From Bosch to Stańko

The labyrinthine crime novels of Michael Connelly are brilliant—set in L.A., packed with gritty procedural, historical, and psychological detail, with their protagonist Harry (short, indeed, for Hieronymus) Bosch.

A tangential delight permeating the series is Bosch’s fine taste in jazz. Continuing my trumpet theme, it was through Nine Dragons (a murky Triad case) that I learned of Tomasz Stańko, “the Polish Miles Davis”.

To remind us of the jazz scene under state socialism (see e.g. Pickham and Ritter, Jazz behind the Iron curtain), here are versions of First song from 1976:

And even a recording from 1970:

WOW… His ballads are great too:

Lives under the GDR

The experiences of Eastern European countries under “socialism”, not to mention the Soviet Union and China, were all very different.

From a comfortable distance, looking at the GDR can seem voyeuristic, some kind of Stasi porn. But perhaps it’s more like “What would we have done?”—as Neil MacGregor asks in Germany: memories of a nation, full of insights on successive eras.

I guess I’m also trying to atone for my lack of curiosity as a touring muso on early trips to the GDR. In 1979  I played Elektra with Welsh National Opera in East Berlin and Dresden. With John Eliot Gardiner, in 1985 we did Israel in Egypt in Halle, staying in Leipzig—apart from Michael Chance’s divine rendition of Thou shalt bring them in, my main memory is the whole orchestra and choir descending on Peters bookshop like locusts, to spend our over-generous Ostmark subsistence allowance (OK, unlike locusts) by buying up their entire stock of, ur, texts—sorry, I mean urtexts. In 1987 we did a memorable Matthew Passion in East Berlin.

My readings are also stimulated by my experience of China.

In Leipzig, I already mentioned the fine Forum of Contemporary History, and the Stasi Museum at the Runde Ecke is suitably disturbing. On the exceptional degree of surveillance under the Stasi, I can’t address the literature in German, but two books in English make useful introductions:

  • Anna Funder, Stasiland, a brilliant piece of writing,

and

Garton Ash notes how Stasi is chasing Hitler fast as “Germany’s best export product”:

Ironically, this worldwide identification of Germany with another version of evil is a result of democratic Germany’s own exemplary commitment to expose all the facts about its second twentieth-century dictatorship, not brushing anything under the carpet. (229)

In 1979, when many Western observers were downplaying or ignoring the Stasi, I felt impelled to insist: this is still a secret police state. Don’t forget the Stasi! In 2009, I want to say: yes, but East Germany was not only the Stasi. (230)

The opening up the Stasi records had enormous consequences:

You must imagine conversations like this talking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting-rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting. (105)

The file ponders the wider problems of writing about people’s lives, and memory:

I must explore not just a file but a life: the life of the person I was then. This, in case you were wondering, is not the same as “my life”. What we call “my life” is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. “My life” is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. (20)

He notes

the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! (37)

The very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts, like an archaeologist letting in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb. […] There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. (96)

Now the galling thing is to discover how much I have forgotten of my own life.
Even today, when I have this minute documentary record—the file, the diary, the letters—I can still only grope towards an imaginative reconstruction of that past me. For each individual self is built, like Renan’s nations, through this continuous remixing of memory and forgetting. But if I can’t even work out what I myself was like fifteen years ago, what chance have I of writing anyone else’s history? (221)

Indeed, my process of writing about people’s lives in China has made me unpack the blurred lines of my own story.

As Garton Ash comes face to face with the people who had informed on him, he experiences constant moral doubts.

As I leave I can see in her eyes that this will haunt her. Not, I think, because of the mere fact of collaboration—she was, after all, a communist in a communist state—but because working with the secret police, being down in the files as an informer, is low and mean. All this is such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world. And, of course, there will still be the lingering fear of exposure, if not through me then perhaps through someone else.

