Archive for February, 2012

The Death of Klinghoffer, ENO 28 February

February 29, 2012


Picture from classical-iconoclast

Everyone must have seen this and given their opinion by now.  Intermezzo (who is of course inerrant) gave hers without having seen it:  Audience slowly lulled into torpor would be my guess.  And she was quite right.  Well, I spent a lot of the first half asleep, but in the interval I decided to stay out of curiosity and I was alert enough at the end to make my way gratefully towards the exit.

There were of course some extremely lovely choruses and the hijacker Mamoud had a very nice solo number as well.  But the libretto had some of the worst lines ever set to music  (Evil grows exponentially/Laying a weight upon the tongue, anyone?)  That may have been an attempt to avoid unwanted Biblical associations in describing the Holy Land but sounded a lot like ineptitude.  More seriously perhaps, it didn’t give anything like enough opportunity for dramatic conflict between the characters, so there was no opera.  Rats!  I’d already seen the good bits in a concert at the Barbican years ago.

The music was better than the words by a long way, but it was often stuck indeterminately between minimalist and post-minimalist Adams.  The text (words and music) really didn’t tell the story, so we saw a whole intensive care unit of back-projections and intertitles, along with a very good cast and conductor, brought into play to try to keep the patient from dying, .

So a return from the grave for opera seria perhaps, with the characters reflecting upon the emotions they might be feeling to the accompaniment of soporific music…

Ludmila Ulitskaya at Jewish Book Week

February 26, 2012

Picture of Ludmila Ulitskaya

Picture of Brian Klug

A show of hands revealed that rather few of the audience understood Russian and even fewer had read Daniel Stein, Interpreter, which she had come to talk about.  Presumably they were interested in the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.

When Brian Klug asked whether she had expected such a strong reaction to the book, Ulitskaya replied that she had expected to be read by 200 people, all of them her friends.  But it turned out the problem was hanging in the air; I think she meant by this exactly the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.  I’m not sure she ever answered the question about why she had written a novel about a non-fictional character; rather she said something about how it had happened.  It had ended up with her not being able to say which of the documents in her book she had found and which she had made up.  There were now tours in Haifa to explore the sites in her book; one of the churches she had made up, so another had been appointed in its place.

She described how she had met the historical Daniel (Oswald) Rufeisen only once, at a time she was hemmed in with saucy doubts and fears.  the fact that such a man could say I do not know this or I do not understand that had made her feel a lot better.  (Later on she described him as a saint.)

On the religious content of her book, she seemed to be completely behind the ideas she ascribed to her Brother Daniel:  right action more important than right belief  (or right praise); Jesus as a 100% Jew; Judaism as something Christianity could not be properly itself without accepting.

She felt that there had been some progress since the death of Brother Daniel; Christian churches held ecumenical services and the Pope had even visited a synagogue (in New York).  But her book would never be translated into Hebrew–it would cause an enormous scandal.

Brian Klug was keen on the idea of Daniel Stein the interpreter as being a symbolic figure at the junction of two or many worlds (rather like Jesus between earth and heaven).  That didn’t go down especially well, at least in part because interpreter only means oral translator and not explainer in Russian.   But I thought the idea that the book’s form as a collage of diverse documents and narratives forced readers to become their own Daniel Stein and make their way between clashing worlds was a lot more promising.

There were some rather confused questions at the end, one of which led to Ulitskaya indignantly denying this was her first book to be translated into English–but she felt it had been received a lot more enthusiastically in Europe than in the English-speaking world.

The Two Noble Kinsmen, The Space E14, 24 February

February 24, 2012


Picture from Just Enough Facebook page illustrating another venue

The Two Noble Kinsmen may be the last play that Shakespeare contributed to (he collaborated with John Fletcher).  It’s based on The Knight’s Tale from Chaucer, something that nobody has ever read through without dying of boredom.

