Poetry of the Will

Film music should be subliminal, but in rare cases it rises above the film to a level that is distracting. Every time I’ve watched the part of The Shawshank Redemption underscored by Thomas Newman’s Brooks was here, I’ve leaned into the music and missed the scene. It is sublimely sad, simple and economical in the way that is typical of Newman’s music.

That isn’t to say I dislike the scene or the film, which teeters on that edge between hopelessness and hope. But the music is the greater thing. Thomas Newman is a mystical, almost metaphysical composer of film music.

I’m reading Balzac’s Le Père Goriot, A. J. Krailsheimer’s translation, distinguished by its lively dialogue and closeness to the original. It is a terribly sad and harrowing story. Newman’s score came to mind when I read, “The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable”. His music is all about emotion and mood, also Balzac’s supreme talent.

Much as I like Dickens, his characters are caricatures, for comic or pathetic effect. They convey mood but I never believe in their existence. Balzac’s characters live and breathe and have a life long beyond the completion of the story.

“Père Goriot was sublime. Eugène had never before had the chance of seeing him transfigured by the ardour of paternal love. The capacity of emotions to distil a kind of energy is quite remarkable. As soon as he begins to express a strong and genuine emotion the most brutish of men gives off a special fluid which alters his features, animates his gestures, modulates his voice. Often under the stress of passion the dullest human being attains the highest degree of eloquence in concepts, if not in actual words, and seems to move in a realm of luminous brightness. At the moment that old man’s voice and gestures communicated his feelings with all the intensity that marks out the great actor. But are not our finer feelings the poetry of the will?”

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice

Alicia Kopf’s Brother in Ice is subversive. At the beginning I went along with her story as I share Kopf’s evident fascination with the heady days of polar exploration, of nations racing to be first to reach an ever-moving target. I expected little more than a day or two’s immersion into a contemporary novel, of the kind I don’t read often~mostly because they offer nothing that I can’t find better developed in a novel that is tested by time=but what I found instead was an intricate study into how a modern human being constructs their idea of identity.

References to social media situate this contemporary novel but that isn’t what I mean by modernity. Children born in the late twentieth century may be brought up happily or unhappily, closer or more disconnected from their families, but the way they interpret and define themselves will be different from children in nineteenth century novels. What is clever and modern about Kopf’s novel is her feeling for how relationships with parents, the balance between selfishness and altruism that sets the tone for inter family dynamics, has shifted in secular, post-Freudian Europe.

If evidence of post-modernity can be discerned in the conflicts and compromises of family life, it is the degree to which modern human beings construct their identity from the terms of their private lives. The relationships in Kopf’s story, hopeful and tragic, are built from the substrate of exponentially increasing levels of narcissism and self-interest. In the end, Kopf’s family saga disguised as an account of a study of polar exploration, looks beyond the despair addressed at length by contemporary writers like Michel Houellebecq and offers the possibility that we can use language and, by extension, thought to see beyond our crisis of narcissism,

Winter Reading II

Perhaps Michelle mentioned Marie Chaix to me; something compelled me to order these three that seem in some way connected, but that is arguably true of any writer’s work. More Balzac, in this case rereading a favourite from childhood that I’ve not revisited since. Also another Morselli that from its description was irresistible.

These will see me through what is left of winter.

Winter Reading

An occasional springlike fragrance in the air buoys the soul, yet my reading still speaks of winter: a mixed clutch of writers, some new to me, others old favourites. The re-emergence of one of my favourite blogs inspired me to sample both  Morselli and Guilloux; Balzac, a long-time companion is also calling.

At the moment, I am reading Adrian Nathan West’s translation of Harmut Lange’s Positive Nihilism: My Confrontation with Heidegger. Its slim form belies its depth, perfect for a wintry evening.

Perfect for the season also is Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber’s Passacaglia. Its opening four notes perhaps refers to the traditional hymn to the Guardian Angel,

Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival

It is difficult to put aside The Enigma of Arrival. Its lack of linearity, its repetitions and uncertainties mirror all too familiarly bone-deep memories of melancholy. To inhabit The Enigma of Arrival is to immerse oneself almost too deeply into its narrator’s solipsism and sadness.

On the front cover of this Viking first edition, the book in hand is declared The Enigma of Arrival: A Novel, that subtitle a reminder that this is creation not memoir. I think there is nothing quite like this novel. It disturbs and enchants, or rather disenchants. After the conventional cover to cover reading, I reread Part 2, the narrator’s contextualising his arrival in Part 1 to a cottage in Wiltshire, then turned back to Part 1 and read it through again.

