Friday, May 23, 2008

1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Hilarious story by William Grimes in the New York Times today about 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (edited by Peter Boxall; Universe, 2006). After casting a skeptical eye over the list, Grimes picks three books he hasn't already read: Maria Edgeworth's Castle Rackrent, Uwe Timm's The Invention of Curried Sausage, and Henry Williamson's Tarka The Otter. He gives a thumbs-up to Edgeworth ("a rollicking satire about trashy English aristocrats") and Timm ("an offbeat quest novel....The issues are big, the prose brilliant [it was translated by Leila Vennewitz], the execution deft"), and thumbs-down to Williamson ("T. E. Lawrence loved it. I didn't").

Of course, any list of this kind is intended to provoke an argument, so here goes:

1001 Books (you can see the list for yourself here) is supposedly limited to novels and short stories, but that limitation is applied pretty haphazardly. No poetry means no Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Dante, Ariosto, or Milton, though somehow Ovid's Metamorphoses makes the list. No drama means that Shakespeare is excluded. No nonfiction means that Montaigne's out, though somehow Swift's "A Modest Proposal," Rousseau's Confessions, Thoreau's Walden, Primo Levi's If This Is A Man and Octavio Paz's Labyrinth of Solitude (all, of course, essential reading) are in. Boccaccio's Decameron, Lady Murasaki's Tale of Genji and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon are inexplicably omitted. Mark Twain is represented only by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, while Paul Auster--admittedly a worthy inclusion--has fully eight titles on the list (counting each novel in The New York Trilogy separately). Three of Angela Carter's books are on the list, but not my two favorites. Mikhail Bulgakov's masterpiece The Master and Margarita is on the list, but not his brilliant Heart of a Dog. None of Bohumil Hrabal's novels make the cut, while eight of Ian McEwan's do. There was apparently no room for Julio Cortázar, José Donoso, or Eduardo Galeano; Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, Osamu Dazai, and Kobo Abe are also absent. And despite the scolding imperative of the book's title, I will probably die without having read David Gemmell, Bret Easton Ellis or T. C. Boyle.

Anyway, I'm going to offer a much more modest selection of titles that didn't make onto the list of 1001. You don't have to read these books before you die, but if you do you may encounter some unexpected pleasures. In alphabetical order:

  • Felipe Alfau, Locos (Dalkey Archive, 1988). A series of interconnected short stories featuring the unruly denizens of Toledo's Cafe de los Locos: pimps, professional beggars, poets, runaway nuns, police. Trapped in the absurdities of their everyday lives, the characters rebel against their author, seize control of the narrative and start cropping up unexpectedly in each other's stories. Locos might be reminscent of Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds or Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveller, except that it was published before either of them.

  • John Berger, Pig Earth (Pantheon, 1979). Another novel in short stories, Berger's book is set in the peasant villages of southeastern France. The rural struggle for survival--the unceasing labor, the sudden violence, the always-present possibility of catastrophe, the unexpected moments of beauty--is unforgettably described in Berger's stark, poetic prose. If you find Pig Earth compelling you may also want to read its sequel, Once in Europa.

  • Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (translated by G. H. McWilliam; Penguin, 2003). Ten aristocrats, five men and five women, flee 14th-century Florence to escape the plague. To pass the time, each character tells one story every day for ten days. The hundred stories that result are by turns comic, moralizing, tragic, anti-clerical, and bawdy--but mostly bawdy.

  • Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop (Penguin, 1996). 15-year-old Melanie, suddenly orphaned, is sent to live in London with her mute aunt and creepy uncle. That uncle runs a toyshop filled with bizarre creations, and he begins to include Melanie in grotesque tableaux featuring his life-size puppets. Carter's modern-day gothic is decidedly dark, but lusciously written. If you like this, you may also want to read Carter's The Bloody Chamber.

  • Géza Csáth, Opium and other stories (edited by Marianna Birnbaum, translated by Jascha Kessler & Charlotte Rogers; Penguin, 1983). Csath was indeed a morphine addict (as a doctor, he had ready access to the drug), and his stories are often hallucinatory. But it's not just drugs that distort the perceptions of his characters. My favorite short story in this collection, "Saturday Evening," is told from the point of view of a child for whom Saturday nights offer pleasures and terrors that loom impossibly large.

