Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Fake News from the Rhine


Last week I attended the San Francisco Opera's production of Wagner's four operas The Ring of the Nibelungen.  Let me first of all say that this was a satisfactory experience.  The orchestra, central to these operas, was in great shape and wonderfully conducted.  The singers were all good, some terrific.  I could make some carping criticisms of some singers – there always such criticisms to make – but I don't want to bother.  The acting was good.  Above all, the special imaginative and emotional hit The Ring offers was present in abundance.

What is the special Ring hit?  It is the musical re-evocation of themes, events, and objects, that have occurred through musical cross-references by means of repeated, sometimes altered but recognizable, Leitmotifs.  Let me take a small example.  When the most important female protagonist, Brunhilda, is a demigoddess riding high, the celebrated Ho-jo-to-homusic is associated with her entrance.  At the end of the next Opera she has been demoted to mortal and obliged to marry the tenor.  Basically she is happy with her fate —; she loves the guy and loves feeling love.  But, realistically, her response is complicated and ambivalent.  As she is exploring her ambivalence she recalls, (in translation) "Once heroes bowed to me.”  When she sings those words we get a brief poignant touch of Ho-jo-to-homusic in the midst of her love music.  Repeat that process 200 times and one hundredfold and you get a musical experience that enters your mind and emotions as no other. It is the result of intense and creative coordination of text, music, and setting.

But mostly I want to bitch about the stage setting.  It's really awful, more awful than merely ugly or crude would be.  Generally, it is not coordinated.  Let me acknowledge first that in general I am uncomfortable with resetting plays or operas in times other than the author's intent, although it certainly can work.  Let me acknowledge also that anyone presenting The Ring has a problem about setting.  When and where does The Ring take place?  It takes place in mythic never never land.  And what pray does mythic never never land look like?  Though Wagner provided ample descriptions of scenes in his libretti, the history of productions of The Ring is strewn with failures of staging.  But we can be sure of a couple of things.  It is set in the forest. The vast forest that covered Germany in the middle Ages as Wagner imagined it.  Second it is set by, on, and in the river Rhine

Wagner's idea of nature is not problematic.  It is the solid and meaningful background in which the decline of the gods and triumph of human love takes place in The Ring.  The notion that  nature is something humankind is destroying by exploitation is a late 20th century idea at least in its popular form, well after Wagner.

The first scene of the first opera, Das Rheingold, challenges stage designers.  Wagner’s detailed directions describe it:
(Greenish twilight, lighter above, darker below. 
At the bottom of the Rhine
The upper part of the scene is filled with moving
water, which restlessly streams from right to left.
Toward the bottom, the waters resolve themselves
into a fine mist, so that the space, to a man’s height
from the stage, seems free from the water, which
floats like a train of clouds over the gloomy depths.
Everywhere are steep points of rock jutting up from
the depths and enclosing the whole stage; all the
ground is broken up into a wild confusion of jagged
pieces, so that there is no level place, while on all
sides darkness indicates other deeper fissures.)
 (The curtain rises. Waters in motion. Woglinde
circles with graceful swimming motions around the
central rock.)

For reasons unknowable to Wagner, the stage director, Francesca Zambellohas decided to begin The Ring in California in the time of the gold rush, extend its duration to approximately the present, and through sets and projections depict the loss of the natural world to industrialization.  In Wagner's libretto the action takes around 25 years and involves no reference to what may be going on outside the world of the story.

Of course the Rhine does not flow in California so, although the name of the opera is Das Rheingold and the Rhine maidens ("Rheintöchterin German) sing the German text, "Rheingold" etc., the subtitles read "River maid" and "River gold.”  The river is a stream running through the middle of the stage and the Rhine maidens are not water sprits, but healthy looking California girls dressed in 19th-century party ware.  

The powerful Sacramento River flows through California, was the location of the gold rush, and was involved in environmentally destructive placer mining, which appears on some screen projections, but Zambello ignores that. Perhaps the notion of subtitles translating Rheingold as “Sacramento Gold” was too ridiculous even for her.

At this point the staging is merely silly and distracting.  It gets worse in the beginning of the third opera because it tampers with protagonist’s conception of self.

Wagner’s stage directions for Siegfried act I scene 1 are: 
(A rocky cavern in a forest containing a naturally
formed smith’s forge with large bellows.

In this forest a villain named Mime has raised the ultimate hero Siegfried without exposure to other human beings.  But he has been exposed to the forest.  He constantly refers in dialogue to how he had learned about life and himself from the birds, animals, and trees of the forest and at one point leads in a bear, this arrogant adolescent’s idea of a joke on Mime.

But trees and rocks not what we see when the curtain rises in this production.  Mime's cave has become a dilapidated mobile home located in an industrial wasteland (see above).  No home for bears here.  The real problem with this is that the hero could not have grown up with the self-image or the image of how to relate to others he had in an industrial wasteland. The scene leaves the audience possibly annoyed but certainly confused.

By the end of the opera via staging and projections the setting has progressed to a 20th-century industrial wasteland, which serves to suggest, nay assert, the destruction of nature by humans. Whatever the name of the river, it has dried up and we last saw the whatever maidens collecting garbage on its dry floor in a scene Wagner describes as set "in a  remote wooded valley where the Rhine flows".

Between scenes toward the beginning of the last opera a substantial orchestral passage embodies musically the hero’s trip down the Rhine.  The swelling music movingly reflects the flow of the river. It is frequently excerpted and has become a warhorse of symphony concerts. The curtain raiser for the first opera is a beautiful and hypnotic projection depicting a powerful river and related stuff. It would have been appropriate and satisfying to repeat it here. But no, we get more projections of industrial waste. It is weird to hear Siegfried’s Rhine Journey while looking at in concrete and power lines.

Wagner provides detailed stage directions for the end of the opera:

(As the whole space of the stage seems filled withfire, the glow suddenly subsides, so that only a cloud
of smoke remains, which is drawn to the background
and there lies on the horizon as a dark bank of cloud.
At the same time the Rhine overflows its banks in a
mighty flood which rolls over the fire. On the waves
the three Rhine daughters swim forward and now
appear on the place of the fire.)
 (Hagen, who since the incident of the ring observed
Brünnhilde’s behavior with growing
anxiety, is seized with great alarm at the appearance
of the Rhine daughters. He hastily throws spear,
shield and helmet from him and rushes, as if mad,
into the flood.)

 (Woglinde and Wellgunde [Rhine maidens] embrace his neck with
their arms and draw him with them into the depths
as they swim away. Flosshilde, swimming in front of
the others toward the back, holds up the regained
ring joyously.)
 (Through the bank of clouds which lie on the
horizon a red glow breaks forth with increasing
brightness. Illumined by this light, the three Rhine
daughters are seen, swimming in circles, merrily play-
ing with the ring on the calmer waters of the Rhine,
which has gradually returned to its natural bed.)
 (From the ruins of the fallen hall, the men and
women, in the greatest agitation, look on the
growing firelight in the heavens. As this at length
glows with the greatest brightness, the interior of
Walhall is seen, in which the gods and heroes sit
assembled, as in Waltraute’s description in the first
act.)
 (Bright flames appear to seize on the hall of the
gods. As the gods become entirely hidden by the
flames, the curtain falls.

None of this happens as described in this production. Instead see a barren, post-industrial landscape.  The Rhine Maidens, once flirtatious hotties, embodiments of positive libido, are now bedraggled and bent. Siegfried is not on a pyre of wood for Zambellohas moved his immolation off stage, but Gibichung vassalsn are carrying old tire casings in that general direction.   Valhalla is not seen.  Etc. Most important the Rhine does not flood the stage. There is no Rhine, and whatever river flowed in the first opera has dried up.

Because the Rhine does not reflood the stage to allow the Rhine Maidens to swim up and remove the ring from Siegfried’s finger, the setting fails the resolution the text and music embodies.  Zambello has imposed a moral of painful disharmony rather than resolution.  She ties to solve the problem she has created by adding a child who comes on stage after theverything Wagner wrote is over carrying a sapling, which she plants.  This is Bullshit.  This is Fake News.  And like political fake news, the confusion it causes is as bad as it's dishonesty.



The libretti Translations are by Frederick Jameson .You can read them all at:  http://home.earthlink.net/~markdlew/shw/Ring.htm

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Comments on The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

This novel has real strengths and real drawbacks. It recounts suffering and resistance of two sisters, their father, and communities of associates, friends, and loved ones in France during the invasion and occupation by the Germans in WW II.  The action is mainly set in a small country town, but also in Paris and other rural parts of France.  It portrays movingly the grinding preservation and degradation of the French people as the war goes on with respect to practical matters like getting enough to eat, but also to persona feelings, like fearing for loved ones, or social and cultural loss, like the loss of faith in society.

The prose is generally clear and eloquent and every few pages are graced by tellingly beautiful and effective metaphors.

Three plot lines sometimes support and intensify one another and sometimes overlap and obscure one another. At the heart is the story of two sisters who respond to the early death of their mother and the emotional crippling of their father in very different ways.  One is rebellious, an actor-outer, whereas the other bargains everything for security.  Their father is himself the victim of the trauma of serving in the French army in WW I and the early death of their mother.

The second line of plot is the participation mainly of the rebellious sister in the resistance to the Germans, in particular her smuggling Allied airmen out of the country, which provides a lot of tense scenes.  The stay-at-home sister eventually, and somewhat out of character, becomes involved similarly in saving Jewish children.

The third line of plot is a frame story involving an ill, old woman in Seattle in the present day.  The reader's uncertainly about her relevance creates minimal tension.

The characterization in general is clear and moving. In the case of the sisters and their father, it reaches beyond being clear into being unremitting. Certainly every few pages from beginning to end the author informs us of how the sisters have responded differently to their different lack of parenting and how they feel about one another.

During about the time I read this book, I read, or rather audited, Arnold Bennett's novel The Old Wives Tale.  It too is about two sisters, one of whom is, in her 19th century English fashion, rebellious and adventurous, while he other is a stay-at-home.  It establishes the difference between these two sisters and their attitude towards one another and their difference in the first 50 pages of a very long novel, and after that simply lets us see how it plays out.  Hannah would've done well to follow similar strategy; we get tired of her rehashing these family differences.  The same thing applies to their relation to their father, which Bennett establishes and anchors its importance in the beginning of the novel.  It remains a live issue without our having to be told about it.  This economy leaves Bennett free to develop a whole world.

One of the virtues of The Nightingale is the portrayal two German officers who are stationed in a small town and become involved with the sisters.  The difference between the two officers is fully realized; one is a loyal German but a decent human being troubled by the war and his role, the other is a sadistic bastard.

I happen at the same time to be reading another relevant novel, Heinrich Böll's group portrait with lady, which very fully portrays the life of middle-class and other Germans during the war, and how it changed as the war approached its end, as Hannah portrays so well in France.  Böll's method of characterization is very much more complex than Hannah's.  Böll creates as a character an author like an investigative reporter who compares and contrasts the various accounts of the various characters by various other characters.  Just as we don't see eye to eye on one another, his characters do not see eye to eye on one another and he reports it.  The results are a very nuanced and multidimensional portrayal of the individuals and of their world.  Hannah's focus on the two sisters and certain aspects of their relationships seems narrow and repetitive by comparison.

The frame story of the ill, old woman in Seattle is a tease.  The reader comes to believe perhaps halfway through the novel that she one or the other of the sisters and the uncertainty is only resolved at the very end.  The whole frame story is unnecessary and unlikely. Hannah never explains how she got to Seattle many years after the main events of the novel.

The story sometimes falls into melodrama. For example, two lovers are reunited as one is about to die, á La Bohème.


So reading the novel was in part frustrating. I wish the author had stopped redwelling on the family relations, effectively established, which would have freed her cover some of the other complex cities of the German occupation of France, for example the role of those French who were perfectly happy to have the Germans arrive and save them from communism and Jews.  The frame story was simply an unnecessary and improbable obstruction.  But still is a moving book, with flash of wonderful writing and a moving portrayal of the suffering of war.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Comments on The Enigma Variations by André Aciman



They are not mentioned in the text, but I believe the title refers to the composition by that name by Edward Elgar, the late 19th-century English composer.  Elgar's popular piece, it's been recorded over 60 times, consists of 13 variations on his original theme; each variation is supposed to be a portrait of someone known personally to Elgar.  Several friends are rendered in the novel, but I take the enigma in the novel to be passionate infatuation.

This is a novel of twists and turns.  Aciman is the novelist of crushes: “Will she/he, won’t he/she?  Does she/he, doesn’t he/she?  What did she/he mean by that?  Am I attractive enough?  Am I enough?  Am I?”  The protagonist is high on these questions.  And, as with other highs, sometimes exhilarated, sometimes crushed.

I’m going to be explicit about the twists and turns below, so beware of spoilers.

His first novel, Call Me By Your Name, is about the summer homoerotic crush of an intellectual Italian teenager on an older student.  His long and masterful novel Eight White Nights is about the coupling/failure to couple of a heterosexual pair in wealthy, intellectual circles in Manhattan who fail to go beyond falling in love for 368 pages.  Like The Enigma Variations the book is related by title enigmatically to another work, Dostoevsky’s novella of the same name, but turning to the Dostoyevsky answers no questions.

As in Eight White Nights, the tension, what would be the plot tension in a mystery, in The Enigma Variations lies in the question of how or if the protagonist will resolve himself as a lover.  Whom and how you love is central to his being a person and is always uncertain and anxiously immanent.

The book has five sections.  In the first, as a young teen-ager he has an unconsummated crush on a local craftsman, who, after  his father’s death he discovers to have been his father’s lover.  In the second he is tormented and intoxicated by jealousy over the relation between the woman he is living with and an unknown man.  It turns out the interloper is gay and interested in him.  In the third section he is tormented by timidity over approaching a guy he sees on the tennis courts.  He finally does.  In the forth section he is living with his tennis friend, but it is no longer a crush.  This section explores his history of desperately intense flinglets with a woman he knew in college.  From time to time in life they meet, go off together, make love, but always clench away form one another.  This is, so-to-say, a chronic crush.  The last section advances the protagonist to middle age.  He is in deep flirt with young writer, a mentee, but is as timorous as he was in the first section, unable to declare himself.  In e-mail exchanges the guy he had been living with urges him to seize the moment (as the reader silently urges the protagonists to seize the moment in Eight White Nights), but he can’t.  As in the fist section, their relationship is unconsummated.  In the first section it was unconsummated because of the maturity and commitment of the craftsman, which is rooted in his affair with the protagonist’s father.  In the last section it is rooted in the marriage of the protagonist to a woman who was a background character in earlier sections, which marriage is only uncovered at the end.  We discover it only at the end because his agonies of eagerness and uncertainty remain so convincing; so much part of him even thought he is married.

The novel is in first person.  The characterization of the protagonist is the vivid, tense experience of seeing the world though the details of his tremulous infatuations again and again in varying respects.  We experience the other characters through dialogue and gesture, but we most of all know them through how they shape the fantasies of the protagonist, as if he were nervously writing and rewriting character sketches of them.

Aciman’s prose is thoughtful, supple, and suited to the readers' needs of the moment.  A well-known scholar of Proust, he can thread meaning in long sentences:


“And there’s the bridge at last, vaulting the harbor under the shadow by the piers, the good, staunch, loyal bridge that understands and forgives and has always known, as I have always known, that what I really long for this evening is neither to be on this side of the river nor on the other bank but on the space and transit in between, the way after speaking of Russia’s White Nights it wasn’t of nightfall or daybreak that Gabi had sung but of that fleeting hour between dusk and daylight which we all longed for on our balcony on this undecided evening that wasn’t winter or summer or even just spring.

He can also apply the little, shaping hammer strikes of short sentences:

“I want you to know my name.  I want you to know I’m five lockers down from yours.  But as soon as I see you, I freeze.  Should I look, or pretend not to?  Should I speak, or say nothing?  Better say nothing.”



Monday, June 26, 2017

Pedro Páramo

The brief novel Pedro Páramo by Juan Rolfo is deeply beloved in Mexico. Its standing has been compared to Don Quixote in Spain and The Devine Comedy in Italy primarily for two reasons. First, it is the first novel (1953) to give voice to the rural poor. Second it dramatizes the trembling veil between the living and the dead that permeates Mexican culture. 

 In the larger context of Latin American and world literature it is admired as the godfather of Magical Realism. Borges considered it to be one of the greatest texts in any language, while García Márquez, who “could recite the whole book, forwards and backwards”, acknowledges it as the breakthrough that allowed the inception of One Hundred Years of Solitude: “the examination in depth of Juan Rulfo’s work gave me at last the way that I sought to continue my books”.

"That night I didn't sleep until I'd read it twice; not since I had read Kafka's Metamorphosis in a dingy boarding house in Bogotá, almost ten years earlier, had I felt so thunderstruck"
- Gabriel García Márquez

"The essential Mexican novel, unsurpassed and unsurpassable ... extraordinary."
- Carlos Fuentes

The basic story is that the protagonist, an ordinary guy named Juan Preciado, returns to the town where he was born to find his father because he promised the journey to his dying mother. But his father is long dead. At first the town seems deserted, but a woman offers him a room and he then begins to meet or overhear conversations or dreams of other people who are the dead of the deserted town including his hostess. He himself dies halfway through the story and narration continues in fragments of third person narration.

The story behind the fragments of conversation and narrative is the life and death of a town. It centers on the patrón, Perdro Páramo ("Páramo" means something like 'wasteland'.) who is the son and grandson of local landowners.  Very young he is in love with a child-hood friend named Susana San Juan who does not return his love, marries another man and leaves town. Páramo marries the mother of the initial narrator in order to settle a large debt. Never ceasing to love Susana, Páramo grows in viciousness; killing people who stand in his way, seducing and raping other woman. He fathers a number of illegitimate children. The Mexican revolution breaks out and splintered, armed groups ravage the countryside.   On the death of her husband, Susan returns to town but then dies herself, throwing Pedro into despair.  He owns the town but refuses to nourish it. All along and step by step the local priest despairs over his right to give absolution especially when Pedro pays him off to do so.

Several movies exist, the most notable directed by Carlos Velo, with a writing credit to Carlos Fuentes (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQJnBOlJqsc). It mainly follows the plot in real time as in my summary above. The result is something resembling a stereotypical Mexican soap opera with plenty of shots of men with little mustaches and big hats packing guns and riding prancing horses, of women in luxurious peasant blouses, and of emotional confrontations with an emphasis on the difference of gender roles.

But that is not the experience of the reader. The place is the death of the town. The time is years that do not succeed one another-; events endure in timeless ambiance. A working title, The Murmurs, more evokes the reader's experience than the name of the villain. The initial narrator and the reader are exposed to the thoughts, dreams, and self-describing dialogue spilled out the dead in the order of revelation, not the plot, in the mood of violent, desperate and constricting privation. Rulfo declines to orient the reader in a chain of causes and consequences. All consequences are immersed in nostalgia, longing, death, and loneliness.

The characters are like etchings, we do not see deeply into them, we see them compassionately as hard, grey lines; we remember them more than we understand them. It is their communal history we remember, not thier individual stories. They are the dead, which many rural Mexicans feel as immanent, invisible presences, rapt, unabsolved. Death was cheap in rural Mexico in those days, and today still is; we daily read of new mass graves uncovered.

The prose is clear and beautifully simple (Media Luna is Páramo's hacienda):

I am sleeping in the same bed where my mother died many years ago; on the same mattress, under the same black wool blanket that used to cover both of us when were sleeping.  Then, I slept by her side, in a little place she made for me under her arms.
I think I still can hear the slow pulsation of her breathing, and the sighs with which she lulled my sleep...  But none of that is real.  I am in a black box like those they use to bury the dead.  Because I am dead.
I can feel the place where I am, and I think...
I think of when the lemons ripen.  Of the wind in February breaking the stems of the bracken when the lack of care makes it dry up.  Of the ripe lemons filling the patio with their odor.
The wind came down from the mountains on those February mornings.  And the clouds were up there waiting for the weather that lets them fall down into the valley, leaving the blue sky empty, so that the light shines down with the wind, making circles on the ground, blowing the dust, and rocking the branches of the orange trees.
And the sparrows chirped; they pecked the leaves that the wind had blown off the trees, and they chirped while they did that; they left their feathers on the branches, and they chased butterflies and chirped some more.  It was that time of the year.
I remember the February mornings full of wind, and sparrows, and blue sky.  That was when my mother died.  I probably shouted and my hands must have been torn to shreds after wringing out my despair.  You would have liked the way things were.  But maybe you were not happy that morning.  The wind blew through the open door, rustling stems of the ivy.  The hair between the veins on my legs began to rise, and my warm hands trembled as they touched my breasts.  The sparrows were enjoying themselves.  In the fields the corn was waving in the wind.  I felt sorry that she would no longer be able to see the wind in the jasmines, that her eyes were closed to the light of day.  But why was I going to cry?
Do you remember, Justina?  You had arranged the chairs along the side of the corridor for the people who would come and wait for their turn to say goodbye to her.  But the chairs were empty, and my mother was alone in the center of the candles; her face was pale, her white teeth were barely visible between her red lips that were hardened by the chill of death.  Her eyebrows were motionless, the same as her heart.  You and I were praying endlessly, without her hearing it, nor did you or I hear anything, since all was covered by the sonority of the wind that night.  You ironed her black dress, starching the collar and the cuffs so her hands would look fresh when they were crossed over her breast, her loving breast where I once had slept, that had also given me something to eat, and that palpitated, soothing my dreams.
No one came to see her, but that was for the best.  Death is not something that you offer as entertainment.  No one goes around looking for sadness.
Someone knocked on the door.  You went out.
“You go,” I told you.  “I have a hard time seeing things clearly.  And tell them to go away.  Are they coming for the money from the Gregorian Mass?  She didn’t leave any money.  Tell them that Justina.  She will not be able to leave purgatory if they don’t hold these Masses and pray for her?  Who are they to enforce justice?  You think I’m crazy?  That’s okay with me.”
“And the chairs you set up were still empty until we went to bury her with those men we hired who were sweating under someone else’s weight.  They lowered the coffin slowly; they covered the grave with damp sand, while they were refreshed by the cool wind.  Their eyes were cold and indifferent.  They told us how much it would cost.  And you paid them, like one who is buying something, untying your handkerchief that was damp with tears, and was now wrapped around the money for the funeral...”
And when they left, you kneeled in the place where her face was now, and kissed the ground; and it could have made a hole in the ground, if I hadn’t told you: “Let’s go, Justina; she’s somewhere else now; here there is only a dead body.”

Later in the book, but at no clear time, Susan thinks, "It was as if the night were being dragged back and forth by the restless breath of the wind."

The presence of the events in reading are like the presence of events in memory. We remember stories, but we do not in any moment remember our life as a story. Try to tell it and you'll see. In our minds memories are what's going on in our mind, a succession of incidents and images, particularly of people, like beads spilled on the floor and taken up together in our hands.

In its disassociated structure and well as its incidents and characters, this novel projects the haunting sadness of the oppressive and violent history of rural Mexico.  One way to look at the structure is as response to trauma. The trauma of Páramo’s oppression of the townspeople, and the related trauma of the civil war. Disassociation is a common consequence of trauma.


You can read this book as a puzzle. Rolfo is giving you clues as in a mystery novel or a thriller and you can work out what happened. Or you can open you mind to a night of vivid and unsettling revery. Or both. Pick up Pedro Páramo. Read it. If you are confused, read it again; it's short. Know you are holding in your hand something intimate to the character of Mexico.