I took up another of Wiseman’s challenges, 2014’s National Gallery.  It opens its storytelling with a series of quick cuts from one masterpiece to another, but from there the film follows the same narrative strategy as At Berkeley and others of Wisman’s films.  At a large administrative meeting a woman presents a fervent if somewhat inarticulate plea for the Gallery to think hard, not just about education, conservation, presentation, and exhibition, but about all the people those activities are meant to serve.  Finally, she stumbles onto the word “audience.”  She seems to be suggesting that the highly skilled and dedicated staff  of the Gallery think too often about their own concerns and are preoccupied with the Gallery’s collections and standing while not thinking as creatively (or as often) about the public.  You can tell quite easily that Gallery director Nicholas Penny is having none of this.  And that attitude is reinforced at a later meeting in which he blasts the notion of using the Gallery’s facade as a projection screen to highlight the charities who will benefit from an upcoming marathon that will end with the runners crossing the tape in Trafalgar Square.  To those who argue that the presence of such enormous crowds could be a drawing card for the Gallery itself, Penny counters that no-one asked the Gallery is they wanted to have a marathon finish on their doorstep, grand though it may be.

The film proceeds to give us wonderful insights into the ways in which the Gallery does serve the public and the art it contains.  In a powerful early scene, an eloquent docent, using a 3D representation of Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night, provides a lesson in composition and affect to a group of adults, all of whom are blind or severely visually impaired.  Out in the galleries another docent in what appears to be an 18th-century frock coat, urges her audience to imagine themselves seeing a masterful medieval altarpiece in dim, flickering candlelight, high above their heads, as it was originally installed for the spiritual edification of the faithful.  In the back rooms of the museum, a conservator provides a mesmerizing account of the discovery of a partially completed full length portrait hidden beneath the finished equestrian portrait by Rembrandt that is being cleaned and restored; he speculates on how portions of the original may have been incorporated by Rembrandt into the final design, or whether those details are merely the results of an inept, earlier attempt at restoration.

But much of the lecturing that goes on in the film is flat and vacuous.  An expert on Leonardo fails miserably to explain what has been learned in the course of mounting “Leonardo: The Studio Tour,” an exhibition which focused on the creation of the master’s Virgin of the Rocks.  Penny himself takes the floor to discourse on a pair of paintings depicting the Roman goddess Diana; a poet reads her interpretation of one of them.  Neither adds much in the way of enlightenment.  And since Penny had presided over the purchase of one of these paintings, Diana and Acteon, in 2009, for the price of £50 million, I wondered whose agenda was really being served here.

For from that initial debate, if you can call it that, about the Gallery’s obligation to its audience, a dichotomy is set up between the Gallery and its public, between the curators and chemists and conservators on the one hand, and the people who come to see these paintings.  Although two blockbuster exhibitions are compassed in the course of the film (dedicated to Leonardo and Titian), the crowds who come to see them, and most of the individuals captured in the galleries studying the paintings, are remarkably homogenous in character and appearance.  If the staff of the National Gallery can come off as hermetic and elite, the audience we see in the film are equally and strangely similar.  They are all well groomed, even the punk seen briefly standing in line for admission to the Leonardo exhibition: his umbrella barely clears his extraordinary, perfect, bi-color mohawk.

Both of these movies show us the inner workings, the complicated lives, of a large public institution.  At Berkeley suggests the importance of such organizations; indeed Chancellor Robert Birgenau argues that it is exactly the public funding of the university that distinguishes it and makes it necessary.  Wiseman’s portrait of the University of California at Berkeley is one of a community of individuals—diversity is a theme that is played almost as strongly as coherence at the school—working together for a common good: the education of the citizenry.

National Gallery is also about education: even the portions devoted to the conservation of the collections are heavily (and wonderfully) didactic.  But the community of scholars here keeps its distance: it is education as lecture rather than a seminar or laboratory.  As if the focus on the highest of high art, almost exclusively in the oil painting tradition, were not enough, the film ends with two equally earnest episodes of high culture: a performance of a Beethoven piano sonata in a packed gallery, the music echoing off the paintings on the walls; and a spooky ballet, a pas de deux performed in another gallery, deserted except for the paintings.

Is Wiseman commenting not only on the different organizational cultures but also on the societies that have bred them?  Are we looking at a fundamentally diverse and democratic institution in the United States and a highly rarefied entertainment for the upper classes in GreatBritain?  Or are those just projections of my own prejudices and perceptions?  And for me, that is the greatest of Wiseman’s gifts, for he teaches me many lessons about subjects I understand only imperfectly, and then he forces me to question the judgments that I have formed in response.  I’m just going to have to go back and watch both of these films again.

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Wee Tam and the Big Huge

isb-wee-tamAs I’ve noted previously, the Incredible String Band demonstrated significant creative growth between each of their first three albums.  That pattern continues on a grand scale with their fourth, Wee Tam and the Big Huge.  In many ways, this is the classic String Band release.

Or releases.  The album came out in the UK, oddly, both as a double album and two single albums—the former, no doubt, the artists’ intention, the latter a clever marketing strategy for their impoverished fans.  Eighteen songs, an even wider array of instruments than on previous outings, and startling new experiments with form characterize the double release.

It also marks the point when the duo of Robin and Mike really became a quartet.  Robin’s girlfriend Licorice McKechnie had made guest appearances on backing vocals and finger cymbals on both The 5000 Spirits and The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter; she was joined on the new album by Mike’s girl, Rose Simpson.  Although they appear on only a few of the tracks and had yet to join the boys onstage, Licorice and Rose contribute to the changed sound of Wee Tam and the Big Huge and would never again be relegated to the sidelines.

(This is most probably another instance of the competitive spirit that always existed between the lads.  Rose reported in an interview that Mike came home with a bass guitar and told her she was going to learn to play it; he clearly was intent on maintaining parity in the band if Licorice was becoming a regular.  Rose on bass first appeared in the next outing, Changing Horses, but she played violin and percussion in addition to adding vocals on Wee Tam and the Big Huge.  I’ll say in passing that she was a stunning presence on the bass.  The first time I saw the String Band, she wielded that instrument like a born rocker.  The electric blue, high-heeled platform shoes she was dancing in as she played  probably enhanced the effect tremendously.)

Both Robin and Mike were stretching themselves to new compositional achievements this time around, but Robin in particular was aiming for the epic and the mythic, while not losing his sense of childish play.  Both albums begin with long compositions by Robin in which he carries the performance mostly solo, accompanying himself on guitar.  “Job’s Tears” from Wee Tam plays some interesting turns on conventional religious notions, with Christ appearing as a gambling man of sorts (“When the deal comes down, I’ll put on my crown”) and God pictured as a woman.  Licorice adds her ghostly harmonies on this number, balancing out Mike’s stronger accompaniment (along with his sitar) on the opener of The Big Huge, “Maya.”  The latter is a parable compounded of the Tarot and the Ship of Fools, with both Heron and Williamson appearing on board (“the Harper and the Archer”) in a phrasing reminiscent of “The Mad Hatter’s Song” from The 5000 Spirits.

“Ducks on a Pond” is another extended piece by Robin, which closes Wee Tam.  Mostly another solo for Robin and his guitar, it adds some atmospheric bass piano chords from Mike midway through before launching first into a children’s calling-on rhyme followed by another lively adaptation of an old hymn (à la “A Very Cellular Song”), complete with washboard and kazoo.  It was my favorite String Band song for years.

