Wednesday, April 29, 2009
Al is gone
I keep thinking of Wislawa Szymborska's "Cat in an Empty Apartment," which I wrote about on this blog once before. The situation in the poem is different: the cat has survived its master (not an appropriate word, given the upper hand many felines have in the household). But the sensation of grief, and of an inexplicable vacancy, feels just right. So I'll quote it again in its entirety:
Die--you can't do that to a cat.
Since what can a cat do
in an empty apartment?
Climb the walls?
Rub up against the furniture?
Nothing seems different here,
but nothing is the same.
Nothing has been moved,
but there's more space.
And at nighttime no lamps are lit.
Footsteps on the staircase,
but they're new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.
Something doesn't start
at its usual time.
Something doesn't happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.
Every closet has been examined.
Every shelf has been explored.
Excavations under the carpet turned up nothing.
A commandment was even broken,
papers scattered everywhere.
What remains to be done.
Just sleep and wait.
Just wait till he turns up,
just let him show his face.
Will he ever get a lesson
on what not to do to a cat.
Sidle toward him
as if unwilling
and ever so slow
on visibly offended paws,
and no leaps or squeals at least to start.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
Walcott: the chair, the tie, plus Ford's fork
[Christopher] Ricks steps down next month, and Oxford graduates are lining up like pompom-waving cheerleaders to vote their favourite candidates into his vacated throne: supporting my old friend Ruth Padel will be the biographer Victoria Glendinning, the philosopher AC Grayling, and Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Against her in this two-horse Parnassian gallop is Derek Walcott, the St Lucia-born poet and 1992 Nobel literature laureate. His fans include Marina Warner, Hermione Lee and the Booker prize-winner Alan Hollinghurst.I briefly studied with Derek Walcott during the early 1980s. Being male, hirsute, and non-blond, I didn't have to worry about him hitting on me, and found him an inspiring teacher. But there were always rumors about his dalliances with female students. To be fair, he was hardly the only poet to take advantage of his harem of youthful admirers. And one acquaintance, who apparently declined his physical advances but still fraternized with the future Nobelist during the off hours, conceded that he had a certain "integrity" even when he was chasing you around the coffee table.
The chair of the English faculty board, Dr Sally Mapstone, has said: "The two candidates... both have excellent credentials for the post, and each has an outstanding record as an ambassador for the subject. It would be a great privilege to have either of them as Oxford's professor of poetry for the next five years."
Have Walcott's fans all forgotten the shadows of sexual harassment allegations that have swirled around their man over the years? Should one not mention Ms Nicole Niemi, 30 years his junior, who came forward in 1995 to claim that, when she was a creative writing graduate student in the 1980s, Walcott threatened to fail her unless she went to bed with him? When she declined, she alleged that he told her the play she'd written for the course couldn't, in that case, be produced. Years after the event, Ms Niemi was looking for half a million dollars in compensation and punitive damages before the claim was eventually settled.
Now, if Walcott truly threatened to fail a student unless she slept with him, he should have been kicked out of the university at once. And the Niemi dispute is not an isolated incident. Still, one hopes that a genius would have eventually learned his lesson. The other problem is that in the long run, poetic accomplishment trumps bad behavior. Also: admiration is always itching to turn into intimacy. Walcott himself, early in his career, had a thing for Robert Lowell's ties, as he recounts in What the Twilight Says:
In his apartment, about to go out somewhere with him, I fix the knot of Cal's tie. He returns the knot to its loose tilt. "Casual elegance," he says, his hands too large to be those of a boulevardier. The correction was technical, one moment's revelation of style. His verse, in that period of two close books, Near the Ocean and For the Union Dead, had the casual symmetry of a jacket draped on a chair, genius in shirtsleeves. He had written about the stiffness that paralyzed his metre, how he found its rigidities unbearable to recite, skipping words when he read in public to contract them like asides. He had learned this from Beat poetry and William Carlos Williams. Still, his free verse was not a tieless metre....Regarding the ties, I believe that Walcott doth protest too much. It's not a fetish, just a desire to make off with a tiny splinter of your household god. One of my college professors owned a chocolate-brown suit that had belonged to Wallace Stevens. How he got hold of this item I don't recall, but I often pictured it hanging in his closet, possibly in an archival garment bag. What was it good for? Did the owner put it on when he wrote his own poetry, praying that the tropical wool still retained some juju in its stiff, bronze-decor-colored folds? And finally, a mea culpa: once, having recently read and admired The Sportswriter, I found myself sitting at a restaurant table adjacent to Richard Ford's. When his party left, I leaned over and swiped his fork. I was young, I was tipsy, and yes, I gave the tines a quick wipe with my napkin, then stuck the fork in my jacket pocket. I don't know what that was good for either. Later on, with a strange twinge of guilt, I threw it away.
