Sunday, May 24, 2020

The Bach Motet: Jesu, meine Freude

A colleague sent me a new recording of a Bach motet. Aside from the anti-coronavirus masks worn by all the singers, as they stand and perform in a church in Prague for the Spring Festival, on May 18th this year; and aside from the quality of the singing of music, which had been unknown to me before; what struck me was the lyrics.

J.S.Bach - Motet: Jesu, meine Freude BWV 227 - Collegium 1704
[YouTube: Bachology,
May 22, 2020]

While Baroque-era Christianity had its fanatic aspects, and the wars of religion were terrible, I find hymns like the ones that were incorporated in the motet touching and sympathetic. They attempt to come to terms with the worst of humanity and the best of existence, all in one. To me they seem like an example of the massive efforts that men made in the 17th century, perhaps more than we do today.

Written by Johann Franck, the hymns in the motet were written in the middle of the 1600s. They are simple in construction: an aab ccb dee rhyme scheme, for example, mostly emphasized in trochees.

I tend to like the first two or three lines of each hymn best. For example, at the beginning of the motet:
Jesu, meine Freude,
Meines Herzens Weide,
The 'pasture of the heart' is tranquil and idyllic, insofar as it makes me think of a landscape painting with a grazing cow shaded by tall, old-growth trees. Why the thought of a cow should feel poetic, rather than reminiscent of milk and steak, I don't know.
Unter deinem Schirmen
Bin ich vor den Stürmen
Aller Feinde frei.
is also pleasant. (To translate roughly: 'Beneath your shelters, I am free of the storming of all foes.' The Bachology YouTube video presents a more elegant translation: "Beneath your protection/I am free from the attacks/of all my enemies.")

Friday, May 22, 2020

Letters of an Indian Judge to an English Gentlewoman

Apologies for any factual inaccuracies in my review. I don't know much of the history of India.

These letters first appeared in 1937. They are one side of a correspondence between a young Cambridge graduate who works in the civil service for the British government in India and then gradually rises in the ranks to become a judge, and the English wife of an army officer.

"Cambridge. Gonville and Caius College, Senate House and University Library"
ca. 1870-85
via Wikimedia Commons

Whether they are genuine is another question, and in any case they have a certain charm along the lines of Montesquieu's Persian Letters or Voltaire's Candide. Cambridge, it seems, is this book's El Dorado, in a tongue-in-cheek way. The writing is briefly kept but pithy, and it ranges from describing the personalities in a town when the British ruled Burma, to the street life of Paris during the later interwar years.

In the judge, Aravind Nehra's, view, even before Indian Independence — which looms over the whole book but never happens, as it occurred in 1947, ten years after the book came out —, 'the centre cannot hold,' and British administration is ineffective in India.

Local traditions like folk medicine persist, despite all that British educational systems and law and medical establishments can do, in the rendering of the judge. Also, the staff that are sent out from Britain to India are disenchanted with their roles and unwilling to 'civilize' further. (They no longer have that fervour to convert the heathen that is disconcerting to read fictionally in, for example, Jane Eyre. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing it's hard to tell, but likely from a historical perspective it's a good thing.) The administrators are more eager to make a living, because civil service appointments in India are well paid, than to administer wisely.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

May 2020 In Books: What We'll Be Reading Next

2020 in books: a literary calendar
Guardian, January 4, 2020

Festivals and Awards

In May, the Pulitzer Prizes have already been awarded to American writers and artists, despite the coronavirus.

- The prizes for journalism were given, for example, to a grim-sounding feature article, "Guantánamo's Darkest Secret," printed last April in the New Yorker by Ben Taub.
- Novelist Colson Whitehead won the Fiction prize for his tale, The Nickel Boys, of a Floridian reform school. It is based on a real-life school that was reported on ten or so years ago for its unbelievable abuses, from torture to murder, of the teenagers who attended it.
- The Biography jurors awarded their accolade to Benjamin Moser's Sontag, about the New Yorker intellectual, writer, and critic Susan Sontag.