“The Half-Remarkable Question” is full of lovely mystical imagery:

Who moved the black castle,
Who moved the white queen,
When Gimel and Daleth where standing between?
Out of the evening growing a veil,
Pining for the pine woods that ached for the sail.
There’s something forgotten I want you to know
The freckles of rain they are telling me so.

The melody to this song has an interesting pedigree.  On the concert recording Live at the Fillmore 1968, Robin uses it for a radical reworking of the first album’s “October Song” and inserts the bridge lyrics into the earlier song.  It appears to be an example of the String Band’s ability to use live performance to stretch out concepts and explore new ideas.

isb-the-big-hugeOn The Big Huge, “The Son of Noah’s Brother” takes the record for the shortest song in their catalog, a descending octave of notes that lasts a mere sixteen seconds.  “Lordly Nightshade” is a lullaby of sorts, though its grim imagery might be disquieting enough to bring on troubled rather than happy dreams.  Finally, “The Iron Stone” and “The Circle is Unbroken” find Robin in full Celtic-minstrel mode, again weaving imagery of magical shores and sailing ships.

While Robin seems intent on solidifying a musical identity of poet and seer, Mike is equally intent on exploring as many idioms as possible.  “Cousin Caterpillar,” with its sprightly hand drums and multi-part “doo-dah” backing vocals, could be an excerpt from the score of a Busby Berkeley musical: one can easily imagine the chorus line of waving insectoid gams metamorphosing in the finale.  “Greatest Friend” sounds like a old-time church hymn, and “Log Cabin Home in the Sky,” with Rose and Robin on fiddles, might have come straight from an Appalachian holler.

Mike’s ultimate mashup, lyrically if not musically, is “The Mountain of God.”  Scored for church organ, an instrument Mike will return to often in the future, the words could lovingly be described as a bit of a mess.

Behold the mountain of the Lord
In latter days shall rise, hark, the herald angels sing
Hush, hush, whisper who dares
Christopher Robin is saying his prayers

Do you not fly as clouds
And as doves to your windows
Who serve as the shadow
And the example of heavenly things

As Moses was admonished of God
As he was making the Tabernacle
See that you do all things according to the pattern
Shown you on the high mountain

Glory be to the Father
And to the Son and to the Holy Ghost
As it was in the beginning
Is now and ever shall be world without end, Amen

Moving from the Scottish Psalter to a Christmas carol, through Winnie-the-Pooh, and then to verses from Isaiah and Hebrews before landing on the Lesser Doxology, Mike covers more ground in two minutes that Robin does in his extended mythic journeys.  Still, it’s a lovely tune, a minor but enduring contribution to the String Band’s canon.

Then there are the love songs, “You Get Brighter,” and “Air.”  The first is a hymn to the sun, the second to oxygen.

Breathing, all creatures are
Brighter then than brightest star
You are by far

You come right inside of me
Close as you can be
You kiss my blood and the blood kiss me

The song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1971 film “Taking Off,” in which runaway teenagers inspire the parents to discover new freedom themselves.  Very 60’s, dreamy and full of promise.

Despite the variety of styles employed and the range of emotional engagement, there’s a consistency, almost a purity, to these albums and the songs they contain.  Listening to them repeatedly over the years, as the style of the band continued to evolve, I could never shake the feeling that Wee Tam and the Big Huge represented the moment when the Incredible String Band hit the mark fully for the first time and got everything just right.  When experimentation is the hallmark and change is the constant, it can seem foolish to say that these albums are the quintessence of the String Band.  But I’ll say it anyway.  If I were marooned in a log cabin home in the sky with only one selection from the ISB’s catalog, this would most certainly be it.

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To the Lighthouse, Again

to-the-lighthouseAs an undergraduate English major, dedicated to early twentieth century British literature, I read all the great: Hardy, Conrad, Lawrence, Forster, Joyce, Woolf, Beckett.  And quite a few of the minor leaguers as well.

In the decades since then, I have returned to all of these authors, but none so frequently as Virginia Woolf.  I’ve always said that if I could have only one book on that desert isle, it would be Mrs Dalloway.  But lately, as I’m rereading To the Lighthouse for the second time this year, I may be changing that selection.  What once seemed the most impenetrable prose now feels that the easy and familiar conversation of an old friend, although one of special wit.

I’m sure that the difficulty I encountered the first time I read the novel was the manner in which Woolf almost blithely shifts from the mind of one character to another.  In the opening paragraphs Mrs Ramsay speaks to her youngest son James,  and we are suddenly seeing through his eyes, even as an omniscient narrator adds external detail to the scene.

Then the boy’s contrarian father intrudes: “‘But,’ said his father, stopping in front of the drawing-room window, ‘it won’t be fine.’” And thence perspective flits from James, to omniscience, and finally to his mother again.  This collision of perspectives on a simple scene in a drawing room establishes both narrative method and structure.  As characters multiply across the pages, I found that  the challenge of understanding whose perspective was being presented was daunting.  But it was also the key to understanding the novel, for the effect of each character upon the others is at its heart.

How strange, then, that the most lyrical, intense, and moving section of the novel for me was the brief intermezzo called “Time Passes.”  Describing a period of ten years in which the summer house that forms the setting for the first and third sections of the novel stands empty, it is a strange kind of pastoral: bleak but still beautiful.  We learn of great changes, including the deaths of Mrs Ramsay, her eldest daughter Prue in childbirth, and eldest son Andrew in the Great War.  But these momentous human transitions occur, quite literally, parenthetically, passed on in a sentence of two.  It is almost as if, for the few pages of “Time Passes” we enter into the consciousness of the house itself, mediated perhaps by a caretaker or two.

What makes the entire book so glorious, of course, are Woolf’s words, her ability to compress an idea into a tightly crafted image.  Going back to the novel again with its story and shape in my mind, I can lose myself to a sentence unfolding a complicated syntax, waiting to be decoded; and then an abstraction, an emotion, suddenly takes on  a shape in a brilliant image: the eye sees what the mind comprehends.  Early in the novel, Mrs Ramsay thinks about one of the maids at the house, Marie, a Swiss girl, far from home:

Her father was dying there, Mrs Ramsay knew.  He was leaving them fatherless.  Scolding and demonstrating (how to make a bed, how to open a window, with hands that shut and spread like a Frenchwoman’s) all had folded itself quietly about her, when the girl spoke, as, after a flight through the sunshine the wings of a bird fold themselves quietly and the blue of its plumage changes from bright steel to soft purple.  She had stood there silent for there was nothing to be said.

Here is Mrs Ramsay in full flight herself: mistress of the house, showing  her servants how to properly attend to its family, when she is brought up short by a recognition of mortality.  Motion ceases; stillness holds.  The details of domestic life transform into the the bird settling itself, tucking its wings in, exchanging the flash of reflected light for the gentle color of mourning.  What extraordinary prose Woolf writes.

to-the-lighthouse-dvdGiven the beauty of the language, how strange and difficult it should be to transmute this story into a film, and yet the BBC adaption, produced in 1983, succeeds surprisingly well.  (I can’t imagine what watching it would be like if one weren’t already familiar with the novel.)  And I’m sure that some Woolf devotees are scandalized by the very notion of filming her books.  But when we watched it last night, I was not disappointed.

True, there are moments of clumsiness.  Occasional brief monologues try to capture some of the stream of consciousness that flows through the book.  The music swells to announce portentous moments.  A few equally portentous  shots of the distant lighthouse hammer the point home at other times.  But by and large the film proceeds by means of a series of brief, intimate moments, understated and evocative.

