Sunday, April 19, 2015

In memory of Eduardo Galeano

In my post about 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I wrote that Eduardo Galeano's Memoria del Fuego trilogy (1982-86; translated as Memory of Fire by Cedric Belfrage, Pantheon, 1985-1988) is "a history of the Americas from before Columbus to the present day, told through a series of vignettes full of outrage, humor, and sadness. Galeano employs the skill of a historian, the techniques of a journalist, and the sensibility of a poet." In his later books Galeano continued use the medium of the miniature, the vignette, to illustrate large truths about historical and contemporary injustice, and also about the resilience, courage, and deep humanity of his subjects: the marginalized, the struggling, and those who, despite everything, remain hopeful.

Eduardo Galeano died on April 13, 2015. Exactly 24 years earlier, on April 13, 1991, I joined an audience of 500 others at a sold-out Victoria Theater in San Francisco's Mission District to hear Galeano read from what was then his latest book, El libro de los abrazos (1989; translated as The Book of Embraces by Cedric Belfrage with Mark Schafer, W. W. Norton, 1991). It was an extraordinary event; he was greeted like a hero by the majority Spanish-speaking audience. In reading from El libro de los abrazos, Galeano alternated Spanish and English, but read different passages in each language. Amazingly, even though my Spanish is very limited, I understood him no matter which language he was speaking—mainly because of Belfrage's faithful and fluent translation, which I had read before the event.

After the reading, Galeano signed books, but in a way that was unlike any other author I'd ever seen. Instead of sitting behind a table stacked with books like so much product, he stood by himself onstage. As each person approached him, he engaged them in conversation, often ending in an embrace, and only then would ask how they wanted their book inscribed. Several hundred people lined up to meet him. He had already greeted and spoken with probably 40 or 50 people before my turn came, and yet he did not seem fatigued. From my few moments with him, I remember primarily a sense of how attentively he listened and took in what I was saying, and how warmly he responded. The copy of The Book of Embraces I brought to that reading is one of the most treasured books in my library.
The Function of Art/1
Diego had never seen the sea. His father, Santiago Kovadloff, took him to discover it.
They went south.
The ocean lay beyond high sand dunes, waiting.
When the child and his father finally reached the dunes after much walking, the ocean exploded before their eyes.
And so immense was the sea and its sparkle that the child was struck dumb by the beauty of it.
And when he finally managed to speak, stuttering, he asked his father:
"Help me to see!"
The Book of Embraces, p. 17
Eduardo Galeano's beautiful, sad and inspiring works help us to see.

Postscript: I can't end this post without commenting on something included in Galeano's New York Times obituary. After mentioning his book Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina (1971; translated as Open Veins of Latin America by Cedric Belfrage, Monthly Review Press, 1973), the journalist Simon Romero writes, "But Mr. Galeano stunned many of his supporters on the left as well as his critics on the right when he disavowed the book, saying that it was poorly written and that his views of the human condition had grown more complex." This follows a previous New York Times article by Larry Rohmer, "Author Changes His Mind on ’70s Manifesto: Eduardo Galeano Disavows His Book ‘The Open Veins’"; the article also uses the word "renounce."

Open Veins of Latin America opens with a section entitled "Mankind's Poverty as a Consequence of the Wealth of the Land," and in its original version its final chapter was entitled "The Contemporary Structure of Plunder." In his introduction, Galeano wrote,
...our region still works as a menial. It continues to exist at the service of others' needs, as a source and reserve of oil and iron, of copper and meat, of fruit and coffee, the raw materials and foods destined for rich countries which profit more from consuming them than Latin America does from producing them...Latin America is the region of open veins.

For those who see history as a competition, Latin America's backwardness and poverty are merely the result of its failure. We lost; others won. But the winners happen to have won thanks to our losing: the history of Latin America's underdevelopment is, as someone has said, an integral part of the history of world capitalism's development. Our defeat was always implicit in the victory of others; our wealth has always generated our poverty by nourishing the prosperity of others—the empires and their native overseers. In the colonial and neocolonial alchemy, gold changes into scrap metal and food into poison.

Open Veins of Latin America, pp. 11-12
So talk of "disavowal" seems to imply that Galeano no longer held these views. But this is what Galeano actually said during a group interview at the 2nd Biennial of Books and Reading in Brasilia on April 11, 2014, as reported by Cynara Menezes:
"...after so many years, I don't feel as attached to that book as when I wrote it.  Time has passed, I started to try other things, to get closer to human reality in general and political economy in particular—for Open Veins tried to be a book of political economy though I didn't have necessary training.  I don't regret having written it, but I've gone beyond that stage. I wouldn't be able to read that book again—I would keel over.  For me, that prose of the traditional left is too heavy, and my body can't take it. I would have to be admitted to an emergency room.  The question would be: 'Got any open bed?'" Laughter.
It's clear that Galeano is distancing himself from the style of the book, and its abstraction: its focus on large-scale economic forces, rather than the individual stories which show the impact of those forces on "human reality" (not a generalized "human condition"). In a later e-mail exchange with Jorge Majfud, Galeano repudiated those who seized on his remarks as an indication that he had undergone a political conversion:
"The book, written ages ago, is still alive and kicking.  I am simply honest enough to admit that at this point in my life the old writing style seems rather stodgy, and that it's hard for me to recognize myself in it since I now prefer to be increasingly brief and untrammeled...The other voices that have been raised against me and against The Open Veins of Latin America are seriously ill with bad faith."
This exchange was posted in November 2014. For Simon Romero and his New York Times editors to repeat the distortion that Galeano disavowed Open Veins indeed shows bad faith, or worse.

The final words should be Galeano's:
On his deathbed, the man of the vineyards spoke into Marcela's ear. Before dying, he revealed his secret:
"The grape," he whispered, "is made of wine."
Marcela Pérez-Silva told me this, and I thought: if the grape is made of wine, then perhaps we are the words that tell us who we are.
The Book of Embraces, p. 18

Monday, April 13, 2015

Ten recordings you may not know—but should

This is not a list of the "best" or the "most essential" classical music recordings. There are already many of those lists available, and perhaps with a few exceptions the selections that follow probably don't appear on most of them. Instead, this is a list of 10 recordings that caught me by surprise in some way, and which have remained surprising, and deeply rewarding, each time I have encountered them since—in some cases, for more than two decades. If you don't already know these recordings, I hope they offer you a similar sense of discovery.

1. Guillaume Machaut: Messe de Notre Dame. Ensemble Organum, Marcel Pérès, director.

Ensemble Organum incorporates vocal embellishments from the Byzantine church into their renditions of Western medieval polyphony. Whether or not this approach is "authentic," its dark, mysterious quality suggests the awe with which our ancestors must have encountered the sacred. "Gloria," from the Notre Dame Mass:

2. Nicolas Gombert: Music from the Court of Charles V. Huelgas Ensemble, Paul Van Nevel, director.

Gombert's emphasis on low voices and dark timbres is hauntingly realized by the Huelgas Ensemble. In "Regina coeli," a hymn to the Virgin Mary, Gombert musically foregrounds her sorrow and pain:

3. Various composers: The voice of emotion. Montserrat Figueras; Hesperion XX/La Capella Reial de Catalunya, Jordi Savall, director.

As I wrote in my post on Montserrat Figueras on her untimely death in 2011, "Once heard, Montserrat Figueras' voice could never be forgotten. It was rich and dark-hued, and at the same time could suggest fragility and suppressed tears." Tomas Luis de Victoria, "Salve, Regina":

4. Handel: Opera duets. Sandrine Piau, Sara Mingardo; Concerto Italiano, Rinaldo Alessandrini, director.

The brightness of Sandrine Piau's soprano contrasts beautifully with Sara Mingardo's contralto in these lovely duets from Handel operas. Both Piau (Handel, Mozart) and Mingardo (Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Handel) also have wonderful solo aria recordings. "Caro, dolce, amico amplesso" from Poro, Re dell'Indie:

5. Mozart, Haydn, Gluck: Opera Arias. Anne Sofie von Otter, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock, director.