*

The Hay Festival, the British books institution, will be taking place later in the month, from May 22nd to May 30th. But its events will be posted as online videos; the Festival offers:
Free live broadcasts and interactive Q+As from over 100 of the world's greatest writers and thinkers share their insights and interrogate some of the biggest issues of our time, from Covid-19 and world health to the climate crisis and our future.
The programme schedule is due to be published on May 6th, too late to be included in this blog post.

*

"Linde von Linn" (Switzerland)
Photograph by S. Wernli, June 2006
via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5 License

Lastly, the International Booker Prize was to be announced on May 19th, but it has been postponed indefinitely. In the meantime, the shortlist is here:


  • The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree A writer in Farsi who lives in Australia, Shokoofeh Azar writes about an Iranian family that is forced to flee Tehran for the countryside, after the Iranian Revolution.
  • The Adventures of China Iron Gabriela Cabezón Cámara writes a novel set in her home country Argentina in the 19th century, as a woman flees her household in the company of a Scottish settler and interprets the colonialized and nationalized world around her.
  • Tyll Eulenspiegel The famous German trickster figure, Till Eulenspiegel, runs amok in the tormented country during the  Thirty Years' War, in Daniel Kehlmann's narration.
  • Hurricane Season Written by a thirty-something Mexican journalist and author, Fernanda Melchor, Hurricane Season takes place in the fictional Mexican countryside, where a 'witch' is found drowned in a river. The book tracks down why she was killed.
  • The Memory Police A dystopian tale by Yoko Ogawa, it is set on an island where things that disappear from sight are supposed to be forgotten, and those who do not forget are persecuted by the authorities.
  • The Discomfort of Evening Written by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a Dutch writer, this novel depicts a rural family that is befallen by gloom when the girl protagonist wishes that her brother won't return from an outing, and her wish is granted.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

April 2020 in Books: What I've Been Reading - Zora Neale Hurston's Eyes

Afterward I celebrated the end, because Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston feels to me like a dour book whose ending one is uncertain of. That said, the author framed the events of the book in a narration by the heroine, Janie Crawford, herself; Janie has returned after a long absence to find her friend Phoeby and let her know everything that has happened, which implies that at least she has survived.

The book begins in the southeastern United States maybe at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. (The final events of the book happen around 1928, one might say on the eve of the Great Depression.) Janie is born into poverty, raised by a grandmother who wants her granddaughter to live in genteel circumstances, substituting her granddaughter's dreams for her own. She is more or less sold off to an older man whom she does not love, a marriage that kills her youthful dreams and illusions. He wants to assert his control over her, since he cannot command her respect or love, so his character is a little pitiable; but I think it's clear that the marriage in itself was an act of abuse too.

***At this point I will put a Spoiler Alert, since I will be detailing pretty much the rest of the plot:***

Then the first husband dies, and she marries an ambitious man who exudes prosperity and optimism. As he works his way up to the mayoralty of a town, and she becomes more and more well-dressed, respected and prominent in the community, she becomes increasingly miserable. Her husband demands that she fulfill roles that will boost his social and economic standing, even though she hates them. And he is too jealous of attention to want her to receive any. He is, I think we'd definitely say nowadays, emotionally abusive. Yet again she is shut in. Then he, too dies.

A wayward spirit, Tea Cake, is one of the cloud of aspirants to Janie's hand after the fancy funeral. Tea Cake is a younger man than Janie, and Janie's neighbours and at first even Janie herself aren't sure if he is a gold-digger, a bit of a charlatan, and a skirt-chaser, or just a genuinely disinterested man who deeply loves Janie. Whatever he may be, he revives the inner girl and the dreams in Janie. Not without fear, she finally decides that this revivification outweighs her doubts, and runs away with him to escape the yoke of her neighbours' judgment and try to earn their bread, however precariously, together.

Janie is not a passive, saintly figure; she hates her earlier husbands pretty thoroughly, keeping a sense of what is owed to her as a human being.

Moreover, I do think that there's a hard Darwinistic touch about the times that are described in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Men had to live by their bodily labour, though sometimes women worked alongside them as for example in the bean fields of Florida that are mentioned in the book; and as such it seemed likelier that women — socially, financially and legally subjugated though they were, and clear though the author makes it that spousal abuse was expected — might outlive and outlast them. There's something about the horrible waiting-for-a-spouse-to-die scheme of respectably waiting for social and romantic independence that is quite reminiscent of the rural English world of George Eliot, for example.

"Farm, farm workers, Mt. Williamson in background, Manzanar Relocation Center, California." (1943)
by Ansel Adams (1902-84)
via Wikimedia Commons

Their Eyes Were Watching God is, I think, a labour of love on the part of the author. The dialect, the characters, the occupations, the worries and jokes and fears of the characters, are probably all the fruits of her anthropological observations. While her writing was spectacularly good, I don't know if it was as polished as it might be. For example, as with Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings's The Yearling, it can be hard to weave a major natural disaster into a novel without making it seem like a melodramatic deus ex machina — even though that natural disaster was a real historic event and the role of racism in the aftermath is also described importantly in this book.

I liked the book in a way, but as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, it is so grim it isn't something I'm likely to read during a pandemic again.

(Apologies if I've misremembered details; I started reading Their Eyes Were Watching God last year and so they're hazy again.)

April 2020 in Books: What I've Been Reading - An Anne of Green Gables Sequel

At the beginning of the coronavirus quarantine, I reread Anne of the Island, which is the third of the books in the Anne of Green Gables series. While Anne of Green Gables describes the advent to a farm on Prince Edward Island, in eastern Canada, of a young orphan girl with a vivid imagination and a precocious vocabulary, Anne of Avonlea follows amongst other things her training as a teacher after she graduates from school. Then, Anne of the Island describes her time at Redmond College, at a university town in Nova Scotia (if I remember correctly), publishing her writing, substitute-teaching at a village school, and navigating romance.

By Anne of the Island, Anne is mainstream and poised. She also seems rather mean from time to time, as she giggles over classmates whom she finds unsightly or ridiculous. But the author gives Ruby Gillis, a childhood classmate who falls ill in one of the many sicknesses that were rampant before the onset of proper health insurance in the mid-20th century, a rather soulful treatment. Pictured as a man-obsessed flirt earlier, she is handled with dignity in the end. But when I read this passage, which captures Anne's reflections about Ruby and about what constitutes a well-lived life, I do think the author might have been more consistent in her moral tone if she was going to set the threshold so high:
 It must not be with her as with poor butterfly Ruby. When she came to the end of one life it must not be to face the next with the shrinking terror of something wholly different -- something for which accustomed thought and ideal and aspiration had unfitted her. The little things of life, sweet and excellent in their place, must not be the things lived for; the highest must be sought and followed; the life of heaven must be begun here on earth.
Anyway, although the book is a 'pearl on a string' of the Anne of Green Gables series, rather than its own fleshed-out work with world-building, it has the spectrum of familiar Lucy Maud Montgomery touches.

The Green Gables farmhouse, c. 2006
A farm which Lucy Maud Montgomery's cousins owned.
via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.5 license


For one thing, she has a lot of local colour, secondly characters, and parochial pride. We read the exploits of adults whom Anne meets, as well as the exploits of the twins whom Anne's adoptive parent Marilla is taking care of. Regarding adults, there are in my view touches of disquieting condescension; Anne and her creator are both better-educated and those were class-conscious times.

For another thing, the vocabulary is expansive and Montgomery interweaves literary, but also biblical, references and phrases into her work. The biblical phrases help capture the way in which the Church towered over eastern Canadian society of her time, as most people attended church regularly, social functions and culture were also organized around it heavily, and the King James Bible and other versions were texts that people thought about and wrestled with on a daily basis. But Montgomery's turns of phrase are also generally memorable, and she has a poet's attunement to them.

Thirdly, the descriptions, e.g.:

"they rambled through the park on one of April's darling days of breeze and blue, when the harbour was creaming and shimmering beneath the pearl-hued mists floating over it."

*
Quotations from:
Anne of the Island, by L.M. Montgomery (L.C. Page + Company, 1968)
Anne of the Island on the website of Carnegie Mellon University (Chapter IV: The Summons)

Sunday, March 15, 2020

March 2020 In Books: What We'll Be Reading Next

The Mirror and the Light has not yet landed in the family bookshelves, but it is certain that this epic third part of Hilary Mantel's generally epic trilogy about Thomas Cromwell will appear there sooner or later after it was published last week.

***

I've read Stephen Moss's book, Mrs Moreau's Warbler, lately. Published in 2018, it weaves his personal experiences of bird-watching as a child and as an adult, with a general-knowledge work about the history of bird names.

A few bird names in Britain, like 'swan,' reached the island after past invasions of Vikings and Picts and Angles. One name, 'goose,' reaches longer back and further geographically, into the Indo-European realm.

Folk names became common in Britain, and sometimes their etymology takes a while to disentangle, like 'redstart.'

In the 17th century, 'scientific' names in Latin began to appear. In the 18th century, these names were standardized by Linnaeus and others. Then, and later, a few standardizations or 'fixes' took hold; others didn't. Also, 'bird' no longer meant a small creature, e.g. what we'd now call a 'baby bird'; it replaced the word 'fowl' as what we understand now to be a 'bird.'

Then, in the 19th century, scientists gave names to the birds whom they (')discovered(') in honour of fellow scientists — it was felt to be infra dignitas to name a bird after one's self — or family members like Mrs. Moreau.

In the 20th century, killing birds and stuffing them as specimens went out of fashion. Now, birdwatchers rely on binoculars and on birdsong instead of rifle scopes, but it took a long while to get there.

Moss writes modestly and the trivia seem weighty enough.

But I wish Moss had written more about Australian aborigines', Native American and other peoples' understanding of birds. He knows it is there but does not or cannot provide many details. He also does not reflect how bad British and other European colonialization often was, either, or at least not sharply enough to suit me.

For example, when he speaks of English as a useful lingua franca, I think of children in Canada who were kidnapped from their First Nations families by the government and raised as 'good Christians' speaking only English. They were punished if they did speak the languages they had spoken from birth.

Besides, I think that colonialization or European adventurers are responsible for a few bird extinctions — the dodo, the great auk and the passenger pigeon.

There's William Blake's weird phrase, "Where man is not, nature is barren." In modern times, it must surely be inverted: "Where man is, nature is barren." Nature, human and otherwise, often thrives better when we are not there, eager to 'appreciate' it.

***

In between I read lighter fare: a German celebrity journalist's recounting of the early years of Riccardo Muti as a conductor, from lesser-known Italian figure to an internationally renowned conductor at the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, concerts at the Salzburg Festival, and finally La Scala.

Her insistence on comparing Muti to other great conductors like Herbert Karajan and Arturo Toscanini, to his face, was one example of sycophancy that made me wince.

Besides, she often repeated that Muti's love of having pasta regularly is a sign of how much he loves his southern Italian roots, for example, but I often failed to find any great or original insight in her observations. (My mother also likes having pasta regularly, and she's a lifelong German citizen.) She tamely echoed Muti's own self-analysis.

And she was profusely grateful that Muti didn't turn into a grandiose mini-giant who 'forgot' he'd ever met her the moment he was named to La Scala. To me, that underlines the theory that she was keeping the wrong company and that her standards are too low. To her, it was positive proof of how uncomplicated and grounded he (in her eyes) was.

I think she was shrewd about her journalist's industry and his music industry, however. And I had the feeling that she embarrassed herself and the sisterhood for pragmatic reasons, when she insisted on how dreamy women found Muti. (Who was very much married, with three children; so the journalist had to toe a careful line, which she did.) She knew the 'angle' that her editors wanted her to use to lure in readers.

I kind of, figuratively, laugh-cried at her journalist's lifestyle back in the 1980s and 90s ... luxury hotels, prime seats at the opera, travel from Germany to Italy with a photographer, conversations with Brooke Shields and Jim Jarmusch in New York ... Times have changed, I imagine. These accommodations and tickets would likely be paid for by an agent or promoter, and belong to a quid pro quo!

In the end I warmed to the book.

