Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Light of Evening by Edna O’Brien

The Light of Evening by Edna OBrien is a deceptively complex book. It deals with relationships between two women, Dilly and Eleanora, who live very different lives some years apart. They are both women, but they come from different generations. They are both Irish, but they seem to belong to different countries, as well as different eras. They both leave their homeland to seek fortune, but on wholly different terms and to different places. They both seem to stumble into relationships with men, some of which involve marriage, and cope in partially successful ways with the challenges posed by maintaining the terms of engagement. The complications in the relationship between the two women, Dilly and Eleanora, arise because they are mother and daughter.

At the start, we meet Dilly, the mother, who is in hospital in Dublin. Her years have advanced. She is seriously ill and about to undergo a procedure. Her youth flashes before her sedated eyes. She travels from Ireland to the United States and we follow a developing life in New York as it moves from promised opportunity to promised opportunity, only to find that reality usually imposes its surprisingly mundane results. Wiser, but only marginally richer, Dilly soon finds herself repatriated for family reasons.

We meet Eleanora via scenes from her marriage. She too has left Ireland, but she has personal reasons and she has pursued education. She seems to be in control, at least potentially in control of her life options. She is apparently free to choose and we see her relocate for professional rather than menial reasons. But she seems to spend as much of her time and energy analyzing her relationships with men as pursuing her professional goals. The turns in her life are unpredictable, often unfathomable. They have a gloss of normality imposed by obvious consumption, personality created by likes and dislikes and achievement realized through opportunity. It is a life that presents a vivid contrast to the life of Dilly, whose own journey was imposed by a need to make a living first and a personal space second.

But the real complication arises because these two women, doing what women do a generation apart are mother and daughter. Letters exchanged form a major part of the book’s substance, specifically letters between mother and daughter. These letters often do not appear to say very much, but then that becomes a crucial point in the narrative. Deceptively simple, they can also deceive by not saying what the writer wants to say, by not communicating what the reader wants to hear.

Overall the plot of Edna OBriens novel dwells almost exclusively on the nature of the relationship between mother and daughter, the difference and similarities that make their lives. It travels the world that surrounds their different generations, drawing sharp contrasts but also recognizing remarkable similarities. Its a book that walks well-worn paths, but arrives at new experiences for the reader. Rather than the substance of life, it is the spaces between, whether large or small, that captivate. And, by the end, we realize that for all our complications, we individuals are generally ruled by self and can often be driven by quite mundane, but devastatingly relentless material concerns.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Costa Blanca Arts Update - Alfaz del Pi February concerts - Pilar and Pedro Valero, Duo Evocacion and Maria Kosenkova

Music can take an audience to many different places. It all depends on where they want to go. But during a period of coronavirus restrictions, merely out of the house might just be enough. The Comunidad Valenciana rules for public gatherings are clear, and it is within these rules that Alfaz del Pi Classical Music Society operates, complete with socially spaced seating, temperature checks and contact lists. But once out of the house and in that space, music can still transport us and there was no better example of how this happens than during the Society’s two February concerts.

On Saturday 20 February in Casa Cultura, we heard the piano playing of Pilar and Pedro Valero in a program that featured composers from no less than eight countries, probably mirroring the cosmopolitan nature of the small but highly appreciative audience. What the pianists presented was effectively two solo programs with a little four hands at the end.

Pilar Valero first performed Ravel, a Prelude followed by Ondine and then she played the Rachmaninoff Prelude Opus32 no12 and Study Op39 no5 before finishing with Rondeña by Albeniz. Pilar Valero’s playing really did illustrate the stylistic differences between these composers, whose active life spanned shared decades. In many ways, the music of Albeniz is the most unconventional of the three and marries the post-impressionism of Ravel with the nationalism and sentimentality of Rachmaninoff.

Pedro Valero offered three pieces, Schubert’s Sonata in A major D664, Fazil Say’s Variations on Summertime and then Resurrección del Angel by Astor Piazzolla. The amazing understatement of the Schubert was often contradicted by how darkly many of the phrases finished. The contrast with the jazz-inspired glitter of the Fazil Say variations was stunning and then Piazzolla’s slow, halting dance supplied a troubled tranquility.

And then to conclude we had four-hand versions of the Dance from La Vida Breve of Manuel de Falla and finally Brahms’s rousing Hungarian Dance no5.

And then on Sunday 21 February in Albir, we had Dúo Evocación with Maria Kosenkova in a program of songs and arias. Dúo Evocatión comprises soprano, Olha Viytiv and the piano of Hilario Segovia Badia. They opened with the Mozart concert aria, Io No Chiedo, before mezzo-soprano Maria Kosenkova took the stage to start with two of four Strauss songs. Like all such concerts, the list of pieces is long, so I will not list them all by title. After the Mozart, we heard four songs by Richard Strauss, two pieces each by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, and then Delibes, Massenet, and Thomas. We then heard an aria from Barbieri’s El Barbarillo, two of Manuel de Falla’s popular songs, Nana and Polo, and then Ma Llaman La Primarosa of Gimenez and Nieto. An encore of the Barcarole from the Tales of Hoffmann brought the concert to a rapturous close. The sheer volume created by the two sopranos was, at times, simply stunning, especially in the vocal acrobatics supplied by the aria from Delibes’s Lakme.

But what shone through both events was the musicians’ determination to interpret and communicate, an approach that reached out to the audience and was gratefully received and acknowledged. In these difficult times, these two concerts were bright examples of how performed music can uplift and regenerate.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Swann’s Way – In Search of Lost Time Volume 1 Marcel Proust

Imagine a collage, an assemblage of the entire output of august artists, especially those of fin-de-siecle France, those one-time upstarts and latter-day establishment pillars we have since learned to label “Impressionist”. Imagine too this vast canvas repeated in multiple shades, so that not only does it present to the eye a vast, near limitless, expanse of colour, of detail, of form, of fine ladies in finer drapery, of gardens replete with blooms of every season, of carriage-jammed Paris streets shining through murky wet evenings, of multi-coloured lilies afloat on a surface of quiet lakes or stilled streams of rural France, of dancing girls performing their ballet or rehearsing their slender limbs in outline at the bar, but also it revisits every view from multiple angles in different colours, at different times, from different perspectives with different impressions. We seem to see the same things repeat, repeatedly, but always different, always changed, always vivid. And imagine this presented not only in the bright colours of the original, but also the imposed hues of vividly recalled memory that knows every scene, but cannot fix exact date, time or form, so that they re-form truly solid, living structures reconstructed from what the original eyes only partially recorded. And then close those eyes, so that the images can be drawn from their memories, those indelibly, but perhaps inaccurately filed images that we have collected inadvertently by virtue of the unfinished act of living. And then we share that experience.

And then, in the words of the author, himself, so it is with our own past. It is a labour in vain to attempt to recapture it: all the efforts of our intellect must prove futile. The past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the reach of intellect, in some material object (in the sensation which that material object will give us) which we do not suspect. And as for that object, it depends on chance whether we come upon it or not before we ourselves must die.

But the imperative is that we must try. We have but one chance shot at this moving target we call ‘life’ and our aim is, by its very nature, wayward. We remain forever unsure of the boundary between what we remember and what we imagine, especially when one merges into the other in that uncontrolled manner, that imposed confusion of blurred edge that inevitably results when we attempt to focus on a passing image and have only a memory of its momentary impression on the mind to recall whatever detail it shed.

And the result? The result is a passing stream, an ever-changing, forever variable vista that always comprises the same view, the same solid objects that once, or perhaps still, peopled its banks. And, from the distance of time, who can ever be sure what we felt? Who can be sure of motive, of consequence, of intention or stratagem? Who can testify that those remembered words were spoken in love, hate, respect, derision, criticism, praise or merely to pass the time we now realise we never had? It is irony that perhaps lasts longest, as in an invitation to dine with an acquaintance of the family, M. Legrandin?

Only the day before he had asked my parents to send me to dine with him on this same Sunday evening. "Come and bear your aged friend company," he had said to me. "Like the nosegay which a traveller sends us from some land to which we shall never go again, come and let me breathe from the far country of your adolescence the scent of those flowers of spring among which I also used to wander, many years ago. Come with the primrose, with the canon's beard, with the gold-cup; come with the stone-crop, whereof are posies made, pledges of love, in the Balzacian flora, come with that flower of the Resurrection morning, the Easter daisy, come with the snowballs of the guelder-rose, which begin to embalm with their fragrance the alleys of your great-aunt's garden ere the last snows of Lent are melted from its soil. Come with the glorious silken raiment of the lily, apparel fit for Solomon, and with the many-coloured enamel of the pansies, but come, above all, with the spring breeze, still cooled by the last frosts of wirier, wafting apart, for the two butterflies' sake, that have waited outside all morning, the closed portals of the first Jerusalem rose."

The question was raised at home whether, all things considered, I ought still to be sent to dine with M. Legrandin.

Irony, then, leaves its mark, but not as deep as the scars left by the cuts of young love, obsession or jealousy. In a vast, detailed and probably reconstructed memory of M. Swann’s relationship with Odette, a woman he initially likens to an image from a Botticelli painting in the Sistine chapel, we share the heart-racing exhilaration of a man becoming obsessed with the sensual beauty of a desirable and available woman, we euphemistically accompany him in adjusting the flowers that decorate her bodice and then we suffer the gnawing, destroying doubts about her motives that grow out of an all-embracing, near-destroying jealousy.

There is, of course, much socialising. It would not be far from the truth to observe that these people spend more time worrying about whom to include and whom to specifically and justifiably exclude from a guest list than they do at work, in their beds or on the road. And the decisions are usually based on class, that universal categorising and branding of quality that seems to suffuse and smother human society in whatever age and every place, the very quality that revolutions might occasionally but unsuccessfully seek to eradicate. And what happens at these gatherings remains primarily social, whatever the focus of the soiree.

If the pianist suggested playing the Ride of the Valkyries, or the Prelude to Tristan, Mme. Verdurin would protest, not that the music was displeasing to her, but, on the contrary, that it made too violent an impression. "Then you want me to have one of my headaches? You know quite well, it's the same every time he plays that. I know what I'm in for. Tomorrow, when I want to get up - nothing doing!" If he was not going to play they talked, and one of the friends - usually the painter who was in favour there that year - would "spin," as M. Verdurin put it, "a damned funny yarn that made 'em all split with laughter," and especially Mme. Verdurin, for whom so strong was her habit of taking literally the figurative accounts of her emotions - Dr. Cottard, who was then just starting in general practice, would "really have to come one day and set her jaw, which she had dislocated with laughing too much.

And this is a place and time where no-one lives life by halves, where no person is ever truly reticent in expressing emotion, even when that which is quite sincerely expressed may, at some later date, convey at least the partial sensation of over-statement. She had been taught in her girlhood to fondle and cherish those long-necked, sinuous creatures, the phrases of Chopin, so free, so flexible, so tactile, which begin by seeking their ultimate resting-place somewhere beyond and far wide of the direction in which they started, the point which one might have expected them to reach, phrases which divert themselves in those fantastic bypaths only to return more deliberately with a more premeditated reaction, with more precision, as on a crystal bowl which, if you strike it, will ring and throb until you cry aloud in anguish to clutch at one's heart.  

Viewing this vast, sewn together patchwork of art, this mixture of people thrown together by time and the filter of memory, may at times feel like making an ocean journey by small boat, rigged with too scant a sail, a boat that, often becalmed, seems to drift. The real trick, undoubtedly, is to relax and go with the flow. That’s life, it seems.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Witch of Portobello by Paulo Coelho


The Witch of Portobello is a novel by Paulo Coelho. Perhaps already there is already a divide. There are readers, many of them, for whom the author conjures a world of another universe, perhaps, where, inside the unknown but knowable self, anything can be discovered. Equally, there is another group for whom this platitudinous pseudo-religious self-discovery approaches the nauseous. First, the bones of plot.

Sherine Khalil was abandoned at birth by her Romanian gypsy mother, at least partially because her father was a foreigner. Whether these origins, a rejection born of a persecuted minority in a context of political oppression are relevant is an academic question, because we spend so much time inside Sherines head, albeit from outside, that we often lose sight of any wider context.

Thus abandoned, the baby girl is adopted by a middle-class Lebanese couple and brought up amid the political turmoil of the Middle East in general and Lebanon’s war in particular. Neither scenario is examined in the book, though they are cited as possible influences on Sherine’s development, though specific consequences seem not to figure. Sherine renames herself Aurora, is brought up a Christian and has visions.

Aurora goes to London and university to study engineering, but drops out, marries and has a child, because she realizes that is what she really wants. The marriage breaks down and she attains the status of a single mother, a status she seems to claim as an act of martyrdom. She does several things to make ends meet before becoming an estate agent in Dubai, an activity that proves lucrative.

But throughout, there is a side to Aurora-Sherines personality that is not of this material world. She associates with the Virgin Mary, the mother, and with Santa Sophia and other phenomena. By the way, we can always tell if an emergent concept is both real and transcendental because we may note it always has a capital letter even in speech. I digress…

Aurora returns to London and becomes associated with an apparently blasphemous sect based in Portobello Road, though what she is selling, apparently, is not secondhand. Amidst all the navel gazing and self-realization via universal personal discovery, there is space for religious difference. Fingers are pointed. Accusations are made. Lets leave it there.

Sherine-Aurora’s story is told by a series of people who knew her. Criticism of the work arises because these reminiscences by different people do not really offer the different perspectives that might be expected. None of these people for instance dismiss Aurora’s claims about herself out of hand. In some ways, they are all converts.

Personally, I have just used this form in my own novel, Eileen McHugh, a life remade, so perhaps I am over-conscious of the of its potential shortcomings. For me, however, these different testimonies to the life of Sherine-Aurora were just two consistent to convince a reader they might be the recollections of a varied group of people with different memories and interests.

I began by defining to apparently opposing reactions to Paulo Coelhos work. Obviously, I am in the latter group, so why might I choose to read this book? Well, I read it in Spanish as a way of developing my fluency in the language. Personally, it was a means to an end and, as such, the book delivered, its calculated simplicity of style and associated simplicity of language suiting my linguistic goals perfectly.

And, in facilitating my personal goals in this way, this opening up new possibilities for my own self-expression and discovery, it may just have delivered on the message of self-realization I have apparently been keen to dismiss. It becomes an illustration of whatever an artist may have intended in creating a work, it is eventually what the recipient experiences that endures. Perhaps there is always an element looking within when we experience our universe.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

La Ciudad de las Bestias (The City of Beasts) by Isabel Allende

La Ciudad de las Bestias (The City of Beasts) is a novel by Isabel Allende. I read it in Spanish, without consulting reviews or doing any prior research. It was only later that I realized the book was originally conceived as a ‘young adult’ novel. I apparently do not qualify, largely on the latter half of the target. I am clearly still young enough, because I found the book to be an engaging, if rarely challenging read. First the bare flesh of the work.

We start in New York with the book’s real weak spot. Alex is on his way to stay with his grandmother because his mother is ill. We see him get involved with a young woman who robs him. His flute - yes, flute - was in the lost bag. We think we are about to embark on an urban tale of misfits, crime and precarious living. We are not. The first section is really a vehicle to introduce the reader to Kate Cold, Alexs grandmother, who is an eccentric writer on indigenous peoples in the Amazon, an anthropologist perhaps, who also just happens to have her husbands flute, which forms the perfect replacement for Alexs lost instrument.

And then they set off up the Amazon. Grandma Kate is on a mission to encounter lost tribes and Alex accompanies. What happens in The City of Beasts is more important than how it happens, so this review will not describe detail events. But listing the elements is giving nothing away.

On the expedition we have an academic who seems to know everything about his subject, which happens to be indigenous Amazonians, except of course he does not know how to accept criticism or contradiction. There is a young girl, Nadia, who is a few years younger than Alex, who of course bonds with him. Theres a capitalist who wants to exploit the land inhabited by indigenous peoples. He cannot do this while they are still in residence, so he has devised an ingenious way of protecting the people which is eventually a way of getting rid of them. Alex and Nadia of course uncover the plot.

Alex and Nadia are eventually taken by the People of the Mists and they travel through jungle, mountains and caves, to experience ritual and tradition. They encounter fabulous beasts that do not spell smell too good. They learn that all that glitters is not gold, even in El Dorado, and apparently come to appreciate what it must be like to live as a hunter gatherer.

What is striking about these two young characters is their consistent application of rational thought to everything that happens to them. Whereas received opinion or generally adults talk seriously of magic and myth, Alex and Nadia think things through and always unearth the plausible that just seems to have passed by everyone else. That is probably because their vested interest always takes precedence, and these vested interests are better served by continued obfuscation.

The City of Beasts in Spanish was a learning experience. It was also worth reading. There is still room for
more magic by the end.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Quichotte by Salman Rushdie

I heard an author interviewed on the radio. He described a character he had invented, a fellow called Quichotte (that’s key-shot, by the way), who himself had been invented by another character in the same book (Quichotte), who had already been invented by the author. The characters have families, each having one son, one imaginary, the other – well - imaginary, but at least in possession of a formal and formally imagined birth, the other a product of parthenogenesis.

All these people, both the real-imaginary and the imaginary-real, live in the United States, amongst other places, a country which, as places go, is regularly imagined and sometimes described. The author’s point, if it might exist in the singular, is that it was time to update the idea of Miguel de Cervantes, who four hundred years ago imagined a character called Quixote (key-ho-tay) emerging from the pages of a discarded Arabic text discovered on a rummage through a second-hand stall on Toledo’s market. That’s Toledo, Spain by the way (population 84,282, occupying 232.1 square kilometres and 89.6 square miles, if you are so inclined). Or so we are told. But he made it up, alongside the said Quixote’s (key-ho-tay’s) popular culture-driven madness that demanded he set off dressed as a film star to do good in the world. Geddit?

Quichotte proceeds in a parody of said key-ho-tay back and forth across the United States, accompanied by his real-imagined and imaginary-real playmates, old flames and the not wholly imagined but apparently unattainable beauty, Salma R, among them. They get up to some good, but predominantly they observe and relate. They relate to their relatives, who are mainly from Bombay, and to their acquaintances, who as often as not abuse them on the basis of their skin colour, which is brownish, and as a consequence accuse them of being terrorists, bombers, jihadists or merely general extremists before pulling their guns. This causes our characters, both real-imaginary and imaginary-real to suffer significant but mild crises of identity. More accurately, their identities would be in crisis if they could ever find them or even define what they were looking for in their continual search for said qualities. Rule one: carry a gun. Self-defence. Get the retaliation in first. Rule two: read the book.

As I sit here in my room (population one), I imagine my rather privileged position. There cannot be many reviewers of a Quixote parody who can also claim to have written one. In his search, Donald Cottee, my own imagined key-ho-tay, examines his identity and origins from the perspective of a second-hand Swift Sundance parked on a campsite in Benidorm. In his radio interview Salman Rushdie, from here on called ’the author’, talked about his own origins.

The author went to Rugby public school - for our American friends, here public means its exact opposite, private - blame the English - and sang Christian hymns with his Muslim voice at school assemblies. Also, for the Americans again, rugby with a capital R is a town (population 100,500) and should not be confused with the sport of the same name, team population 13 or 15 depending on social class, whose name is in fact often capitalised, which was first invented in the same establishment, the school, population 802, established 1567, not the town, origins debatable, but probably iron age. It has progressed.

But he and his family, the author Rushdie that is, and therefore their combined roots, were also from Bombay, if you are English or perhaps Portuguese, which most English don’t appreciate, or Mumbai if you are Indian, but there is no such language as Indian, so this term must apply to residency. But of course the author Rushdie was not resident in Mumbai-Bombay at the time, hence his presence in Rugby (public school, where public equals private) where he tried to work out where and who he was.

And so to the United States where he is lumped together with others whose skin is tinged, coloured (not orange or red, unless you are an Indian, but that’s another story) or brown - let’s call it Black - by another broad church (C sometimes) of people, who skin is pink, red, but not Indian, or even orange – let’s call them White, who, if they live in New Jersey, need regular check-ups to ensure they have not morphed into mastodons. Geddit?

Let’s stir into this heady mix a manufacturer of opioids, fentanyl for sublingual use, just to be accurate, a terminal cancer, several close shaves involving gun owners trying to retaliate first and lots of encounters with popular culture, Holly-Bollywood and the like, and you arrive at where you have been headed all along without ever consulting a map or making a plan. And we have not yet even mentioned a Dr Smile or a Mr DuChamp. Get it? Read the book. It’s splendid. Funny. Political. Perspicacious. Now there’s a word.