Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Pleasures and proprieties

 Epen, February 28, 2012—

THIS HAS BEEN a particularly nice stay, the last couple or three days in our beloved Netherlands — as always, I look forward to leaving woth regrets. A lot has to do with the company, our even more beloved Elfrings. A lot has to do with the pleasures of rambling, too: but those will continue another week or so, as we make our way toward Luxembourg.

But a lot has to do with The Netherlands, a country that never fails to impress me with its improbable marriage of pleasures and proprieties. I wrote yesterday of a poem found in a pasture: I tried to include a photo with that  but the WiFi here failed: the only little disappointment here.

We drove across the border yesterday to check out Aubel, a Belgian town I'd thought might make a good first stop on our projected walk. It had seemed nice on the Internet, but proved bleak and heavy on our visit. The Belgian architecture is heavy and dour by contrast with the Dutch, as if to emphasize a temperamental difference suggesting the Belgians are withdrawn and individualists, the Dutch more open and communitarian. 

Today we walked across the border to the town of Teuven, where we had lunch — borrelhapjes (bits of cheeses and sausages, dipped into mustars or syrup) and beer. this was pleasant enough, and artisinal too: I think our walk will have its pleasures, especially in the countryside.

Hill and dale is what it is here, the dales descending to quick-moving streams, almost narrow enough to jump but rivieren nonethless, the Geul and the Gulp, the latter giving Limburg its Gulpener beer. Cattle and sheep; chickens; cornfields later, perhaps. The first snowbells and crocus are well up, the mists are soft and bracing. Tomorrow we take a bus to Maastricht, then a train to Spa. No definitive plans beyond that other than to shoulder our packs and walk toward Luxembourg, and that's how I like it.

All we like grass…

Epen, February 28, 2012

On yesterday's ramble through the fields along the river Geul we came upon a poem engraved on a tablet set out in the pasture:


Mij, schaap, overkomt niets dan wat de herder wil,
wat het gras wil, de lucht,
wat de dam en de groene overkant.

En ik tors mijn wol mee of het verlies van wol,
en ik kijk vol overgave uit mijn
vochtige ogen. Ik ben gelukkig met wat ik heb.

De tijd verstrijkt als gras, door mij,
en elk verzet is hol. De bomen ruisen zinneloos.


Which I translate, with Google's help (or the other way round)


Me, sheep, nothing happens than what the shepherd wants
what the grass, the air,
what the dam and the green beyond.

And I my torso with wool or loss of wool,
and I look diligently from my
moist eyes. I'm happy with what I have.

Time passes like grass, through me,
and any opposition is hollow. The trees rustle senseless.

Such an intelligent, enlightened country, Netherlands…

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Monday, February 27, 2012

Dutch interior

Epen, Feb. 27,2012—

WE VISITED AN ACQUAINTANCE yesterday in her twostorey brick bungalow set among oaks, beeches, and birches in a semirural suburb of Eindhoven, where she has lived for over twenty years with her cat, her tastes, her enthusiasms, her regret for her witty, good-natured husband who died suddenly twelve or fifteen years ago…

Among her enthusiasms: running a series of readings by significant authors in many fields: fiction, poetry, history, science. Saturday our friends Hans and Anneke had gone to hear Dick Swaab discuss his Wij zijn ons brein: van baarmoeder tot Alzheimer (Uitgeverij Contact, Amsterdam 2010), and spent the night, and we had gone yesterday to meet them, and renew acquaintance with Mevrouw W.

What a fine, rather elegant, composed woman she is, and what a fine sensibility! Her home is beautifully curated, as Lindsey pointed out… in the entry hall, for example, a painting apparently from the Seventeenth century, a sober, handsome man looking out over your left shoulder, hangs above a low three-legged stool on which was centered a bowl of fragrant apples.

Directly as you enter the large, low-ceilinged main room, if you turn to look back, you see a fine white tapestry covered with those geometrical toches of primary colors that unmistakably announce Bart van der Leck. On the wall at the right a massive oak armoire, from the Eighteenth I'd guess, and looking northern, from Drente perhaps; nearby, hanging just a bit askew, a fine pendulum- clock probably from the same time and place.