There is a famous racehorse, at one time kept in a paddock near the narrator’s cottage while awaiting death. Naipaul writes, “In a short time the horse ceased to be in the paddock. It had died. Like so many deaths here, in this small village, like so many big events, it seemed to happen off-stage.” Everything happens off-stage to this narrator, even the sister’s death that draws the novel to its conclusion. Naipaul seems more drawn to events peripheral to the major occurrences. In this way it seems not to be a novel at all; it eludes material that would be central to a novel. If not a novel, it is certainly something else.

This something else is what I’ve been reluctant to put down: “How sad it was to lose that sense of width and space.” But it feels almost indulgent, in that way one must force oneself to get out of bed on a melancholy day, for to remain is of far greater danger.

The Enigma of Arrival

The Enigma of the Arrival and the Afternoon (1912) – Giorgio de Chirico

“. . . in the foreground there are two figures, both muffled, one perhaps the person who has arrived, the other perhaps a native of the port. The scene is of desolation and mystery; it speaks of the mystery of arrival.” p.91-2

V. S. Naipaul’s novel The Enigma of Arrival refers to this painting by de Chirico, in which Naipaul outlines a story he wishes to write, based on the painting.

It is a personal meditation; a concentrated story about the sadness at the heart of love. Naipaul begins with a dedication: ‘In loving memory of my brother Shiva Naipaul 25 February 1945, Port of Spain 13 August 1985, London’. It is also a reflection on mortality. This is different from the other books I’ve read by Naipaul. In this book, Naipaul creates an intensely spiritual space in which a reader can be blissfully alone.

“He would walk past that muffled figure on the quayside. He would move from that silence and desolation, that blankness, to a gateway or door. He would enter there and be swallowed by the life and noise of a crowded city . . . Gradually there would come to him a feeling that he was getting nowhere, he would lose his sense of mission; he would begin to know only that he was lost. His feeling of adventure would give way to panic. He would want to escape, to get back to the quayside and his ship. But he wouldn’t know how . . . At the moment of crisis he would come upon a door, open it, and find himself back on the quayside of arrival. He has been saved; the world is as he remembered it. Only one thing is missing now. Above the cut-out walls and buildings there is no mast, no sail. The antique ship is gone. The traveller has lived out his life.” p. 91-2

Scepticism of Erudition (Fritz Mauthner)

A reference in George Steiner’s great essay Real Presences sent me in search of references to Fritz Mauthner’s influence on Samuel Beckett, and specifically Beckett’s development of scepticism about erudition.

Samuel Beckett’s student library in Watt is worthwhile and usefully points towards other possibly rewarding texts, especially the Linda Ben-Zvi article.

“Beckett came in contact with Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache during his second collaboration with Joyce. For a long time it was thought that Beckett had read passages from Mauthner out loud to Joyce, helping him with preparations for Finnegans Wake. In reality Beckett was asked by Joyce to read the volumes himself. Beckett ended up engaging even deeper with the Beiträge, as he extracted a number of entries and included them in the “Whoroscope” Notebook. The length of the verbatim notes suggests Beckett did not own a copy at the time. Later, Beckett did acquire a copy of the Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache. However, it can only have come into Beckett’s possession after 1954 when he wrote to the German translator Hans Naumann saying that he would have liked to re-read it after the collaboration with Joyce but that it was difficult to find a copy. Beckett preserved his heavily marked three-volume collection until the end of his life in his personal library.

The influence of Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache is one of the most relevant to Beckett Studies, equally important as Descartes or Geulincx. In her seminal article, Linda Ben-Zvi presents Mauthner’s stance on language in the Beiträge. According to his philosophy, language encompasses many meanings, including knowledge. By “systematically denying [the] basic efficacy” of language, Mauthner indirectly argues for the ultimate failure of knowledge. However, one cannot discuss the limitations of language by avoiding the medium of linguistic communication. To Ben-Zvi this is equivalent to “the possibility of using language to indict itself”.[My bolding].

A similar argument can be made to explain Beckett’s changing perspective on erudition. In his works, he resorts to knowledge in numerous ways, ranging from an encyclopaedic to a deliberately superficial use of allusions. After Murphy, Beckett revised his use of language as shown in the 1937 letter to Axel Kaun, as well as his relation to the knowledge he had acquired until then. Reading Mauthner at this point in his writing career coincided with his turn to not only linguistic scepticism, but also to a scepticism with regard to erudition. In Watt, Beckett’s resort to intertextuality is diminished substantially in comparison to the previous novels. More importantly, when present allusions are treated less explicitly. Beckett deals in this manner with the problematic question of erudition without excluding the use of external sources.

The theme of complexity from the TCD lectures returns in Watt, this time through the filter of Fritz Mauthner’s ideas and Beckett’s creative reworking. From Mauthner’s Beiträge zu einer Kritik der Sprache, Beckett extracted the idea that the inner world is unknowable because there is no language to express it, since language is a system created only for external experiences. Reading Mauthner must have appealed to Beckett due to a number of aspects discussed in the TCD lectures. More precisely, it resonated with his own interpretation of the mind in Racine’s plays, according to which the mind is a hermetic organ that cannot be accessed or explained.

