Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Space, measure, and markings

I  THINK OF space, measure, marks, and accent. Why? Partly because I live in this landscape: except when traveling, it is my everyday context. The lineaments and proportions of ridgeline, gradients, swales and hillocks; and the markings of windrows of cut grass, of cypresses and grapevines, mold and reinforce the way I see. And for that reason, perhaps, partly because that is how I seem to respond to what I read and hear. The other night, for example, we went to a production of an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Cinna. I don’t know Corneille well, that’s for sure; of his thirty-odd plays I think I’ve only seen L’Illusion comique, in an adaptation by Tony Kushner. (That was at the Pasadena company A Noise Within, which I support because it mounts productions of French repertory. Five years ago! I wrote about it here.)

I think you could refer to Corneille's plays as examples of French baroque, along with those of Jean Racine. When through with my summertime reading agenda I must turn to those two: as they pivot from the baroque toward Romanticism, reading them should nicely accompany the autumnal season.

I wanted to attend this production chiefly because it was accompanied by Lou Harrison's incidental music, composed in the late 1950s, when he too was thinking about the baroque, and had definitively left New York, and modernism, for a near-rural life in Aptos, California. I remember visiting him there in his cabin and seeing and hearing the tack-piano for which he scored Cinna, an upright piano with ordinary metal thumbtacks pushed into the hammer-felts, producing a sound reminiscent of the grand harpsichords on which Rameau's and Couperin's music is so glorious.

The piano was tuned in just intonation, based on today's concert "G," with, I think, an eleven-limit, meaning it was faithful to the acoustical overtone series up to the eleventh partial. Somewhere I have a recording of Lou playing one of the intermezzi of his Cinna on this instrument, and for a long time I thought that was all there was to it, three or four minutes of remarkably spacious animation, decorative, supple, sweet, and strong, like so much of Lou's music, and measured, like the sound of the narration at the opening of the Alan Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad, also a favorite of mine.

Corneille's Cinna is in the requisite five acts, respecting the classical unities of time and location, and Lou (I knew him well enough that it feels unnatural to refer to him in any other way) wrote in fact five pieces, each, I feel sure, intended as a prelude to the following act. But last week's production was an adaptation, in English, boiled down to about forty minutes, read by its adapter Larry Reed, who modified his voice slightly to distinguish the major characters. (Each of the five acts, presented without intermission, was preceded by its opening lines in the original French, a marvelously evocative way to mark off the dramatic structure.)

The "actors" were shadow-puppets — wire representations of faces, in profile, of those principles (Octavius Caesar Augustus, Livia, Cinna, Maximus, Emilia, and the lesser roles Fulvia, Evander, and Euphorbus), manipulated behind a scrim. Lou, I think, would have approved this; it recalls his later opera Young Caesar, originally intended for large-scale puppets; and somehow it reveals the subconscious affinity of the baroque, and especially I think the French baroque, with certain Asian theater.

Linda Burman-Hall played the tack piano, and gave a little talk before the performance, explaining the instrument and suggesting that the music was intended to be descriptive of the characters in the play. This could be, but I'm not so sure. I think Lou was primarily an abstractionist, and that his music is descriptive of qualities, not personalities, though perhaps this is what Burman-Hall meant. In any case she played splendidly. (Her recording of the music can be bought online at the inevitable Amazon.)

WHAT APPEALS TO ME in Cinna is its measure. The play is about a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, its discovery, and his forgiveness of the plotters who have proven their sincere remorse. As ever-helpful Wikipedia writes, "Corneille addresses the question of clemency and advocates an end to spiraling vengeance. His response is apologetic towards absolute power." He wrote, after all, largely with the indulgence of Louis XIV, during a time when social stability, if it were to be achieved, would depend on a stable structure itself dependent on a sustainable system of unequal social orders: Emperor or King, lesser nobles, clerics, merchants, peasants.

The social structure collapsed under the weight it built up at the top, through greed and the insistence on gloire, that majestic splendor which illuminates and radiates from absolute power, justifying it to the lower orders. In the mid-17th century France may have succeeded, for a few years, in maintaining the equilibrium; a century later of course it was crumbling toward the Bastille. (I wonder how all this will look a century hence.)

Lou's music itself is technically what is called "unmeasured," as I believe. (I haven't seen the score.) That's to say, it isn't barred off into regularly repeating "measures" of equal lengths, based on regular beats proceeding at a steady pace. This has always seemed a misleading terminology to me: the measure of the resulting music is felt by the performer, and expressed to the listener, in some other way than by the motor rhythms common to the music we mostly have in our consciousness (and even below that), whether it's "classical" concert music or commercial entertainment music.

Lou and his friend John Cage — they worked together for years — were greatly interested in this quality, which perhaps had something to do with the parallel historical development of abstraction in the visual arts. (And, to an extent, the literary ones: Gertrude Stein was the pioneer here, though I think perhaps even Proust is best read with measure in mind, more than narration.)

Their friend Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic of the New York Herald Tribune (where he hired Lou and John to turn in occasional concert reviews, always informative and entertaining), said that there were two kinds of (European-tradition) music, that based on song, which is vocal and strophic, and that based on dance, which is pedal and repetitive. Then came the 19th century and Romanticism and a third type, which he called spasmic, based on the movements of internal organs of one kind or another, mostly one in particular.

It's a cute summary and a useful one, but one result was the determination, by John and Lou, that it was high time for another approach to music, one that renders the listener tranquil — that is, in a non-self-absorbed state — and receptive to divine influences. And it's thence, I think, grows the concept of measureless music, music that requires the suspension of regular markings and events. Lou turned to the baroque — he'd earlier been much interested in early 18th-century Spanish music as known in the California missions — and John turned to purposeless abstraction reliant on chance procedures.

Of the historical events and processes I've known over the last sixty years and more I regret most, perhaps, the institutional neglect and contempt toward the procedures of the mid-20th-century avant garde. I lack John Cage's serenity in the face of that monumental social failure, and I have misgivings about Lou's apparent evasion, his withdrawal into gamelan. Apparent, I say, because I am certain within himself this was a perfectly successful adjustment to his position: but it is perhaps wrongly interpreted as an acceptance of and adaptive use of that quintessentially social and performative music, where I believe it was a recognition of a quality too easily unnoticed by the listener and even the performer: the spatial, long-measured structure enveloping the incessant (and to me distracting) motor-element of the beats.

Maybe it’s just the feeble complaint of an old man, but it seems to me we mostly lack an awareness of scale, an understanding of spaciousness, an appreciation of the long view, the big field. As societies and as individuals we lose ourselves in incessant nervous activity: we fidget. Of course fewer and fewer of us live among hills like mine; most of us are indoors most of the time, and the view out the window, when there is one, is likely to be the confining grids of rectilinear buildings across the straight and busy streets. John enjoyed it, serenely busy in his spare rooms above the noisy West Side. Virgil, that utterly urban francophile, seemed to take it for granted, basking in gloire.I can’t take it for long; it drives me nuts, as it did Lou.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary

Lindsey at the Erickson Gallery, Healdsburg
Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…

— Robert Browning: “Rabbi Ben Ezra”

We are the best: I mean
we have the best, the best that we can have.
Just now it’s difficult,
but it’s been a hell of a ride, you know,
asking for more at this point amounts to
greediness — or folly.

After those rainy months
there’s a hot time ahead;
let’s make the best of it right now and here.
Our long parallel lives
converge in the reward
of this endless family around us

and the work that we’ve done —
whether or not anyone not yet born
knows or cares about it
at least it has kept us
from tearing at one another’s throats, all
these full and pleasant years.

Calm times and turbulence,
it all comes down to that:
anger, lust, passion, long silent moments,
love is using the other to make sense
of what can have meaning
but doesn’t, otherwise.

That’s just how I see it.
I can have no idea
what you make of love, marriage, life and death.
There never was any alternative.
Now, contemplation is
about all I can give —

Before too long, I think,
one or another of us, maybe both,
takes that walk over the ridge, just to see
what it’s like over there.
Our selves will just dissolve,
We know, like long marriage,
The possibilities are endless now.

— Healdsburg, May 11, 2017

*The first half of the first of 32 stanzas and by far the most memorable. I recall my mother quoting them, often, for some reason, when I was still just a kid, who knows why. I think about them now on my 60th wedding anniversary.)

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Approaching Africa

Eastside Road, May 7, 2017—
Ilja Leonardo Pfeijffer: La Superba
  (tr. Michele Hutchison)
Albert Camus: L'Etranger
Kamel Daoud:
  The Meursault Investigation
  (tr. John Cullen)
MY WORLD HAS SUDDENLY and necessarily grown considerably larger by the introduction into the family of a fine man born and brought to maturity in Algeria, of all places. That is what happens when a beautiful and intelligent girl spends a year abroad, in Italy; and then you take her for a month to Venice; and then she decides to go to college in Rome. International Relations! a course of study; then a prescription.

I'm not complaining: her betrothed is an excellent man, a journalist and a translator; as a writer myself I can forgive his being an editor. The wedding is set for — well, as soon as our government allows him a visa: if not this year in this country, then I would bet in Italy, whose view of immigration, troubled as it is, is officially more generous than that of our present administration.

Recently, then, my reading has gravitated toward the question of African emigration to Europe. Thank Zeus Xenios for our extended (though in truth mostly European) family! Tom was visiting here three months ago from Netherlands, and told me I had to read Pfeijffer's novel La Superba, not only was it all the rage in the author's native Netherlands, not only was it truly a good read, but it was a description, as well, of the very city we'd visited with Tom's parents only a few months ago, Genoa, "La Superba," a city we'd long wanted to become familiar with.

Well, we didn't become familiars, goes without saying; Genoa turns out to be a historical and social complexity rivalling Venice, Naples, and Palermo. Which is one of the things La Superba is "about." Pfeijffer is apparently an expatriate there, having left a small country grown too familiar and too internationalized-thus-boring to satisfy his authorial needs. You can't tell whether his novel is a novel; it's clearly part memoir; he weaves his authorial presence into and out of the book in that manner, troubling to many of us elderly readers, that erases the distinction — to me it was always a false one — between fiction and non-fiction.

(The proof of the falsity of the distinction: there's no better word for the supposed antithesis of "fiction" than "non-fiction.")

I was put off, at first, elderly and prudish as I am, by much of the language and imagery in La Superba, which opens with the narrator's discovery of a human leg and the quick attachment he develops to it — not physical, not truly fetishistic, but certainly erotic in an intellectual way. Quickly, though, the narrative reaches out into those mysterious Genovese streets and piazzas ranging up the hill behind the waterfront, and a populace, unseen by day and largely even at night by a casual tourist, is convincingly revealed, a populace of drifters, expats, barmen, transvestites, and immigrants.

The writing is very beautiful even though continuously vernacular. (I read the book in English, of course; Hutchison's translation seems to me effortless.) Pfeijffer has been compared to Calvino, and his book to Dante's Inferno; but the book made me think also of narrative cartoons. It's very visual, and would make a lovely film if handled by, say, the people who made Les triplettes de Belleville. Structurally it's broken into three big, roughly equal-size chapters, divided by two shorter interludes.

One of these is the harrowing and completely persuasive, hence plausible accounts of one refugee's escape from his native Senegal to his eventual place in Genova. The parallel with refugees from Central America coming here is inescapable to an American reader, I think.

Pfeijffer is himself — or his narrator is; hard to tell the extent to which they're identical — an immigrant, though a legal one, given the Schenken agreement within the European Union. But one of the subtexts here is: is any immigration truly "legal"? Or, perhaps, isn't all emigration legal, since ours is a wandering species, and all Europeans are ultimately descended from Africans?

Beyond the moral issue of migration, of course, or rather this side of it, there's the economic issue. How are these people to make a living? Tom, the Netherlander who recommended the book to me, is an economist by profession, specializing in entrepreneurship: he must have enjoyed this layer of La Superba. They make a living, "these people," by selling roses to diners in restaurants, or themselves to tourists of a certain sort (or to one another), or occasionally by cadging a spare coin or two. Pfeijffer befriends a couple of "these people" enough to get their stories, sharing cafĂ© tables with them, ultimately becoming one of them — this is perhaps where the book becomes fiction — in his quest for the most beautiful girl in Genoa.

What you do not get, in reading this superb novel, is a sense of the locals, the Genovese, of Italians in general — they keep off these streets and piazzas. In Pfeijffer's world one's an immigrant, a tourist, or else part of the unseen normality that seems to have quite vanished.

La Superba is completely successful novel/journalism on many levels: a page-turner of a narrative, a fragrant evocation of place, a provocative query into overwhelming social and economic problems at the beginning of the 21st century, a statement of language and narrative structure perfectly at home with its antecedents (Joyce, Calvino, Swift).