The far side of the room is a series of floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to the garden, a lawn surrounded by borders, then the woods. At one end, a pond with a discreet fountain and dormant lily-pads. Curled up on the doormat just outside the door, tail carefully wrapping him, a black-and-grey tortoiseshell cat whose folded triangular ears make you think of Leck again, and sure enough, when you turn back in the hall to thank her for the visit, you catch sight of his signature painting of a folded-ear cat hanging in the upstairs hall.

One doesn't pay such a visit without accepting coffee and a little something. The coffee was enriched with Amaretto and topped with slagroom, sweetened whipped cream; alongside, a delicious white cake with buttercream filling.

Everything here was in its place, and every place was right. This is a life, you sense, that isn't distracted by irrelevancies, or by things that don't count for something, don't hold their place and give their weight to a continuing conversation, among books, furnishings, paintings, friends, memories, and of course the cat; a conversation that fills the time, investigates questions that may arise, entertains its participants, and keeps that devil boredom out the door.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Heureusement, je fume"

Puiflijk, February 26—

 I QUIT SMOKING in 1968, after sixteen years of mostly pipe-smoking. It wasn't too hard, though I'd been a serious smoker, the equivalent of a pack a day. The pipe was a great pleasure, partly for all the accoutrements, partly for the physical pleasures of manipulating pipes, pouches, lighters, cleaning-spoons and the like, partky of course for the glorious taste and smell of the tobacco itself. Over the years I'd graduated from the cheap rustic satisfaction of the Grainger brand, rather a bland but edgy Pale Virginia leaf, to the deep rich 796B, blended to my own specification, with lots of Latakia, by the venerable Berkeley firm Druquer's, of fond memory.

In 1968 Anthony Boucher died. He was a magnificent man, a fine writer of mysteries ans fantasy, a specialist in pornography, canon law, and liqueurs which he used to study on annual cruises to Europe and back on the ols steamer lines. I knew him only slightly: he'd produced programs on opera and  mysteries for KPFA, where I was music director; and he joined John Rockwell and me on critics' panels there and, later, at KQED, where I helped produce another such weekly round-up, Culture Gulch. I'd admired him for years, and was saddened by his final months, and I'd visited him in hospital, where the shock of his greatly altered appearance, lessened and divested of his usual regality (amiable, though), revealed the ravages of lung cancer, making it much easier for me to quit smoking.

Other strategies helped. I took up a more serious attitde toward drinking. I enjoyed a subtler sense of taste. I promised myself I'd resume smoking, if I wan ed to, on my fiftieth birthday, which was only seventeen years off. Oh: and I was thinking of my wife and kids, whose life would be made more pleasant without ashtrays and smoke, not to mentiion the money saved. And I made a pact with my oldest daughter: if she stopped biting her nails, I would give up smoking.

So I did, cold turkey. Since then I've only smoked once, twenty years ago I think, an after-dinner cigar, a very good one I was promised, at the very soigné wedding of a couple of acquaintances, held at Francis Ford Coppola's estate, hardly a routine drop-in on our calendar. The cigar left me pale and queasy and I abandoned it halfway in.

Until last night, when Erik brought out a box of cigars after dinner, and Krijn tempted me to join them, telling an anecdote involving a tobacconist in Den Haag, who knew how to set broken merchandise aside for his own later delectation…

I thought of something I'd read in the airplane a couple of days ago, an appreciation of the pleasures of tobacco, la pipe, by Stéphane Mallarmé:

 Jetées les cigarettes avec toutes les joies enfantines de l'été dans le passé qu'illuminent les feuilles bleues de soleil, les mousselines et reprise ma grave pipe par un homme sérieux qui veut fumer longtemps sans se déranger, afin de mieux travailler…

And when Erik responded to my regretful demurral that an entire cigar would be far too much for me to attempt — really an excuse more than a demurral — by offering instead a miniature cigar, from P.G.C. Hajenius, in Amsterdam — and I reflected that after all the Dutch had been aficionados of and expert in tobacco for centuries — i gave in, held the tip of my cigarillo over the candle-flame a few moments, and drew in a half-mouthful of calming after-dinner solace, as my grandfather had done the last eighteen thousand evenings, give or take, of his long life.

I thought of my oboe teacher, if I may call a man I've visited only twice such an intimate, who'd advised me to smoke if I were to dry my mouth in order to play the thing more comfortably: aha: perhaps that's why Nelson, excellent horn player, had become such an adept of the pipe. I remembered how to roll the smoke around in my mouth, tonguing it as a dog noses sheep through the fold, and I practiced taking smaller amounts, so as neither to cough nor to inhale it into the lungs. 

It's more complicated than it looks, smoking — many seemingly automatic activities are, even the pleasurable ones. I recalled my beother, whose cigarette pack had yielded up a critically needed but if tinfoil at a moment when, stranded in an isolates village on an outer island in French Polynesia with a blown fuse on our rented motor-scooter, suddenly and surprisingly providing an inspired comment as I recounted the adventure to oue hotelkeeper:

Heureusement, je fume. Happily, I smoke.

Fortunately, I no longer do: but I'm glad to have been reminded of the pleasures…

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Back on the long road…

In flight, February 23, 2011—

THIRTY IN THE New World, including two in Baja California. Twenty-six, I think, in Europe; seven in the Pacific.  That makes sixty-three airports flown into or out of so far. I mention it partly because others have made comments that might be interpreted as suggesting we travel rather easily, ma douce femme and I: and in fact I've lost count of the transatlantic crossings, which I used to tot up in my mind on each lift-off toward Europe.  1973, '74, '76, '77, '80… lost in antiquity. 


 This trip is more ragged than most. I mean, the itinerary is ragged, improvised and imprėvu, unlike others we've taken. As I grow older I want more and more to do everything: recapitulate earlier experiences for myself; share them with others; find new experiences. So today we fly to Amsterdam, there to join old friends at a favorite restaurant; then we spend a few days in a less-familiar quarter in a very familiar land (my second home, in fact, Nederland); then we walk for I hope nine days across unfamiliar country… 


 We have one checked bag, which I will carry on my back, as I did four years ago across the Alps; and one carry-on, which Lindsey will carry on hers, as we have done often before. They will take us through the next two weeks.  At that point we rent a car, and perhaps accumulate more baggage. I rather hope not.  Along the way we visit our extended family: our Dutch siblings and their children and their children's now and former wives; our Swedish-Luxembourgish daughter and her three children, our French daughter and her husband and daughter. 


All these people — twenty or so — we think of as family, very nearly as close as our own blood: but, like our direct blood relatives, as dear friends also, people whose lives, experiences, interrelationships, enthusiasms, achievements, pleasures and occasional sorrows shade and illuminate our own, and those of our immediate family, and the close friends — not so many!— they have not yet encountered. 


 I find these last few months that these things matter more and more. A walk taken the other day with Oldest Daughter and a friend of hers — close friend of hers, more occasional friend of mine —  was strangely moving: nine miles altogether up two thousand feet, then back again, in chaparral on old lava country, putting me in mind of Provence and Corsica, though we were hardly an hour from home, near Calistoga. 


The silence of such hours, when shared with friends and family, overrides the ego's noise. I merge into the landscape, that eternal context I was born from: it was a mistake ever to have tried to set it aside, to make my way without it. It will win in the end, when I melt back into it, physically, as emotionally now I merge into the collective life of all these friends I contemplate. 


I've outlived my mother now by a couple of years. I used to wonder why she traveled so much, in her retirement: China, Australia, the trans-Siberian railroad and the Silk Road, Peru, the Nile… I thought she must be distracting herself from her usual daily life on these voyages to exotic places, hoping perhaps to shake mortality off the trail. I see now I was dead wrong: she was traveling into herself, back into her real state of relationship to Life and Being. At such extended moments, I think, we live most fully, because least wilfully. We are more than usually authentic, at home with ourselves and with our setting, and learning, perhaps, to be away from our selves.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

St. Valentine's Day

My Valentine, on her 76th birthday in Venice
(photo: Francesca Źivny)
Eastside Road, February 14, 2012—
I DON'T CARE what Pope Paul VI says, I like St. Valentine's Day.

He took it off the general calendar back in the 1960s, complaining that, after all, nothing was known about any of the two or three Saints Valentinus, or their doings, or any of that. Typical of the administration of the Catholic Church, to care more about an abstract authenticity of origin than the events and experiences of daily life and lives that contribute to the greater reality of immediate meaning.

The first poem written to mark Feb. 14, I read this morning, was by Charles (!), duke of Orleans:
Je suis desja d'amour tanné,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené
M'a de vous, pour toute l'année.
Je suis desja, etc.
Ma tres doulce, etc.

alas he wrote from The Tower, imprisoned by the dastardly Brits after Being taken at Agincourt.
I am already sick of love,
My very gentle Valentine,
Since for me you were born too soon,
And I for you was born too late.
God forgives he who has estranged
Me from you for the whole year.
I am already, etc.
My very gentle, etc.

The source for all this is, of course, Wikipedia, which also says it was Chaucer, Brit of blessed memory, who first popularized St. Valentine's Day through a reference in his Parliament of Birds. I begin to note stirrings of amour among birds hereabouts, and I'm ready; I've cleaned out the bluebird houses…

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Great Gatsby

Marco Pannucio, Susannah Biller, Julienne Walker, Jason Detw.jpg
Marco Pannucio (Gatsby), Susannah Biller (Daisy), Julienne Walker (Jordan), Jason Detweiler (Nick), Daniel Snyder (Tom)

(photo: Steve DiBartolomeo)

LET'S STIPULATE AT THE OUTSET: a novel is one thing, an opera quite another. This observation is irrelevant to comments on one or the other, but not to the subject at hand, for in my opinion the most absorbing thing about last night's performance of John Harbison's opera on F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was precisely that: the adaptation of a great novel to the lyric stage. And the adaptation was entirely Harbison's, as I understand it: scenario, libretto, and music all conceived and executed by a single mind.

Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to an edition* of Fitzgerald's three great mature novels (Tender is the Night and The Last Tycoon being the other two), suggests the method Harbison uses in his adaptation when he notes that
Each chapter consists of one or more dramatic scenes, sometimes with intervening passages of straight narration. The "scenic" method is one that Vitzgerald probably learned from Edith Wharton, who him turn learned it from Henry James…
Harbison makes a very straightforward compression of the novel, choosing pivotal scenes for (mostly) ensemble portrayals and linking them with orchestral interludes whose dual purpose it is to move the action (often literally, by car, driving from Long Island to Manhattan) and to "portray," through instrumental music, an emotional response to Fitzgerald's novelistic purpose.

Two problems immediately arise here. One is general, and is suggested in those scare quotes around "portray": can instrumental music suggest the profundity and the vague richness of emotional and (dare I say) philosophical speculation of the kind The Great Gatsby attains? Only, I think, when said music can borrow the already present allusiveness audiences find in musical genres whose language and literature they are familiar with, and only when the music itself is composed with a masterly consistency of style and technique. It's not Harbison's fault that these qualities are lacking at the present cultural moment: and it's certainly possible that his opera will be able to draw on them in some future.

The other problem is specific to The Great Gatsby, which Cowley goes on to put
in the Jamesian tradition… having the story told by a single observer, who stands somewhat apart from the action and whose vision "frames" it for the reader. In this case the observer plays a special role. Although Nick Carraway doesn't save or ruin Gatsby, his personality in itself provides an essential comment on all the other characters.
In the novel, Cowley suggests, "Nick stands for the older values that prevailed in the Middle West before the First World War"; the other characters "belong to their own brief era of confused and dissolving standards". Cowley's is an economist's construction of the novel; his introduction also deals with Fitzgerald's essentially straightforward relationship to money, and to Marxian positions on literary criticism. But economics is more than money and social class: it's a system of discussing value and "values" in more general and more pervasive terms than those centered merely on lucre.

And the success of Fitzgerald's novel, to me at least, is its way of propelling its surface brilliance and fascination — the brittle seductive opulence of its drives and desires — with an engine whose power is generated through the weight, the mass of entire generational and geocultural forces. One deft comment of Nick Carraway's, omitted from Harbison's opera, sums this up for me: he describes Jordan Baker taking a seat at the dinner table as if she were getting into bed. You don't know what this means, exactly, but you see it happen. The line makes you think of Noël Coward; it precisely defines the irony of Fitzgerald's style.

I think this important, as it distinguishes Fitzgerald from James, moves The Great Gatsby away from "the Jamesian tradition", whose complexity had threatened the utility of prose fiction as social commentary. The Great Gatsby is in the Austen-Flaubert-Chekhov tradition: "scenic," but ironic. It is for us twentieth-century Americans what Madame Bovary was for the late nineteenth-century French; it reveals the lassitude and debility and, finally, tragedy that follows a nation's lapse from those traditional values — call them moral if you like — that focus a community on practical means of meeting communal dangers.

It may be pointed out that an opera is after all only a night in a theater, singing and staging; one doesn't go to an opera for a disquisition on social or moral or economic justice. There are exceptions, of course; Le nozze di Figaro comes to mind: but it's never fair to mention Mozart in such a discussion; he's always the great exception proving the rule.

But the brooding, almost Wagnerian qualities of much of Harbison's writing in the orchestral interludes makes me suspect their "portrayals" reach toward these kinds of concerns. And among the most powerful of the purely instrumental pages in the score are those in the final interlude, "Day Through Night," moving toward Gatsby's funeral; and those in the epilogue, which finds Nick Carraway gazing out across the water toward the Buchanans's green light, contemplatively singing the magnificent final sentence of the novel, which completely seals the interpretation of The Great Gatsby as much more than a story of love, adultery, superciliousness, inevitable tragedy.
Harbison's vocal music persuades me less. The opera is high-pitched, and among the least convincing music is that for Daisy and Jordan — especially their duet (soon set within a quintet) expressing their reaction to the stifling summer heat. It's not just that the words, whether Fitzgerald's or Harbison's, get lost in the high tessitura: it's that the melodic contours follow some incomprehensible directive, neither tonal nor not, perhaps meant to express the result of the mind-numbing heat, but unfortunately not ultimately engaging this pair of ears.

I mentioned Wagner earlier: much of the opera's score lacks air, crispness, definition. "Endless melody" no longer convinces me of deep or distant vision; perhaps it never did. The lack of clear key relationships, of sections distinguishable from one another by key, tempo, and instrumentation, encourages this listener's mind to wander, and that's a danger when there are so many things in the otherwise faithful adaptation of this great book to contemplate.

I have no complaints about the reorchestration of Harbison's score, reduced by Jacques Desjardins from the original large orchestra with winds in threes to a smaller but still considerable one with pairs of woodwinds and French horns, single brass, and reduced strings. I've never heard this opera before; I don't know if other musical adaptation was involved. The style of the onstage dance orchestra seemed perfectly authentic to the period (the Roaring Twenties, of course).

Nicole Paiement conducted with the precision, the attention to detail, and the grip on the long line that I've come to expect from her. I've heard her conduct operas now by Lou Harrison, Philip Glass, and Virgil Thomson: in every case she works for the composer, not imposing interpretation but respecting the composer's style. Her orchestra played well.

Matthew Antaky's physical production was quite effective, with Austin Forbord's mood- and place-setting rear projections of still and moving images of the water and the iconic Valley of Ashes — how many today realize the extent of ash-heaps in the coal-burning time of steam heat and transportation? — and effective suggestions of opulence conveyed through careful lighting, colors, and properties. Christine Cook's costumes were elegant, evocative, and character-defining.

I liked Brian Staufenbiel's directing, too. Each character, with the possible exception of Meyer Wolfshiem, seemed to have stepped out from the pages of the novel, fully fleshed out, with complex pasts and present needs; and all of them, even Tom Buchanan, were ultimately sympathetic. The party scenes were handled well for the most part; much of Tom Segal's choreography seemed deft and authentic, though long freezes and slow motion in backgrounds sometimes made longer soliloquies awkward: the intimacy available only in large crowds, which Daisy (or was it Jordan) mentions at one point, wasn't always at hand when needed.

You see the principal cast in the photo above: all sang well, I thought, on pitch, clearly when tessitura allowed, and acted well, both individually and in relationship to one another: this seemed like a well-prepared, well-rehearsed repertory production.

*Three Novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby; Tender is the Night; The Last Tycoon. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953
  • The Great Gatsby: opera by John Harbison, after the novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ensemble Parallèle Opera, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; Feb. 10-12, 2012