With my experience of China, I’ve long been curious about people’s lives under state socialism behind the Iron Curtain, particularly in the GDR (links here), and the potential for expressing alternative viewpoints under such regimes.
In China political and artistic dissent had already been severely punished in the Communist Base Area at Yan’an from the 1930s, and during the Maoist era after the 1949 “Liberation” the scope for variant stances was highly circumscribed, with only a few bold authors like Ding Ling, Wang Meng, and Liu Binyan daring to publicly query the Party line (see e.g. here); the brief Hundred Flowers campaign of 1956–57 was soon regarded as a trap to expose subversion.
As to the GDR, the new translation by Lucy Jones of Brigitte Reimann’s novelSiblings (DieGeschwister, 1963) has prompted a spate of perceptive reviews. *
New German and English editions of DieGeschwister/Siblings, the latter with well-chosen cover artwork by Walter Womacka (1925–2010) (full mural here).
Rejecting the “boy-meets-girl-meets-tractor” tenets of socialist realism, Brigitte Reimann (1933–73; Foundation; wiki) was an idealistic yet conflicted writer. Besides her diaries (citations below from this article),
Her most famous novel, Franziska Linkerhand, which Jones describes as “German history fed through the form of a love letter”, was incomplete when she died, but became a bestseller when it was published in 1974. […]
Her books’ unusually open depictions of day-to-day life in the GDR, told through the particular viewpoint of a woman, led to them playing an important role in the country, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s as East German citizens sought to critically examine the rationale behind a land that either cosseted them or locked them in, depending on your viewpoint. In the post-communist era they have also offered an insight for younger generations keen to understand their own mothers’ attitudes towards the socialist state in which they grew up.
For Elisabeth, a young painter, the GDR is her generation’s chance to build a glorious, egalitarian socialist future. For her brother Uli, it is a place of stricture and oppression. Separating them is the ever-wider chasm of the Party line; over them loom the twin spectres of opportunity and fear, and the shadow of their defector brother Konrad. In prose as bold as a scarlet paint stroke, Brigitte Reimann battles with the clash of idealism and suppression, familial loyalty, and desire. The result is this ground-breaking classic of post-war East German literature.
Charting the reality of the everyday in socialist Germany, she details her time spent as a state-sponsored artist at an industrial plant in the new town of Hoyerswerda where she ran writing classes for the workers. Her stints on the factory floor, during which she sucked in the black sooty air which likely contributed to the cancer that ended her life, also informs her gritty descriptions of industrial life and quotidian challenges of a socialist state, from supply chain issues, to the scorn she attracted for wearing lipstick at work.
Like Reimann herself, Elisabeth “strains against the artistic and political orthodoxies of old party comrades who refuse to listen to young people, especially women, with fresh ideas”.
It wasn’t blind confidence we were after. It was trust. My generation had designed new machines, cleared forests and built power plants. We’d drained swamplands and manned border posts. We’d painted pictures and written books. We had a right to be trusted. We had a right to ask questions if something seemed shady, if a verdict was disputable, or an authority questionable.
The shadows of Nazism and the war are sketched only briefly; and when Elisabeth is visited by a “nice young man” from the Stasi, she is startled but unscarred. Her brother Konrad has already defected; visiting him in the Western sector, she feels out of place:
Even though I heard German words, I felt like a stranger in a foreign country. I’d thought: When I went to Prague last year, I felt at home, and no matter where I went, I heard Czech being spoken, but never once, not for a minute, did I feel like a foreigner.
The translation comes with useful endnotes. Among the attributes of this short-lived lost civilisation, Michael Hofmann notes
the distressing ugliness of the official jargon, the Kaderwelsch, a play on the words Kader (a party cadre) and Kauderwelsch, meaning “gobbledygook’”.
Elisabeth’s feelings towards seniority—as I think Reimann’s were too—are informed by expectant obedience, a sort of eroticised respect. […] All the men in Siblings seem to be the same man, and the woman seems to be equally drawn to all of them.
While soul-searching became common—almost de rigueur—in Germany after the fall of the Wall, it’s impressive that writers such as Reimann could represent such nuance amidst the high tide of state socialism.
For a compelling biography of a GDR family over three generations, do read Maxim Leo’s Red love.
Just in case any confused football aficionados have wandered in here by mistake, my title refers, of course, to Sally and Elena, rather than Wayne and, um, Marco…
I was heartened by a recent Guardian article on the popularity of translations of Sally Rooney novels among Chinese feminists, despite the recent clampdown on the movement there. Considering the suffering that China’s male dictatorship continues to inflict on the population, and its enduring suppression of women, this is a tiny bit of good news. Foreign fiction, apparently safe in refraining from explicit political points, slips through the net.
While I usually home in on issues of gender, somehow I never made an explicit link between Normal people and feminism. ** Indeed, that may be one reason why the book and TV series have enjoyed such success.
In The sceptical feminist (1980), Janet Radcliffe Richards defined feminism as a movement for the elimination of sex-based injustice (which also allows men to count as feminists; as she stresses, feminism is important for everybody). And she tackled the resistance of some British women (then, at least) to embrace the label (a similar image problem, I think, to that of “socialism”—with conservatives fiendishly distorting what should be a self-evident agenda for social justice and basic moral decency). Now it’s quite right to bang the drum for feminism, as do plenty of fine younger authors (Laura Bates, Natasha Walter, and so on), and while evidence is ambivalent, it seems that British women, at least, are no longer so swayed by recurring negative media portrayal,
Anyway, Sally Rooney does that thing that young people can do, thanks to previous generations: while deeply conscious of gender issues, she doesn’t alienate those who for some reason balk at the term feminism. She shows deep empathy for the fucked-up worlds of both women and men; “normal people” indeed.
I’m also pleased to learn from the Guardian article that translations of Elena Ferrante’s novels have become popular in China.
All this may be largely irrelevant to people still stuck in the poor Chinese countryside, but reading of the translations gave me a sudden burst of optimism.
Like a suburban Sisyphus doing and undoing a jigsaw, having gone to great lengths to mix up the daily sequence of my diverse topics in a stimulating fashion, it’s that time of year when I try and reassemble them into some kind of thematic order (cf. 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021). In September I essayed a handy roundup of roundups, covering some of this ground; and in November I listed Some recent *MUST READ* posts. As ever, in the sidebar you can consult the tags and categories, and even the monthly archive (scrolling waaay down); the homepage still provides useful orientation.
Disturbingly, the items featured below are just a selection, but do click away on all the links…
Perhaps I can begin with a story that combines several of my interests:
Well, that’ll keep you busy—as a reward, in future perhaps I’ll try posting every three days, rather than every other day, and I might even reblog earlier posts a tad less avidly—not wishing to try your patience (“You must come over and try mine sometime”—Groucho).
A fine satire on the alienation of modern bureaucracy, the novel was published in full after being serialised from 1954.
Born in adversity, the narrator Hayri İrdal becomes apprentice to the wise old clock repairer Nuri Efendi, and spends time (sic) performing in improvisatory theatre groups (“I was living in a world of lies and illusion, and that was all I wanted”). Returning to Istanbul after army service in World War One (“four years spent in vain”), he is indolent and indifferent to everything around him. The Viennese-trained psychoanalyst Dr Ramiz, himself “the incarnation of discontent”, relishes his case, but expects more from him:
“I want you to have dreams that are more in line with your illness. Do you understand me? Use everything in your power to have the right kind of dreams.” […] All this contributed to my moving that much closer to bona fide insanity.
Dr Ramiz introduces Hayri İrdal to a coffeehouse, where he delights in telling stories with the regulars, as life was suspended.
New ideas were at first humoured out of courtesy and a slight curiosity, but they would remain unaddressed until the crowd’s ever-vigilant imagination had recast them as pleasantries, thus assimilating them to their own idiom. This is what happened to any attempt at serious conversation.
His family life is unfulfilling:
I detested the life I was living but lacked the strength to start another. I had severed all ties. I had no bonds with the world save for the compassion I felt for my children. I had no choice but to endure it all—or at least tolerate the world around me. The moment I set foot outside I was a prisoner of my wandering and endlessly colluding mind, which led me off to exotic worlds whose enticements beckoned, only to stay beyond my reach.
While he finds further distraction from his ennui in the Spiritualist Society, the model of the ascetic dervishes can’t help him solve problems stemming from his worldly concerns. At last he meets his mentor Halit Ayarci, with whom, amidst much partying, he hatches the concept of the Time Regulation Institute, a nepotistic institution that defines its own function.
At last Hayri İrdal has a “surging sense of purpose”. He spends his early months at the Institute devising platitudinous slogans and exchanging gossip. As Hayit Ayarci impresses his political contacts with arcane colour-coded charts, the Institute goes into full swing, recruiting suitably talentless employees from their relatives and drinking buddies.
Although Hayri İrdal has always preferred a life in which “idleness, or wasting time, is a source of happiness” (in Pankaj Mishra’s words), they devise a system of fines for those whose timepieces are not synchronised with any other clock in view.
When an inspector notified a citizen of his fine, the offender would initially express surprise, but upon apprehending the form logic behind the system, a smile would spread across his face until, at last understanding this was a serious matter, he would succumb to uproarious laughter.
He refines the system by offering a discount to repeat offenders. The staff expands as they set up Regulation Stations, “small roadside posts where ladies and gentlemen could stop in to adjust their timepieces”.
Gradually he eases into his new role:
I began to use terms like “modification”, “coordination”, “work structure”, “mind-set shift”, “metathought”, and “scientific mentality”…
He muses on freedom:
Today we use the word only in its political sense, and how unfortunate for us. […] The political pursuit of freedom can lead to its eradication on a grand scale—or rather it opens the door to countless curtailments. […] I have been made to understand that in our lifetime freedom has been kind enough to visit our country seven or eight times. Yes, seven or eight times, and no-one ever bothered to say when it left; but whenever it came back again, we would leap out of our seats in joy and pour into the streets to blow our horns and beat our drums.
Pondering the ever-growing roster of employees, Hayri İrdal suggests selecting those with experience, “people who have more or less worked for a certain period of time in a particular field”. Halit Ayarci rebuffs this idea:
“To be experienced means to be run down, frozen at some fixed point, and stuck with stagnant ideas. Such people are of no use to us.”
In a satire on Atatürk’s invention of tradition, after Hayri İrdal gives Halit Ayarci an account of the wonders of clock-making, though “never one for reading or writing”, he is persuaded to compose an entirely spurious biography of a 17th-century clockmaker, The life and works of Ahmet the Timely. His patron “was not at all mistaken when he divined the need for the illustrious Ahmet Zamani to have existed”, nor was he wrong when he assigned him to the reign of Mehmed IV.
Although a handful of armchair academics dismiss the work as a complete fabrication, it becomes a huge international success. Still, the enthusiasm of amiable Dutch scholar Van Humbert poses problems.
Finding the tomb of a man who never existed in mortal form is more difficult than you might imagine, as is surviving vigorous debate with a foreign scholar, even with the aid of an interpreter.
As Hayri İrdal becomes a celebrity, his wife joins in the deception with alacrity, embroidering a fantasy of their happy life together, to Hayit Ayarci’s delight:
To him, my continuing doubts about the existence of Ahmet the Timely and my rejection of my wife’s picture of me as a banjo-playing equestrian were all symptoms of the same malady.
“Your wife has presented you as the ideal modern man and still you doubt and deny it all!”
In a satire on the gullibility of the masses, Hayit Ayarci even concocts a successful singing career for our narrator’s tone-deaf sister-in-law:
You say she’s ugly, so from a contemporary point of view she’s sympathetic. You say her voice is wretched, which means it is emotive and conducive to certain styles. You say she has no talent—well then, without a doubt she is an original.
As the Institute extends its global reach, our hero designs a surreal clock-themed building in a satire on modernist architecture:
People moving up and down either wrought-copper staircase would be visible, as they would be encased in glass. I now saw I could arrange them diagonally across the centre of the hall to disrupt the traditional four leaf clover formation. Of course all the pillars—each one a little higher than the next—would be connected by little bridges so as to allow those moving up and down them to cross.
After a fractious final gathering, the Institute is consigned to continuous liquidation.
Apart from evoking Kafka and Borges, I was reminded of the stories of Švejk and his creator Hašek (whose Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress within the Limits of the Law was designed partly to bolster the finances of the pub where the election meetings were held), as well as Flann O’Brien, with his annotations on the ouevre of de Selby, and his All-Purpose Speech.
The 2013 translation is adorned by an excellent Introduction by Pankaj Mishra (cf. his review). Putting the novel in global context, he reflects on Atatürk’s cultural revolution and the developing world’s “feckless programme of Westernisation” in the pursuit of secular and rational ideals, where “the onwards-and-upwards narrative of progress, dictated by the state and embraced by a gullible people, has contaminated everything.” Adducing Russia, Japan, Iran, China, and India, Mishra notes a “tragic mismatch between the intentions of these hasty modernizers and the long historical experience of the societies they wanted to remake in the image of the modern West”. As in his 1939 novel A mind at peace, Tanpinar suggests the deracine sense of arriving late, spiritually destitute, bewildered by the “tawdry illusions of modernity”. Hayri İrdal—“one of those superfluous semimodern men familiar to us from Russian literature: more acted upon than active, simmering with inarticulate resentments and regrets”—“has a keen appreciation of the absurdities of the self-perpetuating and self‑justifying bureaucratic state that embodies progress and enlightenment in Turkey”.
The LRB has enriched my life, but nothing in its pages is so invigorating as Patricia Lockwood’s articles (click here for her own literary ouevre and a selection of her reviews; see also here).
Much as I learn from the LRB, some of its reviewers tend to submerge the book supposedly being considered beneath their own superior expertise, reading like “it should have been ME who wrote about this topic”. Ms Lockwood’s style is highly personal, but she manages to keep the poetry of her own fantastical world in the service of deep insights into the milieu of her subject, while drawing us into the whole craft of fiction writing. In a recent review of two story collections by George Saunders her comments illuminate, rather than obscure, the author’s message.
She reflects on the sense of failure conveyed by Saunders’ characters:
It must be, in order that he can overcome. At some point, the source of poignancy stopped being the characters, and started being the desire of the stories to rise above themselves. They wanted a little more than they had, than they could ever have. They could feel their strength, if they were just given a chance, they could be more than Daryls, Dereks, Kyles…
Commenting on his religious background, she stops herself:
Trying to trap me into writing a big Catholic thing, eh? Well, I won’t, except to say that we probably have a few of the same voices in our heads.
Reading Lincoln in the Bardo, she observes:
Short fiction is a cruel form. It is life in miniature: not enough time. Some of its best practitioners have been cruel, or doctors in an age when we took legs off with hacksaws. It is hard to keep giving readers that edge they can brace against, catch their breath, say OK, all right, you know it and I know it. It is hard, after experiencing their love, to stop yourself from showing up to rescue your readers too soon.
On Saunders’ experience as a teacher:
If you’re a normal person, the first time you set foot in a classroom you will hear a voice that says: “It is wrong to take their money”. Other claims rise up to drown out this voice—what holier thing than the study of literature; talent cannot be taught, but the fundamentals can; they are paying for a circle of protected time—and all of them are true, but the voice is loud, louder than literature, and grows louder when you see a student so full of desire for her own life that she can barely breathe, and you taking money for it. What will she do? Is there a world for her? Are you part of the cheat, have you been promoted to middle management?
As to his insights on Russian fiction:
Why is Saunders so much more interesting about Turgenev’s “The singers” than about Gogol’s “The nose”, when Gogol would seem his more natural forebear? Most memorably, A swim in a pond in the rain has a great section on Tolstoy’s “Master and man”, the story he is always writing in one form or another: one man dies to save the other, in falling snow.
There is something insoluble here. He is telling us that you cannot trust the Pulse—this is the fact that must be continually learned. Your feeling (you are, after all, doing this to feel the feeling) has nothing to do with whether it is good, just as your desire to be good cannot be worked out in fiction. But in those moments it does come to you what a guy is for, and you are covered in glory; it comes to you what it is to be a cloud of consciousness, with lives moving through you and that weird holy look on your face. The body lies far below you, in parts, the Worm Interlude—real site of your genius—passes into another phase, one you seem to remember from before you were born. “Where were you, before you came here?”
Note I found this handwritten manuscript, apparently the author’s only fictional creation, while sorting through my old family papers. * Except by osmosis, I was never privy to the lasting personal trauma it evokes. For me, that itself adds another layer of sadness; I never overcame my teenage alienation from the older generation, unable and perhaps unwilling to identify with their own human conflicts—and indeed it was many years before I became aware that such introspection was even possible. But aside from all that, I greatly admire the literary merit of the story, which speaks to an experience that extends beyond the Brief encounter generation.
She took the box of chocolates from him and glanced wearily at the contents—why bother to choose, she thought. I’m sure to get it wrong. Turkish delight… orange cream… perhaps ginger or brazil nut. What’s the betting I’ll end up with coffee or nougat—and anyway I don’t really know which one I want, or even if I want one at all. She pushed the box away, and her mind wandered back over the years, taking her from the comfortably furnished room, neat, warm, quiet, with its view onto a carefully tended suburban garden, to the shabby cottage where two little girls waited for their daddy to bring the Saturday treat he always collected for them when he went for his evening sports edition. The pools win had never come, but for her the memory of choosing which sweet to take from the penny packet he triumphantly produced was interwoven with the excited checking of football results.
When did I start to make the wrong choice, she wondered. The choice was my own, people didn’t influence me, did they? Did they? Was it not outside conditions, a sequence of events converging on me, forcing me into a narrowing passage where only one choice became possible, and finally became no choice at all? The war influenced so many people in so many ways, but for me the influence was gentle, tucked away as I was in the country, too young to have to leave home, my father in a reserved occupation, far from the bombs that caused such havoc. Oh no, I can’t blame the war. She thought of her dominant mother, who was outwardly kind, so absorbed in her little family, and whose whole life was lived for them, but who nevertheless expected complete obedience, unquestioning acceptance of her way of life. Was it her rule, her permanent ordering of every detail that had made it so difficult for her daughter to accept the responsibility for her own choice in even the smallest matters?
Two sisters, 1935.
At school the range of subjects had been limited by shortage of staff and accommodation caused by the need to share with evacuated schools, so by the time she had realised where her interests were it was too late to change, and the professional training she would have liked had been suspended for the duration of hostilities. She had fallen back on her mother’s choice of career, accepted her ambition for her, but chosen for herself the college in London—in spite of the doodlebugs.
She thought suddenly of the relief of being able to go home to the country from college, and then, for no reason at all, of the young farmer’s son who had been her constant companion. They had been friends, real friends, with an easy give and take, a flow of laughter and understanding, and a joy in the beauty of the countryside around them. His parents’ farmhouse had been welcoming, with a cool, clean atmosphere after the strenuous activities of haymaking in summer, and a friendly glow in winter after attending to the animals. His mother was a homemaker by instinct, not in the self-conscious manner of the modern housewife, and her husband made everyone welcome without looking over his shoulder to see if he was creating the right impression. His family had farmed there for generations; this was where he belonged, and he had no need to consider such things as creating the right image. Theirs was a happy life, and yet when Dan had asked her if she would consider giving up the prospects of the job she was training for and marry him, she had not even thought of it as a choice. She wanted to live in a town with all the excitement of constant entertainment, clever, smart friends and all that the best in the world of culture and arts could offer. Foolish girl that she had been, she had thought then that the big cities held everything the world could give. Foolish, self-pitying old woman that I am now, she thought, at least I know that the heart finds its own happiness regardless of material matters.
I did live in a beautiful city when I set out on my career, and I was so lucky with my work and my colleagues. The creative side of the work satisfied me, and the promise of being useful to others as well as enjoying the necessary routine. Why did I give it up, why did I leave the house where I was living as one of the family, but free to go my own way, why did I abandon my hopes of making my own life as I had planned? My choice again, she thought, to leave so much for so little. I was not swept off my feet by the handsome hero of the story books, I had no illusions about him; I expected no treats or surprises. Oh yes, I was flattered by his attentions, the promise of his devotion, and I made my own decision.
“Another chocolate, dear?” “No thankyou”. He didn’t even notice that she hadn’t taken one before—perhaps he no longer cared any more than she did. Was he too, perhaps, thinking back over the choices in his all to predictable life? The limited finance of the early years when he had chosen to buy a house that would be in the “right” area for one in his position, the child he had never wanted although they had decided together that the time had come when they could afford to start a family. Now that had been a wrong choice. Before that, she had been young enough to make a new life of her own without him, without a child to consider, and still able to make use of her training and experience. Did he remember that as a turning point too, one which had kept him in his dull job, paying the bills, gardening, decorating, listening to her nagging, the child’s grizzling—and for what? She remembered the years of shared misery, the endless arguments, the countless times when she had chosen to stay on, but in reality she had not had the guts to stand up to the recriminations of both families, to his concern about what people would think, how it would affect his career.
Perhaps just once she had rejected the choice to return to living in the country. Had it really been a choice? During one of her husband’s business trips she had taken her son back to the countryside of her youth, and seen again through his eyes the beauty of her native county. A picnic on the farm where she had so often ridden home with the harvest was a must, and it seemed natural that Dan would still be there, natural that she should show the boy the ducks, take him to the milling shed, lift him onto the back of the old horse, now out to grass, who had pulled so many hay carts. They had slipped so easily into their old friendly ways, and he had taken her hand gently, sensing her unhappiness, and said, “I’m still here if you want me, my lovely”.
Her husband was dozing now, and she looked across at him, tired, grey, lined, but still with the determination that was his hallmark. They were alone now; their son had done well, with his degree which had led to a successful career. But they rarely saw him, and when he did visit he was always in a hurry. She looked round the room and thought of the house they were in now. She had intended to leave when her son left, go her own way, at last be free to live her own life, independent of parents, husband, child, forget the bad times and make the most of what was left. But he had had a trick up his sleeve. Did he tempt her with that offer of a fresh start, the move to a new house? Did he really want to please her, make her happy, share with her the fruits of his dreary years? She looked at the room now, gleaming in the lamplight, carefully chosen by him, put together with patience, every detail meticulously stage-managed, taken out of her hands, and ending up like the magazine impression of an “Ideal Home”. The kitchen should be the heart of the home, like the farmhouse kitchen of long ago, but how easily hers had become not the heart but the powerhouse, full of all the latest and smartest equipment, an impressive showpiece.
Now she no longer had any real choice in anything that mattered, no choice whatsoever. Here in this lovely house, which could have been a bribe, in the suburbia to which she had never truly belonged, which had rendered her incapable of belonging to the countryside where her roots lay. “It hasn’t all been bad,” she thought, “there have been happy times, and I have much to be thankful for.” She looked at the helpless figure in the wheelchair, caught his glance as he awoke searching for her presence; shared with him the resignation to the crippling illness which two years ago had trapped him but would not give him a swift or easy release. No choice, she thought as she smiled at him and reached for a chocolate.
In 1970s’ England, while my musical tastes were already imbued with Ravel, Messiaen, and Boulez [Weirdo—Ed.], continental cinema offered an exotic escape from the drab insularity of our lives. French and Italian movies made a particularly important education for us.
The films of Jean-Luc Godard, who died last week (obits e.g. here and here), were iconic. It’s of no great consequence that his ouevre never quite appealed to me, but I’m just trying to work out why. It’s not that I balk at abstraction—I love Rivette’s Céline and Julie go boating, for instance (although you may say that its surreal fantasy is underpinned by the plot of a conventional mystery thriller).
Godard’s images and framing are strikingly original:
But for all the visual attraction of such posing, I suppose I was wary of poseurs. In Bertolucci’s Last tango in Paris (whose main theme is not sex but pain; see under The conformist) the character of Tom is a parody—perhaps more of Truffaut than of Godard, but anyway a satire on the whole pretentiousness of the Nouvelle Vague. To cite this review,
Léaud plays a devoted cineaste much like his New Wave directors, a man obsessed with getting everything on film, capturing something authentic through the most artificial means possible. He’s a punchline, with a camera crew following him everywhere, concocting scenarios that are intended to examine race relations and his girlfriend’s past as the daughter of a French colonialist officer, but it’s all phony, a game. He screams at his camera crew for halting filming in a sudden rainstorm—it’s so romantic and photogenic—and then he runs off into the rain, screaming his love’s name, still acting out the big romantic moment even though the cameras have stopped rolling. In another scene, the background music seems to be non-diegetic until Tom abruptly switches off the tape recorder hanging around his neck, which had apparently been playing the music as an accompaniment to a confrontation with Jeanne. This is a guy who carries around his own soundtrack.
Tom is a walking, talking critique of the contrivances and artificiality of filmmaking, and I think also a critique, if perhaps an unwitting one, of Brando’s self-conscious performance style. Tom is obsessed with authenticity, trying to rearrange reality to fit within his frame. He’s always walking around with his hands held up to form a frame around what he sees, an obvious caricature of a pretentious film director, and all his attempts to capture the essence of reality only come out artificial and silly. Though superficially quite different from Paul—who claims to want to avoid the truth, not discover it—Tom winds up being very much like his counterpart, another character who’s hiding from reality, even while claiming to seek it. In his case, he hides in the cinema…
Tom, of course, is a parody of the Godardian New Wave filmmaker, running around putting up his fingers to make camera shots out of everything, and apparently not knowing or caring what Jeanne is doing. He is fittingly played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, who was discovered by Truffaut as a child and has since played in many New Wave movies, looking increasingly like Truffaut himself. Tom is characteristically in the New Wave ethos in trying to make a film about the progress of his love affair leading up to his marriage. His crew creep around after Jeanne, filming her meetings with Tom and then filming her childhood mansion complete with relics from the past. Real life and the world of their film become so entangled that it is hard to say anymore what their reality is. Jeanne’s life becomes the film; the film becomes their reality together; they live the film rather than making a film imitating their lives.
Bertolucci shows clearly the superficiality, irresponsibility, and triviality of Jeanne and Tom’s world together. It is a shrewd comment on contemporary, fashionably “hip” worlds where people are so sophisticated and blasé about everything that they have ceased to be human beings living in the realities of our society and historical moment. It is an entirely escapist world with all the inevitable consequences of shallowness that follow escapism.
The Nouvelle Vague was based on an aloof, impersonal ethos—for which I blame the alienated male auteurs, who were in charge, with women making decorative pawns. Call Me Old-Fashioned, but I still want a bit of plot, personality, communication. In many (perhaps all?!) films, such as La strada or The conformist, it’s the women who provide humanity while the men are swanning around being pompous and fucked-up. The women may be fucked-up too, but largely through being abused by all the fucked-up men. Revealingly, Godard showed his contempt for The conformist—as Bertolucci commented, recalling their meeting 37 years after the event:
He doesn’t say anything to me. He just gives me a note and then he leaves. I take the note and there was a Chairman Mao portrait on it and with Jean-Luc’s writing that we know from the handwriting on his films. The note says: “You have to fight against individualism and capitalism.” That was his reaction to my movie. I was so enraged that I crumpled it up and threw it under my feet. I’m so sorry I did that because I would love to have it now, to keep it as a relic. […]
Here are some trailers for Godard’s early films:
À bout de souffle (Breathless, 1960) starred Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg:
Le mépris (Contempt, 1963), with Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli, is so overladen by Godard’s already signature style that it hardly seeks to do justice to the “humiliation and sexual frustration” of Alberto Moravia’s novel Il disprezzo (English translation titled A ghost at noon):
Of Godard’s successive muses, Anna Karina (wiki; obituary) was the most captivating. Their first movie together was Le petit soldat (filmed in 1960, released in 1963), followed by
Une femme est une femme (A woman is a woman, 1961):
Vivre sa vie (My life to live, 1962):
as well as Bande à part (1964), and Alphaville (1965). Their last film before they broke up was
Pierrot le fou (1965):
—which reminds me rather of Betty blue (Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1986) (in the words of Peep show, “great sex-and-suicide flick—turned a whole generation of men onto girls with mental illness”).
Godard’s originality emerged not only through his visual sense, but in music. Michel Legrand, known for working on less avant-garde movies, provided the soundtrack for Vivre sa vie:
Legrand also composed the soundtrack for Bande à part—this dance scene is actually endearing:
It’s as if all a male film director had to do was find a gamine muse (see under Moon river, and Ute Lemper), and success was guaranteed, no matter how minimal and inscrutable the plot-line.
I don’t mean to react merely with a surly Gallic shrug—each of Godard’s films was a tour de force (“too, er, deaf ‘orse”: Cheval trop sourd, unreleased?), and I quite see how epoch-making they were. Perhaps I should say not that his ouevre never appealed to me, but that it didn’t move me. But I guess that’s just the kind of bourgeois conceit that he was exposing; as Bertolucci continued in his recollection,
I had finished the period in which to be able to communicate would be considered a mortal sin. He had not.
Still, Godard’s stance against communication seems to dilute his radical political mission.
To end with an affectionate British parody, here’s a 1997 vignette from the Fast show:
Allow me to introduce Ogonek and Til, feisty yet (you guessed it) flawed protagonists of my forthcoming crime drama series, as they embark on the hazardous trail of a dastardly ring of international diacritic smugglers…
As an avid tennis fan, without being too perfectionist I’m not alone in musing gingerly over how to pronounce the surname of the magnificent Iga Świątek, currently sailing serenely (Serena-ly?) towards the final of the US Open. She gives us a handy lesson:
So the lowly diacritic squiggle indicates that the a sound is both closed and nasal. It’s an ogonek (“little tail”)—which leads us to the mystical realms of Elfdalian, Kashubian, Lithuanian, and Navajo (see here, and here)! To think that I still rather resent having to go to all the faff of inputting grave and acute accents in French, and such non-national fripperies…
Readers with a penchant for Igor Stravinsky anagrams will note that while the cast of the brilliant Gran visits York includes such redoubtable characters as Sir K.Y. Groins-Vat and Kirsty Garvison, one absentee from the urtext is the arcane exhortation
V.S.—or try sink, Iga!
It belongs with those weird dreams common to musos and sportspeople (“unqualified, ill-prepared, running out of time, wrong uniform, lost”). On the eve of yet another crucial Grand Slam match, the Polish star finds herself on stage (quite likely in her tennis outfit) playing percussion in the The Rite of Spring, only to see a prophetic instruction from the composer (revealing a rare aptitude for self-parody): either whip the page over, or just create a noisy diversion with all the pots and pans that surround you!
* * *
Which reminds me, in Portuguese (cf. my paltry dabblings here), I do feel we Brits might make a little more effort in adding a nasal quality at the end of the ão sound in São Paulo (the diacritic on ã being a til, for which English has adopted the Spanish word tilde)—as in
Note (cf. Mots d’heures: gousses, rames):
The scene is a dingy immigrant enclave in Coimbra. Despite his eccentric choice of dog-food, the enterprising oriental subject of this ditty seems to have been sufficiently au fait with Iberian folk idioms to experiment in combining the Noh-tinged (Não-tinged?) saudade of fado with the palmas of flamenco; perhaps it was the casual co-option of such percussive accompaniment that so offended the purist killjoy João.
Recently another interpretation of “Waving a mão, he burst into canção” has been proposed (Acta Musicologica Asiatica-Iberica, LXXIII.2, 2021), which would bypass both fado and flamenco: it may rather depict the haunting kakegoe cries of the Noh drummer as he slowly lifts his hand to bring it down resoundingly on the tense skin of the ōtsuzumi. Although “raising” might have been a more precise verb than “waving”, the burghers of Coimbra might well be alarmed to hear such an alien sound echoing through the cobbled alleys of their hallowed university town.
* * *
Composing a limerick for Iga is more of a challenge:
There was a young star named Świątek
Whose talents spread way beyąd tech
When it comes to the tennis, she sure is a menace—
To play her it’s all hands ą deck.
Sure, the stress-patterning doesn’t quite work: in line 2, it would be helped by an accent on beyond, though that requires knowledge of some spurious back-story whereby Iga has already been spotted as a promising software programmer; and there’s nothing to be done about the final line. But hey… I am proud to announce that my effort was runner-up in the prestigious 2022 Świątek Limerick Contest—in which I was the only entrant… But go on, why not join in too? Hours of harmless fun for all the family!
“YAYY!!! I’ve got a limerick!!!”
And now I’m already honing my entry for next year’s contest:
To Iga’s fine surname Świątek
I once tried adding a “zee”, ą spec
But that wouldn’t work—I felt such a berk
And now her name’s in neą—Heck!
Again, this falls down on stress-patterning. In line 2 (please excuse my unusual lapse into American English), my misguided spelling was of course Śzwiątek.
The Chinese novelist Jia Pingwa 贾平凹 (贾平娃, b.1952) maintains his reputation despite often falling foul of the censors—a pattern all too familiar to other artists such as film-makers.
Brought up in southeast Shaanxi in a village in the Shangluo region, Jia Pingwa studied at the provincial capital Xi’an from 1971. His novels exemplify “native-place fiction” and the blending of traditional story-telling and modern verismo. For useful introductions to his work, click here and here.
I’m particularly keen to read
Feidu 废都 (“Ruined city” or “Abandoned capital”, 1993; translation by Howard Goldblatt, 2016), and
Qinqiang 秦腔, 2005; (forthcoming translation “The Shaanxi opera” by Dylan Levi King and Nicky Harman—see here, and here).
King introduces both novels in an evocative account of a trip on which he and Harman followed Jia back to his home village, now converted into a theme park…
“Native-place” writing has a clear affinity with the movies of Jia Zhangke (no relation!). Indeed, Jia Pingwa, Yu Hua, and the female writer Liang Hong are the subjects of Jia’s 2019 documentary Yizhi dao haishui bianlan 一直游到海水变蓝 (“Swimming out till the sea turns blue”)—characterised by Liu Qing, in her critical review from a gender perspective, as “fixated on the self-mythologising of ordinary men”. Here’s a trailer:
Between The horse thief (1986) and The blue kite (1993), Tian Zhuangzhuang‘s movie Gushu yiren鼓书艺人 (“The drum singers” or “The street players”) was released in 1987. It’s adapted from the last novel of Lao She—written in New York in 1948–49 before he made the fateful decision to return to serve the Chinese revolution (for Mr Ma and son, click here).
The movie is set during the War of Resistance against Japan in the urban metropolis of Chongqing, where the Beijing drum-singer Fang Baoqing has sought refuge from the invaders with his family and opens a thriving tea-house with Tang Shaoye, another refugee story-teller. When Baoqing’s dream of setting up a school to ameliorate the lowly status of performers is shattered by a Japanese bombing raid, he sets up a little tea-house in the suburbs. There, as he makes friends with the progressive writer Mengliang, Baoqing and his daughter Xiulian soon do well from performing Anti-Japanese stories.