The Meursault Investigation is none of those things. Its premise is fascinating: an account of the narrative central to Camus's L'Etranger from the point of view of "the Arab," told by a much younger brother of the man Camus's hero-antihero Meusault fatally shoots in his own novel. I was curious to read The Meursault Investigation, hoping it would give me some insight into the mentality of a people released from colonialism only to be hounded by a return to the authoritarianism of the ancient tradition European colonialism had worked so hard to erase.

I knew, though, that it would be useless to tackle The Meursault Investigation without having Camus fresh in mind. I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never read L'Etranger. I attempted it, sixty years ago and more, but my French was not up to it: and what I could understand, in the opening pages, was eclipsed buy the brittle brilliance of Camus's style.

But I downloaded a French-language edition of the book — its cover curiously giving the title as "L'Estranger" — and had at it, and discovered the book is so compellingly written, in such clear, limpid French, that with the useful help e-book reading offers in terms of glossing unknown words the story at least, and the profound moral and philosophical questions the story raises, were perfectly clear. Camus writes with Hemingway's pen, but Dostoevsky's soul and brain.

His book is straightforward: Meursault, a young single pied-noir (French ethnically born in France-colonized Algeria), bored with a mediocre life, falls into dubious company, allows himself out of boredom and inertia to pledge his honor to an act of revenge, kills an unnamed young Algerian who has pulled a knife on him (true enough: in an apparently unthreatening gesture), is imprisoned, tried, and sentenced.

Behind this narrative the book is "about" the equivalence of socially normal and heinous behavior given a colonialist context depending on social stratification, compounded by relentless heat, perhaps engendered by failed domestic life (the father is mysteriously absent, the mother inert), and not at all relieved by a religion whose basic assumptions are irrelevant.

Meursault's existential quandary cannot be resolved, which has led many to question the morality of Camus's book. His outlook reminds me of Wittgenstein's dictum: Of what we cannot know, of that we should not speak. But Chekhov isn't far away; you can imagine Meursault, if Russian, then Treplyov. But of course L'Etranger is French: rational, objective, phenomenological, it's well within a trajectory of literature more connected to Flaubert or Francis Ponge or the George Perec of Les Choses than it is to Dante or Dostoevsky.

Which brings me finally to The Meursault Investigation, a first novel significant for its place within post-novelistic literature and its introduction of a North African voice to its European audience. Alas, I could not get hold of a copy in French, but John Cullen's translation seems perfectly satisfactory; you can't think the prose style and the book's architecture depends on an essentially untranslatable linguistic style.

I had hoped Daoud would be using his novel to state an "Arab" view of Meursault's existential quandary, either refuting it thanks to some intellectual instrumentality foreign to the western European mentality or (perhaps more satisfyingly) reinforcing it through parallels or resonances resting on a Moslem sensibility. But this is not Daoud's intention.

Instead he focusses on the least interesting aspect of Camus's profound book: its top layer, its straightforward narrative of objectively verifiable details of plot and character. He gives us a counter-L'Etranger, told by the much younger brother of Meursault's nameless victim, resting on a similarly compromised relationship with his maman, punctuated by a similar acte gratuite whose philosophical usefulness is damaged by its undoubted political motivation.

Like L'Etranger, The Meursault Investigation is short and quickly read; unlike Camus, Daoud takes some time to hit his stride in the book. Through his narrator he admits he lacks the magical, precise evocation Camus is so famous for. (I seem to remember he blames this problem partly on the French language, native to Camus, learned, specifically in order to read L'Etranger, by Daoud's narrator.)

What is most fascinating about The Meursault Investigation is what it says about our present literary and political moment, so different from that of Camus. Daoud's book is materialistic, narrative (when it finally gets under way), filmic, and specific because bound to unchangeable injustices in the colonialistic past, where Camus's is meditative, evocative, theatrical, and — I think — universal in its implications. It's too bad, I suppose, to fault the new book for not having the older one's virtues; but the comparison is ultimately the point of The Meursault Investigation. I'm glad I read it, and I recommend it (though not without a recent reading of L'Etranger in mind); but it does not expand this reader's mind to further understanding of that of the postcolonial African. Maybe that's the point.