Sunday, October 15, 2017

Another Immersion in 'Ulysses'

Those of us who find the work of James Joyce continually fascinating are not put off by Joyce's own listing of the four greatest writers: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and Joyce. I'm again taking a Ulysses course, this one at our Politics and Prose bookstore taught by Chris Griffin, an Irish former teacher of Irish literature at George Washington Univ.

There's always more to be found in this novel, often heralded as the greatest of the 20th century. I have more of a feeling for many of the places after the initial trip in June to Ireland where I was able to enjoy Bloomsday, June 16, and see many of the settings of famous scenes in the novel. Incidental comments in the class add to the appreciation: for example, that Joyce felt that Gabriel Conroy, the main character in his story, "The Dead", in Dubliners, was who Joyce felt he would have become had he remained in Ireland.

The comments meant for the first-timers to the book also help. The first three chapters are centered on Stephen Dedalus, who represents Joyce himself at the age of 22 and was the leading character in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, although he has yet to produce any work of art. He is highly intellectual, however, so many of the allusions are to Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas; when we get to Chapter 4 and meet Leopold Bloom, Joyce's everyman, the allusions are just as likely to focus on then-popular songs--Joyce himself was a tenor who sang with John McCormick.

I learned so much about Joyce and his life from reading Brenda Maddox's magnificent biography of his wife, Nora. Joyce, like some other geniuses, did believe the world owed him a living and he lived high when he could, usually on other people's money. Years ago we stayed in a Kensington house in London we rented from the nephew of Harriet Shaw Weaver, an English lady who spent a great deal of her fortune supporting Joyce.

Joyce, however, was true to Nora over the years of both privation and success. He did not have an easy life as both his children probably suffered from his over-involvement in trying to direct their lives. Nora worked mightily to keep the traveling household together and Joyce's siblings were often drafted to support him, both with money and in many other ways. His brother Stanislaus's memoir was properly entitled My Brother's Keeper.

I always learn something from the class sessions and the book of annotations to Ulysses. There's a reference to Ferrando, an operatic character. I assumed it was to the tenor in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte, a leading role. But I was mistaken. This Ferrando is the captain of the Count di Luna's guard in Verdi's Il Trovatore, and while not a leading character, his aria, to which Stephen refers, tells the whole back-story of the opera. 

What's fascinating about this incredible novel is that if you think you see some allusion or reference, it is definitely meant to be there. 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Talking Baseball

Baseball deserves to be the great American game. Certainly this is not because of any inspired leadership. Those in charge of the administration of the game have done much to diminish it, beginning with the designated hitter. Of course, their offenses against the public good tend to pale when compared with the NFL owners. 

But there is a beauty to baseball when played at the postseason level, where you have really good teams and strategy becomes crucial. Individual and team performances reach heights rarely seen during routine games during the season. And this year in the first round, we've had the chance to enjoy an amazing range of venues. From the eccentric Fenway Park to the classic Wrigley Field to always majestic, even the new version, Yankee Stadium, to now-seasoned Dodger Stadium, and then to good new parks like Jacobs Field in Cleveland and Nationals Park here in DC.

Games are tight, scoring frequently is low, errors count much more, and October weather may be totally inappropriate--note the more-than-drizzle in Chicago yesterday. Another sin by baseball is refusing to stop games when it clearly is raining. The game is not meant to be played on slippery grass; two throws by pitchers to first went awry, purely because of the wet field.

Some players rise to the occasion: Bryce Harper and Michael A. Taylor of the Nats come through with crucial, unanticipated homers; Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs delivers a succession of two-out, two-strike hits. Stephen Strasburg pitches better--extraordinarily well--when not fully recovered from illness than some days earlier where in his sixth inning, he allowed the game to start to slip away. Dusty Baker ensured the disaster by bringing in Sammy Solis, who promptly gave away the critical runs.

Teams, too: the Yankees were unheralded, often maligned during the season for lacking the obvious all-stars we have grown to expect: no Ruths, Gehrigs, DiMaggios, Mantles. But they came in, lost the first two games, and surprised a Cleveland club that most had predicted to win the World Series. 

Brings back 1954--when I first learned about baseball--and the greatest Cleveland team, one which won a then-record 111 games (out of 154) with possibly the finest pitching staff ever assembled: Feller, Lemon, Early Wynn, Mossi and Narleski--fell in four straight to the rag-tag New York Giants. Leo Durocher got the most out of a bunch of non-Hall of Famers, plus--yes, there's always a catch: The Catch--Willie Mays.

These Yankees prevailed despite their manager, Joe Girardi, who seemed to make mistake after mistake. The Nats may or may not break their fifth-game barrier tonight, but the seemingly brilliant maneuvering of Cubs' manager Joe Maddon in Game 4 backfired with the Michael A. Taylor home run off Wade Davis, while Dusty Baker's apparently mindless sticking with Ryan Madson despite what seemed to be a lacklustre performance turned out well.

So many maxims fall by the wayside. Good pitching beats good hitting. Yes...usually. Even the video replay review of challenged  close plays by a team in New York proved its worth: the base umpire called Ryan Zimmerman safely back on first after the second of two rare Jon Lester pickoff throws. Yet once anyone looked at the video, Zim was clearly tagged and out before he touched the bag.

My knees resent the constant standing in the seats during the playoffs. Yet this is only one more instance of how the excitement of the postseason permeates the baseball world. We begin with a week of multiple games and then it starts to narrow down. There will be great catches, throws, pitches, and hits. Mistakes will be made. Strategies will be exposed as deficient.  But all the hoopla and commercialism in the end is overriden by the thrills and fabulous plays.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Wonderful 'Hoffmann'

I have a particular affection for Les Contes d'Hoffmann, the great Offenbach opera based on the weird tales written by E.T.A. Hoffman, the German Romantic who also wrote the story on which The Nutcracker is based. It is a long opera but all its parts are delightful. The title character falls in love with three unlikely ladies: a doll, a sickly singer, and a courtesan. Each love (and act) ends in disaster. There's also a prologue and epilogue, set in a tavern where Hoffmann waits his latest charmer, a diva named Stella singing in the opera house upstairs.

The opera not only has had many productions in many places, but even exists in many different versions. This is because Offenbach left it unfinished. In recent years, Acts II and III have been reversed, and this switch has even been accepted by the sometimes stodgy Met. Now the Venice act comes last--with its multiple shoiwpiece arias and duets--the famed Barcarolle which opens and closes the act, the Love Duet between Hoffmann and Giulietta, Schlemil's rollicking song--now sung by Hoffmann at the Met, and the villain's , in this act, Dappertutto's, great bass aria, Scintille Diamant.

The Met's production, which had its first performance this season last week on the second night of the season, is eight years old and was created by Bartlett Sher, who has been highly successful on Broadway, with the fine revival of South Pacific as well as several other hits. But his Hoffmann is not a great production--it has lots of the kind of weird, strange characteristics of many edgy European opera productions without the freshness that those shows often possess.

Nevertheless, to me, it was a roaring success because I heard possibly the best singing of this opera I have ever enjoyed. Vittorio Grigolo was a marvelous Hoffmann, singing clearly and beautifully with full emotion, yet not giving way to any ornaments that would detract from the characterization. Ornaments were left to Erin Morley in the coloratura role of Olympia, the doll with whom Hoffman falls in love. The other two lovers were played by Anita Hartig and Oksana Volkova, who also had lovely voices. Geraldine Chauvet had the trouser role of Nicklausse, Hoffmann's reliable friend and travelling partner, who becomes his Muse in the epilogue. She was marvelous but the staging did have her wandering around during many scenes for seemingly no good reason.

Laurent Naouri played the four villains with excellent style and Christophe Mortagne overacted as the four servants, but his gesturing was well within the normal wide range allowed the performer of these roles.

As it was as good a performance in terms of singing that I had ever experienced, it can only be compared to the CD I have of Placido Domingo and Joan Sutherland (doing all the heroines), which is about as good as it gets. The great Gabriel Bacquier did the villains and it made me realize how good both he and Naouri were because their native French comes through so well.

There did not appear to be a Times review of this production but last week it was mentioned prominently in an article about the rise of singing and the voice to preeminent roles in today's opera scene, as contrasted with the emphasis on productions, staging, and story that dominated for some time, often under the appellation "regietheater". This singing was the kind that stays with you, especially for the wonderful music in Hoffmann.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

A Family Funeral

Fortunately, I have not yet reached that reputed age where one finds funerals enjoyable events to attend. Yesterday, however, I went to one held in what New Yorkers often refer to as "the cemeteries"--the mass of mostly Jewish and Catholic graveyards that line the north side of the curving Jackie Robinson Parkway (nee Interboro, which was truly descriptive of the road's linking Brooklyn and Queens in that the Queens-based Mets descended much more from the [Brooklyn] Dodgers than from my old N.Y. Giants; the parkway appropriately recognizes baseball's pioneer). 

Though my uncle was 99, his death on Monday was still a surprise. I'd seen him not long ago and he was his always alert, wise, and delightful self. Yes, he seemed frailer and didn't get around that easily, but it was wonderful spending some time with him. He was the youngest and last surviving sibling of five; he left sons, daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and great-grandchildren.

Important to him, though, were the 29 courses he had audited at the English Department of Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., where he had lived for the past two decades. Now that I'm attending various classes and lectures much more often than I ever seemed to have the time to savor previously, I look to his example.

He followed a good policy: as an auditor who was several years--actually, decades--older than the paying college students in the class, he would never volunteer to speak but would respond if the professor called on him. I knew he was a good writer, not only because he always responded to any holiday letters I might incautiously send to him along with others -- his response invariably identified not only errors of style but of fact -- but because I remembered that he had written short stories, many published, when I first got to know him when I was in grade school. 

He came by his writing ability both naturally and as a benefit of a career that started out on the editorial side of journalism before he profitably shifted to the business side. His father, my grandfather, was a successful lawyer turned historian who had started out with nothing as an immigrant boy on the Lower East Side; he not only graduated from CCNY and Columbia Law, but received an M.A. in English from Columbia. My uncle was the last surviving member of his class at Washington & Lee. He attended many of our college graduations.

The brief talks at the graveside service emphasized how he had been a treasured friend as well as wise adviser to his sons and his grandchildren, and I recalled how he had visited my first cousin and I when we were at college. While taking us to dinners at better spots than we would likely have gone to dine on our own, he provided helpful guidance on matters great and small. I have nine first cousins on that side of my family and I think he maintained a relationship with all of them. 

He was always living in the world, reading The Times daily by noon and often travelling to see us as well as his grandchildren when he was able to travel. He was aware of what was happening in theater, books, art, and music as well as being deeply troubled by current politics. He was the easiest Yankee fan not only to like but to talk baseball or opera with. He truly was a mensch, an appellation he would have declined as pretentious. I'll miss him a lot.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Pinter Wthout Pain

One of the trademarks of Harold Pinter's plays is that some note of menace inevitably enters into the scene. It can be prolonged and painful, as when the two enforcers visit Stanley in The Birthday Party, or it can be relatively quick as in the two short plays I saw at the Shakespeare Theatre Company Sunday: The Lover and The Collection.

The latter turned out to be the interesting play. There's a pitting of two men with one menacing the other, whom he believes has been having it off with his wife. That such an event might have occurred is problematic because the man accused appears to be living with a third man with whom he seems to be engaged in a gay relationship.

In the first play, the shocker comes at the start when a husband asks his wife if she is planning to entertain her lover that afternoon. By the end you don't know whether they have an "arrangement" or whether this is merely a role play for the two of them, although there is indeed a scene in the afternoon with her lover present.

In The Collection, you are left adrift as is usual with Pinter but the perplexity comes from a gradual perception that the accused man may be playing a game on both the man with whom he lives and the man who is accusing him of adultery. The performers are superb: Lisa Dwan plays the woman in both plays--we saw her in June doing a one-woman show, No's Knife, based on some Beckett pieces, at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Patrick Ball, Patrick Kennedy, and Jack Koenig are all excellent, and also have international appearances on their CVs.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Asheville and Maggie Valley

We're on a road trip--to Asheville, where we toured the Biltmore Estate, had some fine barbecue, and enjoyed a tootsie restaurant called Rhubarb; and then to Maggie Valley, out at the edge of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where Eileen was invited to a picnic and program for survivors of bladder cancer at the Cataloochee Ranch.

Right now, we've broken up the trip back at Roanoke, about halfway to Washington, and the location, as befits an old railroad town, of a wonderful museum devoted to the finest of railroad photographers, O. Winston Link. The museum named after him is located between the Museum of Transportation, itself right beside what are now the Norfolk Southern tracks and the historic Roanoke Hotel.

Asheville itself, of course, is a charming artsy town with a thriving downtown filled by shops of all kinds, including a fine bookstore called Malaprop's. Those of you who have taken the tour of the Biltmore Estate know that it's the largest house built in the U.S., designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, who also built New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the grounds by Frederick Law Olmstead, of Central Park and other great green spot fame.

The Vanderbilt who built the pile, which does look as if it somehow migrated to 125,000 acres in Asheville from the Loire valley, clearly knew who to hire. He also had John Singer Sargent down to do the family portraits. Otherwise, his artistic taste was somewhat stodgy, with heavy European furniture and many, many prints, most not up to the level of the few Durers he acquired; there also are some marvelous tapestries from Brussels that are definitely worth extended viewing.

My favorite bit of Hunt's design are the angled windows on a grand staircase that takes one up to the next two floors from the overwhelming first level. They are delightful to see both from the inside and the outside as the kind of folly that makes structures like this one memorable. We also enjoyed seeing the vast gardens, although much of the planting was finished by this time of year.

Moe's Original Bar-B-Q, near Biltmore Village, is also the real deal. Fantastic brisket and ribs, with a clearly local crowd, and not from the arts district. We arrived at the Cataloochee Ranch after a drive through Maggie Valley, a typical town at the edge of a national park, and then climbing about 1,300 feet on a three-mile curving ride up to 4,000 feet.

It was the 9th annual such assemblage and provided a helpful occasion for attendees to receive updates on developments in medical and treatment research, as well as to exchange experiences about survivors who received different treatments and those who live with and care for them. The views of the mountains at that elevation are spectacular and a fine time was had.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Revisiting Portnoy

Eileen and I have been attending a course given by our notable local bookstore, Politics and Prose, on the Early Novels of Philip Roth, taught by an English  professor emerita from Princeton, Elaine Showalter. Tonight the subject was Roth's best known work, Portnoy's Complaint (1969).

In preparation we both re-read the novel, for the first time since it was published. In my case, it was the first time in that I read the big parts of the novel when Roth published them in the New American Review and other magazines way back then, but I realized I had never read the last part, especially the ending set in Israel. One big change since 1969 and the cause celebre that the novel became is that nobody in the class was especially offended or shocked by it.

That's not to say that some people didn't express the view that they could see themselves being offended. In one of Roth's many interviews, he was asked if Jews were right to be offended by the novel, to which he responded that he thought there were things in the book that Gentiles might be offended by. 

To me, the reason it's his most significant novel is that it best captures his humor. Roth has sought to emphasize that he is an American not just a Jewish writer, but his funniest and seemingly most trenchant moments always concern Jews. He is one of the only writers I've ever read who produces laughing-out-loud pieces of writing. 

We do learn things from these classes. Roth himself was psychoanalyzed by a famous psychiatrist who also published his account of analyzing Roth in a psychological journal with the analysand thinly disguised. Though the psychiatrist of course denied it, this was clearly and completely unethical. Also, there was a lot of discussion about the significance of the famous last line (the "Punch Line") of the book, uttered by the psychoanalyst: "So now ve may perhaps to begin."

Everyone seemed focused--well, at least the two psychiatrists in the class were--on it indicating that the psychiatrist felt that now that Portnoy had told his story it was the right point to begin to analyze his account and determine what underlay his behavior. I thought and said that the reason Roth calls it the Punch Line is that most readers are likely to feel that after this narrator has ranted and raved for almost 300 pages about his growing up and his affairs, all the psychiatrist can think of to say is that perhaps ve now may begin. That to me is what makes it a punch line.

Anyway, some questions were answered, many were explored, and I'm still not at that certain as to why the title character seems to have a breakdown and is impotent when he gets to Israel.