I first encountered Anne Sofie von Otter singing "He was despised" in Trevor Pinnock's recording of Handel's Messiah. I was to discover that she imbues everything she sings with similarly deep feeling, as in "Oh, del mio dolce ardor" from Gluck's opera Paride e Elena (the aria ends at 3:15, although the clip continues silently for another minute or so).

6. Haydn: Le sette ultime parole del nostro Redentore in croce, Quatuor Mosaïques.

The inwardness of Haydn's meditation on the last seven utterances of Christ on the cross is superbly matched by the introspective playing of the Quatuor Mosaïques. "Introduzione: Maestoso ed adagio" ends around 6:13, but you may find yourself unable to stop listening:

7. Richard Strauss: Vier Letzte Lieder. Gundula Janowitz; Berlin Philharmonic, Herbert von Karajan, conductor.

Strauss wrote these final songs as he faced death. Janowitz's pure, soaring soprano expresses the sense of serene acceptance that suffuses "Im Abendrot":

8. Reynaldo Hahn: La Belle Époque. Susan Graham; Roger Vignoles.

As I wrote in my earlier post on La Belle Epoque, "'Exquisite' is a word often applied to Hahn's music, perhaps derived from his delicate treatment of mood in 'L'heure exquise' (The exquisite moment); it's an adjective that can certainly be applied to the performances of Graham and her pianist Roger Vignoles on this recording." "À Cloris":

9. Federico Mompou: Música Callada. Herbert Henck.

As I wrote in my post on Música Callada, these pieces "create an atmosphere of stillness and inwardness." Mompou himself playing the first piece from Book 1, marked angelico:

10. Shostakovich, Quartet No. 15; Sofia Gubaidulina, Rejoice! Gidon Kremer, Daniel Phillips, Kim Kashkashian, Yo-Yo Ma.

Haydn's Seven Last Words consists of eight consecutive slow movements; Shostakovich's Quartet No. 15, one of his last works, is composed of six consecutive adagios. In the opening movement, "Elegie" (performed here by the Rubio Quartet), the sense of grief is palpable:

Monday, March 30, 2015

Amitabh's breakthrough: Zanjeer

Zanjeer (Chains, 1973) is not the kind of film my partner and I normally seek out, and a glance at the blood, guns, knives, and angry grimaces on the poster will tell you why. But Zanjeer holds such a significant place in Hindi cinema that we thought it was worth a look.

Ranjit (M. Rajan) is involved in the illicit trade in fake medicines. When he emerges from prison to discover that his daughter has died due to an injection of the very product he's been peddling, though, he decides that he wants out of the business. But Ranjit's bosses aren't willing to let him go—he knows too much about their operation—and they send a hit man to eliminate him. Ranjit's son Vijay witnesses the brutal murder of his parents by a man wearing a chain bracelet with a white horse symbol:

Orphaned, Vijay is taken in and raised by the upright Police Inspector Singh (Iftekhar). Twenty years later, Vijay has grown into Amitabh Bachchan, an honest cop in a world full of corruption and crime.

His battle against evil is a lonely and dangerous one. Once the local gang boss Teja (Ajit)—who not only distributes adulterated medicines, but also adulterated booze—discovers that Vijay isn't deceived by respectable appearances and can't be bought, he frames him to make it look as though he is taking a bribe. The honest and compassionate Vijay is sent to prison for corruption.

But this just makes Vijay more determined to bring down those who sent him there. Months later, when he is released, he resumes his crusade. Teja, angry that Vijay hasn't gotten the message, orders him to be savagely beaten and left for dead. But Teja and his gang come to regret that they didn't finish the job...

Vijay does have a few allies in his battle against Teja's vast criminal enterprise. There is De Silva (Om Prakash), whose sons died after being poisoned by Teja's "whiskey." De Silva seems like a harmless drunk, and so he is ignored by the gang. But since they don't pay him any attention he is able to see and hear all about the gang's plans, and he telephones Vijay with information about their next moves.

Mala (Jaya Bhaduri) is an itinerant knife-sharpener. She is a prime witness when one of the gang's liquor trucks speeds through a checkpoint and plows into a group of schoolkids. Reluctantly, Jaya agrees to identify the driver; murderously pursued by the gang, she seeks shelter with Vijay. He takes her to the home of his step-brother and wife for safekeeping. But as Vijay and Mala are thrown into each others' company, tender feelings begin to develop between them...

"Deewane hain" (We crazy ones) was composed by Kalyanji-Anandji, with lyrics by Gulshan Bawra, and sung by Mohmd. Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar.

Just remember that (to paraphrase Chekhov) if in the first act a knife is sharpened, in the third act it must wind up in someone's back—hurled there by Mala.

Vijay's other ally is Sher Khan (Pran). Sher Khan ran a gambling den that was broken up by Vijay. After the two have a brutal but honorable bare-knuckle fight that leaves them both dazed, they become fast friends. Sher Khan closes his establishment, becomes an honest auto mechanic and Vijay's two-fisted backup.

This is the first film that made us really notice Pran, who (both before Zanjeer and after) mainly played villains. We had seen him (without giving him special attention) in other classic films: Ram aur Shyam (1967), Bobby (1973), Don (1978). But Sher Khan is so memorable because he is such a delightful and strongly positive character: tough, fearless, and loyal, as he demonstrates in "Yaari Hai Imaan Mera" (Friendship is my honor, friends are my life; Pran's playback singer is Manna Dey):

With friends like these can Vijay's ultimate discovery of the identity of his parents' murderer, and his victory over Teja and his gang, ever be in doubt?

Zanjeer has a key place in Amitabh's career because he had not previously had a great deal of success as a leading man. It also has a key place in the career of the heroine, Jaya Bhaduri. At the time she was a more successful actor than he was; she had had several hits and had already won a Filmfare Award. It was something of a risk for her to appear with him, but (already in love with him, thanks to their work together on Bansi Birju the year before) she didn't hesitate. During the shooting of Zanjeer the couple reportedly decided to marry if the film was a hit. It was, and they married less than a month after its release. Ironically, the success of Zanjeer and the couple's subsequent marriage mark the beginning of the decline in Jaya's film career: a young wife and mother, she was soon displaced as a romantic heroine by other, unmarried actresses.

Zanjeer was also the first Salim Khan-Javed Akhtar scripted film in which Amitabh appeared. Salim-Javed went on to write the Amitabh-starring superhits Sholay (Flames, 1975), Deewar (Wall, 1975), Trishul (Trident, 1978), and Don (1978), among others. Although these Salim-Javed films are all very distinct, in each Amitabh plays a working-class man who is forced to respond—usually with violence— to the world's crushing injustice. The names of his characters? Vijay (Zanjeer), Jai (Sholay), Vijay (Deewar), Vijay (Trishul), and Vijay (Don).

Zanjeer is the film that made Amitabh Bachchan a superstar, and which defined the Angry Young Man role he would play for much of the next decade. And while it's impossible for us to watch this film without hindsight, it's clear that this kind of role became Amitabh's trademark because of his powerful charisma and fierce conviction—qualities that he continues to bring to his roles more than four decades later.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Money and sex: New Grub Street

Victorian novels have an entirely undeserved reputation for gentility; really, they are all about money and sex.

Think of Trollope's Palliser novels, in which (to take one of many examples) Phineas Finn must marry a wealthy, socially-connected woman in order to realize his political ambitions. Or Vanity Fair, in which Becky Sharp becomes the mistress of the Marquis of Steyne in exchange for the advancement of her husband's career. Or Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters, in which Squire Hamley is staunchly opposed to his son's marrying either of the daughters of his family doctor—an old friend but a social inferior. Daringly for its time, George Gissing's New Grub Street (1891), set in the literary world of London, takes the connection between money and sex as its explicit subject.

New Grub Street (1891)

Grubstreet, according to Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, was a lane in London "much inhabited by writers of small histories, dictionaries, and temporary poems"—literary work produced for hire. So "grubstreet" became a widely used synonym for hackwork. (Johnson, of course, was also recorded by Boswell as saying that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.") And by the late 19th century, a hundred years after Johnson's death, mass literacy had vastly expanded the market for literary labor.

New Grub Street follows the increasingly divergent fates of two characters who are toiling in the mines of literature. Jasper Milvain has an acute sense of what the marketplace values, and he uses that judgment to guide his conduct in every arena. His easy facility with words allows him to produce work that he knows will sell, curry favor in the right quarters, and make his reputation, and he cultivates professional and personal relationships that will be instrumental in helping him advance. The other main character, Edwin Reardon, writes from an inspiration which does not often come, acts on his (often misguidedly generous) impulses, and forms friendships based on intellectual affinity. Poor Edwin.

Both men take up with lovers who are temperamentally and morally unsuited to them. In a rash moment the shallow Milvain commits himself to marry the smart, sincere, and deeply-feeling Marian Yule. Reardon, temporarily riding high on a minor literary success, unwisely marries Marian's beautiful cousin, Amy Yule. Amy is attracted to Edwin because he seems to be a rising new author, but she's bitterly disappointed when he proves incapable of producing the kind of writing that will provide her with social and material success.

Milvain is quite explicit about the conscious alignment of his sexual and monetary interests. As he explains to his friend Whelpdale:
'I haven't much faith in marrying for love, as you know. What's more, I believe it's the very rarest thing for people to be in love with each other….As a rule, marriage is the result of a mild preference, encouraged by circumstances, and deliberately heightened into strong sexual feeling. You, of all men, know well enough that the same kind of feeling could be produced for almost any woman who wasn't repulsive…A preference of this kind can be heightened into emotion, if one chooses…[but] I am far more likely to marry some woman for whom I have no preference, but who can serve me materially.' (Chapter XXII)
While Milvain subordinates his sexual feelings to his calculations of material advantage, Reardon has allowed his sexual desire for Amy to lead him into a marriage whose incompatibility becomes increasingly stark as continued literary success proves ever more elusive. Reardon begins but then abandons several different novels, finally persevering, at Amy's urging and to his growing self-disgust, with a book that he knows is mediocre. Gissing is unsparing about the devastatingly corrosive effect that the lack of money can have on emotional attachment and sexual desire. As Reardon declares to his friend Biffen:
'I am quite free from sexual bias. I can see that Amy was not my fit intellectual companion, and all emotion at the thought of her has gone from me. The word "love" is a weariness to me...The best moments of life are those when we contemplate beauty in the purely artistic spirit...utterly remote from the temptations and harassings of sexual emotion. What we call love is mere turmoil. Who wouldn't release himself from it for ever, if the possibility offered?' (Chapter XVII)
For the character of Reardon, Gissing drew on his own experiences of poverty and literary struggle. Between late 1889 and late 1890 Gissing worked fitfully on at least seven projects, all of which turned out to be abortive. Finally, he had a breakthrough, and over nine weeks during the fall of 1890 wrote New Grub Street, which features agonizingly vivid descriptions of Reardon's inability to write. Ironically, it was by becoming a "chronicler of vulgarity, squalor and failure" (George Orwell's words) that Gissing finally achieved moderate success. He was then in his mid-thirties; he died in 1903, at the age of 46, after having suffered ill-health for most of the final decade of his life.

In its candidness about the connection between money and desire, New Grub Street was daring in its day; it remains compelling in ours.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Suggested reading: Jenny Diski and Oliver Sacks

The future flashed before my eyes in all its pre-ordained banality. Embarrassment, at first, to the exclusion of all other feelings. But embarrassment curled at the edges with a weariness, the sort that comes over you when you are set on a track by something outside your control, and which, although it is not your experience, is so known in all its cultural forms that you could unscrew the cap of the pen in your hand and jot down in the notebook on your lap every single thing that will happen and everything that will be felt for the foreseeable future. Including the surprises....I try but I can’t think of a single aspect of having cancer, start to finish, that isn’t an act in a pantomime in which my participation is guaranteed however I believe I choose to play each scene.