Beckett’s connection with the treatment of the mind includes the presentation in chapter 6 in Murphy: instead of the true picture of the “apparatus”, the interest lies in “what it felt and pictured itself to be”. Watt in his turn applies the dualism between the inner and the outer world: “For Watt’s concern, deep as it appeared, was not after all with what the figure was, in reality, but with what the figure appeared to be, in reality. For since when were Watt’s concerns with what things were in reality?”. Complexity is in this way linked to the fragmentation of mind also in Watt, as it is in Racine.
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The Kreutzer Sonata

Leoš Janáček, of all composers, makes me wish for greater technical knowledge of musical form, as his music never fails to provoke surprise. His late music is against the grain of anything else happening at the time. One piece that I listen to often is The Kreutzer Sonata, based on Tolstoy’s novella of the same name. Tolstoy’s novella was in turn inspired by Beethoven’s violin sontata (Op. 47 “Kreutzer”), which is invoked in the third of the four movements of the Janáček, with an edgy canon between cello and violin.

In a letter to Kamila Stösslová (Faber and Faber’s Intimate Letters: Leoš Janáček to Kamila Stösslová relate one side of his unrequited and obsessive love. They are intense.), Janáček wrote, “I had in mind the pitiable woman who is maltreated, beaten, and murdered.” Composer and violinist, Josef Suk, wrote that Janáček intended the composition to be a protest against men’s despotic attitude toward women.

It is an uneasy but beautiful piece, always a pleasure to see performed live due to its complexity. I was fortunate to see a fine performance this week by the Julia Fisher Quartet.

The War Sonatas

Prokofiev’s letters to opera and theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold make clear the depth and enduring importance of their occasionally turbulent friendship. Their professional collaboration began in 1916 and lasted until Meyerhold’s disappearance in 1939. It was to emerge that Meyerhold was brutally tortured over a three-year period before signing a confession to being a follower of Leon Trotsky’s teachings, and executed by firing squad in 1940. Meyerhold’s wife, Zinaida Raykh, a close friend also of Prokofiev and his wife, Lina, was, a month after her husband’s arrest, tortured and stabbed to death in her Moscow flat.

Shortly after Meyerhold’s arrest and Zinaida Raykh’s murder, Prokofiev was requested to compose a homage to Stalin to celebrate his 60th birthday. That cantata, Zdravitsa, was performed to official acclaim at the end of the awful year.

This post is the second in which I’m sharing pieces that have shaped my love of music, if not quite a personal canon, then those proverbial Desert Island Discs perhaps.

Prokofiev’s deeper, darker response to those events of 1939 is, perhaps, embodied, not of course in the trite Hail to Stalin, but in the War Sonatas that followed, and particularly No. 7, which includes a musical allusion to the Schumann song, Wehmut: “I can sometimes sing if I were glad, yet secretly tears well and so free my heart. Nightingales . . . sing their song of longing from their dungeon’s depth . . . everyone delights, yet no one feels the pain, the deep sorrow in the songs”.

There are several fine, very different performances but, for me, no one quite ‘translates’ Prokofiev, especially this sonata, like Sviatoslav Richter.

A George Steiner Rabbit Hole

Saint Joseph Charpenter by Georges de La Tour (The Faber edition of Real Presences uses a detail from this painting as its cover)

Lost on none of the regular readers of this blog is my plummet headlong down a George Steiner rabbit hole, which may continue unabated until I’ve read all of his appreciable oeuvre. When outlining my reading intentions less than a month ago I warned of my fickle reading disposition. If you dislike Steiner’s work–he is a writer that attracts both passionate critics and acolytes–you may wish to ‘look away’ for a further few months.

Presently I am reading Real Presences in which he argues that “Where we read truly, where the experience is to be that of meaning, we do so as if the text (the piece of music, the work of art) incarnates a real presence of significant being”. The argument and Steiner’s wager of transcendence may prove unsuccessful but undoubtable is its force, virtuosity and autobiographical engagement.

The more I read of Steiner’s work the more I’m convinced that he is our age’s Montaigne or Dr. Johnson, not to be diminished by the term ‘critic’, which would suggest a purely parasitic relationship to literature and the arts, but a writer to which we can attribute ‘greatness’ as the most acutely sensitive reader of our age. Steiner often defends what he calls his “old” critical approach, “when the work of art invades our consciousness, something within us catches flame. What we do thereafter is to refine and make articulate the original leap of recognition”. This approach, abetted by Steiner’s astonishing polymathic erudition casts brilliant light on whatever the target of his attention.