On another occasion, and the reader must not think that I have a fetish about poets' ties, I admired, with casualness, a pale orange-and-brown-figured tie he wore. He took it off and gave it to me. I did not fawn on Lowell the poet. I did not collect bits of his clothing like his valet. Yet he once made a terrible accusation as if I were. "You use people," he told me. It was a night when he was "going off." Darkness hadn't yet come, but the light was dimming. I didn't know, as his older friends knew, how to recognize the spark that meant that, like Hieronymo, he would be mad again.
Labels: derek walcott
Monday, April 27, 2009
Straight Outta Albuquerque: J.M.G. Le Clézio at the Y
Travel seemed to be in his DNA, suggested Gopnik, not merely a matter of circumstance. Le Clézio agreed. His ancestors were from Brittany, which he compared to Ireland: a land whose perennial poverty caused its people to leave "whenever they could." Yet the one constant, no matter where Le Clézio ended up, was the French language. This first love, this loyalty, began during his childhood. "I very much enjoyed going through dictionaries," he recalled. "I still see life through those page, those definitions."You can read the rest here.
At this point the two writers shared a moment of lexicological bliss (Gopnik indicated a preference for the big illustrated Larousse). Then they moved on to another of Le Clézio’s early infatuations: J.D. Salinger, who Gopnik described as "one of the local gods" at The New Yorker. What the French author loved about Salinger was, in a sense, what he loved about the dictionary: an accumulation of luminous details, and the feeling that "each word is a world by itself." He had particular praise for "A Perfect Day for Bananafish," which he called "one of the best short stories ever written." Albert Camus also got high marks from his fellow Nobel laureate, for his refusal to deliver knee-jerk messages of affirmation.
Labels: j.m.g. le clezio
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Then there was Impressionism, which marked the first appearance of Jeremy Irons on Broadway in 25 years. The last time around, he won a Tony for his role in Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing. If I simultaneously squint and do the multiplication tables in my head, I can just about see how Irons was fooled into thinking that Mark Jacobs' script had a Stoppardian stamp to it. There is a good deal of structural trickery, the actors speak in mild paradoxes, and Jacobs does attempt to monkey with the art-and-life equation. One problem is that the metaphorical lesson he gleans from the Impressionists--that you have to stand way, way back to see the pretty picture, and that goes double for the emotional picture--is completely banal. The other problem is that there is zero chemistry between Irons and his leading lady, the excellent Joan Allen. And compressing this two-act stinker into a single act doesn't help. (I'm being very negative, aren't I? Bring me my tuna sandwich.)