—Jenny Diski: "A diagnosis" (London Review of Books, 11 September 2014)

Jenny Diski is writing a series of articles in the LRB chronicling her experience of cancer, or, as she puts it in the first article in the series linked above, "another fucking cancer diary." Her articles have followed two threads: the first is about her disease—the medical system's depersonalizing and clinical (in both senses) treatment of cancer patients, together with the physical and emotional effects of her radiation therapy. The second thread is an extended reflection on her adolescence and young adulthood, when after a suicide attempt and her committal to a psychiatric hospital she was taken in by a woman she'd never met, a former classmate's mother: the writer Doris Lessing. Lessing, who died in 2013, fictionalized their relationship in two novels, Briefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) and Memoirs of a Survivor (1973).

Diski is writing "sidebars" to her LRB series on her blog, This and That Continued. The latest news is not good: she has radiation burns from her cancer treatments, and those treatments have also inflamed her pre-existing "mild pulmonary fibrosis," making breathing and movement difficult. And she fell recently and broke her wrist, which is causing her acute pain and making it difficult to type. She writes,
What started out as [a prognosis of] 2-3 years if I had the treatment is now an unknown quantity. I’m a miserablist, so it’s not surprising I’m feeling that death is rather imminent….So I’m not cheery or brave or serene at the moment….it hasn’t been a good week, and I’m fucking fed-up. And sorry for myself. What, should I keep a stiff upper lip?

"A sidebar: How's it going?" This and That Continued, 19 Feb 2015

The same day that Diski posted this sidebar on her blog, another announcement was made in an even more public forum:
A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.

—Oliver Sacks: "My own life: Oliver Sacks on learning he has terminal cancer," New York Times, 19 February 2015
Sacks goes on to anatomize his feelings on learning this news: a sense of serenity, of clarity, of focussing on the essential and detaching from daily cares and worries about the future. He writes,
This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.
Of course, Diski's and Sacks' disparate perspectives on their impending deaths reflect their basic dispositions. Diski is skeptical, critical (of the system in which she finds herself unwillingly embedded, and of herself), and pessimistic; Sacks is learned (the title of his piece is taken from the philosopher David Hume's brief autobiography, written when he discovered that he was dying), observant, and, if not optimistic about the ultimate outcome, at least positive in his approach (he repeatedly uses words such as "gratitude" and "privilege"). The prospect of imminent death seems to expose our truest self.

Nonetheless, I can't help noting that their circumstances are very different. Sacks is 81, an age when it seems natural to come to terms with your own mortality. Diski is in her sixties, more than two decades younger than the most common age of death for British women. Sacks reports being virtually pain-free, while Diski is experiencing unremitting pain and frightening spells where she struggles to breathe. I think in her situation I, too, would have difficulty maintaining equanimity and detachment.

This page includes links to Diski's entire series so far, some of which require a subscription to the LRB (well worth the cost, which is under $2 per issue). Sacks reports that he has completed an autobiography which will be published in the spring. Our sad knowledge is that there will come a time, all too soon, when their voices will fall silent.

Update 8 April 2015: Jenny Diski has published another installment in her series, "Like A Lullaby" (LRB, 9 April 2015). Her page on the LRB site states simply, "Jenny Diski still is."


For more posts on Jenny Diski, see:

The Sixties: Diski's personal history of a time of sweeping cultural, social and economic changes.

Making a Costume Drama Out of a Crisis: Downton Abbey, Upstairs, Downstairs, and other "Vicwardian" costume dramas.

For another post on Oliver Sacks, see:

Music As A Drug: Musicophilia: On "the overwhelming and at times helpless sensitivity of our brains to music."