  • José Donoso, The House In The Country (translated by David Pritchard & Suzanne Jill Levine; Vintage, 1984). A fever dream of a novel, in which the adolescents of the extended Ventura family revolt against their parents and engage in incest, homosexuality and gender play while around them their estate descends into chaos.

  • Eduardo Galeano, the Memory of Fire trilogy (translated by Cedric Belfrage; Pantheon, 1985-1988). 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; it's a book that should be read by everyone in the Western Hemisphere.
  • Bohumil Hrabal, I Served The King of England (translated by Paul Wilson; Vintage, 1989). A comic novel of Czechoslovakia's tragic history. Ditie, a busboy at the Golden Prague Hotel, first serves aristocrats, then Nazis, then Communists, all the while doing his amoral best to survive the dizzying reversals of fortune, both of himself and his nation. If you enjoy this, you may want to read Closely Watched Trains.

  • Alvaro Mutis, The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll (translated by Edith Grossman; New York Review Books, 2002). All seven Maqroll tales brought together in one volume. Maqroll is an adventurer, and the hopeless quests and impossible loves of this existential hero make for a series of ripping yarns.
  • Jan Potocki, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa (translated by Ian McLean; Penguin, 1996). A series of Arabian Nights-like stories within stories whose chief elements are the supernatural and the erotic. The recurring adventures of a soldier in 18th-century Spain travelling to his new post provide a frame for these fantastic tales, which are related by the Muslims, Jews, Gypsies, and outlaws he encounters.

  • Philippe Soupault, The Last Nights of Paris (translated by William Carlos Williams; Exact Change, 1992). One of the few Surrealist novels that is truly dreamlike, Last Nights follows the narrator's pursuit of a femme mystèrieuse through the nocturnal landscape of 1920s Paris.
I could go on, but perhaps I'll list some additional titles in a future post. Comments and alternative lists welcome.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Opera guide 2: Le Nozze di Figaro

Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786) is an opera I never grow tired of hearing. The opera is incredibly rich: musically, of course, because it's Mozart, and dramatically, thanks to librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and his source, Beaumarchais' play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or the Marriage of Figaro, first performance 1784).

La folle journée had created a scandal, in equal measure because of its subversive social and sexual politics. In the play and the opera, it's the wedding day of the servants Figaro and Susanna. Figaro has been taken into the Count Almaviva's service after the events of Le barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville, 1775), and Susanna is the Countess Rosina's chambermaid. However, the amorous Count is relentlessly attempting to maneuver (or bribe) Susanna into bed with him. So Figaro and Susanna make an alliance with the neglected Countess to try to thwart the Count's wayward desires. The idea of servants and women joining forces to frustrate an aristocratic male wasn't new--it's the basis of many of Molière's comedies. But there's more than a hint of cross-class lust between the Countess and the adolescent page Cherubino (which is even more eyebrow-raising because in both the play and the opera Cherubino is played by a woman), and the play was banned because of Figaro's inflammatory language attacking aristocratic privilege.

That language is toned down somewhat in the opera, but there's still a surprising amount of class antagonism on display. Not to mention that Figaro gets the better of his master several times (only, of course, with the help of Susanna and the Countess). At the same time, Figaro is shown as being a bit too clever for his own good, and all of his schemes come to nothing. It is Susanna and the Countess who are the moral and dramatic centers of the opera, and who demonstrate that trust and forgiveness are essential components of enduring love.

Le Nozze di Figaro contains some of the most brilliantly structured and truly funny scenes in opera. The second act in particular, in which the Count thinks he's trapped his wife's lover in her bedroom closet, swings from near-tragedy to farce and back again several times; whenever the dramatic tension is apparently relaxed it's unexpectedly tightened once again. The final act takes place at night in the garden, where Susanna has finally promised to meet the Count. The plan is for the Countess to take her place, but darkness and disguise create erotic chaos--as though the garden is a miniature Forest of Arden.

But no matter how witty and humane the libretto, it's Mozart's music which makes Le Nozze di Figaro in my estimation the greatest opera ever written. Mozart is able to perfectly express the characters of everyone from drunken gardeners to unctuous music masters to flirtatious servants to the infuriated Count. But it is in the music of erotic yearning that Le Nozze di Figaro achieves its greatest power: the Countess's "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono"; her duet with Susanna, "Canzonetta sull' aria," as they write a letter setting up the garden assignation with the Count; and Susanna's "Deh vieni" as she awaits her lover in the garden are all moments of transporting beauty, tinged (as love inevitably is) with sorrow.

Here's a clip of the incomparable Lucia Popp singing a meltingly sensuous "Deh vieni," courtesy of Muezzab:



A translation of the words: "At last comes the moment when, without reserve, I can rejoice in my lover's arms: timid scruples, leave my heart, and do not trouble my delight. Oh! I feel this place, the earth and the sky, are responding to love's fire; the night conceals my secret joy. Come, my love, do not delay: love's joy awaits you. The sky is dark and all is hushed. Here the brook murmurs; the breeze plays, whose sighs soothe my beating heart; the flowers smile and the grass is cool; everything invites us to love. Come my beloved, amid these sheltering trees, and I will crown you with roses."

The opera has been recorded many times, but the version conducted by Carlo Maria Giulini with Anna Moffo as Susanna, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf as the Countess, Guiseppe Taddei as Figaro, Eberhard Wächter as the Count and Fiorenza Cossotto as Cherubino remains unsurpassed. Every choice of tempo, dynamics and phrasing, every vocal performance (with exception, perhaps, of Cossotto's beautifully sung but rather womanly Cherubino), just seems perfectly right. The later Georg Solti-conducted set features an astounding cast, with Lucia Popp, Kiri Te Kanawa, Samuel Ramey, Thomas Allen and Frederica von Stade in the main roles (and in the smaller roles, unknowns such as Kurt Moll, Yvonne Kenny and Philip Langridge--talk about luxury casting!). My favorite recent recording is conducted by René Jacobs, with Patrizia Ciofi, Véronique Gens, Lorenzo Regazzo, Simon Keenlyside and Angelika Kirschlager. That recording offers excellent singing and Jacobs' vivid conducting of the virtuosic period-instrument orchestra Concerto Köln.

For such a theatrically foolproof opera with so many good recordings, it's a bit of a surprise that there's no fully satisfying version on DVD. Surveying the four I own (I'm open to suggestions for a fifth):

The 1972 Peter Hall-directed Glyndebourne version has a young Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess, the delightful Ileana Cotrubas as Susanna, a suave Benjamin Luxon as the Count and Frederica von Stade's famous Cherubino. However, Knut Skram is somewhat lacking in charisma as Figaro, the stage of the old Glyndebourne theater is too cramped to convincingly represent the Count's estate, and Hall has Susanna and the Countess actually switch dresses (not just cloaks) during the garden scene. When towards the end of the scene the Countess emerges after a few minutes in a pavilion having changed back into her own gown I find myself distracted by trying to figure out how, given the complexities of 18th-century women's dress, she would have accomplished it. Plus, having her return in her own clothes undermines the Count's recognition scene, when he realizes that the "Susanna" he'd been trying to seduce moments earlier was really the Countess. In short, Hall's changes simply make a mess of Beaumarchais', Da Ponte and Mozart's careful comic design. The audio, picture, and subtitle quality are also sub-par.

The usually reliable Jean-Pierre Ponnelle directed a film version in the mid-70s with Mirella Freni (Susanna), Kiri Te Kanawa (the Countess), Hermann Prey (Figaro), Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (the Count), and Maria Ewing (Cherubino), and he makes the class distinctions (and sexual attractions) among the denizens of the Count's estate especially apparent. But although in terms of her delghtfully ardent acting Maria Ewing is convincingly boyish, her voluptuous curves are anything but. Less pleasant distractions are provided by Fischer-Dieskau's unfortunate wig and the decision to stage some arias as inner monologue voice-overs. Still, this earthy version intrigued me when, at Cherubino's age, I saw it broadcast on PBS.

The 1991 Glyndebourne production conducted by Bernard Haitink has a charming Alison Hagley and a young Gerald Finley as Susanna and Figaro, with Renée Fleming and Andreas Schmidt as the Countess and Count, and Marie-Ange Todorovitch as Cherubino. While strikingly sung and generally well-staged, here the problem is the frankly cheap-looking sets and costumes, including some which manage to make the gorgeous Fleming look dowdy.

Finally, there's the René Jacobs version, featuring Rosemary Joshua as Susanna, Luca Pisaroni as an especially virile Figaro, Annette Dasch as a girlish Countess (in the play she's barely 21, but she's usually depicted as significantly older than that in the opera), Pietro Spagnoli as a violent, wife-abusing Count, and Angelika Kirschlager as Cherubino. Like Jacobs' CD version, it's thrillingly conducted and well-sung, but conceits which (I can attest) worked in the theatre, such as having sets consisting of 18th-century artwork, come across as too artificial on DVD--the drama remains somewhat remote. And the brutality of the Count is such that you wonder why the Countess wants to win back his attention--she's better off without it. Definitely not a first choice.

It seems that the maxim that opera has to be experienced live to be fully appreciated is especially true in the case of Le Nozze di Figaro. But until San Francisco Opera sees reason and agrees to put it on once a month, I'll have to be satisfied with Giulini's superb recording and my own imagination.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Om Shanti Om and Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa

In a previous post on Om Shanti Om (2007) I mentioned its homages to (and parodies of) films from the golden ages of both Bollywood and Hollywood. Something that only struck me on a second viewing, though, is how it makes reference to Shah Rukh's early career.

Of course, there's the connection to Karan Arjun (1995), which also features a reincarnation and revenge plot. And there are general resemblances between his characters Om and Om and Shah Rukh's own life. Like Om Prakash, Shah Rukh started out as a "junior artiste"--though unlike Om Prakash, he quickly moved into starring roles. And like Om Kapoor, he has become a superstar with myriad product endorsements--though unlike Om Kapoor, by all reports Shah Rukh is very professional, hard-working, and self-aware. In Anupama Chopra's King of Bollywood (2007), Shah Rukh is quoted as saying "I am just an employee of the Shah Rukh Khan myth."

But watching "Daastan-e-Om Shanti Om" ("This is the saga of Om Shanti Om") I realized that there was another early SRK film to which parallels were being drawn. (A word of warning if you haven't seen Om Shanti Om: both my description of the song and the video clip below give away some of the plot of the film.) "Daastan-e-Om Shanti Om" is an elaborately staged (and highly effective) number which reenacts the murder of the Bollywood star Shanti (Deepika Padukone) before an audience that includes her killer, the evil producer Mukesh (Arjun Rampal). It's inspired in part by "The Mousetrap," the play-within-the-play in Shakespeare's Hamlet which is staged to "catch the conscience of the king." (Note the slow descent of Shah Rukh from the ceiling, just as in the title song from Baadshah (1999)):


There was another story-song near the beginning of Shah Rukh's career: "Kaise Don" from the film Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Sometimes Yes, Sometimes No, 1993). In KHKN Shah Rukh plays Sunil, a musician who wants to be a member of the band which is headed by his romantic rival Chris (Deepak Tijori) and which features as lead singer the girl they both love, Aana (Suchitra Krishnamoorthi). Thanks to Sunil's underhanded machinations he gets rejected by Aana and kicked out of the band just before their big gig at a gangster's club, Chinatown.

Bands at Chinatown get pelted with glasses, bottles and plates if they displease the wiseguys who frequent the joint, and when Chris and Aana's band starts playing a sappy love song the table settings start flying. Then in the nick of time Sunil shows up uninvited, and after whispering the details of his new song to the band for a total of about 3 seconds they all launch into "Kaise Don" ("That's the story of how he became a Don"). The song tells about a "straight and lovable guy," unable to find a job, who turns to crime as a last resort. He claws his way to the top of the underworld, but in the process loses the girl he loves. The band, of course, performs this song they've never heard or rehearsed before with full costumes, sets, props, lighting, pyrotechnics, and complex group choreography (suddenly 20 dancers materialize to act out the story):



What makes me think that "Kaise Don" is a direct model for "Dastaan-e-Om Shanti Om," apart from the fact that they're both story-songs narrated by Shah Rukh, is that there are other parallels between the films. In both films, Shah Rukh's character isn't fully sympathetic. Om Kapoor is a pampered and narcissistic superstar; Sunil doesn't hesitate to lie to his friend Chris to gain a romantic advantage with Aana. And--spoiler alert!--both films feature romantic triangles in which SRK's character ultimately doesn't get the girl.

Anyway, it's one more example of the thought, care, and sheer cleverness its writer and director Farah Khan brought to the realization of Om Shanti Om.