Tag: books

garnier angel opera detail

Bruno Ganz, A French Novel, And Grappling With Loss

This morning I sat in my light-strewn living room, scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed, impatiently waiting for the espresso to gurgle itself to sharp, acid life, when I learned of the passing of Swiss actor Bruno Ganz. Known for his roles as the angel Damiel in Das Himmel uber Berlin and Hitler in Downfall, Ganz was active mainly in Europe, and was known for stage, screen, and symphonic appearances. He was friends with Claudio Abbado, and among many readings, offered the work of German poet Hölderlin at a tribute concert to the late conductor in 2014. I recall seeing Ganz’s name through the years listed in various orchestral program guides in Germany and thinking how special it would be to see him perform live. Alas.

In looking through various reports (including one from a recent project in which Ganz is bearded, and to my eyes, resembles some kind of magical Teutonic Zeus) I was reminded of my introduction to Ganz’s work as a teenager, which was (as I suspect was true for many artsy, angsty teens growing up in 1980s North America), through Der Himmel über Berlin, known to the English-speaking world as Wings of DesireWim Wenders’ poetic meditation on history, spirituality, and human vulnerability left an indelible impression, with Ganz’ expressive face and haunting voice creating a spell that never quite lifted. As The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw observed about his performance, “Ganz’s face is delicate and boyish, with an ascetic sensitivity. The poetical presence of his beautifully modulated speaking voice is also what makes the role so memorable.” In seeing the movie again last summer, I found myself weeping at the delivery of certain lines, the framing of a certain shot, the look in the eyes of both Damiel and Marion (Solveig Dommartin) in the club where the roars of Nick Cave create a hypnotizing background din. I’ve not been able to watch it since; emotions come brimming to the surface like uncontrollable hot lava, a reaction I could have never anticipated as a wide-eyed, enchanted teen.

engel ganz wenders

Still from “Der Himmel über Berlin” (“Wings of Desire”,) 1987.

Such sensitivity has, I realize, become something of a hallmark, one I’ve grappled with to varying degrees of success. Oftentimes that sensitivity and wonder are tied up together in strange configurations and manifest within the cultural realm. The older I get, the more I am amazed at the mechanisms behind how one offsets the other; the way a singer will lean into a note, the resonance of percussion across the vast expanse of a hall, the wet ambiance of strings — things that I find myself invariably and sometimes wordlessly moved by. Writing about such things is no easy task, and it will surprise no one to learn I have taken a step back from such duties. Enthralled, enraptured, enlightened, enraged… enchanted; all these things, and more, live within and can be icily uncomfortable to narrow into the mean parameters defined by the precise and rather severe geometry of language. 

legs book reading

Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce without permission.

Enchantment was borne in my younger days through the encouragement of figures who would place challenging things in front of me, things (be they movies, books, TV shows, composer works) they had full faith I would somehow understand and appreciate. I was raised in what might be termed a firmly anti-intellectual household, with newspapers being the only regular reading source (and no, not the fancy, so-called “paper of record,” either); attempting to reach beyond that atmosphere, despite my mother’s (primal if passionate) opera love, was not at all encouraged and was, in fact, basis for fierce and unyielding criticism. But discoveries were always possible; one of those things was Wings of Desire, introduced by a piano teacher (now a dear friend); another was Jacques Cazotte’s The Devil in Love, loaned to me by an arts-loving teacher my final year of high school. (Where or how she got hold of an English translation I cannot say; the work only got a proper one a few short years ago.). Her dog-eared copy, with pencil underlinings from her own younger days (I presumed), brought a world of intrigue and yes, enchantment, setting my Faust-loving imagination aflame. “The devil takes many pleasing shapes” is its premise, with a Borgian-style layers-within-layers narrative, an intentional blurring and integration of the surreal, the Gothic, and the fantastical, and free floating questions of the nature of desire, morality, and abundance, reflecting the spirit of the age in which it was written (1772) and offering a timely-timeless devilishly dialectical dance that you can still shake your ass to in 2019.

Cazotte devil illustration

Illustration from the first edition of “The Devil in Love” by Jacques Cazotte. (Photo via the Stanislavsky Theatre).

Alongside updates and tributes to Bruno Ganz on my newsfeed were tidbits about the novel’s operatic translation which recently opened at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theatre, in Moscow. Russian composer Alexander Vustin created the work over several years, finishing it in 1989; the work lay dormant until the theatre decided to feature it to mark their 100th birthday. This work made my list of intriguing things for 2019, and if photos and quick news clips are anything to go on, it’s a production I hope to someday experience live; I remain open to whether the element of enchantment will be as present as it was upon my first reading as a teenager. My acute sensitivities lean in a direction which oppose nostalgia, but embrace reshaping; this quality has inserted itself into areas tangible and not. I have embraced much of what my mother left me as my very own, without (at last) the drama of recrimination or any burden of guilt. It has come as something of a pleasant surprise that the things my mother greatly valued are the things I have allowed myself to reshape and redefine, sometimes with purposeful intent, other times with an unthinking authority that is, I suppose, the natural result of being an only child. Emboldened by a new sort of freedom which arose out of my mother’s passing (a domineering presence rendered into initially shocking absence) meant being allowed to remake her still and finite passions into my wide-ranging passionate pursuits.  Inheritance has become a less a winding lane of the past than an avenue for the future.

Still, the loss of a precious cache of items which had belonged to her has been hard to overcome, not only for the fact they were pregnant with her long ago and far-away memories, but because they were so wrapped up in mine — new, fresh, raw. Without divulging every painful detail, I will only write: in the morning I moved into my current place of residence, I had a box of jewelry and a satchel of pearls; things were delivered and arranged; once that was finished, I passed out in exhaustion, and realized with horror, shortly thereafter, that the box and satchel were nowhere to be found. What did I do, I keep asking myself, to deserve this? Why wasn’t I smarter? Why did this have to happen? My mother’s understanding of (and approach to) the world was built on merit-based effort and behaviour: be a good person, and good things happen; be the opposite, and you deserve what you get. It’s a notion that has tipped the broader world into extreme chaos, and, within my micro one, radiated burning slabs of blame, shame, and a horrible, near-paralyzing sadness. I have kept this information to myself and shared it with only a few (including yes, proper authorities), but those items, I realize with much pain, are not going to magically appear before me, the way Damiel suddenly manifests before Marion, the way Biondetta appears before Alvaro — no angel, no devil, there is only the wide, yawning chasm of loss.

angel

Hans Brüggemann, Angel Playing the Lute; 1520; Bode Museum, Berlin. Photo: mine. Please do not reproduce.

The revelation here of my sharp vicissitudes of providence means enduring the inevitable smirks and Schadenfreude of some. I accept this. Various details of my life are, apparently, points of envy — something I find utterly baffling to comprehend. (I envy the presence of their partners, paramours, children, extended relatives, and wide and active social circles, particularly during the lonely holiday periods, but at regular weekends as well.) I have chosen to reveal this personal history in order to embody a dictum I voiced within the past year, one relating to the importance of embracing vulnerability. There are things to be silent about, and things to shout about, and still yet things that straddle between; the point is acknowledging the tender spot within, where vulnerability meets and makes peace with the existential zero of silence. Pema Chödrön might remind me this is precisely where I need to be, in the middle, fully present. It’s hard, and it’s lonely. The symphony of sighs fades in and out; today it was interrupted by the whispering wonder of enchantment. I’m glad I was sensitive enough to listen. Maybe in the spring it will become a song. 

Up There

“Everyone should see this.”

That was my first thought upon leaving Discovering Columbus, the new art project from Public Art Fund in New York. There’s so much going on in Tatzu Nishi’s incredible installation -from climbing the six stories, to the views, to the wallpaper and TV in the “living room” -that it’s hard to take in on one visit alone. Beautiful, deep, shallow, troubling, whimsical… it’s a lot of things at once, just like its (immense) subject matter, America itself.

Nishi comes at Russo’s statue of Christopher Columbus, and its busy locale, with an outsider’s perspective; I was especially taken with the books lining the shelves in the installation. The works of Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway, Walt Whitman, Malcolm Gladwell, Jeffrey Toobin and Steve Jobs and many more were like little glints of inspiration, offering exquisite, lacey detail to the fantastically-fitting dress that is Discovering Columbus. The statue itself is scary up-close -scary, and perhaps a bit bitchy; the exaggerated pose, hand on hip, imperious stare, and judging expression wouldn’t be out of place anywhere in Manhattan.

I’m in the midst of putting a feature together on it – but seriously, GO AND SEE IT.

Addendum: Feature is now up. Go see! Go like! Go comment! Yay!

Showing And Knowing

There’s a strange expectation that you must be stupid if you flip burgers, make lattes, or, in my case, answer (and make) phone calls. This sharp divide -between what I love and what I do -used to bother me a great deal.

When I arrived in Dublin many years ago, I took a series of “joejobs” and found myself spiralling into a great fierce tornado of depression. In hindsight, I think I hadn’t worked out separating one’s self from the source of one’s income. You’re not necessarily what you do, as this short points out, though for us souls who want the opportunity to do professionally what we love most, the joejob tornado can sometimes be hard to sidestep.

I don’t know what accomplished filmmaker Shaun O’Connor was thinking when he wrote and directed this delightful work, but it feels awfully familiar. There’s a knowing wink directed at people who are both too quick to judge, and who see that judgment coming a mile away. I used to react badly; now, I try not to react at all.

Demonstrating the finer points of my well-read self to people in the joejob environment isn’t a priority anyway; booksmarts are great, but they’re limited -and limiting. Too many potentially interesting conversations and possibly great connections get cut off because one hasn’t read the latest Eggers or Bezmogis or any of the books on the New York Times Bestseller List. But maybe that person likes graphic novels, or comics. Maybe they draw. Maybe they dance. Maybe they own a small business. Maybe they sell vegetables off the back of a truck. Everyone has a story.

Everyone has a feisty, scissor-wielding hairdresser in them too.

Special thanks to the James Joyce Centre Dublin for posting Mr. O’Connor’s work on their Facebook page.

iDon’tKnow

Apple unveiled its latest creation today, the iPad, which is aimed at filling a gap between laptops and smartphones. Was this necessary? Techheads might argue yes, but I’m not entirely convinced. So many technological gizmos derive their value from the fresh-off-the-shelf shinyness than their day-to-day practicality -though I freely admit there is a kind of decadent, delicious value in the revelry of the new. Who didn’t want an iPhone when it came out? I sure did, and though I suspect the attraction to the iPad has a number of variables -age, profession, traveling needs -what Steve Jobs et al is banking on is, of course, consumer dedication to electronics of the Apple variety.

However, I am concerned about what the iPad means to publishers -of books, magazines, and newspapers. According to a report in my morning paper (remember those?), the figures for those who consume news online is rapidly rising, especially among those under 55 years of age. According to the Globe and Mail‘s Simon Houpt, who is quoting the Consumerology Report from Toronto ad agency Bensimon Byrne and the Gandalf Group research firm, 65 per cent of respondents engage in online news reading every day. This compares with 51 per cent of those who read print. Houpt quotes David Herle, principal of the Gandalf Group, who note that “most people under the age of 55 now prefer to get their new from online source than from (printed) newspapers.”

What does this mean for journalists? It’s an issue that’s still being bitterly debated –online, in print, on the radio, and television. Whither the revenue streams? Questions are similar when it comes to books. According to Yahoo Tech Canada, “Authors can have books accompanied with video, colour photos, can change the font size” -that’s truly incredible. I can see where iPad enhancements would (will) be wonderful for things like cookbooks (I’d love to see extras from the French Women series by Mireille Giuliano) and even non-fiction (Terry Gould’s harrowing “Murder Without Borders” would be incredible, or any number of biographies, for example), but when it comes to fiction, I want my own pictures, thanks so much. All that digital hoo-ha is for naught if you have a crappy story. And, not to sound terribly old-fashioned, but isn’t the mark of a good author the power they have to paint a unique mental picture in the minds of each individual reader?

There’s something so soothing to me about the tactile nature of the printed word. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely love online news -I admit to being a complete junkie, and I’ve worked in it for most of my journalism career. But first thing in the morning, bleary-eyed and messy-haired, I want the slippery feel of newsprint and stained fingertips from printing press ink as I sip a hot cuppa and pick at toast. When it comes to books, I crave the smooth-rough feel of paper, the cut edges, the flapping jacket covers. I know, I’m a romantic. But the iPad isn’t for romantics. That’s okay -there’s room for all kinds, types and gizmos in this world. Just be sure to keep your paper handy when the tea spills.

Literary Ennui

Amidst the busy times of the past few weeks, I find I’ve been craving an old friend: a good book. Not only do I miss the act of reading (it’s the perfect excuse for getting away from the too-addictive computer), I miss the magical, enthralling spell that’s cast by the pull of a wonderful book. In no particular order, I felt this inimitable tug of magic over the following works:

Divisadero, by Michael Ondaatje. I generally love anything Ondaatje -I think of him as a poet who happens to write novels. Every time I see him out publicly at an event or opening, we exchange little smiles. I’m sure he’s used to people (okay, women) swooning over his work. No one tells a story (or indeed, reads their own work) the way he does. Beautiful, magical, breathtaking -just a few words to describe his work, and indeed, the wonderous rapture I was sent into reading Divisadero. I read it in four days.

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss. I hadn’t realized when I picked this up that Krauss is the spouse of another of my favourite authors, Jonathan Safran Foer (more on him below). This is only her second work, but it packed a huge wallop. I read it when I got back from my last trip to Hungary in 2006; it turned out to be the last time I saw my father. Reading Krauss’ work, about family, community, memory, but most of all, love, was an emotional trip of the highest order, and yet one of the most solemn, quiet experiences too. I remember not wanting to finish it, and purposely limiting how much I would read at once. I cried when I did finally finish it. Magnificent.

Extremely Close And Incredibly Loud, Jonathan Safran Foer. Like Krauss’ book (above), Foer’s work involves the interactions of kids and adults, in sometimes-scary, sometimes-confusing situations. The brilliance of the work, and what really struck me when I read it, was the way Foer used words on the page, and the design of a book itself, to facilitate telling his story. It wasn’t just words; it was images. Typeface was used as narrative at points. And this cleverness was never an end in itself, either -the book has a huge, wonderful beating heart. Again, cried when I finished it. Tried reading his earlier work, Everything Is Illuminated, but just couldn’t get into it. Alas.

The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-time, Mark Haddon. Another book involving a curious child. Maybe it’s an unconscious attraction on my part (some kind of scratching at innocence?), but this book, like Foer’s and Krauss’, deeply touched a nerve -or several -in me. The outright vulnerability of its main character, a brilliant, autistic boy, and the way he views the world -including his bickering parents, and a murdered neighbour’s dog -is gorgeous, heartbreaking, and enthralling. I motored through it in a week.

The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews. Two kids travel across North America with their loopy aunt to find their father. Sounds a bit like a sitcom, right? Well it’s better than that. Sure, it’s laugh-out-loud hilarious (which I actually did, at points, do) but it’s also utterly heartbreaking at points, unsettling at others, and always shot through with Toews gorgeous blend of wry observation and loving care. To borrow a Blakean phrase, I love the mix of innocence and experience in this work, which I read in about five days. I interviewed Toews for this too, which was a huge treat.

Atonement, Ian McEwan. Okay, maybe there’s a theme here; this one involves children too, specifically the grand lie told by one malicious little girl, who grows to be absolutely tormented by it. No, I didn’t see the movie. Like many people who adore the original book version, I was worried it wouldn’t live up to my imagination (how could it, really? Can any book? Ah, that’s another blog… ). McEwan’s tale of family, memory, responsibility, and again, love, is deeply haunting. I love it when a book stays with me -and Atonement was floating around my consciousness for weeks after I’d finished it. That’s a mark of its greatness.

But, after riffling through my basement, with boxes full of books still unpacked from my time living in Stratford, as well as numerous bookshelves all around the house lined with works, I still haven’t found something to pique my curiosity or passion. And I’m absolutely craving a wonderful, enthralling, delicious read. I’m not a “summer book” kind of girl. Yes, I went through the Sophie Kinsella phase… but that’s over now. And I’m seeking a proper meal of a book. The rediscovery/embrace of my gypsy past has me leaning towards a good fictional tale that incorporates real-life elements of that culture, but I’m open to ideas. Anyone have suggestions? Bueller?

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