Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Robert Walser, misplaced

Reviewing The Robber upon the release of its English translation, J. M. Coetzee wrote, "Had it been published in 1926 it might have affected the course of modern German literature." Instead the book remained in microscript for forty-six years, until Jochen Greven and Martin Jürgens transcribed and published the first edition.

What would have happened if The Robber had been published in 1926?

There's a chance that the book we have today would not have existed. Walser domesticated his manuscripts for public consumption from early in his writing career; Susan Bernofsky writes in her introduction, "[Walser] must have been aware, at least after the first few pages, that he would never be able to publish [The Robber]. This would explain why he never prepared a clean copy of the manuscript for submission to publishers."

But what would a sanitized version of The Robber look like? Would it even have been possible? There are lost Walser novels, the extinction of which makes one wonder. Returning to The Assistant it is possible to glimpse a Robber-esque foundation of inquisitive philosophy behind the ordinary plot. The collection, Speaking to the Rose is presented in chronological order, making it possible for readers to follow the development of Walser's increasingly-eccentric style from the early 1900's through to the 1930's. There is a change and yet there isn't. The collection opens with A Note on Van Gogh'sˆL'Arlésienne, in which Walser positions the reader and narrator together before the unpictured painting and sets off on a miniature, ecstatic journey.

In front of this picture one has all kinds of thoughts, and to someone absorbed in it many questions occur, questions at once so simple and so strange and so disconcerting that they seem to be unanswerable. In the picture, many questions find their finest, most subtle, most delicate significance--which is that they cannot be answered. When, for instance, a lover asks his lady, "Can I still have hopes?" and she doesn't answer, then this absence of an answer sometime signifies a heavenly Yes. That is how it is with everything that puzzles us, everything great, and here is a picture full of puzzles, full of greatness, full of deep and beautiful questions, and likewise full of deep, majestic, and beautiful answers.

Although this is the earliest piece, from 1912, it is made of the same idiosyncrasy as The Robber.  Each clause follows on from the last with an internal logic whose rules change without reason. First the questions appear unanswerable; then they are unanswerable; by the end there are answers everywhere. There is nearly always a little scene or anecdote playing out--here the pair of lovers--in the middle of a larger description or idea. There is also a casual note concerning some significant or poignant facet of humanity: "That is how it is with everything..."

These devices are typical Walser but they are not a formula that can be applied by just anyone with success. Bernofsky states, in an interview with The Brooklyn Rail, "If you wind up imitating—rather than just being inspired by—him, it’s pretty easy to start writing pastiches of his work. And pastiches of Walser tend not to be so good. His work is a balancing act, and it’s only because of his constantly startling imagination that he avoids toppling over into cliché and bad taste."

It is interesting to think about how the influence of this style may have played out had The Robber been published sooner, and had Walser remained influential beyond the mid-1920s. With the current Walsermania surrounding the latest set of translations it appears he is finally making his mark on the English-writing world, and we can expect to see many imitations of Walser in the future. Then perhaps we will see what a sanitized Robber looks like.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Reading Moreschi

I happened to make a reference to Alessandro Moreschi when writing a short story last week. It was one of those unplanned occasions where the image (or in this case the image of sound) is so precise that it requires no thought; it is a product of intuition. 

I spent this week researching a forthcoming essay on Moreschi so I will not write too much in advance, but I wanted to share some of my favorite sources which are essential to gaining a human perspective on a man who is frequently derided and oggled if his name comes up at all these days.

Accessible on JSTOR:

Losing JSTOR was one of the greatest tragedies of my college graduation. I was thrilled to discover that a California library card provides (nearly) full access to the many databases included in JSTOR and is completely free. The following articles are indispensible to the understanding of the history of castrati from the baroque period to the end of bel canto.

The Last Castrato by Alessandro Moreschi; Singers of the Sistine Chapel
Review by: Eric Van Tassel
Early Music , Vol. 13, No. 2, J. S. Bach Tercentenary Issue (May, 1985), pp. 326-328
Published by: Oxford University PressArticle Stable URL:

This short review of the remastered records made by Moreschi in 1902 and 1904 is typical of the preeminent modern opinion of his vocal work. Note that Van Tassel writes, "But we don't listen to Moreschi to be ravished by lovely singing or enlightened by profound musicianship. We go to him for clues, however faint and problematic, as to how Guadagni or Farinelli may have sounded." This marginalizing approach is taken by many modern music critics, especially in the 80's and 90's shortly after the tracks were released. It is common for the author to express a desire to use Moreschi as a vehicle to the greater, more accomplished castrati and, ultimately, a frustration in their inability to do so.

The Castrato as History

Katherine Bergeron
Cambridge Opera Journal , Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jul., 1996), pp. 167-184
Article Stable URL:
Katherine Bergeron's essay is far more interesting because it deals with the essential attraction to Moreschi's music: "The uncanny (yes, hair-raising) effect of listening to his voice lies in something still more extreme--an utter lack of identification: I simply cannot fathom the body that produces those sounds." I have read elsewhere arguments that castrati were a normalized minority in Italian society, a claim I find rather suspect. One needs only to read the satirical poems and articles (and view their accompanying caricatures) contemporary to their lives to observe that the castrati were viewed as extra-human, with rumors and legends attached to them that do not proliferate around normalized social groups.

While Bergeron still commits the sin of using Moreschi as a pass-through rather than an individual meriting specific historical analysis and attention, her frank descriptions of her own reaction to his recordings are something most people can relate to. The extra-human quality to Moreschi's voice no doubt explains why so many literary authors have been compelled to write in his memory (Kingsley Amis, Luc Leruth, Kenneth Rosen).

It is important to note that this essay is framed around a review of the film Farinelli (1994) and also contains an excellent mini-history of castrati in Europe.

The Castrati as a Professional Group and a Social Phenomenon, 1550-1850

John Rosselli
Acta Musicologica , Vol. 60, Fasc. 2 (May - Aug., 1988), pp. 143-179
Article Stable URL:

This essay provides a decent historical overview of the castrati in Europe.

Free articles and websites:


This is the most important essay on Moreschi that I have yet read. Martha Feldman, working with Martina Piperno, gives us a full and detailed history of the Moreschi and Fellini (yes! There is a connection!) families taken directly from interviews with their descendants. There are some lovely photographs (although none new of Moreschi himself) and some rather surprising biographical information that, at least for me, fully recontextualized his work. 


This website is an excellent jumping-off point for general information about castrati and contains good pointers and links to other sources (it is the only place I found to mention Leruth's "La 4e Note").


Moreschi and the Voice of the Castrato by Nicholas Clapton

I look forward to receiving this book, so perhaps it is cheating to include it on this list; however, I am assured that it is an excellent and generous account of Moreschi's life and "fills in the gaps" where other historians have glossed over. I am interested to see how it complements Matha Feldman's work,, which came later and included interviews with family members to whom I believe Clapton did not have access.

Matha Feldman's forthcoming books on castrati and Moreschi

Here I cheat again, but judging on her article, above, these books ought to be a fulfilling and informative read for anyone as fascinated by the subject matter as I.

Monday, June 11, 2012

"Werckmeister Harmonies" by Béla Tarr

I'm reading the Guardian's "Deep Waters: Why Werckmeister Harmonies is a Masterpiece." and it fills me with the same dismay I have reading critical theory on Moby Dick.
Tarr has resisted all attempts to persuade him to say what his films mean, and everything in Werckmeister Harmonies can be read as a metaphor for something or other. The whale, for instance, can be interpreted as a bitter symbol of capitalism, a bloated, rotting and blank-eyed carcass that engenders a superficial hysteria in those previously denied the sight of such a wonder. Or perhaps the whale and the unseen Prince represent the kind of totalitarianism that encourages its converts to start by sweeping away their old world.
I'm not well-versed enough in critical theory to claim that this is a Marxist or post-Marxist reading of the film, but it certainly feels overly-political. We tend to forget, especially in critical theory, that the frames and lenses we use to interpret films and literature are just that--frames and lenses of our own (or someone else's) opinion. Marxism, like capitalism, socialism, etc., is just a buzzword to describe a concept of political theory. It is disingenuous to claim that a work of art can be diminished to a series of political symbols. Anyone who has seen the whale scene, for example, ought to be able to know on a fundamental level--that is, to feel, that this is not some bland political statement. Please:

According to the Guardian this is capitalism in motion.

Watching this scene, especially in the context of the film, you do not sit idly by twiddling your Clever thumbs and trying to tie everything to a critical ideology. No, you experience the same ecstacy of dreams as János:

At the moment I took that screencap Mihaly Vig's gorgeous piano piece begins. If this were a cheesy American drama it might be called "János's theme" because it frequently coincides with his enormous emotional shifts. But this music (which you will find in the video, above) is a cue to the ecstasy of knowledge, of life, the ecstacy of art. The Guardian piece calls János an archetypical "wise fool." This feels like a UK/USA reading, painfully out of touch with the possibilty that anyone could experience thought and emotion in a manner different than one's own. We imagine ourselves to be the rule, and every other culture to be the exception. Even in the UK the morality play is at work despite (or perhaps in the wake of) multiculturalism. The Guardian finds it impossible to recognize the quiet intellectual passion of János. But for me, I saw in János a lot of Robert Walser's Joseph Marti (The Assistant), minus the inherent rage and anger. János is not so much a fool as a dreamer, an ecstatic optimist whose religion is the joy and beauty of the natural world.

