October Musings

Although the days have been uncharacteristically summery, we’ve finally had an October shower followed by an uncertain sky, which evokes a few lines of Basho I love.


It was early in October when the sky was terribly uncertain that I decided to set out on a journey. I could not help feeling vague misgivings about the future of my journey, as I watched the fallen leaves of autumn being carried away by the wind.

From this day forth
I shall be called a wanderer,
Leaving on a journey
Thus among the early showers.

You will again sleep night after night
Nestled among the flowers of sasanqua.

And some seasonal mums from Dumbarton Oaks. dsc_0063

Commonplace Book: Rabih Alameddine’s “An Unnecessary Woman”

Tipped by a NYPL blog entry on world literature, I’m engrossed in An an-unncessary-womanUnnecessary Woman, a novel in the first-person about a reclusive reader and translator, Aaliya, holed away in an old apartment building in Beirut who starts out every Jan 1 on her new translation project. Something, when complete, she just shoves in a box and stores.

The novel is a love letter to reading and listening: full of references to books, writers, composers and musicians whose works make up Aaliya’s real world.  In this passage, she has just put on an LP of Bruckner’s Third Symphony:

Here’s a charming tale about Bruckner that I love, though I believe it

Anton Bruckner
Anton Bruckner

must be apocryphal. When he conducted the premier of this same third symphony, the audience abhorred it. Personally, I can’t imagine why. Not only is it beautiful, but if it has a flaw, it may be that it’s a little melodramatic and kitschy, two attributes that audiences tend to love. But who can account for tastes? The audience booed violently and stormed out of the hall. I imagine the composer looking back in abject sorrow at the honeycomb of heads in the theater before exiting and locking himself in the conductor’s room, alone as he would always be. Forlorn and forsaken. Bruckner remained by himself until everyone had left the building, at which point he returned to the pit for a last farewell. He saw a young man still sitting in his seat, a young composer so overcome that he’d been unable to move a muscle since the symphony began, not a twitch. The young Mahler had been cemented in his seat for more than two hours, weeping.

I am not a young Mahler. Today the music doesn’t move me, and I do not find it soothing.

Wave after wave of anxiety batters the sandy beaches of my nerves. Oh, that’s a bad metaphor if there ever was one. Just horrible.

Nothing is working. Nothing in my life is working.

Giants of literature, philosophy, and the arts have influenced my life, but what have I done with this life? I remain a speck in a tumultuous universe that has little concern for me. I am no more than dust, a mote—dust to dust. I am a blade of grass upon which the stormtrooper’s boot stomps.

I had dreams, and they were not about ending up a speck. I didn’t dream of becoming a star, but I though I might have a small nonspeaking role in a grand epic, an epic with a touch of artistic credentials. I didn’t dream of becoming a giant—I wasn’t that delusional or arrogant—but I wanted to be more than a speck, maybe a midget.

I could have been a midget.

All our dreams of glory are but manure in the end.

I used to imagine that one day a writer would show up at my door, someone whose book I had translated, maybe the wonderful Danilo Kiš (The Encyclopedia of the Dead), before he died, of course. He the giant, me the speck with midget dreams, but he would come to thank me for caring about his work, or maybe Marguerite Yourcenar would knock on my door. I haven’t translated her, of course, because she writes in French. And what French. In 1981 she was the first woman inducted into L’Académie française because of her impeccable language. She would appear to encourage me, to show solidarity, us against the world. I, like you, isolated myself. You in this apartment in this lovely but bitter city of Beirut, I on an island off the coast of Maine. You’re a forsaken, penniless translator who’s able to remain in your home by the grace of your landlord, Fadia, while I am an incredible writer whose girlfriend, heir to the Frick fortune, owns the entire island. I am respected by the world while you are mocked by it. Yet we have much in common.

 I had dreams. …




September Songs

It’s a spectacularly beautiful day in D.C.; feels more like the height of summer than the first day of fall, but I’m ready for my fall music.

First, listening a lot to to BR-Klassik these days, and recently they did an hour on the Bulgarian soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, a somewhat overlooked singer of the 80s and 90s.  This cut of her singing Adriane’s glowing, if gloomy, aria “Es gibt ein Reich” from Strauss’ Adriane auf Naxos caught my ear.  Not fall music perhaps on the face of it, but so much of what Strauss wrote seems steeped in shadow. Check out the harmonic modulation at the end and how she glides through it effortlessly.


26_September_Song_thumbNext, Lotte Lenya singing Weill’s “September Song.” Weill was lucky with his collaborators (although I guess he loathed Brecht with the force of a thousand suns). Here the graceful lyrics are by the playwright Maxwell Anderson, and the song comes from a mostly forgotten musical called Knickerbocker Holiday. Lenya’s dusky voice is the opposite of Tomowa-Sintow’s gleam, but at the same, her singing makes you think she’s sitting right across from you in a Berlin cafe, beguiling you through the cigarette smoke.


And now, just because it caught my interest on the Gramophone music site. Decca has just released “The Lost Songs of St. Kilda” an effort to preserve songs from a tiny island off Scotland, uninhabited since the 1930s, and 3 hours from Skye (that’s a ways out there!). They made a video of a trip to the island to bring the music back, complete with composer James MacMillan and his piano. Both composer and instrument survived the trip.

Gorgeous video and moving project.

More info at http://lostsongsofstkilda.com/

Happy fall!

Monhegan Snapshots

“The sea can do craziness, it can do smooth, it can lie down like silk breathing or toss havoc shoreward; it can give gifts or withhold all; it can rise, ebb, froth like an incoming frenzy of fountains, or it can sweet-talk entirely. As I can too, and so, no doubt, can you, and you.”
― Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings

The Newly Renovated Boston Public Library

On one of my recent work jaunts to Boston, I checked out the nearly complete renovation of the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library. First opened in 1972, the building was named after its architect, Philip Johnson, and meant to complement the McKim building, build in 1895.

The older building has been beautifully restored in all of its Renaissance Palazzo knock-off glory, now a less dingy and far more comfortable place to be. (The crazy Sargent murals are still in place on the top floor.)  But the essential dignity and grandeur remain.

The Johnson Building makeover was perhaps a harder case. The original building was a bit fortress-like in a 1970s style that isn’t much missed, with a giant empty atrium at the center (generally with painting visibly peeling off the ceiling window casements in my memory at least). That said, it worked well enough for me (and I’m a fairly intense library patron), had a good collection, but was not someplace I ever warmed to.

The redesign seems to be heading towards an answer to what a  future-friendly library might be. (Something that lots of places are wrestling with, as I’ve posted about, and we are about to get a big dose of in DC with the renovation of MLK Library at Gallery Place.) I don’t know any more than they do about what the future of libraries will disclose, but a few impressions above courtesy of an evening visit earlier this month, with cell phone snaps. Some beautiful things…others a little headscratching…

Ordinary Lives

A couple of Commonplace Book Entries that resonate with one another across a century and a culture. Bertolt Brecht on the anonymous workers who drive history (but are forgotten) and George Eliot on ordinary lives.

Questions from A Worker Who Reads
Bertolt Brecht

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the name of kings.
Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?
And Babylon, many times demolished.
Who raised it up so many times? In what houses
Of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?
Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished
Did the masons go? Great Rome
Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song,
Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis
The night the ocean engulfed it
The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Philip of Spain wept when his armada
Went down. Was he the only one to weep?
Frederick the Second won the Seven Years’ War. Who
Else won it?

Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?

So many reports.
So many questions.

Fragen eines lesenden Arbeiters” in a translation by Michael Hamburger

From an interview with Prof. Simon Reader (could there be any better name for an Eliot scholar?) at the New York Public Library blog.

Q: The subtitle of Middlemarch—“A Study of Provincial Life”—seems to be a direct description of her project and her method: an almost scientific examination the everyday. Was this approach to fiction avant garde at the time?

A: Certainly. Eliot was one of the first major English novelists to be concerned with representing reality as it was, in a kind of documentary fashion, as unadorned as possible. English Realism had already existed earlier in the century with Jane Austen, as well as Thackeray, although he’s dubiously realistic, and Dickens—again, kind of realistic, kind of not. Eliot really held herself back from introducing any kind of overly romantic, or sensational, or supernatural elements into her fiction.  At the end of Middlemarch, she gives what could be construed as a thesis statement, saying “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” She’s trying to elevate everyday life, to elevate the life of the common person in all of their hidden obscurity, to magnify the value of small, ordinary actions.

And last, ordinary lives in painting (was looking for Millet’s “The Gleaners” but found Jules Breton’s “The Weeders”  at the Met’s site.)  Similar theme and style.


Jules Breton, The Weeders, 1868