Saturday, November 12, 2016

The irate middle class

A few days ago it seemed the people of the world were, at least for several hours, shocked by the election of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. This followed a drawn out campaign of isolationist and nationalist rhetoric: making America great again was the catch-cry.  

But this is not unfamiliar territory. Writing from Hamburg in January 1924, Joseph Roth wrote - in one of his short articles for the Prager Tagblatt - "Die völkische Propaganda wird in positivem Sinne begünstigt durch die Nachgiebigkeit auch des erregten Bürgertums, dem man die Neigung zu so phantastischer Lächerlichkeit nicht zugetraut hätte."

Michael Hofmann translates this as "Nationalist propaganda appeals to the irate middle class, which one wouldn't have thought so absurdly susceptible."

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Alla Marcia

Marches are rousing. That's why you'll find them in or under all manner of stirring music, even in an anthem to love such as Brel's Quand on n'a que l'amour.

And that's why – after chancing upon Lang Lang's recorded rendition of Rachmaninov's G minor Prelude, Op.23 No.5 – I was dumbfounded by the slowness and apparently insane rubato of his performance. The composer's direction is clearly Alla marcia – which I can only imagine Lang Lang has interpreted as a dedication to a woman called Marcia – as there is no way no how that anyone could march to the music he is playing. Lang Lang's version is a leisurely amble with apparently many distractions and delays en route; all forward motion is suspended in bar 23. The slow middle section is painfully schmaltzy and kitsched-up, lacking in lyricism but peppered with random dynamic effects.
Bar 23

How should it be played? Let's look at a few Russians.

Ashkenazy plays a good steady march with a delicate touch, and the melody of the central lyrical section sings with phrasing as light and natural as human breath.

Gilels (note to self: the stress is on the first syllable and the second L is soft, it's one of those names that we somehow get all wrong, like Mussorgsky - again the stress is on the first syllable) ... Gilels flies along at more than a quick-step, it is so fast it seems as if he can only resort to flinging his hands at the keyboard and somehow manages to strike the right notes. It is in the central section that his playing is truly magical where the music flows like water in a brook.

But if you want a march – and both I and the composer do – then listen to Richter. He plays a strong quickish march with his accustomed muscularity and rhythmic clarity, and not a soldier falls out of step, and the tempo is astoundingly maintained through all the dramatic complexities. The lyrical section also has something of Gilels' watery lightness. A wonderful version.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Cheap materials

Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave opens with a reasonable declaration: “The more books we read, the sooner we perceive that the true function of a writer is to produce a masterpiece and that no other task is of any consequence.” This is Connolly’s self-talk against dissipating his energies in literary journalism, criticism, broadcasting, and the like. But it doesn’t go anywhere towards considering how a masterpiece is to be created. For most writers, wouldn’t there be something a bit paralysing about sitting down to create with the imperative of “create a masterpiece” hanging overhead?

If a writer’s task is to produce a masterpiece, and if the production of masterpieces is unlikely to pay the bills, at least in the short term, then the writer needs to earn money through other occupations. Connolly’s sentiment leads us to think that non-literary occupations might be preferable, but on the next page we read: “We cannot think if we have no time to read, or feel if we are emotionally exhausted, or out of cheap materials create what will last.” One marked advantage of some literary (or para-literary) occupation is that it does afford one time to read.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Happy Otherwise: 1869

Prince Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, and Marya Nikolayevna Bolkonskaya — each from different novels published in 1869 — and each drawn as spiritual characters —the first holy and the second religious — express the thought that happiness for them must lie elsewhere than in the conventional happiness of romantic love.

Мое призвание другое, -- думала про себя  княжна Марья, мое  призвание -- быть счастливой  другим  счастием, счастием любви и самопожертвования.

“My calling is different - Princess Marya thought to herself, “my calling is to be happy with a different happiness, the happiness of love and self-sacrifice.”

Myshkin when asked whether he had in Switzerland been in love: "я... был счастлив иначе" ... "I ... was happy in a different way".

Lev Nikolayevich is of course not only the name of the character in Dostoevsky's novel, but also the name of the author of the second novel.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

How nice it is to go struggling and grasping for things

Giotto: Expulsion of the Money-Changers
In an article contributed to Art Futures (2010) Bernard Stiegler summarizes Marx's view of labour ... "With general proletarianisation, human knowledge is short-circuited as a result of its technological reproduction and implementation," and then sets out how consumerism takes the disenfranchisement to another level: "In the consumerist model it is not only the know-how (savoir-faire) of workers that becomes obsolete, but also the knowledge of how to live (savoir-vivre) of citizens, who thus become as such mere consumers a good consumer is both utterly passive and irresponsible."

"Consumerism tries to bind consumers and make them submit by producing dependence, that is, addiction". But we have been in this bind a long time. In his 1909 book Jakob von Gunten, Robert Walser observes: "Man hat es hier allgemein eilig, weil man jeden Augenblick der Meinung ist, es sei hübsch, etwas erkämpfen und erhaschen zu gehen. " ...  "There is such a general hurry here because people think every moment how nice it is to go struggling and grasping for things."

Friday, April 24, 2015

The ruffian world

"Ich werde als alter Mann junge, selbstbewußte, schlecht erzogene Grobiane bedienen müssen, oder ich werde betteln, oder ich werde zugrunde gehen." – Robert Walser, in Jakob von Gunten, Ein Tagebuch ... "As an old man I shall have to serve young and confident and badly-educated ruffians, or I shall be a beggar, or I shall perish." (Christopher Middleton's translation).

Walser's body was found in the snow on Christmas Day 1956, the year after his book Der Spaziergang had been translated into English by Middleton. Walser had been reported missing from a nearby asylum; he was 78 years old.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The missing epigraph

The German edition of the Sebald's Die Ringe des Saturn bears three epigraphs, only two of which survive into the English edition. The epigraph missing in action is a quotation from Milton - "Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably" - which is strangely misattributed to Paradise Lost. Given that there is no way this sentence can be fitted into the metric scheme of Milton's poem, it is - one would think - quite obvious that the attribution is wrong.  As often with Sebald, many questions are raised: was the misattribution deliberate? Why? And why was it omitted from the English version? One plausible explanation is that the translator, Michael Hulse, pointed out the error, and Sebald decided to drop it entirely, perhaps thinking that the echoes of the words "Paradise Lost" were crucial to the aimed at effect. Here I am also reminded of how Sebald in Logis in einem Landhaus (A Place in the Country) holds up Johann Peter Hebel's poem in which the burnt cinder of a destroyed earth is viewed from space, just as the boy returning home at night with his father asks if their home with its bright windows will one day be a ruin like the old castle. And in the same vein is the cumulative plangent sense of loss that permeates Die Ausgewanderten (The Emigrants).

The mis-cited Milton quotation is actually from The Areopagitica, and its full context is:

On the importance of even wrong ideas
Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil.