Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Bloomsday at Home

Two years ago I was lucky enough to be in Dublin on June 16, Bloomsday--celebrated by Joyceans the world over as the day Ulysses was published, and it appeared on that day in 1922 because June 16 was when James Joyce first took Nora Barnacle out for a walk. So there was a Bloomsday Breakfast at the James Joyce Society, featuring a prok kidney of course and black and white pudding and even a few other things that Eileen would consider consuming. There were talks on Joyce and a tour of Joycean sights--7 Eccles St., Bloom's home--and Belvedere College, where Stephen Dedalus studied--were two. There was also a one-man, two-hour rendition of Ulysses in a pub basement. And we stayed at the Gresham, not quite as snazzy, I suspect, as when Gabriel and Gretta stayed there in The Dead

This year, the annual reading of Ulysses I attended on June 16 occurred online. This reading covers a 111-page abridgement of the novel, and it started late. It took more than four hours--the whole book takes most of a day or more. I had attended this last year when it was at American University, but this year I had volunteered to read. I get a chance to read Joyce aloud on the first Thursday of every month at the meeting of the Capital James Joyce Group, now meeting online but otherwise at Politics & Prose, our locally-owned and operated bookstore.

Joyce is an author who benefits from being read aloud. He had a fine musical mind and ear, so the cadences of his prose gain in effect when heard. Although those of us assigned various sections attended a practice session a week previous, there were the usual technical problems that tend to occur at the start of every program requiring technology, both before and after the present situation.

Finally, we began. It hasn't taken too long for me to become very exhausted with meetings and lectures on Zoom, and this would have been no exception except that even the really dense parts of Ulysses are worth hearing and your comprehension is aided by each hearing. The high point of these annual readings is provided by Robert Aubrey Davis, who has been a classical music host on various DC radio stations. He always reads Chapter 3, Proteus, in which Stephen walks along Sandymount strand. 

To describe the chapter so, however, is to miss the many, many other subjects, allusions, and references which fill this chapter. Most readers find it especially challenging because of its complexity but Mr. Davis brings a fine accented voice to the task of presenting this material in the best way. It is a delight and it was only unfortunate that he only read half the chapter because of the ongoing technical problems.

The other readers were a mixed bag: too many people make careless mistakes and others don't know how to pronounce words in languages other than English--Joyce spoke eight languages and uses many of them, only glancingly, but it all adds up. Place names are important, too--Howth, the north side of Dublin Bay, where Bloom proposed to Molly, is pronounced HOE-th, for example.

They finally got to me, for I was assigned two sections of Chapter 11, Sirens, which takes place in the hotel bar of the Ormond Hotel, which I remember walking past in central Dublin near Trinity College, but much of the south side of the Liffey is near Trinity College. Among Joyce's themes in this chapter is music, and traditional Irish songs are sung by the men in the barroom. The scene opens with the two barmaids, Miss Douce and Miss Kennedy, conducting their mostly oral sparring with the men--in 1904, they were the only women in the barroom. Bloom appears but remains apart from the group, partly because he sees Blazes Boylan present, whom he knows will be shortly having an assignation with Molly that afternoon.

This was a comparatively challenging chapter to read, and I felt I acquitted myself well. I enjoyed it, tried to get into the spirit of the text, and made good efforts to pronounce the occasional almost unpronounceable words Joyce includes to capture some sounds. I'm not sure everyone was familiar with the close of the chapter, where, timing it to the noise of a passing trolley car, Bloom on the street passes gas, I'm told my rendition was credible.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

A Chance to Contemplate

There have been quite a few essays and columns written about the current pandemic but most cite the two greatest classic pieces about previous such occurrences: Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus's La Peste (The Plague). The selections all appear appropriate to our situation even if I will confess I haven't read the originals, which always makes me reluctant to comment too much about them. (I have Camus's novel in French somewhere upstairs and I intend to find it today!)

This is the first time that I'm feeling that we may be experiencing a moment of the kind this country knew in World War II, when life as people knew it changed forever. What didn't change, though, was the return of narrow-minded behavior right after the war. I was born in the month when the war ended so I never really got to experience how people for the most part worked in concert for a change. But people were still driving their old prewar cars when I was very young and there were some signs like that of how people felt then that they were all in this together. 

Living in Washington, of course, prevents me from getting rhapsodic about how people behave. The same craven lobbyists who operate here constantly peppered the stimulus package with gifts for the special interests. The Democrats did indeed make a terrible bill less terrible, but they didn't excise everything awful: the miserable Republicans were able to treat DC as a territory and thus cut its allowance of funds under the bill to half that of any state, many of which have fewer people than the District. The airlines got their bailout without having to eliminate their sheer greed displayed in the endless extra charges they have levied on travellers confined to ridiculously tiny seats--a condition that was superbly exposed last week by Columbia law Prof. Tim Wu in a N.Y.Times op-ed piece.

