"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.

November 14, 2012

"Heart of Darkness" by Joseph Conrad (The Art of the Novella 10)

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.

[People gathered in the forest, at the passage of the steamboat “Roi des Belges” (1888)
Photo Wikipedia]

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.

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.

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.

[Alain-Fournier in 1905 -
Photo: Wikipedia]

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. (****)

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 De 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 it is better to pick 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. (***)

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:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText


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." (***)

August 8, 2012

"A Simple Soul" by Gustave Flaubert (The Art of the Novella 11)

A Simple Soul (called Un cœur simple or Le perroquet in French) is so well and beautifully written, that one wishes Flaubert would have created more stories like this - unfortunately, his production was very small. He wrote extremely slowly, it has been said that a single page took him five days to finish.

"Simplicity" is indeed the keyword in this story of a servant called Felicité. She is a peasant woman with no education - even illiterate - and also without property, husband or children. Without her mistress, she wouldn't even have a roof above her head. She had a great love when she was young, but the man suddenly left her to marry a well-to-do woman "to avoid conscription." After that, Felicité left the farm and headed to the city to start working as a servant in the house of the widow Mme Aubian. Mme Aubian is no easy mistress, but Felicité is loyal and easily bestows her affections on the two children of the house. In fact, she is utterly selfless and lives only for those around her. This also includes her relatives such as a poor nephew she tries to help.

The sad fact is that all she gives to are unworthy of her generosity and take advantage of her. But she is unaffected by this, for true altruism is a reward in itself. Felicité can deal with anything that comes her way. Her belief in the basic goodness of life makes her happier than those around her - although she also knows sorrow when, one after the other, the daughter of her mistress and her nephew die. At the same time she is no Dostoyevskian holy fool (an inane figure Flaubert loathed) but "stands with both feet in the clay" (as a Dutch saying goes).

In later life, Felicité obtains a parrot (which reminds her indirectly of her nephew who died as a sailor in the tropics) and becomes very much attached to the bird. When the parrot dies, she has it stuffed. She develops a sort of spiritual relationship with the parrot, who becomes the embodiment of her relationship to the divine. At the same time, the love she shows the parrot is symbolic of her lifelong altruism. When she dies, Flaubert invokes the image of the parrot floating above her as a sort of Holy Ghost... It is a wonderful apotheosis.

As usual, Flaubert combines richly observed detail with spare, deceptively simple language. He truly is masterful in this perfectly realized character study. He also shows he was educated as a doctor: like in Madame Bovary (see my post here) he gives eerily detailed descriptions of illness and death.

"A Simple Heart" was the inspiration for the novel by Julian Barnes, Flaubert's Parrot.
English translation at Gutenberg
Audiovox recording
French original
French audio version
Flaubert site of University of Rouen (French)

August 5, 2012

Bach Cantatas (42): Trinity IX

The ninth Sunday after Trinity treats the theme that since mankind cannot survive before God's judgement, one should forswear earthly pleasures, and turn away from the transient world to God.

There are three cantatas for this Sunday.

Readings:
1 Corinthians 10:6–13, Warning of false gods, consolation in temptation
Luke 16:1–9, Parable of the Unjust Steward

References:
BCWBDECNLSGJNLVHWPText

Cantatas:
  • Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht mit deinem Knecht, BWV 105, 25 July 1723

    1. Coro: Herr, gehe nicht ins Gericht
    2. Recitative (alto): Mein Gott, verwirf ich nicht
    3. Aria (soprano, oboe and strings, without continuo): Wie zittern und wanken, der Sünder Gedanken
    4. Recitative (bass, strings): Wohl aber dem, der seinen Bürgen weiß
    5. Aria (tenor, corno, strings): Kann ich nur Jesum mir zum Freunde machen
    6. Chorale: Nun, ich weiß, du wirst mir stillen


    ("Lord, do not pass judgment on Your servant") A meditation on faith and redemption. The opening lines of the cantata, by an unknown librettist, come from Psalm 143. This is a mighty chorus that starts with a mournful and harmonically complex prelude, followed by a striding and energetic fugue. Next the alto recitative represents the faithful who beg God not to cast them away. The soprano aria with sentences as "an anxious conscience is torn apart by its own torment" creates a world shaking with fear and doubt. Trembling strings (without bass instruments, to emphasize insecurity) form the basis for the pleading duet between soprano and oboe. The bass arioso as Vox Christi introduces stability and the tenor aria even features a confident trumpet "If I can only make Jesus my friend, then Mammon is worth nothing to me." There is a clear change of mood to optimism here. The final chorale reintroduces the trembling strings from the soprano aria, but with each succeeding stanza the tremolos become less rapid, as if to symbolize the calming of man after conciliation with God. The musical and textual unity of this cantata has been overall praised. (****)

  • Was frag ich nach der Welt, BWV 94, 6 August 1724

    Chorus: Was frag ich nach der Welt
    Aria (bass): Die Welt ist wie ein Rauch und Schatten
    Chorale e recitativo (tenor, oboes): Die Welt sucht Ehr und Ruhm
    Aria (alto): Betörte Welt, betörte Welt!
    Chorale e recitativo (bass): Die Welt bekümmert sich
    Aria (tenor): Die Welt kann ihre Lust und Freud
    Aria (soprano): Es halt es mit der blinden Welt
    Chorale: Was frag ich nach der Welt!


    ("What need I of this world") Chorale cantata based on the chorale in eight stanzas of the poet Balthasar Kindermann (1664) on a melody by Ahasverus Fritsch. The words of the cantata are only generally connected to the readings, in the theme of turning away from the transient world. The opening chorus is dominated by the concertante flauto traverso - it is almost a flute concerto! But for such a long (30 min) cantata it is also remarkably short, the weight of the piece falls on the arias and especially the chorale recitatives. The dazzling flute music represents "life's treasures" and Bach probably makes it short because "worldliness" is immediately rejected. The sparely accompanied bass aria compares the world to "haze and shadow;" tumbling motives illustrate vanishing and falling, in contrast to long held notes that speak of stability. In the third movement the tenor sings the chorale in rich ornamentation, accompanied by two oboes. Leipzig was a wealthy merchant town and the subjects of Bach's criticism were probably proudly sitting in the church benches: "A proud man builds the most opulent palaces, he seeks the highest post of honor, he dresses himself with the best in purple, gold, in silver, silk and velvet." The flute returns in the alto aria that calls the world deluded: "Even your riches, goods and money are trickery and counterfeit." The delusion is symbolized by using "wrong notes." After another chorale recitative, now for bass, in which the conclusion is reached " If my Jesus honors me: what should I ask of the world!," we have two more arias optimistically describing this new state of being free from worldly concerns. One is for tenor with an attractive string accompaniment and the other for soprano with a delicious oboe d'amore line. They are both set in dance rhythms (Pastorale and Bourrée). The cantata is concluded by the last two stanzas of the chorale, emphasizing "What need I of this world?" (***)

  • Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort, BWV 168, 29 July 1725

    1. Aria (bass): Tue Rechnung! Donnerwort
    2. Recitativo (tenor): Es ist nur fremdes Gut
    3. Aria (tenor): Kapital und Interessen
    4. Recitativo (bass): Jedoch, erschrocknes Herz, leb und verzage nicht
    5. Aria (soprano, alto): Herz, zerreiß des Mammons Kette
    6. Chorale: Stärk mich mit deinem Freudengeist


    ("Settle account! Word of thunder") Inspired by the reading about the unjust steward and based on a text by Salomo Franck, who as the director of the mint in Weimar frequently uses money metaphors - for example in the tempestuous opening aria where the bass (Vox Christi) like an irate bank manager demands us to "settle our accounts" - the "words of thunder" are literally shouted by the bass over the rumbling of the strings. And in the long and didactic recitative by tenor life is depicted as a loan that needs repayment on judgement day. The ensuing tenor aria is accompanied by two oboes d'amore playing in unisono. "Capital and interest, my debts great and small must one day be accounted for." A turning point is reached in the bass recitative of movement 4, referring to the death of Jesus which "crossed out the debt". Next there is an interesting soprano-alto duet in which the bass line represents the "chains of Mammon." The cantata is concluded by a grave and quiet setting of the eighth stanza of Bartholomäus Ringwaldt's chorale "Herr Jesu Christ, du höchstes Gut" (1588). (**)

August 3, 2012

Best Stories of Ivan Turgenev (2): Lyrical Stories

Lyrical Stories (1855-1870) - In this group belong Turgenev's three masterful love stories: Torrents of Spring, First Love and Asya, the best works he ever wrote. Other stories continue the trend from Turgenev's earlier phase, to portray typical Russian types, such as "indolent young men" or  "superfluous men."


The Three Meetings (1853) The narrator has three chance meetings with a mysterious woman, with whom he has fallen in love - of course without being able to satisfy his desire. The romantic effusions in this story are somewhat atypical of Turgenyev.





A Quiet Backwater (1854) The "quiet backwater" is of course a typical place in the Russian countryside. A young, absent landowner makes his annual visit and is invited by a neighbor - where he meets Marya, a "wild beauty of the steppes" and also Nadyezhda, a sort of mocking Amazon.  In contrast, her brother Veretyev is portrayed negatively as a lazy, indolent character. Told in an objective style, the story reads like the start of a novel, which however does not really come off the ground.





Two Friends (1855) A young landowner has decided to start living on his estate in the countryside, where he befriends a neighbor of the same age. The neighbor, hearing that the landowner wants to get married, introduces him to various houses in the vicinity, but the ladies are rather eccentric and do not pass muster. Finally he meets a simple girl, with a goodhearted smile, who lives with her widowed father. He marries her against counsel, then indeed finds "there is nothing in her." He dislikes living with her and starts traveling abroad where he finally dies. The friend marries the now widowed "simple girl."





Yakov Pasinkov (1856). The narrator is in love with the rather puritanical Sophia, but by chance reads a letter she has written to a friend, and so finds out she really loves another, Asanov. He is so foolish to confront her with this knowledge. A mutual friend, Yakov Pasinkov, helps to smoothen things a bit, but Sophia of course marries Asanov. Seven years later the narrator is present at the deathbed of Pasinkov and learns that he, too, was very much in love with Sophia. This, too, is a tragedy of the "superfluous man."





A Tour in the Forest (1856) The narrator is a hunter, like in the Sportsman's Sketches, who is taken by farmers on a hunt in a deep forest. The most interesting element of this story is the description of the endless, majestic forest.





A Correspondence (1856) Correspondence between a young man and a woman who having to cope both with broken engagements, find intellectual solace with each other. They become quite close and Alexev promises to visit Marya, but that is the last she hears from him, until, more than a year later a letter with an explanation reaches her: Alexev confesses he had madly fallen in love with a beautiful but uneducated dancing girl. He has followed her to Dresden where he now lies dying from tuberculosis. Interesting is Alexev's idea that love is not something pleasant but a malady like cholera, which takes possession of a person against his or her will... Here we see the theme of Torrents of Spring already foreshadowed.





Faust (1856) A novel told in nine letters written to a friend. After returning to his estate, the narrator meets an old acquaintance who has married Vera, a woman he himself had long ago been in love with. Although in her late twenties and with three children, her looks have not changed. The narrator becomes the house-friend of the couple, visiting almost every day. Vera has no knowledge of literature (her mother used to be against poetry), so the narrator starts reading Goethe's Faust with her. Gradually the old feelings of love are rekindled by the tender scenes in Faust. This shocks Vera so much that she falls ill and pines away. The narrator concludes that he should have practiced resignation, and left when he felt his love revive.





Asya (1858). The narrator has come to the beautiful Rhine valley to seek relief from a broken love affair. He finds two other Russians here, brother and sister (in fact a half-sister, she has been born out of wedlock as later is divulged). The narrator is interested in the 17-year old Asya, who has fast changing moods: she can be wild, naive, and coquettish. Although Asya is rather strange and mysterious, he falls in love with her. At a secret rendez-vous, he hears that she also feels love for him. But now, at the decisive moment, he hesitates to set the next step and ask her to marry him. The following morning, when he feels regret and wants to redress things, brother and sister have disappeared from the village and he never finds Asya back - they apparently have mistakenly concluded that the narrator is not interested in marriage as Asya is an extramarital child. Turgenev's first story of resignation. Asya's situation was the same as that of Turgenev's daughter Polina, who was born out of his relation with a serf.





First Love (1860). A 15 year old boy harbors feelings of "first love" for Zinaide, a beautiful, but five years older neighboring girl who has a whole circle of admirers around her, a sort of salon, with whom she plays games, making the men in a dictatorial way do all kinds of silly things. She treats the narrator as her page-boy. When he starts thinking she may have some kind of special feelings for him, and follows her secretly, he discovers she has an unexpected lover: his father! The world of the narrator falls apart. The story is based on Turgenev's bittersweet childhood memories - Turgenev was at age 15 indeed in love with a woman who had an affair with his father.





The Torrents of Spring (1871) - The melancholy reminiscences of a superfluous man, a story of romantic regret. In Germany, the narrator falls in love with a beautiful, pure Italian girl, Gemma. He fights a duel for her with German officers who have insulted her and so wins her love (she was originally engaged to a stiff German "with good prospects"). They decide to marry. In order to make that possible, he travels to a neighboring city where a large Russian community is, to sell his estate. An old acquaintance introduces him to his wife, Polozova, who has an independent fortune. She is a dark vampish woman and after toying with him for a few days, she manages to seduce the narrator, something she had put a bet on with her husband. The narrator is lost in dream of lust and becomes one of a group of admirers she has constantly around her. He never meets Gemma again and after many years returns to Russia, his life in shambles. Then, when finding a keepsake, he remembers Gemma and is consumed by immense regret. By the way, in this story Turgenev satirizes the Germans, who had become arrogant after their victory in the war with France (1870). Turgenev had lived for many years in Baden-Baden, but as the atmosphere had become uncongenial, he now moved to Paris, as did the Viardots.
See my post about this beautiful story.



Interesting series of articles about the literature of Turgenev (German)
General evaluation of these stories: 10 points out of 10.

July 31, 2012

"Clara Militch" (After Death) by Ivan Turgenev (Book Review)

Clara Militch (also called After Death; 1883) is one of the late stories of Ivan Turgenev, in fact his "swang song" (see my other posts about the stories of Turgenev: Early Stories) and a mix of two of the themes that fascinated him: love and the unconsciousness - in this, he was a forerunner of Arthur Schnitzler.

Clara Militch tells the story of the 27-year-old Muscovite Aratov, an independent scientist (read: university drop-out) who leads a secluded life together with his overprotective aunt. Then, one day, a friend named Kupfer, who is his only contact with the outside world, after some effort entices him to visit a charity concert, where the promising young singer and actress Clara Militch will perform the Love Letter part from Pushkin's Yevgeny Onegin. Unlike the rest of the audience, Aratov is not impressed by her performance and is not interested in being introduced to her, despite the fact that during her recitation the interestingly dark woman kept staring at him.
She was a girl of nineteen, tall, rather broad-shouldered, but well-built. A dark face, of a half-Jewish half-gipsy type, small black eyes under thick brows almost meeting in the middle, a straight, slightly turned-up nose, delicate lips with a beautiful but decided curve, an immense mass of black hair, heavy even in appearance, a low brow still as marble, tiny ears ... the whole face dreamy, almost sullen. A nature passionate, wilful — hardly good-tempered, hardly very clever, but gifted — was expressed in every feature.
In fact, Clara was modeled on opera singer Pauline Viardot, Turgenev's own life-long love, whom he met first in 1843 in St. Petersburg.

The next day Aratov receives an anonymous letter, asking him to come to a rendez-vous, a request to which he reluctantly complies. As suspected, he meets Clara, who declares her love for him, but unsocial Aratov only answers in broad platitudes, with an aloofness that makes Clara walk away in anger and disappointment:
‘I am ready to listen to you,’ he began again, ‘and shall be very glad if I can be of use to you in any way ... though I am, I confess, surprised ... considering the retired life I lead....’
At these last words of his, Clara suddenly turned to him, and he beheld such a terrified, such a deeply-wounded face, with such large bright tears in the eyes, such a pained expression about the parted lips, and this face was so lovely, that he involuntarily faltered, and himself felt something akin to terror and pity and softening.
‘Ah, why ... why are you like that?’ she said, with an irresistibly genuine and truthful force, and how movingly her voice rang out! ‘Could my turning to you be offensive to you?... is it possible you have understood nothing?... Ah, yes! you have understood nothing, you did not understand what I said to you, God knows what you have been imagining about me, you have not even dreamed what it cost me — to write to you!... You thought of nothing but yourself, your own dignity, your peace of mind!... But is it likely I’ ... (she squeezed her hands raised to her lips so hard, that the fingers gave a distinct crack).... ‘As though I made any sort of demands of you, as though explanations were necessary first....
“My dear madam,... I am, I confess, surprised,... if I can be of any use” ... Ah! I am mad!— I was mistaken in you — in your face!... when I saw you the first time ...! Here ... you stand.... If only one word. What, not one word?’
She ceased.... Her face suddenly flushed, and as suddenly took a wrathful and insolent expression. ‘Mercy! how idiotic this is!’ she cried suddenly, with a shrill laugh. ‘How idiotic our meeting is! What a fool I am!... and you too.... Ugh!’
She gave a contemptuous wave of her hand, as though motioning him out of her road, and passing him, ran quickly out of the boulevard, and vanished.
Three months later, Aratov happens to see an obituary in the newspaper informing him that Clara Militch has taken poison while on stage - allegedly out of unrequited love. Now Aratov starts thinking much about Clara, he tries to figure out the reasons for her drastic act, and she appears in a sort of prophetic dream telling him to visit her hometown.

By the way, this incident was based on a real event, which took place in 1881 and was reported in the papers: a certain scientist had fallen in love with a famous Russian actress, after she had very theatrically committed suicide on the stage and died in front of the spectators!

Aratov decides to visit Clara's home town Kasan. He speaks with Clara's sister, who gives him her portrait and also lends him Clara's diary. The diary confirms his worst fears: it was his rebuff that caused her to take her own life. As soon as Aratov has returned to Moscow, Clara starts to haunt him, inspiring remorse as well as passion. Now, posthumously, he starts loving her and ends up in the power of the dead. Here is how she haunts him:
And now he began to speak, not loudly, but with solemn deliberation, as though he were uttering an incantation.
‘Clara,’ he began, ‘if you are truly here, if you see me, if you hear me — show yourself!... If the power which I feel over me is truly your power, show yourself! If you understand how bitterly I repent that I did not understand you, that I repelled you — show yourself! If what I have heard was truly your voice; if the feeling overmastering me is love; if you are now convinced that I love you, I, who till now have neither loved nor known any woman; if you know that since your death I have come to love you passionately, inconsolably; if you do not want me to go mad,— show yourself, Clara!’
Aratov had hardly uttered this last word, when all at once he felt that some one was swiftly approaching him from behind — as that day on the boulevard — and laying a hand on his shoulder. He turned round, and saw no one. But the sense of her presence had grown so distinct, so unmistakable, that once more he looked hurriedly about him....
What was that? On an easy-chair, two paces from him, sat a woman, all in black. Her head was turned away, as in the stereoscope.... It was she! It was Clara! But what a stern, sad face!
Aratov slowly sank on his knees. Yes; he was right, then. He felt neither fear nor delight, not even astonishment.... His heart even began to beat more quietly. He had one sense, one feeling, ‘Ah! at last! at last!’
‘Clara,’ he began, in a faint but steady voice, ‘why do you not look at me? I know that it is you ... but I may fancy my imagination has created an image like that one ... ‘— he pointed towards the stereoscope —‘prove to me that it is you.... Turn to me, look at me, Clara!’
Clara’s hand slowly rose ... and fell again.
‘Clara! Clara! turn to me!’
And Clara’s head slowly turned, her closed lids opened, and her dark eyes fastened upon Aratov.
He fell back a little, and uttered a single, long-drawn-out, trembling ‘Ah!’
Clara gazed fixedly at him ... but her eyes, her features, retained their former mournfully stern, almost displeased expression. With just that expression on her face she had come on to the platform on the day of the literary matinée, before she caught sight of Aratov. And, just as then, she suddenly flushed, her face brightened, her eyes kindled, and a joyful, triumphant smile parted her lips....
‘I have come!’ cried Aratov. ‘You have conquered.... Take me! I am yours, and you are mine!’
He flew to her; he tried to kiss those smiling, triumphant lips, and he kissed them. He felt their burning touch: he even felt the moist chill of her teeth: and a cry of triumph rang through the half-dark room.
Finally, Aratov starts longing for death, in order to be reunited with Clara, with whom he is madly in love after death. He dies with a happy smile on his face.

Of course we should not infer from this story that Turgenev really believed in "ghosts." He didn't, as he explained himself, his interest was in dreams and the unconscious. Turgenev clearly leaves his readers the possibility of a rational explanation for a number of seemingly inexplicable events. Out of guilt, or regret because it is too late, Aratov imagines Clara's presence and becomes increasingly mentally unstable. In the end, this leads to his own death.

The passion is as palpable as in Turgenev's other love stories, but there are new elements as well. Besides the already mentioned interest in dreams and the unconscious, that is satire: take for example the way the charity concert is described, with its inept performers. It can even be doubted that Clara, aged 19, is such a great artist - she only performs in provincial theaters. She also seems to mix up literature and life, for at the rendez-vous with Aratov, she in fact reenacts the Love Letter scene from Yevgeny Onegin. Her "love suicide" seems just such a literary cliché.

But given the fact that Clara was modeled on Turgenev's own Pauline Viardot, is it wrong to assume that the writer, in the last year before his death, was perhaps also dreaming of a future union with his great love? (That means Turgenev had to wait a bit for he died in 1883 and Viardot lived until 1910!)
Clara Militch was filmed in 1915 by the famous early Russian director Yevgeny Bauer under the title After Death. (By the way, why have so few of Turgenev's stories been filmed?).
Article (PDF): After Death, the Movie (1915) - Ivan Turgenev, Evgenii Bauer and the Aesthetics of Morbidity by Otto Boele (Leiden University). I am indebted ;to several ideas from this enlightening article.