martes, 14 de julio de 2020

The Life of Ezra Pound by Noel Stock

A review of The Life of Ezra Pound by Noel Stock must begin by acknowledging the phenomenal achievement of its author. It is comprehensive, detailed, forensic, appreciative, critical and illuminating, a massive achievement of analysis, research and insight. At around 200,000 words it is also a commitment, not for the fainthearted or for anyone with only a passing interest in either poetry or the history of the twentieth century. But it is also something else, something that, despite the magnificence of its scholarship, provokes this reader to focus on issues that are external to the text, itself. But more of that later: first, the book.

Ezra Pound was undeniably one of the greatest figures of twentieth century literature. Unlike his illustrious contemporaries and friends, however, Joyce, Eliot and Yeats among them, his name has seemed to slip from the mainstream since his death in 1972. I read his great achievement, the Cantos, when I was at college. I did not understand them. In some ways they feel less like a work of poetry than a lifetime achievement, a creatively conceived and sometimes over-presented commonplace book into which fell, in poetic form, a distillation, a reflection or sometimes mere mention of whatever disparate material that Pound obsessed over at the time. The Cantos were Pound’s creative life, but we must not forget the massive amount of other material, his journalism, music, prose and economics, for want of a more accurate word.

Pound was one of the founders and movers of literary and artistic movements: Imagism and the Vorticism among them. They were perhaps not the most enduring of directions. He was American but seemed more at home in England and then Italy, neither of which chooses to honour his achievements on their soil. But what is strongly felt about this man from the start is his conviction of, perhaps his obsession with his own genius. He was utterly sure he would contribute to the arts and perhaps even change their direction. He seemed to consider his legacy immortal, even before it had been created. He felt he was something new, original and enduring. And all this when apparently no-one even wanted to read his material, or formally give him time of day. And not only did he seem to deny his failures, he didn’t even seem to register them. The limitations were always somewhere else. In the early years, he thus seemed like a self-publicist, with is achievements acknowledged before they were achieved, like a modern self-published author who writes five-star, best-seller reviews of his own work. Nowadays, that surely would never do!

But eventually, perhaps by sheer dogged application alongside considerable talent, Pound received the recognition he thought he deserved, though perhaps never in our own contemporary, blunt instrument yardstick of success – sales. Certain academics loved him. Others did not. He himself had high hopes of a Nobel Prize.

Noel Stock includes copious quotations from Pound’s verse, always with critical assessment, sometimes with criticism. The Cantos were so far reaching in their intellectual coverage that it may appear from the outside that no-one without the full gamut of requisite skills would understand them. And given that these skills comprise, amongst other things, a knowledge of Dante and medieval Italian poetry, Confucius, Mencius and Lao-Tze in the original Chinese, troubadour songs in their original langue d’oc, Noh theatre texts in Japanese, Pound’s own experimental English, besides knowledge of the Classics and their metres, one might presume that there might be few modern readers of his work. This is probably accurate. But there is more to the modern shunning of Pound’s work than its overtly elitist intellectual demands. And it is here that this review needs to diverge from literature, poetry and indeed Ezra Pound, himself, to address the related concepts of fascism and racism.

The main reason why today Pound’s name remains passé is his espousal of fascist ideas and his overt antisemitism. He went to live in Italy. He regarded Mussolini as rather a good thing. In Italy at the time he was hardly alone in this belief.  He adopted Hitler’s aggressive antisemitism because he was fundamentally opposed to capitalism, if it meant what he saw as a banking and economic system dominated by Jews, the foundation of this belief being a bank owned by the Rothchild family. He also took to broadcasting pro-fascist propaganda (in Italian and English) on radio during World War II.

Normally, my reviews are consciously detached. I try to review the book, not myself. Likes and dislikes are, to me, wholly nebulous and indefinable and even passing whims that are always less significant than considerations of communication or achievement of ends. In the case of The Life of Ezra Pound, the subjective “I” must be included, since our appreciation or not of this poet’s writing now seems to depend wholly on our individual take on his politics, despite his being be neither analytical or pro-active in his views, as this biography clarifies.  In some ways, his politics were as transient as his current interests, as expressed in the meanderings of the Cantos. But what now can we make of Pound? Should we even try to understand him? Is dismissal the preferred option? I would say that he is worth the effort. Not the use of “I”! And this is not because I think Pound is a particular genius, overlooked or even readable. And I certainly do not see his actions as pardonable! And here I beg your pardon for making this book review become something personal, something about me and not about the book, but I assure you it is relevant. Please exit here if you are wary of the personal.

I remember in the recent past a well-known British television presenter saying on-air that the music of Wagner was not played in her household because of the composer´s antisemitism. I remember another celebrity saying that antisemitism was the flavour of Wager´s age, and that rejection of the composer´s work on those grounds alone ought to prompt a similar rejection of everything artistic or otherwise that came out of mid-nineteenth century German culture.

In the not too distant past I re-read Adam Smith´s Wealth of Nations. In my review I concentrated on those aspects of the analysis that might contradict the completely neo-liberal interpretation of the work. I was perhaps wrong to do so, but I wanted to challenge the idea that there is just one way to read Smith´s notion of free trade.  Embedded within Smith´s thesis, however, are assumptions about human progress and worthiness. The Hindoo, the Mussulman and even the Catholic have their place in history and civilisation, but the heathen is judged to be a primitive sub-human. I do not recall Smith referring to ´The Buddhist´, but that may be my own failure of memory. In today´s politics, how many of the neo-liberal, perhaps neo-conservative supporters of their own notions of Smith´s concepts of free trade also regard those not associated with an organised great religion as both uncivilised and sub-human? And, given that the assumption appears to run throughout the work, should that alone disqualify Smith´s views on other subjects or his contribution to economics? Another position that almost dominates sections of The Wealth of Nations is that there is no economic activity that is or could be greater than the total that describes the state. How many of these same free marketeers would share Smith´s oft-stated revulsion of the very idea of a transnational corporation, which he regarded as necessarily market-distorting and almost automatically corrupt? This is recognized in antitrust and anti-monopoly legislation, but how often is this side of Smith´s work quoted? My point here is that we can choose to be selective, and usually do.

I am tempted here to introduce the composer Anton Webern into the argument. A member of the second Viennese School, Webern espoused the atonalism of his associate, Schoenberg. Webern was perhaps the artistic opposite of Ezra Pound, being prone to destructive self-criticism and a desire for an extreme succinctness of expression. But Webern, like Pound, thought that fascism might be more sympathetic towards “high art” to which he aspired than the mechanisms of capitalism that concentrated on what it could sell. He thus initially espoused fascism, eventually to his own and his associates´ cost.

After this considerable diversion, there is eventually a moral, and that is to beware anyone touting answers, especially those based on interpretations of the past in anything other than its own terms. Which brings me to Brexit! It might seem quite a jump, but it does follow. Trust me!

I have recent personal experience, albeit apocryphal, that suggests the prime motivation among the British working class leave voters who surely swung the referendum result was “getting rid of all the foreigners.” I use quotes to emphasise that this was expressed to me personally and verbatim, with stress on the “all”. I had just finished The Life of Ezra Pound and I felt immediately a strange yet strong link with Pound´s antisemitism, which was founded on nothing less than trying to find someone to blame.

Perhaps we should not judge Wagner, Adam Smith or even Ezra Pound using the moral perspective of our own time. For if we did that, and rejected any espousal of either racism or religious bigotry, how much of our human past would we retain? And, given the above Brexit opinion, is the moral perspective of our time significantly different from that of the 1930s, or even the 1850s, or 1770s or indeed any other time in our conflict-ridden blame game of history?

The Life of Ezra Pound is a forensic biography of a poet. It describes a life lived in its historical and cultural context. Like all books committed to communicating its subject, it is a masterpiece that takes the reader way beyond the confines of its subject and thereby achieves a permanent relevance. Revisit this past. We must never deny it existed or forget its consequences. But it reminds us that as individuals, communities and societies, there is no rule that precludes the repetition of error. And neither is there any rule that insists that a current moral ground need be any higher than any other existing folly, contemporary or past.


viernes, 10 de julio de 2020

Two Lives by William Trevor

In Two Lives William Trevor offers two stories – Reading Turgenev and My House In Umbria. They are not mere stories, however, and read like substantial novellas. Both have women as central characters. Reading Turgenev features Mary Louise Dallon, an Irish Protestant whose parents support her decision to marry, though on the surface at least the match may be less than perfect. In My House In Umbria someone who claims to be called Emily Delahunty relates her chequered personal history against a backdrop of wholly unpredicted events that change the lives of all she invites to her house. In both stories, William Trevor examines a gap that might exist between reality lived, reality recalled and reality imagined. Writers create apparently fictitious worlds which, when embraced by characters who themselves are also fictitious, approach desired realities much closer than reality, itself.

Mary Louise Dallon is a young woman in an almost frighteningly normal Irish Protestant household. There are visits to the cinema and suitors of various ages and types, and work which will always be local and probably predictable. Predictable, that is, until someone does something rather unexpected. Mary Louise Dallon does do the unexpected. Reading Turgenev thus examines the consequences, predictable and otherwise, of this departure from the expected norm. And, of course, the Turgenev that gets read is itself fiction. But, for Mary Louise its imagined world becomes perhaps more important than the strange reality that surrounds her. People who share her life ignore the reality or, when it does not suit their bias, they recreate it almost as their own fiction. The effect on Mary Louise is devastating, or perhaps the consequences were inevitable, products of her own mis-interpretations or mis-understanding of reality. As a result, Reading Turgenev becomes an almost viscerally moving experience, where real violence is done to the central character without a finger ever being raised in threat. It-s all done with words. And eventually, those words are themselves a fiction.

My House In Umbria features a writer who is known as Emily Delahunty. The name might be unlikely. Perhaps much of what she relates about herself is of the same ilk. She has been here and there – Idaho, Africa, Umbria, English towns. She has suffered parental confusion and probably abuse, has been exploited in the USA and has been in business in Africa. But then, she is also a creator of romantic, perhaps sentimental fiction.  An apparently random event brings about equally chance encounters when people who seem to need one another congregate in Emily’s house in Umbria. Throughout she confuses real events with those of her own fiction. There is no denying reality, but this can also be created. She is clearly presenting to others her own version of reality that is far from the frame of a confident older woman in which she casts herself. Which version of reality will provoke belief?

Throughout William Trevor’s book the real joy is the author’s resplendent prose.  It surprises. It decorates, it twists, turns and celebrates. These fictional characters become completely real. Utterly credible, despite their propensity to live in imagined worlds. The overall concept is stunning. The detail is devilish, the consequences of these fictions apparently real.


jueves, 9 de julio de 2020

The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris

A review of The Lost World of Byzantium by Jonathan Harris is near impossible to write. The book, incidentally, is far from impossible to read, despite its rather dry style. The problem is the breadth and sheer extent of its subject, an issue the author confronts with both enthusiasm and competence. Often history presents the casual reader with a hard-to-negotiate problem, being the straight-jacket of preconception. And it’s often a problem of which we are unaware, precisely because we are rarely conscious of the assumptions we bring to any experience. And this is precisely why we need books like this one by Jonathan Harris, because it can cut through what we clearly do not understand. We need to confront preconceptions, because the process is always enlightening. But the process is often challenging as well. Rest assured, however, because this challenge is rewarding throughout.

The challenge in the Lost World of Byzantium is met head on and early on. We talk a lot of Rome, and much less of Byzantium. We hail the achievements of the former, and generally list the shortcomings of the latter. We see Rome as somehow noble, correct and classical, whereas Byzantium is often corrupt, degenerate, knavish and unsuccessful. And, as Jonathan Harris points out, we are constantly explaining why the Byzantine Empire eventually failed. What we rarely acknowledge is that at its height it was a more extensive empire than Rome’s and, importantly, it actually lasted longer than its precursor. And it was Christian from the start.

It is this perception of Byzantium as eventual failure that Jonathan Harris dispels at the start. It is also essential that he does this, since then we can appreciate the detail of the empire’s history in its own context, rather than in another imposed by our own preconceptions about a future it never saw. In many ways, the history of the Byzantine Empire was the history of Europe from the fourth to the fifteenth century. The Ottoman expansion westwards and its eventual conquest of the empire served to provide a wake-up call for concerted action to defend Christianity. At least one previous attempt had dissolved into anarchy as the Crusaders sacked the very place they had set out to defend. The fall of Byzantium, however, rendered any future sectional gain irrelevant, for if the edifice fell, there would be nothing for anyone. And thus the continent changed a little after Lepanto.

Any reader of such a long and complex history as that of the Byzantine Empire, however, must bear in mind the size and scope of the author’s task. The Lost World of Byzantium may comprise about 150,000 words, but it is trying to cover more than a millennium of European history, not to mention swathes and eras of Middle Eastern, Central Asian and North African history as well. We soon learn not to regard the Byzantine Empire as a purely or even primarily European phenomenon, as regular conflicts are fought to the south and east as well as to the north and west. What becomes clearer, however, is that an empire may wage war at its periphery, and that war may result in expansion or contraction of its territory. But if the empire wages war against itself at the centre, then the threat to its security is existential. Jonathan Harris’s book relates several occasions when Byzantium survived such complete and wounding internecine transformations.

An enduring insight from The Lost World of Byzantium relates to the general role of religion in these transfers of power, and in particular the ability of theology to create empires, rulers, dynasties and perhaps states. Byzantium was founded on Constantine’s embracing of Christianity. But this was only the beginning of the story as we perceive it. The early church was riven by schisms and heresies, notably the Arian interpretation of the nature of Christ. From the perspective of our own age, these theological differences might appear to have the significance of disagreements on the exact count of angels on a pinhead. But at the time, theological disagreements could lead to persecution, exile and war. A long time after the early church had solved some of its self-generated conundrums, new theological differences emerged with similar consequences. It is a great achievement of Harris’s book that it manages to raise what we now might regard as arcane to the status of living political debate. If economic advantage granted by the achievement and tenure of power, as ever, remained the goal, the political and ideological battleground where that status was secured was often theological and only when we appreciate that role do we understand the history of this empire, and perhaps also the history of the first and much of the second millennium of the Christian era.

If there is a criticism of this monumental work, it is that the necessity of chronicling the incumbents of the throne sometimes make the history a mere list of tenants, a procession of kings who merely seem to come and go. The Johns, the Michaels and the Constantines keep coming, forever counting, and it seems sometimes that only the numbers change, as each incumbent suffers his own conspiratorial fate, often remarkably similar to that of his predecessor. There are numerous child emperors, all with their own nakedly ambitious protectors. And also history seems to reproduce itself as yet another incumbent marries to secure peace and alliance, or pursues yet another catalogued military campaign against north, south, east or west, as ever only partially successful. The muddle, it seems, tends to continue.

Overall, the book deserves some criticism for not including enough description of the social and economic conditions within the empire. Such diversity, both ethnic and religious, needs more detail to provide a picture of its complexity. There is little that conveys any feeling of what it was to live even in Constantinople, itself, let alone the Byzantine Empire as a whole. But then, with a task of this size, any author needs to be selective. Jonathan Harris simply could not have included material of this type without doubling the size of an already massive book. And, given the author’s commitment and dedication to his subject, this absence ought to provoke most readers to explore more of his output. This aspect surely has also been covered elsewhere.

What is included are descriptions of greens and blues, Pechenegs, Basils, various Phokases and numerous Theodoras, alongside Abbasids, Seljuks, Fatimids and hordes of Constantines. If even one of these hits a blind spot, then Jonathan Harris’s book will help provide the missing understanding. If anything, it is surely comprehensive. History is always about much more than our preconceptions and all good writing on the subject should remind us of this fact. The Lost World of Byzantium provides a superb opportunity to learn much about this neglected, but crucial era of history.


miércoles, 8 de julio de 2020

Conclave by Robert Harris

Reviewing a book often clarifies what you have read and how you may or may not have reacted to the content. There are many books that are not worthy of such attention, because they have little in the way of nuance or detail that might stimulate reaction. In such cases a negative review is itself worse than worthless, nothing less than a waste of time. Better just forget it and move on. In the case of Conclave by Robert Harris, I am tempted to do just that, but there are some points that are worth making about the book. Most are positive, but there are others as well.