Rosemary Harris as Mrs Ramsay deserves much of the credit for the film’s success.  Quietly beautiful, as Woolf describes Mrs Ramsay, she comes off as loving and sympathetic, wise to the emotions of those around her, knitting together her family and friends in kindness and understanding.  Her body is as expressive as her face and voice, on occasion languid, at times protectively encircling a child, standing stalwart by her husband, or grubbing assiduously in a garden patch.  The film’s characterization of Mrs Ramsay is less nuanced that Woolf’s: as wife and mother she is loyal and affectionate always.  The admission of egoism, of her role as busybody and arranger, is downplayed.

Suzanne Bertish as Lily Briscoe, the solitary artist and friend of the family, has a harder go of it.  In the novel her character is as prismatic as Mrs Ramsay’s, and she is often Woolf’s foil for the mother-figure.  If the novel is in part Woolf’s attempt to reflect on the grief she felt at the death of her own mother, it is through the character of Lily that she explores her feelings of equal closeness and alienation; Lily also gives voice to the artist’s struggle with her materials.  In the final section of the film, after Mrs Ramsay’s death, she emerges as the central consciousness, connecting sleepy Mr Carmichael on the lawn of the house to her long-delayed completion of the portrait of Mrs Ramsay and young James on its porch, and to the equally long-delayed sailing trip to the lighthouse. Mr Ramsay at last takes James and his sister Cam out to sea, an homage to his wife and family, and perhaps as a sort of penance, as Lily watches from the shore.

Kenneth Branagh, in one of his first on-screen appearances, plays Mr Ramsay’s young acolyte, Charles Tansley.  Only 22 years old at the time, Branagh is still quite wonderful, even in a role that allows him little emotional expression other than frustration and petulance.  Like Harris, he can do wonders with his body language,  speeding stiffly across the lawn, utterly furious and ridiculously priggish at the same time.  The DVD packaging gives him star billing, naturally, but his role falls into the second tier of characters and he appears only in the first of the story’s three sections.

to-the-lighthouse-1955The middle section I spoke of earlier, “Time Passes,” is nearly as finely executed in the film as it is in the novel: perhaps the exteriority of description in this section of the book is easier to translate to the screen.  Nonetheless, I was delighted with the production’s faithful transcription and the willingness to give the house and its depredations the lead role for five or six minutes.  It’s beautifully photographed; and the music, although still a bit overbearing, provides an emotional continuity through the changes wrought by time and the war.

As a closing aside, before I sat down to write these reflections, I set out to search the net for a few images to include in the post. There is the dust-jacket of the first edition, designed by Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell, the slipcase for the DVD (released in 2004) and the cover of the paperback edition that I bought in 1971.  But I also stumbled across the original review of the novel published in the New York Times. (The online version is dated May 8, 1925, mysteriously almost two years to the day before the novel was actually published on May 5, 1927—perhaps there’s more to this notion of haunting than I surmised at first!)  It’s well worth reading before undertaking the novel or the film; the contrasts it draws with Woolf’s previous novel, Mrs Dalloway, are wonderful and illuminating.  But it recognizes a “portrayal of life that is less orderly, more complex and so much doomed to frustration” that makes To the Lighthouse a grander and a more ambitious work, the peak achievement of Woolf’s prose to date.

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Tragedy in Practice: Les Atrides

atrides-t1During my senior year in high school, we staged Jean Anouilh’s Antigone; that was, for a long time, my only experience with tragedy on stage.  It would be twenty years before I saw Greek tragedy on stage again; another twenty have passed since that moment, courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in 1992.

The occasion was the presentation of Les Atrides by the Le Théâtre du Soleil under the direction of Ariane Mnouchkine.  And it was utterly transcendent, perhaps the most thrilling piece of theater I have ever seen.


Les Atrides takes the Oresteia as its core, but offers as a preface Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis, a play that provides the backstory for Clytemnestra’s vengeful murder of Agamemnon in the first play of Aeschylus’s trilogy.  The performances sponsored by BAM were held in the cavernous Park Slope Armory; I saw them over the course of two days on a brilliant, sunny October weekend.

After almost a quarter of a century, much of what I saw that weekend has receded from memory’s grasp.  But there is enough, and of a critical nature, that remains imprinted on my mind for me to offer a glimpse here of what the performance was like.  But before I do that, I need to return once more to Aristotle, the Poetics, and the elements of tragedy that he laid out.

There are six: plot, character, thought, diction, melody, and spectacle, and Aristotle ranks their importance in the order I have just presented.  For the modern theatrical producer, the first four are pretty well covered by the playwright’s text.  The challenge—and for me the most difficult to comprehend from the text and from a distance of 2500 years—are the last two: melody (the role of the chorus) and spectacle (the staging of the action).  And it was precisely in those latter two that Mnouchkine’s presentation of Les Atrides proved to be, for me, unprecedented.

Not that there weren’t surprises to be had when it came to plot, character, and diction.  For one thing, the plays were performed in French with a simultaneous English translation provided via headset (remember this was 1992, and that sort of technology was not at all commonplace).  All the dialogue came doubled, and both versions were simultaneously intelligible if you spoke both languages.  The effect was somewhere between a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt and a Theater of Cruelty à la Artaud, wherein the very strangeness becomes disorienting and destabilizing.


Agamemnon and Iphigenia

The combination of Euripides and Aeschylus proved unsettling as well.  As I said, it had been a long time since I’d read either author; in other words, I’d read them as an unsophisticated youth.  And so, in the theater that day, the psychological realism of Euripides seemed quite normal to me, indeed, unremarkable.  The shift from Euripides to Aeschylus was like a sudden switch from modern prose to a rigorous, metrical, primitive incantation.  Aeschylus’ language was strange and alien in comparison, and (the greatest irony?) infinitely more compelling.

But for me the triumph and the transport of Les Atrides came in the way that Mnouchkine handled what Aristotle asserted were the least important aspects of the tragedy: melody and spectacle.

All that began with our arrival at the Armory, where we discovered that the actors’ dressing area was set up under the bleachers we would be seated on.  As we milled into the vast, darkened space of the theater, lights glowed in these warrens of exotic color, costumes hanging from pipes, some of the cast already in the heavy white makeup they would wear onstage, others meditating serenely on rugs of Eastern provenance.  As we were rushed through to our seating, the glimpse proved provocative and disorienting.

When the action finally opened on the stage, the sense of strangeness, of uncomfortable confrontation, and yet of thrilling possibility, was only heightened.  The costumes were Mediterranean, Persian, Indian, all at once.  The dialog came at you in two different languages simultaneously.  The music was simple—often only a single instrument or perhaps a battery of drums—utterly apt, disturbing, premonitory.


A scene from Agamemnon, with the Chorus

The actors in their startling makeup were alien; the total affect was one of something only vaguely human.  These creatures on stage were familiar and extraordinary at the same time.  After a few moments I realized that the makeup and the limited range of facial expression it enforced made the actors’ visages into masks.  These were not the masks of Greek tragedy but they were masks nonetheless.  They struck me as shorthand for Mnouchkine’s entire production: this was not tragedy as the Greeks experienced it on the slopes of the Acropolis in Athens, but to was easy to believe this presentation of Aeschylus affected a modern audience the way it affected the ancients.


Members of the chorus: Iphigenia in Aulis

Nowhere did this feeling come through more strongly than in watching the chorus perform.  I’d never quite understood how the chorus could effectively integrate into the telling of the drama I read in my survey  of world lit classes.  But here they were, exploding into improbable life.  I say improbable because the movement, the costuming, even the music, owed far more to the Kathakali traditions of southern India than they did to ancient or even modern Greece.  But even more improbably, the chorus fit and complemented the action on the stage; it was integral, believable, dramatic.

As I noted in my previous post on tragedy, The Eumenides is the ringer in the trilogy, a play that celebrates reconciliation and justice rather than destruction and revenge.  But The Eumenides could be the most startling of the plays visually, for the Chorus in this work is comprised of the Furies, the demons of vengeance who are, by the judgment of Athene, transformed at the play’s conclusion into “The Kindly Ones”—as the Greek title translates into English.


The Furies

Mnouchkine’s visualization of the Furies was two-fold.  The leaders of the chorus were part Holocaust survivor and part refugee from the nightmare worlds of Samuel Beckett The mass of the chorus members was mad mythologizing: a pack of ape-faced dogs, snarling and leaping at the limits of the human conscience.  These creatures occupied the ramparts of the stage in the same way that those graceful, swirling dancers of the Agamemnon had done, but these dog were crippled, earth-bound, and vicious.  All the more startling then, at the play’s conclusion, after Athene has broken the deadly cycle of vengeance, to see them suddenly rise up on their hind legs, to walk on two feet among us like men.

I remember returning home and seeking out Dr Falk, who’d taught me his theories of tragedy, to avidly inform him that I’d seen and heard Greek tragedy unveiled.  Dr Falk, always strict, essentialist, and purist, smiled at me knowingly and said, “Ah, but you don’t know what it smelled like.”

And he was right of course.  Ariane Mnouchkine and Le Théâtre du Soleil were not performing Greek tragedy in New York.  But they were making great theater, à la français, but perhaps also somehow à la grecque, and offering me a change to understand Aristotle and Aeschylus in a way never before equalled, nor since.

There’s no chance that my words can ever convey that experience.  The only record of these performances that I have been able to uncover is this clip from rehearsals of Mnouchkine’s Agamemnon.  It is, for a YouTube video, long and slow, but that approximates the actual experience in the theater quite well.  I urge you to watch it and to be patient.  It unfolds wonders.  Just wait till the chorus enters….

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Tragedy, in Theory

tragedyAs a student in both undergraduate and graduate programs in Comparative Literature, I was not only unable to avoid Aristotle, I encountered him repeatedly.  I had a trying relationship with the old boy at best.  No matter how many times I read the Poetics, I never really understood what all the fuss was about.

Well, there was one moment in an undergraduate seminar on literary theory that worked fairly well.  The most eccentric professor I ever encountered was compelling us to understand the concept of catharsis, which he insisted was the purpose of tragedy performed on the stage.  First, the play arouses in the audience the emotion of fear for the fate of the characters, along with a dose of pity when things inevitably go wrong.  Phaedra lusts after her stepson Hippolytus: we know this is going to end badly, and we feel pity for both of them when they die.  Having had our emotions excited, we sort of sweat them out. purge them, and end up in a more balanced humor.

This was a little too tame an explanation for Dr. Eccentric.  He preferred to talk about fear in the approach of the Furies as they surround Orestes in the temple of Athene near the conclusion of the Eumenides.  Literary apocrypha has it that this scene was so terrifying that pregnant women in the first audience miscarried. Others in attendance experienced similarly strong physical reactions.  “Catharsis!” he exclaimed.  “Tragedy will scare the shit out of you!  Literally!”

Well, that got my attention in a way that Aristotle himself never did.  But I’m not sure that it advanced my understanding of the theory of tragedy very much.

Aristotle describes a general plan for the action of a tragedy.  A person of superior status, through some mistake, experiences a reversal of fortune, and then comes to understand how that reversal has come to pass.  Because there are rules that govern our society, our world, this turn of events leads to suffering, and often death.

Aristotle’s “mistake” becomes, two millennia later, Shakespeare’s “tragic flaw,” the ambition that undoes Macbeth, the indecisiveness that visits such havoc on Hamlet and his court.

tragedy-oresteiaSomewhere deep in my graduate studies another seminar came along, this one devoted entirely to the tragic and taught by my advisor and mentor, Dr. Eugene Falk.  He had his own theories of the tragic, and I have to say, he outdid Aristotle by leagues.

Simply put, Falk’s theory of the tragic did away with the notion of the mistake or the flaw entirely.  Instead, he claimed, the tragic involved an unresolvable conflict between two things of high positive value.  Two things were unalterably good and yet in conflict, and one of them was inevitably destroyed by that opposition.

His classic example was Sophocles’ Antigone.  Two brothers, Polyneikes and Eteokles, have gone to war over who will be king of Thebes and have died by each other’s hand.  Their uncle, Kreon, assumes the throne and orders a state funeral for Eteokles; he also decrees that the corpse of Polyneikes will remain unburied outside the city walls, to be eaten by dogs.

Antigone, unfortunate sister of the warring brothers, is thus faced with an impossible choice.  She is obligated to obey her king, Kreon, and leave Polyneikes to rot.  She is also obligated to obey her gods, who demand respect and proper burial for the dead.  She cannot, to employ an entirely anachronistic metaphor, render unto Caesar or to God; she must—and yet cannot—render unto both.

If she does not bury Polyneikes, the gods will condemn her; if she does, Kreon will put her to death.  We could say that she has no choice.  But the essence of her tragedy is that she must choose, though either way she is damned.  And so she chooses, giving Polyneikes his rites and submitting to Kreon’s death sentence.  Antigone’s duty to the state and her duty to the gods are both real and non-negotiable, and conflict between them destroys her.

If you take this severe definition of the tragic and apply it to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, you’ll see that its subtitle of “an American tragedy” is itself simple hubris.

Classical Greek tragedy came in threes, of course, but the only complete trilogy that has survived to the present day is Aeschylus’s Oresteia: Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides.

tragedy-oresteia-bisIn the Agamemnon, the eponymous hero returns victorious from the Trojan War.  But ten years earlier, when the Greek fleet set off for the shores of Ionia, the gods kept it becalmed until Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to raise the winds.  When he returns to Argos, his wife Clytemnestra must either be obedient to him and deny motherhood, or she must exact revenge for Iphigneia’s death.  Agamemnon dies, but Clytemnestra seals her own fate.

In The Libation Bearers, the children of this unhappy marriage, Orestes and Elektra, have an equally impossible choice.  They can remain dutiful to their mother, or they can avenge their father.  Orestes makes the fateful choice and exits, pursued by the Furies.

Tragedy upon tragedy.  Both fit Dr. Falk’s definition nicely.

The Eumenides doesn’t.  Athene intervene to save Orestes from the vengeance of the Furies and to transform the goddesses of retribution into avatars of justice.  There are profound cultural implications to this interruption of the existing social order.   Modern commentators like to see the action of The Eumenides as emblematic of the start of Athenian democracy, Western civilization, and the Enlightenment.  I will refer you back to The Parthenon Enigma for a potential counterargument.

Of course, Aeschylus’s plays are much more complex that I have presented them here.  Agamemnon’s tragic flaw of hubris, the machinations of the gods in human affairs, Clytemnestra’s fury, the madness of Orestes, traditions of pollution and purification: these are all elements of the dramas that I have slighted to illustrate this modern concept of the tragic.

Dr. Falk’s theory of tragedy is a good deal more restrictive than Aristotle’s; to begin with, Falk had far fewer Greek plays upon which to base his deductions.  He was also concerned with getting at something essential, with penetrating to the very heart of an intellectual construct and with weeding out a debased and sloppy vernacular definition of “tragedy.”  But I appreciate the clarity that he brought to the discussion and find his theory still to be a useful touchstone in my thinking.

Perhaps more than anything else, Dr. Falk’s intense devotion to the concept of tragedy primed me for one of the most extraordinary theatrical experiences of my life.  More about that next time.

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Ellsworth’s Elegance

kelly-1966Although I grew up a mere thirty-five miles outside of New York City, I never had the chance to visit anything other than the homes of various aunts and uncles in the outer boroughs and, once, the Bronx Zoo.  That changed in my mid-teens when my high school art teacher began taking us to Manhattan to see the street art in Greenwich Village, to visit the contemporary galleries that then clustered on Madison Avenue, and to venture into the great museums.  In 1967 there was a day when we first saw Sgt Peppers on sale, in a record store in Penn Station, and shortly thereafter one of Frank Stella’s Irregular Polygons on a gallery wall downtown.  Heady times, indeed.

I remember one particularly amazing Saturday a couple of years later. We went first to MoMA, where an exhibition of Claes Oldenburg’s soft sculptures was mounted; the shock of seeing the enormous Floor Burger, which looked like the mutant offspring of an icepak and the ottoman in my parents’ living room, stays with me almost fifty years later.  In the afternoon we headed uptown to the Guggenheim.  The building itself was mind-blowing: spotting artworks already seen or as yet unencountered across the mad spiral of the main galleries was totally disorienting and at odds with my expectations of museums.  kelly_lichtensteinAnd the art, a major showing of Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings, played equal havoc with what few preconceptions Floor Burger hadn’t already demolished.  There was a large painting of the cover of the kind of marble composition book I was supposed to be taking notes in.  Another painting of the back of a stretched canvas stymied me completely (an example at right).  It was a while before I understood that Lichtenstein was telling his critics that if they didn’t think his comic-strip paintings were art, he’d show them what art really looked like.  From behind.

Somewhere in those years, although I don’t remember exactly when, I grew to know the work of Ellsworth Kelly.  He was one of those painters who seeped into my consciousness very slowly as I was learning what “hard-edge” and “color field” meant.  I’m not sure I understood his work at the time.  Or perhaps that’s too strong a way of putting it.  I may not have known much about art, but I know what I like.  His shimmering juxtapositions of primary colors in simple geometric shapes dazzled my eye, for sure.  I liked the elegance of the compositions .  The Walker Art Museum’s Red Green Blue (at the top of this post) was quintessential Kelly to me for many years.  I loved the way that the brilliance of the color played against the simplicity of the form: it was almost gaudy and yet at the same time somehow restrained.

A few weeks back, following recent shows of Kelly’s work in New York at Matthew Marks, ARTNews reprinted an article from 1963 by the critic William Rubin that assessed that startling simplicity of Kelly’s early work.  What was particularly striking was that all the illustrations that accompanied the reprint were of works that Kelly has made in the past three years.  The consistency of Kelly’s vision over half a century is striking, almost as impressive as the works themselves remain.  Equally striking was the headline that ARTNews gave to the new online piece: “Converting Painting in Sculpture.”

kelly-diagonal-with-curveOver the years, Kelly has done just that, creating sculptures that derive from the forms and shapes of his paintings.  But he is also a master of the shaped canvas, an idea that has intrigued me since that early exposure to Stella’s Irregular Polygons, among the first works I saw that built upon the relationship between the shape of the support and the image painted on it—an idea that in its own way informed Lichtenstein’s joking painting of the back of a canvas.  But Kelly maintained an elegance, shown here in Diagonal with Curve III (from the Philadelphia Museum of Art) that I find absolutely unmatched in the history of contemporary painting.  It is utterly simple and fascinatingly complex.  It plays with the figure-ground relationship (it could easily be negative space in a wall, a black hole of irregular proportions); it is flat but it has volume; it casts a shadow that denies the possibility of negation; it is complete in itself and yet makes a statement about the wall that holds it up.  It comes close to being nothing, but is replete with ideas far beyond what its simplicity should suggest.

KELLY-briar-1961I was long familiar with Kelly’s paintings (and somewhat less with his sculptures, which often resemble paintings folded in space) before I encountered his plant drawings for the first time in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.  That encounter was a double shock: first, the sense of awe at seeing such elegance in a simple pencil drawing, and second, the discovery of who had drawn them.  And yet as my eye roamed from one drawing to another I began to appreciate how much these simple works had in common with the paintings I had long admired.

kelly-orangeFor one thing, the drawings were all contour.  There was no shading, no gradation except perhaps in the thickness of the line produced by barely discernible variations in the amount of pressure Kelly had caused to pencil to exert upon the paper.  The lines were assured, strong, unfussy and unambiguous, and in this way, too, they resembled the basic elements of the paintings.  In their simplicity, they were all about shape.

The strength of line and form that was captured in these unadorned compositions was deceptive in a way that the paintings were as well.  The interplay of positive and negative space that the eye supplies is important in both.  And the sense of depth that goes beyond the flatness of the surface, though it takes a long time to emerge, is there as well.  In the drawing Orange (above and to the left) the bottom leaf projects slightly towards you; the top leaf recedes into the background of the picture plane.  In this regard, it is a perfectly naturalistic portrait of a tiny orange plant.  If you look more closely you can follow the emergence of each leaf in time as the plant grows; there is the tiniest indication of the next one to emerge from the top of the stem.

In Briar (above and right) there is a cluster of shapes formed in negative space at the center of the drawing.  In Sweet Pea (below), each line is as fundamentally simple as it is in Orange, and yet an astonishing depth and complexity emerges, even in the simplest parts of the drawing.  Look closely at the lower blossom on the stalk at the left.  The voluptuous folds of the petals are captured in an elegant curve, and enhanced by short, simple strokes, slightly lighter that most of the outline, that trace their way inside the contours of the flower—the closest Kelly comes in these drawings to shading.


Although I am still drawn to Kelly’s magnificent paintings, still thrill to discover a massive sweep of steel outside a museum, the plant drawings, perhaps because I see them so infrequently on display in museums, have garnered the place of deepest affection for me in Kelly’s oeuvre.  Kelly has said that drawing taught him to see; that drawing lies at the root of all his work—strange as that may seem when you consider how the draftsman’s or the painter’s marks seem to have been so thoroughly obliterated from his colored canvases and steel plates.

kelly-self-portrait-with-thorn-1947-oil-on-woodWhile I was searching the web for the images that I used in this post, I stumbled across another complete surprise: this Self Portrait with Thorn by Kelly, now held by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Painted in 1947, the year before he left for an extended stay in Paris, where he began the practice of drawing plants, the portrait shows a vigorous, muscular man in his mid-twenties.  Notice the strength in his forearms, the bulging veins there, the workman’s rough clothing—he looks every inch the action painter in the mode of Jackson Pollack, not the composer-to-be of cool, cerebral compositions of color.  And in his hands he holds an uprooted sprig of a thornbush.  Look more closely and you will see that his left arm and hand are covered with scratches.  It’s hard not to look upon this painting as a quasi-religious icon, some modern-day saint holding the attribute that gives us the key to his story.  I have no idea what Kelly had in mind in setting this pose, but I’m happy to see this serendipitous prescience—that an engagement with plants would be a key to his success, a lifelong commitment to seeing, to drawing, and to beauty.

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Lives of the Soldiers

klay-redeploymentWhen I was in my late teens and early twenties, the war in Vietnam was a throbbing pulse that I tried unsuccessfully to keep buried beneath layers of defiance and hedonism.  But the newspapers kept reporting the body counts and publishing photographs of soldiers wounded in battle, of civilians dead at My Lai, and representatives converging on the Paris Peace Talks.  I was a skinny, artistic, closeted weakling, and the expectation of traveling to the county seat all alone on a bus to register for the draft on my 18th birthday took all the pleasure out of the notion that I was now entitled to the vote and the purchase of beer at the corner deli.  The summer after I turned 20, I was hit in the head by a piece of equipment at the electrical parts factory where I worked, and for a week or so thought I’d punctured an eardrum in the event.  The possibility of permanent hearing loss made no difference to the surge of euphoria I felt at realizing I might be disqualified from armed service.  And a few years later when the draft lottery was announced and I secured a number just barely high enough to ensure that someone else my age would have to take my place, the relief was more intoxicating than a whole case of brew.

A decade later I came to appreciate my naiveté and my luck at being a member of the educated middle class who never really stood a chance of being shipped off to war.  By then, it was the late 70s, and veterans were beginning to enroll at the college I was attending and to appear on the stools at my favorite bar in town.  And inevitably, I started to hear a few stories from them.  Most of the vets I listened to had provided logistical support of some kind, far enough away from the combat jungles to feel more resentment than fear at the conditions they lived under.  Most of them also burned with resentment at the assumptions that civilians everywhere made about their experience of the war.  In time, I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Phil Caputo’s A Rumor of War.  Eventually I watched the movies, Platoon, Full Metal Jacket, Apocalypse Now.  But I was a voyeur.  Like Conrad’s Lord Jim, I had jumped.

Forty years later, the war in the Middle East came to me courtesy of CNN, more vivid even than the reportage of Vietnam.  And me, more of a voyeur.  The literature of these latest conflicts seems to have arrived more slowly.  I’ve watched Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker; I’ve also seen innumerable documentaries detailing the business of the Bush Administration.  I read Sebastian Junger’s War and Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds, but it seems lie did so from a distance.  Junger’s book was lacerating, and just as we cannot really remember pain, I cannot really remember his book.  Powers’ novel was beautifully written, but the moments that have stayed with me could have come from almost any novel; those unique to Iraq have somehow faded.

So I’m surprised that Phil Klay’s collection of short stories, Redeployment (Penguin, 2014), whose message seems to be the impossibility of the veteran communicating the experience of war to anyone who did not serve, is still resonating in my head as though it were a cathedral bell—and I had been standing in the tower when it struck.

As I began reading the book, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t exactly sure what the word “redeployment” meant.  In the newspapers I’d read about troops being deployed to Iraq, but I couldn’t be sure I could accurately use redeployment in a sentence.  So I googled it and landed smack in the middle of a minor flame war.  On one side were the veterans who defined it as standard military terminology for troops being returned to the home base from which they were deployed.  On the other side were people who claimed it was classic example of politico-military doublespeak, an Orwellian disguise for “retreat.”

And so from the book’s very first word (and also the title of the first story), Klay pitches us into the maelstrom, not so much of misunderstanding as of incommensurable experience.  The distance between the soldier and the civilian, between the independent military contractor and the military, between the Marines and the Iraqis, surfaces again and again in these stories.  And no matter how hard the parties try, if they try at all, the distance seems unbridgeable, the stories unresolvable.

The narrator of one of the late stories in the collection, “Psychological Operations,” has redeployed from Iraq and enrolled in college under the G. I. Bill.  Another first-year student, a young black girl who has recently converted to Islam, reports him to the Dean of Students for engaging in threatening hate speech.  The narrator, you see, is Egyptian, and the girl cannot understand how he could have gone to Iraq and murdered members of the Ummah, the supranational community of Muslims.  She has made the mistake of assuming that as an Arab he is also a Muslim, when in fact he is a Coptic Christian.  After the confrontation in the Dean’s office the two spend a long evening in conversation, although in the end, it is the narrator who does almost all of the talking.  He wants to convince her of the reality of his experience and he wants to provoke her, into argument or agreement he’s not quite sure.  But finally all she has to say to him is “It’s good you can talk about it.”  If there is understanding and communication, it remains unspoken and oblique, aslant like their identities ass a Christian Arab and an American Muslim.

The fluidity of identity is another theme that courses through the book’s stories, and one aspect of that surprised me.  The soldier/civilian dichotomy is an easy one to grasp, even when, as in many of the stories, the two have merged for the man who has redeployed, who has come back home.  But returning home and being discharged sometimes effects another change in identity: a discharged soldier back from Iraq is no longer simply a civilian, he is a veteran, too.  And few of the characters in the book seem to have been prepared for that identity, with its badges and responsibilities.  Even to accept a “thank you for your service” can be a complex act, for the veteran knows as little about what the civilian means by that phrase as the civilian does about what that service has entailed.  Does anyone expect an Iraq War vet to have spent his tour fixing potholes or running a supply room far from combat?  “Thank you for your service” is a code phrase; the sad irony is that all too often neither party is capable of deciphering its meaning.

And that conceit is at the heart of one of the shortest pieces in this collection and one that has been largely maligned in the reviews that I’ve read of Redeployment.  “OIF” is a mere four pages long, and if told almost entirely in the initialisms that form a lingua franca for the military.  Here are the opening paragraphs that describe the routines of combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

EOD handled the bombs.  SSTP treated the wounds.  PRP processed the bodies.  The 08s fired DPICM.  The MAW provided CAS.  The 03s patrolled the MSRs.  Me and PFC handled the money.

If a sheikh supported the ISF, we distributed CERP.  If the ESB destroyed a building, we gave fair comp.  If the 03s shot a civilian, we paid off the families.  That meant leaving the FOB, where it’s safe, and driving the MSRs.

I’ve heard veterans speak like this, without thinking that I wouldn’t catch the meaning, wouldn’t know what an MOS is, for example.  Klay here is making a point: either you were there and you understand, or you weren’t and you don’t.  But he’s not being cruel, or arrogant.  The way in which he piles up one instance of grunt-speak on another ultimately has a humorous effect: it’s almost like a stand-up comedian trying to top himself with every new spitfire line.  But the point remains, and “spitfire” isn’t such an inapt analogy.  This is serious business.  But the fact that Klay can inject some humor is evidence of just how nuanced the writing in this book can be.

“OIF” is about death and glory.  It’s about fear and shame, the desire to serve and the desire to live.  It’s not impossible to decode, but it takes work.

And that may be what Klay wants to tell us, what his larger project is about in this book.  Understanding war and the men who fight it, whatever that encompasses, takes work.  That is one of the reasons, I suspect, why Klay has chosen to write short stories rather than a novel, because he needs the multiple points of view this dozen of tales affords him. He needs different voices and different moments on the spectrum of service: fighting, fear, honor, and regret.  He shapes a mosaic that does not glitter, but is brilliant nonetheless.  I have rarely read a book so fraught with difficulties and dead ends, and so replete with intelligence and nuance and sympathy.

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James Does Jane

james-permberleyThere weren’t many books in my home when I was a youngster.  Mom believed that books attracted dust, cost money, and most importantly, could be had for free at the public library.

From the moment that I left home for college, I set about collecting books like a fiend released from an eternal captivity.  Despite the occasional sell-offs to make space, I’ve never really considered not buying books.  And I grew up to become a librarian.  So I guess you could say I got the best of both worlds.  My office at home bears out Anthony Powell’s notion that “books do furnish a room,” and I go to work everyday in a building that houses two million books.

But even in my childhood home there were a few shelves for me to investigate.

They were a decidedly odd mix, and my memory is undoubtedly faulty.  There were complete short tales of Poe and Twain in attractive leather volumes with sewn-in ribbon bookmarks.  God knows where it came from, but Proust’s failed prototype, Jean Santeuil, was there in a mass-market paperback edition.  (I’m not making this up; years later I took it to college with me.  The book was first published in 1952, the year I was born, so a paperback English translation that came along about the time I was eager enough to explore a bookcase makes a strange kind of sense.)

Lots and lots of Readers’ Digest Condensed Books, the quarterly compendia that my folks subscribed to, and through which I learned about Michelangelo (his abridged agony and ecstasy) and encountered John Steinbeck’s The Winter of Our Discontent, which led me to East of Eden, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday, all the latter probably obtained from the public library.  James Michener figured in there somewhere, too, and led me to spend a long time with the unabridged version of Hawaii and several more forgettable opera.  That was enough put me off Michener until about thirty years later when I read Iberia,  a book anyone planning a trip to Spain should own.  (Or at least borrow from the library.)

Apart from this strange mixture, there was a plentiful supply of detective novels that circulated among my mother and her sisters, but that I rarely paid any attention to.  There was an Agatha Christie, N or M?, whose title alone bored me with its incomprehensibility.  I do remember picking up something called The Clue of the Judas Tree (a title I’m able to reconstruct thanks to Amazon) and enjoying it a lot.  But I didn’t become a fan of adult mysteries as a result, even if I did  regularly and repeatedly consume boys’ adventure series: the Hardys, the Swifts, Rick Brant, and Ken Holt.

Oddly, it was graduate school that finally got me hooked on detective fiction.  I was new in town, lonely and seeking relief from the study of literary theory, when I decided one afternoon to go to the movies.  It was 1975 and Murder on the Orient Express had just opened.  I enjoyed it so much that the next day I went down to the public library, checked out the novel, and subsequently began working my way through much of Christie’s output.  I started reading other British cozies, moved on to more interesting and sophisticated Brits (Robert Barnard, Cyril Connolly), detoured to the Sweden of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and finally crossed the Atlantic for the likes of Marcia Muller and Loren Estleman.  Ian Rankin took me back to Britain, whence it was a short return to Sweden, Henning Mankell, and beyond.

All of which I write to explain this ongoing series of shortish reports on my persistence with the genre of detective fiction.  I’ve never lost my taste for it since the days of the Orient Express, even though my preferred sub-genres and authors have veered across the international landscape.

But back at the beginning, despite the prodigious outputs of Christie and Ngaio Marsh, two early favorites, I found that I rather quickly exhausted both the holdings of the local library and my patience with the repetitive nature of the plots.  Luckily, I had by that time begun my first job in the university library; if you know librarians you’ll know that many of them are avid readers of detective fiction.  (They were also decades ahead of the internet cats craze, but that’s another story, and one you won’t hear any more about from me.)  Soon I had plenty of recommendations for further reading.  Having swiftly dispatched the small collected works of Dorothy L. Sayers, I turned in the late 70s to P. D. James.

I’ve enjoyed the twists and turns James has led me on over the last thirty-five years, but I have to admit I was surprised when I heard a few years ago that she had written a novel that was essentially a sequel to Pride and Prejudice.  Better than zombies, I thought, but how much better?  I let the question slide for several years, but this summer I decided the time was right to investigate Death Comes to Pemberley.

Much as I enjoyed being back in the company of Elizabeth née Bennett and the impenetrable Mr Darcy, the book turned out to be as disappointing as I feared, with a faintly ridiculous set-up for the murder, unconvincing evidence of the accused’s guilt, and a conclusion that broke the bounds of an already strained incredulity.  There was entirely too much tripping off into the forest of Pemberley on the part of all the characters, and at the most inopportune moments, and for reasons that, when offered, could only be described as improbable.

austen-pride-and-prejdiceThe best thing about Death Comes to Pemberley was that it convinced me I remembered Pride and Prejudice too poorly to appreciate how James might have played off the original.  As you might expect, reading Austen immediately after James doesn’t do the latter much credit.  But there was one fascinating convergence between the two novels—although divergence might be a more appropriate term.

As I said, the plot of James’s novel turns on a series of interconnected wanderings in the forest of Pemberley, mostly in the blackness of night.  The forest is the locus of evil, and the place where even the best of intentions are twisted into cruel outcomes.  This isn’t surprising in itself: the forest has long consumed the English imagination as a dangerous place where things—mainly elves, the Green Knight, and Robin Hood—go bump in the night.  In the agrarian society that preceded the nineteenth century, the forest was the untamed land that was forever encroaching on the life-giving farm.  It needed to be kept at bay, diminished, guarded against.

Pride and Prejudice, of course, is a comedy of manners and errors, set largely in drawing rooms and manicured fields, with occasional forays off-stage to London.  It turns on the misapprehensions that Elizabeth and Darcy have of one another’s character and the necessary humbling that corrects both their flaws and their misunderstandings.

What surprised me, and what I had entirely forgotten, is that the crucial scene in which Elizabeth begins to believe that she may be mistaken in her assessment of Darcy takes place (albeit in daylight) in Pemberley Wood.  There, thanks to a meeting with the estate’s gardener, Elizabeth learns the personal history that Darcy is too proud to reveal to anyone outside his trusted circle of family and his friend Bingley.  It is in Pemberley Wood that she begins to question herself.  When she is back at home at Longbourn, she often retreats to a little copse to read the important letters that come her way, to reflect on her life, and to resolve to better herself.  The crucial reconciliation with Darcy takes place amidst those sheltering trees.

While it is entirely natural for James to make use of the dark wood for the grim setting of her characters’ misdeeds, I was surprised in retrospect to find Austen setting the equally significant turning points of her story in that same wood.  Perhaps the forest in Austen still carries the association of the Green Man and fertility, and is at least subconsciously the place where emotion can hold its own against rationality.  But it never comes off as threatening, and James’s noir characterization represents a regression of sorts.

So in the end I’m glad I took a chance on Death Comes to Pemberley.  I suppose it’s no worse than I feared it might be, and it led me back to Pride and Prejudice and an unexpected discovery that has enhanced my appreciation of Austen’s art.  However, despite the exemption for a beloved P. D. James, I’m still not tempted by the vast regions of Austen fan-fiction, which will remain, like the old English forest, terrain to be avoided. After all, there be zombies.

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah Rosie Lea!

muswell-hill-signI’ve been in a bit of a rock ‘n’ roll drought lately; I scroll through my iTunes catalog and nothing sings to me, so I wind up with Bach or Vivaldi or Handel again.  Not complaining, but after four months I was wondering how long this was going to last.  Then a couple of days ago a yen for The Kinks’ Muswell Hillbillies surfaced and I put it on in the car driving to work one morning.  Oh yes.

Muswell Hillbillies appeared in 1971 and, if I’d been paying any attention to the Kinks at that point, probably would have registered as disappointing and decidedly uncommercial followup to “Lola” and “Apeman,” the first big hits the Kinks had had here in the US for quite a while.  I do remember going back to visit my old high school at the end of my freshman year in college, shortly after the album’s release, and hearing the cool art teacher (as opposed to the serious art teacher) extolling its brilliance.  But prejudiced little git that I was at the time, nothing was going to convince me that a country and western album from the band whose power chords I worshipped was something to be taken seriously.