On this occasion, the audience in The Space Arts Centre (it looked like an ex-church to me) managed to outnumber the cast by 12 to 9.  In fact, given the resonant church acoustic and the lack of absorbing bodies, the director could have been more careful about actors facing away from the audience.  But an approach based on singing, dance and stylisation seemed very effective to me.  Palamon and Arcite painting each other’s naked torsos with metallic paint had a disturbing eroticism, as indeed did their relationship in general and Emilia’s remembering her dead childhood friend Davina.

Emilia (a very lovely Sorcha Finch-Murray) had some very lovely speeches; otherwise it was the musical interludes that were most effective for me.  I didn’t really understand why her sister  Hippolyta was played as a brash American (apart from the actress Stacy Sobieski herself being American).  Jason Devoy was commanding as Theseus and put-upon as the Jailer.

I certainly think that people should go to this show and see what The Two Noble Kinsmen is all about.  Many thanks to MAST Stage Productions and Just Enough for putting it on!

So that just leaves Two Gentlemen of Verona and 2 & 3 Henry VI for me to achieve Shakespearean completeness.

The Last Hundred Days (Patrick McGuinness)

February 22, 2012


In this book, our un-named narrator is a working-class ex-student from London who finds himself teaching English in Bucharest at the end of the Ceausescu regime.  He comes under the protection of Leo O’Heix, who combines the roles of academic, philanthropist and black-marketeer.  He makes some really rather good observations about the experience of being in Bucharest.  He has two Romanian girlfriends:  a bad one (Cilea) and then a good one (Ottilia).  He observes, but does not really take part in, some very Graham Greene plotlines about escapes that aren’t and a new regime to replace Ceausescu that isn’t really new, more the people that would have been squabbling over the succession anyway.

I didn’t find the book satisfactory, for a number of reasons.  The narrator is meant to be your working-class rebel and dropout, even jailbird, but he comes on very like a middle-aged professor of French.  On the one hand, the tells us what it was like instead of showing us how he came to realise it was like that, and on the other we have learned comments concerning Flaubert, Cuvier, mise-en-abime.  There is no sense of lived experience in the way that a young man going abroad for the first time would feel things, and indeed might even notice something about the face and body of his good girlfriend.

The good girlfriend Ottilia gave me the most problems.  She starts off presumably as an obstetrician when O’Heix’s secretary Rodica miscarries, and also refuses a bribe, an act of psychotic aberration in the circumstances.  We learn that she was at school with another character ten years ago, so she’s probably about 28.  She transforms herself into a surgeon to perform a miraculous operation on Leo when required.  At the end, she is able to pretend to be a Russian in both Russian and broken Romanian in attempting to get out of the country.  Such heroines may well be perfectly common in Romania, but if she sees anything in our hero the 21-year-old chancer (we learn that he’s two years younger than her step-brother Petre), then we need to be told what it is.

Then there’s the really quite well done backstory of the narrator’s difficult childhood with a brutal printworker for a father and a brutalised mother.  That’s a lot of print to prepare a throwaway remark about how he was one of the very few foreigners prepared for life in Ceausescu’s Romania…

I think a lot of the problem here is McGuinness’s attempt to both use and distance himself from his own experience.  His actual father worked for the British Council in Bucharest, which meant he met lots of interesting people and attended official gatherings (and got given a job teaching English).  What he clearly wanted to do was to write the typical poet’s book where a passive character wanders around witnessing and feeling, but then he also decided he needed to include his realistic experiences and a thriller plot and some lectures as well…

At one stage the bad girlfriend calls the narrator A gap-year deprivation tourist, which really only applies to the actual McGuinness, not his creation.

There’s a Romanian (newspaper) interview with Patrick McGuinness here, and I don’t think the commenters at the bottom are very pleased with him. You can get a Google translation here.

I was interested to see that he actually produced some poems to go with the novel (the way that Pasternak puts the ‘Poems of Yuri Zhivago’ at the end of Dr Zhivago) and then took them out.

Books in Some Charity Shops of South London: Part 4, Blackheath on Sunday

February 20, 2012

This part of the study took in shops belonging to Cancer Research UK and Oxfam.

The Cancer Research UK  shop at 6 Montpelier Vale boasted 5 shelves displaying an approximate 180 books.  I came nearest to buying The Finkler Question (Howard Jacobson, £ 2-00), and there was also an interesting looking book called I crossed the Minch by Louis MacNeice (£ 2-50).  In an age-appropriate display of catatonic conservatism I donated some books here because I had before…Here are the opening hours:

Then the Oxfam shop at 66 Tranquil Vale (where the upper floor used to be entirely given over to books) had 47 shelves and say 1650 books, with many specialised areas not represented by in the other charity shops I’d visited.  Kirk and Raven’s book on The Presocratic Philosophers would be jolly good value at £ 1-99 for someone who didn’t already have it.  The place was also reasonably busy with customers actively engaged in buying books.  Clearly the place to donate anything at all out of the mainstream, even if they did have a notice up saying that due to high stock levels they weren’t accepting donations in the last hour of trading.

Here are Oxfam’s opening hours:

And in Blackheath (on Sunday), the common element was Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, featured in both of these shops.

Books in Some Charity Shops of South London: Part 3, Catford

February 18, 2012

I found four charity shops in Catford, and they were pretty close to each other.

The Age UK shop at 10 Catford Broadway had 17 shelves containing say 500 books.  Prices seemed to be £ 1-50 for paperbacks and £ 2-oo for hardbacks.  They had the normal number of 5 or 6 books I might have been interested in if I didn’t already have them.  Here’s a picture of the opening times:

The Salvation Army shop a bit further along had 18 shelves and about 550 books on display.  I thought about buying Mezzanine (Nicholson Baker) for £ 1-00 and a book on Sexual Life in Ancient Rome for £ 3-00, but didn’t.  They had notices up asking for donations of books (among other things.)  Here are their opening times:


Anyway, I was able to walk through that shop and turn right to get to the Sense shop at 4 Winslade Way.

That had a mere 5 shelves displaying 200 or so books (together with a separate revolving stand of Romance) but they were inexpensive–50 p to £ 1-50. (There was a nice hardback copy of Underworld by Don DeLillo for £1-50.)  After that it was a short stroll to the BHF shop at 22 Winslade Way.

As I recall, they had quite a specific notice asking for donations of books.  Anyway, they had 19 shelves displaying 700 books or so, together with separate children’s section, Stand of Romance, and display of posh books in the window.  I personally bought an 8-year-old guidebook to the Baltic States and American Rust by Philipp Meyer (each £ 2-00).

I noted that two shops had copies of A Widow for One Year (John Irving) and The Book of Dave (Will Self); and three places had Then we came to the end (Joshua Ferris).  But Self is back in contention now as Catford’s leading author since I donated my copy (along with some other books) to the BHF.  And here are the opening times:

Finally, the following observation doesn’t form part of this study, but I enjoyed it anyway:

Professionals At Work…Leaders in Unskilled Temporary Work…?

Le Nozze di Figaro Royal Opera House 11 February

February 12, 2012


Photo of an earlier outing of this production (from

The evening started rather badly–not only was Bow Street full of fencing to keep proles penned in during the coming BAFTAs, but the place was comprehensively closed up two hours prior to kick-off, contrary to an email the ROH sent out promising business as usual.  Anyway I witnessed a lady with mobility problems and her companions spending a long time trying to get into the glass box on Bow Street or to summon aid or indeed to get in contact with anyone.

Once the management had decided to stop pissing on the paying customers–if only for a time–and let us in, things took a decided turn for the better.  Under Antonio Pappano’s direction the music zipped along very pleasingly, and some very precise on-stage action was greeted with copious and unforced laughter from the Upper Amphitheatre.

I certainly felt a lot more engaged than the previous time I’d seen this production–between us the only thing my companion and I could remember of that outing was the dog.  But I still worried about the design that had a lot of empty space both vertically and horizontally dwarfing the characters.  I thought that this piece was about the characters and their interactions, not the memory of all the dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living.  But since the setting here has been updated to a time after the French Revolution, maybe that is the idea.  In which case the Duke ands his hankering after the ius primae noctis is both loathsome and ineffective.

As so often, one didn’t really feel any danger of the Duke (Lucas Meachem) raping everybody in sight–neither he nor the Figaro of Ildebrando d’Arcangelo made that much of an impression on the audience or each other, and it was left to the females to provide the starrier singing, though again it was a team effort rather than a case of starriness.

I was pleased to see that the audience was really quite young (about the same kind of age range you’d see at the theatre) and there were not a few genuinely young people in it.  I opined that while 19th-century opera required you to accept either a demi-monde of women who were not not prostitutes or a romanticised travesty of various historical period or the atrocity exhibition from Wagner, operas from an earlier or later period might be easier of approach at least in this respect.

At the end the ushers barked at us to remove ourselves more quickly so that they could prepare for the serious business.

Pissing on the paying public again!

Побежденные (Pobezhdennye, The Defeated)

February 5, 2012


This is an excellent book.  It is also unfortunately something like Holy Scripture for extreme nationalist-mystical tendencies in present-day Russia.

At the level of a novel, this one answers the same question as Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise:  What happens once you’ve been defeated?  How do you go on?  What do you do?

So the book follows the fate of an interlinked group of former nobles and gentry in post-Revolutionary Leningrad as they survive by selling heirlooms and find they have members of the lower classes billeted on them and they are excluded from labour and higher education.  Even if one is making oneself useful–indeed indispensable–at work, one is only ‘safe’ until the next denunciation. So we see the characters at various stages:  trying to continue life as normal; forming strained communities when exiled to the countryside; in prison and in camps; at the point of death.

There’s a great deal of very high-grade novelistic description of the relationships and arguments in a communal apartment, and the way in which hostile reality seeps into the heroes’ attempts to maintain their values and relationships as they were, at least in their own apartments, at least in their own rooms…Author Irina Golovkina was the grand-daughter of the composer Rimsky-Korsakov, and members of her real family make episodic appearances in the book.  She also like Vassily Grossman goes to the edge in saying what it is like to be be executed and I think she does it rather better, since it comes more from the inside than being imposed from the outside as something that has to be included.

You can raise objections.  The characters sometimes have something of the schematic about them, as though they are representing natural or hidden forces rather than themselves.   But Golovkina does deal with the experience of bearing and rearing children in difficult–near-impossible–circumstances, which is a level of realism that even women writers tend to shy away from.

The mystical-nationalist and anti-Semitic views expressed by the positive characters, together with the extreme length of the book (570 pages in my large-format edition) and the sheer Russianness of the subject-matter probably mean that the book is not a suitable case for translation into English–I don’t believe that there are any translations in existence.  Which is a pity.

Bloody Poetry Jermyn Street Theatre 3.30 pm 04 February

February 4, 2012


This is a 1984 Howard Brenton play about the lives of Shelley and his womenfolk and Lord Byron.  Which end by being fucked up, especially the women.  It had rather a typical matinee audience that looked as though  it was in a lot better condition 28 years ago (but then so was I).

The argument I took from the play was that the desire of the characters to free themselves from the social and political constraints of their time–to utterly transform themselves and the world–was undermined by the lack of a sufficient basis, either of contraception that would allow free love or of a Socialist theory that would engage the masses.

This was the position represented by Rhiannon Sommers as Mary Shelley–that one had to keep on living and do what one could in the world–and I thought she put in by far the best performance of the evening.  With many others, I just didn’t feel that these were people eaten up and ablaze with ideas and passions–it was all very restrained and underplayed.

Brenton’s text did suffer by comparison with the passages of Shelley he inserted (Byron was never I think allowed a poetical word), though the passage where (the spirit of )  Shelley’s first wife said she would go with him to Italy and be no trouble–very small–no more than a stain was poetical and moving and effective. I could live with the Daily Mail being introduced before its time, but Lord Byron expressing himself in the language of paperback socialism was a bit hard to take.