And the first thing the Kennedy Center did with its own earmark in the bill was decide not to use any of it to pay the National Symphony Orchestra players. On the plus side, Opera, the British magazine, sent out a list of operas being streamed by companies all over Europe and the Met is also making its recorded productions available for streaming. I do look forward to seeing a lot of worthy series on streaming television that I haven't bothered to watch until now.

Staying inside is indeed stultifying even if life-saving. We've gone for walks but I've decided to keep shopping trips to a minimum now. It seems too easy to make a wrong move and pay for it big time. I don't focus much here on politics but we are truly paying the price for our totally antidemocratic electoral system and our tolerance of malevolent and ignorant people in major leadership positions. Those who are skeptical of religion are certainly on point in fighting those who would elevate religion and wishful thinking above science in dealing with our crises. 

Saturday, March 14, 2020

'Portrait of a Lady on Fire' and 'Emma'

Portrait of a Lady on Fire is a well-conceived French pic that is well worth the effort to see. It won't be on the wide distribution circuit, nor will Emma, which is also worth seeing.

One has an all-French cast and the other an all-British one. Both are excellent. The French one is set in the 1770s at a massive castle house in Brittany, right on the sea. The two leads are a young woman about to be sent off to marry a rich husband in Italy and a slightly older woman who has been hired to paint the first lady without her catching on. It's sort of a wedding present for the bridegroom but also is being done to ensure that she shows up, because her sister opted out--of life--to skip her wedding.

Eventually she figures out what's going on but surprisingly, the two get on famously, in fact, more than that. Things definitely get intense between the two of them and they also befriend a servant girl who needs an abortion, so we also get to see the social crusaders of the day. Adèle Haenel is a lovely-looking actress who plays the bride, while Noémie Merlant is more "interesting looking." 

I found the story worth following and the acting and directing were top-notch. The sex scene--there's only one brief one--is nicely done and hardly leering or offensive.

Emma is just the latest movie or miniseries based on a Jane Austen novel. Most of the critics recalled, as did I, that the best adaptation so far was the film Clueless, where Alicia Silverstone plays a California rich kid trying to remake her friend who's new to the high school so she can join the in crowd and find romance. Amy Heckerling, who directed the classic Fast Times at Ridgemount High, helmed that one. 

Here we have a cast of good Brit performers who were all new to me since I haven't resided in the U.K. for too many years. Anya Taylor-Joy is the title character and she is delightful as the heart of the story and the picture. Johnny Flynn is Mr. Right and Callum Turner is Mr. Wrong. Taylor-Joy makes the lead believable as a 21-year-old who enjoys her privileged life but tries to help a less well-born friend find an upper-class husband.

The veteran Bill Nighy is, as always, an absolute delight as her hypochondriac father, and everyone else fits in nicely. Needless to say, the settings in English country houses are magnificent and a lot of Jane Austen's social satire comes through loud and clear.

I liked the music--a combo of lots of Mozart, one major Beethoven sonata, some Haydn, and lots of English folk tunes.  The hapless vicar who gets into the plot as a would-be suitor when he isn't marrying others, played by Josh O'Connor, is a cross between the stiff Mr. Bliffel in Tom Jones and Rowan Atkinson's classic purveyor of malapropisms in Four Weddings and a Funeral

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Dorothea Lange photography and Repositioned MOMA Collection

Managed to take in a preview of a new show at the Museum of Modern Art featuring the photography of Dorothea Lange. She was a photographer who shot scenes all over the country but especially in down-and-out places during the Depression in the 1930s in the Dust Bowl and other similar locales. Her work reminded me of Walker Evans and some of her photos are just as famous--one in particular called Migrant Mother was featured in the New York Times.

The show has been put together very deftly. Different walls are devoted to different phases of her career. As usual, problems in seeing the photos are significant--even at a members' preview, the crowd was making getting close to many items difficult. And it's always hard to read the descriptive panels. But enough griping. It is a terrific exhibit and if you get to MOMA, you should definitely take the time to see it. I suspect it's one of those exhibits that if you go starting in its second week, it may be far easier to get close to everything.

The reinstalled permanent collection at the museum is magnificent, as one would expect. The first room has versions of Munch's The Scream, Van Gogh's Starry Night, several Cezannes, and work by Gauguin, Mondrian, Henri Rousseau, and Vuillard. Many pictures are placed with others that may come from a different style and time, but the contrasts are fascinating. I happen to get a charge out of seeing the Italian Futurists, of whose work MOMA has a good sampling. I even spotted a Severini out in the hall as you come off the escalator and a familiar (from previous visits) golden Boccioni sculpture beckoned from across a gallery.

Monday, February 10, 2020

'The Mother of Us All'

There aren't too many opportunities to get to see a production of the three operas by composer Virgil Thomson, who was also a highly-regarded critic in an age when such conflicts of interest were not regarded as problems. So this past Saturday, an unusual combination of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Philharmonic, and the Julliard School of Music presented a semi-staged version of Thomson's 1947 opera about Susan B. Anthony, The Mother of Us All, in the Engelhard court which is located in front of the old Subtreasury building facade that once stood at Wall and Broad, but now fronts the American Wing of the Met.

The space was set up with a raised stage that stood amid three banks of folding wooden chairs for viewers. Surtitles were flashed on a well-suited space in the colonade around the court and pictures were flashed with major points on the front of the Subtreasury facade. Felicia Moore was the excellent soloist who portrayed Susan B. Anthony, and the many other parts, ranging from John Adams to Ulysses S. Grant were filled by Julliard students. A half-dozen Philharmonic musicians, dominated by the trumpeter, provided the orchestral component.

Thomson's music was most enjoyable. He used techniques that Charles Ives was employing--drawing on American patriotic songs, folk music, and marches among many other influences. The plot, if it can be called that, was hard to follow because it was disjointed and mixed real and fictional characters. (Images of many of the characters were flashed up on the facade and identified as appropriate "Real" or "Fictional".) But what would you have expected from the famed avant-gardist who wrote it, Gertrude Stein?

She also had provided the libretto for Thomson's opera, Four Saints in Three Acts, which had been written twenty years earlier in 1927-28. The Mother of Us All did win praise from many--an example comes from Opera News in 2013, regarding a Manhattan School of Music production:

"The opera remains riveting, too, in the lightness and wit of its approach to serious themes such as the struggle for women's suffrage. Preaching would soon pall, but Stein's playfulness, surprises and absurdities, like the Mozartean clockwork of so much of Virgil Thomson's all-American music, have a tonic effect, especially in their ability to keep the listener off guard."

The opera was originally produced at Columbia University, but later was presented (in this century) by the Santa Fe Opera and the San Francisco Opera.

It did not drag and I found myself wanting to know more about the long life and career of Susan B. Anthony, who lived to be 86 and died in 1906, fourteen years before the 19th Amendment giving women the vote went into effect.  

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Song of Names

Several years ago, which it must have been, since the book was copyrighted in 2002, I read a first novel by the English music critic Norman Lebrecht, called The Song of Names. It had been brought to my attention by my cousin "Doctor Bill" Hoffman (called that to distinguish him from his and my Uncle Bill, as families often behave with nicknames). I knew Doctor Bill was an opera aficionado but we had had few conversations during all the years and now that he's gone, I do regret not making more of an effort to engage him.

All this came back to me because Lebrecht's book was eventually developed into a motion picture, which opened within the last month. It is the story of a Polish Jewish violin virtuoso who is first saved from the Holocaust by being brought when nine years old to London by his father to live with the family of a Jewish impresario. When he returns to Poland and disappears, the host's son sets out to track him down. It got good reviews everywhere but in the local rag, the Washington Post. Most of the critics, however, thought that the movie, while good in total, had some dry spots; the critic for the Los Angeles Times gave it a strongly positive review and Variety noted its quality but thought it might have a limited audience, a way of saying that it might come off as too Jewish.. 

Doctor Bill had suggested the book to me because there is a reference to my granduncle Joe, who was formally known as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Joseph H. Hertz . That was enough for me to go out and get it, which I did, and read it, which I don't always do.  The book was a lot of fun to read, mainly because Lebrecht, who writes a weekly music column in the London Evening Standard and occasionally appears in other British journals, such as The Spectator  sprinkles the text with appearances of British personalities, from Sir Henry Wood, the conductor who initiated the summertime Proms, George Orwell (Eric Blair), and Sir Neville Cardus, also a music critic and the most highly-regarded cricket writer as well. He also has a new book out on Jewish geniuses between 1847 and 1947. 

The movie,  also entitled The Song of Names, obviously lacks just about all these historical and personality references, which add a great deal to the charm of the book, since Lebrecht imparts his wide knowledge of English cultural and political life, and clearly has a built-in liking for British eccentricity. But there are two references to Chief Rabbi Hertz. The first:

There was only one impediment [to having a combined bar mitzvah for the two boys], raised by the unordained Goldfarb. Was it permissible in Jewish law, he wondered, to delay my confirmation in order to spare another boy's feelings? Father brooked no cavils from so lowly a functionary. He took me round to the Chief Rabbi's house on Hamilton Terrace, where the learned Dr. J.H. Hertz, a world-renowned scholar of notoriously short temper, caressed his well-trimmed beard and pronounced a psak, or precedential ruling, allowing the postponement of a bar mitzvah for the sake of emotional stability in times of war.

The mention of the house in Hamilton Terrace took me back a good many years to when we lived in London for most of a year. It had been broken up into apartments, but my cousin Jo, a daughter of the Chief Rabbi, resided in one of the flats, where we visited her often. The second reference occurs a few pages later:

Father went to see the Chief Rabbi, mainly to meet his red-bearded son-in-law, Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, who was running in and out of Poland in search of Jewish orphans. Dr Schonfeld took the particulars, made no promises. We met him weeks later at Victoria Station, heading a convoy of bewildered Jewish children. When immigration officials blocked entry, he blazed through the barriers with eyes of blue fire. Catching my father's eye, he shook his head slowly with a look of sorrowing exhaustion.

These incidents do not show up in the movie, nor do most of Lebrecht's Joycean recall of many notable persons, places, and happenings that he featured in the novel. But the film does a good job of telling the story, has wonderful music, especially the violin pieces played by the Taiwanese-Australian Ray Chen, and the exteriors take you back to prewar and wartime London. Tim Roth plays the son who shares his room with the violin prodigy David from Poland, and Clive Owen comes on masterfully later in the picture as the grown-up Dovidl.

My granduncle passed away in 1946, having served as Chief Rabbi since 1913, so I never met him, since I was was one year old then. I did encounter Solomon Schonfeld, called Oliver by his family, much later. I had read about his wartime exploits in enabling Jewish children to escape Nazi Europe, so it was compelling to meet someone who had been engaged in that heroic work.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The Man Who Won't Go Away

It's important to see the documentary, Where's My Roy Cohn? The late disbarred lawyer started out representing possibly the most evil person of the '50s, Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and then had a lengthy series of rich crooks, fixers, and rotters as clients for the next few decades. One of the reviews of this film suggested that the key question we should be asking is: Why did the rich and famous not only hire him but socialize with him, knowing how evil he was?

Of course, Tony Kushner made him the leading figure in his superb Angels in America and showed him as who he really was: a closeted homosexual who had persecuted other gay men. In many ways, he was the evil genius with few redeeming attributes. Even the many who despised him acknowledged his smarts: he knew how to use the law for his purposes. I recall reading an account in the NYU Law Review about how several public interest cases were litigated. In one of them, he represented the bad guys and his performance was a demonstration of how to use the law to delay and obfuscate.

He's most relevant today--many years after his death in 1986--because he was the early mentor of our current President when the latter was learning the real estate business. Cohn taught him never to apologize, always to fight back harder than he had been hit, and to lie and cheat as necessary. Amazingly, it looks like the title of this film reflects his difficulty in finding a mouthpiece as skilled and effective as Cohn was. In another profile of Cohn, in Esquire some years ago, one observer said that Cohn was the lawyer you wanted when your case looked like a sure loser, because he had just about invented the hardball style of litigation.

He had been a prosecutor on the Rosenberg case and his statement in a TV interview years after it showed his propensity to lie. It has become clear that Julius Rosenberg was guilty and that Ethel Rosenberg was not, but was prosecuted and executed in a futile attempt to "turn" Julius. It's also important to add that their espionage was hardly "the crime of the century," in J. Edgar Hoover's phrase, because Klaus Fuchs had already given the Soviets all the secrets they needed to build an atomic bomb. Cohn said in the interview that "we had tons more evidence against Ethel Rosenberg that we didn't even need to use," an obvious lie that is rendered even more despicable because he was communicating ex parte with the trial judge to encourage him to impose the death penalty.

The film is worth seeing to remind us that sharpsters like Cohn do get away with their crimes. Yes, he was disbarred at the end and he suffered a somewhat painful decline and death from AIDS. But he was something of a social lion in New York, and was welcomed as a lawyer and friend by the highest figures in the Catholic Church in the city. Cohn should be featured in the new law school ethics courses (which we never had when I was in law school) as the clearest horrible example of how a lawyer can use every skill and technique to succeed in defending the worst among us. Everyone is entitled to be represented, but we've rarely seen someone who spent an entire career protecting the rich and evil and oppressing those who hoped to find justice in our justice system.