It wasn’t until more than five years later when, under the influence, I lay on the floor of a friend’s house and listened to the entire album, not knowing it was the Kinks, let alone, Muswell Hillbillies, and I fell in love with it.

It’s a strange album, even for the Kinks in the seventies.  They never really dabbled in anything vaguely C&W again.  There are obvious debts to unusual strains of American music—not the blues this time, but twangy slide guitars and the first hints of the Dixieland brass that would soon come to the fore in the Preservation albums.  But it’s really a kind of transatlantic take on the English music-hall tradition that informed The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society.  If the music sounds American, the lyrics often needs translating: it took me a while to understand that “compulsory purchase” is Britspeak for “eminent domain,” that “rates” are utility bills, and that a week of damp, salty misery on the end of Brighton Pier is known as a “holiday.”


The stories that are told in the album’s lyrics still take the power from the explicit contrast between the stresses of modern life and the bucolic, village-green fantasies of the earlier album.  There aren’t any china cups and jam to be had here; it’s all pretty much misery and madness.  Except that it’s one of the funniest of the Kinks’ albums.   Ray Davies’ wit as a composer has rarely been sharper.  It’s Beaumarchais’ bon mot all over: Je me presse de rire de tout, de peur d’être obligé d’en pleurer.

He begins with a pair of acerbic meditations of modern life, “20th Century Man” with his companion diagnosis of “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues.”  The album starts off like this:

This is the age of machinery,
A mechanical nightmare,
The wonderful world of technology,
Napalm, hydrogen bombs, biological warfare.

The little man face to face with this horror can do little but crumble:

I’m too terrified to walk out of my own front door.
They’re demonstrating outside; I think they’re gonna start the third world war.
I’ve been to my local head shrinker to help classify my disease:
He said it’s one of the cases of acute schizophrenia he sees.

The only solution to the stress and misery of modern life, clearly, is a “Holiday,” the subject of the third track.  Except that even at the seaside there’s no escape:

Lying on the beach with my back burned rare,
The salt gets in my blisters and the sand gets in my hair,
And the sea’s an open sewer, but I really couldn’t care,
I’m breathing through my mouth so I don’t have to sniff the air.

Food and drink offer no solace either.  The next song is “Skin and Bone,” the story of “fat, flabby Annie” who goes on a crash-course diet and loses so much weight that “her father and her mother and her sisters and her brothers couldn’t see her when she walks by.”  After giving up all the carbohydrates and taking up a program of daily exercise, she may be more miserable than before: “Oh what a sin, cause she’s oh so thin that she’s lost all the friends that she had.”  In the next song, “Alcohol,” a successful businessman succumbs to a temptation to escape “the pressures at the office and his socialite engagements” and winds up on Skid Row.  In the chorus he laments the “sad memories I can’t recall—who thought I would fall / A slave to demon alcohol.”

In short, as the final song on the first side concludes, it’s a “Complicated Life.”  Seeking help from a doctor, the singer of this tale describes how, on the advice of the good doctor, he tried to reduce the stress of existence:

Well I cut down women, I cut out booze,
I stopped ironing my shirts, cleaning my shoes,
I stopped going to work, stopped reading the news,
I sit and twiddle my thumbs cos I got nothing to do.

I love the way Davies recapitulates the entire first half of Muswell Hillbillies here: the useless, counterproductive advice of the quacks never succeeds in alleviating the symptoms of modern malaise; every solution just leads to a different kind of misery.  And yet the humor abides and may be the only real salvation.  That and a healthy dose of stoicism: “Gotta stand and face it / Life is so complicated.”


The second side of the album is bookended by two songs that speak to the personal source of much of Davies’ melancholy musings: the gentrification of the Muswell Hill suburb of London where he and brother Dave grew up.  As the old neighbors are displaced and the childhood home is lost to the ravages of development, we’re back in an urban version of the nostalgia for the Village Green.  “Here Come the People in Grey” is the plaint of one man forced out of his home and into a “one-man revolution” against the faceless bureaucrats who try to make him irrelevant.  And the same gutsy, working-class resistance informs the concluding title track, “Muswell Hillbilly.”  Despite its overt yearning for the sylvan vision of an unspoiled America, the green hills of old West Virginia, he stands with his crew in Muswell Hill, even as their community is torn apart.  The opening stanza is one of those touching vignettes that have made Davies’ reputation as one of the finest chroniclers of the tenderness of life in London: tenderness in the sense of sweet kindness, but also the tenderness of a bruise.

Well I said goodbye to Rosie Rooke this morning,
I’m gonna miss her bloodshot alcoholic eyes,
She wore her Sunday hat so she’d impress me,
I’m gonna carry her memory ’til the day I die.

That verse ought to be right up their in the annals of great moments in rock ‘n’ roll with the vision of Terry and Julie watching the sunset from Waterloo Bridge, and the fact that it’s not proves (to me, at least) how unjustly overlooked Muswell Hillbillies has been in the assessment of the Kinks’ achievements.

The thematic coherence of the album drifts a bit in the remaining songs of the second side, although again, “Holloway Jail,” “Oklahoma U.S.A.,” and “Uncle Son” are among the sweetest, saddest, and most tender tales that Davies has told in his career.  Rather than the humorous satires of side one, these songs empathize with the disappointed, those who have no choice but to struggle on against the odds.  They are the Muswell hillbillies in a different, minor key.

The remaining song from the album that I haven’t discussed is the one that made me love the Kinks again after nearly a decade of ignoring them.  “Have A Cuppa Tea” is perhaps the real thematic ringer on the album, the one song that’s hard to fit into the concept of the little guy struggling against the depersonalizing brutality of twentieth century culture, even in the days before the internet managed to raise whole new armies for standardization and mass production.  It’s a sprightly, slightly silly, satiric look at the greatest British institution of all, the great leveler, the great solace, the embodiment of Empire in the parlours of Muswell Hill, the answer to all life’s problems: the cuppa.

If you feel a bit under the weather,
If you feel a little bit peeved,
Take granny’s stand-by potion
For any old cough or wheeze.
It’s a cure for hepatitis, it’s a cure for chronic insomnia,
It’s a cure for tonsillitis and for water on the knee.
Have a cuppa tea

Tea in the morning, tea in the evening, tea at supper time,
You get tea when it’s raining, tea when it’s snowing,
Tea when the weather’s fine.
You get tea as a mid-day stimulant
You get tea with your afternoon tea
For any old ailment or disease
For Christ sake have a cuppa tea.

Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, Rosie Lea!

In some ways, though, “Have A Cuppa Tea” summarizes Davies’ answer to all the ills that he’s chronicled throughout Muswell Hillbillies.  Davies, and the Kinks, were never quitters, no matter how hard it got.  If there will always be an England, there will always be hope, there will always be an answer in the simple and the homey.  The endurance of the lower and middle classes, so severely tested during the war and its aftermath that shaped Davies’ childhood, is ultimately unquestioned.  We can always dream.  And have a cuppa tea.


Here’s a live performance of “Acute Schizophrenia Paranoia Blues” from 1973 that pretty much captures the spirit of the album, right down to Ray’s vamping and the incredible 70s haircuts of the horn section.  Hope you enjoy it.


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