"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

December 19, 2012

"A Posthumous Confession" (1894) by Marcellus Emants (Book Review)

When South-African/Australian Noble Prize winning author J.M. Coetzee takes the trouble to translate a book, there must be something good about it... and indeed, A Posthumous Confession by Emants is one of the best Dutch novels I know. It is also a very bleak story - something it has in common with the oeuvre of Coetzee.

The Dutch writer Marcellus Emants (1848-1923) belonged to the group of writers who came up in the eighties of the 19th c. and who modernized Dutch literature - for the first 80 years of the century, Dutch literature (and for that matter, all of society) had been in the deadening, small-minded grip of pastors, preachers and grocers. That changed in the 1880s, when Holland also underwent a rather belated industrial revolution.

Many of the new authors were influenced by naturalism (Zola); Emants also admired Turgenev, but A Posthumous Confession has in the first place been influenced by Dostoevsky's Notes from the Underground (1864). It is also very much a fin de siècle novel, encased in a suffocating web of guilt and fear.

The plot is simple. When the novel opens, a man of independent means called Termeer has just murdered his wife. The novel is his confession of how this came about. Termeer is a despicable man, full of self-loathing. He is pathologically introverted, indolent and unable to take any action, uninterested in society, and without a shred of empathy for his fellow humans.

He feels that everything in his life has gone wrong: he had a terrible childhood, as he was treated as an outsider by other children; after he grew up, he became very much interested in women, but was to shy to approach them, so he had to satisfy his urge with prostitutes. After a particularly wild period, he decides to straighten out his life by marrying. He knows no suitable partner, but notices that the man who has been his former guardian has an unmarried daughter. This daughter accepts him, as he is the first to propose to her and she is already thirty - in the 19th c. women were expected to marry.

Although they spend a few quiet years together, the loveless marriage is unhappy, especially after the death of a girl baby (Termeer is relieved as he hates children). Termeer seeks his pleasure outside the house, he becomes infatuated with a dancing girl and needs money for her upkeep. His wife in her turn  becomes close friends with their neighbor, a former pastor with a sickly little daughter. They have many soulful talks, making Termeer madly jealous. He wants to separate and marry the dancing girl, but his wife rejects this - she will do her duty to him, she says.

Termeer works himself into a mad frenzy - when he happens to notice that in her nervous state his wife has had recourse to a sleeping potion, he pours another bottle of the stuff down her throat. The coroner decides it is inadvertent death by an overdosis of the potion. Here the story ends, but... it is a "posthumous" confession, so what happened to him? Did guilt after all overtake him, or was he jilted by his dancing girl and did he kill himself out of spite?

A Posthumous Confession reminded me somewhat of the early stories of Arthur Schnitzel, where we find the same type of introspection brought about by new notions of psychology. It is a pessimistic story, as were most novels by Emants; he also wrote interesting travelogues.
The Dutch version of the novel is online here. Coetzee's English translation is available from NYRB Books. Coetzee has also written an interesting essay about the novel in his Stranger Shores.

December 5, 2012

"Roads to Berlin" (2012) by Cees Nooteboom (Non-Fiction)

Cees Nooteboom (1933) is a Dutch poet, novelist and above all, writer about travel and culture, whose name regularly turns up on those mysterious short lists of Nobel Prize contenders. Nooteboom has written impressive novels as Rituals (1980), All Souls Day (1998) and Lost Paradise (2004). His travel writing is always of a philosophical and historical bent and has appeared in such collections as Roads to Santiago (1997) and Nomad's Hotel (2009).

Nooteboom's work has been extensively translated into English, Spanish (the country of his residence), and above all, German - in Germany, even his collected works have been published and one could safely say that he is more popular in that country than in The Netherlands. The reason is probably that Nooteboom's work has an "idealistic" bent, it is full of whirling thoughts, and his sentences also are rather long - general characteristics of German prose. The display of erudition one finds in his work is probably another element that puts off some Dutch readers.

That doesn't mean in the least Nooteboom is German - he is much more than Dutch or German or Spanish or whatever nationality, he is an all too rare example of a pan-European intellectual. Nooteboom is a modern Renaissance man, with a huge field of interests ranging from philosophy and political thought, to contemporary art, literature, music, architecture and almost anything else. I always feel envious when in his essays he casually scatters names of famous thinkers and writers, while it is clear that he has also actually found the time to read and study them.

[Cees Nooteboom - photo Wikipedia]

Roads to Berlin (subtitle: "Detours & Riddles in the Lands & History of Germany") is a collection of various pieces written about Germany between 1963 and 2012, with an emphasis on 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell and a period when Nooteboom actually was living in that city. In this way he became witness to one of the most significant turning points in 20th century history, mapping the changing moods of the country, describing the pivotal events of Germany's difficult passage to reunification. We are lucky with this observer, the most informed and perceptive one you could wish for.

[The end of the Wall in 1989 - photo Wikipedia]

Nooteboom always sees present events through the lens of history. He writes a beautiful prose, poetical and whimsical. He is both personal and objective. Besides the Wall which is viewed from countless perspectives (including that of the Wall which is no longer there), there are long discussions about Germany's history, its influence on its neighbors, and the question which was deliberated in 1989 whether the Germans themselves or its neighbors wanted Germany to be again reunited and become a large force in Europe. Of course this is what has happened, and now Europe itself is unthinkable without Germany.

But Nooteboom also shows us other interesting vistas: mythical, such as the huge statue of the legendary German tribal leader Hermann in the Teutoburg Forest, or  the grotto of Emperor Barbarossa; political, as Nuremberg with Hitler's Walhalla and Nazi Party rally grounds, or the bridge into Poland over the Oder; literary, as the Brocken of Walpurgisnacht fame in the Harz mountains and Goethe's Weimar; weird, as the East-German Museum of the Unconditional Surrender of Fascist Germany, or an exhibition of the disintegrating aeroplanes built by the artist Anselm Kiefer, or a rhapsody on German eagles.

Most impressive, too, are the two intermezzo's about Munich, where the author falls in love with "Justice," a stone woman holding a Sword and a Book on the Max II monument, and later experiences an apocalyptic Liebestraum about a golden angel...
Published in English by Maclehose Press, London. Website of Cees Nooteboom (in English).

Best Non-Fiction

Art

(Auto-) Biography

Culture



Essays





Food & Drink


Modern Japanese Cuisine by Katarzyna J. Cwiertka
The Zen of Fish by Trevor Corson

History



Literature





Memoirs


The World of Yesterday by Stephan Zweig



Music





Philosophy



Religion
The Empty Mirror by Jan-Willem van de Wetering



Science





Travel


The Inland Sea by Donald Richie
The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald
Roads to Berlin by Cees Nooteboom


This list consists of posts on two of my websites: Japan Navigator and Splendid Labyrinths. My non-fiction list excludes books that are scholarly or too specialist.

December 4, 2012

"Travels with Charley in Search of America" by John Steinbeck (Best Non-Fiction)

It was an impossible endeavor. In 1960 the writer John Steinbeck, then living in New York and Sag Harbor, set out with a camper on a 10,000 mile journey around the U.S. He had been cooped up for long years in his apartment in New York and wanted to meet "ordinary Americans" again - the kind of people he had so vividly written about in his great novels of the 1930s like Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck thought he could have deep conversations with them about the state of America, while camping out.

A second reason for the trip was Steinbeck's "macho fixation" - he believed a man should "do things with his own hands" and "live violently" - now at age 58 he wanted to test what was left of his physical powers. As the book tells, already before the trip he could prove his toughness: when a hurricane hits Long Island the day before he plans to leave, he wades out into the stormy harbor to save his boat.

So just after Labor Day 1960 Steinbeck sets out in his green GMC truck, fitted with a custom built camper. He calls it Rosinante after the horse of Don Quixote - he probably knew he was setting out on a Quixotic trip himself. He was accompanied by his sprightly dog, a French poodle called Charley, middle-aged like himself. Starting in Long Island, the fateful journey of one man, one dog and a truck would follow the border of the United States, going all throughout the North, through the Pacific Northwest, down into Steinbeck's native Salinas Valley in California, across to Texas, then through the Deep South, and finally back to New York. Two years later he would publish the book about the trip as Travels with Charley in Search of America, and it would become an instant bestseller.

Steinbeck's original plans were just too megalomaniacal. How much of the country can you see when the landscape just flashes by on such a long trek by car? How many interesting people can you meet when you sit all day long behind the wheel? The first part of the trip, through New England is still fairly detailed and takes up half of the book, but after the Mid-West Steinbeck starts to jump, with bigger and bigger leaps. He must have been driving like mad for days on end, just to complete the journey... Unfortunately, that doesn't leave much of the story.

Despite the intention to test his toughness and loneliness, as we now know, the journey was not at all so hard. Steinbeck broke the trip several times for lengthy stays with his wife - who flew in from New York - in luxury hotels (Chicago, San Francisco) or at the ranch of Texas millionaires. The times he camped out, made his own food and washed his own clothes, were in fact far and few between: most of the time he slept in motels. And during the last part his wife was riding with him in the cabin.

It doesn't matter, unless you are interested in macho stories. What Steinbeck gives us in full is the view of America from the windows of his truck, and that view is authentic.

The same can be said about the meetings Steinbeck describes - we know from his letters that these, too, did not really take place as he writes about them. And again, it doesn't matter. All travel writing contains fictional elements (take the famous In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin!) - authors have to select things, leave out things, and to make the book readable they will reorganize events and discussions. Travel literature is not journalism. By the use of his imagination Steinbeck gives us humor in the portrait of his dog Charley (and his talks with the dog), and he lets us meet several rare characters, as a New Yorker-reading aspiring hairdresser living in the middle of nowhere, or a traveling Shakespearean actor camping out near a river in North-Dakota. Even though Steinbeck has reorganized ("massaged") his impressions, they are not less true.

Steinbeck shows us the America of the early 1960s, a view in kaleidoscopic images of a "new America" that did not live up to his expectations. He is appalled by the sameness he finds everywhere, for example of food and of lodgings, by the loss of dialect, by the environmental destruction. He wonders about the large number of people living in campers, as if Americans have no roots. But there are also beautiful descriptions of landscapes, of Montana that he loves, of California and the giant sequoias, of Texas. There are funny scenes such as when he is advised not to enter Canada as on reentering the U.S. his dog will have to be quarantined, or when almost home he looses his way in New York. And, finally, there is great and justified anger, too, when in New Orleans he observes how black children need police protection to commute to one of the first mixed schools, and how a group of white women ("Cheerleaders") everyday comes to the school gate to shout the basest obscenities at the colored kids. When on top of that a taxi driver tells him "Them goddamn New York Jews come in and stir the niggers up," he is so disgusted with the America he encounters, that he cancels the further trip and just rushes home.

Travels with Charley is great travel literature, an impression of America in 1960 enhanced by the pen of a consummate author. In 1962, Steinbeck received the Nobel Prize in Literature.
I read the Penguin Classics edition. A recent voice accusing Steinbeck of "fraud" is journalist Bill Steigerwald (article in NYTimes, website); a counter-voice can be found here. My answer is, as I have written above, that literature is not journalism and that also travel writing is never a fact-by-fact account.

November 14, 2012

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (Best Novellas)

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—"The horror! The horror!"
Heart of Darkness appeared in Blackwell's Magazine in 1899, and was issued in book form in 1902. This novella is the absolute masterwork of Polish-born English author Joseph Conrad. The story is narrated by Charles Marlow, who accepts an assignment from a Belgian trading company as captain of a river boat in Africa. Besides transporting ivory, his major task is to bring back Kurtz, a trader of the company, who has set himself up as the dictator of his own small kingdom in the wilderness, letting the native tribes worship him.

The story is partly based on Conrad's own experience: about eight years before, Conrad had been appointed by a Belgian trading company to serve as the captain of a steamer on the Congo River. Congo Free State was the private colony of Belgium's King Leopold II, and as has been described so aptly in Adam Hochschildt's King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, it was one of the cruelest colonies in Africa. From 1885 until 1909, the greedy king used his mercenary army to force slaves into mines and rubber plantations, apply sadistic punishments such as cutting off hands or feet, and commit mass murder. In Conrad's story, the country is kept vague, probably to make the story more generally applicable and not just write a political book. But the novel fits in the supra-national protest movement, the first one ever, in which King Leopold II's "rape of the Congo" was harshly criticized, also by many other writers such as  Mark Twain.

The "darkness" in the title not so much points to "dark Africa" - despite the misgivings of the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe who has lashed out at Conrad for treating the Africans around Mr Kurtz as savages -, for the problem is not alleged African primitiveness. The true "darkness" is that of colonialism, a barbarity imported from Europe - Conrad saw the extortion, the maiming, the heavy iron chains, in short the enslavement of many Africans for the profit of the Europeans who lusted after ivory and rubber. And again at a deeper level, the darkness is also the darkness at the heart of European civilization - you can't do what the Europeans were doing in 19th c. Africa and come away unblemished yourself. This darkness in Europe built up tension and unleashed itself in the horrors of the Great European War (WWI) of 1914-18, and its sequel, WWII. As a consequence, in the first half of the 20th c., Europe became the true "dark continent" (see the book by Mark Mazower of that title).

An interesting detail is that Marlow tells his story when seated with friends in a boat on the Thames while darkness is falling. They look at the horizon and see the silhouette of the City of London, another dark mass, where British colonial adventures were planned - Britain was just then involved in the Second Boer War in South Africa where a scorched earth technique was used against the farmers and where also the world's first concentration camps were "invented," with a death toll of 150,000.

In short, there is an unfathomable darkness within every human being, the capacity of the human ape for committing heinous acts of evil knows no bounds. It must be that realization which made the dying Kurtz cry out: "The horror! The horror!"
Conrad's work is out of copyright, Heart of Darkness is therefore freely available, for example at the ebook center of The University of Adelaide. I read the novella in the Penguin Modern Classics edition which has an interesting introduction as well as a fragment from Conrad's African diary. Heart of Darkness formed the inspiration for the 1979 film by Coppola, Apocalypse Now.
Best Novellas
Banville: The Newton Letter   Bioy Casares: The Invention of Morel   Bulgakov: A Dog's Heart   Byatt: Morpho Eugenia   Carr: A Month in the Country   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Chekhov: The Duel   Conrad: Heart of Darkness   Elsschot: Cheese   Flaubert: A Simple Soul   Gotthelf: The Black Spider   Kafka: The Metamorphosis   Maupassant: Boule de Suif   McEwan: The Comfort of Strangers   McEwan: On Chesil Beach   Nabokov: The Eye   Nerval: Sylvie   Nescio: Amsterdam Stories   Nooteboom: The Following Story   Roth: The Legend of the Holy Drinker   Schnitzler: Dream Story   Storm: The Rider on the White Horse   Turgenev: Clara Militch   Turgenev: Torrents of Spring   Voltaire: Candide   Wells: The Island of Dr. Moreau

November 13, 2012

"First Love, Last Rites" & "Between the Sheets" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan started writing in the 1970s and his first two books were collections of short stories: "First Love, Last Rites" (1972) and "Between the Sheets" (1978). One glance - even at the titles of the individual stories - suffices to show that these sinister and perverse stories are rather different from McEwan's later work, such as the celebrated novel Atonement. The only thing they share is the controlled, elegant and precise language, one of the reasons I admire McEwan's books so much. But as content goes, these  fifteen stories are utterly weird and disturbing, full of freaks and monsters who tell about their misdeeds in sickening detail. The stories are also quite varied in nature. McEwan has said that these early tales were a sort of laboratory for him, allowing him to try out different things, to discover himself as a writer.