But devastated by the loss of his “older brother”, Baoqing wants to give up his project. Mengliang encourages him to send Xiulian to school, but with her lowly background she is driven out by her well-to-do schoolmates. Xiulian, abused, abducted, and then abandoned by a ruffian entrusted to look after her, returns pregnant. As victory over the Japanese is declared, the film ends with the distressed family setting sail to an uncertain future (as did Lao She).
Here’s the film—sorry, no subtitles:
By comparison with Tian Zhuangzhuang’s other work (in particular The blue kite , a most outstanding film) and that of other members of the “fifth generation” (cf. composers), I find The street players somewhat conventional and melodramatic. Under my post on Chinese film classics, far more creative and realistic is To live (Zhang Yimou, 1994), which sets forth from the travails of a shadow-puppet troupe in Beijing during the civil war; and for a (more magical than realist) movie on a rural bard, see Life on a string. For narrative-singing in Beijing and Tianjin, click here and here.
Dedicated to “the unhappy memory of the millions of civilians on all sides who became victims of the numerous death marches, movements of refugees, campaigns of persecution and extermination, and exchanges of population”, it brings to life a convulsive period throughout Asia Minor.
The story revolves around inhabitants of the fictional town of Eskibahçe (apparently based on Kayaköy on the southwest coast of Anatolia), with vivid vignettes evoking how the lives of the town’s Christian and Muslim inhabitants were intertwined. Not that such coexistence was without tensions—on the antecedents of the wider catastrophe, De Bernières notes
There was between 1821 and 1913 a prolonged and atrocious holocaust which we have chosen to forget, and from which we have learned absolutely nothing.
Still, life in Eskibahçe had been largely tranquil—until
The machinations of the Great Powers, and the immemorial turbulence of the Balkans, had dragged the Ottoman state from one impoverishing, bruising, and demoralising war to another. Those who were conscripted found themselves serving for indefinite numbers of years in vile and hostile places hundreds of miles from home, whilst the womenfolk broke their own health in the desperate attempt to run their farms and homes alone.
The stories are interwoven with that of Mustafa Kemal, who became the national founder Atatürk—narrated in the historical present (a device that usually Gets my Goat). Eskibahçe scenes are also interspersed with visits to cosmopolitan Smyrna and Istanbul.
A trifling incident results in the humiliation of Levon the Armenian:
There was not a single one of those there who would not have helped Levon if they had found him injured by the side of the road, but as a mob they were individually not a wit superior to hyenas.
De Bernières gives a succinct account of rising tensions with the Armenians in east Anatolia, before troops arrive to deport Levon along with the minority of Armenian families in the village.
The centrepiece of the novel is the Gallipoli campaign, with Iskander the Potter’s son Karatavuk evoking in hideous detail his time serving at the front.
Little remained the same. In Eskibahçe the work was being done by children, the women, the very old, and the few men who had returned crippled from active service. All the townspeople were half starved, and most of them were desperate. The stock was regularly rustled by gangs of deserters, and there were those who stole from their neighbours’ fields, even though the punishment for being caught was absolute and condign. […]
The town evinced its economic and moral decline in its very appearance. The dilapidated streets remained uncleaned, broken shutters hung at drunken angles from torn window frames, and the cheerful pastel paintwork of walls and woodwork had long since begun to peel away. The stray dogs, no longer benignly supplied with crusts of bread by the kind-hearted, died in the streets and rotted there, filling the air with the same pervasive, sweet, and rich stink of death that had supplanted the scent of satisfied earth and wild flowers all across the disfigured fields of Europe. […]
The few shops that opened had almost nothing to sell, and no-one had any money with which to buy. Some of the ones that used to belong to the Armenians had been looted. The wonderfully varied stalls that used to make the meydan almost impassable were sagging on their trestles, unused and unmaintained.
And yet worse was to come, as Greek and Turkish forces descended into a cycle of vicious atrocities, culminating in 1922–3 with the forced Christian–Muslim population expulsions between Greece and Turkey. Again, de Bernières manages to explain both the wider political picture and the personal stories of Eskibahçe townsfolk as they too are engulfed in the cataclysm. With the surviving community impoverished by the loss of its Christian neighbours, the story of Philothei and Ibrahim makes a tragic dénouement.
A postscript on the (real) nearby town of Fethiye (Telmessos) jolts us to the glib tourism of the present day.
In conjunction with historical studies such as Twice a stranger, such well-written fiction as this, blending macro and micro perspectives, is both moving and revealing, reminding us of the human suffering that grand political agendas inflict.
a most entertaining romp through late Ottoman history.
First in a series (gaily described by Marilyn Stasio as “a magic carpet ride to the most exotic place on earth”) starring Yashim the eunuch, the novel is set in 1836 Constantinople, ten years after the “Auspicious Event” that seemed to rid the empire of the overweening Janissaries:
Once the Ottoman Empire’s crack troops, the Janissaries had degenerated—or evolved, if you like—into an armed mafia, terrorising sultans, swaggering through the streets of Istanbul, rioting, fire-raising, thieving and extorting with impunity. Outgunned and outdrilled by the armies of the west, stubbornly they had clung to the traditions of their forefathers, contemptuous of innovation, despising the common soldiers of the enemy and rejecting every lesson the battlefield could teach, for fear of their grip loosening. For decades they had held the empire to ransom.
Yashim foils a plot threatening a vengeful revival, as he goes in search of mysterious, elusive tekke Sufi lodges. The cast features grisly ritual murders, harem plots, an Albanian soup-master, a transvestite entertainer, a Polish ambassador, fire-tower watchmen, and an archetypal Russian femmefatale.
The street scenes are evocative:
A troupe of jugglers and acrobats, six men and two women, took up a position near the cypress tree, squatting on their haunches, waiting for light and crowds. Between them they had set a big basket with a lid, and Murad Eslek spent a while watching them from a corner of the alley behind the city walls until he had seen that the basket really did contain bats, balls, and other paraphernalia of their trade. Then he moved on, eyeing up the other quacks and entertainers who had crowded in for the Friday market: the Kurdish story teller in a patchwork coat; the Bulgarian fire-eater, bald as an egg; a number of bands—Balkan pipers, Anatolian string players; a pair of sinuous and silent Africans, carefully dotting a blanket spread on the ground with charms and remedies; a row of gypsy silversmiths with tiny anvils and a supply of coins wrapped in pieces of soft leather, who were already at work, snipping the coins and beating out tiny rings and bracelets.
The climax comes with a splendidly tense cinematic scene in the tanneries.
The first thing Yashim noticed, after the stench he was forced to suck down into his heaving chest, was the light.
It rose from eery columns from the vats into which, across an area of several acres, the animal skins were lowered for boiling and dyeing. Against a forest of flickering torches, each vat threw out a spume of coloured vapour, red, yellow, and indigo blending and slowly dissolving into the darkness of the night air. The air stank of fat, and burned hair, and worst of all the overreaching odour of dog shit used to tan the leather. A vision of hell.
Like Turkish audiences, I’ve been riveted by the recent ten-instalment TV series The Club (Netflix, 2021), directed by Seren Yüce and Zeynep Günay Tan. The drama exposes the multicultural Turkish elephant in the room, probing the boundaries of free speech today (cf. The Armenian genocide).
Netflix offers a choice of seven languages, with subtitles, in any combination you please; I wasn’t too disturbed by the somewhat stilted voices in the dubbed English version, but I envy local viewers their ability to catch the nuance of the conversational switches between Turkish, Ladino, and Greek in the original soundtrack.
Revolving around Istanbul’s Jewish community (with Ladino often heard), the plot is framed by the wealth tax of 1942—heavily penalising non-Muslims—and the anti-Greek pogrom of 1955, also ignited by ethnic tensions in Cyprus. In 1955, Matilda, a Jewish ex-convict, finds work in one of Istanbul’s leading nightclubs. As she tries to rebuild her relationship with her daughter Raşel, Matilda struggles to keep her away from Muslim playboy İsmet. With the outrageously camp singing star Selim, she also stands against her boss Orhan and nightclub manager Çelebi.
With such issues unfamiliar to many viewers, the series has been warmly received by Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike (reviews e.g. here and here). It’s also a visual period-piece, with charismatic actors—and some great songs carefully chosen to enhance the dramatic moment.
Here Salih Bademci (as the dreamy Selim) performs Masal (Fairy tale), by iconic Turkish singer Sezen Aksu—though the song is later, it’s another astute choice, given her link to progressive causes:
The directors’ pluralistic agenda is further underlined in their recruiting of pianist-composer-arranger Fazil Say; charged with blasphemy in 2012, he went on to compose a series of pieces reflecting on the suppression of the 2013 Gezi Park protests. And the final débacle of The Club is accompanied by alternating Greek and Turkish versions of Zülfü Livaneli‘s 1979–80 song Kardeşin Duymaz, pleading for coexistence:
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has occasionally referred to what he calls the “fascist mentality” of the single-party era before 1950 in criticism of the opposition Republican People’s Party, which ruled at the time, and how it treated minorities. “They were ethnically cleansed because they had a different ethnic cultural identity”, Erdogan said in 2009. “The time has arrived for us to question ourselves about why this happened and what we have learned from all of this”.
If that sounds rather enlightened, the review goes on:
But neither Erdogan nor other Turkish leaders have taken any concrete steps to address the Wealth Tax, the 1955 pogrom, or other attacks on minorities. The Democrat Party, which won the first free and fair elections in the country in 1950, campaigned on a pledge to pay reparations for the Wealth Tax, but never kept the promise.
In fiction the sensitive topic has been broached before in works such as Mrs Salkim’s diamonds (1990 novel; 1999 film), but The Club is now giving it a far wider audience. Not only is the unfolding of the drama compelling in itself (with regular Doof Doof moments), but it’s educating viewers within Turkey—and, I hope, further afield.
A recent scholarly panel offers a critique of the series:
I boldly suggested that my film on the Li family Daoists might make more stimulating Christmas viewing than watching Bambi for the umpteenth time—but now it transpires that the original story of the latter has been gravely diluted and sugar-coated, as shown in
The original novel Bambi: Eine Lebensgeschichte aus dem Walde was written in 1923 by Felix Salten, an author and critic in Vienna. Far from being a cute children’s story, the new translation shows that Bambi was actually a parable about the inhumane treatment and precarious life of Jews and other minorities as fascism loomed. In 1935 the book was banned by the Nazis, who burned it as Jewish propaganda.
Meanwhile the original English translation, published in 1928, “toned down Salten’s anthropomorphism and changed its focus so that it was more likely to be understood as a simple conservation story about animals living in a forest”.
In 1933 Salten sold the film rights to MGM producer Sidney Franklin for a paltry $1,000; Franklin then sold them on to Walt Disney, who read the 1928 translation, and loved animal stories. Hence the saccharine 1942 animated movie about a young deer who finds love and friendship in a forest. While there is much to admire about Disney, from his movies to his koanesque aperçu (n. here, and under Daoist non-action), Salten himself never earned a penny from the movie.
A new translation by Jack Zipes reasserts the book’s original message warning of the persecution and dangers faced by Jews in Europe. It soon becomes apparent that the forest animals are living out their lives in fear and that puts the reader constantly “on edge”. As Zipes comments, “All the animals have been persecuted. And I think what shakes the reader is that there are also some animals who are traitors, who help the hunters kill”. Without being didactic, Salten could encourage the reader to feel more empathy towards oppressed groups—and Bambi could openly question the cruelty of their oppressors. “Many other writers, like George Orwell, chose animals too because you’re freer to tackle problems that might make your readers bristle. And you don’t want them to bristle, you want them to say, at the end: this is a tragedy.”
When Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Salten managed to flee to Switzerland. Stripped of his Austrian citizenship by the Nazis, he spent his final years “lonely and in despair” in Zurich and died in 1945—like Bambi, with no safe place to call home.
The 1915 Armenian genocide,  affirmed by scholars and historians around the world, remains bitterly contested by the government of Turkey, which (like that of China) has long propounded collective amnesia. Clarity on the “Armenian question” is often bedevilled by the technical issue of whether the assaults constituted genocide as defined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944.
Under the roof of the Ottoman empire, religious and ethnic groups were obliged to coexist—as in Anatolia, where Muslims lived alongside Orthodox Greek and Armenian neighbours. But inter-ethnic violence increased through the 19th century; from 1895 Armenians were frequently the targets of atrocities. With the Ottoman roof crumbling, the 1912–13 Balkan Wars reduced its territory and heightened tensions in Anatolia.
After the outbreak of World War One, by 1915 the Ottoman authorities in Constantinople, anxious to forestall rebellion, executed and deported prominent Armenian leaders and disarmed Armenian soldiers in the Ottoman army. In eastern Anatolia (then still home to Greek Orthodox Christians, besides Turkish and Kurdish Muslims), as Armenians were deported away from the Russian front, around one million were starved, robbed, raped, and slaughtered on death marches to the desert. Armenian assets were expropriated, and the surviving women and children forcibly Islamified, erasing Armenian names and culture. Further massacres followed in 1916. International exposure and scrutiny were helpless to stem the tide. Later the genocide was much admired by the Nazis.
On the surface it might seem strange that Turkey would stake so much of its own credibility defending a predecessor empire whose immediate legacy it had itself disowned. Yet it has become part of the catechism of today’s Republic that what happened in 1915 was part of the exigencies of war and not premeditated.
He gamely outlines the Turkish case, that
Turks were themselves the initial victims of ethnic cleansing. […] Cholera and famine (as well as attacks by Kurdish irregulars) also took their toll on the files of refugees. If blame is to be apportioned, the argument runs, it falls on Armenian revolutionaries who disturbed centuries of coexistence between Muslims and Armenians.
With the academic community and world opinion unconvinced that the many wrongs suffered by Turkish Muslims made a right, he explains the niceties of international legal wranglings and the ramifications of genocide resolutions. And he observes changing attitudes within Turkey, with more open discussion, and growing interest in the contributions of Armenians to the Ottoman empire.
The 2004 publication of Fethiye Çetin’s My grandmother: an Armenian-Turkish memoir (one of the five books on the genocide chosen by Thomas de Waal, author of Great catastrophe) “confronted Turks with the Armenians in their midst, both dead and alive”, raising awareness of forced assimilation.
Çetin’s grandmother (1905–2000) only began revealing her story in 1975. Çetin gave her death announcement to the Istanbul newspaper Agos:
Her name was Heranuş. She was the granddaughter of Herabet Gadaryan, and the only daughter of İsguhı and Hovannes Gadaryan.
She passed a happy childhood in the village of Habab, near Palu, until she reached the fourth grade.
Then, suddenly, she was thrown into the painful times about which she would say, “May those days vanish never to return”.
Heranuş lost her entire family and never saw them again. She was given a new name, to live in a new family.
She forgot her mother tongue and her religion, and though she did not once in her life complain about this, she never ever forgot her name, her village, her mother, her father, her grandfather or her close relations. She lived until the age of 95, always hoping that she might be able to see them and embrace them again one day. Perhaps it was this hope that allowed her to live so long; until her very last days, her mind remained sharp. Last week, we lost Heranuş, our grandmother, and sent her to her eternal resting place. We are hoping that this announcement might reach the relations (our relations) that we were never able to find while she was alive, that they may share our grief, in the hope that “those days may vanish, never to return”.
(Clockwise from left to right.)
As the translator Maureen Freely comments In her Introduction, this history has been concealed from four generations of Turkish schoolchildren. The book bears witness, giving voice to those whom history has silenced.
The persistence of Armenians in Anatolia today, “the leftovers of the sword”, is explored in a wonderful book, full of rich ethnographic observation:
Avedis Hadjian, Secret nation: the hidden Armenians of Turkey (2018).
For Armenians outside Turkey, the clock had stopped in 1915. Until the mid-2000s, most of the Diaspora did not know that there were Armenians left in the ancient provinces of the Ottoman Empire—the conquered territories of Western Armenia and Cilicia. The terrified Armenians that remained would still be subject to daily humiliations, killings, deportations, and armed attacks by the Turkish army and irregular formations, both Turkish and Kurdish, until at least the late 1980s in some parts of the country’s interior. For these Armenians, genocide by other means continued for another century.
In fiction, an engaging appearance of the elephant in the room is Elif Shafak’s The bastard of Istanbul (2006), using the stories of a characterful Istanbul family of women and their teenage daughter Asya, who bonds with the Armenian-American Armanoush, stepdaughter of the family’s estranged brother, as she comes in search of her heritage. I find the novel highly effective in presenting nuanced views through the voices of a polyphonic cast with their seemingly antagonistic stereotypes.
In the Turkish Penal Code the crime of “insulting Turkishness” went back to Article 159, introduced in 1926. In 2005, concerned over the new openness of discussion, the state had replaced it with the controversial Article 301, bringing a slew of prosecutions against several journalists and authors. Written in English, The bastard of Istanbul soon became a bestseller in Turkish, and despite—or perhaps because of—its spirit of reconciliation, Shafak’s book was among the targets of Article 301. While the case against her was dropped, like that of Orhan Pamuk, a prosecution against the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink was upheld, and he was soon assassinated by a young ultranationalist, giving rise to popular protests.
Indeed, Hrant Dink was the editor of Agos, where Heranuş Gadaryan’s death notice had appeared, and it was Fethiye Çetin who acted as Dink’s lawyer; she has continued to represent his family.
Having created a climate of fear, by 2008 Article 301 was amended to discourage abuse, but since 2017 it has been invoked again for other purposes (see also Fatma Yavuz).
This 2005 documentary on the Armenian genocide is from ARTE:
For a thorough recent study, see Fatma Müge Göçek, Denial of violence: Ottoman past, Turkish present, and collective violence against the Armenians, 1789-2009 (2016), with sections on Imperial denial of origins of violence; Young Turk denial of the act of violence; Early Republican denial of actors of violence; and Late Republican denial of responsibility for violence. She explores the wider issue of “Why do states and societies insist of denying the acts of collective violence embedded in their pasts and present?” (e.g. Holocaust denial, Native America, Russia, and China, among many cases).
Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The thirty-year genocide: Turkey’s destruction of its Christian minorities, 1894–1924 (2019) encourages us to see the wider picture, though some of its detail has been challenged. Note also Ronald Grigor Suny, They can live in the desert but nowhere else: a history of the Armenian genocide (2020).
Sola is one of three children of Liu Jingfan, younger brother of Liu Zhidan (1903–36), a guerrilla hero in Shaanbei whose career as Red Army commander was cut short by the arrival of Mao Zedong’s Long March forces. After the story of Liu Zhidan’s fate was exposed in a historical novel by Sola’s mother Li Jiantong, in 1962 Mao not only banned the book (declaring “Using novels to engage in anti-Party activities is a great invention”), but had all those involved in its publication ruthlessly persecuted (see David Holm, “The strange case of Liu Zhidan”, 1992). Even after the end of the Cultural Revolution, Li Jiantong continued to struggle against censorship as she compiled sequels.
Composition students at the Central Conservatoire, 1978.
Left to right: Liu Sola, Ai Liqun, Tan Dun, Chen Yi, Sun Yi, Zhang Lida, Zhang Xiaofu.
More images in this short documentary.
In 1977–78, as the Central Conservatoire in Beijing reopened after the death of Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, Sola—already seriously cool—gained admission to the composition department, along with bright young students like Qu Xiaosong, Tan Dun, Guo Wenjing, and Ye Xiaogang. Having only recently been liberated from punishing stints of rural labour as “sent-down youth”, their studies were punctuated by fieldtrips to collect folk-song in the remote countryside of south China—an experience that now felt more revelatory (cf. Fieldworkers, Chinese and foreign).
After graduating, partly in rebellion against the establishment that contemporary Western Art Music seemed to represent, Sola chose to become a pop musician, giving concerts and composing for film soundtracks, TV, and theatre. At the same time she made a great impression with her 1985 novellas Ni biewu xuanze 你别无选择 (You have no choice), Lantian lühai 蓝天绿海 (Blue sky green sea), and Xunzhao gewang 寻找歌王 (In search of the king of singers). Her voice was
irreverent and honest, blasé and innocent, light and serious, negative and positive all at once; a voice marked by a characteristic humour that manages to be dark and yet not cynical.
By now she was the life and soul of a lively artistic scene in Beijing.
London and New York In 1987 the US News Agency invited Sola on a visit to the States—where, igniting her early interest in blues, the “King of Singers” turned out to be Junior Wells. In 1988 she came to live in London, “a challenging and precarious time”, furthering her studies without the celebrity status of her time in Beijing.
With Vini Reilly, 1988.
Working with British musicians like Justin Adams, Clive Bell, and the Durutti Column, she tasted WOMAD, performing with Mari Boine, though dissatisfied with the exotic pigeonholing of “world music”.
In summer 1989—as she witnessed the horrifying events of Tiananmen from afar—Sola deepened her devotion to blues on a trip working with musicians in Memphis (Memphis diary, 1993). Her experience of blues is a major theme of the wide-ranging, richly illustrated collection of conversations Xingzoude Liu Suola 行走的刘索拉 (Liu Suola on the move, 2001). Meanwhile she composed for Zuni Theatre in Hong Kong, and for Chiang Ching’s dance drama June snow.
Among writings from her London period is Hundun jia ligelong 混沌加哩格楞 (Chaos and all that, 1991), a novel that “both acknowledges cultural diversity and provides a darkly comic critique of it”. I’m also very fond of her paintings, like this from June 1990 (signed “Chegong”, Sola’s name in traditional Chinese gongche notation!):
After taking part in the Iowa Writers’ Program in 1992, Sola moved to New York in 1993. Immersing herself in the avant-garde scene there, she relished collaborations with musicians like Bill Laswell, Fernando Saunders, and Ornette Coleman, enjoying a freedom that had been elusive in London. This bore fruit in her wonderful 1995 album Blues in the East.
In her following New York albums such as China collage (1996) she took a rather different path. She later reinvented her exhilarating song Festival as A chicken at the country fair:
In this period she also wrote Da Jijiade xiao gushi 大继家的小故事 (Little tales of the great Ji family, 2000), perhaps her finest novel (translated into Italian and French, still not available in English), a historical fantasy based on the tribulations of her family—“part Virgil, part Monty Python”.
Back in the PRC After fifteen years abroad, by 2003 the cultural scene in China seemed promising, far from the mood when Sola had left in 1988. Still, she
cannot be associated with the many haigui’s or “sea-faring turtles” who return after working or studying abroad to flaunt their “international credentials”. Nor is working in China with Chinese music a form of cultural nationalism; such nationalism is especially easy to profess at a moment when Chinese music will sound less marginal now that China has become a dominant world power. Rather […] her work in China undertakes the almost Sisyphean task of overcoming clichéd ideas of Chinese music and the use of such clichés for propaganda.
In 2005 she appeared in Ning Ying’s film Wuqiongdong (Perpetual motion, 2005), for which she also wrote the music. Notable compositions include two chamber operas, both international collaborations. Fantasy of the Red Queen (Jingmeng 惊梦, 2006) is “a woman’s tragedy about the power of illusion and the illusion of power”, told through through the devilish persona of Jiang Qing. It draws on Berg, Schoenberg, the qin zither, Beijing opera, Kunqu, revolutionary and folk opera, and 1930s’ Shanghai pop, with snatches of jazz, tango, and hip hop. Here’s an excerpt:
The afterlife of Li Jiantong (Zizai hun 自在魂, 2009) is a deeply personal drama in which Sola receives a visitation from her mother, who takes her on a journey to the spirit world to meet her late father. Using a complex compositional scheme, Sola makes use of the kuqiang “weeping melody” style of Chinese opera, with a baroque group led by Paul Hillier among the accompanying ensemble.
From The afterlife of Li Jiantong.
Always relishing live performance, she went on to form the Liu Sola and Friends ensemble with select Chinese musicians, building on her grounding in jazz to overcome conservatoire and ideological training. And she has continued to publish, with the essay collection Kouhong ji 口红集 (Lipstick talk, 2009) and the novel Milian zhou 迷恋咒 (Lost in fascination, 2011); a new novel is on the way.
Here’s a short CCTV documentary:
* * *
Amidst the ever-changing scene in China (see e.g. New musics in Beijing, and Rock it, mom), Liu Sola’s constantly innovative mix of music, fiction, and drama is utterly distinctive; her musical and literary works, both early and later, have a cult following. She remains vivacious and young at heart, always exploring.
In my post on Frank Morgan I mentioned how he managed to keep active on sax while in San Quentin by playing along with fellow inmates.
That post set forth from LA detective Harry Bosch’s good taste in jazz, and again Michael Connelly’s novels have some pertinent comments on Art Pepper (1925–82), who was one of Morgan’s jazz colleagues in jail.
Pepper was no angel either. Like Chet Baker, he was a white West-coast junkie. In Connelly’s A darkness more than night (2000) he evokes the classic 1957 album Art Pepper meets the rhythm section:
He went into the house and got two more beers out of the refrigerator. This time McCaleb was standing in the living room when he came back from the kitchen. He handed Bosch his empty bottle and Bosch wondered for a moment if he had finished it or poured the beer over the side of the deck. He took the empty into the kitchen and when he came back McCaleb was standing at the stereo studying a CD case.
“This what’s playing?” he asked. Art Pepper meets the rhythm section?”
Bosch stepped over.
“Yeah. Art Pepper and Miles’s side men. Red Garland on piano, Pau Chambers on bass, Philly Joe Jones on drums. Recorded here in LA, January 19, 1957. One day. The cork in the neck of Pepper’s sax was supposedly cracked but it didn’t matter. He had one shot with those guys. He made the most of it. One day, one shot, one classic. That’s the way to do it.”
“These guys were in Miles Davis’s band?”
“At the time.”
McCaleb nodded. Bosch leaned close to look at the CD cover in McCaleb’s hands.
“Yeah, Art Pepper,” he said. “When I was growing up I never knew who my father was. My mother, she used to have a lot of this guy’s records. She hung out at some of the jazz clubs where he’d play. Handsome devil, Art was. For a hype. Just look at that picture. Too cool to fool. I made up this whole story about how he was my old man and he wasn’t around ’cause he was always on the road and making records. Almost got to the point I believed it. Later on—I mean years later—I read a book about him. It said he was junk sick when they took that picture. He puked as soon as it was over and went back to bed.”
McCaleb studied the photograph on the CD. A handsome man leaning against a tree, his sax cradled in his right arm.
“Well, he could play,” McCaleb said.
“Yeah, he could,” Bosch agreed. “Genius with a needle in his arm.”
Bosch stepped over and turned the volume up slightly. The song was Straight life, Pepper’s signature composition.
“Do you believe that?” McCaleb asked.
“What, that he was a genius? Yeah, he was with the sax.”
“No, I mean do you think that every genius—musician, artist, even a detective—has a fatal flaw like that? The needle in the arm.”
“I think everybody’s got a fatal flaw, whether they’re a genius or not.”
The full album seems to have disappeared from YouTube, so here’s Straight life:
The song Patricia features in The black box (2012):
Bosch had begun making his way through the Art Pepper recordings his daughter had given him for his birthday. He was on volume 3 and listening to a stunning version of Patricia recorded three decades earlier at a club in Croydon, England. It was during Pepper’s comeback period after the years of drug addiction and incarceration. On this night in 1981 he had everything working. On this one song, Bosch believed he was proving that no-one would ever play better. Harry wasn’t exactly sure what the word ethereal meant, but it was the word that came to mind. The song was perfect, the saxophone was perfect, the interplay and communication between Pepper and his three band mates was as perfect and orchestrated as the movement of four fingers on a hand. There were a lot of words used to describe jazz music. Bosch had read them over the years in the magazines and in the liner notes of records. He didn’t always understand them. He just knew what he liked, and this was it. Powerful and relentless, and sometimes sad.
He found it hard to concentrate on the computer screen as the song played, the band going on almost twenty minutes with it. He had Patricia on other records and CDs. It was one of Pepper’s signatures. But he had never heard it played with such sinewy passion. He looked at his daughter, who was lying on the couch reading a book. Another school assignment. This one was called The fault in our stars.
“This is about his daughter,” he said
Maddie looked over the book at him.
“What do you mean?”
“This song. Patricia. He wrote it for his daughter. He was away from her for long periods in her life, but he loved her and he missed her. You can hear that in it, right?”
She thought a moment and then nodded.
“I think. It almost sounds like the saxophone is crying.”
Like Frank Morgan, Art Pepper rebuilt his career after being freed from prison in 1965. Here’s a 1978 recording of Patricia:
Don McGlynn’s documentary Art Pepper: notes from a jazz survivor, filmed in 1982, his last year, also features his third wife Laurie (with Patricia discussed from 24.00):
In the LRB Terry Castle riffs brilliantly on Pepper’s 1979 autobiography Straight life.
Aside from “the music itself” (sic), while accounts of jazzers’ lives are vivid (e.g. Miles, Mingus, Chet…), it’s possible to tire of them: self-destruction is one thing, but the misogyny is hard to take. As with WAM composers, we may learn from their stories and the society in which they lived, but admiring the music doesn’t have to entail endorsing its creators. Men behaving badly yet again… (cf. Deviating from behavioural norms).
On modern Tibetan society, Jamyang Norbu has long been a stimulating voice (note his splendid website). Here I’ve already admired his remarks on Tibetan opera, and his article The Lhasa ripper. His novel
The mandala of Sherlock Holmes: the missing years (alternative subtitle “the adventures of the great detective in India and Tibet), “edited by Jamyang Norbu” (1999)
is a Rattling Good Yarn, with a serious moral—like many of the best crime novels (Philip Kerr, Tony Hillerman, and so on), both gripping and educative.
Born in 1944 in Lhasa, Jamyang Norbu was sent to a Jesuit school in Darjeeling, where he relished Kipling and Conan Doyle. After an interlude with the Khampa guerrilla group “Four Rivers, Six Ranges” in Mustang to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet (see e.g. Jamyang Norbu’s own recollections, and Tsering Shakya, The dragon in the land of snows, Chapter 6), he became a leading light in the educational and cultural scene at Dharamsala. Combining the fruits of his early education and his experience as a Tibetan in exile, he wrote The mandala of Sherlock Holmes there (the Epilogue is dated 1989) before making his base in the USA.
Only in the Preface and the Epilogue does Jamyang Norbu write in his own voice, observing the political context in which we now read the tale.
Tibet may lie crushed beneath the dead weight of Chinese tyranny, but the truth about Tibet cannot be so easily buried; and even such a strange fragment of history as this may contribute to nailing at least a few lies of the tyrants.
Still, he indulges poetic fancy by evoking the discovery of Hurree’s notes, and Holmes’s living incarnation in a monastery.
Too many of Dr John Watson’s unpublished manuscripts (usually discovered in “a travel-worn and battered tin dispatch box” somewhere in the vaults of the bank of Cox and Company, at Charing Cross) have come to light in recent years, for a long-suffering reading public not to greet the discovery of yet another Sherlock Holmes story with suspicion, if not outright incredulity.
Holmes having faked his own death at the Reichenbach Falls in 1891, Conan Doyle had the sleuth explain in The adventure of the empty house (1903, set in 1894):
I travelled for two years in Tibet, therefore, and amused myself by visiting Lhasa and spending some days with the head Lama. You may have read of the remarkable exploration of a Norwegian named Sigerson, but I am sure that it never occurred to you that you were receiving news of your friend.
The story is narrated by Hurree Chunder Mookerjee, a Bengali scholar/spy from Rudyard Kipling’s novel Kim (based on the real-life character of Sarat Chandra Das), who takes Watson’s place as Holmes’ trusted friend and confidant. As Jamyang Norbu explained, “The Sherlock Holmes stories worked because of Dr Watson. You need someone who is sweetly endearing but also slightly dim.”
With erudite footnotes (mostly in the persona of Hurree, on both Holmesiana and Tibetan studies at the time), the novel is a most accomplished pastiche, replete with vignettes—like the use of fingerprinting for identifying criminals, introduced in Bengal in 1896, before it was adopted by Scotland Yard in 1901, or the history of the Thug cult and worship of the goddess Kali.
Holmes arrives in Bombay incognito—or so he hopes—with only a Gladstone bag and a violin case:
This was, of course, suspicious in itself. No self-respecting sahib who travelled to India was without at least three streamer trunks, not to mention other sundry items of baggage like hat boxes, gun cases, bedding rolls, and a despatch box. Also, no English sahib, at least if he was pukka, played the violin. Music was the preserve of Frenchmen, Eurasians, and missionaries (though in the latter-most case the harmonium was a more favoured instrument).
Amidst the “Great Game”, Holmes’s arrival has come to the attention of the British Secret Service in India, and Hurree latches on to him. They soon learn that his life is still in danger.
I commend your energy, Strickland. But I fear that such a direct course of action would prove futile. Colonel Sebastian Moran is a most cunning and dangerous adversary. At the moment the only net we have is too frail to hold such a formidable prey.” “But, dash it all!” cried Strickland. “The man is an honourable soldier. […] You expect me to believe that an English gentleman, a former member of Her Majesty’s Indian Army, the best heavy-game shot in India, a man with a still unrivalled bag of tigers, is a dangerous criminal. Why, I was with him just two nights ago at the Old Shikari Club. We played a rubber of whist together.”
All along their arduous journey via Bombay, Delhi, and Simla on to Lhasa, pursued by Moriarty’s well-trained, dastardly henchmen, “Sigerson” solves baffling cases. Even in Simla, “a delightful and sophisticated town”, he is not inclined to relax; as Hurree observes,
I was really at my wits’ end trying to make him enjoy himself. […] Knowing his liking for music, I thought it would not be improper to suggest a visit to the Gaiety Theatre, where at the time a comic operetta by Messrs Gilbert and Sullivan was being performed. It was only much later that I learned that his musical interests leaned towards violin concerts, symphonies, and the grand opera.
Holmes frequents the Antiquarian Bookshop run by Mr Lurgan—another character from Kim—and enlists Hurree to teach him Tibetan. Another period note:
But I will not burden my readers with any further digression into the subtleties of the Thibetan * language, for such a subject can only be of interest to a specialist. Nevertheless, for those readers who would like to know more about the Thibetan language I can recommend Thibetan for the beginner (Re 1) published by the Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, and the Grammar of colloquial Thibetan (Rs 2.4 annas), by the same publisher.