What snapped this losing streak was an imported British production of Friedrich von Schiller's Mary Stuart. The staging--including a search-and-destroy raid by Elizabethan security men that commences while the lights are still up, and a sizzling onstage downpour--is consistently striking. I've never read the original play (surprise), but Peter Oswald's adaptation hits the sweet spot between period flavor and contemporary jazziness: you sense the archaic idiom without getting bogged down in it. And the leading ladies, Janet McTeer and Harriet Walter, are perfectly matched in their passive-aggressive battle for the British throne. Walter's Elizabeth I has the whip hand, of course--she's already queen. So what we get is asymmetrical warfare, with McTeer's Mary Stuart deploying the weaker party's favorite weapons: guilt, guile, morality. The play is perhaps too talky, especially in the first act. One senses the heavy hand of Basil Exposition for the first fifteen minutes, filling in the blanks. But it the end, Mary Stuart does cast its swift, cerebral spell. And there's an additional novelty to the female cut-and-thrust. In an era of rigid patriarchy, these women are contending for absolute power, while the coterie of scheming men, who seem to have taken a management course with Niccolò Machiavelli, scuttle around their feet.
Monday, April 20, 2009
J.G. Ballard departs
Still, Ballard strikes me as one of those authors with a distinctive enough vision of the world that his name is ripe for transformation into an adjective. (Whoops: it already happened.) I wrote about his work twice. The first time, I reviewed what must have been an American reissue of The Drowned World. The novel, Ballard's second, first appeared in England in 1962. By then the author had quit his assistant editor gig at Chemistry and Industry, a trade journal whose clinical tone may have crept into his own prose, keeping his sometimes florid surrealism in check. Where that piece I appeared I can no longer recall, but I did like the book's evocation of a drenched and diluvial planet--which, in the age of Katrina and a melting polar ice cap, seems less science-fictional with each passing year.
Later on, in 1989, I reviewed Running Wild for the New York Times. Reading the tiny piece now, I feel slightly embarrassed by my dismissive tone, but I doubt that this particular book will loom very large in the Ballardian (there we go) canon. Here's the piece in its entirety:
Over the last 25 years, the British writer J. G. Ballard has touched a great many stylistic bases, ranging from straight science fiction (The Drowned World) to abrasive experimentalism (Crash) to autobiographical realism (Empire of the Sun). But regardless of genre, Mr. Ballard's books have tended to share certain qualities, including a fascination with electronic media, a taste for black-comic paradox and, most of all, an ability to immerse the reader in different fictional worlds. Running Wild, which is presented as the forensic diaries of Dr. Richard Greville, a psychiatric adviser to the London police, certainly bears the first two of these trademarks. Greville has been asked to investigate the Pangbourne Massacre, a mysterious tragedy in which the 32 adult residents of an exclusive community 30 miles west of London have been murdered, and their 13 children apparently abducted. Who could have carried out such an atrocity? And why? Greville lists the various theories put forth by the authorities, in order of escalating absurdity. He watches hours of videotaped evidence and ponders the community's way of life, one in which "scarcely a minute of the children's lives had not been intelligently planned." Slowly--more slowly, in any case, than most readers--he comes to the conclusion that the assassins were the children themselves. The Pangbourne offspring, he concludes, "were rebelling against... a despotism of kindness. They killed to free themselves from a tyranny of love and care." Really? The assumptions Running Wild is supposed to challenge, such as the fairy-tale version of family happiness, haven't been widely accepted for decades. Nor has Mr. Ballard given himself ample space to compensate for his warmed-over concept: the novel's 104 pages immerse us no deeper than the ankles. Running Wild has its pleasures, but it's J. G. Ballard at his scantiest, his most reduced. What he gives us here is a dream communicated in Morse code.Finally, I must note the existence of a superb fan site: Ballardian, already cited above. The archives include an excellent and expansive interview with the author. There is a chortling discussion of how one publisher's reader rejected the Crash manuscript with a couple of curt, diagnostic sentences: "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do not publish." More to the point, Ballard defends even his darkest work as covertly affirmative:
You know, to be a human being is quite a role to play. Each of us wakes up in the morning and we inhabit a very dangerous creature capable of brilliance in many ways, but capable also of huge self-destructive episodes. And we live with this dangerous creature every minute we're awake. Something like The Atrocity Exhibition sums up my fiction: the attempt by a rather wounded character--in this case, a psychiatrist having a nervous breakdown; there are similar figures throughout the rest of my fiction--to make something positive out of the chaos that surrounds him, to create some sort of positive mythology that can sustain one's confidence in the world. Even something like Kingdom Come is affirmative, where I show a clear and present danger being dealt with, and one of the key figures responsible realizing the error of his ways. So in that respect, I agree with you completely: my fiction is affirmative.
