Monday, December 20, 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.

Thursday, December 16, 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.

It’s all in the detail – Madama Butterfly in Valencia

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a very well-known, much loved, and indeed popular opera. The genre is replete with femmes fatales, Butterfly, Tosca, Manon, Carmen, Lucía, Violetta and Katya, just for example, who get it in the end, so one might think there is nothing much to see in terms of new perspectives when such a familiar work with such a well-worked theme is staged. Opera lovers, however, will confirm that there most definitely is!

Audiences tend to fall into two distinct groups, those for whom any diversion from their own preconceptions signifies the end of civilization, and those for whom radical interpretation is a welcome challenge to the establishment. There is another perspective, however, in which directors, via minor changes to staging, can completely transform the way we understand these often rigidly interpreted stories. Such was the success of Emilio Lopez, the director of the recent production in Valencia. His 2021 staging of Butterfly will be broadcast on Opera Vision on Sunday 19 December and will be available through that website for some weeks. It is successful on several levels, one of which is revelatory.

Lets start with the term verismo. That certainly applied to the way Puccini approached his work and it implies that the setting should not be palatial and that characters might be depicted as everyday folk. We may assume that the composer never experienced the mid-19 century Japan of the opera’s setting, so if verismo applies to Butterfly, then it applies principally on an ideological level. That said, the opera’s potential for costume drama usually so overcomes designers and directors that even recognition of verismo in the result is obscured. In other words, everything gets pretty before it can become credible. And it is verismo that suffers.

In act one, Cio-Cio-san describes how she is from a poor home and became a geisha because of lack of opportunity. The ceremonial dagger which she eventually uses to take her own life was presented to her father by the Mikado with request that he use it on himself. We must assume that Butterfly’s family were thus already in disgrace. She then compounds this disgrace by rejecting her cultural and religious traditions, an act that uncle Bonze condemns, prompting her friends and community to reject her, all except Suzuki of course. The fact that Puccini then takes us into the love scene of the wedding night often obscures this rejection. In the Valencia production, a backdrop that had featured cherry blossom becomes the starry night of the couple’s ecstasy, but it does so by melting like celluloid in an overheated projector, implying that the comforting blossoms of the past have been destroyed. The starry night persists into acts two and three, but thus becomes a symbol of continued isolation and of Butterfly’s insistence, nay imperative to live in the past.

Cio-Cio-san often comes across as a meek and thus stereotypical Asian woman, who has never even practiced the word “boo” with geese nearby. As a result, she often becomes the single-, even simple-minded naïve devotee of Pinkerton, despite the fact that, as a geisha, she must have had experience of the fly-by-night sailor. The supplicant image endears her to audiences, perhaps, but strips her of the identity and individuality she certainly has, otherwise she would never have pursued her own, private wishes so single-mindedly.

The point is she does not have a great deal of choice. She is poor. She is a geisha. She has done her job. Pinkerton offers her a way out, which she, perhaps naïvely accepts. But once she has made the commitment, she cannot go back. She wants to please him, but by doing so she suffers the rejection of her own community. But she has to go through with the risk.

In Valencia, Emilio Lopez recognizes that Cio-Cio-san is living in poverty. Ignored by Pinkerton for three years and still rejected by her own community, she and Suzuki live amidst decay and grime. The temptation to portray Butterfly still in full, opulent geisha regalia makes no sense and is avoided convincingly in this production. Suzuki confirms this poverty in the libretto. What too often comes across as blind faith on Butterfly’s part now becomes necessity, imposed by her community because of her rejection by and of them. She cant go back. She has no other option. This is an element of verismo in the opera which directors often tend to overlook.

But in this Valencia production, the real surprise comes at the end. Pinkerton has returned but has refused to see Butterfly. He storms off because he cannot take it anymore... He does want the child, however. His new American wife and Sharpless are told by Butterfly to come back in half an hour to take the child. Note that Pinkerton has not heard her request.

Butterfly has her own plans, however, plans that involve using that ceremonial weapon her father used to kill himself. The elements are clear. Butterfly kills herself, the voice of Pinkerton returning is heard. Or perhaps not…

The usual way to treat this is to have Butterfly stab herself on the orchestral tutti and then for the sound of Pinkerton’s voice to be heard as she dies. If Pinkerton is not seen, it could be argued that he really was nasty all along and that Cio-Cio-san is imagining the voice, still therefore deceiving herself. If he does appear, then his character is rather let off the hook. If only Butterfly had delayed, then the ecstasy of the starry night might just have returned. But then she had already waited three years…

Sometimes Cio-Cio-san hears the voice and then stabs herself. Again, we have her imagining the sound as a possibility, but we then also have the possibility that she is suffering a form of self-loathing the result of the rejection. Again, this approach internalizes Butterfly’s suffering.

In the Valencia production, the orchestral tutti arrives with dagger drawn, but Butterfly turns to face the entrance to her house when she hears Pinkerton’s call. She waits for him to appear and recognize her and then she kills herself.

The effect is to transform her suicide into an act of defiance. She knows the child will be cared for. She has been rejected by her society and by Pinkerton. She is alone and has no future. But she is now also determined that he will not possess her, and she wants to demonstrate her contempt. You will not possess me as chattel, she thinks. And thus, her character is transformed from the meek and mild recipient of tragedy into a defiant individualist, albeit a dead one. At least she has asserted her own position. Its different and surprising, which illustrates beautifully that sometimes the most radical transformations are achieved via detail.


Friday, December 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.

Tuesday, December 7, 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, December 6, 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 accuses, nay convicts 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, probably while playing rugby.

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.

Jurowski and Kavakos with the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin at ADDA Alicante

There is nothing standard about performance, nothing predictable about experience, unless, of course, it is drained of all communication by an imperative to supply a product. Then, perhaps only then, strictures of form take over and dominate. And a concert program featuring Mozart’s Don Giovanni Overture, the Brahms Violin Concerto and then Schubert’s Ninth Symphony might just sound a little run-of-the-mill, highly susceptible to the kind of delivery that might pander first to audience expectations and only then to interpretation. Expectations were thus not high, though it was pleasant to be back in Alicante’s ADDA auditorium without designated vacant seats to enforce social distancing. At least we were an audience again. 

Initial impressions were that this touring Orchestra, the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, would be quite small, since the chairs arranged on the stage seemed to leave significant spaces. But, at least in the scale of orchestration, none of these works approaches the grandiose, despite the fact that Schubert clearly did apply the term to his work’s duration.

On reflection, how could any concert be considered humdrum when the conductor is Vladimir Jurowski and the soloist Leonidas Kavakos?

And what about, from first note to last, the resplendent bright sound of this orchestra’s strings? They have a texture that seems sharp, in its attack, not its tonality! There seems to be an edge, for want of a better word, that shapes the phrases of the music into something much more than reproduction, much more than reading off the page. The brilliance of the sound surprises, rendering even the completely familiar into new experience. And so Mozart’s overture was suitably dramatic, but also fresh and even surprising. After a month without orchestral sound, the opening chords worked magic.

Vladimir Jurowski is tall. Leonidas Kavakos is taller. During the long orchestral introduction to the Brahms concerto, he faced the orchestra. This, surely, was no more than an indication of how much this soloist regarded the orchestra as his partner rather than as his vehicle. And the Brahms concerto is an integrated work, a true collaboration between orchestra and soloist, never a competition. The quality of shared experience was communicated perfectly by the performers and so, even in this work that the audience had heard so many times before, they collectively breathed fresh air into the auditorium. And the audience breathed freely, despite the masks. The perfection achieved on stage translated into a forty-minute performance that was received by a packed audience in complete silence, with every note registered and every phrase understood. This was communication, not mere bravura. Leonidas Kavakos offered an encore of solo JS Bach and, after the Brahms, the understatement was almost more intense than what had preceded it.

In some hands Schubert’s Ninth Symphony, the so-called Great C Major, can go on a bit. This performance was advertised as lasting fifty minutes, so clearly not all the repeats were played. They very rarely are.

But it must be recorded that under Jurowski’s baton, this lengthy work came across as fresh, original and committed. There was not a single note in the hour when anyone in the audience felt that this was standard repertoire being delivered with standard interpretation. This felt particularly special.