Colonel Creighton fills them in on the situation in Lhasa:
“This is a secret report I received from K.21 just a week ago. His monastery is, as you know, close to the main caravan route from Kashgar to Lhassa, and is therefore a good place to pick up news from the Thibetan capital. Evidently things are not as they should be in Lhassa. There are rumours that two senior ministers have been removed in disgrace from the cabinet, and a much respected abbot of the Drepung monastery jailed like a common criminal. K.21 feels that the Manchu Amban is behind these events, and it is probably an attempt to undermine the position of the Grand Lama and strengthen Chinese influence in Thibet. It seems that these particular ministers and the abbot wanted the young Grand Lama to be enthroned before his constitutional age. They were opposed to the Regency, which has acquired the reputation of being influenced by the Chinese representative, the Amban.”
So in late spring, once the passes are no longer snowbound, they set off, joining the Leh-Lhasa caravan near Mount Kailash.
Sigerson’s passport into Tibet: da-yig arrow missive. **
Reaching the fortress of Tsaparang, Hurree tells Holmes the story of the Portuguese Jesuit community there, founded by Antonio de Andrade in 1624:
“Did the good father succeed in converting many of the natives?” asked Holmes, knocking the ash of his pipe against the side of a broken wall. “Not very many, I would think. Thibetans are notorious in missionary circles for their obstinacy in clinging to their idols and superstitions.” “They revel in their original sin, do they?” chuckled Mr Holmes. “Anyhow, there is a surfeit of religion in this country already. Why should the missionaries want to bring in another?”
Eventually, with sherpas in tow (shades of The ascent of Rum Doodle?!), on 17th May 1892 they reach Lhasa. In another nice note Jamyang Norbu comments on Hurree’s text: “Only one white man, Thomas Manning, had ever set eyes on it before”:
Hurree is mistaken. John Grueber and Albert d’Orville visited Lhassa in 1661 and saw the Potala palace, although the construction was not fully completed until 1695.
As observed by Tibetscapes in this Twitter thread, the novel critiques the exoticisation of Tibet, bringing to focus Tibetan voices and perspectives. Lhasa is described not as the reified Buddhist utopia of Western imagination, but as a thriving metropolis:
Merchants from Turkestan, Bhootan, Nepaul, China, and Mongolia displayed in their stalls a ruch array of goods: tea, silk, fur, brocades, turquoise, amber, coral, wines, and dried fruits and even humble needles, thread, soap, calico, spices, and trinkets from the distant bazaars of India. Lhassa is a surprisingly cosmopolitan town, with merchants and travellers from not only the countries I have just mentioned, but also Armenians, Cashmiris, and Muscovites.
Holmes and Hurree are ushered into
a well-appointed chamber, decorated in the Thibetan fashion with religious paintings (thangka) and ritual objects, and the floor covered with rich carpets and divans. We were served tea and Huntley & Palmer’s [sic—apostrophe pedant] chocolate-cream biscuits.
Visiting the Norbulingka (“Jewel Park”) for an audience with the Dalai Lama’s Chief Secretary, they learn that Sigerson’s true identity has been revealed by the Grand Seer. As the Chief Secretary explains,
Thibet is small and peaceful country, and all that its inhabitants seek is to pass their lives in tranquillity and to practise the noble teachings of the Lord Buddha. But all around us are warlike nations, powerful and as resilient as titans. […] To the east is our greatest peril and curse, Black China—cunning, and hungry for land. Yet even in its greed it is patient and subtle. It knows that an outright military conquest of Thibet would only rouse the ire of the many Tartar tribes who are faithful to the Dalai Lama, and who are always a threat to China’s own security. Moreover, the Emperor of China is himself a Buddhist, as are all the Manchus, and he must, at least for the sake of propriety, maintain an appearance of friendly amicability with the Dalai Lama. But what he cannot achieve directly, the Emperor attempts through intrigue…
So Holmes assumes the task of rescuing the young 13th Dalai Lama from the plots of the Chinese, in a climactic encounter with the arch-fiend himself. Finally the true numinous identity of Holmes himself is revealed. While Jamyang Norbu has long been a dispassionate critic of the Tibetan religious mindset, the dénouement indulges esoteric mysticism to the full, with the mandala of the Great Tantra of the Wheel of Time and mudra hand gestures playing a crucial role. Lhasa is free to celebrate the coronation of the young Dalai Lama.
Such intrigues can only remind the modern reader of the events leading up to the current Dalai Lama’s flight in 1959. His predecessor himself fled from the Chinese in 1910, returning from exile in 1913 (for more on the intrigues of the day, see e.g. this post by Woeser). In the Epilogue, Jamyang Norbu cites the 13th Dalai Lama’s last testament:
It may happen that here, in Tibet, religion and government will be attacked from without and within. Unless we can guard our country, it will happen that the Dalai and Panchen Lamas, the Father and the Son, and all the revered builders of the Faith, will disappear and become nameless. Monks and their monasteries will be destroyed. The rule of law will be weakened. The land and property of government officials will be seized. They themselves will be forced to serve their enemies or wander the country like beggars. All beings will be sunk in great hardship and overpowering fear; and the nights and days will drag on slowly in suffering.
A couple of notes of my own [dated 1st April 2021] in homage:
* The aspirated initial might seem to suggest that Tibet was “discovered” by the Irish, the “h” disappearing from orthography as other Westerners heard them evoking the country. Cf. Denis Twitchett’s theory that Li Bai was an Irishman called Patrick O’Leary (n. here).
** Could it be that emissaries called out “da-yig!” to announce their arrival, a custom that eventually found its way to Venice via the Silk Road, becoming the gondolier’s cry of O-i? [No it couldn’t. Stop it.—Ed.]
I can’t think why it’s taken me so long to get round to watching The Handmaid’s tale. All four seasons are currently available on Channel 4—the final episodes of Season 4 airing, by an ominous turn of fate, just as Afghan women were in dread at the Taliban takeover.
Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was published in 1985. It concerns the Republic of Gilead, a religious, misogynistic military dictatorship not far in the (then) future that comes to power in a coup overthrowing the US government. The book was widely read; Atwood reflected on her intentions in 2012, before the parallel with Trumpism became inevitable:
In the UK, which had had its Oliver Cromwell moment some centuries ago and was in no mood to repeat it, the reaction was along the lines of, “Jolly good yarn”. In the US, however […] it was more likely to be: “How long have we got?” […]
Nations never build apparently radical forms of government on foundations that aren’t there already.
So Atwood was motivated by the enduring strain of Puritanism in American culture; the three great secular dictatorships of the 20th century; modern theocratic regimes such as Iran and Afghanistan; and the atmosphere of oppression was further inspired by her visits behind the Iron Curtain (see this interview).The story adroitly combines the iniquities of all these systems.
I made a rule for myself: I would not include anything that human beings had not already done in some other place or time, or for which the technology did not already exist. I did not wish to be accused of dark, twisted inventions, or of misrepresenting the human potential for deplorable behaviour. The group-activated hangings, the tearing apart of human beings, the clothing specific to castes and classes, the forced childbearing and the appropriation of the results, the children stolen by regimes and placed for upbringing with high-ranking officials, the forbidding of literacy, the denial of property rights: all had precedents, and many were to be found not in other cultures and religions, but within western society, and within the “Christian” tradition, itself.
Even at the “benign” end of Christianity, the insidious submission of women is expressed with typical flair by Patricia Lockwood, reflecting on her relationship with the seminarians who came to stay:
What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.
Atwood describes The handmaid’s tale not as a critique of religion, but as a critique of the use of religion as a “front for tyranny”. The book also has echoes of novels such as Ira Levin, The Stepford wives (1972) and Philip Roth, The plot against America (2004). Another crucial theme is the fertility crisis amidst ecological degradation. As Seth Myers observes, even since the departure of Trump, “the core organising principle of the GOP right now is its fundamental hostility to democracy”.
The TV series Neither the 1990 film nor the 2000 opera by Poul Ruders went as viral as Bruce Miller’s recent TV series for Hulu. While the far right was always active in the USA, and Atwood’s novel was partly inspired by the rise of the Christian right there, the threat still didn’t seem too tangible; the book appeared as a somewhat remote cautionary tale, a mere fantasy.
The first TV season was ordered in 2016, when few believed that Trump could win the presidency. His victory gave it a more immediate, disturbing relevance. If the idea of a draconian far-right state still seemed distant, the series does focus the mind on the attempted coup on 6th January this year, and on gun-toting militas—a serious challenge to liberal complacency, even since the restoration of sanity.
The success of the series came at a time of ever-greater focus on women’s rights and the #MeToo movement—amidst misogyny and the anti-feminist backlash,  intrusive surveillance, police brutality, and attacks on the media, with states continuing to tighten bans on abortion. The handmaid uniform now “dresses protests across the world”.
While most commentators praise the TV series as a suggestive allegory (e.g. here), Cathy Young, even as a feminist, resisted the general mood, perhaps taking the message rather too literally (or assuming that viewers were doing so):
At the time, it was hailed in major publications as “timely”, “prescient”, and “alarmingly close to home”, despite bearing no resemblance to the actual alarming things happening under the Trump presidency.
As Young notes, Republicans even flaunt their promotion of jobs for women. Rather, their main targets are refugees, asylum seekers, and immigrants.
Race Opponents of the regime are condemned to forced labour in the Colonies, parts of America contaminated by pollution and radioactive waste. In the book we gather that African Americans (the “Children of Ham”) and Asians have been relocated to “National Homelands” in the Midwest to be housed in ghost towns without access to food or water, and Native Americans have been exterminated.
Given the dominant theme of slavery, the shortcomings of the book in covering race have been much discussed (e.g. here). Ana Cottle characterises it as “white feminism”.
The Handmaid’s Tale suggests that the brutality of slavery alone is not impactful enough to serve as a universal wake-up call; instead, we’re only drawn to this “feminist” rallying point when the person enduring these heinous crimes is a college-educated white woman.
more concerned with the interiority of white women at the expense of people of color who recognise that Gilead isn’t a possible horrifying future, but the reality of what America has always been.
As Cathy Young comments, the series’ pretensions to current relevance give it an unpleasant subtext of victimhood appropriation on behalf of privileged women. More dubiously, she claims:
The Handmaid cult is a reminder that, as much as the Trumpian right traffics in wild conspiracy theories and demonises any disagreement with the president, the anti-Trump left has its own paranoid style.
The book’s whiteness is hardly rectified in the TV series by including some black characters; in a society based on white supremacy it may even seem incongruous, blurring the issue.
Episodes The first season is based on the book; the next three series are sequels, developed in consultation with Atwood. The drama remains harrowing and thought-provoking throughout (synopses of the episodes here), with Elisabeth Moss a riveting presence.
The events unfold over several years, with Season 3 apparently taking place in the present. The characters of Commanders, Wives, Handmaids, Guardians, and Eyes are prominent; the role of the Marthas grows in later seasons too.
As in the book, stonings, hangings, maimings, forced criticism and confession sessions contrast with flashbacks to the “normal” life of “the time before”; in the days leading up to the coup, we see all the insidious details that prepare for dictatorship, as women are deprived of all rights. There are constant echoes of all the appalling abuses perpetuated by dictatorships around the world, and the warped loyalties based on the struggle to survive.
Aunt Lydia, June, and Serena Joy.
The story is set in Boston; it becomes apparent (realistically?!) that Gilead’s control remains tenuous, as the republic has to cope with various armed uprisings across the territory, notably in Chicago (effectively shown in Season 4). Meanwhile the humane conditions of refugees in exile, anxious for those still trapped in Gilead, play a growing role.
In Season 1, I found the 6th episode particularly telling—the scenes with the Mexican ambassador, and Serena Joy’s backstory (also in 2/6) as advocate of “domestic feminism” (women are not even allowed to read the Bible, let alone Serena’s book A woman’s place) until she meekly accepts her new role. Gilead propaganda is reminiscent of Goebbels and Xinjiang; and when June eventually manages to tell the ambassador the truth, it is to no avail—a foretaste of murky diplomatic waters. Scrabble also plays an unlikely role.
From Season 2 the story begins to go beyond the book. We get to see the Colonies, evoking the Russian and Chinese gulags. In 2/8 Serena’s mask begins to slip, until she is cruelly beaten back into submission—a missed opportunity here to play out with Stand by your man?
With the Gilead soundscape largely devoid of music, the playout and other tracks (for season 4, see here) are well chosen, making a commentary from a sane, remote world—like Oh bondage up yours for the explosive end of 2/6, I only want to be with you in 2/8; Nappy roots’ Good day (a welcome discovery) for 3/1; Che sara sara in 3/8; the Vivaldi Gloria (glorious) for 3/10; I say a little prayer at the opening of 4/1; and for the gory dénouement of the whole series, You don’t own me.
The Season 2 finale is amazing, with Serena increasingly ambivalent, and the attack on Aunt Lydia (whose backstory emerges in 3/8).
In Season 3, as Serena becomes ever less loveable, the resistance comes into focus. 3/6 shows further horrors on a visit to Washington DC, but the season ends on a note of hope.
By Season 4 June has become a fully-fledged resistance leader. After falling once more into the hands of a vengeful Aunt Lydia, she finally reaches the safety of Canada. Even here the drama never lets up; survivors are still in anguish as they confront their trauma, and Fred and Serena, now to be brought before the International Criminal Court, desperately try to minimise their punishment. The resolution in the finale is not quite one that politicians envisage.
* * *
In 2019 Margaret Atwood published a compelling sequel, The testaments (reviewed e.g. by Anne Enright and Julie Myerson). Just when we thought we knew enough about Gilead, it provides a wealth of new material. Set around fifteen years after the events in the book, and not directly reflected in the TV series, it’s narrated by two young women brought up in the contrasting environments of Gilead and Canada, who turn out to be connected; Aunt Lydia, hitherto an archetypal Nazi female camp guard, also gives a most surprising account of her story.
Both books end with appendices consisting of notes from the Symposium on Gileadian Studies in 2195 and 2197 respectively. Both are quasi-scholarly discussions of the authenticity of the material presented: the first, the tapes on which The Handmaid’s tale is based, the second, the three written testimonies. So academic conferences have survived, then, like cockroaches.
The TV drama remains gripping throughout. While the whole plot hinges on the fertility crisis, sometimes I wonder if the series may portray not only the oppressors but the oppressed as sanctifying motherhood, albeit for contrasting reasons. The tiny acts of resistance are meant to inspire; instead, the only consolation is that the viewer is not in this hell. Even so, among us right now are plenty of refugees from similar regimes for whom such traumas will be distressingly familiar. The story serves both to mourn the victims of past dictatorships and to warn against future or latent ones. Neither liberal democracy nor women’s rights can be taken for granted.
By a remarkable coincidence (cf. Köchel), the theremin was invented by Léon Theremin (Lev Sergeyevich Termen, 1896–1993). Given that its timbre is surely that to which singers and instrumentalists aspire, it seems sad that its profile remains largely limited to the niches of film music and “lollipops”.
Termen was drawn to experiments in physics and electrons from his teens. After World War 1 and the civil war Abram Fedorovich Ioffe recruited him to the Physical Technical Institute in Petrograd. In 1920 he invented the instrument that would become known in the USA as theremin. As a cellist, one of the early pieces he adapted was The swan (see below). In this 1954 clip he demonstrates the instrument:
Having married Katia Konstantinova in 1924, he spent time on tour in Europe before they moved to the USA in 1927. His concerts on the theremin soon became popular, and he set up a laboratory in New York, devising a range of inventions, including new electronic musical instruments. As he became the toast of New York society, he was conducting industrial espionage for the Soviet state.
With Clara Rockmore.
Apparently irrespective of the Soviet Consulate’s demands that he should divorce his wife, Theremin proposed to emigré Lithuanian violinist Clara Rockmore (née Reisenberg, 1911–98), who became renowned as a theremin virtuoso. Instead, when Clara married an attorney, Theremin married the African-American dancer Lavinia Williams in the mid-1930s, to some controversy; with racial tensions such a thorny issue, this might have made an interesting match. But in 1938, concerned over his financial problems and the imminent global conflict—and perhaps under pressure from his Soviet minders anxious that his spying activities might be exposed—Theremin returned abruptly to the USSR, whereafter Lavinia never saw him again.
With Stalin’s great purge under way, he was promptly imprisoned. He was sent to work at a sharashka research facility in the remote Kolyma gulag, devising eavesdropping devices. After his release in 1947 he remarried. Rehabilitated in 1956 following the death of Stalin, he continued serving the KGB until 1966, also working at the Moscow Conservatoire.
When Lavinia visited Clara in 1974, she was glad to learn that Theremin was still alive; as she started corresponding with him, he even proposed remarriage. He was able to travel abroad only from 1989, visiting the USA in 1991—where he met Clara again.
* * *
For more, Albert Glinsky, Theremin: ether music and espionage (2005) is a fascinating study, meticulously researched. And for an imaginative fictional treatment, this tangled web makes a fine theme for the novel by Sean Michaels, Us conductors (2014). Focusing on Theremin’s relationship with Clara, the story takes in the Russian Revolution, America’s Great Depression and the celebrities of the day, Stalin’s gulag, two world wars, the cold war, and perestroika. Indeed, following the 1993 documentary Theremin: an electronic Odyssey (trailer here), the subject seems to cry out (eerily) for a movie version…
You crouched in black on the terpsitone’s platform, as if you were praying, centred in a spotlight. Carlos, the harpist, sat beside you. In the wings, I held my breath.
You stood, slowly, staring into the room’s rapt silence. You arched your back. You were a black-barked cherry tree. You were my one true love.
With Carlos you played Bach and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. Each note was shown in a beam of light. I had built a loudspeaker, covered it in twill, raised on a simple mount above the stage. Your music pushed like breath against the cloth. It trembled and then sang. You danced, choosing every moment, guiding the melody with a rolled shoulder and the tilt of knee. At the clubs you had not danced like this.
* * *
Theremin was interested in a role for the instrument in dance music, developing performance locations that could automatically react to dancers’ movements with varied patterns of sound and light. And the instrument was to be a gift for film soundtracks.
Among several YouTube playlists, this one features 64 tracks by the great Clara Rockmore—opening magically with The swan:
Even by the other-worldly standards of the theremin, her rendition of Vocalise is Something Else:
And here’s Theremin’s last pupil, his grand-niece Lydia Kavina playing Clair de lune:
Despite our best intentions, Hergé’s Tintin books and TV animations remain compelling, both in the West and in the cultures in which he dabbled from afar (see also wiki). The sonorous declamation “Herge’s Adventures of Tintin!!!” in the 1950s’ cartoons is still highly nostalgic for early generations of naïve youth like me—who would have been unaware how we were being indoctrinated by “racial stereotypes, animal cruelty, colonialism, violence, and even fascist leanings, including ethnocentric, caricatured portrayals of non-Europeans”.
Hergé developed the series as illustrator at Le vingtième siècle, “a staunchly Roman Catholic, conservative Belgian newspaper based in Brussels, describing itself as a “Catholic Newspaper for Doctrine and Information” and disseminating a far-right, fascist viewpoint.
His first story Tintin in the land of the Soviets (1929–30) was followed by Tintin in the Congo, written “in a paternalistic style that depicted the Congolese as childlike idiots”. His fictional creation of Syldavia long predates Molvania. After the war Hergé somewhat distanced himself from such racist, paternalistic messages. The first English translations appeared in 1951, and the TV cartoons became popular.
By 2007, the UK Commission for Racial Equality called for Tintin in the Congo to be pulled from shelves, stating: “It beggars belief that in this day and age that any shop would think it acceptable to sell and display [it]” (cf. this Channel 4 report). Still, in Belgium the Centre for Equal Opportunities warned against “over-reaction and hyper political correctness”; and Claude Lévi-Strauss, no less, stated that “Tintin was the comic strip that was the most respectful of world cultures”—admittedly a low bar. A thriving discipline of Tintinology emerged, as well as parodies.
* * *
Tintin: So you see, my dear Chang, that’s how many Europeans see China!
Chang: Oh! How funny the people of your country are!
In the story Zhang appears in the form of Chang Chong-chen, who relieves Tintin of his preconceptions.
In China, pocket editions of the Tintin books were pirated from the 1980s, giving him the pleasingly economical name of Dingding 丁丁. A recent Sixth Tone article explores the reputation of The Blue Lotus there. As Alex Colville comments there, “without Zhang’s humanising influence, it is easy to imagine The Blue Lotus simply becoming a tale of Tintin foiling a group of pigtailed Chinese opium dealers.” The story scored points for its anti-Japanese stance; and moving away from imperialist stereotypes, Tintin defends the Chinese not only from Japanese aggressors but bullying Western businessmen.
Zhang Chongren returned to China in 1936. Rehabilitated after the Cultural Revolution, he met up again with Hergé in 1981 in France, where he ended his days.
Here’s a 1992 animation of The Blue Lotus:
* * *
The character of Chang also features in Tintin in Tibet (1958–59, sic) (wiki; note also Séagh Kehoe here). By this time Hergé was doing more research; the story was based on his readings of works such as Fosco Maraini’s Secret Tibet, Heinrich Harrer’s Seven years in Tibet, Tsewang Pemba’s Tibet my homeland, discredited author Lobsang Rampa’s The third eye, and the books of Alexandra David-Néel.
For Hergé, Tibet might seem a Can of Worms, yet another potential candidate for the Duke of Edinburgh Gaffe of the Year award—but instead in 2006 the Dalai Lama bestowed the Light of Truth award on the book. A Chinese edition under the sneaky title Tintin in Chinese Tibet had already been retracted in 2001 after protests by the publishers and the Hergé Foundation. YAY!
Sidestepping politics, there are no baddies here; it’s been seen as a story of friendship, a spiritual quest. Here’s the 1992 animation:
For all their flaws, these works may have enticed many young minds like mine to China and Tibet. Apart from innocent childish pursuits, the whole series must have inspired more anthropologists than crypto-fascists.
In 1949 Compton Mackenzie (1883–1972) gave a sublimely elegiac talk on the BBC Home Service, recalling his last visit to the aged Henry James (1843–1916) at his flat off Cheyne Walk in the late summer of 1914. He had already published a written version in his “My meetings with Henry James” (Mark Twain quarterly 6.3, 1945).
The BBC broadcast his talk again in the 1970s, and copies circulated among a little group of friends. Even then, there was a double nostalgia about listening to a 1949 reminiscence of a 1914 meeting. The encounter rather reminds me of my own Cambridge visits to Laurence Picken, as well as Sir Harold Bailey. It’s one of my most treasured recordings, and I’m mortified that the BBC hasn’t made it available online (go on, BBC!). Mackenzie’s delivery is at once hilarious and poignant, evoking James’s sense of frailly handing over the baton to a younger generation; to transcribe highlights on the page is a paltry stopgap.
“And now, my dear boy, make yourself as comfortable, as, in this monstrous time of war, comfort either of body or mind is… is…”. He paused to grasp the adjective, floating for a moment out of his reach, and then, just as his fingers were closing upon it, or rather—I become Jamesian myself as the memory of the scene recurs —or rather, poising like a butterfly hunter, net in air, to swoop upon the perfect adjective and imprison it in the reticulation of his prose… at that moment, his housekeeper came into the room.
Henry James looked round for the epithet, now well on its way to escape, desperation in his mild and magnificent eyes. And then his housekeeper said, gently but most firmly,
“It’s about the marmalade, Mr James.”
“Marmalade…” he ejaculated.
“Marmalade—from the Army and Navy Stores,” she insisted. Henry James turned to me:
“Will you, my dear boy, try to entertain, or perhaps not so much entertain as engage yourself with a book, while I devote a minute or two of most unwilling attention, or rather, er… tortured concentration upon one of these hideous encounters with domestic necessity. A vast emporium, one of these appalling achievements of our modern craving for the huge, the immense… looms between myself and this delightful company of yours […]”
“Mr James,” the housekeeper interposed, with hardly concealed impatience, “the man from the Army and Navy Stores is waiting, for the order.”
“One moment, Mrs Dash, I will not keep you a moment… Now, my dear boy—where is our dear H.G. Wells’s last book, full of that Wellsian quality, which sometimes flows, perhaps a little too…? Or you may rather beguile yourself for a moment while I surrender to the remorseless ritual which these domestic conveniences demand from us… Yes! Here is our dear Arnold Bennett’s last…” While Henry James was picking up book after book on the table, and bumbling around them like a great irresolute bee, his housekeeper was tapping the floor with her foot.
“Mr James, please,” she protested. The great novelist seated himself at his desk, pen poised above the notepaper, looked anxiously up to his housekeeper:
“How would you, er… how shall I address the apex of this pyramid, the, er, director of this magnificent display of co-operative energy?”
“Mr James, just write the order please, and the man will take it,” she almost pleaded.
“And what was the peculiar title of the condiment which we seek to import into this so humble corner of this vast London of ours, Mrs Dash?”
“Mr James! Oh… We were going to order six jars of that Oxford marmalade you liked.”
From the corner of my eye I watched the operation of writing that order, as Henry James’s pen advanced to paper and drew back, and advanced again, and again drew back and then hovered above the notepaper, making a traceless pattern upon the air in a kind of sarabande, to which the housekeeper’s foot tapped quite out of time. At last the pen descended upon the paper, and a large, angular script flowed across it. The six jars of marmalade were ordered, and with a sigh of exhaustion and relief, Henry James came back to his guest, apologising once more for the interruption, and full of solicitude for the way I’d been able to pass the time while the marmalade was being ordered. […]
To this day the very word “marmalade” invariably sends us into fits of giggling. For the tribulations of composers beset by mundane concerns, as recreated by Monty Python, see here.
On a feminist note, Sarah Jane Gill, creator of said delicacy, has been largely deprived of deserved fame by her husband Frank Cooper—Typical!
Anyway, with James liberated at last from his “hideous encounter with domestic necessity”, he can devote his attention once again to his young visitor:
Just before I said farewell to Henry James on that October afternoon, I told him it was my intention to revise, and possibly rewrite altogether my novel Carnival in the light of my experience. He held up his hands in a wide gesture of dismay. […] “I once wasted ten, indeed twelve precious years in foolishly supposing that in the light of experience I could grope my way towards a more… towards that always elusive… in short, that I could add yet something to what, when it was written, I had given all that I could give at that time. Renounce this preposterous ambition of yours, my dear boy. You have been granted the boon which is all a novelist should beg for himself. You have been granted that boon with a generosity beyond that accorded to any of your young contemporaries. You fling the ball up against the wall, and it rebounds immediately into your hands— […] whereas I fling the ball against the wall, whence it rebounds not into my hands but onto the next wall, and from that wall to the next…” He followed, with apprehensive glance, the flight of that ghostly ball around the room… “Until it at last falls to the ground, and dribbles, very, very slowly, towards my feet; and I, all my old bones aching, stoop, and most laboriously, pick it up.”
In 1982 I was fortunate to hear the great Franca Rame(1929–2013) in London performing her Female parts: one-woman plays (1977, co-written with Dario Fo).
Waking up A woman alone The same old story Medea
The stories, satirising the chains of Church, State, and machismo, are based on her Tutto casa, letto e chiesa; here’s the first part of her virtuosic 1977 live performance in Milan—using the clichéd image of femininity to further confuse her Italian audience:
And here she performs Waking up (Il risveglio) for TV that year:
The same old story, with its foul-mouthed dolly (translated by Ed Emery here; and in Stuart Hood’s booklet for the 1982 London performances), is particularly fine. She may be a tough act to follow, but here’s Jennifer Long performing the concluding doll story in English:
So anyway, once upon a time there was a lovely little girl who had a lovely little dolly. Well, actually, the dolly wasn’t lovely at all… she was all dirty and tatty and made of rags, and she used to say terrible swear words, which the little girl learned and went round repeating.
One day her mummy asked her: “But who on earth taught you those horrible swear words?” “My dolly,” said the little girl. “Ooh, you liar! You’ve been hanging round with those horrible boys.”
“No, mummy, really, it’s my dolly. Come on, dolly, say a few swear words for mummy!”
And the dolly, who always did everything the little girl asked her to do, because she loved her so much, came out with a whole string of terrible words: “Porca puttana! Stronzo! Mi piaci un casino! Culo!” [She chants, like a slogan] “Cu-lo, cu-lo, cu-lo!” […]
“Excuse me, gnomey,” she said, “have you seen a big ginger cat with a rag dolly in his mouth, who swears all the time?”
“Er, there he is, there,” says the gnome, waving with his willy, and splosh, he squirts out a big stream of widdle, which lands right on the ginger cat, which promptly falls down dead. Because, as we know, gnomes’ widdle is terribly poisonous for cats! […]
The dénouement makes the message clear:
And the grown-up little girl takes her dolly and hugs her closely closely to her, and gradually, gradually, the little dolly disappears, right into her heart.
And now the grown-up little girl is out there all on her own, on a long, long road… She walks and walks, and she comes to a big tree. And underneath that tree there are lots of other grown-up little girls just like herself, and they make her ever so welcome, and they say: “Sit down here… with us… We’re all telling our own stories. Why don’t you start…” they say to a fair-haired girl sitting there. And the girl begins: “When I was a little girl I had a rag doll who used to say terrible swear-words…”
And all the girls burst out laughing. And one of them says: “Well, who would ever have imagined it: Your story… my story… We’ve all got the same story…!”
You can admire more of Franca Rame’s own performances on her YouTube channel, such as her version of Mistero buffo, debunking Catholicism (Dario Fo’s full version is here, with English translation here; cf. Patricia Lockwood).
For a general introduction to the series, see here.
Prelude—SJ This is Nick’s longest treatment so far in this series, almost a novella—subsuming the Middle Eastern conflict, Free France, the Cathars, Jacques Brel, a furniture-making course, the UNESCO football team in Lagos, an organists’ outing, and Nubia—with a moving dénouement. See also my own tributes to Lili and Nadia.
* * *
LILI BOULANGER French composer (1893–1918), younger sister of Nadia (1887–1979). Concerts and recording, 1999, with the LSO and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner (who studied with Nadia).
192 anagrams, in strict sequence, of the 13-letter matrix, followed by an explanatory ‘story’, in whatever language came to hand.
This is no.11 of the anagram pieces I composed between 1989 and 2002; it’s the first, I would say, in which I attempt to go beyond a strict mapping of anagram/story, and venture into some narrative of my own. In my overall introduction to the series, I explain why it was precisely my inability to do this (write a freehand story) which lay behind my adoption of anagrammatic ‘automatic writing’. My excuse is that the scenes glimpsed elliptically in the course of the anagrams suggested to me larger panoramas, which I needed to explore more extensively to be fair to the letters’ fragmentary vision.
So for the Albi section in particular I resorted to some autobiographical material (and a fable from the Panchatantra), and for Lille too, where I was also influenced, in a generic way, by a story of J.L. Borges, as well as by the art nouveau heritage of the town itself.
The reader will judge better than I can the success of this strategy. I can’t regret deploying the associations which the anagrams themselves germinated, but the results leave me a bit ill at ease.
There’s another, quite distinct, circumstance to be taken into account with ‘Lili Boulanger’. I had completed the anagrams by the end of September 1999 (as indicated in the present text). The accompanying story took longer, and was put together over a period of a few more years, mostly during periods of work in London or on tour, though I believe it was substantially done by 2002. At any rate the whole piece had been completed, but only partially typed up (and put on a floppy disc) by 2007—and only up to the end of the Lille section of the story. This was the truncated part I had the wit to send to myself in an email: not all such accounts were web-based in those days. Our fire in Portugal in early 2009 destroyed not only most paper documents but also all floppy discs and CDs, as well as the computer itself and its hard disk.
Thus the final narrative sections, all after the Lille episode, have been reconstructed from memory during the last few years; they lack some of the detail which I know I had tracked down, specifically in Nubia and Egypt, but are as true to the original aperçus as I could manage.
* * *
LILI BOULANGER “O Rubin! Illegal! Ali’ll—” [Ben–Gurion].”I’ll…?” –Al. Our Begin: “Lo, ‘Bulgar’ Eli!” – I? “Olà! Irgun libel,” begin our Al, “Lil’ El Al lingo…” I rub liberal gun oil, a billion–Luger, bare loin. I gull Rabin: “Loge! Ulli! Liban grouille, Ulli Lego–brain.” Ulli anger boil. “U… obligé!” “Iran’ll bull IRA legion.” I? I’ll ogle urban guerrilla. “NB oil, Ali, oil–bungler, oil’ll ruin bagel…” “Liban gloire!” Ul… Leila gun brio! Luger—bon, I’ll – Aï!
* * *
Iron Gaulle: “Lib – ” Gaul libre? Loin. Berlin IOU gall; nul Albi gloire, Albi grenouille labouring, ill. Gaul—in Loire (blub)—la Loire! linger… No Gaul lib (il gain boule rill), all blue origin. Gr… beau lion ill. I long Brel, lui, à l’agile Libourne, Brel, la gui’nol. I—I, Raoul Belling—lui, Brel, a lingo: I unlog braille, I null Albi ogre, Balin. Le roi Lug! Lui!
* * *
“Boulle?” “All Gobelin, Rui. Burin goal, ille, ruling lobelia.” “Elgin—blur a loi?” “Ol’ Elgin burial.” “Ai! Gullible, Ron?” “Gullible on air. No liberal. Ugli?” Glen: “Oil o’ Blair, ‘u’ regional bill, Blair, lounge li…” “Ug. ‘Lionel’ Blair…” B.O.