I now almost wish I had never confronted her. By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting? (129)

He notes the irony in the careers of West German academics:

Cultured, liberal men in their thirties or forties, they are scrupulous pathologists of history, trained on the corpses of the Gestapo and SS. Theirs, too, is a peculiarly German story: to spend the first half of your life professionally analyzing one German dictatorship, and the second half professionally analyzing the next, while all the time living in a peaceful, prosperous German democracy. (196)

West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgement, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. […]
Certainly this operation has not torn East German society apart in the way some feared it would. In an agony of despair at being exposed as a Stasi collaborator, one Professor Heinz Brandt reportedly smashed to pieces his unique collection of garden gnomes, including, we are told, the only known specimen of a female gnome. Somehow a perfect image for the end of East Germany. (199)

Two schools of old wisdom face each other across the valley of the files. On one side, there is the old wisdom of the Jewish tradition: to remember is the secret of redemption. And that of George Santayana, so often quoted in relation to Nazism: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, there is the profound insight of the historian Ernest Renan that every nation is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting. (200)

He recognizes the accident of birth:

I was just so lucky. Lucky in the country of my birth. Lucky in my privileged background, my parents, my education. Lucky in true friends like James and Werner. Lucky in my Juliet. Lucky in my choice of profession. Lucky, too, in my cause. For the Central European struggle against communism was a good cause. Born a few years earlier, and I might have been backing the Khmer Rouge against the Americans. Born in a poor family in Bad Kleinen, East Germany, and I might have been Lieutenant Wendt. […]
What you find here is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty than our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil. It’s true what people often say: we, who have never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally: who are we to forgive? “Do not forgive,” writes the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,
Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive
In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn.
These Stasi officers and informers had victims. Only their victims have the right to forgive. (223–4)

He notes people’s withdrawal into private lives:

Intelligent, well-educated, well-informed through watching Western television, they nonetheless devoted virtually all their energies to their private lives, and particularly to extending, decorating and maintaining their cottage on a small lake some half-an-hour’s drive from Berlin. […] My friend Andrea too, concentrated on private life, bringing up her small children in the charmed atmosphere of a run-down old villa on the very outskirts of Berlin. There were lazy afternoons in the garden, bicycle-rides, sailing and swimming in the lakes. (66)

The intersection of family and political history is well described in

a microcosm of modern Germany. I’m also most impressed by

—not least by the author’s amazing counter-cultural parents: compared to the lives of my own parents, theirs have been anything but drab. And then there’s

  • Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR: living in the shadow of the Wall
    .

To return to The file, Garton Ash observes the insidious use of language:

The process for which English has no word but German has two long ones: Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “Treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past. The second round of German past-beating, refined through the experience of the first round, after Hitler. (194)

Another distinctive mouthful with echoes of China is Parteiüberprüfungsgesprach, “a ‘scrutinizing conversation’, a kind of confession for loyal comrades” (Red Love, p.212).

And after my citation of an over-generous definition of the Chinese term dundian, in German not just words but definitions can be expansive too. Abschöpfung is

laboriously defined in the 1985 Stasi dictionary as “systematic conduct of conversations for the targeted exploitation of the knowledge, information and possibilities of other persons for gaining information”. The nearest English equivalent, I suppose, is “pumping”. (108)

Garton Ash goes on to ponder the surveillance system of his own country:

The domestic spies in a free country live in this professional paradox: they infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But we have another paradox: we support the system by questioning it. That’s where I stand. (220)

And

Thirty years ago, when I went to live in East Germany, I was sure that I was travelling from a free country to an unfree one. I wanted my East German friends to enjoy more of what we had. Now they do. In fact, East Germans today have their individual privacy better protected by the state than we do in Britain. Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken these things for granted. You value health most when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all. (232)

German fictional treatments of the period include

  • Christa Wolf, They divided the sky, and
  • Eugen Ruge, In times of fading light.

And then there are films like Barbara (2012)

and The lives of others, perceptively reviewed by Garton Ash.

Going back a little further, among innumerable portraits of ordinary German lives compromised, warped, under Nazism, I admire

  • Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin.

***

The nuance and detail of studies like those of Garton Ash contrast with Dikötter’s blunt and pitiless agenda in exposing the undeniable iniquities of the Maoist system.

While China and Germany were utterly different, parallels are explored by

  • Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan,

and by Ian Johnson.

But for China, archives, and even memory, remain hard to access. For the Maoist era, the literature on the famine is growing—note especially Wu Wenguang’s memory project. Among fictional treatments, few films are as verismo as The blue kite and To live, or (for the last throes of Maoism) the films of Jia Zhangke. Chinese novels too either tend towards magical realism or over-dramatizing.

Two Chinese–English novels

Two novels over half a century apart give a flavour of changing Chinese experiences in Britain.

Mr Ma and son
Lao She (1899–1966) wrote Mr Ma & Son: a sojourn in London in the 1920s— while he was a young lecturer at SOAS, indeed. At a time when Chinese in the West were represented by “yellow devil” stereotypes like Fu Manchu and Anna May Wong, he evokes the difficulties of mutual comprehension, and the gulf between Chinese workers in the East End and patriotic students trying to negotiate their place in the world—all still ongoing issues.

After leading the All-China Resistance Association of writers and artists during the Japanese occupation, Lao She enjoyed another sojourn in the USA until returning to China in 1949. He perhaps made a more inevitable recruit to the political cause after Liberation than Yang Yinliu, but all such intellectuals had to negotiate a tortuous path.

His Afterword (“How I wrote Mr Ma & Son”) is full of sophisticated and modest reflections on the encounter between of classical and vernacular style—all the more impressive in view of the later indignities inflicted by the simplistic prose style of Maoist ideology, not to mention his own brutal fate at the outset of the Cultural Revolution.

Sour sweet
Timothy Mo’s 1982 novel Sour sweet is a brilliant evocation of the insecurity of newly-arrived Cantonese immigrants to the UK in the 1960s. Concerned with a different set of questions to intellectuals like Lao She, they seek to survive with their little takeaway business. Little by little, ineluctably, the seemingly separate family worlds of innocent domesticity and Triad brutality clash in shockingly graphic violence.

It’s also very funny. Mo captures the language of new arrivals brilliantly. Like the notices they put up in the restaurant:

MANAGEMENT NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR COOK’S COOKING

TRESPASSER WOULD BE PROSECUTED

Once,

“Seeing that Mui and the lorry driver have brought a crate of Coca Cola: “Ah,” said Lily, “Whore Lock!” (or a close phonetic representation to that effect), identifying one of the products in question by its Cantonese name.

‘Eh?’ said the driver, considerably startled.

Lily smiled her charming (for westerners) smile. ‘You like Whore Lock all the time, too, hah! It’s the real thing!’ she quoted enthusiastically. Mui averted what might have turned into major embarrassment all around. ‘My sister not understand English too much,’ she explained. ‘you please excuse.’ ”

Reminiscent of my mentor Paul’s story is an exclamation that Mui hears from one of the truck drivers:

Far kin aid her!

for which she supplies a suitably Confucian interpretation:

May distant relatives come to her assistance. [1]

And Lily’s alarm when she learns of the Terror Pin at her young son Man Kee’s school:

“Lily was horrified but not basically surprised. Typical of the English: their discipline was either lax to the point of non-existence or ferocious—like beating Hong Kong factory workers senseless with truncheons and then giving them free medical treatment. The Terror Pin was kept in a glass box of its own. (Display of force often eliminated need for its exercise.) Occasionally, it was brought out when as an additional refinement of torture the children was actually allowed to handle it! She discovered it when she saw Man Kee taking some winter greens in his satchel, obviously as some kind of propitiatory offering, similar to the symbolic offering of lettuce (money) to the New Year dragon. Concerned, as what mother wouldn’t have been, Lily examined Son’s adorable arms for tell-tale puncture marks but hadn’t found any. Good boy.”

For some discussion, see here, and this weighty analysis of the book’s Confucian—and Daoist—themes is intriguing. The Daoist link also features here.

 

[1] Despite a thorough trawl, I haven’t retrieved the original quote, so this is my memory of it. Anyone?

Gems from the farm, or Crumbs of comfort

Still giggling at Stella’s resumé of The Flayed, I must just return to celebrating the original Cold comfort farm.

You might think it would be one of those books that could only be spoilt by being Made Flesh (or at least celluloid, or whatever they use these days, with their new-fangled ungodlike ways). But the 1995 TV film is highly regarded, and at a tender age, having recently read the book, I found the 1968 serialization most drôle—such as Alastair Sim as Amos, perfect:

“Ye know, doan’t ye, what it feels like when ye burn yer hand in takin’ a cake out of the oven or wi’a match when ye’re lightin’ one of they godless cigarettes? Ay. It stings wi’ a fearful pain, doan’t it? And ye run away to clap a bit o’ butter on it to take the pain away. Ah, but” (an impressive pause) “there’ll be no butter in hell!”

Then there’s the herd of Jersey cows—Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless; and Aunt Ada Doom’s regular use of the dilapidated Milk Producers’ Weekly Bulletin and Cowkeepers’ Guide to smite anyone within reach.

The book also exemplifies the clash of urban and rural cultures that is a major theme of anthropology, not least for China. The Li family Daoists sum it up brilliantly in their joke after the final credits of my film.

Flora takes on the project of Meriam the hired wench, in labour yet again:

And carefully, in cool phrases, Flora explained exactly to Meriam how to forestall the disastrous effect of too much sukebind and too many long summer evenings upon the female system.
Meriam listened, with eyes widening and widening.
“ ‘Tes wickedness! ‘Tes flying in the face of nature!” she burst out fearfully at last.
“Nonsense!” said Flora. “Nature is all very well in her place, but she must not be allowed to make things untidy.”

Meriam’s mother (wife of Agony Beetle, no less) has a plan for her daughter’s growing brood:

“Come another four years and I can begin makin’ use of them.”
“How?” asked Flora. […]
“Train the four of them up into one of them jazz-bands. […] So that’s why I’m bringing them up right, on plenty of milk, and seein’ they get to bed early. They’ll need all their strength if they ‘ave to sit up till the cows come ‘ome playing in them night-clubs.”

Lastly, statuesque sullen ravaged Judith:

I am a used husk… a rind… a skin.

Fragrant Flora’s own personal bible, The Higher common sense by the Abbé Fausse-Maigre, isn’t always up to the challenge posed by the Starkadders. (BTW, one wonders if the Abbé lived at 7 bis, rue du Nadir-aux-Pommes.)

Judith gives a classic rebuke to Flora’s gentle probing:

“By the way, I adore my bedroom, but do you think I could have the curtains washed? I believe they are red; and I should so like to make sure.”
Judith had sunk into a reverie.
“Curtains?” she asked, vacantly, lifting her magnificent head. “Child, child, it is many years since such trifles broke across the web of my solitude.”

Em creeps in with a pie

I noted that in Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949) Stella Gibbons predicted the whole Cultural Heritage claptrap. Again long before Jo Brand, she was no less prescient about the comic potential of the pie.

She sends up much of the avant-garde—including (sic) Benjamin Britten, whose Peter Grimes had been premiered in 1945. Here she gives a resumé of Bob Flatte’s new opera The Flayed:

For the benefit of readers who are not familiar with the work of Flatte it may be remarked that The Flayed is typical of his latest and most powerful manner, and deals with the tragedy of two types named Stan Brusk and Em Wallow, living in a Bedfordshire village. Em is Stan’s girl, but he loses her to Bert Scarr when the latter comes to work in the local tanning factory. Stan Brusk is a sadist who derives pleasure from tanning hides and has twice been publicly reproved by the foreman for gloating while at work. In a powerful recitative and aria Stan defies the foreman, describes the pleasures of tanning, and at last falls down exhausted under a vat.

A series of sinuous themes follows, intended to represent the smells from the vat winding over his unconscious body. In the dinner-hour Em creeps in with a pie, which she does not know has been poisoned by the fumes from the vat. Bert Scarr then enters. He and Em sing a duet, in which Bert confesses that he has always had a secret craving to be flayed like one of the hides in the factory and Em expresses her horror and scorn of him. At last she falls under the vat on top of Stan, who recovers consciousness and misunderstands her action. Em, Stan, and Bert are then overcome by fumes from the vat, and dream thy are in Hell.

The Weeping Skeleton’s song which follows has been said to refute, once and for all, the accusation that Flatte’s operas lack light relief. The song may not represent humour as it is generally understood, but to deny that the theme of four minor chords given out in glissando form by the first violin and repeated in fugue form by solo instruments one after the other until it ends abruptly on the drums is expressive of a rationalised and resigned humour (perhaps most akin to irony) is merely imperceptive.

Em recovers first and revives Bert with a piece of the pie. The foreman comes in accompanied by a chorus of Operatives and Tanners and accuses Bert of slacking. Bert, already poisoned, and driven by his neurosis, jumps into the vatful of skins and is suffocated. Em eats some pie and dies. Stan stabs the foreman with his penknife (a present from his mother on his seventh birthday, and symbolizing her neurotic hold over him) and the foreman dies. While Stan is singing the Flagellation Song and driving out the chorus of Operatives and Tanners with a whip, his mother, Widow Brusk, enters. After she has sung an aria in which she confesses that Stan is the illegitimate son of a taxidermist who seduced her in early youth, thus accounting for her son’s sadistic obsession, Stan symbolically attempts to skin her and they both become insane.  The opera then ends. It was to represent English music at the International Music Festival the following year.

Which is as good an excuse as I need to play this:

Stella is stellar

In my somewhat implausible online egg-and-spoon race, Miss Stella Gibbons remains neck-and-neck with Li Manshan and Myles.

I’ve finally got round to reading her little-trumpeted* sequel to Cold comfort farm, Conference at Cold comfort farm (1949).

(*Little Trumpeted could be one of her local rural names, like Howling and Mockuncle Hill. Bill Bryson is a clear heir to this niche fetish, with his predilection for [real] names like Seething, Wrangle, Nether Wallop, Thornton-le-Beans, Shellow Bowells, and so on.)

In Conference, written at a time when Britain was going through a revolution in the aftermath of devastating war, with social justice briefly in the air, and in certain circles also cultural innovation,  Flora revisits the farm some sixteen years after her earth-shattering initial stay, once again putting things to rights.

The book satirizes both the avant-garde and (some five decades in advance) all the Intangible Cultural Heritage flapdoodle—at a time, remember, when it was neither profitable nor popular (indeed, Stella’s mockery of pretence was akin to that of Myles). A few gems:

Hacke, with his sculptures Woman with Child and Woman with Wind.

And Messe: “Of course, I don’t put him within miles of Peccavi. I should put him somewhere between Pushe and Dashitoffski.”

There’s even a dodgy Oriental Sage.

Meanwhile, Reuben reports to the ever-sane Flora on the visit of a Mr Parker-Poke from Th’ Ministry :

“He—he did say as I were niver agricultoorally eddicated.”
“I am very sorry, Reuben.” Flora laid her hand upon her cousin’s for a moment. “No, you are not agriculturally educated; you only know how to make things grow.”

Shades of the Great Leap Forward?

***

Who ever supposed Stella was a one-trick pony (and I didn’t say “filly”)? Never seduced by the blathering blandishments of Bloomsbury, Not For Nothing has she been Dubbed [sorry—there’s another one for the Catechism of Cliché, or Molvania] the Jane Austen of the 20th century.

And now there are all her other novels, long neglected, for us to read too.

The Catechism of Orchestral Cliché

As threatened, here is my very own niche sequel to the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché—another penetrating piece of WAM ethnography, if I may say so.

On what descending act of flagellation will you see me?
The downbeat.
And not long afterwards, at what reduplicated den of refreshment?
The double bar (“Sounds like my kind of place”, nods Myles.)
On the reasonable assumption that the imbibing of a certain liquid refreshment will be de rigueur there, what is your only man?
A pint of Plain. (I don’t mind if I do.)
Where, you ask me, can I come and do a Messiah next Monday night?
In Scunthorpe.
And what is there not?
A fee.
But what will there be, pray?
A jolly good tea (scowls).
And upon what nocturnal occasion will it be all right?
On the night.
At what relative labial experience did the Maestro take that Scherzo?
Quite a lick.
And if I ask you, from what angular body-part does the Maestro not know his arse?
His elbow.
Finally, where is there a cheque?
In the post.

***

Meanwhile, for the classicist (manqué or otherwise), another (“real”) entry from the Catechism of Cliché:

Quando timeo Danaos?
Et dona ferentes.

The enticing Dona Ferentes, along with Timothy Danaos, also play a cameo role in At-swim-two-birds, where they are the two Greek lawyers at the trial of Dermot Trellis [any relation to Ivy?—Ed.] for authorial autocracy . Non-nationals?!