The second movement, alongside the trio section from the scherzo, could be mistaken for Mahler, almost a century early. It is worth remembering, as the program notes pointed out, that Schubert never heard the work, that it was not premiered until over a decade after its composer’s death and that, at the time, musicians who saw the work considered it is difficult, unplayable and probably many other things that they dare not say because it did not conform with their expectations. Or perhaps, given a modern analogy, they considered the effort required as being above their pay grade. This performance by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under Jurowski did reproduce a sense of freshness and originality, perhaps something like Schubert had envisaged, the sound world that mystified the composer’s contemporaries. This time the mystery was enlightening.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag


Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was first published in 1961. It is hard in 2020, to accept that this was almost 60 years ago, especially since many of the works reviewed in this volume of criticism, containing essays as late as 1966, would probably not make it into the mainstream today. If - and if must be repeated for emphasis - if the objects of her criticism in the 1960s were manifestations of the current mainstream in the arts, then 60 years ago, at least to this reader, then contemporary theatre, film and art of today seem much more conventional, even conservative. No-one now, it seems, takes risks.

There are names that remain familiar in Susan Sontag’s critiques. We have a Genet, Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Godard, Brooke, Arthur Miller, but there are many others who would now claim only anonymity. But what is truly interesting is how reluctant Susan Sontag is even to mention trends from popular culture, the term I personally regard as a misnomer.

Indeed, the essays are, by contemporary standards, elitist. Ironic, isn’t it, that they come from the decade which became notorious for challenging elite status? Perhaps we forget that an element of 1960s culture was to invade elite structures, to cram them with experience it would find both challenging and uncomfortable. Susan Sontag herself obliquely refers to this attempt at change by noting “…the American theater is ruled by an extraordinary, irrepressible zest for intellectual simplification. Every idea is reduced to cliché, and the function of cliché is to castrate an idea.” The implication is that much needed change via infiltration was already happening. One wonders what her opinion might be today.

As already stated, these essays on criticism unashamedly intellectual. There is not a hint that they also want to address popular themes in popular language or on its own terms. Susan Sontag does address popular culture, but sometimes, as in her analysis of science fiction movie scenarios, to record her belief that it relies on the formulaic. She was not alone in casting an apparently academic eye over mass market culture. At the same time in Britain, we had Kenneth Tynan and Bernard Levin, both young Mavericks in their way, but also both securely establishment figures, despite Tynan’s enduring celebrity drawn from his use of the f-word on a live television chat show. And Bernard Levin, for those who care to remember, offered a satirical and critical monologue late on Saturday nights on That Was The Week That Was, the satirical revue populated by largely upper-class intellectuals who would later become superstars and pillars of the establishment. This was a fate not to befall Susan Sontag and some of her ideas still sound contemporary.

How about this as a plea to writers that they should imagine a status other than Godly? “The immediate cozy recognition that the lifelike in most novels induces is, and should be, suspect… I wholeheartedly sympathize with what she objects to in the old fashion novel. Vanity Fair and Buddenbrooks, when I read them recently, however marvelous they still seemed, also made me wince. I could not stand the omnipotent author showing me that’s how life is, making me compassionate and tearful, with his obstreperous irony, his confidential air of perfectly knowing his characters and leading me, the reader, to feel that I knew them too. I no longer trust novels which fully satisfy my passion to understand.” How many subsequent writers took note of this advice? My suggestion is a few, but none of them popular.

At the heart of Susan Sontag’s ideas about art, theatre, literature and criticism is the need for audiences to be open to challenge. She writes “Hence, too, the peculiar dependence of a work of art, however expressive, upon the cooperation of the person having the experience, for one may see what is ‘said’ but remain unmoved, either through dullness or distraction. Art is seduction, not rape. A work of art possesses a type of experience designed to manifest the quality of imperiousness. But art cannot seduce without the complicity of the experiencing subject.” Perhaps the 60 years that intervened have conspired to reduce this willingness to tolerate the unexpected? Or perhaps nothing has changed. Audiences were never very good at it.

In the Modern Classics edition of her work, Susan Sontag had the opportunity, some 30 years after publication, to offer her own reflections on the significance of the writing. She reflects on how the artistic climate had already changed and on the characteristics of the decade in which her critical essays were written. These three short quotes from the final essay from the 1990s indicate why Against Interpretation is now an achievement in its own right, and not simply a response to the work of others.

“Perhaps the most interesting characteristics of the time now labeled the Sixties was that there was so little nostalgia. In that sense, it was indeed a utopian movement.”

“Now the very idea of the serious (and of the honorable) seems quaint, ‘unrealistic’ to most people and when allowed - an arbitrary decision of temperament - probably unhealthy, too.”

“The judgments of taste expressed in these essays may have prevailed. The values underlying those judgments did not.”

Truly we live in a different age.