Nigeria. Rogue ball: 1–nil. Eli blur in goal. Lor, il a bu! Nigel (Nigel A. Burillo): “Rolling, ’e, il a bu gill in Euro lab.” “Bull—ale origin. Ale or gin.” “I – ” “Bull!” Gin—rue Balliol. “Lo, binge lair,” lu our ill Belgian,Raul. “Gill, Niobe?” Niobe all girl, ‘u’, nubile gorilla. “I lug renal boil, I rung ill (Ebola), oiling rubella, ill—large bunion.” O, gullible air! “Ill, lurgi—o bane! I – I blur galleon…”
* * *
I go urban Lille, au boring Lille. Rob Lille gal in our Lille bang. I uni Lille Garbo—ubi Lille organ? L … Laure – boiling –
* * *
NUBIA ‘El Grillo’. Onager. Bill, lui, air lounge. “Bill?” “Ali, Reg? Bullion!” “Lor’!” “Ubi Agnelli?” “Gerona. Ibi Lull.” “Go—Iberian Lull? Olé, a bull–ring! I – I’ll bug aileron.” “Ignore Bill.” Lua. “I’ll ignore.” Blau, la lune, Rio glib. La lune – “Gil, biro.” “Nebula ?”—oil girl Gillian Rouble. “Leo, Libra, Gil nu?” “Bon, girl! Eulalie?” “Gloria in blu’, lo!” Alluring bile. “Banlieu, ol’ girl. A billion gruel.” “O, gruel in billabong!” Allure? “I lie—Goan Lilliburlero! Lug in Bali!” Ego all in blur, I, N. (‘Boileau’), grill brill. Louange? I ?? “Oi! Ungrillable! Bali rouille n.g., N.R.!” “Aioli–bulge!”—Lou. “Bengali rill. Gibier?” “Nul.” “Allô allô?” Lune. Big rig, blue lilo. I ran, un–label oil rig. “Oi!”—Niall, bugler. “U – ”, Ollie blaring, “lo urinal bilge.” Niall bougre, il, ignoble liar, lui, nubil, allegro, unlilo a gerbil (all Brie), oil gnu, ill Boer. In Gaul, longer alibi. Lua…
* * *
“Ole Bull,” I grin. Nubia—Rogé, Lill, “urbane Lill,” I go. Nullo Gabrieli—Iona. Lulli, Berg. ‘Go, Liu’ (‘Li’l Abner’), our lag Bellini—lo, Bellini ragù! Io liberal lung. Bing, Elli—(Raoul!)—Luba ‘il Re’. I long Gillian Loeb, ur–bell on ‘Liguria’. L. Borgia nulle. I, lorn… Lua. Liebig le loi… “Brian, lug our ale billing. ’lo, Lilian Grube!” “’lo!” I? I brung—alleluia!—Bollinger.
* * *
Böll: “Gin, Luria?” “Beluga.” Blini lager lou’. “Niro, Lil?” (e.g. Lil in labour). “Illiber’l guano.” “Brillig!” “Âne, Lou. Llaregub loin,” il gribouille. An alien lour, glib. “Lo, B. Luini glare!” “B. Luini allegro—Luigi, no–baller.” “ ‘Lear’ bingo—Ulli?” “ ‘Blau, ill, Goneril – ’ ” “ ‘– Regan, boil’ ” (I lu) “ ‘I boil lung…’ ” “ ‘Lear’??”
* * *
Nile log burial… a bull religion, boiling laurel; bull, or—ii!—angel. Gabriel? No, lui, Logi, Belial—run! L…lo, Ariel bulgin’ (‘Ariel’: lu ‘goblin’, il a goblin lure), ‘l’Aiglon’ Uriel belabouring ill Lili –
Blue organ. INRI—gall—o blue Eboli lira lung. Un albergo, Lili… ur–billig, alone. Rouge bilan, Lil.
Lo, un Lili Grabe. Burial. Lil gone.
London, July–September 1999.
* * *
“No doubt I wasn’t the first,” wrote David Ben–Gurion in his (unpublished) memoirs, “to wish that my similarly–motivated colleagues would stay on the right side of the law. Wasn’t Menachem a case in point? How could we wish to give more ammunition to the Arabs? Yet the ethos of the group, the sensation that all were against us, militated against open–handedness. When I tried to draw their attention to this, I was met by precisely the sort of prejudiced stereotyping which should have proved my point. But under conditions of war, it seemed to us, the niceties of human discourse were dispensed with. I was called a self–styled Balkan priest, while another comrade thought even that was too good for me, that my Spanish exile was causing me to slander the underground movement, and that I stood, by now, for little more than a sort of Broadway in–flight–magazine Zionism…”
I was reading this as we sat in the control room, Rabin, Ulli the Lebanese Israeli, Ali the Israeli Arab. I hitched up my shorts so that the lubricating oil we used so plentifully wouldn’t stain the cotton, and carefully anointed my revolver. I knew it was the most reliable weapon we had, a gun in a thousand, and couldn’t resist teasing the others, who drew from lower down the armoury. “Wotan’s sidekicks! Vous ne comprenez pas that Lebanon’s up in arms, you building–block–head?” Ulli seethed, I could tell, but he knew he couldn’t let it out openly. “Th… thanks for the news.” “Khomeini’s mullahs will make the Irish cohorts look like dairy cows…” I wasn’t interested in the subject any more. I was looking at a ‘Wanted’ poster on the concrete wall, of Leila Khaled. I couldn’t decide if she was attractive because of herself, or because of what she did, shirt half–open, Uzi at the ready; but I couldn’t keep my eyes off her. What was it that gave us this fascination with left–wing (exclusively left–wing, mind—if that’s what they really were—no neo–fascist ever got a look–in on this melancholy roll–call) activists, women and even men, Ulrike Meinhof, Andreas Baader—never a hero, actually, but Holger Meins, Jan–Carl Raspe, Astrid Proll—Patty Hearst wasn’t serious, she was a sort of John Travolta convert – – I smelt a terrible smell of burnt oil, and realised that Ali was warming up vegetable oil to use as a substitute for the proper gun lubrication, which he’d probably siphoned off to put in his jeep. I wouldn’t complain about this, we all did it, except that he re–used the oil in the bakery, and as a result the pretzels tasted dreadful…
So, after all, I was caught unprepared. My anti–hero/heroine surprised us thinking about food. The sun caught her gun in the doorway, as, brandishing her Levant war–cry, she pinned us down, now this way, now that, and with an ache I admired her panache even as I struggled to release my own pistol, good, I thought, yes… I wasn’t in time.
* * *
“Non! Non!! NON!!!” That’s the de Gaulle some of us know, l’homme de fer, and perhaps it’s true that at certain points in history it’s more important to be able to say ‘no’ with conviction than to accept. Even so, saying ‘no’ sets up a wall which must either be knocked down later, or side–tracked, or backed away from. If you say no, you should simultaneously be saying ‘yes’ to something else, to a wider freedom, not stopping half–way… And France was not free. Far from it. It depended on German repayments, a bitter pill to swallow. Raoul Belling, grandson of the inventor of the electric oven, and dreamer of druidic dominion, descended the slope behind Albi cathedral, to the gravelled walkway beside the river Tarn. An early morning mist was lifting from the river’s surface, as if burnt off by the great Apocalypse of the cathedral screen which hung hot in his mind, and he winced at the thought of how Albi’s huge red long–brick towers now stood for nothing, their Cathar legacy of gnostic communion reduced to the status of the poor frog he saw in an eddy, struggling to breathe, clearly poisoned by some pollution in the river. In his mind, the narrow Tarn broadened to become an image of the Loire, that vast river which is, like its territory, ever changing, reflecting the sky, yet ever massively the same, pouring on between its châteaux and vineyard flanks—France!
Tears started behind Raoul’s eyes as he slowed his pace, to take in his thoughts… “But France is not free!”, Raoul cried. As he walked on, kicking furiously at clumps of grass by the riverside, he came across a dried–up rivulet where he’d once played boules, in a time now lost in an indigo fog of memory. He gritted his teeth, growled into the thickets. “Our fine lion couldn’t overcome even a unicorn! Ah, how we need a Jacques Brel, who could pillory and glorify at once! ‘Ça sent la bière’, aussi le vin, it could be Bordeaux, Libourne on the shoulder of the Gironde” (looking out over Arcachon where Lili Boulanger went once hoping to restore her lost health)—“but Brel presides over all, the pantograph of pantomime –”.
Raoul remembered his visits to the Théâtre du Grand Guignol in Paris, in the Cour Chaptal in the 9th arrondissement: so close to Ary Scheffer’s house where Georges Sand and Chopin called, and to the little theatre where Alfred Jarry first threw ‘Ubu Roi’ at an unsuspecting world—‘Merdre’, a fine opening line for 1896—and to the house where Nadia and Lili lived… Brel continues to speak for us, hadn’t he written
On a détruit la Bastille Et ça n’a rien arrangé On a détruit la Bastille Quand il fallait nous aimer
‘Aucun rêve jamais / Ne mérite une guerre…’ No, that wasn’t the way. Hadn’t he also sung, in Litanies pour un Retour,
Mon Coeur ma mie mon âme Mon ciel mon feu ma flamme Mon puits ma source mon val Mon miel mon baume mon Graal
That was it! ‘Le retour’, as of a King Arthur, waking up himself and his people—‘voilà que tu reviens’!
[‘Mais pourquoi moi, pourquoi maintenant, et.. où aller? (…) Mais qu’est–ce–que jamais j’ai fait d’autre—qu’arriver?’ – J.Brel, J’arrive]
“And this,” cried Raoul aloud, “is where we need our old woodland god, Lugh! Light, clarity! The striking of the midday sun into the forest glade!” Raoul, metaphorically booting out the inner infidel, aimed a kick at a broken pot in the grass verge, suddenly depressed again, knowing that light can’t exist without dark, and unable to see his way from one to another, yet sure this was a worthy quest…
He didn’t see, bound up as he was, the shard that he’d kicked into the undergrowth. It might have born an unnerving resemblance to the Grail he so ardently sought… and it did carry the relic of an inscription which strangely echoed—or prefigured, so time–worn did the fragment appear—the motto of the Revolution.
There’s no way of ascertaining the original text of this lost inscription, but a tentative reconstruction might go as follows:
GAUL LION LIBRE ? OUI, SI ÉGAL IN LOI, BRÛLEZ PAS DANS LE
FEU ILLÉGAL—IN BROTHERHOOD
AND SISTERHOOD, ÔC!
And a translation might be: ‘Is the Lion of Gaul free? Yes, if equal in law, burn not in the illegitimate fire [we can take this to be a reference to the savage Languedoc persecution of the Cathars, and similarly, given the prominent role taken by women in the ‘heretical’ movement, complete the final phrase with the necessary implication]—unissez–vous, frères et soeurs!’ and ending with the Occitane version of the initial northern French ‘oui’ (prudently moving these last unconventional words round to the unseen side of the vase). It may be surprising, but is certainly heartwarming, to find English mixed with French in this inscription from medieval southern France; testifying to a sense—an actuality!—of fellowship and elision of national (and regional, and linguistic—òc!) borders at a time when everything seemed against them.
No one, to my mind, has explained better than Rudolf Steiner the precise application of the famous triad which this Albi fragment adumbrates:
Liberté—in thought Egalité—in law Fraternité—in economics.
Try jumbling up the categories (as do almost all modern societies): they don’t work, you have chaos.
But there are those who prefer not to think about it, much less try to aim for it as a goal (or grail); even some chivalric orders dare not contemplate the true implications of their allegiance, preferring to dally in a shrubbery.
* * *
On the last day of the Furniture–Making Techniques course we gathered in the piano nobile of the Musée Cognacq–Jay. Rui, the Brazilian student, hadn’t quite memorised the historical module, but it didn’t matter. “Not marquetry, but tapestry,” I reminded him. “Engraving’s over there: look how the artist has directed the chisel point, to bring out the overriding floral motif.” “Monsieur –” broke in a French student. “Do you think the Parthenon marbles have the right to stay in England? Aren’t the legal grounds a bit shaky?” “Can’t you let that hoary subject lie?” retorted Ron, a blunt English student. “Oh, Ron, are you so easily taken in?” “When anyone’s listening. I don’t believe in a free–for–all, unlike the so–called socialist government, if that’s what you mean. Would you like an exotic fruit, by the way?” “That Blair’s unctuousness is spread all over the Highlands,” interposed a Scotsman. “Devolution’s only of use to the well–off, people at home in smart salons, like him, the slim – ” “Yuk. You make him sound like a media–courting ballet–dancer.” Oh, imagine the slight scent of his overheated body in the green-room…
* [alchemicalpause] *
One of my less likely career moves was to take up an appointment as manager of the UNESCO football team in Lagos, West Africa. I remember all too well the only match for which I was (nominally) responsible. Eli, in goal, was totally pissed, and when by mistake the Nigerians knocked the ball towards him he reacted like streaked lightning and missed it. Opinions on the touchline were varied, if strongly held. “He’s been at the samples in the laboratory,” reckoned Nigel, a scientist of Latin American descent. “Rubbish,” I snorted. “This is just too many beers. Or spirits.” “Well, look…” Nigel tried to insist. “Rubbish!” I cried again. Didn’t he understand that individual drunkenness was infinitely preferable to the suspicion of misuse of official chemical supplies? But as I remonstrated, I was suddenly flooded by the recollection of another summer’s day, in my college rooms in Oxford, arriving back from a lecture in the Classics Faculty, where my view of the beautiful Greek sculpture of Niobe had been interrupted only by the even more beautiful profile of the girl I hadn’t yet dared to speak to, but surely, after I’d poured myself this drink, I would – I would – “You’re drinking in your hidden memory,” Raul interrupted my bittersweet reminiscence, his sallow face unsullied by irony. He wasn’t well, but he generally made nothing personal of it, in his unfluent Belgian English, as if it were merely a sequence of unpleasant things which might be happening to a mutual acquaintance. “You liked to have been Eric Gill, artist lover of fifty, Niobe, fifty times loved?” How did he know? But he didn’t see Niobe like I did, full of animal desirability and yet, somehow, on my social level. “My kidney’s got a chronic abscess, I had to call in sick with Legionnaire’s Disease, my scarlet fever’s suppurating, I’m malade, I’ve a great boil,” continued Raul. He looked so innocently surprised by all this! And then, suddenly, he burst out in horrified misery, “I am not well, I have a sickness, o curse! And I can’t make out any ship that might carry me home…”
* * *
This year’s Organists’ Outing was to Lille, in northern France. None of us knew much about it, except that it was a big, dull city. But as our interest was simply in the instrument in St M—Church, this hardly worried us.
For everybody else, that’s how it remained, and perhaps remains to this day. But at the reception when we arrived—verbena tea, almond biscuits—I found myself next to a dark French girl with a ringlet of hair hanging over her ear, which fascinated me. As we listened to the welcoming speeches, she removed a hair–pin and shook her curls free. She put the kirby–grip on the table next to her name–card, which had a Lille address on it. The clip was of some matt alloy, and seemed to be shaped like a nymph, or siren, whose fingers, held above her head, merged back into the metallic matrix. Without understanding why I was doing it, and as she was looking in another direction, I took the card and the brooch from the table and put them in my pocket. Perhaps to prevent her having the opportunity to notice this, I asked her in a rush, when she next looked round, if she was going to the dinner after that evening’s recital. She replied “Je préfère être seule”. Soon after, she left, without another word.
There was still an hour and a half to go until the recital. We would only meet the organist afterwards, so the others were setting out to discover a few Lille cafés. I took out the card from my pocket, and read the address. In Lille things work well, except the motions of the heart, and I was able soon to be walking down the street where she, perhaps, lived. (Though even amongst my colleagues, carefully ensconced in the centre, all did not necessarily go smoothly: one member of the group, directed aurally to the restaurant ‘Lutterbach’, spent an age trying to find ‘Le Tabac’.)
Heading, as I felt, away from civilisation, after many minutes I found myself in front of a stone porch, on each side entwined with carvings of bay trees. Above it I took in moulded forms of male and female figures playing, disputing, nymphs with locks cascading over their ears and gods priapically rampant, yet none quite touching another, always reaching… and as the evening sun hit the horizon and blurred my sight, a warm heavy summer rain started to fall, which began stealthily to wash away the details of the carvings in their soft sandstone, starting with the protuberances and ending with the eyes…
I looked at my watch and realised that I was far too late to attend the recital, where perhaps she was. I returned to the city centre, and took the night train back home. I would have put all this behind me, as a dream, but have not been able to forget that at one moment, as (already unmanned, stammering, in my mind) I was looking at her name–card ‘Laure…’, her wrist inadvertently brushed mine; and my skin still felt as if scalded.
* * *
The setting is northern Africa—desert wilderness mingled with the appurtenances of multinational oil extraction. It’s night.
A lone cicada sounds across the landing strip (I think with nostalgia of Josquin). A wild ass trots across the floodlit patch in front of the terminal. I’ve come to meet Bill, who’s taken refuge in the only cool place, the airline lounge.
Bill tells us there’s a delivery of gold ingots, asks where the Turin industrialist is. I reply he’s in Catalonia, just where Ramon Llull worked—by a curious coincidence, on the transmutation of base elements into gold.
Bill, quipping about tauromachy but amused by the Lull connection, wants to keep an eye on all this, but we agree to leave him out of the loop. A great moon, blue at first, begins to rise over the airfield. A Copacabana moon, which somehow doesn’t convince… I’m thinking hard as I go through the usual astrological banter with Gillian Rouble, perhaps not her real name, as she seems to be connected with Russian oil oligarchs. Some of her pithier expressions make me wonder why I ever fancied her (Eulali’s quite fun), but she turns the conversation round till I hardly know who I am (a French man of letters?) and am persuaded to set up the little barbeque we have, and prepare some fish fillets. However I’ve failed again—hoping for praise, I’ve brought out as requested my special Indonesian garlic sauce, but it’s gone off, and everyone declares it inedible. Haven’t I any game instead? Non. The teasing goes on.
Desolate, I look out over the runway, where the moon is looming more and more. And in its blue light, I see something strange on the oil–drilling tower: protective suits, an inflatable mattress—I need to change the labelling urgently, and sprint across the field.
I’ve been spotted, alas, by Niall and Ollie, whose job it was, but who always exaggerate grossly when anything untoward happens. As I try to cover up whatever unnatural coupling is going on, we swap globe–trotting repartee, in a game I think I’m losing, but at least I may have avoided official disgrace. We’d get off more lightly in France… I blame the moon.
* * *
Elsewhere in Nubia… discussions about the coming arts festival. “Let’s think about the residential course,” I smiled round at the committee. “How about historical fiddle techniques in Scandinavia? And then the main programme: for our desert climate, something classical—Debussy, Beethoven, bourgeois excellence, piano recitals under the stars. We won’t have Venetian renaissance, that’s being done in the Scottish Isles.” “But we could have French baroque?” “How about Expressionism?” “I think they’d like stylish musicals mixing Puccini and Broadway, a medley of Italian opera (we could sell pizza in the interval), singers who can let out to their hearts’ content…” “White Christmas?” “… and a couple of turns by our own stars –” I round up, “that means you, Elli, and Raoul, and to crown it the majestic Organosova.” It’s a fine line–up, for a first season, but I’m just thinking of my lost girl, with whom I’d chimed as if for the first time on the cruise–ship over from Italy. She was no Lucretia, but…
The moon sailed higher. I considered the condenser rules in our home–brew store, and had a better idea. There was another girl, after all, and Brian to sort out the paperwork, and I’d a supply of—glory be!—champagne.
* * *
Notes on a meeting between the German writer [Heinrich] Böll and the Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria [unless it is the 16th-century kabbalist Isaac Luria, but the context seems to favour the former].
Böll: “Will gin be alright?” Luria: “Just give me caviar.” Yes, and no doubt pancakes, and several beers, that would be like him. “Have you seen any good films lately? And by the way, I hope Liliana’s pregnancy’s going well.” “Gullshit is deposited most selectively.” “Wow,” Louis, his secretary, exclaims. “Lewis Carroll, yeah?” “You ass,” Luria groans, “it was meant to be Dylan Thomas, though admittedly not very close.” And he tries to settle his face into a Martian scowl. Böll again: “Ach, I’ve seen that look on a fresco in Milan!” “Luini’s too cheerful—I was thinking of an Italian with a crooked elbow.” Böll: “There’s an idea—we could play Shakespeare consequences! Ulli,” (that’s me, the interpreter), “I’ll start.
‘Blue, ill, Goneril –’ ”, “ ‘Regan, seethe’ ”, I read. Luria: “ ‘Stewed tripe for me…’ ” “That’s not Shakespeare!”
* * *
The world of the dead, in ancient Egypt, lay on the west side of the Nile: one moved towards the setting sun. And one moved by boat, of course, a boat carved or constructed out of wood. In other times, and places, rites might be associated with bulls and bull games (Minoan Crete), Pythian oracular mysteries (Delphi), or—oh! Hebrew, Mithraic or Christian angels. In this case, not the annunciating Gabriel, as we’re talking of a death. There are other forces, Loki, Baal, best to keep out of their way. Look, look… another mercurial spirit, Ariel, whom we think beneficent though he can have a demonic aspect—and now Gabriel’s counterpart, the summer archangel Uriel, who presides over Lili’s illness, plucking at her insides like the eagle at Prometheus’ liver.
But Crohn’s seems like a moon illness, a poor person spreadeagled on the crux of their own anatomy. Acrid as the bile given to the hung Christ (butChrist stopped at Eboli…). One can understand though why Lili Boulanger tried to turn to the sun in Arcachon (I did the same myself, seventy years later, hoping to salvage a disappearing love). However there was no cure even if you could pay for it, in any currency.
I can imagine Lili, in extremis, looking to find anywhere away, however simple, however cheap, by herself, knowing her account had passed into the red; but the trouble remained inside.
Lili Boulanger was buried in the cemetery of Montmartre. I have visited her grave, where she was joined by her elder sister Nadia over sixty years later, and I didn’t feel her presence there. I was glad, as that meant she is now everywhere.
Nicolas Robertson, London – Lisbon 1999–2021, with acknowledgements to Charles Pott, Tom Phillips, Rachel Wheatley, inter al.
For a general introduction to the series, see here.
MISSA SOLEMNIS Setting of the Mass, by Beethoven; soloists, Monteverdi Choir and Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, directed by John Eliot Gardiner, performances in various European cities, 1994.
Sequence of 92 anagrams followed by a parallel text (composed at the same date).
* * *
MIMESIS SALONS “Melisma, sons, is some sisal sin. M-minims, o lasses? Ass loses minim, ass in LSO mimes. Lo! ‘Messias’ in MS: me main loss is S. Simeon’s Missal.” Noam smiles, “Is S-Sionism Mass ‘El Al’—is MS Simeon’s?” “O, Missal in mess! Lone, I miss Mass. Missa ‘no smiles’!”
* * *
“Massie’s slim, no? I’m no less mass, I slam emissions, males’ missions, I mess men’s soil, Islam, Simeon, SS…” “…SS means…” – is Milo – “Means Miss Lois!” “SS! – “ “MALE SIONISM,” slam Sion’s misses, “Mole in SAS.” “Miss? Salem, Miss??” “SION!” Miasm’l session: Salome ‘Miss Sin’, lemon Isis, mass lissom Messina, anis, slim; Moses (Solesm’ Sinaï MS), Amos (“missiles ’n Mosesism nails Limies”), Samson’s Messianism, Sol (“less Miami, sons!”); M—Moses is slain!
* * *
Lemnos is a miss. Selim’s maisons… “Mil s/Sâone, si, Ms...” “Minos ass, Selim. Smiles, moans, is Somali mess. Sin!” – Emma iss sinlos?? – “Sins?” – Emma. “Soils lessons Mimi ’as.” (Mimi’s lessons: animal mess. So is loess.) “Imam’s sins!” “Amis, lessons! Minimal mess, so is…” “Is seminal, Moss!”
“Some snail, Sims?” “Semi-snail.” “Moss?” “Miss semolinas. Less Mosiman‟, is slim seasons. I’m seismal.” Simon: “ ’s molasses sin?” “I’m sinless, mimosa…” Mason’s smile is simian, Mo’s less. Mason’s is miles, miles on; Sam’s is aimless. “No!” – Miss Melissa Simons, Islam nose, Miss ‘I’m Miss Sloanes’. Slim men’s oasis. (Limn oasises, Ms. Simons, Melissa…) “Siam melons, sis?” “Melons mi ass—is lemons! Assisi moles…” “Sam’s minis?” “Sam’s mini-sole’s semi-salmon, sis.” Sam misses loin, misses ma’s lino.
Alone, miss Miss.
* * *
ACTING CLASSES (ON THURSDAY AFTERNOONS) The students appreciated the familiar style of their professor, iconoclastic as he was and at home in any period of musical history: “Look, guys, you can fall into a pretty thorny error if you go on spinning out your melodic lines on one syllable – “Y-y-” (he has an occasional slight stammer) “You want some advice about white notes, girls? Only the sort of donkeys who mark time in the back desks of symphony orchestras need that. Look, here’s really something: I’ve seen the manuscript of Handel’s Messiah, and it’s in German! But that’s nothing beside the Saint-Simon partbooks, lost now alas.”
One of the professor’s friends, the philosopher Noam Chomsky, shows a hitherto unattested interest in musicology, and combining disarmingly friendly attention (poking a tiny and good-hearted bit of fun at the stammer) with incisive grasp of the matter asks, “Are you telling me the p-parody mass “Oh, for the wings of a dove, Oh, to home may I roam‟ is in the Saint-Simon codex?” “God knows, the sources are all jumbled up. I seem to be the only one who’s noticed this lacuna, and it’s no laughing matter, it’s as if there were a whole Missa Solemnis out there up for grabs…”
* * *
Fade to a cricket match in the 70s, where a popular sporting figure, in this case an Australian swing bowler (unless it’s the unfairly neglected Scottish novelist), turns out to serve as but a peg on which to hang an array of prejudices, thus:
“I put it down to build. I weigh about the same as him, though it may not look like it, and I too hate the idea that we men have some divine right just because we give out instead of taking in, and that’s the way it is and so on… And anyway, I like to queer our pitch a bit, I mean, we’re sentenced by the Koran, the Bible, Mein Kampf…” “You know what’s going to happen if you touch that topic,” warns a man called Milo. “Yeah. It means that girl Lois.” “But you might not have fully appreciated her extreme views, and …” And sure enough, Lois and her defenders of the faith can be heard demonstrating in the street outside, brutally lumping pro- and anti-Semites together as, worst of all, MEN, rather surprisingly going on to suggest there’s an undercover agent in the élite armed forces, or is it that they propose that there should be one? I can’t say, but I do know that when clearly and politely asked if they will plump for graceful retirement to a borough known for witch-hunting they opt noisily for a mountain top nearer the crucible of contemporary world history.
And thus doing, leave the field to a lurid succession of febrile fantasies, seven veils hardly disguising the citrus flanks of the gorgeous goddess of the Nile, nor the ranks of the sinuous girls of Sicily, high on pastis yet still so slender… A variety of prophets give credence to a French monastery’s claim to own the holograph of the Ten Commandments, and to the theory that a hallowed legal framework plus a few bombs should be enough to keep the British in line. A strong man is seen to betoken a once and future king amidst the ruin of the philistines, and another king enjoins less vice—of the south-eastern US kind in particular—upon his progeny; but the fabric falls apart as we hear the stammered news that the lawgiver has bitten the dust, who now is the authority for any of this?…
* * *
Well, Greek islands are not always what they’ve been cracked up to be; for one thing, they may feature ‘houses’ built by a Cretan-Ethiopian Muslim polyglot who wrings his hands, is effusive in French about a thousand other developments which have apparently been runaway successes—and leaves you sadly disillusioned. You could call his conduct wrong, and that’s certainly what Emma does—who is she to talk? mein Gott—but she talks alright: It’s such a shame , ‘t interferes with Mimi’s classes,” (though Mimi’s classes are a zoo, are in fact about as clean as mud) “actually I blame the muezzin.” And, on cue: “My friends, come to catechism!” the elevated voice clarions, “little is the interference with –” – WITH THE SEED FROM WHICH YOU SPRANG, YOUNG MOSS?? –
a whisper is heard, urgent, can the boy have seen right, can it be, o god mother believe him, the lad Moss is not what he seems –
“What, is Moss not one of us? Call the headmistress!”
“OK, calm down everybody, no, I’m not a woman, I’m in fact a man and have been all along, I’m sorry about the deception but it was necessary, as you’ll find out. Miss Soames was my mother, which is how I managed to fool you, looking so like her—and here’s my team, tough experienced men all.” Here, Nils gives a sort of Portuguese grin, yes, that’s the one, and gestures to the men to introduce themselves, which they do with exemplary terseness, until it comes to Simmons, who when alerted to his turn asks Emma, “D’you still drive that old banger?” and has to be interrupted by his superior who reminds him shortly that carbon monoxide effluvia are known to be injurious. But then they’re off, on their perilous mission…
* * *
I can’t believe that they’re after me—as an ALIEN! O, I’m tired, I’m hungry—but that gives me an idea, here’s somewhere I can go to ground. “What do you think,” they’re asking Sam, “escargots?” “If someone’ll share with me.” “And you?” I tell them I have a yearning for tapioca, but I’m one of those who think nouvelle cuisine portions an extravagance, given that I’m trying to lose weight. As a result, I admit, I’m volcanically starving. Simon wonders if raw cane sugar is bad for you, and is rewarded by virtuous invitations to ‘sin, flower’.
I watch the face of Mason, his atavistic grin, of Maurice, trying hard to keep up, of Sam, without compass bearing now, while Mason finds himself in some unfathomable future… The spell is broken, o bittersweet epiphany, by the arrival of Melissa, her semitic profile and Harvey Nichols clothes accentuating her availability only to those lean pale men who earn access to her fount… (O Melissa, unwed yet, tell how are these founts, describe your secret sources…)
“Like a slice of this Thai honeydew?”, Melissa’s brother asks her. “Doncha honeydew me, this is a citrus fruit. My Franciscan insiders don’t lie…” And those little flatfish Sam hoped were Dover sole? “I’m sorry, Sam, what you thought were baby plaice were salmon fillets.” I see Sam looking lost, longing for a good roast beef, longing for the dirty cracked floor of mum’s kitchen –
Left on my own, I realise that what I long for is her.
Nicolas Robertson Lübeck – Duisburg – Vienna, June–November 1994/ Outurela, Portugal, May 2020
DIE SCHOEPFUNG Oratorio by Haydn; concert performances by solo singers, English Baroque Soloists, and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner, 1993.
One hundred and one consecutive 13-letter anagrams—liberally punctuated—followed by an “interpretation”, one of an unlimited (though not infinite) number of possible parallel texts. The ‘oe’ component of Schoepfung in German can be represented (and more often is, even in transliteration) by ‘ö’; I chose the extra ‘e’, a legitimate alternative and an invaluable aid for the anagrams.
* * *
NICE FUDGE SHOP Fed such pigeon pie, Ogden Fuchs is God. Fee: punch Spence, hug Fido. Feed, cough, spin, gosh, epic fun! Eden!
“Fish?” God, puce. Deuce fish pong. Cede fungi: “Shop! Cèpe ’n fish, Doug?” “Deign chef soup, cop. Feud hinges on chef’s pud.” “E.g.?”, I chide fop. “Genus: fudge.” Phön (sic) pings… Echo— “…feud.” “Sponge feud?” (hic)
Gnu, fed ice, hops: hops fence I dug. Feed no such pig, singe chop… “…feud.” Poe chides gnu , ff—deep sonic hug: “Puce hog! Fiends, go dupe finches! Défi, gnu, Cheops she, Punic; God, fend foe!…”
GENOCIDE Push ff: EP disc enough. Edison Pugh (F.E.C.), he confused pig Ché, duping foes of Pugh.
CHIC CONFECTIONERS Having eaten one of the best game pies of his life, Ogden Fuchs feels great. But there’s a price to pay: he has to hit the owner (Doug Spence) and embrace his dog. You eat, you belch, your head goes round a bit—that’s living all right, that’s paradise.
“You want some fish now?” calls Doug, holding out the olive branch so to speak. Ogden pales and implores heaven. There’s a desperate stench of old fish hanging in the air. But perhaps he could take it, if accompanied by mushrooms—wild mushrooms. With an attempt at jauntiness he cries, “You in there! What about turbot aux morilles?” “If I were you I’d go for the consommé, squire. Bear in mind though—it’s the dessert which’s really putting the cat amongst the pigeons…” “Miaaow exactly?” Ogden jokes, so badly he hopes as subtly to deflate the fey maître d’. “We’re talking butterscotch.” Doug’s Swiss-made telephone gives an icepick blast. As the sound rings around the room, Ogden thinks he hears a ghostly voice repeating “trouble… trouble…” “Trifle trouble?” he burps, and lapses into memories of a wildebeest he’d known. As a child, he’d fed it snow, and it had leapt in alarm, right across the palisaded moat he’d been excavating. Better not, he’d realised, give just any food to creatures who’ll eat anything: better to burn their whiskers.
‘Trouble…’—does Ogden really hear this? Lost as he now is in deep reverie, hearing rather the voice of his beloved Edgar Allan as if reprimanding the wildebeest in in a voice stentorian and yet somehow embracing the poor animal in a warm flood of sound:
‘Sickly brown thou gorgest piglike, (Devils! Fly and fool the birds!) Brazen bold confront Queen Pharaoh, Antelope, Hannibal in herds: Gnu divine, cleave enemies of thine…’
Truly, the stuff of legend.
MASS MURDER In another part of town, Edison Pugh (known to his friends as ‘F.E.C.’, excuse me, ‘fucking erudite cunt’), he who led ‘that bastard Guevara’ into the final Bolivian trap, thus thoroughly throwing his own enemies off the scent—Edison is entertaining. A couple of tracks from Haydn’s Creation, in German, played at full volume on his anachronistic stereo is sufficient for everybody, but conversation soon flows again, viz.:
“I managed to stymie that Euro-directive,” says Hugo, “I reckoned the distilled juniper subsidy would keep the Japs happy.” Hugo’s a closet boy-fancier with a receding profile reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe, or so he‘d like to believe. “Not even close, you and your imaginary Puero-directives, you great horrible poof”, laughs Charles Fauntleroy Greatorex Dough-Penis. “Sounds ideal material for a Future England Captain, Edison, no?” “Hoist by his own pet ’ard-on, rather.” “Oh, really, you old faggot!” “No, honestly, imagine if young Desmond here had applied a touch of Calvin Klein pur Homme…” “Shame on you, Edison. More wine?” “Ooh yes!” “What exactly would you say is the UN’s role with regard to children?” This is Hugo, trying in his inept way to get back into the conversation. “Christ, what a question. Round them up like a sheepdog? Comfort them like a lapdog? Defend them like a bulldog? Hang on, maybe there‘s something in this. What if – ”
There’s a sudden loud explosion of gunfire, which dies away as rapidly. Hugo whinnies like a horse and stammers feebly “I was worried about Portugal‘s progress in the ERM.” Somehow ‘Dirty Old Town’ is playing loudly on the revived stereo, as a blind Chinese incestuous parricide bursts noisily in with a steaming plateful he claims is for his aged president, the Mike Atherton of the Far East. Edison gestures to everybody to start singing, to raise morale. But it’s more trouble, an earful of cacophony reminiscent of the Footwear Band and likely to raise hackles at raves in the Home Counties: unconscious Freudian bird-echoes such as led to the kidnapping of a Venetian plenipotentiary, and united Cambridge geographers in hasty anti-sinology.
You think there’s anything clever in this? Our friends find themselves obliged to stuff fruit into their mouths while warbling, wash down a sow and her litter because the third sheep in line was found to have athlete’s foot: in short (bitter contrast with Ogden Fuchs’ earlier bliss) ingest, stockpile Gordon’s in the cheeks like hamsters, get blown full in the face by puffball spheres. It reminds me of an Old Testament porcine conflict—
– Memo to Bureau Chief: Pretend interference of paranormal nature with software – Why, for gossake? – It‘s that word PORCINE
You know what that Vietnam-vet hoped? That ‘porcine’ meant ‘funghi porcini’, the beloved boletus of his Italian youth; and he couldn‘t take it, running as he does an armourer’s, it‘s enough to drive him to blur that yearning with analgesics.
* * *
“We could do with a drink, you know,” snorted Denis soon after the heist, a character as I should explain straight out of those days when youngsters shut themselves inside sordid bars, reckoned they could sort out the spiritual problems of the deranged poultry of life, dangled but half-censored goodies within reach of dealers… “Sola Lolita OK for you, ’Umberto, ’Umberto? Behold!” “You’re the sort of person who laughs in a Mozart comic opera.” “Hang on, now…” he temporised softly. “You call this wealth, Nigel?” Denis asked in a yellow voice. “Well, it’s bread, if only peanuts. If I were you, I’d blow it right away. Give the bastards a treat!” (Yes, that’s what I have it down that he said.) Denis kicked his all-weather tyre, muttering in his funny clipped way, “Slurs us up, demned mist.” “Mist?”—Nigel had a sudden idea. The Thames Valley Police were bound to be on their way, and he slammed on the short-wave radio: “Police are warned to beware of impossible weather conditions! You’ll only find us gone to ground Stateside, Plod, you know, growing our own fruit trees like Adam or George Washington, no lie, we’re off to Paradise!”
* * *
Do you feel this self-indulgent ill-spelt Dickensry fills a gap? Do you find it… gregariously… fertilising?
* * *
For a moment, a great wail behind the quotidian din, can be heard the cry: “We’ve lost hold of LOVE, and…”
But detail reasserts itself: a discredited politician (or, it might be, a longed-for paradise) politely chides us, requesting we not confuse quiet with loud, at which point the compiler of these pages apparently declares a moratorium on the whole dichotomy.
So, to end, a little music: perhaps Edison’s (you could say, my) party has resumed. Amid official incredulity, announcement is made of a fugue, in the German spelling, by Chopin, in the key of G major. No one’s scorn, of course, is greater than that of our camp friend who likes to dress up as a South American liberationist, and who—also using, with bitter sarcasm, the German note-names—brands no less than half the octave meretricious kitsch, a vade mecum of ‘intellectual’ fakery …
But as the first, lonely, rising fourth is heard, scepticism turns to rapture: the cry goes up, in French and German, “Oh, Dervish sage of Marseille!”, “Oh, you lovely man!”. And then, the master-stroke: devastatingly turning on its head ‘Ché’ ’s indictment, Chopin (employing an unprecedented time-signature of Pythagorean proportion) breathes a delicate, modal sigh, resting on a left-hand accompaniment of a simple minor third as a sleepy head on a pillow, slyly working in too a ‘forte-piano’ marking—perhaps to convey that brief half-waking engendered by the shutting of a distant door, or the strictures of an editor…
What? Why must you bother me right now? I’m not hungry! Tell Hugo he can go to the devil!
Nicolas Robertson Vienna, Jan–Oct 1993 / Outurela, Portugal, April 2020
with thanks to Charles Pott ( the title anagram!) and other colleagues.
THE MAGIC FLUTE Opera/Singspiel by Mozart and Schikaneder; soloists, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Rehearsals and staged performances in Parma, and then several other European cities, 1995. (Archiv recording.)
157 thirteen-letter anagrams, at the latest count—I made it 158 in 1995, perhaps I included the title (The Magic Flute is of course an anagram of The Magic Flute—I would have said an isogram, or an autogram, or even a tautogram, but these words are all taken for something slightly different—so I’ll go for a pleonogram ), interlarded with 16 of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—twenty-one letters, grouped as 1-2-3-4-3-2-1, and picked out in red; preceded by their parallel ‘story’ giving as close an account (sticking slavishly to the anagram text) as I could manage of what might be supposed to be going on, as follows:
It had been, lucky me, a wonderful meal: Prosciutto di Parma, with fresh green figs, rucola salad. Just at the finish, though, something seemed to go wrong: I asked for a coffee, and was met by a stony-faced silence, the ass—great, I thought. You do something so well, and then you wreck it by a small idiocy at the end. It was the same with the digestif I tried to order—thinking to please by asking for that Duchess of a liquor they make on the coast across from Capri—which received a frankly rude “What?” in reply. That was enough: I told the chap to clear off. I was still smoking inside, of course, and as happens, another diner observed my mood and tried to cheer me up with gastronomic small-talk. I thought him rather like a household ferret, but he asked a curious question “D’you think he ever worked for Cahiers du Cinéma?”—which set me thinking. Imagine this film scenario:
DAYLIGHT SMOKE In a certain country, gastropods are brought as offerings (let’s say, Trojan snails): it appears there’s a war on, and the anti-haemorrhagic qualities of figs are in demand. The inhabitants subsist, amid gastric suffering, on the odd mollusc, superannuated Oriental fruit, even deep slices from their own calves. They feel their own facial bones poking through (it’s easy to show this, and it’ll have an impressive effect), and to pass the time race the only thing left which (presumably) is not edible, a local flightless bird. (This is also very picturesque, as a sort of parasite on this bird’s fruit-eating parts is the salamander, or baby newt Gila monster, a lizard without vocal chords which features in runic mysteries. I’m wondering if there’s something about this in The White Goddess, and if so, was Robert Graves making it up?) There’s a backdrop of the Three Kings by a star of the Venetian C15 school, that’s fine, if somewhat immediate in its brutal realism… A contrasting scene is set in the leafy self-catering avenues of southwest London, where a Jewish patriarch is walking his dog: a clubbable, diplomatic man and a talented animal. The link between these two extremes is a scurrilous publication of the sort you wouldn’t be seen extracting from your own letterbox, which deals in (again extreme) totemic obsessions involving girls, guilt, glamour, gore and galactic glory—
I’m just fantasising, without great success, about how the breaking of the sound barrier can take its place in this yarn, when my interlocutor disturbs me again, now changing his tack: “I’m thinking it’s the cook who should be cut in pieces… You do receive some money, you know, for Euro-movies.” I reply that I’m glad to hear it, appropriately in German (which is also intended to deter him from further conversation, but in vain: …) “What about capturing the start of the Open Championships? You could have a side from the opera, they love golf, then there’s people smoking, plenty of incidents – ” I interrupt this nonsense by inquiring if he’d like nutmeg, but he refuses violently and reckons rather that lilies are best to banish the odour of seafood. Almost too late, I realise that under cover of this table-talk he is surreptitiously removing my artificial limb…
* * *
It’s international conductor time, and someone has the gall to stop Riccardo Muti, to correct a (simple, diatonic enough) motif. A Japanese executive objects on the grounds of Muti’s grandeur, at which a German ripostes by asking with evident scorn whether you would entrust the peak of intellectual art to a twilit dreamer: to which the conclusive reply is that Muti turns canonic imitation into a thing of liquid beauty. The metronome meanwhile marches on. Sudden strife in the brass section: Jeffrey Tate, whose turn it is, is unhappy, but a suggestion that the players felt even more estranged from Zubin Mehta only brings a sharp rebuke, and instructions that if they don’t like the Méhul passage which seems weirdly prescient of Beethoven’s Fifth, they don’t play it.
Do you think that’s right? While I’m contemplating it, the image of a little salamander snout pops beaming into my mind as I turn on the tap—a tap of which I remember now I swore I’d replace the washer… Why do I always feel so bad about such small failures? Why not come out and say, no, I’ve had enough of pan-Europeanism, I like my souvenir of Scotland. Furthermore, it’s official now that you can’t believe anything they say: there’s a song about Tarzan, that apart from being a bit short in the brain department he was actually a carnivorous predator—or, a mythological snake-haired fiend, or – a shenior shivil shervant of the shixtiesh * (a.k.a. a former editor of ‘The Times’)!
Phew. Quite enough of that. But then a whole pile of people turned up, whose names are self-explanatory (he says going on to explain them, as in ‘I hardly need say…’): a prairie millionaire, an Israeli ditto who’s made his killing in fish oil and is intent on founding a dynasty; the late Timothy Leach; a representative of an English recording company (the only one who’s not permitted to arrive by taxi, with resulting pedal angst, he’ll always remember this day), a Euro-censor, and not quite an honest one at that; two women of whom the second is—what? you? look, can I, hang on—and a born-again pop-star.
Naturally, there’s a call for light, to which the enigmatic reply seems to recall an exchange from The Magic Flute. Well: let there be light, then. This however doesn’t please a chess expert who amongst other signs of irritation lights up (sic) for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, impassively. You got out fast, but I felt as if embedded in glue and got stuck (though with my money) in a throng from which the only escape was to play my magic glockenspiel—in whatever key came to hand—
– and it worked! But even then, being under the weather, my maxillary workings told me I needed a tisane, if a tacky enough one could be found. The Boss asks if I want milk—with a tisane?? Bah, I round on him, wondering if he continues to have interests in American military dependencies, at which he tells me to – leave off. He implies I’m small, too, which irks, I’m just slightly built, but still I make to placate him with a present of an English renaissance instrument, embracing a Welsh friend to celebrate this outbreak of reconciliation. Hah! all the Boss can do is to tell me to pick up a nasty illness, the brute. Even now, I mollify him: introduce, with sycophantic adulation, a German girl. True to form, he insults her immediately, asking her an unlikely question about Belgian football—but Ute’s a match for him, with her knowledge of London equivalents. Naturally this rebounds against me , I’m accused of stealing the theorbo I bought for him, damn it, and am asked to procure a less challenging woman.
I can’t do this, you miserable German person, I’ve only one leg for a start. My luck, if that’s what it is, is in, this time, in that Helmut is distracted (you may have noticed this propensity) on to another tack: he sees there is an American veterans’ baseball game on TV. (This is one of his recurring obsessions.) I tease him by saying playfully that a certain distinguished British philosopher was also a US infantryman; but for once Helmut is not taken in, perhaps because his stomach has more urgent calls on his attention—now he wants ewe’s milk cheese. Really, will this never end? One solution, arguably, is to call in a heavyweight but lighthearted Belgian-Ceylonese-Breton wrestler (frightened of nothing except spiders, hence his nickname Muffet), whose but moderately loud voice announces the octave firebrand which breaks through the hefty trellis decorating this scene, and thus introduces –
(in an undertone, please, like a somnolent guard-dog)
– Lazy days in Cyprus, a honeymoon couple discovering Indo-Portuguese culture and dancing innocently into the bewitched apocalyptic sunset…
* * *
The river of forgetfulness runs through Cambridge, as you, old fruit, must know, having picked up enough tabs there. Stick to engraving, Dark Lady.
Alf is asking the President of Poland to bring a barrel for his French co-pilot, but Wałesa is at the back of the plane, and suggests Alf try instead, why not, a Fabergé jewel—as well as giving him his cue to start skydiving. Ah, crazy great West Country turnips, that sums up the enchantment of Cambridge days! But even an inhabitant of Paradise had to admire the way the Chinese could synthesize two quite distinct sports in one computer programme, at the same time recounting every last detail of an unedifying modern military campaign in the style of a spiritual. (The original ‘naming of the beasts’ in Eden had a more charmingly reticent, throaty quality).
Alec is no more, alas, but another philosopher can be found to fill the gap. Fichte was a man, which is important, but Hegel was a feline in disguise, which made him fit only to instruct clever asses, and play (very well, admittedly) on children’s slides, if one can tell after so many years have elapsed. I’d rather he’d have got the creator of M. Hulot’s Holiday to work on a remake of La Grande Bouffe –
Why’s everything gone terribly quiet all of a sudden? Welch’ furchtbare Stille! **
– but the Melbourne newspapers called the project off, preferring some totally spurious local paparazzi farce called, I think, ‘Newt Dundee’, involving a Scottish idiot astounding everybody, chewing straws, and dancing his balls off in a cloud of smoke. Ah, Margaret, surely you knew that a crowd of South American football administrators (we call them the Ferret Fanciers, but don’t let on) are going back to the land? Yes, to the Portuguese horse-breeding centre Muge, where they serve fish soup every day and wear braided Hebridean headgear.
“Are you cigarette monitor? You know mucus build-up goes a horrible colour…” It’s enough to make one, as an urban guerrilla, want to scratch below the surface of this sweet, playful Zauberflöte. Were you, Amadeus, really a demented music-loving aristocrat who commissioned your own works, thought it would be a laugh to dance with a keeper of the portal, jive with Mephistopheles himself…?
Would you compare this with Graham Greene’s Vienna? God forbid. Would you entrust the mission to an American who refuses to believe his emblematic eagle is bald, and forgets to look at t’ petrol gauge?—but I’d better be quiet. It’s just another flight.
BUT it’s different in summer, when you want to spread your wings and mount to the treetops, make a(n-H-) bomb from your in ( off)-sur (shore )-ance tragacanth/okra policy. Or, follow the example of Joseph Beuys, saved from perishing (in the) cold by being wrapped in felt and fat—we who live in more humid climes can hardly appreciate such extreme needs, but raise our glasses all the same.
For we all suffer from the cold. For, truism as it may be, we can be protected by a present of a nest-egg, a lucky jewel (this could also read, ‘thing of value’, it could be, thus, a musical instrument of rare quality, a flute for example), especially if given to you personally by a freedom-fighter. Where the highest church spire in the world reaches octagonally (Ulm = elm = Ely?) to the sky , a cross-section might tell you that in 1500 AD, this was but a caper, a chamois’ vortex; and that here too your man Sarastro casts his labyrinthine lettery spell.
* * *
TAG, LICHT—FUMÉE Ham, fig, lettuce—I felt much gâté. “Café?” Mute. Light, tight mule-face; cute. “Malt.” If he get Malfi, gut. “Chè?” “Leg it!” Fume. Chat: “Ultimate chef! Glug…” Tame fitch! “ ’E taught EEC film?” Lumache, gift, etc. Emulate fight: heal cut fig met. Get ache if tum lug clam, if teeth fug matt lichee, cut leg (ham), tief. Teeth, gum, facile gulf, thematic éclat, emu fight—cute glam if the emu fig chattel fetch mute Gila eft—Thule magic. Thule game, fictif? The mage-cult—Cima, fleet thug—felt gut. Micah, E. Cheam gîte luft—“Agile mut—fetch!” – fit chum, legate. “Geh, mutt!” Facile! Ult. fétiche mag (e.g. tu fetch mail), female chit tug echt guilt. Fame? Fame! Glitch—tué!! Tué, acme, flight! Mach 1 Flug et – et… “Mutilate chef… Get aught, EC film.” “Ach, gut.” “Film tee, ‘Flute’ team, cig—hazardous game, golf.” “Want mace?” “Filth. Muget fumigate the clam.” “Leg thief!”
– CUT –
FUGAL THEME Tic. “Halt, Muti – GFECE…” “Muti g‘l’eat chef!” “Ha? Fuge mit Celt?” “He melt fuga!” Tic. Cue metal fight: Tate, chief, glum; cite Mehta gulf – “Calm huge fit! Et tacet Méhul, if G-G-C thema futile.” Ethical? Eft mug light me faucet—facet hem guilt. Guilt? Face them! Glut EEC faith, me Leith mug. Fact: ‘Tarzan’s gaga, mum’, flow ode—a wolf? Tarzan? Medusa?? MOGG!
– CUT –
Agh. Me, I left. Mitchel A. Gufet, Chaim T. Gefült (Gulf Cham tête) I, Tim Leach (feu), G.T. Futt (Gimel)—ache, feet, caul might time fate gulch—Emil Guthaft, EC cheat (“Get film ‘U’!”), Thea, Meg (tu!), Cliff—“Luce !”—“– tätig?” Hm. Fiat luce. The GM Michael Tuft, e.g., fumeth, lit Cage (he flegmatic). Tu fleet; I’m caught, gum feet, I latch fee (tight maul)—C chime E FLAT – “Gut, magic.” Flu, teeth felt each gum, it mulch ‘tea!’ if get matt glue. Chief: “Tee? Milch? Gut fate.” Ich: “Left Guam?” “Guam? Flee, titch.” Ému, light: “Facet gift: Cheam lute.” Melt ice, hug Taf. “Get Thai flu, mec.” Thug. “Calif, meet Ute.” “Camel! Fight Liège fut-match?” “Fulham.” “Get cité! Mac, lute-thief, get Mica.” Heft, lug: lame. Cute fight, Helmut Git-face. “Teufel! GI match.” (Helmut GI facet.) “T.E. Hulme GI—fact.” Emit laugh, etc. “Fie! Fetta, milch!” Gag, hit, elect Muffet, huge Tamil-cum-Celt, the gai Flem (if huge). “Acht”—eight—“flame—cut huge lattice” ( mf—hemi-flat, e.g….)
‘The Age’ cut film: Wagga zoom lens fraud, Tam O’Douglas (fart), amaze, gnaw, fume, a gonad orgasm waltz. Tut, Meg, Chile FA (Fitch™ League) face tilth. Muge, täglich fumet, Gaelic hem-tuft helmet. “I/c fag, tu? Flegm hue…” Città flea might cute flute game itch. O Mozart! a mad Walsegg? (fun—Armed Man walz, Faust go-go…) “Lime?” “Faugh!” (etc.) “Tuft eagle, Mitch? MITCH—T’ FUELAGE!” Mute. “Ach, fliegt.”
Été macht flug if huge elm—(aitch) ’uge theft claim—mucilage theft?? – felt heat. Mug, i/c the fug climate, lift them.
Ague. Cliché, fat gem, tu Che amulet gift, Ulm eight-facet:
A fat Magus’ long word maze.
* I actually heard William Rees-Mogg say this of himself during his address at Peter Goldman’s memorial service—where I was singing—at St Martin in the Fields, in the 1980s.
** In the original 1995 MS of this introduction, lost in our 2009 fire, these words of Pamina’s were written in the hand of Christiane Oelze, who sang (and spoke) the role, and whom I asked to insert them—I can see them still, but technology doesn’t yet allow us to translate inner visions into outer reproductions.
Nicolas Robertson Parma – Ferrara, May 1995 / Outurela, Portugal, May 2020
For a general introduction to the series, see here.
Note—SJ Even before Don Giovanni (here, with general introduction), this was Nick’s very first anagram foray to have a story attached, whose arcane fantasies already emerge fully-fledged—as with
tinto faucets, cute Asti font, scant Fitou…,
the taps and church vessels are running with red and white from the great houses, and lesser French appellations don’t get much of a look in…
* * *
COSÌ FAN TUTTE Opera by Mozart; soloists, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner, 1992—staged performances (stage direction by JEG) and Archiv recording.
The earliest case of an accompanying parallel text—an attempt at describing what I felt might be going on, while adhering literally to the anagram results—composed immediately after the anagrams (here a sequence of the same 12 letters, 100 times).
From Er, textUrtext, Parma 1994.
TUTTI FONSECA: tinto faucets, cute Asti font, scant Fitou; et Tunis café tot. Tofu. Incest at Eton. “Tusa? If C.T. Fancutt’s toe”—I infuse tact to feint Tusa cot—“isn’t out, ‘facet tu’.” “Fine! Scott, a tuft at cosine?” “Tofu! Sine.” Tact. If stout, enact a fit Scot, tune fustian octet, cite not Faust, taunt soft ice (if Tesco taunt fat Tucson tie—satin, tofu, etc.) coast net. “Fuit ut canto?” “Tief. Sit, foetus can’t. Tin cat-foetus.” “Titan foetus…” “Cist ocean”—Futt. “Nice oast, Futt”—Titus Fen-Cato, i/c font. “Astute. Situate font—cut Ascot! Feint toucan, if test cat oft unites (cat oft unties?) teat’s function: eat, suc’, fit to Nic’s tofu teat…” “Est, tunc fiat, o Tuscan foe!” “Tit.” “Tief?”—to Tuscan Tito (US fan, etc.) “Teutonic saft?” “Ficta’s Teuton.” “No ficta,” ’e tuts. Tut! Sit on face.
* * *
I oft tan scout, I, Cnut, feast to toast fun, cite Sufi, Tao. Tent? C’è scant outfit. I, fast-toe Cnut, cut station effect: saint out (Saint ‘tuft’ Coe—cat’s often ‘uit’). Cue soft taint. Et toi, cast fun? Et tu, sicofant?? Canute’s fit to taunt foe’s tic, stint Coe tufa factions. Têtu, FNAC, tote situ (Sufi tote can’t fuse antic tot—fuse Titan cot? Tunic not safe). Ate soft… Cnut, I… I taste of… Cnut… nice, soft, taut…
* * *
“SNCF—têtu, toi? Astute faction, SNCF: Tati et/ou fat Teuton (sic). Caution: test ‘f’—suf’ocate! Tint Sufi tent-coat, nice…” Fast ‘tu’ to Count East, fit, cute stain, oft fist not acute. “Aft, tits! Ounce” (o fuc) “sent a tit faint. Suet cot, soutane-fit.” Ct.—COUNT—T. Fiesta, ictus often at coitus… “Fatten e’static futon!”
“Sofa, Nutt. Cite Cato.” “Fuit. Sent soft Utica net …” Fun Cato test! “It’s…” “… Tout fiancé!” “TU? Ott’s fiancé, of ice stunt? At?” “Tate. Stoic fun.”
ET TU, TOSCA?
– FIN –
It’s monopoly time in Italy and Portugal, the taps and church vessels are running with red and white from the great houses, and lesser French appellations don’t get much of a look in. On the other hand, an espresso and a chaser in North Africa follows naturally; there’s vegan food, and an atmosphere which reminds one partaker of goings-on at an English public school. He recalls the typical, bright-schoolboy talk in which he took part, with its characteristic blend of inside jargon, Latin and modern languages, higher maths and frank vulgarity: “Tusa?”—pretending charm to lull the well-known spark to sleep—“if Fancutt doesn’t pull his finger out, will you do it for him?” “Of course. Scott, will you do my maths prep for me? It’s cosines.” “Put your head in a bowl of quark. I can do without.” More charm is needed. I’m a bit overweight, but pretend to be a tough caber-tosser , give an ‘A’ to the pompous house band, who’re making a fist at Mendelssohn, am careful not to show off my Goethe, and make fun of melting polar ice-caps—it seemed an ok thing to do, the supermarket heir in my dorm used to mock the kitsch dress-clothes of Arizona oil moguls who come visiting, as well as vegetarian protein and lots of other things too—and the huge nets they have to erect to stop the resulting icebergs. “Did I sing it right?” “A bit low. Sit down, you might as well, you’re not an embryo. Correction, yes you are, you’re a cheap feline embryo.” “A giant embryo, at least…” Another boy, Futt, puts in: “And you’ve got thousands of spots!” “It’s a jolly nice oast-house your parents have got, Futt,” tactfully interposes a well-brought up boy who’s a server in chapel. “Really smart. If you get the church on your side, you don’t need to show off at the races! Pretend to be a South American bird, you’ll find pumas regularly give them milk—or is it takes it away? – ” (Fen-Cato’s going off the rails rather here) “ – you can get all the nourishment you need from the soya fountain in Nic’s health-food store – ” “Yeah, yeah. That’s the way it is, so that’s the way it’s gotta be, enemy of the Roman people.” “Idiot.” “Was it really too low?”—this to the ‘Roman enemy’, who’s a great supporter of the United States and all that entails—“Like some German fruit juice?” “The Germans invented the idea of putting in sharps at cadences.” “I d-don’t like that ’abit,” stammers a junior. The stammer is pathetic, and he drops his aitches, so we sit on his face.
* * *
[A stream of consciousness from a sometime Prince of Denmark]
I regularly used to give my Balliol cleaner a hiding, I hold a party just to raise a glass to the holding of parties, I quote from the Rubaiyat, Zhuangzi. I don’t like camping, there’s not enough protection. I’m a good runner, and I don’t like stopping, and none of this sportsmanship like you get from Seb, so holy and with his Tintin haircut, but I can tell you his Dutch cat often clears off at night! I’m against currency fluctuations in the ERM—what, Frenchman? You make fun of me? And you, smarmy Latin brute?? A King of Denmark can mock his enemy’s nervous twitches, he can withdraw money from Seb’s divisive volcano altitude training.
French bookshops are headstrong, they run betting shops in them—not even a mystic gambling system can rekindle the primal child within us, or the hearth where Prometheus is born, and anyway modern artificial fibres are such a fire hazard…
I once had a lovely yielding… Yes, me… I can still taste it… yummee… Just right, yielding and resisting at the same time, the perfect [crême brulée].
Count East is speaking, Government transport minister: “Take on French railways? Off your head, are you? They’re a canny bunch, French railways. They’re M. Hulot and/or Helmut Kohl in one (yep, that’s what they are). A word of warning: try ‘loud’ first, you’ll find you won’t be able even to semi-breathe down there! Why don’t you go back to dyeing Persian desert robes, that was harmless, at least.” This is too much for me. In an instant I irredeemably offend his noble lordship by using the familiar form of address, he becomes apoplectic and bang, there’s a nice mess, sometimes I don’t know where my blows are landing. “Get back, you fools! Pint-size here” (I wince at this description) “has knocked the old twit” (where’s the ‘w’ from? a childhood memory?) “out. Make him up a bed of veal marrow, clad him in a cardinal’s robes,”—I recognise the voice of Ct. (yes, another Count) T. Party, the one they say suffers a paroxysm as like as not at any suggestion of sex—“plump his mattress with kapok and let ’m sleep in seventh heaven…”
* * *
“Fall on your futon, Nutt. Or have you done your Latin prep?” “I have. ‘Given this sweet Carthage entanglement…’ ” I enjoy these Latin exercises. “Go on…” “… I’m engaged to be married.” “WHAT? You?? Engaged—to the daughter of the best wine-maker in Provence? Who does such fantastic ice-skating? Where’s the party?” “The Tate Gallery Restaurant. Rotten luck, eh?”
Which begs the question, was Tosca setting him up? (Did she, in fact, bounce back?)
For if so, it is
Nicolas Robertson Lisbon – Paris – Ferrara, 1992 (– Parma, 1994) / Outurela, Portugal, May 2020
The series went on to extend beyond Mozart into other projects that the Monteverdi and other choirs were involved in—including Die Schoepfung (“Nice fudge shop”), Missa Solemnis (“Mimesis salons”), Lili Boulanger (“Nubile gorilla”), and Igor Stravinsky (“Gran visits York”, my all-time favourite anagram).
I’ve been cajoling Nick for ages to share these extraordinary creations with the world. After various setbacks, he continues to work on them. I hope this fantasia on Don Giovanni is just an aperitivo for publication of the whole series in a more illustrious organ.
Generously lubricated by lashings of vino and gin (as indeed were we), the motley cast alone is delightful, including Ivan, Godiva, Onan, Gavin D. Onion, Nin, Giono, Dino Vaginno, Donovan, and the splendid Idi von Goa. Just to give a flavour of the story and its interpretation: for the opening text
“Noon? Gad—vini!” “No inn, Godiva.” “Dog Inn, Avon?” “I…” “Don, go in van.” I nod, I go in van. DINGO ON VAN—
Nick provides this commentary:
Somewhere, between Australia and western England, Godiva wakes up, thirsty. It’s already time for wine, but there’s nowhere to find it—or so Don, the narrator, thinks. Godiva knows better, and Don knows better than to resist. No sooner inside the camper, however, than an unexpected peril appears: a large yellow wild dog is on the roof…
As the plot unfolds you’ll soon become immersed—enjoy!
From Er, textUrtext, Parma 1994.
DON GIOVANNI Opera by Mozart; soloists, English Baroque Soloists and Monteverdi Choir, directed by John Eliot Gardiner. Staged performances in various European cities, 1994, and Archiv recording.
A sequence of 69 (if you exclude the title, which is repeated as a variant later on in the text) 11-letter anagrams, followed by an ‘explanatory’ parallel text.
NO GO, V. INDIAN “Noon? Gad—vini!” “No inn, Godiva.” “Dog Inn, Avon?” “I…” “Don, go in van.” I nod, I go in van. DINGO ON VAN— “Ivan? On dingo!” “I… No, Ivan doing a don in Oving.” “Dino, Gavin?” No. V. good: Ninian. Nin—diva, goon, Onan voiding vain god. “Nino! Nino, Vi, go and —” “No.” “No ??”—“Gin?” (Avid.) “Non… avoid gin.” “Gin and vino?” “O… Gin and I’ ? Novo! Go on! Divina! N –” (‘N’ in vain? Good. No avoiding ‘N’. Non-gain: void.) “ – Non gin? AVOID!”
* * *
Dago vino inn: gonad in vino. “Ovid anno—gin?” Non-Ovidian Gavin in ‘Dog’: “No.” (Gavin D. Onion.) “N., avid ongoing divan onion, dining on ova?” “Non.” I go, “Viand?” “Viand, oignon…” “—Vian, Nin.” “O God—” “—and Giono! VIN!!” Din. “Goa vino? ’n Goan von Indi’ ?” (Idi von Goa.) “NN…” (Io and I go “VNN…”) “Indian Gov. on aid: vin-nog—” “No vin!” And I go on: “Iogi, V Dan—non. V. Indian—no go.
* * *
On, I : “Avon” (ding) (dong) “Avon!” I, in. “Nova? In G?” I nod. “ ‘Don’ in G— o, Ivan!”
* * *
Ogni novi. And oo, Ann diving, goadin’ Ivonn, in Govan; o dining, ovoid Ann, Govan ondini… Digno? Vain? No, no invading o’ Dinan, no Vigo, avion non (dig?).
* * *
Dino Vaginno, Inigo Vandon, Donna Vigion—Donna v. Inigo, Donovan (“Gini!‟), Ian ‘Dong’ Voin, Dion Ganinov, Gavin (no!), Odin,
Somewhere, between Australia and western England, Godiva wakes up, thirsty. It’s already time for wine, but there’s nowhere to find it—or so Don, the narrator, thinks. Godiva knows better, and Don knows better than to resist. No sooner inside the camper, however, than an unexpected peril appears: a large yellow wild dog is on the roof. Normally Ivan deals with tricky situations like this, but he’s away near Chichester pretending to be a university teacher. Dino and Gavin can’t, or won’t, be found, so the only resort is Ninian, a feckless but gifted character, of whom Don seems to be fond despite a clinical evaluation of his dubious qualities.
Ninian, even with Vi to help, needs persuading. His weak spot, deny it as he try, is a cocktail, and Don—not without a glancing reference to the literature of constraints and the title of a prospective translation of a novel by Georges Perec—plays on this faiblessewith results which might be considered extravagant, though Ninian prefers to mix his gin and Italian with wine rather than vermouth.
The pub is reached, but is not a great success: it seems somehow unEnglish, and there’s a foreign body in the wine. Carried away by his earlier success in winning round Ninian, and remembering that it was the twentieth centenary of an event in the life of the Roman poet Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses—and that the most sought-after juniper berries grow in northern Italy—Don proposes gin; but Gavin is in the pub too, and Gavin’s categorically no classicist, and Gavin vetoes gin. Refusing to be discouraged, Don changes the subject to food and asks Ninian, with a bit of chaff about being a couch potato, if he would like eggs for supper. Ninian, with his irritating penchant for dropping into French, declines but with a bit of prompting dreamily goes for filet mignon with shallot confit. Don however is a stickler, reminding Ninian that he’s just suggested the favourite dish of Boris Vian and Anaïs Nin—neither a writer, it turns out, of whom Ninian is much fond—not to mention that earthy lyrical novelist Jean Giono, which inescapably entails ordering wine; as Don duly and loudly, casting caution to the winds, does.
Alas, with a terrible clashing of glasses the landlord, an Afro-Indian tyrant, marches in bearing the only wine available, an unspeakable brew from a Portuguese ex-colony stuffed with additives provided gratis by the EC, which is greeted with strangulated cries from the assembled diners—none more so than Don and Io, a Greek girl who here makes her first and only appearance in the story and seems if anything more in tune with Don than was Godiva, whose fault it is that they all ended up in this shifty joint anyway… Whether because emboldened by this sympathy, or because his patience just snaps, Don, as he finally rules out any wine-drinking, signs off with a frankly xenophobic, not to say indiscriminate, tirade linking Buddhism, Judo/Karate and the entire sub-continent in intransigent opprobrium.
We join Ivan, it’s unclear if still in West Sussex, but adopting an unusual line in popular scholarship. Using the doorbell-and-bright-cry technique beloved of generations of cosmetic salespersons, he is peddling Italian operas. There’s a gimmick, of course: as a novelty, he’s transposing them into peoples’ favourite keys. At least one member of the public is thrilled to receive Don Giovanni a 4th higher—or, maybe, a 5th lower—and falls swooning into Ivan’s arms.
Everything’s got to be new, Ivan reflects with a weary cynicism, and he’s as fickle as the rest, for now we find him in Glasgow, appreciatively eying, as she cleaves the blue sky at the deep end, the rounded curves of Ann—which so filled with jealous pain the breast of Ivonn (whose parents had a good ear but rather shaky spelling). Curves brought on, it must be said, not only by natural curviness but by serious eating, especially at night which as we know is the worst time. But still, there are nymphs in them thar Glasgow hills…, thinks Ivan, reflecting also, “Am I worthy? Is this search for beauty just personal vanity? I could be worse, at least I don’t go on armed incursions to places where they cultivate mussels, and above all I don’t let the silver ball roll unchecked down the field and between the uselessly flicking flippers, if you understand my reference.‟ *
And who should understand the reference, if not the heterodox party gathered round a pinball machine in the south of France, consisting of an Italian wide-boy, an English architect and his American girlfriend, always at each other’s throat, a superannuated balladeer, who insists on ordering sickly, gassy soft drinks, and his aging roadie with such a nose as one suspects would shine in the dark, a Ukrainian ballet dancer, Gavin D. Onion—how did he get here? Perhaps we underrated him on the grounds of his lack of Latin (and disapproval of gin, quite apart from his still unexplained failure to rise to the challenge of the dingo—but I note that Dino, equally and signally absent at the hour of need, is here too, so one can assume they’re in cahoots)—and an imperious if flawed character with an eye-patch and broad-brimmed hat, who asks disquieting questions and likes to be known, three-quarters of the way through the session at least, as “the Wanderer‟ –
– and where are they, then? Why, the city of the anti-popes, Durrell’s Gnostic capital, a short drive from the Marquis de Sade’s country estate (or the Deller Consort’s, if you prefer), perhaps dropping in to the cool calm space of La Poésie dans un Jardin, to visit (as I did) the Perec exposition in the ’88 Festival; and I hope still congregating on pinball tables whenever they can, escaping the sun, seeking a Lazarus, ** dwelling always on the words of the Wanderer, that the only one who can break the chain of fire and bring freedom must be freer than the god, but he (or she) then has the power to remake the word, sorry, world.
* The reference: Angus Smith and I were told in a bar in Lyon in the late 80s by a French girl who’d done a ‘stage’ in Southampton that avion is the popular term for when the cue-ball goes hopelessly down and out the length of the centre of the pinball table, lost without even being able to be touched by the flippers—a smartingly shameful occurrence.
** Lazarus: when the ball, already past the last pair of flippers and on its way to oblivion, bounces miraculously—or, to the cool (yes, I’m thinking of you, Chris Purves), foreseeably—off the hind wall back into possible play.
Nicolas Robertson Parma, May 1994 / Outurela, Portugal, May 2020
You may be disappointed to learn that the plot concerns not a tomato but the Judgment of Paris, with the prize of the Golden Apple. Still, I can’t help wondering if early performances prompted giggling (I’m like, “Hey guys, Cesti’s gone and written an opera about a tomato!”).
The opera is mentioned in the fascinating, mouth-watering
David Gentilcore, Pomodoro!: a history of the tomato in Italy (2010),
whose basic culinary ingredients are liberally seasoned with wise observations on social and economic change.
The tomato’s uses were continually subject to change, from production to exchange, distribution, and production. […] The tomato is an ideal basis for examining the prevailing values, beliefs, conditions, and structures in the society of which it was a part and how they changed over several centuries.
In Chapter 1, “Strange and horrible things”, Gentilcore dates the recorded history of the tomato in Italy from 31st October 1548, when Cosimo de’ Medici presented a basketful to the excellencies of Pisa—who seem to have been bemused:
And the basket was opened and they looked at one another with much thoughtfulness.
Remarkably, it would be well over 300 years before the tomato gained widespread favour among the Italian population in the pasta sauces we now know and love, belatedly becoming a national symbol—for Italian emigrants abroad, during the Fascist period, and later. Other New World imports (such as maize, potatoes, tobacco, American beans, chillies, cocoa, vanilla) gained acceptance more quickly.
Cesti’s opera was premiered in Vienna; the composer died the following year, and I haven’t yet seen evidence of further performances—staging it would have been a massive undertaking. So audiences in Italy may even have been denied the opportunity of a good giggle, although word must have spread. Still, in Italy, over a century after the tomato was first recorded there, one might suppose that the word pomodoro (the pomo referring generally to fruit, not to the apple) at least had become part of the vocabulary of the elite who were the audience for such spectacles. But then, they would also be familiar with the ancient story—although from the simple synopsis one might not imagine that it called for elaborate stage machinery to depict tableaus like shipwrecks and collapsing towers:
The gods ask the Trojan prince Paris to decide which of the goddesses Venus, Juno, and Pallas (Minerva) is the most beautiful and thus deserving of the Golden Apple. Paris gives the prize to Venus. The spurned goddesses try to get their revenge until Jupiter decides to end the confusion, turns to the audience and awards the golden apple to the Empress Margaret Theresa [“Typical!”].
An early Miss World contest, then, with Paris in the role of Bob Hope.
The tomato had been introduced to Europe by Cortés, reaching Italy by way of Spain, as a botanical specimen. The physician-botanist Mattioli described it in 1544, using the name pomo d’oro in his 1554 revision. But confusingly, the term also continued to denote the fruit in the ancient myth of the Hesperides.
Gentilcore notes the early association of tomato and eggplant (or aubergine, splendidly advertised by British greengrocers as OBOS). The latter, incidentally, reached Europe from Persia by way of Andalucia.
In 1628 the Paduan physician Sala regarded tomatoes as “strange and horrible things”, following
a description of locust-eating in Ethiopia, spider- and cricket-eating in Padua, and ant- and worm-eating in India.
Indeed, to eat them was still commonly regarded as harmful, even poisonous.
Yet, as both Durante and Sala inadvertently suggest, someone was eating tomatoes, regardless of the dietary advice. Costante Felice, a physician near Urbino, tells us who: “gluttons and those eager for new things”.
Left, Arcimboldo, Vertumnus, c1590; right, door frieze, Cathedral of Pisa, 1600/1601. Artistic depictions of tomatoes were very rare before the mid-18th century; the emperor’s mouth is more likely to contain cherries than cherry tomatoes.
In Chapter 2 Gentilcore broadens the theme to consider Renaissance Europe’s apparent aversion to fruit and vegetables—based on the advice of physicians of the time (cf. Sleeper!). Consumption of vegetables increased through the 17th and 18th centuries, but an Italian culinary manual from 1590 contains not a single reference to them.
Still, health warnings were not necessarily heeded by either princes and courtiers or the common folk—as we’ve been noticing recently… Other treatises attest to a great variety of common vegetables and plants being consumed. In 1596 the English courtier Robert Dallington wrote:
Herbage is the most generall food of the Tuscan, at whose table a sallet is as ordinary as salt at ours; for being eaten of all sorts of persons, and at all times of the yeare: of the rich because they love to spare; of the poore because they cannot choose; of many Religious because of their vow, of most others because of their want. It remaineth to believe that which themselves confesse; namely, that for every horse-load of flesh eaten, there is ten cart-loads of hearbes and rootes; which also their open markets and private tables doe witnesse.
Indeed, the religious institutions made a virtue of a diet rich in vegetables. And Gentilcore notes the importance of markets; the ortolani market gardeners of Turin had their own religious confraternity. He offers an aside on what was described as the “incomprehensible predilection” in Rome for broccoli, later to become “le vainquer de macaroni“. To the consternation of English observers, salad (“the mixing of diverse and various things”) came into vogue. Olive oil was still used more for lighting lamps than for cooking.
As he comments, historians always have difficulty finding information regarding the diet of the poor. From an early-18th-century French report on the dietary habits of Naples, it’s clear that much of the population not only ate vegetables but subsisted on them—along with bread rather than pasta; and tomatoes were part of this regime.
Methods of preparation remained basic because the kitchen utensils remained basic. The peasant kitchen thus was basic, with only a few clay or wooden implements.
Chapter 3, “They are to be enjoyed”, explores the acculturation of the tomato in 18th-century Italy. By 1759 a survey of farming in Tuscany included it among the “fruits prized by men [sic: see below] as foodstuffs or as condiments for them”. Gentilcore surveys the different varieties of tomato.
Sardinia was a Spanish possession until 1720, and the Sardinians, at all social levels, may have been “the first [in ‘Italy’] to take the tomato seriously”. Disappointingly for those of us who supposed that sun-dried tomatoes were invented in 1970s’ Hampstead, they appear in a Sardinian recipe from the mid-18th century.
By the 1830s, but probably earlier too, enterprising peasant women in the Cagliari area were selling sun-dried tomatoes. This is an important reminder of the role of gender in agrarian change. Indeed, women frequently were responsible for the cultivation, preparation, and sale of foodstuffs, and tomatoes were becoming an important element of domestic production, if not consumption.
We now find tomatoes not only eaten cooked and raw, but preserved in a thick paste, and in sauces. Still, their appreciation was regional: for southern peasants they were a major ingredient of their ordinary food, but they played only an occasional role in northern cuisine—and this remains true today. **
Tomatoes were now becoming so common that people were throwing them away—or at least were throwing them. In Italy, tomatoes were the missile of choice to show disapproval of public performers, and the activity came to be known as a pomodorata.
An 1863 report refers to the poor of Naples eating something called pizza, “seasoned on the top with an abundance or oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish”. As Gentilcore observes, tomato was not yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several.
Moreover, that report may also contain the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food accompanied by tomato sauce—the subject of Chapter 4. It coincided with the movement to unify the different states and islands into a single nation.
Indeed, the triumph of pasta was also remarkably late. Types such as lasagne, vermicelli, and maccheroni were already established by the 16th century (spaghetti was a latecomer), but pasta was eaten soft, cooked for long periods, and thus accompanied by dry condiments; it was still a side dish. The two best-known regions for production were the Ligurian coast and the Bay of Naples.
By the mid-19th century the Neapolitans commonly ate pasta in taverns and as street food. It was now served slightly hard (vierd vierd: the expression al dente only became common after World War One)—a novelty that soon spread.
Making the preserve for the sauce (conserva, passata, salsa) was still largely a small-scale, local activity. Towards the end of the 19th century a French traveller in Calabria commented:
We are, in effect, in the season in which, in every Calabrian house, tomato preserve is made for use during the rest of the year. It is a solemn occasion in the popular life of these lands, a kind of festive celebration, an excuse for get-togethers and gatherings… Neighbours, and especially the neighbourhood women, get together in different houses one after the other for the making of conserva di pomi d’or, a procedure that culminates with a large meal; and they gossip as much as they can while crushing and cooking the tomatoes. It is here that for several months the locale’s chronicle of scandal is identified and commented on; it is here that those old rustic songs, which are today so avidly collected by scholars keen on folklore, are repeated from generation to generation.
By the 1880s tomato paste began to be exported to the USA. Its industrialisation was concentrated (sic, as Gentilore notes!) in Liguria, Emilia Romagna, and Campania. Tomatoes were first canned in the USA and Britain; in Italy, Parma took a leading role in both cultivation and preservation. Tomato ketchup was already becoming the national condiment of the USA.
The marriage between pasta and the tomato is usually said to have taken place in Naples around the 1830s. Pasta al pomodoro only gradually became a national stereotype from the late 19th century—just as millions of Italians started crossing the ocean to the New World, where the tomato had originated. It was to make repeated crossings.
So while I find it a challenge to imagine Botticelli and Michelangelo not tucking into a plate of penne arrabiata, such dishes would have been hardly more familiar to Verdi as they were to Monteverdi. Even as late as the 1930s when Umberto Saba met Gabriele D’Annunzio, he was more impressed by the novelty of the plate of pasta with tomato sauce (“a crimson marvel”) than by the Fascist celebrity himself.
The first acclaimed pizza was cooked for Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889; of three pizzas prepared for her, one was seasoned with tomato, mozzarella, and basil—the red, white, and green of the new national flag. In fact, its history goes back considerably earlier.
Above we saw a folk version of pizza in 1863 (for much earlier antecedents, see wiki). Pizzas were publicly made and sold in Naples by late in the 17th century. During his stay there in 1835, Alexandre Dumas described it as the staple diet of the city’s poor—with pasta eaten only on Sundays. By the middle of the century the city had over eighty pizzerie. In the 1880s Carlo Collodi, writing for a young audience, was underwhelmed:
Do you want to know what pizza is? It is a flat bread of leavened dough, toasted in the oven, with a sauce of a little bit of everything on it. The black of the toasted bread, the off-white of the garlic and anchovies, the greeny yellow of the oil and the lightly fried greens, and the red bits of the tomatoes scattered here and there give the pizza an air of messy grime very much in keeping with that of the man selling it.
The juxtaposition of hunger and gluttony is one theme of Collodi’s Pinocchio, first published in book form in 1883.
Pinocchio jumps into the sea, only to find himself in a fisherman’s net. Pinocchio explains to the fisherman that he is not a fish to be eaten, but a puppet. The fisherman replies that he has never caught a “puppet fish”, and asks how he would prefer to be cooked: “Would you like to be fried in the frying pan, or would you prefer to be stewed with tomato sauce?”
Meanwhile bread, often eaten stale, remained a basic foodstuff. In Puglia there was a popular proverb Ce mange paene e pomedaore nan ve me’ o dattaore (“He who eats bread and tomato, to the doctor will never go”).
In Chapter 5, “Authentic Italian gravy”, the scene shifts to the USA, along with successive waves of migrants. From 1876 to 1945 over nine million Italians crossed the Atlantic in search of a new life, most of them arriving between the 1890s and 1920s (cf. Accordion crimes).
Left, making tomato paste the Sicilian way, Madison WI, mid-1920s; right, supper on the Lower East Side, NYC, 1915.
Ventura’s 1886 short story “Peppino”, set in New York, describes pasta with tomato sauce, then still a novelty. Gentilcore goes on:
Making homemade tomato paste (conserva) was, for many immigrant families, partly a symbolic link to the town left behind, partly a matter of taste preference, and partly good economic sense.
Many immigrants also resorted to canned tomato paste. At first, such preserves were imported from Italy, but local production soon competed. The discussion subsumes the varieties of tomato, and the history of additives—including coal tar and formaldehyde.
In the early 20th century, the UK was the second main importer of Italian tomato preserves; meanwhile the British took to growing their own, with the growth of the suburbs and the increasing availability of greenhouses.
Ironically, American immigrants were often unaware of how much change was taking place as they strove to maintain continuity.
As emigrants, they had left Italy because of “hunger”, but as immigrants nostalgia and longing quickly set in. This was not nostalgia for the “land of poverty”, of course, but for the festive foods and the community to which they belonged. Consequently, they reproduced the food production and consumption patterns that were more dreamed of than actual in the world left behind. The “old country” became a mythologised place, which immigrant parents described to their children as a place where poverty and hunger coexisted with food that was good and natural and where they all ate together as a family.
The ritual of the Sunday dinner signified that the family was living the American dream, and
the focus for the transmission (or, if you prefer, the inculcation) of cultural mores and aspirations from parents to children. The place of origin that parents described to their children on these occasions was not so much a real place as a place remembered, a place imagined. The immigrants gradually filled it with idealised constructions, which had a very real function [for them]: to interpret, explain, criticise, and even deny the New World present, to both themselves and their children.
An account from 1940s’ America remains true today (note the typical use of the male pronoun!):
The Italian forced to live far away from his homeland, wherever in the world he sets his table, rejects every kind of cooking in order to establish his own, the simple but tasty cooking of his native land. And more than anything else he does not give up his traditional dish of macaroni with tomato sauce.
The new hybrid of the Italian-American restaurant too became stereotypical to the point of caricature—the “red-sauce joint, with its dishes smothered in tomato sauce, its red-checked tablecloths, and its candles stuck in Chianti bottles”.
By the 1930s the clientele of such restaurants had shifted from poor single immigrant bordanti to “bohemians” in search of an “Italian experience”.
Somewhat gleefully, Gentilcore also documents the invention of canned spaghetti in tomato sauce, dating from the early 20th century.
The sight of GIs opening cans of tomato spaghetti must have been a strange one to southern Italian peasants as the allied forces made their way up the peninsula in the latter stages of World War II. […]
It is easy to look down on such products, but it was a new way of eating food. After all, both spaghetti with tomato sauce and the invention of canning began about the same time, in the mid-19th century, so why shouldn’t they be united? It is just that we attribute different meanings, different values, and a different social status to pasta al pomodoro and canned spaghetti.
Returning to Italy, Chapter 6, “The autarchical tomato”, takes the story on to the Fascist era.
The mass migration of millions of Italians across the Atlantic had a positive effect on dietary practices in Italy in the form of remittances and return migration. […] For the first time, these remittances gave many Italians a chance to put aside money or goods.
Thus food preservation flourished as never before. But as economic prosperity grew, expectations and aspirations continued to change.
Gentilcore continues the story of the industrialisation of tomato processing—noting a company in Felino near Parma that rejoiced in the name Società anonima di coltivatori per la produzione delle conserve di pomodoro.
Changing patterns of organised labour had been giving rise to social unrest since early in the 20th century. Despite labour laws, even in the 1940s much of the burden for cultivation was borne by women and children. After World War One strikes and riots erupted. Mussolini’s Fascist Party sought to restore order—and to make Italy self-sufficient in food.
While the campaign of the Fascist Futurist Marinetti to abolish pasta was fruitless (indeed, Neapolitans came out onto the streets in protest), he didn’t extend his proscription to the “light and adaptable” tomato. Even ketchup survived the regime, though with their aversion to foreign words, it was renamed Rubra. Much Fascist food advertising was aimed at the resourceful housewife.
After 1924, when the USA restricted immigration, the Italian regime sought to replace it with Libya as a destination; as they proclaimed autarchia, or self-sufficiency, tomato cultivation was propounded there too. None of these projects bore much fruit.
On the eve of Italy’s fateful entry into World War Two in 1940, it was exporting virtually all of its fresh tomato crop to Germany; Gentilcore observes that Italy’s “Pact of Steel” with Nazi Germany that year might as well have been called the “tomato pact”.
Chapter 7, “The tomato conquest”, opens with a reminder of the poverty of Italy (particularly the chronically afflicted rural south) in the 1950s, as depicted in the neo-realist films of the day. But industrialisation, urbanisation, refrigerators, and the rise of supermarkets further transformed people’s eating habits. In the two decades from 1950, Italians grew in height but not in weight, despite the ever greater popularity of pasta. As stereotype and reality began to fuse, Italians could now eat spaghetti al pomodoro to their heart’s content. It was increasingly popular in Britain and the USA too, although pundits like Elizabeth David resisted the cliché, stressing the regional variety of la cucina Italiana.
Gentilcore’s material is now supplemented by feature films, such as two scenes, both from 1954—Totò’s spaghetti scene in Miseria e nobiltà (1954):
and Alberto Sordi’s scene from Un Americano a Roma (also 1954):
The recipe for spaghetti with tomato sauce included in Sophia Loren’s In cucina con amore (1971) is a tribute to the earthy recipes of her grandmother.
The disparity between north and south persisted. In his song Siamo meridionali! (1980) Mimmo Cavallo referred back to the family bathtub of southern migrants, classic receptacle for the growing of tomatoes (coltiviamo pomodori ddint’e vasche ‘e bagno):
Such migration from the south influenced the eating habits of both the migrants and the hosts.
In the Hollywood “pasta paradigm” (see e.g. this 1978 article by Daniel Golden), “the tomato sauces prepared and consumed by gangsters echo the bloody acts they commit”. One thinks of two scenes from Goodfellas (1990)—at home:
and in prison:
Pomodoro! can’t quite find a place for one of the great spaghetti-eating scenes: in Tampopo, Japanese debutantes are strictly schooled in the etiquette of eating them properly (another failed project, like Mussolini’s Fascism):
Nor does Gentilcore mention the “pizza effect” of anthropology, whereby elements of a nation or people’s culture are transformed or at least more fully embraced elsewhere, then re-imported to their culture of origin (cf. Tibetan “singing bowls”). The tomato played a role in the dubious “Mediterranean diet”.
By the 1980s, EU subsidies were further transforming the food economy, with Puglia benefitting notably. The Epilogue surveys the current tomato scene in Italy and beyond. As multinationals service our demand for year-round supply of “fresh” foodstuffs by sending them on vast, irrational journeys, Gentilcore addresses the global problem of labour slavery, organised crime, and trafficking. As immigrants began performing the tasks that Italians now shunned, the organisation and exploitation of labour by gang bosses was already featured in Pummaro’ (Michele Placido, 1989). Heavily staffed by African immigrants, and more recently eastern Europeans, the labour force is more vulnerable than the giornatori of yesteryear. Polish gang bosses exploit the Poles who work for them.
In a justly nostalgic passage which will strike a chord in Britain and elsewhere,
Nowadays, tomatoes look the same everywhere in Italy. Whereas “the real tomato has different, complicated shapes, with splits and streaks, and often pronounced baroque features, which so pleased the Neapolitan painters of the 17th century” [actually not yet, as Gentilcore points out], tomatoes today taste of nothing; they are full of water.
EU subsidies were not only unwelcome to producers in California, but hit West African countries hard. In turn, Italian growers have been hostile to Chinese imports, with the term “yellow peril” rearing its ugly head again (cf. Fu Manchu).
Gentilcore notes the Chinese term fanqie 番茄, “foreign eggplant”—the tomato was introduced there quite early by European missionaries, but still remains quite niche. BTW, it’s also known as xihongshi 西红柿 (“Western red persimmmon”), which reminds me of yet another story that I heard from Tian Qing (e.g. here, and here): during a phase of reviving Maoist “red songs” in Xi’an, some wag suggested the city might be renamed Tomato (Xihongshi 西红市 “Western red city”). I must also put in a word for the succulent tomatoes grown by Li Manshan.
This book will make you hungry—not just for knowledge.
* * *
All this is yet another instance of how things we assume to be eternal and immutable, like harmony and democracy, turn out not to be so. Another reason why I’ve cited Pomodoro! at some length is because its integrative approach, while perhaps a hallmark of most research worth its (um) salt, bears an affinity with that of ethnomusicology, including reception history—as for musicking, so for tomato-ing.
* Not to be confused with his long-lost Russian cousin Cestikoff, whose opera Il trasporto del pompino, regrettably not about fire-engines, was banned in St Petersburg. Allegedly.
** Cf. The Monty Python cheeseshop sketch: Cleese: “How about Cheddar?” Palin: “Well, we don’t get much call for it around here, Sir.” Cleese: “Not much call—it’s the single most popular cheese in the world!” Palin (smugly): “Not round here, Sir.“
Around Yanggao in north Shanxi, home of the Li family Daoists, the common dialectal term for “chat” (liaotianr 聊天 in standard Chinese) is guada 呱嗒 (for more on Yanggao dialect, see here). Usually duplicated as guada guada, its wider etymology evokes the click of the clappers accompanying kuaishu 快书 story-telling, the smack of the lips while eating, or the thwack of dough on board—it’s also the name for a Shandong street-snack. Guada suggests just the kind of rapport to which fieldworkers aspire, rather than “interviewing” “informants”.
Knowing my fondness for the Yanggao term, as Hannibal Taubes was reading the “Painted wall” (Huabi 畫壁) story from the celebrated Liaozhai zhiyi 聊齋誌異 [Strange stories from a Chinese studio] by Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640–1715), he was soon beguiled by the expression guada 挂搭 there—which Chinese commentators had felt the need to explain.
Alas, here it has nothing to do with the Yanggao term! My introduction has been a red herring! (For more wilful misreadings of the classics, see Fun with anachronisms).
So while our fleeting linguistic frisson soon became a wild goose chase (A really wild goose chase), at least it prompted me to read up on the story… It opens (in Judith Zeitlin’s translation):
Meng Longtan of Jiangxi was sojourning in the capital along with Zhu, a second-degree graduate. By chance they happened to pass through a Buddhist temple, none of whose buildings or rooms were very spacious and which were deserted except for an old monk temporarily residing [guada] there. When he caught sight of the visitors, he respectfully adjusted his robe, went to greet them, and then led them on a tour of the temple. In the main hall stood a statue of Lord Zhi, the Zen monk. Two walls were covered with paintings of such exceptionally wondrous skill that the figures seemed alive. On the eastern wall, in a painting of the Celestial Maiden scattering flowers, was a girl with her hair in two childish tufts. She was holding a flower and smiling; her cherry lips seemed about to move; her liquid gaze about to flow. Zhu fixed his eyes upon her for a long time until unconsciously his spirit wavered, his will was snatched away, and in a daze, he fell into deep contemplation. Suddenly his body floated up as though he were riding on a cloud, and he went into the wall.
Chinese commentators glossed guada there as 挂褡, “hanging his monkly robes”. I’m somewhat disturbed to find that even Qing-dynasty classical texts require such exegesis—yet despite our attachment to dialect, they are quite right! The radicals flanking the phonetic elements clearly matter. To some readers the term may even suggest guadan 掛單, the temporary enrolment of a wandering monk at a temple.
Judith Zeitlin reflects on the story’s blurring of the boundaries between reality and illusion.  Indeed, this is just the kind of topic that Hannibal explores on the basis of his rich archive of temple murals (see e.g. his Trompe l’oeilcategory).
The Historian of the Strange remarks: “ ‘Illusion arises from oneself’—this saying seems to be the truth. If a man has a lustful mind, then filthy scenes will arise; if a man has a filthy mind, then terrifying scenes will arise. When a bodhisattva instructs the ignorant, a thousand illusions are created at once, but all are set in motion by the human mind itself. The monk was a bit too keen to see results. But it’s a pity that upon hearing his words, Zhu did not reach enlightenment, unfasten his hair, and withdraw to the mountains.”
Peering into the semi-darkness as the figures gradually emerge, we can almost visualise how the contemplation of such dazzling images sets the story into motion. […] The small and deserted buildings of the real monastery are transformed into a large and bustling complex in the painted world.
* * *
The Liaozhai, and this story, are popular subjects for glossy Chinese film and TV adaptations. Here’s a trailer for the Hong Kong film Mural (Chan Ka-Seung 陳嘉上, 2008):
And the first episode of the 2005 Shanghai TV series:
Historian of the strange: Pu Songling and the classical Chinese tale (1993), pp.183–99, with full translation pp.216–18. Cf. John Minford’s translation, and the old version by Giles; among other Western scholars who addressed the work was Jaroslav Průšek.
By coincidence, I began composing this blog in late 2016—just as the poor ol’ USA was descending into a deep abyss, “waters deep, fires raging”. So it’s a great relief to be able to write free of that dark shadow, as sanity makes a welcome come-back gig after a four-year vacation, and grown-up-sounding comments re-emerge from the White House. Anyway, here I break the champagne over the bows of a new USA tagin the sidebar (these tags are useful, BTW, however rough and ready! Do consult them!).
It seems suitable to start with the series that I wrote on
So while one always wants to rejoice in all this, somehow such posts were always blemished by the Putrid Tang emanating from the White House; but now, with the renaissance following these traumatic four years, it finally seems suitable to celebrate again—even if the battle for social justice continues.
I entirely share the universal delight in the intoxicating language of Patricia Lockwood, with her passion for the mind-expanding power of words.
Within her genre-bending oeuvre, the publication of a new article by her is always the occasion for fireworks and champagne. Just when we thought we couldn’t take any more analyses of the genius of Elena Ferrante, Lockwood makes the perfect commentator; so now we can delight in her own delight at Lila and Lenù.
Her essay The communal mind is a prelude to No one is talking about this, her new novel about living in the internet. Amidst a multitude of blazing fanfares (e.g. this review), this comes from an interview with Hadley Freeman:
“White people, who had the political educations of potatoes, were suddenly feeling compelled to speak about injustice. This happened once every forty years on average, usually after a period when folk music became popular again. When folk music became popular again, it reminded people that they had ancestors, and then, after a considerable delay, that their ancestors had done bad things.”
Lockwood is all too aware that books about the internet have a bad reputation: “[They] had the strong whiff of old white intellectuals being weird about the blues, with possible boner involvement.”
* * *
Lockwood’s memoir Priestdaddy (2017; review, interview) celebrates and bewails her eccentric family, in a style distantly akin to the stories of David Sedaris. The title refers to her father, a rare married Catholic priest; she wrote the book while staying back at the family home with her husband Jason during a period of adversity. I guess it’s “confessional”.
While her parents make hapless victims of her trenchant pen, it’s far from mere slapstick; it’s an affectionate, benign portrayal, becoming increasingly reflective.
She was deprived of college by her father’s inability to resist buying a guitar made for Paul McCartney:
Later, I would take a detached literary pleasure in the notion that higher education had unwittingly been robbed from me by a Beatle.
She observes family life with detachment:
The drama of the scene ought to have been tense and throbbing, but it was undercut somewhat by my mother’s decorating, which ran heavily to bowls of gold balls. Still, we played our parts: every once in a while my father would bang down his fist while looking patriarchal, and my mother would turn to stare out the window while looking powerless, which contributed to the impression that we were participating in a Tennessee Williams play where “the internet” was being used as a code for “homosexuality”.
The Don Pablo’s in Cincinatti was a large converted factory, so it looked vaguely like a nightclub where people went to have wrong ideas about Mexico. In the corner, a fake cactus threw up its helpless arms, as if my father were holding it at gunpoint.
Her relationship with her husband Jason is most endearing. As he wonders if her father is trying to kill him, she responds:
“Did you give him any indication that you were a pacifist or an intellectual, or that you liked abstract art?”
Pets are a bone of contention too:
My father hates cats. He believes them to be Democrats. He considers them to be little mean hillary clintons covered all over with feminist legfur. Cats would have abortions, given half a chance.
When Jason takes a job at a local newpaper, she muses:
There was a sign announcing how many days had passed since the last workplace accident, which made me think of the unlucky employee who had to climb up on a ladder the next morning to flip the number back to zero with a maimed hand.
As Tricia tries to watch old movies on TV, her father switches over without ceremony to
something like Bag of Guts: How Much Blood is in a Human Body? or Boom! A Toot from the Bum of the Apocalypse or Ragged Claws: Hideous Mutant Poem from the Deep.
She guesses the plots of his favorite movies based on the sounds coming through the walls:
A remake of The Ten Commandments where the lead actor is just an AK-47 wearing Moses robes. He parts the Red Sea by shooting it.
Indiana Jones flips through his dad’s diary and finds a map of the clitoris. “IT’S MINE”, he yells, but will the Nazis get there first?
God is a cop with a monkey sidekick, but the monkey sidekick is mankind.
She takes singing lessons with her sister:
We often sang together at church because our voices sounded related, though mine was obviously the hunchbacked insane relative who lived up in the attic and only descended for meals.
Her second teacher
looked like she knew where Prague was, which at that moment in time I did not.
But the chapter segues to her suicide attempt as a cloistered teenager.
Some of the most baroque passages come when she explains Catholicism to her bemused husband, suggesting a Martian ethnographer (indeed, she likens her notebook to that of an anthropologist):
“What did these people teach you?” he asked me one night, mystified. “What exactly do Catholics believe?”
I’d been preparing my whole life for this question. “First of all, blood. BLOOD. Second of all, thorns. Third of all, put dirt on your forehead. Do it right now. Fourth of all, Martin Luther was a pig in a cloak. Fifth of all, Jesus is alive, but he’s also dead, and he’s also immortal, but he’s also made of clouds, and his face is a picture of infinite peace, but he always looks like one of those men in a headache commercial, because you’re causing him such suffering whenever you cuss. He is so gentle that sheep seem like demented murderers in his presence, but also rays of light shoot out of his face so hard they can kill people. In fact they do kill people, and one day they will kill you. He has a tattoo of a daisy chain on his lower back and he gets his hair permed every eight weeks. He’s wearing a flowing white dress, but only because people didn’t know about jeans back then. He’s holding up two fingers because his dad won’t let him have a gun. If he lived on earth, he would have a white truck, plastered with bumper stickers of Calvin peeing on a smaller Calvin who is not a Catholic.”
While reluctant to “harp on” (my garish phrase, sic!) about feminism, Lockwood reflects on her relationship with the seminarians who come to stay:
What else could I do but tease them? I had no real power; it was men like these who were in charge of my life. If they decided tomorrow I had to cover my hair or wear skirts or pray separately, or be barred from reading certain books, or take certain pills and not take others, or be silent in the presence of men, I would have to do it. To have that bald dynamic of power on display in your home every day, pretending to arch over and protect you—it does something to a person. The seminarian calls women “the tabernacle of life”. The tabernacle, if you do not know, is an ornamental box that is largely important for what it holds. It is shut up and locked when the men go away, so the consecrated elements inside cannot be stolen.
YAY!Hallelujah! The “indomitable human spirit”, demurely Renting Asunder the Chains of Bondage—not just surviving but thriving!!!
People do sometimes accuse me of blasphemy, which is understandable, and which is their right. But to me, it is not blasphemy, it is my idiom. It’s my way of still participating in the language I was raised inside, which despite all renunciation will always be mine.
So while she doesn’t give the church an easy ride, she describes her background of taking part ungrudgingly in its rituals. Merging emic and etic, she is altogether gentle in her lack of confrontation—as she observes in this review:
“But in a way, I am happy that I wrote it before all this [the US elections] went down because you can look at those things foreignly. There can be a sort of nostalgia looking back at it. Whereas now, it feels so urgent to excise all these conservative forms of thought as opposed to just seeing them as quirks—which they’re not just quirks, but they are that, especially when it’s your family.” She adds, “I always had the sense that running alongside this book was a book that was much angrier, or was expressed more as a sort of haranguing monologue against various things, but that’s not particularly natural to me as a writer.”
She describes the background and reactions to the publication of her poem Rape joke, and adds a note to her comments on motherhood:
The twinge you are feeling right now is the twinge of wondering whether I am really right-thinking, whether I am really on the right side when it comes to this subject. I put that twinge in because I sometimes feel it myself. But after all that, you must understand that I had to leave right-thinkingness behind.
She reflects on her family’s involvement in the “pro-life” movement (see also this, adapted from the book):
We patronised pro-life businesses, which in the Midwest, back then, was easy to do. It was possible to buy a pro-life pizza, despite the fact that a pizza is by its very definition made out of choices.
She perceives certain feminist credentials in her mother, who is ever alert to danger while not clearly subscribing to the notion of female suffrage. In a charming chapter rejoicing in the title “The Cum Queens of Hyatt Palace”, they bond over finding cum on a hotel bed. After a spirited exchange with the management (not of bodily fluids, I should add),
We join hands and set forth into the morning, united by that human glue which cannot be dissolved.
But amidst the hilarity her account addresses ever more serious topics—the church child-abuse scandal, pollution-induced disease, and her father’s roles in counselling the desperate and officiating for the bereaved.
Eventually he concedes to his errant daughter,
“I never thought it would be so much fun to have you home. It’s so nice when your kids grow up and you don’t have to kill them anymore.”
But while revelling in language she treasures its limitations:
The desire to describe voice, gesture, skin colour, is a desire to eat, take over, make into part of the pattern. I am happy every time I see a writer fail at this. I am happy every time to see real personhood resist our tricks. I am happy to see bodies insist that they are not shut up in this book, they are elsewhere. The tomb is empty, rejoice, he is not here.
Do bask in every enchanted word that Ms Lockwood writes! As a suitable soundtrack for such shots in the arm, I suggest You’re my thrill.
Further to Why the First World War failed to end, the history of the chronically traumatised region of the eastern Bloodlands (see also here) makes a necessary counterpart to our British focus on the horrors of the Western Front. A fine recent vignette on World War One is
Alexander Watson, The fortress: the great siege of Przemyśl (2019, reviewed e.g. here).
It’s a detailed and readable account of extreme human suffering, quite overcoming my aversion to military history.