Labels: j.g. ballard
"A sober, concrete, and symmetrical city"
My bond to my "little homeland" [piccola patria] is very strong. I came into the world in Turin, my forebears were all Piedmontese; I found my vocation in Turin, I studied there, I've always lived there, I've worked, had a family, written and published all my books there, with a publisher deeply rooted in the local soil, for all its international renown. I love the city, its dialect, its streets, its pavements, its avenues, the hill and the mountains that surround it, which I climbed as a boy, I like the rural and hill-dweller roots of its people, the conscientiousness of its workers, the flair of its artisans, the rigor of its technicians.... My way of writing is influenced for certain in no small degree by my chemical profession but also in part by having been formed in a sober, concrete, and symmetrical city, a technical city where I have carved out my own niche.Living as he did in the same apartment where he was born (and where he would later die), Levi was unusually entrenched in his native soil. I visited Turin just once, when I was researching my abortive biography of Levi. It was February, the skies were overcast, the trees dripped and a thick fog alternately hid and revealed bits of the surrounding hills. I found Turin beautiful, but it had the introverted appeal of a Northern European city. Since it kept raining, and since both my wife and myself were nursing colds, we spent much of the time in the low-end hotel near the railroad station, watching snowy RAI broadcasts on television. But I did meet with Levi's son, Renzo, who told me in the kindest possible way that his family was opposed to the prying efforts of biographers like myself. Now I can see that it was much, much too soon: the author had died, an almost certain suicide, less than two years before. The family was still absorbing the shock, and closing ranks at the mere thought of an outsider airing its none-too-dirty laundry. So I halted my research. Yet my memory of Levi's symmetrical city, where everything seemed to be gray or black or the soft green of oxidized metal, remains vivid.
Monday, April 13, 2009
Their glittering eyes are gay
A cursory trawl of the Amazon site reveals a crazy quilt of exclusionary bloopers. John Fox's The Boys on the Rocks, a gay coming-of-age story that is not remotely pornographic, with a cover endorsement by the straight-as-an-arrow Richard Price, has no sales ranking. Meanwhile, something called Slave Boy, whose surfeit of graphic detail has caused even the publisher to issue a consumer alert, is still ranked (at a very decent 3,296, by the way).You can read the whole thing, which includes a misty-eyed glimpse down Memory Lane to my own tenure at the company, here.
As noted by the Jacket Copy blog at the Los Angeles Times, Paul Monette's Becoming a Man, which won the 1992 National Book Award, has been bumped to the back of the bus. So has Radclyffe Hall's 1928 classic The Well of Loneliness. Now, the sexual content in Hall's novel, which occasioned a public scandal and lengthy court battle before it could be passed through U.S. Customs, is limited to seven words: "and that night, they were not divided." Something tells me that Lights, Camera, Sex!, by porn star Christy Canyon, has a much higher smut ratio. Shouldn't this fall under the proud, saucy banner of "adult" content? Yet it retains its sales ranking, possibly because the star of I Like To Be Watched settled down into a healthy monogamous relationship at the end of the book.
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
The Beatles finally go digital!
Apple Corps Ltd. and EMI Music are delighted to announce the release of the original Beatles catalogue, which has been digitally re-mastered for the first time, for worldwide CD release on Wednesday, September 9, 2009 (9-9-09), the same date as the release of the widely anticipated "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game. Each of the CDs is packaged with replicated original UK album art, including expanded booklets containing original and newly written liner notes and rare photos. For a limited period, each CD will also be embedded with a brief documentary film about the album. On the same date, two new Beatles boxed CD collections will also be released.It seems like only yesterday that Allan Kozinn was griping about EMI's intransigence, and suggesting that DIY product from Dr. Ebbetts or Purple Chick would have to satisfy our longings for the conceivable future. Now comes this delightful cornucopia, which will siphon a great many dollars from my pocket and put my old 1987 CDs into permanent storage. Just for the record, I will not be buying the additional box of mono mixes, described by EMI as "for collectors only." A second codicil: I am ecstatic to see these remasters under any circumstances, but very faintly indignant that they have been timed to coincide with the release of the "Beatles: Rock Band" video game. Why not just skip this asinine (and, I'm sure, enormously lucrative) merchandising gimmick, declare a bank holiday on September 9, and be done with it?
The albums have been re-mastered by a dedicated team of engineers at EMI's Abbey Road Studios in London over a four year period utilising state of the art recording technology alongside vintage studio equipment, carefully maintaining the authenticity and integrity of the original analogue recordings. The result of this painstaking process is the highest fidelity the catalogue has seen since its original release.
The collection comprises all 12 Beatles albums in stereo, with track listings and artwork as originally released in the UK, and Magical Mystery Tour, which became part of The Beatles' core catalogue when the CDs were first released in 1987. In addition, the collections Past Masters Vol. I and II are now combined as one title, for a total of 14 titles over 16 discs. This will mark the first time that the first four Beatles albums will be available in stereo in their entirety on compact disc. These 14 albums, along with a DVD collection of the documentaries, will also be available for purchase together in a stereo boxed set.
Within each CD's new packaging, booklets include detailed historical notes along with informative recording notes. With the exception of the Past Masters set, newly produced mini-documentaries on the making of each album, directed by Bob Smeaton, are included as QuickTime files on each album. The documentaries contain archival footage, rare photographs and never-before-heard studio chat from The Beatles, offering a unique and very personal insight into the studio atmosphere.
A few additional details. EMI has supplied some information about the mastering process itself (I assume this exists on the official Beatles site, but I found on Steve Marinucci's Fab-intensive Examiner blog). Good to know they're blowing dust off the tape heads between each song. Even more interesting is the discussion of audio restoration and noise reduction:
Transferring was a lengthy procedure done a track at a time. Although EMI tape does not suffer the oxide loss associated with some later analogue tapes, there was nevertheless a slight build up of dust, which was removed from the tape machine heads between each title.My hackles rose (quite a sight, by the way) at the part about microphone vocal pops. For the uninitiated, non-geek visitors to HOM: when a singer records in a studio, a thin sheet of nylon mesh is positioned in front of the microphone. This prevents plosive consonants like "P" and "B" from overloading the recording and causing distortion. Back in the glory days at EMI, the Beatles actually used a more substantial variety of screen: a curved rectangle of metallic mesh that was snapped right onto the microphone. And they mostly worked. That's why the "P" in "Sergeant Pepper" doesn't sound like a champagne cork exploding next to your ear. Now, I know the engineers supervising these remasters have the right, reverent attitude toward their source material. But the idea of muffling vocal pops and sibilance does raise some interesting questions about how much tinkering is permissible. Will the sharp intake of breath in "Girl" lose any of its agonized languor? I hope not.
From the onset, considerable thought was given to what audio restorative processes were going to be allowed. It was agreed that electrical clicks, microphone vocal pops, excessive sibilance and bad edits should be improved where possible, so long as it didn't impact on the original integrity of the songs.
In addition, de-noising technology, which is often associated with remastering, was to be used, but subtly and sparingly. Eventually, less than five of the 525 minutes of Beatles music was subjected to this process. Finally, as is common with today’s music, overall limiting--to increase the volume level of the CD--has been used, but on the stereo versions only. However, it was unanimously agreed that because of the importance of The Beatles' music, limiting would be used moderately, so as to retain the original dynamics of the recordings.
Finally: many fans will assume that this great leap forward will also open to the door to track-by-track sales of Beatles music at online stores. Apparently that's not the case. According to this piece by Robert Andrews at paidContent.org, the longstanding wrangles between EMI and the surviving Beatles about online sales have not yet been resolved. The issue seems to be, uh, money. Andrews does speculate about which format will eventually give Beatles fans the most bang for their buck when online distribution does get underway. In the end, however, this quibbling over compression formats is getting less relevant by the minute. The bad news for the Beatles--and for every other recording artist--is that once the remasters go on sale, FLAC versions will immediately pop up on torrent sites around the globe. Me, I want the fancy package and the legit discs, but I'm a little old-fashioned that way. Meanwhile, lossy formats like MP3 and AAC work just fine for anybody born after, say, 1987. There's no turning back the clock:
But the Rock Band project is clearly about more than just the game, and the harmony that broke out between EMI, Apple Corps and new game partner Harmonix for the game will have had an interesting side-effect. Producer Giles Martin, son of Beatles producer Sir George, had said the game will adhere to his father's original mixes. Tidied up with today's audio editing software for the game and now the CD reissue, they may also sound good enough to take advantage of modern, digital sound systems. Distributed online, however, the new high fidelity would be all lost as MP3 or AAC and would depend on high-quality FLAC files, still used only by audiophiles.
Monday, April 06, 2009
Scofield's good news
There were a couple of deviations from the gospel theme, most notably Hank Williams' "The Angel of Death," which the leader pronounced "the scariest song I've ever heard." It wasn't all that scary, to be honest, and it also seemed outside Cleary's comfort zone as a vocalist. But Scofield played an eloquent intro and some stabbing fills throughout, and was at the top of his game all evening. Most of his statements began with the blues, then branched out into trickier harmonic territory. Despite his level of drop-dead proficiency (which would probably give Leo Nocentelli nightmares), he never appeared to be phoning it in: the fireworks were genuine. And the crowd responded. The dance floor in front of the stage was packed with bobbing heads and swaying bodies, and even the hipster directly in front of me, with his shaved head and ironically clunky glasses, took off his jacket at one point and began some mild testifying. Can any performer ask for more?
Thursday, April 02, 2009
"[Celebrated Guardian editor] CP Scott would have warmly endorsed this--his well-known observation 'Comment is free but facts are sacred' is only 36 characters long," a spokesman said in a tweet that was itself only 135 characters long.Sigh. I set up a Twitter account myself the other day. I had no followers--isn't that the saddest statement you've ever heard?--and contented myself with a few brief bulletins about my mood, bathrobe, impending shave and shower, etc.
A mammoth project is also under way to rewrite the whole of the newspaper's archive, stretching back to 1821, in the form of tweets. Major stories already completed include "1832 Reform Act gives voting rights to one in five adult males yay!!!"; "OMG Hitler invades Poland, allies declare war see tinyurl.com/b5x6e for more"; and "JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?"
Elsewhere, Obit has posted a solid piece by Gigi Anders about the late, great Marvin Gaye, 25 years to the day after he was shot through the heart by his own father. She recounts his ascent at Motown--where he functioned as a kind of crown prince, having married Berry Gordy's sister, Anna--and his druggy, depressing splashdown in the early 1980s. Gaye did enjoy an interval of glory before the end. "Sexual Healing," which united the singer's erotic vocalise with some churchy harmonies, put him back on the charts. And when I saw him on his final tour, on July 9, 1983, he seemed to be relishing his return to the stage. Granted, he was performing at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, a vast steel-and-concrete shed with ringing, wretched acoustics. (The opening act, Ashford & Simpson, sounded like they were performing in an oil drum.) But his voice was in excellent shape, he obligingly dropped his drawers to moon the audience during "Sexual Healing," and when he pulled up a stool to sing a couple of hushed ballads, even that aircraft hangar of a venue took on a sweet intimacy. Anders includes a suave video of Gaye singing "What's Going On." I'll opt for this sweatier item from the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1980, with the singer pleading, crooning, shouting, and wheedling his way through "Let's Get It On." It doesn't get any better than this. Extra points for the Cholly-Atkins-style choreography by the background singers: