Moles

Moles

When he was a child, his parents’ property in Ussy was adjacent to Samuel Beckett’s. Nothing amused him more than tossing moles over the wall into the writer’s yard. If he is to be believed, this was even his chief source of entertainment. Perhaps his only source of entertainment. Today, he takes pride in this prior proximity, and he boasts of his childish games. In fact, he never shuts up about them.

“When I was a child, we lived next to Samuel Beckett in Ussy. I had a great time chucking moles into his yard.”

It’s not hard to believe him. He’s a sly-eyed guy with ugly teeth. He teaches electronics at Désiré Nisard High. He likes his job. He claims he gets along well with his students. But mostly what we notice are his skin problems, those red patches on his hands and face, the
desquamation, the scabs.

“Chronic eczema. A rare, complicated form. I put ointment on it.”

Who asked him? Beckett—that’s what interests us. This man lived next door to Beckett, for Christ’s sake. What memories does he have of him?

“I used to pitch moles into his yard when I was a kid.”

So. Here’s a man who lived next door to Beckett for several years and he has nothing better to tell us about that fact than he tossed moles into Beckett’s yard, over the wall, for fun?

“I would smoke them out of their tunnels. They would come above ground, stunned, zigzagging blindly. Christ, a mole in the sun is so stupid. I’d whack them with a shovel without killing them.”

Then he would toss them over the wall, to Beckett’s; we get the picture. Basically, this bonehead of a brat harassed one of the great geniuses of his century. And today he doesn’t seem ashamed of this. That, perhaps, is what is most perturbing. Because the way he tells it, he was bombarding Beckett’s yard with moles. And the moles destroyed Beckett’s yard. And this, no doubt, distressed Beckett.

We are in the presence of someone who deliberately caused Beckett harm and who is bragging about it to this day. And he’s telling us all this because he knows we love literature and we love Beckett. Does he want to impress us with his story? Arouse our jealousy, elicit our admiration perhaps? Like someone who would brag about having cultivated a special relationship with Beckett?

“I knew Beckett well. I even tossed moles into his yard.”

He is the only person who can say such a thing. Who else could?

Not a soul, not even Beckett’s closest friends had this type of relationship with him.

“Only me.”

 

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A Hard Blow for Europe: on Florian Zeller’s <i>Pleasure</i>

A Hard Blow for Europe: on Florian Zeller’s Pleasure

It can be risky for a young writer to expose himself or herself to the influence of a master. Doing so is like exposing oneself to x-rays: beneficial at first, helpful as a tool of self-knowledge, it offers a sound training in boldness and radicalism. It burns away fatty layers of voracious, careless, maladjusted post-adolescent reading. And then it keeps burning, destroying immune defenses, attacking the bone. The master’s influence eventually reduces the disciple to ashes. His or her books will henceforth be but pale, grimacing shadows of the oeuvre that inspired them.

In any case, important writers have no truck with the apes who would ape them; they have no desire to see, in these cross-eyed mirrors, their faces reconstituted in flyspeck. The true master teaches liberty, and thus solitude: he chases us out of his orbit the day we become of age. He has marked out a territory where everything has been said, where we can do no better than to trample his flowerbeds.

All of this is what Florian Zeller seems to have failed to understand and consider. His new novel, Pleasure, visibly reflects an ambition to add to the bibliography of Milan Kundera: alas, an unreasonable and desperate ambition. Everything is present, however, more or less: short chapters alternating episodes in a sentimental story of variable geometry with sociopolitical musings on the zeitgeist; a lexicographer’s attention for certain revealing terms carefully embroidered in italics on the page (here, for instance, contradiction and negotiation); the ambiguous posture of a narrator who intervenes from time to time to comment on the situation; and sex, again, as both impetus and telos of even the smallest acts. Of course, it would be naive to reduce Kundera’s work to such a list, but this is quite precisely what Florian Zeller has done. One can almost see him cracking eggs and pouring flour into his mixing bowl, tongue between his teeth, squinting at The Book of Laughter and Forgetting as one would consult a cookbook.

Result: a book to laugh at and then forget, an undercooked Kundera that is not nourishing but still sits heavy in the gut. Comparison against the original is brutal for this gauche, immature story: another steer sinking into the pond in a vain effort to pass itself off as having the sinewy, shapely legs of the frog.

 

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An Impeccable Feast: on Marie NDiaye’s <i>A Cook’s Novel</i>

An Impeccable Feast: on Marie NDiaye’s A Cook’s Novel

“But what’s the word for a male florist?” my eight-year-old daughter asks. I know that terms like authoress and woman of letters are no longer irregularities in terms of vocabulary, but in terms of judgment? Hard to say. It’s amusing to see, in a Larousse dictionary from the nineteenth century (1866–1879), the following entry: “AUTRICE: Bygone feminine form, now obsolete, of the word auteur.” But there remain so many injustices, so many inequalities, that our sensitivity around the issue is deservedly deep and unforgiving. Gender is no laughing matter, not even for us Frogs (this being the feminine derivation of frogman, naturally). And a lady chef? There is no word for her in French other than cheftaine: not the most appetizing option, but then we all must play the chards we’ve dealt for ourselves. The Swiss and the Québécois have opted for cheffe. Marie NDiaye does too, in A Cook’s Novel [La Cheffe].

And for good reason. Cheffe is a perfectly acceptable word, pleasing to the eye and ear as much as it is to our sense of parity. It applies perfectly to Marie NDiaye herself, who has written so many fine books. After Three Strong Women (winner of the Prix Goncourt in 2009) and Ladivine, she offers us another portrait of a woman comfortable in her own skin, in that hypnotic prose that stalks and surrounds its subject as though hypnotizing it, then swoops down and spears it with one or two impeccably chosen epithets. The adjective is the chiseled tip of Marie NDiaye’s slow, majestic language: recall those “hard, efficient mirrors” of Ladivine. It’s a language that moves like an eagle, a shark, a cobra—circling its prey and then striking, suddenly and without error.  

 

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Exhausting the Form: A Conversation with Éric Chevillard

Exhausting the Form: A Conversation with Éric Chevillard

PJ: Do you still have the ambition to write Flaubert’s quintessential “book about nothing”?

EC: That’s quite an abstract notion, almost incomprehensible the more I think about it… but I do have to keep busy somehow. Perhaps what I’m really drawn to is a book about everything. What breaks my heart, in any case, is the novelist who knows his subject to the letter, who discusses it without ever surpassing it (except the tip of his tongue visible between his lips as he labors over his coloring book), who keeps piously to the topic at hand and never allows himself go astray. It’s a narrow and, frankly, miserly view of literature. It’s calling in quantity surveyors and weights-and-measures specialists and the police and the army to maintain order in a space where the whole point is the fertile chaos of disorder, where everything can be made up, especially that which doesn’t make sense, so long as the sentences hold together. To write is to take hold of oneself and to take hold of the things that make up the world.

PJ: What is it about clichés that’s so interesting to you?

EC: Our representations of the world are fixed within them, encased as in cement. But you point a finger at them and your fingernail makes them shatter. A cliché isn’t much different from its proverbial formulation: it’s just words clumped together, held in place by some kind of glue. And it’s possible to melt that glue, to disassemble the proverb, to emancipate the thought from its detainment by these readymade sentences. Literature, being a great purveyor of clichés, needs to pillory itself from time to time—and to keep the snake from biting its tail or the scorpion from stinging itself, we pit the snake and the scorpion against one another.  

 

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Final Bouquet

Final Bouquet

A writer who does not perceive his surroundings and human existence in a significantly different way from the majority of his contemporaries can still try to give his language the appearance of originality, he can even write experimental poetry if he enjoys the role of avant-gardist. But a style of one’s own is as unmistakable as a fingerprint; the poet, his person, the whole of his thought and emotions are suspended in it.

I remember when, having just become acquainted with Éric Chevillard and his literature, I encountered the idea in one of his early books that a cock had laid a church there. I looked at the weathercock sitting high up on the church steeple and was startled and touched: was the thought not obvious? Except that it had occurred neither to me nor to anyone else.

About twenty years later I walked with Éric Chevillard through Stuttgart’s pedestrian precinct and past the bust of Schubert. “Amazing that that man could have been such a good pianist,” Éric said. I looked first at him and then at Schubert, who was wedged shoulders down in his stone pedestal.

Still it was not the armless Schubert but Hegel’s voluminous cap, which we had previously seen behind glass in the museum, that found its way into Chevillard’s diary. Presumably the abundance of thoughts and observations springing from the author’s head is simply too great all to be made into literature. Of the intellectual and linguistic fireworks going off in his head, apparently all by themselves, the reader gets to see only those worth of a bouquet final.  

 

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Honoring Unsuk Chin

Honoring Unsuk Chin

The textures of her most recent compositional inventions and musical settings are startling, and create the impression of shimmering, drifting and floating, of glittering and sliding. But it also knows the other zones, the ones that are dark and deep, as well as the insistent probing and poking into areas of discomfort. Behind a brilliant, often entrancingly beautiful façade, the abyss always shows through. In that area of tension between eastern and western traditions she has found her own, unmistakeable language, which I feel to be contemporary and timely, but which also has the timelessness of that art that has freed itself from trends, fashions, and concessions to any particular tastes of the present day.

 

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Notes on <i>Cantatrix Sopranica</i> for two sopranos, countertenor, and ensemble

Notes on Cantatrix Sopranica for two sopranos, countertenor, and ensemble

I’m not particularly keen on setting poems that convey concrete content or emotions. Music and literature are highly autonomous “languages” which often get in each other’s way. The advantage of the combinations of experimental poetry is, to my eyes (and ears) not only its lack of concrete meaning and “messages,” but above all its proximity to compositional methods. A “boule de neige,” one might say (a text continuously growing on the snowball principle from a small “protosemantic” cell, which varies its meaning, chameleon-like, as it grows), is already inherently a musical process through the “fanning out” of sound material in the course of time. Another thing that connects me to these word-artists is the self-referentiality of their linguistic goals, but also the humor and irony of their creations. Apart from the Boule de neige (movement four) by Harry Mathews, I do not use any other texts by Oulipiens. Four of the eight texts I developed myself during the compositional process. The second movement was based on an idea by Gertrude Stein; the fifth is a treatment, translated into Italian, of a poem from the Phantasus-Zyklus (1898-99) by the Berlin poet Arno Holz (who anticipated certain avant-gardisms of the twentieth century); and the sixth is based on Li Bai’s poem from the Tang Dynasty (7th10th century), although it was used less on a semantic than on a sonic level.

Cantatrix Sopranica is a self-referential piece, on many different levels: on the one hand, its content is about singing itself (above all in movements one, two, five, and eight), the specific qualities of singers, their tricks and tics from vocal exercises to their self-presentation on (and behind) stage, and musical phenomena or processes that are reflected in language, and vice versa (movements three and four). On the other, it is also about playing with musical languages of the past, singing techniques that become an end in themselves, and idiomatic clichés not only of European music (the fifth and sixth movements). Song and instrumental playing interact, role-play is involved, and even the swapping of roles between singers and musicians. In this piece, I aimed for the greatest possible symbiosis of linguistic and sound processes, and had the intention of not only entertaining but also of amusing the audience in what I hope is not too obscure a manner. The piece is not free of musical mischief-making which, as we know, can assume menacing dimensions.

 

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A Conversation with Unsuk Chin

A Conversation with Unsuk Chin

GD: It seems your initial encounter with György Ligeti was a happy turning point. It came during a stylistically undefined phase for you, one marked by trauma, no less. Are there compositional styles you feel were most fruitful during this phase? And have you had the opportunity to advise younger composers as Ligeti advised you?

UC: Ligeti’s teaching was completely unconventional. At that point, he was betraying his faith in the avant-garde. We listened to everything imaginable—ancient music, “classical” music, jazz, a lot of non-European traditional music, modern outsiders, of course his own music, but nothing avant-garde, in fact—it was a very tough school, because it demanded both technical perfection and originality. New scores were analyzed in detail by Ligeti during the group classes, and sometimes thrown into the wastepaper basket by him in person. But he was also hard on himself, and we can only take our hats off to him for discovering completely new stylistic ideas for himself at the age of sixty and, in my opinion, making another qualitative leap. Ligeti was a difficult person, but that was a good thing because it made the obligatory killing-of-the father much easier. Where I’m concerned, I’ve repeatedly given masterclasses for composers. For ten years, I’ve regularly organized masterclasses in Korea in the context of my New Music series, and in the context of what we call “reading sessions” I also give selected younger composers the chance to do more work with guest conductors such as Peter Eötvös, François- Xavier Roth, Susanna Mälkki, and others. This involvement in practical work is incredibly important and often a big shock for composition students. But a professorship has never appealed to me, and I’ve turned down several offers.

GD: Good training is indispensable in a technical profession like compositionin literature I’m not so sure. But does it also require a close teacher-pupil relationship like you find in the visual arts?

UC: That’s a very hard question. In principle, I’m of the opinion that you can’t teach composing. On the other hand, of course, there’s a whole lot of technical things that you just have to learn on your own. Many major composers have struggled with academic teaching. A teacher-pupil relationship can be a good thing, but only if it has a time-limit, and there is enough tolerance for disagreements and space for the pupil's development. If you think of the legendary professors of composition of the twentieth century, in my view Messiaen is a good example of allowing the pupil to do something very much their own: when you think of the famous pupils—like Xenakis, Boulez, Stockhausen, Grisey, George Benjamin, Murail—they’ve all done something of their own that actually didn’t have much to do with Messiaen. But the master had opened their eyes, and that’s the best thing you can say about a teacher. In the Schoenberg school, on the other hand, I think it’s a problem that the influence of the Supreme Father was so extremely overdetermining, even though of course Berg and Webern were geniuses, and the less well-known Roberto Gerhard managed to do something of his own as well.

GD: Ligeti’s music was important to you from the very start, because as you once said you were able to “grasp” it from the firstunlike some over-conceptualized serial endeavors. I understand very clearly what you mean, and yet I always hesitate to use concepts like “graspability” or “comprehensibility”first of all because these are difficult to objectify, and secondly, because they quickly assume a reactionary aftertaste, as if you could deliberately take your listeners into account. What does graspability mean in your own work?

UC: Of course, you shouldn’t take your listeners into account. There’s the rather tired metaphor of sending messages in a bottle: you’re not composing for yourself or for a particular audience, but of course there is communication with an imaginary audience. The problem with over-conceptualization consists in the fact that in some circumstances something that looks wonderfully logical and complex on paper can sound less complex and more random when actually performed. That was the problem with the extreme serialism of the 1950s: eventually the results sounded less differentiated than those that could be achieved through aleatory practice. Even Adorno criticised this and said quite correctly that the ear must always listen actively to the resulting material. Joseph Brodsky once said that poetry was a highly formal art whose forms had always been invented and used by others, and that he had no option but to pour new words into those old forms. In a sense, of course that also applies to music—the idea that you can suddenly create a tabula rasa and change all the grammar and semantics is naive at best. That was also the problem with Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system: an important invention, no question, and an invention which he pursued dutifully and with clarity, and I also understand the historical moment that gave rise to it, but at the same time it was also a random invention that has little to do with music, and was ultimately coined only in light of the situation of German music. I should say in passing that I agree with the young Boulez, that Schoenberg applied the invention very inconsistently, and that his pupil Webern was its great master. But at the same time there were so many different paths: Debussy and Stravinsky revolutionized music no less, and perhaps even much more.

 

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On the <i>Piano Etudes</i> of Unsuk Chin

On the Piano Etudes of Unsuk Chin

Several years ago, I had an appointment with a neurologist. There an EEG was performed. With a hairnet of electrodes on your head, you sit in front of a strong lamp, keep your eyes closed, and are subjected to flashes. The reaction of your brain to the flashing light, which flickers at an increasing frequency, is recorded by software. I don’t remember at how many hertz it was that I suddenly saw a spiral of falling gingerbread men. I told this to the assistant who was conducting the test. “I think I see gingerbread men.” To which she replied: “We’ll try one level higher, then it’s enough.” With the light now flashing marginally more rapidly, I still saw the incredible image behind my closed eyelids: falling gingerbread men, millions of them, a whole cosmos full. I had to open my eyes, because the sight was making me dizzy.

“A visual hallucination of that sort is completely normal,” the assistant reassured me. “Most people experience something like that with this type of stimulation.”

“But why gingerbread men?” I asked.

“It’s something different for everyone,” she said. “The visual cortex is simply induced to do something. And in your case, it apparently produces gingerbread men.”

“Millions of them,” I said.

“Yes,” said the assistant.

I didn’t learn all that much from this experience, apart from the fact that now, when I hear certain music and try to visualize its structures, I can refer to a specific feeling to describe their effect. “Classic” examples of this sort of music are the famous polyrhythmic piano works by György Ligeti or Conlon Nancarrow, about which much has been written. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s final composition, Paradise for flute and electronic music (2007), the twenty-first hour of his Klang cycle, generates this feeling too; a strange, unsteady light fills this piece, to which you can hardly experience with a calm soul. Another, less frequently cited example that evokes in me the overpowering gingerbread men feeling is the music of Unsuk Chin, a Korean composer living in Berlin, particularly her piano etudes.

 

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Honor What They Say: Mark Turner, Student and Teacher

Honor What They Say: Mark Turner, Student and Teacher

At the Beijing Blue Note this past New Year’s Eve, Mark Turner was a featured soloist with the house big band. During his solos that evening, he never failed to inspire the feeling that what he was playing was somehow impossible, unsurpassed in its instantaneous formal elegance while exceeding all bounds of improvisational plausibility.

This steadily accumulating sense of disbelief crystallized during “Invitation,” a 1950s standard that one of Turner’s own saxophone heroes, Joe Henderson, virtually owned in the sixties and seventies, but that Turner himself completely recast in his own image that night. It wasn’t that Turner sounded invincible—indeed, vulnerability and the imminent possibility of failure is integral to the dramatic appeal of Turner’s playing—but that, in spite of constantly treading along a perilous, uncharted path throughout his labyrinthine solo, he never once faltered.

During the set break, as the band idled in the backstage lounge, Turner and I were in mid-conversation when Coltrane’s solo from “If I Were a Bell,” from the canonical 1956 album Relaxin’ with the Miles Davis Quintet, started playing gently from the overhead speakers. He abruptly froze to listen for a few moments before blurting out, “Oh, man. So killing!”

I started laughing. It was true—it’s an undeniably iconic solo— but I hadn’t been expecting such a sudden pronouncement.

“I used to play this solo over and over,” he added.

“You mean you’d just get to the end and then just start over again?”

“I’d play it over, and over, and over. I couldn’t get enough.”

 

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Seventeen Ways of Looking at Mark Turner: Ben Wendel

Seventeen Ways of Looking at Mark Turner: Ben Wendel

Mark is a student for life. That’s really the impression I get from him. He’s very serious about music, serious about artistry. The thing that’s special about playing with Mark is that he’s so much himself. He’s immediately recognizable as a musician, his approach is immediately recognizable. Just being around that type of energy, that focused voice, is in itself an amazing experience. It’s also inspiring, even outside of the music, to see how deeply he investigates all sides of his instrument and all sides of the music itself.

I’d heard stories that Mark, in the studio, really embodied this “Eastern” approach to music and life, i.e., that whoever you are at that moment, whatever your performance is at that moment, that’s what it’s supposed to be, that’s what it’s meant to be. I’d heard that he’d be doing a take on a recording and let’s say there was a crack, or he’d squeaked a note, and people would say, “Would you like to do another take?” and he’d say, no, no, I think that was fine, I think that’s what was meant to happen. So he really lives by that philosophy. And I knew that going into the duet, and sure enough, when we were recording, it came out that way. We only did two solo passes—both of those passes were absolutely gorgeous, and Mark was extremely accepting and non-judgmental about what came out. He was comfortable with who he is musically, and really believes that what happens in that moment is what’s meant to be.

 

To read this entire piece and all 17 testimonials, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 8.

Seventeen Ways of Looking at Mark Turner: Kurt Rosenwinkel

Seventeen Ways of Looking at Mark Turner: Kurt Rosenwinkel

Mark is one of the most dedicated people I’ve ever met, both musically and in terms of his personal, spiritual journey in this life. He’s very methodical. He’s very patient. I remember when he almost cut off his hand with the electric saw: everybody was in shock—except for him! And the first time I talked to him after that, he was like, “Yeah, you know, I’ve had a pretty good run. It’s okay.” He had already accepted, and was already okay with, the prospect that he’d never play again. To me, that really illustrates where he’s grounded. He’s not grounded in this world; he’s grounded in a deeper—not deeper, but larger—spiritual world. He’s able to let go of any worldly things because he knows that his true root and home is in this larger, spiritual, cosmic world.

And another little anecdote about him that’s really funny is: Because of where he’s coming from, nothing around him really bothers him. And when we started to play internationally in concert halls, I remember many times, we’d be playing and he would take a solo and then I’d be taking a solo and then I would look to cue the melody out—and he wouldn’t be there! And I’d turn around and he’d be behind us, on the floor, doing yoga! And I’d look at him and I’d be like raising my eyebrows like, “Here we go! It’s coming around!” and he’d give me this look—like a thousand-mile stare. Actually, it was more of a complete, unaffected, no expression, just looking at me like—blank. And it always made me laugh. ’Cause you always knew he would be there—he’d just be nailing it. That was funny, ’cause that happened all the time, he was always doing that. It made me love him a little bit more each time.

 

To read this entire piece and all 17 testimonials, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 8.

A Conversation with Mark Turner

A Conversation with Mark Turner

Yes. Anyway, this new band [Mark Turner, tenor saxophone; Avishai Cohen, trumpet; Joe Martin, bass; Marcus Gilmore, drums], The Lathe of Heaven: The writing is different. The whole band sound is different. It sounds more purposeful.

Yeah, it is. I don’t know how. Probably a lot of it was intuitive. But I spent a lot of time thinking about it.

It’s kind of like all the things I’ve wanted to hear from a record: the lengths of the tunes, the types of tunes, their tempos, the types of harmony on each tune, which sections will be—you know, like, a fair amount of tunes, some where you just play them straight through, kind of like flowing playing; some tunes with sections fast and slow within them; so on and so forth. I just wanted all these layers to be taken care of, you know? Again, in a way that’s not worn on the sleeve.

One way to do that, of course, is, like I said before, by not having chords. But not having a chordal instrument does more than just give you freedom. It actually scales everything back, so that you have to listen a little bit more. And it makes things less obvious. So, for example, if these things were played with chords, I would have changed the harmony. This allowed me to write harmony that I wouldn’t have with chords. Sometimes I made the harmony a little more forthright so it would stand out with just three voices. And in the sections where I wanted the harmony to be a bit more complex, you know, it’s tricky with three voices to make it heard.

I forgot to mention, also: part of the reason we’re doing it is that I was trying to get myself to be able to write stronger melodies and stronger form, in order to make it heard without chords. When you have chords, you can kind of do anything you want. Not really, but you can get away with a lot of things you shouldn’t do, myself included. Like, form mishaps, harmony mishaps, melody mishaps. You know, if somebody plays the chord you can write any melody, it could be terrible. “Terrible” meaning that the voice-leading isn’t correct, you should have played this before you went to that. So, without chords, you can’t really make those mistakes. It’s much more fine-tuned. When it does happen it can be very clear.

 

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Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking

Every Cripple Has His Own Way of Walking

The house was old. They were older. The sisters. They celebrated Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Cried at her funeral. At least if they hadn’t actually seen these events they witnessed it all in the newspapers. The house full of newspapers. Paper bags within paper bags. Letters. Photographs. Pieces of brocade. Satin. Ribbons. Lockets. Hair. Broken spectacles. Medicine bottles. Empty. Foreign coins. Trunks. Cases. Cake. Biscuit tins. And mice. The child never knew whether it was the mice or one of her aunts wheezing in the long nights. Or maybe just the wind from the sea. The downs. Whistling in the chimney. Other nights she knew it was Aunt Molly battling with her asthma. Or Aunt Sally sucking tea from a saucer. And the bed creaked in the room below. As grandma turned over. Back again. From the waist up. Did she have legs? The child thought of them. Thought she saw them like sticks under the sheet. About to thrust up. With barnacles and millions of half-dead fish clinging. The old woman’s flesh. Scaly. Her eyes like someone just risen from the ocean bed. But then she was grandma. And all grandmothers must look like that. Confined to an enormous bed. Yet not so enormous. For she filled all parts. At all times. As she filled the house with her demands. Commands. In her little girl’s voice. When not eating. Not sleeping. Whined for the bedpan. Another cup of tea. And if Aunt Sally stopped making kitchen noises then she whined for the bedpan again and accused her younger sister of indulging in forty winks. For the house belonged to grandma. Every item down to the shrimp pink corset and purple dress Aunt Sally wore had been billed to grandma. She after all had been married. And no one now would point out she had stolen Aunt Molly’s intended. That a long time ago. And he who had made the mistake by proposing in a letter from India to the wrong sister had long since departed. They lived as best. The three. In the worst. Through thick and thin. They lived their roles. Respected. Detested. Each other’s virtues. Little vices. Whims. And waited for the day the child’s father would pay a visit. That day would surely be tomorrow. If not tomorrow then the next day. When Nicholas Montague. Monty to them all. Would tread the path. Into the house. Receive their love. And tell them of his travels. Successes. Though Aunt Molly would look past him. As if she recognised in his shadow some remembered dream. Go on sorting out little bundles of letters. Comb her long white hair. Thin. So thin it was more of a veil covering her head. Face of crushed carnation that sprouted from the black bent root of velvet. The child would look past him too. Perhaps. At the portrait. For comparison. While Aunt Sally clucked around him. Teeth clicking. Little bird eyes upon the nephew who could do no wrong. If he did a wrong in others’ eyes then he did it because there was no alternative.

The days grew into each and out of each night. With the habits. Dreams. Tales of days gone by. The horse-drawn buses. Dinner. Tennis parties. Musical evenings. Picnic outings with cousins by the Thames. Sunday strolls in Kew Gardens. And the Crystal Palace. For the child these stories merged with those of The Goose Girl. The Snow Queen. And Cinderella. Each of these she was. Saw her aunts as grown ancient but with a wave of the magic wand they would change into beautiful queens with quick queenly steps. She felt sure her father would have this wand. Transform the old castle on the hill. The old ladies. Herself. Into a magical world where they would all live together happily ever after.

Weeks. Months. Years. Came. Went. After hours of anticipation. The child saw the calendar only in the mirror. She was still not taller than Aunt Sally. She thought the day would never come when she would be . . .

 

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The Ages, Coming to Bear

The Ages, Coming to Bear

Listening to the music of Lera Auerbach, we are immediately touched by several impressions. First, that we’ve been waiting our entire lives for this music. And it has such emotion, such soul, it so floods the space around us, that a second impression soon follows, that of the great multiplicity of the music’s facets, its meanings. At some point Bach, having failed to become a discoverer of new paths, grew instead into the embodiment of an enormous musical language—of all that had gone on in Europe before him. In the English Suites, the French Suites, in him—that is, in Bach—we find the spirit of Italy, the Spirit of Vivaldi, the spirit of the Reformation and of the protestant choir; in other words, Bach, in his work, brought many different runnels and rivers flowing into one another, merging into the singular “ocean” of his—that is, of Bach’s—music. When I listen to Lera Auerbach’s music, I cannot help feeling we have received a comparable gift. Without daring to compare Bach and Lera Auerbach in terms of their importance to world music, I can confidently say that we see before us not just a polystylist, but one who has brought the most disparate tendencies together, successfully merging them under a single roof—tonality alongside atonalism, Russian melodicism alongside Mahlerian, the elements of ancient cultures combined with the simplest children’s songs. And together with all of this are colossal structures—whether of the late-romantic sensibility, or of the twentieth century itself . . .

Translated from the Russian by Ian Drieblatt

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“Each a hand’s breath on”

“Each a hand’s breath on”

There’s a case to be made that the letter “z” functions as a signpost for deception in Hamlet. Think of the crucial “z” words—“buzz, buzz,” “blazes,” “squeezing,” “buzzers”— and by whom and when and why they’re spoken; think of the “z” names—Rosencrantz, Gonzago—and the different forms of artifice they evoke; then think, beyond the play, of the evasive zig-zagging of the pen itself as it makes the mark on the page. Most compelling, perhaps, is the fact that Ophelia never uses the letter “z.” By excusing her from using it, by refusing her its usage, there emerges the possibility that Shakespeare is suggesting something about Ophelia’s exceptional truthfulness in a corrupt state, about the limits of language and the limits of the world, about the relation between materiality and meaning in writing, and so on. If that sounds far-fetched, then it’s because it’s exactly the kind of far-fetched thought that I find myself having when reading let me tell you, one of my favorite novels. Indeed, far-fetched is what it feels like to think about this novel: it’s something I have to go back to in order to believe that it exists. It can’t be possible! And yet there it is. I get that familiar fear that in some other universe the text is slightly different, a fear let me tell you seems continuously preoccupied with: how did I end up being exactly myself? But the other versions are all contained in there. “But I could will it another way.” There is something awful, almost illicit, about the thought that every word or mark on the page can be examined in some new light to reveal hitherto unnoticed properties and resonances. The subtle modulations in meaning Griffiths achieves give a sense of limitless abundance and inexhaustibly fine detail, offering even the most mundane of Ophelia’s words a distinct and independent afterlife. Who knew she could speak French, or sing the Beatles, or remember a Nō play? The remarkable achievement of the work is to extend Ophelia’s world into impossible realms, while remaining something which feels organically of a piece with, and connected through deep feeling to, her original. She resembles herself.

 

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Unpacking Ann Quin’s Comic Tragedy

Unpacking Ann Quin’s Comic Tragedy

The One-Liner

It’s hard to imagine a book that clashes comedy and tragedy quite so blatantly as Berg, Ann Quin’s 1964 reimagining of the Oedipal myth. Rare enough is a book that begins by stating its intention—

A man named Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father. . .

—rarer still one that proceeds to do seemingly everything it can to avoid following the path its intention has laid. True, Quin’s novel teems with violence, but it’s violence offered as a substitute for a patricide that never quite takes place, and this substitute violence is almost entirely, even hysterically, absurd. 

Take the scene in which Berg drops his father Nathaniel’s beloved pet bird, still in its cage, down several flights of stairs as his father looks on. On the face of it, this act is frankly cruel and violent; yet the bird was already dead when Berg dropped it, and he knew it was when he did. In fact, Berty the budgie had been previously starved and/or strangled by Nathaniel’s mistress, Judith, in retaliation for Nathaniel’s crime of accidentally letting out her cat, Sebastian, who was then killed, perhaps accidentally, by Berg, though no one knows Berg did it, and he didn’t know it was Judith’s cat when he did. So while Berg doesn’t set out with intentions to hurt Judith or her cat, he winds up killing the one and upsetting the other; and while he professes a desperate desire to murder his father, instead he drops a dead bird down some stairs. Throughout the novel, Berg’s violence is a joke (if not so funny for the cat), and moreover was set up as a joke from the beginning, an Oedipal one-liner with the sing-songy rhythm of a syllogism . . .

 

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A Conversation with Paul Griffiths

A Conversation with Paul Griffiths

SE: Your book let me tell you is a novel you wrote from the perspective of Hamlet’s Ophelia, and, in an Oulipian twist, you only use words that Ophelia speaks in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I found the results to be quite remarkable. To start, a very fundamental question—perhaps the key question: why Ophelia?

PG: I began with the idea of taking all the words spoken in Hamlet and rearranging them into a new text. However, it didn’t take me very long to realize that while initially I could say almost anything with this stock of words, unless I took huge care in monitoring what I was using, I could easily end up with a highly resistant residue of archaisms and prepositions.

I therefore decided to use not all the words in the play, once each, but all the words spoken by one character, with no restriction as to number of uses. Now if you choose Hamlet as your character, his vocabulary is so vast there’s virtually no constraint—and I needed an active constraint to make the book work. If you choose Francisco, there’s the opposite problem, of being able to say only a very little. Ophelia has enough words to express herself on all sorts of matters, but also few enough that she is constantly bumping up against the unsayable.

The constraint also allowed her to give readers the experience of reading words they have read before but are reading now in a new context. Because her mad scenes introduce a language that is unusual and therefore memorable, the reader easily recognizes, for example, where “rosemary” comes from.

At the same time, I wanted the book to do what novels generally do: tell a story. Ophelia has one of the play’s most powerful lines: “Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be.” My attempt was to give her something of what she may be.

Also, and again quite aside from the constraint, here was a character who invites questions, a character who has very little opportunity to speak for herself in the play, and may now do so . . .

 

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Home Away from Home

Home Away from Home

I won’t go into all the ways Dubravka shaped my life—how she helped me put together my first book of fiction, a collection of rewritten stories, like her own Lend Me Your Character; the forceful advice when I needed it that won over the woman I would later marry. I hope someone else in this issue talks about how the patchwork novel Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life [collected within Lend Me Your Character], stitched together out of women’s magazines, sewing patterns, dialects, storylines, ideologies, and clichés, is the best postmodern feminist novel ever written, and by far the funniest. But I do want to describe the two things Dubravka said that I think about all the time, to this day.

She took me along to a dinner with one of what she always called her “countrymen”—a former-Yugoslavian, in several senses, washed up in Amsterdam and making his way as best he could. He was kind, in a way that didn’t seem quite right: a little too Buddhist, a little too California. You could see all the work he had done to convince himself, or at least Dubravka could. I liked meeting him, but Dubravka was fuming, furious: she couldn’t stand the forgiveness shtick. “No sympathy for jerks!” she announced to the canal and me on the walk home. “I’m not fuckin’ Dostoyevsky!”

She also told me that no one should be allowed to publish fiction or poetry—no one had the right to expect to be read—until they had done some service to other writers: as an editor, professor, publisher, translator, critic. It’s a beautiful vision, not of hard-honed craft but community, the global cultural citizenship that so much of her work proves and champions. It is tragic how little the world seems to go along with her, unless those historical upheavals she lived through and our idiocracy of culture are what create that vision in the first place. No glorious non-Dostoyevskies without jerks to non-sympathize with, no heroine of civilization without the barbarism. None of her humor without everything she has to laugh at. It’s not fair to her, but, as I can hear her say in her wonderful low voice, “No one ever said life is fair!” She can take it.

 

To read the entire article, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .

A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written

A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written

6.

 

In this Moscow—where philologists, both local and foreign, hunted witnesses to the previous epoch; where the widows of famous writers were worshipped (Nadezhda Mandelstam, for example); where anyone who had survived, outlived others, and was in a state to testify about it, was worshipped; where the world was alive with memoirs, mementos, and diaries, with collectors and archivists, with artists real and phony, with those who had ‘sat’ (sidet’), i.e. been in a camp, and those ashamed that they hadn’t—I met Pilnyak’s son, Boris. I didn’t think of myself as a “hunter”; the pervasive zeal for biographism held no appeal, though I understood where it came from. In this milieu, the battle won by the Russian Formalists—the great battle for the text of a work of art—proved futile. The texts of innumerable authors disappeared beneath a stampede of biographical details…

Boris Andronikashvili was Pilnyak’s son from the writer’s third marriage to famed Georgian screen actress and director Kira Andronikashvili. Boris was tall, strong, and handsome, and also a trained screen actor. He felt himself Georgian, was proud of his aristocratic surname, spoke Russian with a heavy Georgian accent (as all Georgians do), in his house they drank chacha and ate khachapuri: his true home was not cold and scentless Moscow, but “the city of roses and mutton tallow,” as Isaac Babel wrote of Tbilisi. By the time we met he had abandoned film and now occupied himself with the administration of his father’s estate. With no training in such matters, he did so in an amateur fashion. He himself had written several works of prose. He was in his second marriage, from which he had two children, five-year-old Kira, and two-year-old Sandro.

I never wrote my Master’s thesis on Boris Pilnyak; I gave up halfway. Later, I translated The Naked Year, “Snowstorm,” and “A Story about How Stories Come to Be Written” into Croatian, and I did write a Master’s thesis, but on something entirely different. I saw Boris twice more, the last time on September 6, 1989, during a short stay in Moscow, when he gifted me a volume by his father, printed the same year, the foreword for which he had written himself. Were it not for his dated dedication in the inside cover, I wouldn’t remember the details. I almost didn’t recognize him, his expression one of indeterminate internal capitulation. We exchanged several letters, and then lost all contact. The Soviet Union fell apart, then Yugoslavia fell apart, and I left the country. I have closed many files, among them, the year in Moscow when I was supposed to delve deep into the work of Boris Pilnyak, but instead, in place of literature, I delved into life, even though at the time, the two appeared difficult to separate.

Boris Andronikashvili died in 1996, in his sixty-second year of life. I discovered that on the internet. His collected works were published in 2007, in two volumes. His daughter Kira did her Master’s and published a book on her grandfather, as well as editing two impressive volumes of Pilnyak’s letters. I’m not sure I’ll read those books. I travel a lot, crisscross borders, and try to carry as little luggage with me as possible. I’ve closed many files. And once closed, files gradually become unreadable.

 

To read the entire story, purchase your copy of Music & Literature no. 6. . .