The protagonists of the stories are often isolated, sexually-deviant males. The first story in the first collection ("Homemade") is about a young teenager who tricks his little sister into incest. The sexual initiation strikes the precocious adolescent boy as comical rather than anything else, in what is perhaps a nod towards Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.

More evil is the protagonist in "Butterflies:" a lonely and misshapen man (a dwarf) meets a little girl on a deserted path along a canal, befriends her but panics after he touches her, and ends up drowning her in the waters. The deed is terrible, but so is his realization of lifelong solitude. McEwan deftly tricks the reader into an improbable sympathy with the outcast.

In “Pornography,” a man who is the owner of a porno shop leads a despicable life: he is sleeping with two different nurses, passing on a venereal disease to both. When the women by chance meet each other, they decide to take revenge by applying their clinical skills with brutal efficiency, acting out their fantasies in a scene that is even more violent than the most awful BDSM books the man sold in his shop.

There are also comical stories, although the situations remain weird. In "Solid Geometry" a man reads the diaries of his great-grandfather in which a "geometrical" method is described to make people disappear into another dimension. As his wife has started to disgust him, he tries it out on her, with great success. In "Reflections of a Kept Ape" the narrator hangs on kitchen cabinets and behaves not really human, although he has a relation with the woman, a writer, with whom he lives. Gradually it becomes clear to the reader that the story is told by an ape. In "Dead as They Come" a jaded millionaire buys himself the perfect mistress and plunges into a hell of jealousy and despair, as he fears this stunning beauty can't be faithful to him. And that, while the "mistress" is a mannequin, acquired from a shop window...

McEwan dissects his characters as in a laboratory. Reading these dark, experimental stories almost feels like an act of voyeurism. But here also lies the kernel of McEwan's authorship, allowing readers of McEwan's books to understand how he has evolved as a writer. And certain elements, such as the dark humor McEwan finds in human foibles, are a constant in his work - take, for example, On Chesil Beach.

[Photo from Wikipedia]


November 7, 2012

"My Name is Red" (1998) by Orhan Pamuk (Book Review)

The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who was in 2006 granted the Nobel Prize in Literature, was born into a wealthy, upper-class Istanbul family. He was originally interested in architecture and painting, but changed course during his studies and after graduating from the Institute of Journalism, became a professional writer. His first novel, a traditional family saga in the style of Buddenbrooks, was published in 1982. From his third novel (The White Castle) on, his work has been translated in English and many other languages. From that time on, his books also became more adventurous with a definite post-modern quality. My Name is Red was his sixth novel, published in Turkey in 1998 and a few years later appearing in a prize-winning English translation.

[Photo Wikipedia]

The interesting thing about Pamuk is that all his novels are different in style and intent. My name is Red is a historical thriller in the style of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, and also has echoes of Borges. The postmodern quality can for example be found in the way each chapter is narrated in an alternating voice. There are even occasional unexpected voices as a coin and the color red, while the first chapter is told by a man who has just been murdered and dumped into a well.

Most of the recurring voices are those of Black, a former miniaturist who has returned to Istanbul from 12 years absence in Persia and in the story functions as amateur detective; Enishte Effendi, uncle of Black, in charge of the creation of a secret book for the Sultan in the Venetian style, who will become the second murder victim; Shekure, Enishte's beautiful daughter but also a (probable) widow with two young sons, with whom Black is in love and who later becomes his wife; Master Osman, the head of the Sultan's workshop of miniaturists; three miniaturists called Stork, Elegant and Olive; Esther, a Jewish peddler and matchmaker; etc.

The book contains a murder mystery and a love story, but is above all a philosophical and historical novel about art and reality, and the cultural division between Islam and Western thought. This division is made tangible in the theme of painting. Islam originally forbids figurative representation, but in Persia in the Middle Ages the art of book illustration by decorating the margins of the pages with abstract representations, gradually led to a miniature figurative art. This art, however, was very different from European painting, as for example practiced in Venice: the miniaturists did not observe perspective and other rules basic to Western art, but made idealized pictures where hierarchy was taken into account (the sultan was drawn in the center and extra large, a human figure could not be taller than a mosque etc.); moreover, as in other non-Western pre-modern societies, human figures were not drawn as individuals, but as generalized, unrecognizable persons. In the novel, we meet the miniaturists who were making this type of illustrations at the court of the Ottoman sultan in Istanbul, just at the juncture that some wanted to go in the individualistic direction of European painting, while on the other hand fundamentalists were clamoring to stop all figurative expression. The last group won. In this way the novel also symbolically reflects modern societal tensions in Turkey.

[Illustration from the Persian "Shahnameh" (Book of Kings, 1430). Photo Wikipedia]

This piece of art history, lovingly and in great detail presented by Pamuk, was also new to Turkish readers, for modern Turkey has largely cut away its historical, Ottoman roots. Even more so for Western readers, it is a lot of new information (with the names of numerous miniaturists, sultans and famous illustrated books), making the pace of the novel a bit slow at times, but I wouldn't want to be without it - the cultural comparison is indeed compelling.

The clash of ideas leads to murder and mayhem in the novel, until the mystery is solved by Black, with the help of his wife Shekure. The characterization of Shekure as a very elusive and enigmatic woman is finely done by Pamuk. And the "end good, all good" ending is turned on its post-modern head by having in the last paragraph Shekure ask her son Orhan (!) write down the story we have just read, "although she knows that for a delightful story, there isn't a lie he wouldn't deign to tell..."

[Orhan Pamuk. Photo Wikipedia]

Note: The "family saga" mentioned at the beginning if this post, is The Silent House and has by now also been translated into English.

Comprehensive Orhan Pamuk website.

November 2, 2012

"The Lower River" (2012) by Paul Theroux (Book Review)

Paul Theroux is an author with an incredibly high production. Although in the first place famous for his travelogues as The Great Railway Bazaar (1975), he has also written 32 novels and short story collections. The fiction often is inspired by the travel; in The Lower River we find echoes of the trip through Africa described in Dark Star Safari (2002), but also of Theroux' 1963–1965 Peace Corps teaching experience in Nyasaland/Malawi.

So far, I had been more interested in Theroux the travel author than Theroux the novelist. I have tried several of his early novels but somehow always got stuck in the book without finishing it. The first fiction by Theroux that trapped my attention were the three novellas about India collected in The Elephanta Suite (2007). And now The Lower River... this book again far surpasses these novellas and is indeed a great novel, putting anything that went before it in the shadow. It is a novel about aging; about the meaning of life; about altruism and the lack of it in the world; and the sad plight of Africa where Western aid agencies have for the last 50 years destroyed the economy in many parts of the continent by enslaving the population with dependence on "aid" (China is wiser: by giving practical assistance in the form of building infrastructure, it has won the hearts of the Africans and so also gained access to Africa's minerals).

A middle-aged American called Hock has reached the end of the tether in his work and marriage and burning all ships behind him, returns to Malawi, a small African country he fell in love with 40 years ago when he lived there as a Peace Corps teacher. Instead of reestablishing his dream, Hock arrives in a failed state where the people are lazy, disillusioned and greedy, living off the handouts of the Western aid agencies. The country has also been ravished by AIDS. The school Hock built 40 years ago lies in ruins, and nobody wants it rebuilt.

Hock is taken a virtual prisoner in his old village, Malabo, that is governed by the cynical and dictatorial Manyenga, a sinister chief who used to work for the aid agencies. Hock has been warned: “They will eat your money ... When your money is gone, they will eat you.” And that is what happens, in a world where altruism has been swiped away, Hock has to fork out dollars for every small service he receives. When he has been fleeced to the bone and his money is all gone, Manyenga decides to sell him to a group of punks who will then try to ransom him.

The only light in this darkness are Hock's former girlfriend, Gala, who gives him sound advise; her 16 year old granddaughter Zizi, a tall and slim fairy tale figure who attends to Hock; and a dwarf named Snowdon. An attempt to flee misfires when he is caught in a Lord of the Flies-like village of abandoned feral children suffering from AIDS. Here he also witnesses a helicopter food dropping by two pop stars working with the "Agence Anonyme": after the heli flies away, elder boys on motorbikes steal all the dropped food in order to sell it. The self-interested do-gooders have corrupted the population with their "good intentions," perverting the local ecology and economy. Western paternalism is still enslaving Africa.

The Lower River has reminded reviewers of Heart of Darkness, with Hock as a Kurtz who is not saved from the jungle; but the novel reminded me even more of A Handful of Dust where the protagonist is "caught" in the jungle as well. One could also think of the dark musings of an author like Coetzee (Disgrace, for example). Although the book is about Africa, it has a much wider resonance for the human condition.

If The Lower River seems a dark and claustrophobic book, that is only partly the case. It is also a book full of humor, a tight thriller, and a book with patches of tenderness. And the end - although a bit deus ex machina-like - is certainly uplifting.

October 4, 2012

"The Portrait of a Lady" (1880) by Henry James (Book Review)

The Portrait of a Lady, written by the American-born, European-minded author Henry James (1843-1916), is a masterful story about the cruel loss of ideals. James himself called it "the conception of a certain young woman affronting her destiny." What will she "do?"

From The Portrait of a Lady on, for the rest of his life, James would be absorbed by the problem of "consciousness." The novel derived great drama from psychological interiority, changing reader's ideas about what fiction can do. In the end Isabel Archer discovers that instead of “affronting her destiny”, as she had hoped, her destiny has affronted her. (See this review in the New Statesman).

An orphaned young American woman, Isabel Archer, visits her rich relatives who have settled down in England, at an estate called Gardencourt. She is a strong and willful person, who knows her own mind and is full of ideals. She has refused an American suitor, square-jawed and boring businessman Caspar Goodwood, who however follows her to England to press his suit again and in fact keeps stalking her until the last pages of the book. But to her family's surprise, she also refuses the soft-spoken Lord Warburton, a friend of the family who lives nearby, and who has both rank and fortune - she thinks him too safe and sure and seeks a man with more inspiration. The third man in love with her is her nephew, Ralph Touchett, but as he is suffering from tuberculosis and does not expect to live very long, he keeps his feelings secret and becomes her best and only true friend. In fact, he persuades his dying father to bequeath a large portion of his inheritance to Isabel - Ralph looks with pleasure forward to what she will do with her life when she is rich and independent. Well, unfortunately there will be no such pleasure...

[Henry James - From: Wikipedia]

After her uncle's death, Isabel embarks on the Grand Tour with her aunt and in Florence makes the renewed acquaintance of Madame Merle, a lady she had already met at Gardencourt. Madame Merle is an intelligent and accomplished woman, an independent socialite mostly living off others, who likes manipulating those around her. Isabel trusts her despite warnings from other friends and swims naively into a wide open net. Madame Merle introduces her to expatriate, indolent dilettante Gilbert Osmond, a widower with a doltish daughter of fifteen, Pansy, who has been educated in a convent. Gilbert leads a quiet and well-ordered life surrounded by antiques and art. Isabel falls in love with him - he has excellent manners and poses as an artist living on a higher plane. Blinded by her idealism, she sees a fellow-idealist in Gilbert, and does not note his faults.

The newly-weds set up house in Rome and here the story jumps three years. As soon as that, the marriage is already a failure, although Isabel and Gilbert keep up appearances for the outside world, they coexist in a hateful truce. Gilbert is a control freak who does not want his wife to have too many ideas (i.a. an independent mind and character) - he would probably prefer her to be an obedient  "doll" like his well-trained daughter.  Instead of finding freedom with her fortune, Isabel has been caught in a loveless trap. She finds some consolation in Pansy, to whom she feels close.

A visit to Rome by Lord Warburton (who briefly poses as suitor to Pansy, but is in fact still in love with Isabel) and the ailing Ralph, causes a further rift in the marriage. Gilbert accuses Isabel of having sabotaged Pansy's chances with Lord Warburton (Pansy is in fact interested in someone else), and of paying too much attention to Ralph of whom he feels jealous. Both men return to England, Ralph expecting never to leave Gardencourt. Isabel promises to come when the end is near. Gilbert strictly warns her to stay in Rome, but when the dreaded telegram arrives, she disobeys him and quickly travels to England.

However, after Ralph's funeral she feels she has no other option but to return to Italy, even although she now knows the secret relationship that existed between Gilbert and Madame Merle. She loves Pansy and wants to help her, on top of that she feels she cannot run away from the life she has chosen, even if it is full of unpleasantness and discordance - different from today, when mistaken commitments are perhaps all too easily discarded.

Sadly, Isabel is a normal, good person inspired by idealism, but everything she did has led to disappointments: not only has she disappointed Ralph's faith in her, but most seriously of all, she has been wrong to herself. Such is the harsh conclusion of Portrait of a Lady, a novel written in a meticulous literary style that tends to cover up the torments of its characters, which are nonetheless very real.
Available for free at Gutenberg and the Adelaide University Etext Center. I read the novel in the Penguin Classic edition. The Portrait of a Lady has been filmed by Jane Campion, with Nicole Kidman, John Malkovich, Barbara Hershey and Martin Donovan (1996).

October 3, 2012

"Le Grand Meaulnes (The Lost Domain)" (1913) by Alain-Fournier (Book Review)

Le Grand Meaulnes, of which the title literally means "The Great Meaulnes" (like the "Great Gatsby"), but which in English is also known as "The Lost Domain" and "The Wanderer," is the only work written by the French author Alain-Fournier (Henri Alban Fournier) before he was killed at age 27 in one of the early battles of WWI. It is a true masterpiece of nostalgia.

The novel is narrated by François Seurel, son of a village schoolmaster in a small village in the Sologne, a region of pools and marshes in north-central France. François (age 15) is captivated by the charismatic new schoolboy Augustin Meaulnes (17 years old), who is known as “the great Meaulnes" not only for his large stature, but also the daring feats he pulls off. He may be called an embodiment of the romantic ideal. On a solitary excursion through the countryside, Meaulnes looses his way and stumbles upon a mysterious country estate where a strange wedding celebration is underway. There Meaulnes also chances to meet a young woman of otherworldly beauty, Yvonne de Galais, for whom he conceives a transcendent love. But abruptly, the party breaks up and Meaulnes has to return to the village, where he takes François in his confidence.

To his dismay, Meaulnes discovers that he cannot retrace the route to the country estate, which has become "lost," an unobtainable romantic ideal, and a symbol of perfect happiness on the borderline of childhood and adulthood. He keeps hopelessly trying with the help of François, and it is the narrator who a few years later succeeds in locating the castle after Meaulnes has already left the village - it is much closer than they thought possible. Meaulnes is called back, he revisits the estate and even marries Yvonne - but the perfect happiness he believed to find has evaporated due to the experiences he himself has had in the meantime.

The book is full of a haunting atmosphere, the sounds and colors of the countryside and the different seasons. It is also permeated by a feeling of irrevocable loss: the loss of the pure dreams of charmed youth to cruel experience, the loss of idealized love to the sordid reality of the flesh, and the realization of the evanescence of the world around us - and even our memories of that world.

Le Grand Meaulnes was one of the favorite books of the British author John Fowles (The French Lieutenant's Woman) and he wrote The Magus under its influence. Another author who writes in the same vein of the loss of magic worlds is the today so popular Japanese author Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, etc.). But Alain-Fournier is purer than these post-modern authors, he writes exactly in the adolescent spirit of the story, honest and without any cynicism. Le Grand Meaulnes is a most beautiful book that deserves to better known. It may be impossible to find our dreams, but we must keep trying.

I read Le Grand Meaulnes in the English translation by Robin Buss in Penguin Books. Here is the original French, and here a French audio version. Website on the novel.




October 1, 2012

"Persuasion" (1815) by Jane Austen (Book Review)

"Persuasion" is the title and theme of Jane Austen's last completed novel - manipulative persuasion has broken the life of Jane Elliott, whose engagement with penniless naval officer Frederick Wentworth was blocked by her vain father Sir Walter Elliot and her all too practical godmother, Lady Russell. Now, eight years later and 27 years of age, though highly intelligent and accomplished, Anne is still unmarried and nursing the wound from the past and facing a future of loneliness and financial uncertainty - though with calm resignation.

The story is set into motion by the renewed appearance of Captain Wentworth. Anne's pompous and status-conscious father has squandered much of his fortune and is forced to let out the family estate, Kellynch. By chance, the new renters, Admiral Croft and his wife, are related to Captain Wentworth, who has returned with a fortune - and still a bachelor - from the Napoleonic Wars. He has never forgiven Anne for allowing herself to be persuaded to break up the engagement and their first meeting after all those years is a difficult one.

Misunderstandings and social restrictions keep them for a long time from getting to know each other's true feelings - there are other, younger women interested in Wentworth, and a devious nephew is trying to court Anne. But, as every reader of Jane Austen's novels knows, in the end the emotional tangle will be cleared up and things will be set right...

More interesting than the plot is again - as in other Jane Austen novels - the "comedy of manners," where the hypocrisy of society is revealed in the extreme vanity of Anne's father and elder sister Elizabeth. They are only interested in titles and despise people who are not part of the aristocracy - Elizabeth regards Anne as inconsequential as Anne doesn't share her prejudices - and in a nice scene are shown demurely licking the heels of a viscountess, lady Dalrymple. Another hypocrite is Anne's unscrupulous nephew William, who after an estrangement with Sir Walter caused by his lowly marriage (for money) now as a rich widower is courting Anne for her title. Even Lady Russel, though of a practical mind, is very susceptible to matters of rank and birth and therefore, with her wrong persuasion, has made Anne's life unhappy.

But at the same time, the second theme of the novel is the rise of the professional classes which would end the domination of the landed gentry. Jane Austen speaks with admiration about Captain Wentworth and other naval officers (including Admiral Croft, who has none of the foolish pride of Jane's father and does away with his collection of large mirrors after renting the house). These people work for their living and do great things, while Mr Elliott and others of his class only sit on their fat ass. Austen shows that too much reliance on money and connections leads to a false life. This is also a break with other novels by Jane Austen: in Pride and Prejudice, for example, the heroine Elizabeth Bennet marries inherited wealth and rank in the person of Mr. Darcy; in Persuasion, the hereditary aristocracy is held up to ridicule, while the rising meritocracy made up of successful officers in the Royal Navy gets full praise. In that sense, too, Anne's eventual marriage to Captain Wentworth shows the way to the future.


Free at Gutenberg or the Adelaide University Etext Center. I have read the Penguin Classics version. Persuasion is referenced in John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman. Since 1960, the novel has been filmed four times for television.

September 23, 2012

"Lionel Asbo: State of England" by Martin Amis (Book Review)

Educational levels are dropping in the Western world like a thermometer on a winter night and therefore the terrible ASBOs are among us: "Anti-Social Behavior Order," as they are called in the U.K. ("soccer hooligans" would be another name). And the mirror image of having a large underclass of people, is the flourishing of an underclass of the media, tabloids ("presstitutes") and sitcoms, to keep the ASBOs occupied during the long daytime, for work is foreign to them.

What do you do when something is too terrible to be true? You exorcise it by comedy and satire and that is what Martin Amis has done with both ASBOs and junk media. Lionel Asbo: State of England, Martin Amis' latest novel, is a hyperbolic farce about an underclass thug who revels in his ignorance, in violence and petty crime, and who feeds his pit-bulls steaks with Tabasco sauce to make them as mean as himself. He is a 21-year-old brute, always "one size bigger than expected" when he appears, full of excesses and explosions, working at "the very hairiest end of debt collection.” At a local wedding, Lionel's vulgar toast inflames the 90 guests into £650,000 of damages. Lionel regularly goes to prison on charges of “Extortion With Menaces and Receiving Stolen Property,” but doesn't mind: "When you in prison, you have you peace of mind. Because you not worried about getting arrested." These are not typing errors - the dialect and jargon in this novel are fantastic and real, as is the satire - it is not even a sub-culture that is addressed here, but sadly enough English culture of today as such - and on a wider note, the deplorable state of Western culture.

This novel’s plot concerns Lionel’s relationship with his orphaned nephew Desmond Pepperdine, a bright teen who enjoys school, the total opposite of Lionel, who lives in fear of his "brutally generic" uncle. Des wisely neglects his ward's advice to always carry a knife or watch Internet porn for his development, and the pit-bulls even become the meekest of dogs in his hands. But he has made one mistake: at age 15, he has slept with his grandmother, the mother of Lionel, which will be the death of him if Lionel finds out ("And if you f**k my mum, there's going to be consequences"). "Granny," by the way, is only 39, as she had her first of five kids by different fathers to whom she was of course not married at age 12. But Des soon leaves this patch of incest behind him. He is interested in study and books and after attending university, joins a large paper as crime reporter. He also meets the girl of his dreams, Dawn, whom he marries. They have a wonderful baby girl, Cilla, who is always smiling. His life is like a fairy tale, like a lotus flower rising from the mud to the sun.

But the path to happiness is not without bumps. The "family secret" with granny (who starts suffering from Alzheimer, but has dangerous patches of lucidity) hangs as an ax above his head. Then, while in prison, uncle Lionel wins £140 million in the national lottery (he in fact stole the ticket and Des filled it in for him) and becomes a tabloid celebrity ("Lottery Tout"). He starts a life of conspicuous consumption and discovers an entirely new form of power: money. He also delights in taunting grasping friends and family with his money, never giving them a cent (of course Des is the only one who wants nothing as he is proud to earn his own bread). Lionel buys the world's most obnoxious SUV, an ugly million-dollar wardrobe, a country home that he calls "Wormwood Scrubs" after the prison he was in when he won the lottery and slobbers champagne like water. He also acquires a trophy girlfriend, a plastic glamour model calling herself "Threnody." (And indeed, this novel is a threnody on the loss of culture). Their celebrity life together as the high priest and priestess of Chav plays out in the tabloids that turn the lout Lionel into a star (as they continually do in the real world). But Lionel has also a loyal streak and despite his savagery retains some sense of humanity in the midst of the media madhouse. He is even strangely likable...

Of course, becoming a superstar has not transformed Lionel into a cultivated person. He has an epic battle with a lobster in a refined restaurant and on a hot day he cools himself by pouring fine champagne down his pants. And when he orders filet mignon: "Cooked? Just take the horns off, wipe its arse, and sling it on the plate. And bring all your jams and pickles and mustards..." And so on.

But disaster lies in wait - we have been warned by the unrelenting questions at the start of each volume of "Who let the dogs in?" The dogs are two new pitbulls Lionel has parked on Des' balcony, while baby Cilla sleeps nearby... But in a wonderful twist, she escapes disaster to offer hope for a "new dawn" and this brutal story ends on an uplifting note.

A hilariously savage and highly enjoyable satire, in wonderfully electric prose.


Bach Cantatas (45): Trinity XII

The twelfth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of God constantly doing good for man (taking its cue from the story of the healing of a deaf mute man in the readings for this day). The Twelfth Sunday after the Trinity also was the day when town elections were celebrated, which meant this was a festive occasion on which trumpets and drums were at Bach's disposal.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
2 Corinthians 3:4–11, "the Ministration of the Spirit"
Mark 7:31–37, "the healing of a deaf mute man"

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText


Cantatas:
  • Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69a, 15 August 1723

     Chorus: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele
    Recitativo (soprano): Ach, daß ich tausend Zungen hätte!
    Aria (tenor, oboe da caccia, recorder, bassoon): Meine Seele, auf, erzähle
    Recitativo (alto): Gedenk ich nur zurück
    Aria (bass, oboe d'amore): Mein Erlöser und Erhalter
    Chorale: Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, darbei will ich verbleiben


    ("Praise the Lord, my soul") The text refers to the gospel reading for this day, but also presents "the healing of a deaf mute man" in a more general light, of God constantly doing good for man. The cantata therefore has a festive character. The opening chorus (a double fugue) starts with "Praise the Lord, my soul, and do not forget the good He has done for you". This is one of the grandest of Bach's trumpet choruses, introduced by an orchestral ritornello. But the gospel story is not forgotten, either, as the text in the rest of the cantata often refers to "telling" and "tongues," as in the first recitative for soprano. The first aria (tenor), which continues proclaiming God's grace, is a delicate pastoral song with recorder and English horn, a nice contrast to the chorus. The bass aria contrasts suffering and joy by the use of chromatic coloraturas. It has a graver and deeper character than anything else in this cantata, being a solemn prayer for protection and help during suffering. After that follows a warm harmonization of "Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan" to conclude the work. (***)

  • Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren, BWV 137, 19 August 1725

     Coro: Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren
    Aria (alto): Lobe den Herren, der alles so herrlich regieret,
    Aria (soprano, bass): Lobe den Herren, der künstlich und fein dich bereitet
    Aria (tenor): Lobe den Herren, der deinen Stand sichtbar gesegnet
    Chorale: Lobe den Herren, was in mir ist, lobe den Namen!

    ("Praise the Lord, the mighty King of Honor") Chorale cantata based on "Lobe den Herren, den mächtigen König der Ehren" (1680) by Joachim Neander. As Bach left the chorale text unchanged, there is no reference to the readings. It is a perfect piece of occasional, even popular music, and like other the cantatas for this Sunday, with festive trumpets and drums. Musically, it is a set of variations on the chorale tune. After the "jazzy" fugal chorus with its exuberant introduction (the orchestra plays a concerto here), we have an alto aria with obbligato violin. The third part is for soprano and bass with two oboes and is the deepest movement of the cantata, the fourth for tenor with organ and trumpet. The concluding chorale is in grand style with again a triumphant trumpet. The cantata may also have been performed to celebrate the inauguration of the new town council of that year, 1725. (***)

  • Geist und Seele wird verwirret, BWV 35, 8 September 1726

    Part I
    1. Sinfonia
    2. Aria: Geist und Seele wird verwirret
    3. Recitativo: Ich wundre mich
    4. Aria: Gott hat alles wohlgemacht
    Part 2
    5. Sinfonia
    6. Recitativo: Ach, starker Gott
    7. Aria: Ich wünsche nur bei Gott zu leben


    ("Spirit and soul become confused") Cantata with only an alto as soloist, and without chorus, set to a poem by Lehms, first published in 1711. It is possible that parts of this work were earlier than the first recorded Leipzig performance of 1726. The work includes two large concerto movements for organ and orchestra (the two sinfonias), presumably from a lost (oboe?) concerto, and also other parts may go back to other music - so for many this cantata is in the first place a treasury of lost music! The cantata is of a more serious character than the other two works for this Sunday; trumpets and drums are absent. The first aria is a lilting siciliana, and the third one a minuet. During the first performance, Bach himself probably played the virtuoso organ part. (****)

(1) New Year's Day (2) New Year I (3) Epiphany (4) Epiphany I (5) Epiphany II (6) Epiphany III (7) Epiphany IV (8) Feast of Purification of Mary (9) Septuagesima (10) Sexagesima (11) Quinquagesima (Estomihi) (12) The Consecration of a New Organ (13) The Inauguration of the Town Council (14) Oculi (15) Wedding Cantatas (16) Feast of Annunciation (17) Palm Sunday (18) Easter Sunday (19) Easter Monday (20) Easter Tuesday (21) Easter I (Quasimodogeniti) (22) Easter II (23) Easter III (24) Easter IV (25) Easter V (26) Ascension Day (27) Ascension I (28) Pentecost Sunday (29) Pentecost Monday (30) Pentecost Tuesday (31) Trinity Sunday (32) Trinity I (33) Trinity II (34) Trinity III (35) St. John's Day (36) Trinity IV (37) Visitation (38) Trinity V (39) Trinity VI (40) Trinity VII (41) Trinity VIII (42) Trinity IX (43) Trinity X (44) Trinity XI (45) Trinity XII (46) Trinity XIII (47) Trinity XIV (48) Trinity XV (49) Trinity XVI (50) Trinity XVII (51) Trinity XVIII (52) Trinity XIX (53) Trinity XX (54) Trinity XXI (55) Trinity XXII (56) Trinity XXIII (57) Trinity XXIV (58) Trinity XXV-XXVII (59) Advent I-IV (60) Christmas Day (61) Second Day of Christmas (62) Third Day of Christmas (63) Sunday after Christmas

September 19, 2012

"Bel Ami" (1885) by Guy de Maupassant (Book Review)

Bel Ami is a fun novel about cold-blooded social climbing, with a generous admixture of sex and seduction as ladders to success. I was reminded of Balzac's earlier novel Le Père Goriot (1835), where the student Rastignac uses similar methods for advancement in Parisian society, only Guy de Maupassant is much more radically cynical than Balzac. Bel Ami has not for nothing been called one of the nastiest pieces of French literature - never have liaisons been more ruthless, even Les Liaisons Dangereuses stands in the shadow of this cruel book.  But it is also one of the most delicious books imaginable.

"Bel Ami" ("Beautiful Boy") is the nickname of Georges Duroy, a penniless soldier just returned from French Algeria who comes to Paris to make his fortune in journalism, in a corrupt society where the press are in league with the politicians (they are involved in secret preparations for a North-African invasion that will enrich them all). Georges has the luck to be introduced into society by an old friend from the army, Charles Forestier, now editor at the powerful newspaper "La Vie Française." It is Charles' beautiful and intelligent wife Madeleine who helps Georges write his first article, for he has no real journalistic talent. She also teaches him that the most important part of the Parisian population are the women, not the men.

Georges starts on the lowest sport of the ladder with a prostitute, Rachel, but soon climbs up to his first liaison by seducing Madeleine's married friend Clotilde, with whom he sets up a veritable love nest. All the same, he is on friendly terms with her elderly husband, who suspects nothing. When Charles dies, Georges presses his suit on Madeleine and marries her for further social advancement, but he also seduces Mme Walter, the wife of the super-rich owner of "La Vie Française," and while visiting her house, to put the icing on the cake, her daughter Suzanne falls hopelessly in love with him.

Via an intrigue Georges gets rid of Madeleine, and he also pushes the besotted, clinging Mme Walters away with a hard hand. As the husband of millionaire's daughter Suzanne the world will lie open for him, perhaps he will even become a minister... Georges has cunningly built his success on the hypocrisy, decadence and corruption of society, but his rise to power has above all been made possible by the powerful and wealthy women around him. At the party of his marriage to Suzanne, he presses the hand of Clotilde - they should soon have one of their intimate meetings again!

And with the description of Georges' wedding to Suzanne the satirical novel ends - we have glimpsed the future and there is nothing more to say. Moreover, this marriage in a fashionable church is the apex of the hypocrisy the novel castigates: the triumphant rascal, adorned with the Order of the Legion of Honor marries the young daughter of a mother he has seduced and a father he has trapped into acquiescing with the marriage, and this marriage is blessed by the Church and recognized as something good and proper by all high society present! Readers who would like to see Georges punished for his unscrupulousness might be dissatisfied, but happily Maupassant is too much of a realist to fall into such a trap. The world is cruel, and that is what he wanted to show us. Wealth and glory are often for the unworthy.
Read it for free at Gutenberg, but pick the right translation: Bel Ami, Or, the History of a Scoundrel is more a paraphrase than a faithful translation, so please avoid it and read Bel Ami (A Ladies' Man). There is of course also an even better translation available as a Penguin Classic. The French version of this novel can be found here. There is also an audiobook in French.
Bel Ami was filmed several times, but no version can be recommended. The latest, made in 2012 by directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod and acted by Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas, is visually beautiful, but the casting is all wrong (especially the young actor who plays Bel Ami with a terrible squint) and it crams so much of the plot in just 100 minutes that it becomes a superficial story racing along without any depth.

September 18, 2012

"Sweet Tooth" by Ian McEwan (Book Review)

Ian McEwan is one of the best contemporary (living) writers and a new book is therefore a feast. Sweet Tooth is the title and this novel gives us McEwan at his classical best. At first glance, it is the story of a young woman, Serena Frome, her love affairs and her entrance into MI5, the British security service; but there is a postmodern twist in the tail which turns this seemingly middlebrow story completely on its head. Sweet Tooth is also the story of Britain (and Europe) in 1972 with its sad malfunctioning of public services, terrorism threats, and of course the Cold War still very hot. And the novel pries into the problems of fictionality and literature, even giving us the young Ian McEwan and his literary world in the figure of his "invented self" Tom Haley. "Sweet Tooth," by the way, refers to an MI5 program to stealthily sponsor the arts, in order to promote some democratic ideals in that leftist environment. Selena Frome ("rather gorgeous" and "rhymes with plume") is selected to bring Tom Haley into the program, and of course she falls terribly in love with him...

Here are the main points:
  1. The story told by Serena Frome. a rather gauche young woman who is addicted to "middlebrow" novels which she "speed-reads," reads itself like just such a middlebrow novel, until McEwan turns the tables on his readers with a highbrow, postmodern trick. The sweet story is about Serena's loves (Jeremy who turns out to be homosexual, the much older professorial Tony who dumps her to protect his marriage, and finally the young author Tom), her entrance into MI5 and her task to recruit the writer Tom Haley. She offers him a stipend "enough to keep a chap from having to do a day job for a year or two, even three." As happens in all novels she reads, she finally "gets" the right guy, although she fails miserably in her spy job.
  2. The story of Britain (and wider, Europe) in the early 1970s: malfunctioning of the state (like a rotten tooth), terrorism threats, a war in the Middle East and the First Oil Crisis, the Cold War and rampant leftism among the young.
  3. A tongue in cheek "Tinker Tailor" story of MI5 - the misogynist culture, the complicated secrecy about nothing, the silliness of the Sweet Tooth project.
  4. The world of literature when McEwan himself was writing his first short stories - his colleagues as Martin Amis, his publisher, etc. Several of McEwan's early stories are paraphrased, the dystopian novel Tom Haley produces as part of the MI5 program (so not at all what they wanted!) is also based on such a story.
The construction of this novel, which has been called a "Russian doll" with its stories in stories and its mirroring images, is immaculate. But it is above all a comic novel, and McEwan clearly had lots of fun writing it - and at least this reader had as much fun reading it.

August 18, 2012

Bach Cantatas (44): Trinity XI

The eleventh Sunday after Trinity treats the theme of hypocrisy and "falseness of heart" and rejects pomposity and self-righteousness.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
1 Corinthians 15:1–10, on the gospel of Christ and Paul's duty as an apostle
Luke 18:9–14, parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Cantatas:
  • Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut, BWV 199, 12 August 1714

    Recitative: "Mein Herze schwimmt im Blut"
    Soprano aria: "Stumme Seufzer, stille Klagen"
    recitative: "Doch Gott muss mir genädig sein"
    Aria: "Tief gebückt und voller Reue"
    Recitative: "Auf diese Schmerzensreu"
    Chorale: "Ich, dein betrübtes Kind"
    Recitative: "Ich lege mich in diese Wunden"
    Aria: "Wie freudig ist mein Herz"


    ("My heart swims in blood") Solo cantata for soprano, a lament about existential pain and suffering. The introductory recitative ("My heart swims in blood, since the offspring of my sins in the holy eyes of God make me a monster") sets the mood, after which an intensely grieving oboe leads into a beautiful aria. The subject is still the same: "Mute sighs, silent cries, you may tell my sorrows, for my mouth is shut." Well, that is what music is for. The next recitative introduces a note of hope, and in the ensuing aria God's forgiveness is implored. There is a rich string sound in the orchestra perhaps signifying a note of optimism. After a short recitative follows a chorale setting with obbligato viola in lively figuration. The last recitative introduces a different mood, with a long coloratura on "fröhlich" (joyful), after which the final aria brings the long awaited sunshine. It is the only fast movement of the cantata, a cheerful gigue. (****)

  • Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei, BWV 179, 8 August 1723

    Chorus: Siehe zu, daß deine Gottesfurcht nicht Heuchelei sei
    Recitativo (tenor): Das heutge Christentum ist leider schlecht bestellt
    Aria (tenor, oboes, violin): Falscher Heuchler Ebenbild
    Recitativo (bass): Wer so von innen wie von außen ist
    Aria (soprano, oboes): Liebster Gott, erbarme dich
    Chorale: Ich armer Mensch, ich armer Sünder


    ("See to it, that your fear of God be not hypocrisy") The text of this sombre cantata stays close to the readings for this day, stressing that one should not serve God with a false heart (like the Pharisee in the parable), but pray humbly. The cantata starts with a strictly fugal chorus, almost like a motet, in which the chromatically descending melody symbolizes the "false heart." In the first recitative and agitated tenor aria, hypocrites are castigated in a heavy Lutheran way. After more warnings ("though you are no thief or adulterer, do not imagine that you are angelically pure"), the bass recitative gives the positive example of the tax collector from the parable. The next soprano aria accompanied by two supplicating oboes da caccia constitutes a deeply felt prayer for mercy. There is grandeur in "my sins afflict me" and contrition via an inexorable downward motion in "I drown in deep mire." This is the most direct piece of music of the cantata. Then follows the closure in the form of an effective chorale. Bach would reuse the opening chorus and arias in some of his masses. (***)

  • Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut, BWV 113, 20 August 1724

    Chorale: Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut
    Chorale (alto): Erbarm dich mein in solcher Last,
    Aria (bass): Fürwahr, wenn mir das kömmet ein
    Recitativo e chorale (bass) Jedoch dein heilsam Wort, das macht
    Aria (tenor): Jesus nimmt die Sünder an
    Recitativo (tenor): Der Heiland nimmt die Sünder an
    Aria (soprano, alto): Ach Herr, mein Gott, vergib mirs doch
    Chorale: Stärk mich mit deinem Freudengeist


    ("Lord Jesus Christ, you highest good") Chorale cantata based on the eight stanzas of Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's hymn "Herr, sei mir armem Sünder gnädig" (1588), a song of penitence related to the tax collector's prayer from the readings. The opening chorus is a superb chorale fantasia with orchestral accompaniment based on the hymn tune. After a string introduction, the next verse of the hymn is sung by solo alto. The ambiguous bass aria is accompanied by oboes d'amore and combines a jolly tune with "trembling, fear, and pain." Next follows a chorale with tropes. The most attractive movement is the lighthearted tenor aria accompanied by virtuoso flute. There is also a rich string cadence on the text "sweet word full of comfort and life." The next recitative is followed by a duet for soprano and alto with such long double melismas that it is almost impossible to perform, after which a straightforward setting of the hymn tune rings out the cantata. (***)

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August 12, 2012

Bach Cantatas (43): Trinity X

All of Bach’s cantatas for the Tenth Sunday after Trinity are about the prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, linked to the Lamentations of Jeremiah and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
1 Corinthians 12:1–11, "different gifts, but one spirit"
Luke 19:41–48, Jesus announces the destruction of Jerusalem; Cleansing of the Temple

References:
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Cantatas:
  • Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei, BWV 46, 1 August 1723

    Coro: Schauet doch und sehet, ob irgend ein Schmerz sei
    Recitativo (tenor): So klage du, zerstörte Gottesstadt
    Aria (bass): Dein Wetter zog sich auf von weiten
    Recitativo (alto): Doch bildet euch, o Sünder, ja nicht ein
    Aria (alto): Doch Jesus will auch bei der Strafe
    Chorale: O großer Gott von Treu


    ("Behold and see, if there be any sorrow") The opening chorus brings an impressive lament of large proportions, based on the Lamentations of Jeremiah. Note the wailing recorders. Bach reworked this later as the Qui tollis of his Mass in B minor, so he must have been satisfied with it. After an interesting recitative, with as conclusion "You did not heed Jesus' tears, now heed the tidal wave of passion that you have built up over yourself," the bass aria pictures dramatically the outbreak of the thunderstorm of God's wrath, offering the trumpet a good opportunity to show off. "Excessive sins ignite the lightning of vengeance," and indeed, the cracks of lightning can be heard in the roaring orchestra. The alto recitative then personalizes the threat of destruction: "Do not imagine, o sinners, that Jerusalem alone is full of sin - you will all perish as dreadfully." This is followed by a tender aria in which the righteous are assured that they will be saved by the Shepherd Jesus (note the now pastoral recorder). The aria is scored without basso continuo. In the chorale “O großer Gott von Treu” the wailing recorders return to make the circle of lamentation complete. (***)

  • Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott, BWV 101, 13 August 1724

    Coro: Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott
    Aria (tenor): Handle nicht nach deinen Rechten
    Recitativo e chorale (soprano): Ach! Herr Gott, durch die Treue dein
    Aria (bass): Warum willst du so zornig sein?
    Recitativo e chorale (tenor): Die Sünd hat uns verderbet sehr
    Aria (soprano, alto): Gedenk an Jesu bittern Tod
    Chorale: Leit uns mit deiner rechten Hand


    ("Take away from us, Lord, faithful God") Chorale cantata sung on the melody of Martin Luther's Vater unser im Himmelreich - a melody present in all movements but the first aria. The text was adapted from a hymn by Martin Moller describing the horrors of the plague (1584), so obviously it is a rather somber piece. That being said, the opening chorus is one of the grandest of all of Bach’s choruses. It has something of an choral prelude for organ. There are many changes of texture, from a "marching theme" to a "sighing theme." The tenor aria is accompanied by a virtuoso flute (or violin). The recitative combines an embellished version of the chorale melody with secco recitative. The dramatic bass aria raises the question: "Why are you so incensed with us?" The next recitative mirrors the first and the final soprano/alto duet is a melancholy Siciliano with a gentle accompaniment from the flute and oboe da caccia: "Think on Jesus' bitter death." The cantata ends with a straightforward harmonization of the chorale. (***)

  • Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben, BWV 102, 25 August 1726

    Chorus: Herr, deine Augen sehen nach dem Glauben
    Recitativo (bass): Wo ist das Ebenbild, das Gott uns eingepräget
    Aria (alto, oboe): Weh der Seele, die den Schaden nicht mehr kennt
    Arioso (bass): Verachtest du den Reichtum seiner Gnade
    Parte seconda
    Aria (tenor, flute or violin): Erschrecke doch, du allzu sichre Seele
    Recitativo (alto, oboes): Beim Warten ist Gefahr
    Chorale: Heut lebst du, heut bekehre dich


    ("Lord, Your eyes look for faith") The words of the cantata are only generally connected to the readings, asking "stubborn and unpenitent hearts" to "make repentance this instant before swift death overtakes one." The whole cantata is in this mood. The opening chorus is an intricate choral fugue, rigorous and austere, a good example of Bach's art at its most Lutheran. The alto aria with obbligato oboe is nicely dramatic; the arioso for bass with strings shows lots of energy. The tenor aria sports an interesting accompaniment by the violin piccolo. After that, an extended alto recitative brings on the final chorale "Vater unser im Himmelreich." (***)

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