But the author's attempts to diplomatically avoid saying in her postscript that the book ends here because classical music celebrities are passé in the eyes of magazine editors so she never interviewed the man again, are still a bit disastrous. I've also found that sometimes when I try to be really weaselly and clever about something, I'm dreadfully transparent... it might be less insulting to everyone's intelligence to just drop it.

I won't mention the author's name, after admittedly maligning her, because I've likely done her an injustice.

***

Now I am reading The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane. Macfarlane spans a far broader arc than Moss, and I think manages to bind the scale of 19th century fiction to nature writing in the modern world. He pays homage to Henry David Thoreau but has his own writing style and distinct subject matter. In brief, 'I understand the hype.' But I don't feel competent to review the book without reading a lot more of it.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

February 2020 in Books: What (I'll) Be Reading Next

While reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Steve Jobs went swimmingly despite its length and I'm currently just browsing the index at the end of the book as well as any other back matter, I am struggling with Solito, Solita and Their Eyes Were Watching God. They are not cheerful and lately I've needed a pick-me-up after not disagreeable but long hours at work.

Wrestling with the Devil: A Prison Memoir by Ngugi wa Thiong'o I'd like to read later, as well as Hidden Figures, which describes the role of African American women in the Space Age. I think that Wrestling with the Devil is on my list after watching a review of literature from the African continent from 'books by leynes.' She is a fellow Berliner who reviews books and talks about learning Russian and travelling during semester breaks and other things, in the self-possessed way of a typical opinionated young German, on YouTube.

In the 'BookTube' genre of YouTube users who make videos about literature, I am still trying to find more commentators whose style I like.

So far I also enjoy Lucythereader's videos — she is likely in her early twenties at most, obsessed with Victorian literature from Britain and the US as well as some Edwardian. And I like Booksandquills, by a young woman who used to work for Penguin, studied translation with a focus on Young Adult literature, and now freelances as a Dutch expatriate in the UK.

I have been reading more physics in Teilchendetektoren, more poems from Cavafy (who has mercifully left his peak phase of erotic poetry about younger men and is now foreshadowing the Turco-Greek upheaval of the early 1920s in Anatolia), and the rest of Racine's 17th-century play Bajazet.

***
Bajazet borrows its plot from real political assassinations in 17th-century Turkish history, as retold to Racine by French diplomats and filtered through Racine's own artistic impulses. The sultan Amurat (Murad IV), from the battlefield at Baghdad, sends orders that his brother be murdered. (There is also another brother, Orhan, who has been dropped from Racine's narrative as far as I recall.)
"Sultan Murat IV dining with his court.
A golden cup,
a tablet with fresh flowers and fresh fruits
and porcelain plates are in front of him.
Ottoman miniature painting.
Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi, Istanbul."
In the Badisches Landesmuseum.
First half, 17th century
via Wikimedia Commons

The endangered brother — Bajazet (Bayezid) — has already been deprived of his liberty, trapped in the palace. There he and the fictional princess Atalide bypass the barriers of imprisonment and the harem to declare their mutual affection.

Amurat's favourite Roxane falls in love with Bajazet, too. The court vizier, Acomat, tries to manipulate the infatuation for political gain, entirely ignorant of Atalide's claims. With a misplaced confidence in his own acumen, he precipitates tragedy, when he really wants to raise Bajazet to the throne.

I guess that the moral conflict arises because it is hard for the hero Bajazet and heroine Atalide to remain honest, upright, and self-determined in the hothouse environment of the palace. There the powers of life and death are in the hands of brutal, impulsive people who are ready and willing to wield them; and virtue, enterprise and courage are relatively powerless. Because this is a theme of most or all classical literature and 17th-century reinterpretations thereof, however — especially of Racine's — it feels trite to re-state it.

It is, I agree, not Racine's best play. My personal favourite is still Andromaque. It is also strange when he credits Atalide with Bajazet's downfall when I think that Amurat, Roxane and the slave Orcan are likelier candidates, and Racine has stressed that Bajazet is exercising self-determination. But it explores his usual setting and conflict of the seclusion of a palace and the powerlessness of those in powerful circles against love, against a chaotic mingling of events that happen because of uncoordinated actions, and against each other.