Conclave has a literal title. It's about the election of a Pope, behind locked doors. The action takes place in the Vatican, first in the Pope's private apartments and then alternately in the Vatican's Casa Santa Marta, where the assembled Cardinals are being put up, and the Sistine Chapel, where they meet to cast their votes. Michelangelo's frescoes figure frequently, especially at times of the principal character's moments of reflection - and they are usually mere shallow moments, liberally strewn with verbal tools of the trade. But for the most part, these people live entirely in their here and now and, perhaps uniquely amongst such eminent company, they hardly ever comment on anything other than the matter in hand.

A Pope has just died. The circumstances are a little suspicious. There are some interesting aspects to the Pope's final days. But he has definitely died of heart failure and Cardinals are duly summoned from across the globe to allow the hand and will of God to identify a successor. Arrivals include a Nigerian who is aiming to be the first black Pope, a Canadian who is capable of domination, an Italian who is a champion of the political Right and another who is not. There is also the diminutive figure of a Filipino, only recently appointed, who is very much an unknown.

The story unfolds from the point of view of the Dean, the Cardinal convener of the conclave, another Italian called Lomeli. He is something of a liberal, and he does not want to be Pope. At least that's what he says when asked. The action is portrayed from his point of view, but only ever in the third person. This works for the reader, because when any factual detail needs to be explained, Lomeli, in the third person, conveniently thinks about the issue and relates everything needed to make sense of the plot. Of course at equally convenient moments, he decides to tell the reader nothing, preferring to wait for the next chapter. This, presumably, is the author editing the Cardinal's thoughts.

Robert Harris's Conclave is the kind of genre piece where the plot is everything, so any review must steer well clear of revealing any of it.  On the face of it, there are numerous potentially interesting conflicts amongst those assembled for the election. There is First World and Third World, rich and poor, right and left, traditionalist and liberal, even Latin versus contemporary language. Scandal, sexuality, celibacy, child abuse, money, ambition, power and a little history are added to the mix, as are secret hiding places, lost relatives and terrorist atrocities. And, if there is anything missing, Cardinal Lomeli will conveniently think about it and let us know all that is deemed relevant.

But the plot is all, and that cannot be described. Suffice it say that this particular reader had worked out every detail of the plot inside the first forty pages and simply did not believe that the obvious route would be followed. It was. Then, throughout, cardboard cut-out Cardinals crossed the screen to enact said predictable routine. Conclave thus proved to be a mildly interesting way of filling a couple of hours but, unlike good fiction, it proved unworthy of a second read. There was enough complication in these people, however, to make Conclave worth reading once.

But as ever with genre fiction, it's the shortcomings that are the most memorable. Our ambitious, rather stentorian Nigerian Cardinal seems not to object when our third person Lomeli narrator refers to his language, Yoruba, as a dialect. The Italians, of course, speak Italian, which is a language. Admittedly, it's not only the Church that patronizes former colonies of the Third World.

But it is in area of realism, that over-worked, even cliched scenario of almost all genre fiction - even fantasy! - where the real problem arises. I give nothing away when I state that a terrorist atrocity figures at one point in the book. There are indeed near-simultaneous attacks across Europe, for some reason. It's convenient for the plot, it seems. One of the atrocities is close enough to the action to blow in windows of the Sistine Chapel, where the conclave continued. Just hours later, despite debris, bomb fragments and the odd bit of flesh being presumably still strewn around the area, we are told that a crowd of one hundred thousand has assembled nearby to await the announcement of the new Pope's identity. It's a good job the conclave did not take place in Salisbury, Wiltshire, since the onlookers would not have got near for several months. And without there having been either explosion or carnage...

Conclave by Robert Harris is a good read. It's quite well written in an inelegant way. The reader is regularly told convenient facts whenever they are needed, so there are really no characters, only two-dimensional costumes that act out a plot. It is generally more credible and perhaps more interesting than most genre fiction, and will please those who enjoy the form. Just don't expect anything else.


martes, 7 de julio de 2020

Eros and Psyche by Ludomir Rozicki

Opera reviews usually carry no spoiler warnings. On the contrary, they usually begin with an exhaustive, sometimes exhausting blow-by-blow account of every contrived detail of plot. So let this be no exception. Eros and Psyche by Ludomir Rozicki could be just another nineteenth century classical rewrite, just another femme fatale tear-jerker, but it is much more than that.

Psyche dreams of being swept off her feet by love. We feel that these Arcadian maidens occupying a green room to make up for a performance are almost imprisoned so that they might beautify themselves. Psyche is enamoured of, perhaps obsessed with a man, who has taken to visit her nightly. It´s a good time to pop in!

She reveals to a friend she has been seeing someone. Eros reappears and offers eternal love, but only on his terms. Somehow he has managed to conceal his identity, if not his intentions, until Blaks, the caretaker, inadvertently casts light on Eros’s face and then all hell is let loose. Eros condemns Psyche to suffer an eternal life of constant wandering and disappointment, a life in which Blaks will regularly reappear to deny her any fulfilment. It’s a judgment delivered by Perseus, who announces exile and eternal wandering as he hands over a passport and tickets for both Psyche and Blaks. As Psyche embarks upon her fate, we realise we must not blame the messenger.

Her first subsequent port of call is a party - perhaps a drunken orgy - in ancient Rome, a Rome that is of course not ancient for her. A couple of Greeks at the gathering lament what Romans have done to their culture, a culture inherited from their own people, including Psyche. She appears, but she is obviously out of place, of a different culture and time, and she is mocked by everyone, especially by the women, who ridicule her appearance. They label her mad and Blaks, who here is a Prefect, apparently in charge, delivers condemnation.

We move on to Spain during the Inquisition. Psyche embraces Christ crucified on the cross. There is sexuality in her obsession with the figure. She enters a convent, but still yearns for a life outside its confines. The other nuns do not trust her. She tells of her need for the sun and fresh air, but she is warned not to have ambition. She must do as she is told, because asking questions is sinful, here. There is to be a visit by the abbot, a man who recently condemned a nun to be burned at the stake. Psyche is thus warned. Her attitudes are described to the abbot, who condemns her. Blaks, of course, is the abbot, who wields power more easily than he exhibits faith. Eros appears, we think to save her, but all he offers is a facile song.

Our heroine’s next port of call is revolutionary France. She works while men drink. We learn that it was Psyche who led the storming of the Bastille in the name of freedom. She rejects an offer of marriage because she would rather serve the people. She wants to lead the commune into battle. She is too radical to be a revolutionary. She insists on principle and finds herself on the wrong side of politics. Guess who might be the pragmatic leader who condemns her beliefs.

A final scene is in a bar or nightclub, where psyche dances to entertain the drinkers, who are all men. Blaks, here called the Baron, is the owner of the club and the principal exploiter of the women who work for him. The women attract the men to the bar, they drink and the baron, not the women, makes money. Psyche laments her role, but the baron says it’s all her own fault. She laughs at offers of love, saying she wants to be independent. But, having achieved her liberation she finds she can’t cope with it.

Eros appears, perhaps to save the day. Psyche is still infatuated, but now also exhausted. Eros reveals he has an alter ego by the name of Thanatos, the personification of death, and thus Psyche learns she is doomed. Her response is to torch what remains of her life, a life that has now rejected her. Eros-Thanatos has the last word, however, by presenting Psyche with a sports car which has already crashed. He invites her to sit at the wheel and then paints her with her own blood to show the end has finally arrived.

Eros and Psyche was premiered in 1917 and Rozycki’s style is not unlike that of Symanowski, but there is also Richard Strauss in there, alongside not a little Debussy. Many of the short phrases are also reminiscent of Janacek, though usually without the bite. Given the opera’s date, we would expect Psyche, though still femme fatale, to be at least a little forward looking. She is certainly not a Violetta or Mimi, in that she is no mere victim of bad luck, disease or circumstance. She is closer to a Butterfly, but she does not accept her fate meekly and without protest. In classical terms, we may have here a Salome or Elektra, but these were anti-heroines who probably deserved what they got. Tosca got mixed up in politics that went wrong. One has the feeling that Psyche would have relished the opportunity, but it never arose.

Three other theatrically destroyed women of the era come to mind, Judith, Katya and Elena. Judith’s plight in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle parallels Psyche’s here. Judith can only know Bluebeard by probing the psychological spaces of his mind. He resents this, but allows her to continue, knowing that once she knows him, he will have taken possession of her. Similarly, Psyche is punished because she gets to know Eros, thereby reducing his control over her, a control he must reassert by condemning her. The Bartok-Balasz character, however, is more modern than Psyche, despite the existence of castles and visions. It is only when Judith understands the mental make-up of Bluebeard that he has to punish her, because only then that she becomes a threat to him. She is eternally mummified alongside the wives who have preceded her.

Janacek’s Katya Kabova is a step back into the nineteenth century by virtue of originally having been a creation of Ostrovsky, but her achievement of a finality of death does ask some modern questions.  Ostrovsky’s nineteenth century provincial dramas general do away with their heroines, but it is the societies rather than the individuals that are seen at fault. When oppression and hypocrisy are cultural and structural, it is hard for any individual to oppose them. But here it is these attitudes that make female existence a tragedy. Yes, Katya takes her own life, but it is another woman, her own mother-in-law, who asks the community to witness the doing of justice and not to shed tears for a woman who brought her fate on herself. The music, in fact, ends with neither tragedy nor anger, but with a question mark. Elena Makropoulos presents a different challenge. In many ways she is in control. Like Psyche she has lived, or at claims to have done so, in many eras, has inhabited many roles and has had a string different lives. Her original fate, however, like Psyche’s, was imposed on her by a man, in Elena’s case her father. Like Psyche, Elena has become cynical about men’s motives and dismissive of their capabilities. Crucially, however, when Elena is offered the opportunity to take back control of her eternal existence, she rejects it, preferring death to repeating the same old things. Psyche was never offered control and its attainment was never in her grasp. But Psyche thinks she achieved a liberation from oppression at the end, though she was unable to cope with it. This makes her a more modern figure.

So, for a modern audience, Psyche cannot be merely a classical beauty who crosses a god. And in the production by Warsaw’s Polish National Opera, she isn’t. Each of the scenarios is transformed into a film set. Scene one is a giant green room, populated by women who clearly want to be stars. Whether Eros operated a casting couch is unclear, but the probability is high. From scene one’s green room, Psyche is cast her role in each of the other four scenes, each of which is destined to be part of a feature film in which she stars. When Blaks repeatedly frustrates her activities and condemns her, the two of them become near stereotypes for femme fatale and callous male power. If we ask if it has to be this way, we have to answer that it was a male god in the first instance that insisted it should be so.

By the end, Psyche has had enough and she torches the world that has exploited her. It ought to be a final act of self-destructive defiance but the god and men even then reassert their control. A car crash is organised and she is painted with blood. The car itself part of the trappings of the stardom she has sought, and thus Psyche potentially becomes a tabloid press headline, probably moralising about a life of debauchery or excess. Psyche thus becomes a modern victim. She is a Marilyn Monroe ruined by fame, or perhaps a Jayne Mansfield, epitome of womanhood exploited for male voyeurs.

Thanks to the internet and Opera Vision we can all view this production from Warsaw and thereby draw our own conclusions. Streamed via a smart TV or perhaps better in the case of Opera Vision via a laptop and cable, the opera even comes with subtitles for anyone who might not catch all of the  original Polish . Joanna Freszel as Psyche gives a stunning performance, being vocally up the task as well as combining the confidence, ambition and assertion of a modern woman alongside the naivete and vulnerability of anyone who might fall in love. Mikołaj Zalasiński as Blaks is brilliant at using his power whilst never really appearing to be worthy of its extent, which is exactly what the character of Psyche must be thinking. He also makes the role anti-intellectual, thus stressing the contrast between the use of power and any knowledge of its consequences. 

The broadcast was in 2018 and these days there are only extracts from this production. But they are still excellent.

lunes, 6 de julio de 2020

Why did I write Eileen McHugh, a life remade?

I wanted to explore several strands, the first and most important being the interrelationship between popular and populist, understanding the latter term in its colloquial sense of wanting to achieve popularity, possibly at all costs. I have long found it intriguing why pop music, for instance, is assumed to refer to ‘popular’ music when something over ninety per cent of releases never achieve popularity on any measure. Probably more than ninety per cent of pop is also not from Tajikistan, but we do not call it Tajik music. Thus labelling things by what they are not could be an infinite process! If pop means populist, however, then it makes sense, because this art form seeks, by whatever means, to achieve public notice, sales, profit and the rest, with the stress on the words ‘aspires to achieve’, hence the failure of ninety per cent of the genre. This often leads to an artist compromising an idea to render it saleable. But if an artist does not do that, the work remains unknown, anonymous, unexperienced. How much should an artist in whatever form seek to live within the confines of recognisable genre? And is that possible without compromising what the artist wants to communicate? How far can one go along this road before reproducing cliché?

Eileen McHugh is an artist. She is a sculptor. She seeks no avenues of compromise in her work. Her career was short and unnoticed. Paradoxically, one of her works has achieved viral status on the internet via a photograph posted in the name of Mary Reynolds, who now wants to create a biography of the artist and a discussion of her work so that she can create a museum to display it. She has contacted Eileen’s mother and has the artist’s sketchbooks and notes.

Eileen wanted to tell stories in her work, stories that arose out of the detritus of people’s lives, their bits and pieces of discarded trash. Her work at one stage is described as ‘off the wall’ as well as on it. The form of the book, however, repeatedly illustrates how lives themselves mirror this state. The lives of people who knew the artist become like new works created by Eileen, assemblages of life’s discarded bits and pieces.

Another strand was the obsession that drives artistic expression, if the motivations of populism and profit do not apply. Why exactly did Schubert write over six hundred songs when he never heard a single one of them performed before a paying audience? What motivated the composer Mieczeslaw Wenberg to ‘write for the shelf’? What drove a deaf Beethoven to communicate via sound?

And why is it that we often feel challenged by art? Is it because we have no idea what we like, and prefer to live in the security of liking what we know? Is it because we only trust things with which we have an assumed commercial relationship, so therefore we trust the transactions being offered?

Paradoxically, by the end of Eileen McHugh, the artist herself is perhaps the person we know the least, despite having been the subject of the whole book! If we do not see people as assemblages of their petty likes and dislikes, any of which might change on whim, what is left? Perhaps it remains as anonymous and unknown as ignored work. Our real contribution to humanity, however, artistically or otherwise, is eventually revealed as that which we give to others. Even tragedy can have a positive outcome.


Verdi: Man and musician by Frederick J Crowest

I began reading this on the bus coming back from Valencia, having consumed Byron’s Corsair on the way up, before a performance of Il Corsaro. Amazing to see what had happened to the English language in a few decades! OK, the Byron was supposed to be poetic…

Crowest’s short critical biography was written at the end of the nineteenth century. Verdi is still alive, but has completed all of his operas, including Falstaff. What is truly amazing about the book is the inclusion of quotes from reviewers throughout the century. It should be compulsory reading for anyone who might be put off expressing themselves because of a fear of what criticism might bring. In an apparent stream, critics of the nineteenth century queued up to lambast Verdi’s work as crass, unintellectual, in bad taste, loud, shallow… By the end of his life, most of the critics are kowtowing to greatness.

I have to find myself agreeing with quite a lot of the detailed points, however, as the above illustrates. Otello and Falstaff are different, however, in that they have stopped using the set pieces that he seemed to love in the earlier years.

An interesting if now irrelevant fact relates to the composer’s name. VERDI, Crowest assures us, came to stand for Victor Emmanuel Re d’Ilalia. Though Verdi, we are told here, shunned all aspects of politics, his identification with Italian nationalism cannot be denied.

Overall this seems to confirm what I am coming to believe more strongly by the day – that people don’t know what they like, they like what they know. Given enough airings, even Verdi became acceptable!