Regarding the whale he says, "This mysterious creature from the sea has come from the far-off oceans. … Just see what a gigantic animal the Lord can create! How mysterious is the Lord that he amuses Himself with such strange creatures," and he is happy that whatever force is at work in the world would be as eccentric as to create this leviathan. There is an analogy between himself and a God who would hold art and beauty in such high regard.

Later, to a by-stander he remarks (on the smell), "It stinks." I don't think Tarr adapted János (from Laszlo Krasznahorkai's The Melancholy of Resistance) to portray him as an idiot savant. Instead I believe he is supposed to mirror the watcher's reaction to the film. He observes the whale exactly as I observed him observing the whale: without pre-conceived ideology, content to see what God (or Tarr) has created, and to try to find meaning independent of ideology and "The System." This is a film of self-discovery and of society-discovery. Only the second part of that applies to any critical reading one might impose on the film.
Not much help there, typically enough. At a film festival a while ago, someone who had taken against the barely relieved grimness of Tarr's work asked him: "Where is the hope?" "The hope," he replied, "is that you see this movie." And draw your own conclusions, if any. It would be better, perhaps, to adopt the director's own apparent reluctance to seek meanings and to treat the film simply as a fable - a story concealing a generally applicable moral, although in this case with no happy ending or easy interpretation. So maybe not even a fable. Just a story, perhaps, with glimpses of humanity.
Tarr's answer is in line with my own interpretation. János might be beyond help but as the watcher you have earned something in watching this film. Hopefully it is something a little deeper than the Guardian's "fable... with glimpses of humanity." I'm carrying this film around like a cyst at the moment. I think my reaction can be crystallized into this image: János is the dreamer; he is the child. Child in a symbolic sense, child meaning: everything that is optimisitic, everything that appreciates art without pretension, everything that experiences art on an emotional, resonant level and finds a way to tie that art into reality without having to parse it into ideologies. Child is not the projection of the self onto art; it is the the infusion of the art into the self. Child is every instant spent not worrying about finance, war, politics, personal safety. Child is a deep connection to the majesty of art and nature. It is joyous to watch János orchestrate these drunken men into a solar system and it recalls us to our first foray into scientific learning when we were children ourselves. Again with the whale: János marvels at this feat of creation. He stares into its eye, trying to connect with a creature who life rolled far beneath the waves. Finally, he hides in the hospital watching the pandemonium unfold and his face displays every hurt, every rejection, every discovery that the world can deal brutality without warning, without meaning:

Unfortunately the child is not resilient. He draws everything into himself and it becomes him. So János becomes part of this violence and the contradiction destroys him. But I don't think we should shy from this character or use words like "fool" which denigrate him. It is a rare person who receives everything in the world as evidence of goodness and beauty. We destroy them constantly.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

"Referential" by Lorrie Moore

Most of the reactions I've read to Moore's "Referential" in this week's issue of the New Yorker have been either oblivious to the Nabokov original, or pent on a compare/contrast exercise. I'm more concerned about why Moore felt the need to write this piece. I don't think it's absurd to state that "Signs and Symbols" is one of the few perfect short stories in existence. Moore's reason for writing the piece, which is somewhere between  a riff and an unsettling rip-off, is a complete bafflement. In the Q&A she calls it an "homage," but an homage is something that serves as a mental cue to another work of art. An homage should take the original and do something interesting and different with it: it should become a frame from which we might view the original with a unique perspective. "Referential" is less homage and more bad Hollywood re-make, because let's be honest, the stories are almost identical. When you're re-phrasing paragraphs in a way that wouldn't pass you aren't doing an homage, you're doing a disservice.

I'm fairly confident the only reason this piece sailed into the fiction slot is because Lorrie Moore is a (somewhat) young, hip writer and her name is a big draw. But I'm disturbed that something like this can be considered appropriate, let alone printable as its own, stand-alone story. I preferred this tack when it was consigned to Shouts & Murmurs.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

"Transatlantic" by Colum McCann

I will preface this by admitting that I am one of those awful human beings who not only managed to escape school with a bare rudimentary scrape of historical knowledge, but further does nothing to patch the leaky sinking boat, floundering in a sea of ignorance. Therefore I devoured Mr. McCann's story in the April 16th edition of the New Yorker in a state of giddy bliss, the will-they-won't-they dynamic providing the perfect "tug" through to the end.

Then I consulted Wikipedia. There needs to be a new word in the dictionary (not like lol or cougar, but a legitimately new word) to describe the desire to have a "save game" and "re-load" feature in reality. Enough people experience this emotion on a daily basis (and now have a model for it in the form of videogames) that it should be classified as a distinct emotion. I wish I could go back and re-read Transatlantic with the benefit of knowing all about Misters Alcock and Brown, because I don't know if the story would have had such a strong effect on me if I had.

To be fair McCann is adept with characters. Brown is the rightful center--conflicted internally and externally, with enough at stake to intensify the flitting dangers of the flight. Alcock is part foil, part mirror. While reading I never felt that I needed to know more about him, but looking back I see an elusive character, slipping in and out of the story. The supporting characters are just present enough to root the piece in its setting. But the attachment I felt towards Brown and Alcock was heavily influenced by the uncertainty of their fate which, if I were a better student with a proper knowledge of history, I would have known at the beginning of the piece.

Unlike, for example, Jim Shepard's Love and Hydrogen, which inserts two fictional characters in the familiar historical setting of the Hindenburg, Transatlantic portrays people who actually existed; people whose fates are a simple internet query away.

The tension that builds in Love and Hydrogen, and which is also evident in pop culture epics like Titanic, comes from the reader's knowledge that, despite whatever the characters contend with in the foreground, there is about to be some kind of grand reckoning which the characters may not survive. It is a sort of pre-cliff-hanger; it creates the sublime irony of reader dread vs. character petulance.

Transatlantic is not as structurally complicated. It is an adventure piece: man vs. challenge, and while there is a decent amount of back- and side-history, it really only serves to heighten the anxiety the reader feels in not knowing whether Alcock and Brown will survive their flight. And of course, I felt a euphoric sense of relief and triumph when Alcock and Brown crashed into the bog. But if I'd known it all along, how would I have felt? I'd love to discuss this with someone who read this without the pretense of ignorance.

Working in reverse, there are elements of the story that are gently diminished by historical knowledge, and then there are those that become especially beautiful. Most of the dramatic action--the breaking of the fuselage, the almost-crash into the pine trees--reads dopier now. The urgency is diffused in knowing that Alcock and Brown survived. But McCann is clever to put the story in the present tense, and when it becomes crucial he slips inside Brown's mind--Good God, Alcock, lift her!--which manages to stir me even on a second read, even after the Wikipedia. I wonder why McCann chose not to have Brown climbing onto the wings to sort them out as in reality.

Curiously, on this read it is Alcock who makes the bigger impression. He died just six months after the transatlantic flight, crashing the newest version of the plane that had carried him from Newfoundland to Ireland. Knowing this, his character now feels ephemeral instead of obtuse. It reminds me of the DVD extras for the film Stand by Me. Someone, I can't recall who, points out the moment that River Phoenix's character waves and vanishes at the end of the film. Trite in the film, tragic in the context of the actor's short life. Recontextualizing stories provides us a stronger means of enjoying them. I now see Brown as the sole survivor. There is something to tie him to the ground. Alcock is leashed to the sky; his daredevil antics are the mark of hamartia, his bravado will be his demise.

Without asking McCann himself, it's difficult to know whether he expected his readers to know the history of Alcock and Brown. It feels, paradoxically, important and utterly irrelevant. I'm glad for the introduction and his story lent a well of rich emotion to what would otherwise be a two-paragraph entry in an encyclopedia. This is the power of writing fiction about real people. Like Pynchon does in Mason & Dixon, McCann creates a bridge between fact and sentiment. Even (in Pynchon's case especially) where the fiction divulges from reality, it feels charmingly honest because it gives us an opportunity to develop a relationship with a character who takes on the attributes of a living person.

One of the follies of my mind is that I find it difficult to conjure images of people who are long-since deceased. Even history's boldest figures are little more than bytes of information to me. It is only when someone is bold enough to recreate that figure in fiction that I can begin to extend my sympathies. We sometimes say books are our friends with absolute sincerity. It is only because the author has been adept enough to smoke life out of language: to make a thing that gives us as much pleasure, resentment, sadness, hope, and fear as our closest friends, dearest lovers, most hated enemies.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Junot Diaz Bingo

In honor of Diaz's latest New Yorker piece, Miss Lora, I hereby present Junot Diaz Bingo (click to enlarge):

Sunday, April 15, 2012

"The Turin Horse" by Béla Tarr

In the middle of Béla Tarr's "The Turin Horse," Ohlsdorfer's daughter snuffs out every gas lamp in the house and retires to an out-of-frame bedroom. The camera remains trained on the dim kitchen, thin flickers of light from the fire in the aga's grate providing scant illumination. Nothing moved and only the shrieking wind sounded unceasingly. Gradually, as my eyes strained to adjust, the figures of two devils seemed to become distinct. One, with a long pale face, stood legs apart, back hunched, long sickening spider-like arms hanging low by the ground. The other was a tall, shrouded figure against the back wall. I knew that the pale-faced devil's legs were the legs of a bench, and that his face was a small white cupboard. The hooded devil was a robe on a hook. Still, I couldn't avoid a creeping sense of horror and a deep fear for the sleeping father and daughter.

These moments of almost banal real-world horror are what made "The Turin Horse" a satisfying experience. For someone with ADD I've seen my fair share of endurance cinema, from the borderline-interesting "Andrei Rublev" to the profoundly tedious "Tie Xi Qu: West of the Tracks," and have developed a strategy of asking questions to confront frustration and tedium. (It helps to envision Werner Herzog asking the questions.) In "The Turin Horse" I found myself asking questions which all boiled down to the same concept: what was driving the inertia of these two people?

I struggled with how disconnected I felt from the characters. I compulsively mastermind solutions to imaginary problems, so it was difficult to watch two people submit to death without expending any energy to save themselves. There is, of course, a kind of natural horror endemic in witnessing a sentient creature disobeying its survival instincts. This is first evidenced in the titular horse, who begins a Bartlebian refusal to eat and drink at the beginning of the film, and then is continued (or contracted?) by the horse's owners.

At only one point do they make an effort to save themselves, packing up the necessities for basic survival and setting out on foot up the winding hillside road. The camera remains in the valley; just as soon as I could be sure that the horse's ears had disappeared over the lip of the hill, they reappeared and without any ceremony Ohlsdorfer and his daughter were back in the house.

What befell them in those thirty seconds off-camera that could cause them to return to certain death? Only two points in the film provide any sort of resolution and exposition. One has been kindly reproduced on youtube:

The other is when Ohlsdorfer's daughter reads aloud from a book she has been given by the gypsies (an "anti-bible" according to Tarr) which details a meeting in which a figurehead announces that, because the congregation has disobeyed, they will be punished with a series of natural disasters including sweeping winds and a blackout.

These expositions contradict one another--the first makes the case for a godless, meaningless paradigm of destruction and oppression while the latter creates a dichotomy of quasi-religious sin and punishment--but they are equally nihilistic in their conclusions. They hearken to the film's introductory monologue describing Nietzsche's mental breakdown and insanity in his final years. The sensation is of a sudden snuffing out followed by a prolonged horror--as in the kitchen scene I mentioned earlier.

I believe the reason that Ohlsdorfer and his daughter turn back to their house is that beyond the lip of that hill everything has been swept away by the howling wind. Where once perhaps some houses dotted another desolate plain, now there is nothing. Perhaps a great blackness rose on the horizon. Perhaps there was fire, or a flood.

Most of my questions were answered as I made a sincere effort to imagine the scope of these people's lives. Their world is so isolated, so cut off from any possible modernization that they have no recourse when the whatever force driving the universe conspires against them. Their stark, monosyllabic communication--Ohlsdorfer frequently lapses into guttural grunts--is all they have. They can't fabricate an escape because they don't have the words to do so. Late in the film the wind suddenly drops and the daughter asks "What was that?" "I don't know," Ohlsdorfer replies. In my world "I don't know" is the platform for imagination and discovery. In theirs it is the final statement in an empty conversation. For them, ignorance means sticking to a familiar ritual.

At the end of the film Ohlsdorfer's daughter sits before the window and stares at the hillside, which is obscured by huge clouds of dust and debris. I was so sure that I could see something careening down the hillside road towards the house, but I couldn't be positive. Not long after, the daylight cuts out. Not a gradual night, but a sudden one. Some of the lamps won't light in the house.

She and her father sit at the table, trying to face a plate of raw potatoes now that the last of the water has run out. The remaining lamp scutters out. Suddenly the film felt too short because it was time to leave. My mind was full of Mihâly Vig's disturbing music, and with a tangle of horrors as it conjured vile images of the fate of those peasants.