In the province of Galicia, soon after the Russian invasion and the fall of the capital Lwów (L’viv) to the east, Przemyśl—today in southeast Poland near the border with Ukraine—became a crucial Habsburg stronghold.
With the Habsburg military operation headed by the reckless, inept General Conrad, the cowed troops who converged on Przemyśl on 14th September 1914 were already broken by defeat. After the field army retreated further, the inhabitants had to endure the Russian siege until March 1915.
Przemyśl was a multicultural city, with Polish and Ukrainian-speaking Ruthenian populations (respectively characterised by allegiance to Roman and Greek Catholicism), Jews, and Germans. Despite all the simmering tensions, they had somehow managed to coexist; with inter-ethnic antagonisms now sparked by international conflict, the war created flashpoints in a long-term clash.
As Watson observes, “the memory of the First World War is dominated by youth”. But the “ragtag garrison” left to defend Przemyśl was composed of a “dad’s army” of middle-aged reservists—including Austrian Germans, Hungarians, Romanians, Serbs, Slovaks, Moravians, Bohemians, Italians, Poles, and Ruthenians. The gulf in class and culture between largely German- or Czech-speaking officers and this Babel of peasant soldiers was reflected in problems of communication.
Most widely mistrusted by the Habsburg command was the local Ruthenian population, suspected of Russian sympathies. The peasant population in the villages had largely been evacuated, their homes brutally demolished, but many returned, unable to survive in squalid refugee camps; others had never left. Now, trapped in the starving purgatory of no man’s land, they found themselves vulnerable to both armies.
Within the fortress itself, violent repressive measures were taken against potential traitors such as Ukrainian nationalists and Greek Catholics, with deportations and executions.
The Russian army too was diverse, with Ukrainians, Jews, Poles, and Romanians alongside people of various ethnicities within the Russian empire. But the Russians had their own agenda of ethnic cleansing, aimed in particular at growing Ukrainian and Polish nationalism, and at the Greek Catholic church.
And the whole region already had a history of anti-Semitic violence. All these enmities came to a head in World War Two under the genocidal policies of ruthless totalitarian states.
In the ravaged countryside around Przemyśl, the fortress was guarded by an outer perimeter of forts, whose defences are described in great detail, with their “gloomy subterranean tunnels and low-ceilinged chambers”, places of terror; out of dysfunctional pyrrhic resistance, heroic legends were concocted.
The following chapter-headings flag the sequence of events: Storm, Barrier, Isolation, Starvation, Armageddon—subsuming epidemics, starvation, stress disorders, fear of espionage, desertions, executions; changing technologies (not least in weapons of war), and a thriving (and class-based) sex trade. Diversion could even be found in cultural events such as cinema and concerts. As morale continued to plummet further, officers indulged in obscene banqueting.
Watson cites a bitter joke from Przemyśl:
Q. What is the difference between Troy and Przemyśl?
A. In Troy, the heroes were in the stomach of the horse, and in Przemyśl the horses are in the stomach of the heroes!
With no hope of relief, the end came in March 1915 upon the inevitable failure of a breakout—in the utterly deluded direction of the east. Here’s footage from the end of the siege:
And the recapture of Przemyśl in June 1915—with the soundtrack perhaps inadvertently mocking pretensions of imperial grandeur and their appalling consequences:
Still the terror continued. Prisoners were deported to camps in Turkestan and Siberia, the foundations of the Soviet gulag system; already exhausted, many died in captivity. The Russian vendetta against the Jews intensified.
After Przemyśl was recaptured by the Habsburgs, it passed to the new independent Polish republic, under which antagonism between Poles and Ukrainians escalated, and Jews continued to be scapegoated.
Though the rival Habsburg and Russian empires soon fell, the violence, poisoned by an endless thirst for revenge, “persisted, mutated, and further radicalised”—culminating in the ethnic cleansings of World War Two, outlined in Watson’s Epilogue, “Into the dark”. Under successive Soviet and Nazi occupations Jewish, Polish, and Ukrainian peoples—and the whole of the Bloodlands—fell victim to unimaginably brutal atrocities. Pogroms and ethnic cleansing continued even after the formal end of the war in 1945 (see e.g. Keith Lowe, Savage continent, ch.18).
Today, bands like Krajka are rediscovering the traditional music of the region:
And Przemyśl is among many towns all along the border with Ukraine whose people are offering a welcome for refugees.
* * *
Watson laces his disturbing account of barbarity with black humour—like the ludicrously complex choreography of the three-part ritual that troops were expected to perform as a recognition system while patrolling no man’s land, which “would have been funny, had it not put lives at risk”.
Such tragic absurdities may remind us of Jaroslav Hašek’s The good soldier Svejk and his fortunes in the World War (1921–23—see under Czech stories).
Volume 4 (unfinished on Hašek’s death) evokes the ignominious dénouement of Švejk’s involvement in the Galician campaign. Out of curiosity he dons a Russian uniform that he found by the lake, whereupon he is seized by a gendarmerie patrol as a fugitive prisoner of war. He is then classified as a Russian spy and escorted on foot from Dobromil to Przemyśl—a fiction later commemorated there more readily than the realities of the siege.
Illustration by Hašek’s friend Josef Lada.
Hašek himself served with the Habsburg army on the Galician front. Captured by the Russians, he went on to work, quite commitedly, with the Bolsheviks. For a “humorist, satirist, journalist, anarchist, hoaxer, truant, rebel, vagabond, play-actor, practical joker, bohemian (and Bohemian), alcoholic, traitor to the Czech legion, Bolshevik, and bigamist”, his brief Soviet career was remarkably exalted ( see Hašek’s adventures in Soviet Tatarstan). He commanded Chuvash troops in the Red Army and served as commissar of Bugulma in Tatarstan (which inspired stories translated in The Red commissar). In Siberia he found himself the “hero of the Buryat nation”; he was learning Chinese, and wiki also mentions a “mysterious mission to Mongolia”. He returned to an independent Czechoslovakia in 1920.
In the novel, Hašek’s comments on the ineptitude of the Habsburg command are echoed in Watson’s portrayal of General Conrad—who, “never a man to permit reality to interfere with his plans, insisted on having his horse and eating it”.
Meanwhile, Švejk meets his fellow prisoners:
The Russian prisoner looked at Švejk in full understanding of the fact that he could not understand a single word of what he said.
“No understand. I Crimean Tartar. Allah achper”, the Tartar said. Then he sat down, crossed his legs on the ground, folded his arms on his chest and began to pray, half in Russian and half in Tartar. “Allah achper, Allah achper—bezemila—arachman—arachim—malankin mustafir”.
“Well now, so you’re a Tartar, are you?” said Švejk with compassion. “Well, you’re a fine customer then! How could you with your double-Dutch be expected to understand me then and I you, if you’re a Tartar? […]
Švejk turned to another prisoner:
“Are you a Tartar too?”
The person addressed understood the word Tartar, shook his head and said half in Russian: “No Tartar, Circassian, Circassian born and bred. I chop off heads!”
It was Švejk’s luck that he found himself in the company of these various representatives of the Eastern peoples. The transport comprised Tartars, Georgians, Osetins, Circassians, Mordvins, and Kalmyks.
As Hašek’s fine translator Cecil Parrott observes, “I know of no novel which conveys so poignantly not only the ugliness of war but the utter futility of anything connected with it.” I may not be alone in needing to re-read the book with a clearer picture of the tragedy that pervades it.
Coming soon after the English edition of Woeser’s Forbidden memory, another fine contribution to our understanding of modern Tibetan history is the magnum opus
Robert Barnett, Benno Weiner, and Françoise Robin (eds), Conflicting memories: Tibetan history under Mao retold (2020, xxix + 681 pp.!).
Covering the periods since the Chinese occupation in 1950 and the death of Mao in 1976, it presents a wealth of original material in the form of memoirs and oral narratives, histories and official sources, fiction and film, dovetailing perceptive essays and primary documents. Besides the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR), Amdo and Kham are especially well represented (cf. When the iron bird flies).
As Robert Barnett explains in yet another of his exemplary introductions, the book presents the candid narratives of a range of Tibetan and Chinese writers—by contrast with the historiography of the Chinese state, with its “logic of legitimization”. Before the reform era since 1980, the main periods, in an escalating sequence of violence, were the early years of occupation; the crises of 1956–59; and the Cultural Revolution (notably 1966–69).
Oral accounts and memoirs—from Tibetan and Chinese officials, some early Tibetan Communists and progressives, and ordinary and elite Tibetans—“seek to make nuanced, sometimes almost imperceptible, adjustments to official narratives about China’s recent record in Tibetan regions”. While they don’t go so far as to challenge CCP rule over Tibet, they are “historical retellings in which the state has been removed or reduced to an inanimate or malignant force, and in which Tibetan agency has been restored, but only as a question of endurance and at an individual, local level.” In all such accounts, we need to “read between the lines”—just as for material on Han Chinese regions (see e.g. here, and here).
Part One, “Official retellings and revisualisations of the ‘Liberation of Tibet’ ”, opens with chapters by Benno Weiner (whose recent book The Chinese revolution on the Tibetan frontier is another important contribution to our knowledge of the modern history of Amdo) and Alice Travers, exploring changing agendas in the published “cultural and historical materials” (wenshi ziliao)—also a revealing source for Han Chinese areas (cf. here).
Compared to the extreme violence that was to come, Western, Chinese, and Tibetan authors have tended to portray the early years of occupation as relatively genteel. But Bianca Horlemann’s scrutiny of an account by the Chinese leader of a “Work Group” for the pastoralist Golog region in south Amdo adds to a growing body of evidence that “liberation” was far from smooth.
And Robert Barnett’s own chapter describes in detail the change of emphasis in mainstream Chinese “Tibet-encounter” films and TV dramas from the Maoist era to the reforms (cf. his Columbia course). Setting forth from the beguiling voyeuristic notion (Western as much as Chinese) of Tibet as “mysterious” and “exotic”, he notes a shift from tales of socialist military valour to commercially attractive stories of romance and self-discovery.
He suggests that the rationale for the early films was
in large part to explain and justify to the wider nation the abrupt and large-scale interaction then occurring between Chinese forces and Tibetans. That contact was, after all, on an unprecedented scale and involved entirely different and unfamiliar cultures, languages and social systems. Chinese citizens who were sent to Tibet were being asked not just to risk their lives fighting Tibetan troops and rebels in deeply unfamiliar and difficult terrain, but also in many cases to dedicate decades of their lives as cadres, teachers, doctors, road-builders, labourers, and so forth in order to administer and colonise an area which, unlike other minority areas within China, had had its own government, military and ruling institutions for centuries and where few Chinese had ever lived or worked before.
Throughout the various periods, many films portray Tibetans as grateful allies of the Party; and they dwell on the exploitation of the masses at the hands of the old ruling classes.
At its simplest, films in the Mao era vilified Tibetan culture and the Tibetan social system, while those produced in the reform period beautified Tibetans, their environment, and, increasingly, their bodies.
Ever attentive to gender issues, Barnett notes the trope of the “orphan–heroine”. And while Chinese characters have come to be explored in more depth, there remain no credible portrayals of the Tibetan side of the story.
In Part Two, “Rereading the past: stories told by documents”, Alex Raymond again reinterprets the initial “liberation” of Tibet, showing that any “gradualism” in Chinese policy was a matter of expediency and logistics. Chung Tsering assesses a variety of accounts of the ambiguous political career of Ngaphö Ngawang Jigme (1910–2009); Document 4 translates his 1989 speech. And Document 5 is an important addition to work on the Tenth Panchen Lama—a hitherto unpublished speech also from 1989, a critique not just of the Cultural Revolution but of the whole three decades of occupation.
Part Three, “Speaking the past: oral remembering” addresses the uprisings in Amdo from 1958, and the Cultural Revolution there. Dáša Mortensen unpacks ongoing historical amnesia through public and private accounts of the 1966 destruction of Gandan Sumtsenling, the main Tibetan monastery of Gyalthang in Yunnan province, showing how “the politics of memory and forgetting are shaped by both official and individual agendas, competing to produce an acceptable memory at a time when grievances are still deeply entrenched and inconvenient for any side to air”.
Charlene Makley, with two pseudonymised contributors, unpacks an oral account of the years following 1958 by a senior Tibetan village leader (“G.” below) in Rebgong (southeast Qinghai)—using a detailed system of transcription to evoke the subtle messages of his language and his interactions with the participants, which rarely emerge in interview transcripts. A sample (asterisks denoting Chinese loanwords):
T: How many years were you in the *labour camp*? G: Four and a half years. T: For four and half years? Oh so that means ’58, ’59, ’60 and ’61? [11:38 G explains how central Party officials came to investigate Qinghai during the post-famine rectification process. Here he goes into the most detail so far. T had never heard this; T and CM are entranced.] G: [until] ’62… ’62… that’s how long I had to stay. Not just for 1958, but for ’59, ’60, ’61 and ‘62. – T: Oooh. – Until August of 1962, in *September I returned. – CM/T: Mmm/Oooh – The one who reported [the situation] to *central leaders* was … Wang Zhao came, Wang Zhao, the *deputy head* of the *Central Management Department* (Ch.: Guanlibu). – CM/T: Oooh. – So Qinghai *province *sent a delegation down*, and the *Management Department* officials accompanied them. When they came, they *investigated everything. They disbanded the *cafeterias. All those sent to the *labour camp* were released. Wang Zhao said a few words: “Just as for the People’s Militias, keep the *‘group leaders’* (Ch.: banzhang) imprisoned, and release the ‘militia members’.” He used that kind of metaphor, he didn’t say more than that … What did he mean by a *‘group leader’*? He meant the traditional Tibetan leaders, of course. By *‘group leader’,* he meant Tibetan *landlords, or lamas or lay leaders. [Wang] ordered everyone but them to be released. But *half [of those leaders] had already died, They died! They all died! That region was harsh because of the high altitude!
The same period is discussed in an excerpt from a remarkably frank book by Rinchen Zangpo (Shamdo Rinzang).
Part Four describes “Literary retellings”—the short stories, novels, literary memoirs, and fiction from the reform era that served as a necessary, not optional, forum for Tibetan critiques of the terrors following 1958. Françoise Robin discusses literature recalling the period in Amdo:
Fiction and literature confirm their use by Tibetans to counter official memory and circumvent the hegemonic memory engineering that has been going on for over fifty years. Still facing too many risks to offer directly a revised account of lost events, these works of fiction not so much mark what has been forgotten as delineate the history of state erasure of that past, and its silencing of the generation that experienced it.
Xénia de Heering introduces Nagtshang Nulo’s childhood memoir Joys and Sorrows of the Nagtshang Boy, set in Machu county, Kanlho—a book to which I devote a separate post.
Part Five, “Religious remembering” focuses on history recollected through the lens of faith. Nicole Willock, Maria Turek, and Geoffrey Barstow describe accounts by lamas, Buddhist scholars, hermits, and a religious artisan. Even those who accommodated with the new regime suffered terribly, but they continued to view their role as guardians of Tibetan culture and religion, recalling ultra-leftist violence merely in terms of obstacles to spiritual development.
The volume is further enriched by extensive references, detailed maps, glossary, photos, and an exhaustive index. Hefty as it is, I still wonder how Brill still manages to charge such astronomical prices for their fine books, mitigating against the wide readership they deserve.
Again I marvel at the enterprise, energy, and nuance of recent scholarship on Tibet, so very far from the simplistic, polarised work of the 1980s. But the emergence of a certain space for alternative versions of this traumatic history can be of little consolation for Tibetan people amidst their current plight, as Chinese state control continues to intensify.
His stories are even more trenchant if you’ve heard him reading them on BBC Radio 4. I’ll try not to give too much away.
“What I learned” evokes his imaginary days at Princeton. The “modesty seminar” for freshmen has echoes of faux Oxbridge self-deprecation:
In my time it took the form of a role-playing exercise, my classmates and I pretending to be graduates, and the teacher assuming the part of an average citizen: the soldier, the bloodletter, the whore with a heart of gold.
“Tell me, young man. Did you attend a university of higher learning?”
To anyone holding a tool or a weapon, we were trained to respond: “What? Me go to college? Whoever gave you that idea?” If, on the other hand, the character held a degree, you were allowed to say, ”Sort of,” or, sometimes, “I think so”.
And it was the next bit that you had to get just right. Inflection was everything, and it took the foreign students forever to master it.
“So where do you sort of think you went?”
“And we’d say, “Umm, Princeton?”—as if it were an oral exam, and we weren’t quite sure that this was the correct answer. […]
You had to play it down, which wasn’t easy when your dad was out there, reading your acceptance letter into a bullhorn.
I needed to temper his enthusiasm a bit, and so I announced that I would be majoring in patricide. The Princeton program was very strong back then, the best in the country, but it wasn’t the sort of thing your father could get too worked up about. Or at least, most fathers wouldn’t. Mine was over the moon. “Killed by a Princeton graduate!” he said. “And my own son, no less.”
My mom was actually jealous. “So what’s wrong with matricide?”she asked. “What, I’m not good enough to murder? You too high and mighty to take out your only mother?”
They started bickering, so in order to make peace, I promised to consider a double major.
“And how much more is that going to cost us?” they said.
I’ll leave you to read the excellent dénouement. For Sedaris, his father, and Li Manshan, see here.
In “The monster mash” he forks out on a copy of Medicolegal investigations of death,
a sort of bible for forensic pathologists. It showed what you might look like if you bit an extension cord while standing in a shallow pool of water, if you were crushed by a tractor, struck by lightning, strangled with a spiral or non-spiral telephone cord, hit with a claw hammer, burned, shot, drowned, stabbed, or feasted on by wild or domestic animals. The captions read like really great poem titles, my favourite being “Extensive Mildew on the face of a Recluse”. I stared at that picture for hours on end, hoping it might inspire me, but I know nothing about poetry, and the best I came up with was pretty lame:
Behold the recluse looking pensive! Mildew, though, is quite extensive On his head, both aft and fore. He maybe shoulda got out more.
“Of mice and men” parades his social unease, featuring a bigoted cab driver (whose London counterpart is milked by Stewart Lee, e.g. here, and here).
When it comes to meeting strangers, I tend to get nervous and rely on a stash of pre-prepared stories. Sometimes they’re based on observation or hearsay, but just as often they’re taken from the newspaper.
One such clipping
concerned an eighty-one-year-old Vermont man whose home was overrun by mice. The actual house was not described, but in my mind it was two stories tall and isolated on a country road. I also decided that it was painted white—not that it mattered so much. I just thought it was a nice touch. So the retired guy’s house was overrun, and when he could no longer bear it, he fumigated. The mice fled into the yard and settled into a pile of dead leaves, whicih no doubt crackled beneath their weight. Thinking that he had them trapped, the man set the pile on fire, then watched as a single flaming mouse raced back into the basement and burned the house to the ground. […]
How could you go wrong with such a story? It was, to my mind, perfect, and I couldn’t wait to wedge it into whatever conversation presented itself.
A ride in a New Jersey cab seems to offer him a perfect pretext. But the driver is underwhelmed by the story, churlishly finding it implausible. They embark on a surreal and testy exchange, an irritated Sedaris floundering as he defends the report’s veracity:
“Isn’t no way that a mouse could cover all that distance without his flames going out. The wind would have snuffed them.”
“Well, what about that girl in Vietnam?”
Later, vindictively checking the clipping back home, his righteous anger is deflated.
In his lengthy diary of quitting smoking by going to live in Tokyo, an account of a visit to kabuki makes an interesting contrast with Clive James’s excursions into Japanese culture. Both are drôle, but whereas James seems patronising in his incomprehension, Sedaris is genuinely moved.
Four hours into Yohitsune and the Thousand Cherry Trees, and I wondered how I had survived all these many years without Kabuki.
The book’s title comes from a safety booklet in his hotel room, with the rubrics
In my post on the Navajo novels of Tony Hillerman I admired the necessary social and personal texture that rarely informs more scholarly accounts. And in another review I featured crime fiction from East Asia and the GDR—as well as Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, mostly concerning the rise of Hitler, World War Two, and the Cold War aftermath.
In Metropolis (which turned out to be Kerr’s last book in the series, published posthumously in 2019) he returned to Bernie’s early career during the Weimar period. As ever, historical personages (such as Arthur Nebe and George Grosz) are woven into the plot, as well as early performances of The threepenny opera.
Often such novels come from outsiders to the culture portrayed. But German authors have long explored the Weimar era—a genre enshrined in
Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929),
a complex, sprawling assembly of underworld degradation through turbulent times. The author’s own summary gives an impression of his distinctive, disorienting literary style:
Here’s a trailer for the 15-hour TV adaptation by the visionary Fassbinder (1980):
As to more recent recreation of the Weimar era,
Volker Kutscher, Babylon Berlin (2007)
is the first in a series featuring the detective Gereon Rath, with his beguiling protégée Charlotte Ritter. It recasts the decadence of the roaring 20s and the rise of fascism, with vivid period detail on exiled Russians and paramilitary forces. Yet again, the novels form the stimulus for a highly popular TV series:
Meanwhile David Youngcontinues exploring the murky history of the GDR in Stasi winter (2020) through the struggles of detective Karin Müller, against a backdrop of escape attempts amidst a desolate, frozen northern landscape.
For Russia, I’ve been catching up on the Arkady Renko novels by Martin Cruz Smith. Gorky Park was published as early as 1981, a gripping tale of KGB and CIA espionage, ikon smuggling—and a sinister fabrication to quell dissidents:
It is the finding of the institute that criminals suffer from a psychological disturbance that we term pathoheterodoxy. There is theoretical as well as clinical backing for this discovery. In an unjust society a man may violate laws for valid social or economic reasons. In a just society there are no valid reasons except for mental illness. Recognising this fact protects the violator as well as the society whose law he attacks. It affords the violator and opportunity to be quarantined until his illness can be expertly treated.
Later in the series, Stalin’s ghost (2007) moves on to the Putin era, still haunted by the delusions of the USSR, as well as the Chechen war and mass graves.
For Hungary, the “Danube Blues” novels of Adam LeBor, himself an investigative journalist, are compelling. Starring the Roma detective Balthazar Kovacs, the themes of District VIII (2017) and Kossuth square (2019) are highly topical—including corruption, press freedom under authoritarian rule, and the plight of refugees.
Balthazar is the first in the family to progress to higher education. With his brother a leading figure in the Budapest underworld, he has torn loyalties. At university he meets Sarah, a Jewish student. He starts a PhD on the Roma Holocaust, but
after a couple of years he realised he had had enough of libraries and archives and extermination. He also realised he had no desire to be a disczigany, a decorative, token Gypsy.
To the horror of both his family and the “uber-liberal” Sarah, Balthazar decides to join the police force. Meanwhile Sarah, with whom he now has a son, rises in the field of gender studies. Even after they separate, she still depends on his introductions to the Roma world.
Evoking the ethnic mix of new immigrants (southern Slavs, Arabs, Africans, Russians, Chinese) alongside the gentrification of Budapest, LeBor adroitly interposes lessons on Hungarian history in imperial times and the Arrow Cross militia during World War Two.
* * *
Like Hillerman’s Leaphorn and Chee series, all these novels are not just engaging in themselves, with their suspenseful plot twists, but they document the whole texture of the society, drawing us towards history and people’s lives.
Moreover, for those of us unfamiliar with Native American cultures, the Leaphorn and Chee novels make an evocative complement to weighty academic ethnographies. Hillerman acknowledges his debt to the works of scholars such as Wyman and Haile. As he manages to embed little lessons in Navajo mythology, he conveys an impression of the connectedness of landscape, climate, daily life, and ceremonies among different strata of Navajo society. Indeed, such a picture is potentially just as valuable as a dry academic account.
Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee are both officers in the Navajo Tribal Police, and though both are ambivalent about Navajo culture, they have access to clues that white people can’t perceive.
The cast includes not only Navajo people acculturated to various degrees, but also state institutions, white agencies—and anthropologists. Hillerman notes differences between the world-view of the Navajo and those of other nearby groups like Hopi and Zuni.
The plots feature witchcraft prominently, yet it typically transpires to be a misleading element in crimes motivated by more mundane causes— involving, as Scheper observes, some intrusion from the white world. While Hillerman stresses that murder is alien to Navajo culture, recent statistics, at least, suggest a more serious problem.
Ceremonies The series features a variety of ceremonies, healing rituals diagnosed in order to solve various problems—motivations that prompt Leaphorn and Chee to ponder how they may bear on the crimes they’re investigating. Thus the hataali “medicine man”, deploying his jish bundle, chanting and depicting cosmic sand paintings, makes regular appearances. Jim Chee himself is studying to become a hataali.
Of course Native American culture makes easy prey for hippy romanticising, but Hillerman doesn’t subject the Navajo “going in beauty” to such a fate. The novels remind me of the routine, practical nature of ceremony for communities with diverse values through changing times, as my work on the Li family Daoists suggests.
Hillerman describes the practical tasks in preparing for a ceremony, such as choosing the site, spreading the word, finding the proper singer, arranging the food. In all, these novels are a model for viewing ritual in social context.
* * *
Hillerman first introduced Joe Leaphorn in The Blessing Way (1970).
The complex plot features an Enemy Way, with Sandoval presiding—an the elderly hataali who, like Leaphorn, seeks (as Reilly puts it) “to find an identity that preserves the integrity of tradition while permitting individuals to accommodate to new conditions of their life”
From Navajo, Diné, Indians of New Mexico, Arizona (1945) (see here).
However fictional, a passage like this is full of the detail of good ethnographic observation:
Sandoval squatted beside the sand painting and told Charlie Tsosie to put his knees on the knees of the Corn Beetle. He showed him how to lean forward with one hand on each hand of the figure. When Tsosie was just right, Sandoval began singing the part about how the corn beetles called out to tell the Changing Women that her Hero Twins, the Monster Slayer and the Water Child, were coming home again safely. His voice rose in pitch to the “lo-lo-loo” cry of the beetle, and then fell as he chanted the part about the Hero Twins visiting the sun, and slaughtering the monster Ye-i. It was stifling in the hogan and Tsosie’s bare back was glistening with sweat. Even his loin cloth was discoloured with it. That was good. The enemy was coming out. And now Sandovaal was ready for the next part. He sprkinkled a pinch of corn pollen on Tsosie’s shoulders and had him stand up and step off the sand painting—carefully so that the pattern wouldn’t be disturbed.
Sandoval felt good about the painting. He hadn’t done an Enemy Way since just after the foreign war when the young men had come back from the Marines. He was afraid he might have forgotten how to do it. But it had worked out just right. The arroyo sand he had poured out on the Hogan floor for the base was a little darker than he liked but he had known it was going to work out all right when he poured out the coloured sand to make the Encircling Guardian. He had made it in a square as his father had taught him, with the east side open to keep from trapping in any of the Holy People. The Guardian’s head was at the north end, with his two arms inward, and his feet were at the south end. His body was four alternating lines of red and yellow sand, and at the opening Sandoval had drawn the elaborate figure of Thunder, wearing the three crooked arrows in his headdress and carrying the crooked arrows under his wings.
“Put Thunder there when you sing for a witching,” his father had told him. His lightning kills the witches.”
Sandoval repaired the Corn Beetle deftly, sifting coloured sand through his fingers to reform the lines where Tsosie’s hands and knees had pressed. He added a tiny sprinkle of black sand to the single feather in the headdress of Black Fly.
The next passage again reminds me strongly of Li Manshan:
Sandoval stood up then and looked into the pot where he had brewed the medicine. The water was still steaming and the juniper leaves he had mixed into it had turned the solution milky. It looked about right but Sandoval thought it would have been better if he had had a waterproof basket so it could have been done the old way. The People are losing too many of the old ways, Sandoval thought, and he thought it again when he had to tell Tsosie how to sit on the feet of Big Fly, and even had to remind him to face the east. When Sandoval was a boy learning the ways from his father, his father had not had to tell people how to sit. They knew.
Sandoval sang then the chant of the Big Fly, and how he had come to The People to tell them that Black God and the warriors were returning victorious from their war against the Taos Pueblo and how the two girls had been sent by the people to carry food to the war band. This was the last chant before the vomiting and Sandoval was glad of that. It was the second day of the Enemy Way. His voice was hoarse and he was tired and there was still much to be done, much ritual to be completed before this man was free of the witch trouble.
As the ceremony progresses,
Sandoval yawned and stretched and looked out across the brush flats where the visitors were camping. Probably four or five hundred, he thought, and there would be more arriving today, mostly women bringing their girls to look for husbands at the Girl Dance tonight, and young men looking for girls, and gambling, and drinking, and trouble. Sandoval had meant to think about the ceremonial, to think just good thoughts and keep in harmony with the event. But he couldn’t help thinking how times were changing. Mostly they came in their pickups and cars now. There was dozens of them parked out there and just a few wagons. And that was part of it. The white man’s machines made it easy to travel about and people came just to visit and fool around. In the old days there wouldn’t have been any drinking and gambling at a ceremonial like this.
Leaphorn arrives, attempting to glean clues while the ceremony continues. Meanwhile anthropologist Bernard McKee, once his fellow student at Arizona State, is doing fieldwork, but soon finds himself in deep danger. With its tense cinematic dénouement, The Blessing Way makes a most compelling introduction to the series.
Listening woman (1978) again hinges on sand paintings, and the prescription of suitable ceremonies for affliction.
Listening Woman rubbed her knuckles against her eyes, and shook her head, and called for Anna. She knew what the diagnosis would have to be. Hosteen Tso would need a Mountain Way chant and a Black Rain chant. There had been a witch in the painted cave, and Tso had been there, and had been infected with some sort of ghosts sickness. That meant he should find a singer who knew how to do the Mountain Way and one to sing the Black Rain.
Later Leaphorn enquires about another sing:
“They did the Wind Way,” McGinnis said. “Had to get a singer from all the way over at Many Farms. Expensive as hell.”
“Any others?” Leaphorn asked. The Wind Way was the wrong ritual. The sand painting made for it would include the Corn Beetle, but none of the other Holy People mentioned by Hosteen Tso.
“Bad spring for sings,” McGinnis said. “Everyone’s either getting healthy, or they’re too damn poor to pay for them.”
Deftly incorporating the historical trauma of the Long Walk, as well as the 1973 Wounded Knee incident and recent terrorism, the book also features a kinaalda female puberty ceremony.
People were coming out of the medicine hogan, some of them watching his approaching vehicle, but most standing in a milling cluster around the doorway. Then, from the cluster, a girl abruptly emerged—running.
She ran, pursued by the wind and a half-dozen younger children, across an expanse of sagebrush. She set the easy pace of those who know that they have a great distance to go. She wore the long skirt, the long-sleeved blouse, and the heavy silver jewelry of a traditional Navajo woman—but she ran with the easy grace of a child who has not yet forgotten how to race her shadow.
Leaphorn stopped the carryall and watched, remembering his own initiation out of childhood, until the racers disappeared down the slope. For the Endischee girl, this would be the third race of the day, and the third day of such racing. Changin Woman taught that the longer a girl runs at the Kinaalda, the longer she lives a healthy life. By the third day, muscles would be sore and the return would be early. Leaphorn shifted back into gear. While the girl was gone, the family would re-enter the hogan to sing the Racing Songs, the same prayers the Holy People had chanted at the menstruation ceremony when White Shell Girl became Changing Woman. Then there would be a pause, while the women baked the great ceremonial cake to be eaten tonight. The pause would give Leaphorn a chance to approach and cross-examine Listening Woman.
The young Jim Chee, also a college graduate, enters the story with People of darkness (1980). Even while applying to the FBI, he is himself training to become a hataali medicine man, like his maternal uncle. The plot also features drilling for oil, witchcraft, the Native American Church, and the Peyote Way. As Chee is drawn to the white teacher Mary Landon, he observes intriguing cultural differences in their world-views. At the end, having survived successive ordeals, he realizes that he himself needs an Enemy Way ceremony.
In Ghostway (1984), as Officer Chee agonises over his future with Mary Landon, he grapples with a complex case involving the chindi ghost apparently occupying a dead man’s hogan, torn between Navajo and white cultures. He hesitates to ender the haunted hogan:
To the Jim Chee who was an alumnus of the University of New Mexico, a subscriber to Esquire and Newsweek, an officer of the Navajo Tribal Police, lover of Mary Landon, holder of a Farmington Public Library card, student of anthropology and sociology, “with distinction” graduate of the FBI Academy, holder of Social Security card 441-28-7272, it was a logical step to take.
Following a lead to the urban sprawl of LA, we see it through his eyes, alien, impersonal, and sinister. The climax comes back home with a healing ceremony for a teenage girl caught up in the violence. Consulting the senior hataali Frank Sam Nakai, Chee finds a public list of Navajo medicine men still practising, and becomes aware how tenuous the tradition has become.
So many of them listed as knowing only the Blessing Way, or the Enemy Way, or the Yeibichi, the Night Chant, or the more common and popular curing rituals. […] His uncle had told him that the Holy People had taught the Dinee at least sixty such rituals, and that many of them were lost in those grim years when the People had been herded into captivity at Fort Sumner. And he could see by this that more were being lost. He looked down the list to see how many singers knew the Stalking Way, which he had been trying to learn. He saw only the name of his uncle and one other man.
Eventually he finds where the five-day Ghostway is being held.
Hosteen Littleben would twice cover the earthen floor of the hogan with the ceremonial’s dry paintings, illustrating episodes in the mythic adventures by which the Holy People resolved the problem caused by death’s disruptive residue. Margaret Sosi would sit surrounded by this abstract imagery, and by this ragtag remnant of the Turkey Clan, and be returned to beauty and hozro, cleansed of the ghost. […]
The door of the hogan opened, and Littleben emerged, trailed by Margaret Sosi. He held a small clay pot in his right hand and a pair of prayer sticks, elebarately painted and feathered, in the other. He held the feathered pahos high, theirshafts crossed in an X. “Now our daughter will drink this brew,” he chanted.
The novel ends with Chee making a resolution:
He would get in touch with Frank Sam Nakai and ask his uncle to arrange for Hosteen Littleben to sing a Ghostway cure for him. And then, he thought, he would talk to Littleben. Feel him out about what he would charge Chee to teach him the ritual. It would be a good thing for a younger man to know it.
Leaphorn and Chee first coincide in Skinwalkers (1986). With Chee being targeted, they work separately on unraveling the mystery. Their views don’t always coincide:
“I have been telling everyone that Yellowhorse is a fake,” Chee said stiffly. “I have told people every chance I get that the doctor pretends to be a crystal gazer just to get them into his clinic.”
“I hope you’re not doing that on company time,” Leaphorn said. “Not while you’re on duty.”
“I probably have,” Chee said. “Why not?”
“Because it violates regulations,” Leaphorn said, his expression no longer even mildly amused.
“I think you can see how,” Leaphorn had said. “We don’t have any way to license our shamans, no more than the federal government can license preachers. If Yellowhorse says he’s a medicine man, or a hand trembler, or a road chief of the Native American Church, or the Pope, it is no business of the Navajo Tribal Police. No rule against it. No law.”
“I’m a Navajo,” Chee said. “I see somebody cynically using our religion… somebody who doesn’t believe in our religion using it in that cynical way…”
“What harm is he doing?” Leaphorn asked. “The way I understand it, he recommends they go to a yataalii if they need a ceremonial sing. And he points them at the hospital only if they have a white man’s problem. Diabetes, for example.”
Chee had made no response to that. If Leaphorn couldn’t see the problem, the sacrilege involved, then Leaphorn was blind. But that wasn’t the problem. Leaphorn was as cynical as Yellowhorse.
Meanwhile Chee keeps honing his art as a hataali.
Chee was a perfectionist. His prayer sticks were painted exactly right, waxed, polished, with exactly the right feathers attached as they should be attached. The bag that held his pollen was soft doe-skin; labeled plastic prescription bottles held the fragments of mica, abalone shell, and the other “hard jewels” his profession required. And his Four Mountains bundle—four tiny bags contained in a doe-skin sack—included exactly the proper herbs and minerals, which Chee had collected from the four sacred mountains exactly as the yei had instructed.
In an introductory note, Hillerman concedes that
My good friend Ernie Bulow correctly remind me that more traditional shamans would disapprove both of the way Jim Chee was invited to do the Blessing Way mentioned in the book (such arrangements should be made face-to-face and not by letter) and of Chee practising a sandpainting on the ground under the sky. Such sacred and powerful ritual should be done only in the hogan.
With their different styles, the two officers again work in tandem in Coyote waits (1990). Chee even gets to perform a Blessing Way for Leaphorn:
Leaphorn found himself wondering if he had been Chee’s first client. After a tough case, in the awful malaise that had followed Emma’s death, he’d hired Chee to do a Blessing Way for him. An impulsive decision—unusual for him. He’d done it partly to give the young man a chance to try his hand as a shaman and partly as a gesture toward Emma’s people. The Yazzies were Bitter Water clansmen and traditionalists. The ceremony would be sort of an unspoken apology for the hurt he must have caused them. […]
Chee had been nervous, showing Leaphorn where to sit with his back against the west wall of the hogan, spreading a small rug in front of him. Then Chee had extracted from his deerskin jish the little leather sack that was his Four Mountain bundle, two pairs of “talking prayersticks”, a snuff can containing flint arrow points, and a half dozen pouches of pollen. He had solemnly formed the shape of footprints on the earth and marked on them with the pollen the symbols of the sunrays on which Leaphorn would walk.
Despite his skepticism, Leaphorn finds that “it had not cured him, but it had started the healing”.
Again the plot involves early Navajo history and white academics, with their various motivations. Hillerman constantly explores conflicts between Navajo and white world-views—all while constructing a tense, compelling crime-thriller.
These novels cry out for film/TV versions—here’s a 2003 film of Coyote waits:
* * *
Now, I’m aware of the irony of a white guy praising the work of another white guy writing about Native Americans, but Hillerman shows great empathy for the Navajo world-view. Indeed, ethnographers too are commonly outsiders to the culture they study.
A quick search doesn’t reveal any scathing criticisms from the Navajo—who anyway aren’t a homogeneous, isolated group. Still, David Lund Warmind raises critical points about Hillerman’s “skewed gaze”—“Navajos are nicer”?!
While the whole book is brilliant, here I want to focus on her reasoned deflation of Henry Miller(1891–1980). At the time it must have seemed somewhat outspoken, but re-reading it now I realise it’s utterly reasonable.
In Part III, “The literary reflection”, Millett scrutinises D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer in turn—classic instances of dragging the icon to the trash—with a contrasting final chapter on Jean Genet.
I read Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Rosy crucifixion trilogy in my early 20s (As You Do), but thankfully I first read Sexual politics soon after. Miller’s time-frame is earlier than I realised. I inadvertently tend to associate him with the heady excesses of the bebop era, but born in the 19th century (!), his classic works refer to the 1920s and 30s. In a way I’m happy to be reminded that sexual intercourse didn’t really begin in 1963.
It’s great that Millett was able to unpack Miller’s works rather soon after they had been lauded on the grounds of “sexual freedom”. As depictions of the adrenalin buzz of New York and Paris, Miller’s novels are exhilarating—as long as you can blank out the misogyny, which is a tall order. But exhilaration is gendered too. Miller may have written as a boast, but we may read his works as a confession.
Indeed, Millett opens Chapter One by unpacking a typically “colourful” passage from Sexus—“a male assertion of dominance over a weak, compliant, and rather unintelligent female”. I’m sure few of Miller’s critics would deny the allure of casual sex per se [non-gendered pronoun. * Well done—Ed.], but for him, sexuality is dirty, and can only be so.
* (It’s a sign of the changing times that the default male pronoun of the first sentence of the Preface now leaps out at us:
Before the reader is shunted through the relatively uncharted, often even hypothetical territory which lies before him…)
Millett’s main chapter on Miller begins charitably:
Certain writers are persistently misunderstood. Henry Miller is surely one of the major figures of American literature living today, yet academic pedantry still dismisses him as beneath scholarly attention.
Rather than representing the new “sexual freedom”, Millett finds him
a compendium of American sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions but in having had the honesty to express and dramatise them. […] What Miller did articulate was the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence, and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality. And women too, for somehow it is women upon whom this onerous burden of sexuality falls.
She notes that despite evidence that he is “fleetingly conscious” of such things, we are unlikely to be persuaded that Miller the man is any wiser than Miller the character.
Her measured introduction out of the way, Millett proceeds to demolish Miller’s misogyny, his “air of juvenile egotism” and impersonal, degrading, encounters devoid of communication:
Miller’s genuine originality consists in revealing and recording a group of related sexual attitudes which, despite their enormous prevalence and power, had never (or never so explicitly) been given literary expression before. Of course, these attitudes are no more the whole truth than chivalry, or courtly, or romantic love were—but Miller’s attitudes do constitute a kind of cultural data heretofore carefully concealed beneath our traditional sanctities.
Millett observes the “cultural homosexuality which has ruled that love, friendship, affection—all forms of companionship, emotional or intellectual—are restricted to males”. Miller at least lays bare the “game” of confirming male power. In writing against conventional morality he shows his parasitic dependency on it.
Since his mission is to inform “cunt” just how it’s ridiculed and despised in the men’s house, women perhaps owe Miller some gratitude for letting them know.
In a great many respects Miller is avant-garde and a highly inventive artist, but his most original contribution to sexual attitudes is confined to giving expression to an ancient sentiment of contempt. […]
The impulse to see even women as human beings may occur momentarily—a fleeting urge—but the terrible needs of adolescent narcissism are much greater.
Her brilliant final paragraph reads:
While the release of such inhibited emotion, however poisonous, is beyond question advantageous, the very expression of such lavish contempt, and disgust, as Miller has unleashed, and made fashionable, can come to be an end in itself, eventually harmful, perhaps even malignant. To provide unlimited scope for masculine aggression, although it may finally bring the situation out into the open, will hardly solve the dilemma of our sexual politics. Miller does have something highly important to tell us; his virulent sexism is beyond question an honest contribution to social and psychological understanding which we can hardly afford to ignore. But to confuse this neurotic hostility, this frank abuse, with sanity, is pitiable. To confuse it with freedom were vicious, were it not so very sad.
And then came the internet… No wonder it has taken such determined efforts to reclaim the c-word.
In music, Millett’s deflation of Miller was soon to be echoed in Susan McClary’s unpacking of the gender imbalance in WAM, with Beethoven as chief witness for the prosecution.
* * *
I still think Millett’s critique is the Last Word, but inevitably the discussion has continued. Most subsequent feminists build perceptively on her themes, and I hesitate to discuss glossy contrarians such as Erica Jong, yet her discussions have a certain relevance.
Reading Miller’s ouevre whole, and with critiques of her own work in mind, Jong views him as a kindred spirit (a “disappointed romantic”, a “prophet”, “always looking for the secret of life”). While she concurs with some of Millett’s points, she takes issue with her—or at least with caricatures of her analysis.
Relevant to the current discussion is Chapter 7, “Must we burn Henry Miller? Miller and the feminist critique”. While Jong balks at “feminist zealotry”, and falls for Miller’s “ruthless honesty”, she expresses strong support for feminist agendas.
* * *
Yet, though Miller generally concealed it beneath the detritus of cynical one-night stands, he did seek enduring bonds—with women who would submit to his will, to own and degrade? A more complex picture emerges in the diaries of AnaïsNin (1903–77), alongside her many biographies.
Nin was an articulate, talented, independent, sensitive, psychologically attuned, sensual woman. One might think that such attributes would make her safe from Miller attentions, and that of all people, Nin would see right through his narcissistic misogyny. True, she boldly put psychology into practice, engaging in carnal relationships with her analysts; and having been abandoned in childhood by her father, she embarked, confidently, on an affair with him in her 30s—which at least inspired the headline “Sins of the Nins“.
A distressingly enduring pattern emerges. Do women’s choices consist only of boring husbands or predatory men? If Miller was happy to prey on women he perceived as fucktoys, Nin had loftier expectations. In their relationships, he could have tried harder, while she may have been frustrated by the available material.
Nin’s Paris diaries for 1931–34 cover the most intense period of her relationship with Miller and his then wife June—whom she found “the most beautiful woman on earth”. Relevant passages are assembled and augmented in Henry and June (1986)—with Nin’s relationships with her husband Hugo and psychoanalyst René Allendy thickening the plot.
Left: Anaïs Nin c1920; right, June Miller, c1933.
Her journals are full of praise for Henry’s genius. She supported him in Paris, and found a mission in helping him publish—the old “muse” trap. At the same time, he appreciated the originality of her work. Their affair was intense, and communicative.
But she and June were totally enchanted by each other. Nin’s sensual, nuanced descriptions make a complete contrast to Miller’s accounts of degrading conquests.
Her “intense adoration” of Miller did indeed give way to disillusionment: she described him as “crude, egotistic, imitative, childishly irresponsible, a madman”.
Still, does all this suggest that Miller was deceiving his readers, even himself, about his need for human communication? And how might Millett have incorporated this into her account? Sadly, she only mentions Nin in a brief footnote, although the relevant first volume of her journals was published in 1966. Still, Millett might have wanted to refine her maxim that
Miller’s hunt is a primitive find, fuck, and forget.
* * *
For a younger generation pondering gender issues anew, one might hope that Millett has stood the test of time better than Miller. For the decline in Miller’s reputation, see e.g. this article from 2016.
Readers are no longer shocked by the sex; it’s the sexism they shrink from now.
As you may have noticed, I’m a sucker for TV thrillers with subtitles (Scandi noir, Spiral, even Montalbano). But the recent French drama Philharmonia, from the normally dependable Walter Presents on Channel 4, is compelling for different reasons.
Like Stuart Jeffries in this brilliant review (“Acorn Antiques with subtitles”), I love it for all the wrong reasons. His review largely relieves me of the burden of slagging off this piece of posh Eurotrash, but hey.
OK, I am very hard to please when it comes to feature films about WAM—possibly because they’re all rubbish, falling for every single deluded romantic cliché going (or long gone) about Artists (cf. Endeavour). I make an exception for the films of Ken Russell, redeemed by excess.
This flaw applies to films about sport too (Wimbledon, football…). What is it about culture that film-makers get so wrong—why can’t they just stick to the grimy underworld? Sure, career criminals doubtless watch cop dramas with similar disdain—“FFS, no-one’s cut an ear off like that since the 1960s”—but at least we also have conscious spoofs there. I guess people who work in offices felt like this about The office. Not to mention medical soaps…
In the first episode Marie-Sophie Ferdane approaches her role gamely as conductor Hélen Barizet struggling against sexists unreconstructed since about the 1950szzzzz while she pouts in heels. As Stuart Jeffries wrote, “Imagine a musician as brilliant and scary as Nadia Boulanger, but with a pearl-handled Beretta in her top drawer.”
Sure enough, her fit husband is a composer; naturally, she’s had a 1950 Erard grand put in her hotel room, As You Do; and inevitably, as he plays his latest composition for her (which by hallowed film decree must be in the retro style of Richard Clayderman), she straddles him at the piano. Of course she does. Just excuse me while I throw up. The only upside of her keeping him busy between the sheets and on top of the Erard is that he may never get to finish his piece (cf. Schubert). Oh no—she’s announced that she’s going to premiere it with the orchestra! Later, when he’s suffering from that good ol’ composer’s block, she inspires him to finish it—if she hasn’t committed other crimes, she should be locked up for this, at least. And YAY—there’s a family curse!
With the orchestra she’s a new broom sweeping clean, to the players’ outrage—OK, so far, so realistic, until the melodramatic script hams it up. But she wins them over rather quickly. At least she, like her enigmatic young protégée, really does play the violin, although they both have magic instruments that never need tuning up (cf. the muso’s old excuse “It was in tune when I bought it”). And why do all these films never synchronise the image of the conductor’s beat with the musical sound?
It’s not just her unfaithful cad of a husband—they’re all at it comme des lapins. And so we become voyeurs of this imagined posh, capricious, temperamental world.
The script offers every musical cliché in the book, with sexist clichés liberally thrown in. The gags come as thick and fast as in Airplane—only inadvertently. I couldn’t resist watching the whole series, a divertissement from weightier matters.
However, as the series wears on, I confess that I did find myself becoming more involved in the whodunnit of the drama—if you can leave the orchestral flapdoodle out of it, it’s quite involving, my quibbles just making an entertaining diversion. Rather like enjoying Titanic while blanking out the whole ship/sea scenario.
The blurb alone is hilarious (particular credit to the names!):
Abigail Rosen, nicknamed Appassionata, was the sexiest, most flamboyant violinist in classical music, but she was also the loneliest and the most exploited girl in the world. When a dramatic suicide attempt destroyed her violin career, she set her sights on the male-dominated heights of the conductor’s rostrum.
Given the chance to take over the Rutminster Symphony Orchestra, Abby is ecstatic, not realising the RSO is in hock up to its neck and is composed of the wildest bunch of musicians ever to blow a horn or caress a fiddle. Abby finds it increasingly difficult to control her undisciplined rabble and pretend she is not madly attracted to the fatally glamorous horn player, Viking O’Neill, who claims droit du seigneur over every pretty woman joining the orchestra. And then Rannaldini, arch-fiend and international maestro, rolls up with Machiavellian plans of his own to sabotage the RSO. Effervescent as champagne, Jilly Cooper’s novel brings back old favourites like Rupert and Taggie Campbell-Black, but also ends triumphantly with a rampageous orchestral tour of Spain and the high drama of an international piano competition.
Now that the initial frenzy over Normal peoplehas subsided a little, I must say that I’m overwhelmed by both Sally Rooney’s book and the TV series.
For all the general critical excitement, I’m perturbed to see that that many people, of all ages, don’t get it (e.g. here). Having already read the book, I found myself watching an episode and then going back to the relevant chapters; they complement each other (for the differences, see here). So FWIW, both film and book move me immeasurably.
Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell are astounding—as well as Sarah Greene playing Connell’s wonderful mum. The story is informed by a great playlist too, I might add.
Now, I’m not saying that Great Art is Universal!, but the Irish setting is finely observed, transcending time and place, like Romeo and Juliet… The S&M subplot (“Fifty shades of Sligo”) is precisely that—a subplot; Marianne may be damaged, but both she and Connell are vulnerable, fragile. It’s sobering to learn of Irish conservatives’ view that the “sex scenes” “promote fornication”—interviews with Daisy and Paul should dispel such medieval nonsense:
Tellingly described by Sally Rooney as “just another form of dialogue”, those scenes, with all their integrity (see e.g. here and here), are surely the most wonderful since the previously unmatched Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Don’t look now.
All this serves to underline the sheer intensity of Marianne and Connell’s bond as soulmates—their understated expressions and tiny phrases, as their relationship is constantly derailed by agonising misunderstandings. Now I can hardly bear to watch a single scene.
Every day of my life I think of her. When I go for a walk, when I feel pain, I think of how much more her pain was, I think of her in chains, I think of her being beaten. When I am cold I think of her, I think of her lying in her cell with hardly any clothes. She is with me every day.
—Inayat Vilayat Khan, 2003
To follow my posts on Les Parisiennes and the wartime SOE, a major character in Sarah Helm’s account of the latter is Noor Inayat Khan(1914–44). Both Vera Atkins and Sarah Helm were especially moved by her tragic wartime fate; here I’d also like to explore her earlier life in Paris as heir to a tradition of Indian Sufi music, and as harpist and author.
I’ve been reading
Shrabani Basu, Spy princess: the life of Noor Inayat Khan (2006) (cf. her brief article here),
which builds on the work of Sarah Helm and Noor’s friend Jean Overton Fuller, author of the first biography in 1952 (see below).
Early life Noor’s distinguished father Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927; see here, and wiki), descended from a noble Indian family, was a Sufi mystic and musician who came to the USA in 1910 and went on to found the International Sufi movement. Inayat Khan’s own grandfather Maula Bakhsh (1833–96) had sung at an eleven-day contest in Mysore in 1860. Like Bach and Coltrane, Inayat Khan practised music in the service of God.  Here’s a playlist, opening with a sequence of precious recordings from 1909 (for help getting to grips with their musical features, see listings here; for my series on raga, see here):
In 1912 he performed with “The Royal Musicians of Hindustan” in Paris, where oriental culture was much in vogue (cf. Berlioz, and chinoiserie); they accompanied Mata Hari, and he met figures like Lucien Guitry, Sarah Bernhardt, Auguste Rodin, Isadora Duncan, and Claude Debussy. Meanwhile Paris audiences were also hearing the premiere of Ravel‘s Daphnis and Chloe; and the following year, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. They didn’t know how lucky they were…
Amina Begum; right, with her daughter Noor.
Inayat Khan had met the American Ora Ray Baker (1892–1949) while he was on a lecture tour in California, and they married in London in 1913; she now took the name Amina Begum. Soon after, The Royal Musicians of Hindustan were invited for a residency in Moscow; Noor was born near the Kremlin  on 1st January 1914.
But as the Russian revolution loomed, the family soon emigrated to London. Life was hard, but Inayat Khan would play the vina and sing for Noor daily, though he was busy founding Sufi orders around England. Noor’s brother Vilayat (see below) was born in 1916, followed by Hidayat and Khair-un-Nissa. The house in Gordon square where the family moved in 1917 was always full of visiting Sufis.
However, with Anglo-Indian tensions high, the British government was suspicious of Inayat Khan, and in 1920, when Noor was 6, the family made their home in Paris, where she spent much of her childhood in the modest yet idyllic family home of Fazal Manzil (“House of Blessing”). The children grew up in an Indian atmosphere; Noor learned to sing raga with her father whenever he was home from setting up Sufi orders abroad. At home the children mostly spoke English, only gradually becoming fluent in French too. At school they were clearly different from the local pupils: Noor, mature and serious, retained her name, while her younger sister preferred to be known as Claire.
But in 1926 Inayat Khan, already seriously ill, embarked on a pilgrimage to India, and the following year, when Noor was only 13, he died there. As her distraught mother retreated from the world, Noor took over responsibility for running the household.
Noor playing vina, and harp—from this useful introduction.
Noor’s younger siblings were also WAM musicians: Vilayat played cello and piano, studying with Stravinsky, Hidayat the violin and piano, while Claire, also a pianist, studied with Nadia Boulanger like her sister.
From 1932 Noor also studied child psychology at the Sorbonne. She adopted a more European style of dress. In 1934 she visited Spain with Vilayat, meeting Pablo Casals; the following year they went to Italy, attending operas and concerts in Padua, Venice, and Milan—blissfully unaware of the people’s plight under Mussolini.
By now Noor was becoming known as an author of poetry and fiction for children, her magical style somewhat recalling that of L’enfant et les sortilèges. In 1939 she received an invitation to write Twenty Jakata tales, about the previous incarnations of the Buddha.
Upon the invasion of France in 1940 the family moved to London, with considerable difficulty. Despite their unworldly background, the family realized the necessity of combatting fascism; Vilayat joined the RAF and then the Royal Navy, working as a mine-sweeper, while Noor joined the WAAF, training as a nurse and then radio operator. She willingly reinvented herself: as her friend Jean Overton Fuller observed about her Sufi family background, “there was a lot to look up to, but a lot to get away from”.
For the past six years Noor had been in a relationship with a fellow-student at the École Normale de Musique, suffering from her family’s disapproval of his poor Turkish Jewish background. Only now that the war broke out did she separate with him. By 1943 she was engaged to a man in the War Office, who remains mysterious.
Meanwhile Noor and Vilayat were becoming sympathetic to the Indian Independence movement.
The SOE: occupied France As Sarah Helm comments, Noor was brought up in an “intensely spiritual way”, seeming “otherworldly” to Vera Atkins and others at the SOE. While she went through the intensive training, her instructors had misgivings about her “lack of ruse”, but they were impressed by her composure, diligence, and strength. She was now known as Nora Baker, and within the SOE as Madeleine.
Vera Atkins took her to the plane in June 1943. She was the first female radio operator to be flown into occupied France; but all four agents who flew that night were doomed. The resistance group to which Nora was attached was soon exposed, and in Paris she soon found herself alone and in great danger. Both Helm and Basu go to great lengths to unravel the networks of spies and double agents.
Responsible for her plight, the SOE tried to recall her, but she refused. She was already captured by October 1943 after being betrayed. While held at Avenue Foch, and later, she made several attempts to escape. At first she was thought to have been killed at the Natzweiler camp, but eventually witnesses came forward to prove that she had been held in Pforzheim prison for ten months, her feet and hands shackled, before being transferred to Dachau on 12th September 1944 and executed the next morning—even as the tide of the war was turning. Only 26 of over 200 captured agents of the two French sections of the SOE survived.
Though the family had known of Noor’s death for some time, the news of her real fate only reached them in 1948. Her mother was especially devastated, dying soon after. Vilayat had brought her back to Paris; Noor’s harp was restored to the family home of Fazal Manzil.
Posterity Noor was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre in 1946 and the George Cross in 1949.
In 1952 her friend Jean Overton Fuller published a biography, Noor-un-nisa Inayat Khan: Madeleine (the updated 2019 edition includes a retrospective by Vilayat Inayat Khan). Indeed, it was partly through her research that Vera Atkins began to lose control of the SOE narrative, as Sarah Helm explains. At first their relationship was affable; Vera approved of the book. But as Fuller began probing more deeply for her next book and revised her biography of Noor, she found that Vera had been editing her account.
In 1972 Hidayat premiered La monotonia in memory of his sister:
In 2012 a statue was unveiled to Noor in Gordon square—making her a neighbour of Gandhi in Tavistock square gardens. In 2014 she graced a Royal Mail stamp, and by 2020 a blue plaque was installed before her Bloomsbury home. She features in Cathy Newman’s 2018 book Bloody brilliant women.
Following early movies about Odette Sansom and Violette Szabo, Noor’s story (on the lines of “Exotic princess sacrifices her life for freedom”) now makes an irresistible subject for a film maker (see here); I await it with some trepidation.
Noor was particularly close to her remarkable brother Vilayat Inayat Khan (1916–2004; see here, and wiki), who followed in his father’s footsteps to become a leading Sufi mystic.
As reports continued to emerge after the war, he went to great lengths to uncover the truth about his sister’s end. Sarah Helm discussed this gradual process in detail in her second meeting with Vilayat at Fazal Manzil (A life in secrets, pp.417–24). Ever grieving for Noor, he recalls his earlier encounters with Vera Atkins: “I think she looked at me and saw the long beard and the clothes. I think she thought, ‘He used to be such a dashing naval officer and now look at him—a phoney guru.’ ” He found Vera cold-blooded.
How I wonder what would have become of Noor if she had survived the war. She might have continued developing her fiction, poetry, music, and Sufism; her brother Hidayat was convinced that she would have joined the cause for Indian Independence; perhaps, like Vera Brittain, she would have become involved in the international peace movement; and she hoped to have “lots of children”.
* * *
However thoroughly the SOE agents were trained before their missions into occupied France, they soon found themselves caught up in a nightmare. While Noor’s fate seems all the more distressing since she was spiritual, talented, and turned out to be most courageous, that’s not quite the point. While media attention is naturally drawn to the fate of such a “spiritual princess”, we should value all life, commemorating all the countless other innocent, ordinary victims, unable to display heroism, who also met terrible fates. As Timothy Snyder reminds us, terrible as the camps were, only a minority of victims died there: men, women, and children, brutally executed en masse in the Bloodlands by the Einsatzgruppen or the NKVD, remain largely uncommemorated.
Still, the story of Noor Inayat Khan is unbearably moving.
 Indeed, Coltrane’s fellow jazzman Yusef Lateef introduced him to Inayat Khan’s book The mysticism and sound ofmusic (first published in 1921). I knew nothing of Inayat Khan or his family when in 1978 a mystically-inclined fellow-violinist in the BBC Symphony Orchestra gave me a copy of the book—during the transition from Boulez to Rozhdestvensky; now I found the connection most satisfying. Indeed, had Noor survived, in 1978 she would still have been younger than I am now.
 Not quite in the Kremlin, or even in a monastery near the Kremlin, as you may read online!
Crime novels can make a revealing window onto society, evoking flavours of historical periods to reach audiences who don’t necessarily read academic non-fiction and memoirs. Both compelling and educative are thrillers based on the modern histories of countries like China and Germany that have endured extreme traumas—connecting ordinary crime with political crime.
Following Robert van Gulik‘s evocative Judge Dee series (set in the Tang), the Inspector Chen crime thrillers of Qiu Xiaolong, set around Shanghai, offer an insightful perspective on the corruption of modern China, with Inspector Chen (like Judge Dee, a poet) struggling to steer a path between morality and the imperatives of the Party (for discussions, see e.g. here).
These books often refer back to the injustices of Maoism, but I can’t seem to find much set in the period—surely there’s potential here, along the lines of Su Tong’s Petulia’s rouge tin.
Even more niche is James Church‘s Inspector 0series, set in the opaque society of North Korea. For Japan, while I admit to finding Hideo Yokoyama’s Six Four rather trying, I note merely that PRC publishers may have difficulty in rendering the title…
Nearer home, the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr are compelling (see perceptive reviews in the New Yorkerhere and here). Starting with his Berlin noir trilogy, many sequels cover both World War Two and the Cold War, complete with leads to real historical events (among the cast are Eichmann and Goebbels)—and lashings of historically authentic sexism.
In the compelling Prague fatale, where Bernie’s main antagonist is Reinhard Heydrich, the reader is led to an awareness of the horrors of the Eastern front (cf. Bloodlands), the Lidice reprisals and Ravensbrück. Sub-plots feature the “S-Bahn murderer” Paul Ogorzow and a Klimt portrait.
In the post-war era Bernie’s sleuthing takes him further afield to locations such as Havana; the plot of Greeks bearing gifts (2018), set in 1950s’ Greece, highlights the wartime deportation of the Jews of Salonika.
Moving on to the Cold War, in addition to John Le Carré and Martin Cruz Smith’s Arkady Renko books, moral dilemmas are again prominent in theStasi series of David Young, featuring GDR Volkspolizei detective Karin Müller—so far including Stasi child, Stasi wolf, A darker state, and Stasi 77 (for the GDR, see here and here).
Just as Inspector Chen finds himself set against the Party, Karin Müller has to struggle with the Stasi. And like the Bernie Gunther series, these novels set forth from little-known historical events, inviting us to explore the murky history of the period—such as the 1945 massacres of prisoners from the Mittelbau-Dora camp at Gardelegen and Estadt, the Jugendwerkhöfe, GDR experiments to “prevent” homosexuality, and the Stasi’s links to the Red Army Faction.
A worthy competitor with the various classy Scandi noirs that enrich Saturday nights on BBC4 is the French Spiral, whose seventh series has just started. If you’re new to it, it’s worth starting from the beginning—in which case, let’s talk again sometime next year.
The French title Engrenages doesn’t translate easily, referring to interlocking gears—by extension, an inescapable series of events, almost a vicious circle: “Enmeshed”, perhaps?
As with the Scandi noir series, the Grauniad recaps—and their BTL comments—are most enlightening. This led me to Alison Crutchley’s article on the language of the series, “Pute de merde de con! The linguistics of Spiral slang“—again to be read with important BTL comments. As you may imagine from A French letter (a drôleresumé of my Li Manshan film), my schoolboy French is utterly unable to keep up with such dialogue as it flies past; but the article makes fascinating reading.
Thus I learn of loan words like bagnole (from Occitan), “car” (also caisse); and clebs, “mutt”, from Arabic. And
Spiral’s cool kids use Verlan, a type of back slang. Karen calls her girl friends les meufs, Verlan for femmes; Zach texts keufs to his accomplice, to warn him of les flics (“police”).
What’s more, keuf (from keufli) has been re-verlaned, with further resonance, to feuk! And occurring along with the Chinese underworld theme of series 7 is noich (or noichi), for chinois.
Further topics (also continued in the BTL) include the minefield of using tu and vous (cf. Italian, and this splendid Chinese story); gender; and the subtleties of swearing (cf. French taunting), with arcane variants and combinations of pute, merde, and con. It’s amusant to learn that the French for fisting is lefist-fucking, although le fisting apparently serves too—either way, let’s consider it another English export in which we can take patriotic pride.
But just when we thought we were world leaders at punning, it turns out that French is exceptionally rich in puns too. Is riensacré?
Surely this is the way to inspire kids to learn foreign languages. Surely Quelle bande de branleurs! (“What a bunch of wankers!”) is more attractive and practical than La plume de ma tante. I did indeed relish languages at school, but for some reason the ones that I (like the board of the LA Phil) favoured were all dead (cf. Revolution and laowai). So now I regret that it took me so long to realize that languages could be not so much an elegant yet gratuitous abstraction, or a sadistic ordeal of irregular verbs, but rather, a pathway to understanding fascinating cultures and communicating with real living people (“Like, hello?”).
Conversely, in this case I’m relieved that I can enjoy the script’s linguistic niceties from the comfort of my sofa without having to negotiate them in the gritty milieu that the drama depicts—as has been aptly observed, it’s hardly a promo from the Paris Tourist Board. Spiral really puts the noir into noir.
My vignettes from Gaoluo, taken from my book Plucking the winds, have featured both performing members of the village’s amateur ritual association (Cai Fuxiang, He Qing, Cai An) and supporters like the venerable Shan Zhihe. The name of Shan Fuyi has already cropped up in several posts, but he deserves a separate account.
Shan Fuyi (right) with my trusty colleague Xue Yibing, 1996.
Shan Fuyi (b.1940) is considered the village’s xiucai talented scholar. Amateur historian, painter and calligrapher, he is widely admired for his intelligence and artistic bent. He was given the task of writing the village history in 1965, and in between making donors’ lists for the opera troupe and the ritual association he did artwork for the Mao Zedong Thought Propaganda Troupe. Latterly he became a trusted employee of Boss Heng, the village’s own nouveau-riche entrepreneur.
We had heard so much about him, but since he was based at Boss Heng’s workplace near Laishui county-town, we never coincided in the village—he seemed elusive, and we even joked that maybe he was a figment of our imaginations.
Finally in 1996 we sought him out in his work-unit. He affably sat us down and, without any preamble, launched into a detailed account of the village from its founding through to the 1990s, instinctively understanding our brief without any need for the long justifications which we sometimes have to give cadres or even ordinary villagers. Indeed, later we did indeed meet up back in the village. Our hopes were well rewarded, and we had many edifying sessions with him, learning from his wide-ranging and impartial knowledge; his detachment in observing the vicissitudes of the village’s history was of rare value.
He is the main source of my account of the village’s early history (Plucking the winds, chs.1–3); indeed, his work gave us valuable perspectives on the history of the whole area, not least the terminology of village names and the she parish network.
Shan Fuyi is not a ritual specialist, and regards himself as a “thorough atheist”, but he takes a keen yet dispassionate interest in all aspects of human behaviour. He’s never been the leading type; unlike most Chinese, who are long accustomed to public speaking, he is petrified of such occasions; with my own stammer, this further endears him to me. He seems to float above the village, observing with detachment and perception. He understood our mission implicitly. He is at once down-to-earth and transcendent. Unassuming, introverted, yet humorous, he never bothered with the empty platitudes of Party-speak. Still, recalling his experiences in the Cultural Revolution and since, he reckons “I keep right up with the way things are going”, a charmingly ambiguous comment; perhaps his very detachment has enabled him to ride all the storms.
Shan Fuyi’s early years Born in 1940 to a virtually illiterate father, Shan Fuyi attended private school in Zhuozhou county just north for half a year during the civil war when he was 7 sui. With quiet humour, he recalls:
Our texts were The Hundred Family Surnames and The Three Character Classic; when the 8th Route Army passed through we recited “Long live Chairman Mao”; when Nationalist troops passed through we recited “Long live Chairman Jiang” [Chiang Kaishek]; having not offended either of them, when they had both left we could get back to reciting “Zhao, Qian, Sun, Li” [The Hundred Family Surnames] again!
His godfather was Sun Xiang, a spirit medium and folk healer. In 1949 he entered 2nd grade at the village primary school. He recalled the village’s last rain procession that summer. From 1955 he attended the No.1 Secondary School in Laishui county-town, graduating from the junior department early in 1958. He then passed an exam to study surveying at technical college in distant Taiyuan, capital of Shanxi province to the west. In 1960 he began training at the Shanxi Machine Building Factory, but like many villagers, he was forced by the grave national economic hardships to return home to South Gaoluo in the autumn of 1961, cutting short a promising career. He now served as book-keeper for the brigade orchards.
Meanwhile the village ritual associations continued to adapt to the new regime. After the Great Leap Forward and the famine, the revival of the early 1960s (however short-lived) was significant for the transmission of traditional culture. Not only were the village’s ritual associations reinvigorated, with a substantial group of new recruits training, but the opera troupe also revamped their equipment (Plucking the winds, pp.143–5). Like the ritual associations, they too sought donations from all the village households, shown on Shan Fuyi’s donors’ list dated 2nd moon 1964. In 1996 the musicians took it out to show us: