Reasonable Words: Enrique Vila-Matas

Still humming from reading Dublinesque, a book that gets inside your mind via the mind of the protagonist, the recently retired, somewhat fraught ex-drinker, Riba, who was a Barcelona publisher of ambitious literary fiction.

He never found the genius writer he was looking for, and now, in his 60s, has come up with the dubious idea of getting a group of friends together to go to Dublin to conduct a requiem for the Gutenberg Age, with, among many other Joycean subtexts, the ongoing challenge of staying on the wagon despite nightly visits to Irish bars, including one fateful one he’s seen in a dream.

It’s a gorgeously written book, and accordingly one that I’m savoring by a reading only a few pages, sometimes just a few paragraphs, at a time. A sample taste, from p. 148. The group of mourners/celebrants has finally made it to Ireland; they have an old car and are tooling around:

Time: Around two in the afternoon.
Day: Sunday June 15.
Place: The port of Howth, at the north end of Dublin Bay. Less than a mile from here is Ireland’s Eye, a rocky seabird sanctuary built on the ruins of a monastery.
Characters: The four travelers in the Chrysler.
Action: They park at the edge of the town, the foot of the cliffs where Nietzky, who knows the place, has suggested they walk for a while. They stride along a path through the rocks, and once a certain amount of vertigo has been overcome–blue and gray lights in the fishing port, and high up, in the sky, scudding clouds over the Irish Sea–Riba can finally see Dublin. He still hasn’t seen the city, despite already having been on the island for some hours.

Even though it’s so far off, he finally sees something of Dublin, sees it from high on these cliffs that rise up from the sea. Flocks of birds float on the water. The fascinating sadness of the place seems accentuated by the sight of these fleets of somnolent birds, in the middle of the day, and it’s as if the void becomes intertwined with the deep sadness, which from time to time finds its voice in the shrieking of a gull. A magnificent landscape, boosted by his enthusiastic state of mind that comes from feeling he’s in a foreign land.

Timidly moved, Riba recalls a poem by Wallace Stevens, “The Irish Cliffs of Moher”:

They go to the cliffs of Moher rising out of the mist,
Above the real,

Rising out of present time and place, above
The wet, green grass.

This is not landscape, full of the somnambulations
Of poetry

And the sea. This is my father or, maybe,
It is as he was,

A likeness, one of the race of fathers: earth
And sea and air.

There’s Dublin, slightly hazy in the middle of the bay. A girl goes by with a portable radio playing “This Boy,” by The Beatles. And the song gives him a sudden feeling of nostalgia for the time when he too was close to the “race of fathers.” He’s not young anymore and doesn’t know if he can bear such beauty. He looks at the sea again. He takes a few steps toward the rocks and immediately feels that he ought to stand still, because if he keeps on walking he’ll probably end up staggering along, blinded by tears. It’s a secret emotion, hard to communicate. Because how can he tell the truth and let his friends know he’s fallen in love with the Irish Sea?

This is my country now, he thinks.

Before, when he drank, Riba didn’t distinguish between strong and weak emotions, or between friends and enemies. But his recent lucidity has slowly given him back his capacity for boredom, and also for excitement. And the Irish Sea–over which he now imagines a great mass of gray clouds with silver edges floating–seems to him the most superb incarnation of beauty, the highest expression of that which disappeared from his life for so long and which now–it’s never too late–he has found all at once, as if he were in the middle of a great storm, feeling like a man who senses his life is going downhill, yet is faced with the unmistakable beauty of a gray sea edged with silver, and which he’ll never forget as long as his memory serves him.


Unreasonable Sounds: Coloratura

So this post is likely only of interest to my hard-core opera fan readers. (There are at least two of you I think…Lisa and Andrea. Arnab, I’ll make you an honorary one, god knows I’ve subjected you to enough opera in 30 years of friendship).

Just back from Washington Concert Opera’s performance of Bellini’s La Sonnambula, a work that lives up to every opera cliché: ridiculous argument, stock characters, and preposterous coincidences. (Just a taste: the heroine’s honor is redeemed because she, while sleepwalking, walks across a bridge by a mill, singing a four-part aria of surpassing difficulty. This proves that she could not have been fooling around with the count while betrothed to another. She just had an untreated parasomnia!) Ach! such problems these people have!

The clichés don’t matter a bit, though, because the music, particularly that final sleepwalking bit, is exquisite. Long-breathed melodies that unfurl and envelope you so seductively that time slows down in waves of golden sound. And we did get some golden sound Sunday afternoon–a little intermittently, it’s true–but the young Cuban soprano Eglise Gutierrez sang Amina, the Sleepwalker, and in the aria “Ah non Credea Mirarti,” was just glorious.

Check her out doing this role in a staged production in Argentina.

Her ability to spin out the “long line” in such a lyrical, smooth way is key to this particularly opera. (Her love interest, the promising young tenor Renè Barbera, did very well in this department too.) Amina also calls for a lot of coloratura, the fast ornate singing, full of high notes, trills, scales, etc. that singers like Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills were famous for. (People like me, who love operatic coloratura, are sometimes called canary fanciers; keeping the “bird” thing going, Jenny Lind, a legendary coloratura was termed “the Swedish Nightingale”). “Ah non Credea” in La Sonnambula is followed by spectacular coloratura bit that closes the opera, which, in truth, Gutierrez wasn’t quite up to. So I did what is often a bad thing when I got home–went you YouTube and searched for the singers who had nailed this bit of musical olypmics with close to a perfect 10.

Here are the links from my searches, for any fellow canary fanciers out there:

(Even if you are not a fan of opera, I think you’ll agree that these are remarkable displays of the flexibility and expressive power of the human voice.)

Roberta Peters

(Both a bit of Bellini’s Puritani and “Ah! non giunge” the Sonnambula finale.)

Perhaps not an excess of taste, but “wow” factor in extremis.

Joan Sutherland

Fearlessness, thy name is Joan.

and my favorite

Amelita Galli-Curci, a golden age singer. Nothing like the modern style, but with a lightness and clarity in the voice that I think time travels back to Bellini’s era.

With her you don’t have to chose between long legato line, hers is magical, seamless spun gold, and the coloratura, which alone, among singers I know, was delivered with a feather-light touch. Yes, the recording is old. It’s worth listening through the scratches.

And the cabeletta:

Had enough? Didn’t think so, it’s probably only you and me here now. And for us, the voice that made me fall in love opera and still makes me hold my breath.

The Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé:

Okay, back to ordinary life now!

Digital Bibliophiles Rejoice!

Both mediums can merge! (Although it’s a wee bit labor intensive).

Fascinating short from a Polish arts academy project. Finally, an e-book format I could get behind.

Elektrobiblioteka / Electrolibrary from waldek wegrzyn on Vimeo.

There’s a manifesto at (Of course, there is.)

Call Me, Moby?

Despite 15 years as a New Englander, I missed the annual reading of Moby Dick at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, but now I have another chance to hear it aloud. The Guardian reports on a broadcast launching tomorrow with a different person reading each of the “subversive, digressive masterpiece.”

Magnificent yet daunting, Moby-Dick stands as one of the great classics of American literature, much admired but – sprawling and intimidating – seldom read. Now an unlikely combination of fans including David Cameron, Tilda Swinton, Stephen Fry and Simon Callow are set to change that after joining the cast of an ambitious project to record the novel in its entirety.

Part of the Plymouth International Book Festival; not clear how to tune in though.

Musical Words: Stephanie Blythe and Shirley Verrett

Off to hear the great American mezzo Stephanie Blythe tonight. Here she is at the Tucker Gala in 2000 in Carmen. She also sings Irving Berlin and Cole Porter!

If you are in DC and a singing fan, there may still be some tickets left for tonight’s performance at the Kennedy Center.

And because You Tube is the way it is, here’s a scorching version of the same scene with the incomparable Shirley Verrett.

Reviewing Your Own Books Anonymously

Faking your own reviews started long before Amazon, but Walter Scott, at least, was pretty clear-eyed about his liabilities as a writer. (Scott fascinates me for, among other things, being a writer whom everybody once believed was one for the ages–I bet there is a Waverly Street in your town–who is now almost forgotten).

Anyway, fun piece by Stuart Kelly in the Guardian on being a “sock puppet” pre-Web. Here’s Scott on Scott:

Sir Walter Scott, who reviewed his own books none too favorably.

“Probability and perspicuity of narrative are sacrificed with the utmost indifference to the desire of producing effect”, he writes, adding “the author errs chiefly from carelessness” and suffers from “flimsiness and incoherent texture”. Warming to his theme he continues “in addition to the loose and incoherent style of the narration another leading fault in these novels is the total want of interest which the reader attaches to the character of the hero”. They are all a “very amiable and very insipid sort of young men”. One wonders how many people got the joke, especially when Scott writes: “Few can wish his success more sincerely than we do, and yet without more attention on his part, we have great doubts of its continuance.”

Kelly is spot on about the difference between the current lot and their forebears like Scott, Alexander Pope, Anthony Burgess, or Joe Orton who famously wrote letters as one “Edna Welthorpe,” completely outraged by Orton’s (once) transgressive plays Today’s sock-puppet-gensia is often content to heap fulsome praise on their own work, with nary a blush.

The coming of color

Boston Public Library has wonderful sets of photos on Flickr, and through it I found the tag called “Vintage Illustration” that included this card from NBC about color TV. There’s a nice description of part of the story of its advent…which by 2012 standards was glacial. The Smith household didn’t get a color TV set until 1967. It was still a big deal 14 years after it had launched: we could see the wild Pop-Art colors of Laugh In.

An interesting comment from the Flickr site:

To the ordinary viewer, [color] was just another innovation. But underneath there was an engineering miracle that brought about the ability to transmit and receive a color TV image. It really was an extremely complicated Rube Goldberg scheme that made it all possible.

So how did it work? Any help out there? I sort of understand color film photography, is there an analogy?

Reasonable Words: Dick Cavett on Stan Laurel

A nice piece from Dick Cavett’s NYTimes blog remembering an interview he did with Stan Laurel. I didn’t realize he traveled to the U.S. on the same boat as Charlie Chaplin did.

There he stood. No derby. No silly grin. No shrill, squeaky crying to “I didn’t mean it, Ollie…” Just a nice-looking gent in a white shirt and tie and a warm, welcoming manner. The face was fuller but the eyes — and the ears — were instantly familiar.

Preserving Modernist B- Buildings

Now am back in DC after our Maine vacation, and regularly tooling around downtown (vastly spiffier than my days living here in the 1980s and 90s). Until you come upon the main library, the Mies van der Rohe-designed Martin Luther King Library, which opened in 1972. It is as resolutely unspiffy as ever.

Washington DC’s MLK Library, the only van der Rohe building in the city.

I love libraries, and saying van der Rohe is my favorite architect is an understatement. (I belong to that club of believers who can stare up at the Seagram building and say, “Mies, we are unworthy of your genius” out loud.

And yet, this library, which I’ve spent many hours in, has always seemed like a dud to me, and perhaps was born that way. It has the Miesian trademark characteristics (strong geometry, with the I-beams emphasizing the verticals), the open span approach to the interiors, light from side to side, a grand central space. But it doesn’t click. Maybe the scale is off? Perhaps his ideas just don’t suit the library program? Maybe the building did work in ’72, but has become so run down that its quality has been obscured?

Or could I just be out of sync with it? This is an argument often made about 60s and 70s architecture…in 50 years we’ll be able to “see it again” (well, I probably won’t, but some “we” will). And everyone will be glad that it is still around; a lot of the 19th century buildings aren’t (or are just facades) and much of DC architecture is monumentally fake 20th century neo-classic stuff (no doubt itself a preservation conundrum in time). This building is an honest expression of its time.

Right now, though, the MLK Library is certainly a challenge, like its New England sibling, Philip Johnson’s unlovely addition to the Boston Public Library, it’s expensive to maintain, too historic to tear down, too hard to adapt to another use.

The companion building to the Johnson, the ornate and glorious McKim building, has had an overhaul that everybody’s pretty jazzed by: it reunited the architectural ideas of the library with its present-day users beautifully. At the MLK Library they were probably never together in the first place, and what exactly do you preserve?

Reasonable Words: Enlightened Anger

The Times Literary Supplement has an engrossing (and bracing) review of a new German book, Sapere aude! (from Horace, “Dare to Know!” or “Dare to be Wise!”) The reviewer, T.J. Reed, translates it as “Think for Yourself.” The subtitle is “Why we need a new enlightenment” and it’s by Heiner Geissler, a retired 82-year-old German politician, seemingly past labels like conservative or liberal it seems, judging by his dismissal of the pieties of capitalism or communism. His lens is Kant (on whom Reed is an expert, as a retired professor of German at Oxford.)

A few compelling excerpts:

“Nobody, Kant rather surprisingly held, is ever completely wrong, which means not that their view has to be accepted, but that it needs to be taken issue with. That embraces even the most conservative interests. In this sense we really are “all in it together”.

Better late than never: if only there had been more questioning of the hard-nosed economics the West visited on the ex-Communist bloc after 1989, several societies and their economies would be in better shape, some diplomatic relations would be easier, and there might have been fewer of the rightwing extremists in the East who have seen the anti-capitalist propaganda of their old communist governments borne out by events. Even now, if there were more effective questioning of bone-headed orthodoxy, further disasters might be averted or mitigated.

It’s refreshing to find a conservative exminister rejecting Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, invoking Marx and Engels, and declaring capitalism no better than communism: “the one liquidated capital and the capitalists, the other liquidates workers and their jobs”

Not that there ever was an enlightened age, only at best, as Kant argued in his great defining essay of 1784, an age engaged in the process of enlightenment. He would hardly be surprised if he were to come back today. Enlightenment is only ever unfinished business, or business that has to be begun all over again.

Later, Reed quotes and a sardonic line of Brecht’s, a voice that would seem needful just now:

“Wouldn’t it be easier if the government dissolved the people and elected another one?”

Perhaps it’s already happened?

Unfortunately, the full review is behind the TLS paywall, but if it comes out in English, I’ll link to it. The original essay by Kant is on a server at Fordham, and is actually pretty readable, for the work of a major philosopher!