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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries from September 1, 2011 - September 30, 2011

Friday
Sep302011

Dank der Eltern

A short essay ("Thanks to the parents") by this German novelist and polemicist, presented as a speech at this school's high school graduation ceremony in Cologne.  You can read the original text in this collection.

Were we to think back nine years to the scandals, the concealed and visible evils with which people tried to impede or lame this school and in particular its prerequisite, the Montessori elementary school, then this first Montessori high school graduation truly deserves to be celebrated.  And the men and women who dared to attempt such an experiment, in Cologne of all places, are not only deserving of our praise but also of our thanks.  I extend this gratitude in the name of all the parents.  In an educational system and within a framework of educational planning in which the suggestion of freedom and play with regard to something as deadly serious as education is considered suspicious, in which castigation, breeding and grades are all regarded as indispensable, and in which numbered and innumerable performance assessments are desired – in this very system many a compromise had to be made, and a double burden was shifted onto the shoulders of teachers and students: they were obliged to demonstrate their ability to thrive in a system that the Montessori method was actually supposed to refute.  I hope that this compromise will not endure; I hope that with this first high school graduating class the established system will gain confidence in a method that need not bring shame to graded evaluations.  Here we do not only have teachers and students, we also have a method that has been tried and tested, and one which I hope can be tested in its pure form in the years to come.  Critical stages emerged again and again, of course, as teachers, students and parents soon discovered, as more or less force was directed from above and below against the Montessori method as a compromise of the predominant school system.  This force came from fear; fear on the part of all the framework evaluators who look at everything new with scorn and mistrust. 

That force begets counterforce is a simple law, and to make light of the student crises, one hardly needed any psychology just the most basic laws of physics.  Until six years ago this force only begot oppression and oppressed.  If you were to remove all ancillary mental and physical meanings from the word "pressure" and understand it more in the sense of the imprint on a page of a book or newspaper – from which it derives its name as a pressurized and pressed baked good – then perhaps you'll understand why I do not think much of societal baked goods, unconditional conformists, and unconditional obeyers as the best barometers of an educational system.  The origin of the family, school, university and church crisis lies in the fact that people, above all young people, no longer wish to be mass-produced  as if they were in a printing house.  Contemplate for a moment the words "manufacturing," "dispatch," "preparation," and you will recognize the cause for angst and unease.  Young people no longer wish to be manufactured.  For that reason do they rightly regard the separation of teaching and learning methods (and, to a certain extent, teaching and learning forms) from teaching and learning content as suspicious.  No longer will they allow prerequisites to be stipulated for them in the way one orders a pre-prepared soup.  They want to test out the teaching content on the teaching form and vice versa, and a word such as "inbuilt," which may sound a bit precious, is in fact the most appropriate.  The Montessori method does not know this untested acceptance of content, method and form.  Now I do not want to seem overly optimistic and predict that this method, if used properly, could avert an education crisis.  And yet I have to say that in it lies the possibility of changing this screwed-up system fed by waves of arrogance from above and waves of resentment from below.  This method is in no way aimed as a type of world view or ideal, and it does not make angels out of our teachers, students and parents.  It simply assumes that one can detect realities, even complicated realities, and that this method can take a child from the abstract intellectual notion of something detected to the haptic notion.  This assumption contains an understanding of reality which gradually enables detection in terms of recognition.  Even Adam, the first man, detected and recognized the world in this way and both of these functions rendered him capable of carrying out the most complicated of all processes: the naming of the world, its people, animals and plants.

I could go on and on about these matters and interconnections, but I no longer wish to try the patience of the graduates for whom this celebration may finally comprise the end of school and their studies.  I will spare you the usual slew of warnings, recollections, and perspectives, as well as the emotions and sentimental digressions into my own school years.  I will also spare you a sketch of the "true man" and "true woman," or even of the "adult" – there are no such things.  The handful of truly adult people that I happened to encounter in my life were all monsters: printed, formed, they knew everything and nothing, could no longer be surprised by anything, incorrigible – and all this I would not wish on either student or teacher.  I congratulate all the teachers and students, I thank you again in the name of all parents, and I hope that this school will soon receive its own home, and together with its elementary school rebut the established system.

Wednesday
Sep282011

Happy-go-lucky

There are very few of us who really care nothing at all about the opinions of others; it would be more correct to say that these souls care about very few opinions on the world.  Talk about anything of topical or historical importance and they will shun it as the drivel of the empowered; mention something minute and personal, however, and you will find that they indeed care because we all care for minutia.  In a way, art may be understood as a choice of minutia.  It is possible to write something artistic about a historical event, but sooner or later the event overshadows the artistic work and reduces it to the thrall of a captive historian.  Real, enduring art has little historical significance: it is about the personal, the particular, the unique.  We do demand that the setting of our story be appealing (I have a well-known weakness for the last two hundred years of non-wartime Northern Europe), and we should demand that the characters portrayed therein are moral beings with a clear sense of right and wrong.  They need not be unwavering in their ethics nor, for that matter, bound to them.  But they do need to know what they should and shouldn't do, and however they subsequently choose to act will give us an idea of what their value is as fictional constructs.  Perhaps for that reason are some of us terrified by a character who can only be happy and considerate and upbeat, because in comparison to her our own pettiness is quickly revealed.  And such a character is the protagonist of this charming film.

The title character is Pauline "Poppy" Cross (Sally Hawkins), whom we first encounter riding her bicycle through a working-class area of greater London.  My ignorance of typical British diminutives notwithstanding, Poppy has all the pizzazz and hyper energy to live up to her name.  She enters a bookstore more to be in the bookstore with the chance of human interaction in a civilized venue than to do any type of shopping or browsing.  She accosts the lone employee, who ignores her, and we understand that this is what normally occurs in her existence: she extends a chipper hand and is shunned because people would rather maintain their bubble of indifference than care about a stranger.  The next scene involves a club and some clubbing, the after-party comprising four slightly high young women bantering about the usual topics that good friends use to maintain their closeness.  There is no discernible plot, unless one considers a loosely structured slice-of-life approach a welcome substitute, and Poppy's two closest female confidantes appear to be her best friend Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) and Poppy's younger sister Suzy (Kate O'Flynn).  Poppy enjoys a series of scenes in which she is clearly the happiest person around, and we understand that it's not so much that she refuses to change but that the world is too moody and fickle for her to fit in.  She has a life, albeit a rather plain one, and has decided to live it out instead of wishing for something else. 

And here is where the layers of story are peeled back.  We first assume Poppy to be an uppers-addicted disco swinger, but she turns out to be voluntarily alone and gainfully employed as a primary school teacher.  We expect Poppy still to be unpopular among more conservative elements because of her gaudy outfits and laid-back mores, but she turns out to be as moral and scrutinizing as any old conservative.  We expect Poppy never to have left that working-class part of London, but then are told that she traveled extensively in Southeast Asia and the Pacific teaching English.  We also expect her at one point or another to encounter true adversity, and then we realize that adversity is defined by how you deal with it.  Short of war, famine and the like, day-to-day adversity in a peaceful neighborhood replete with every middle-class cliché imaginable is really determined by the sufferers, who may opt to highlight their pain or simply make the best of their lives.  That is the motto of the film, for better and worse, and nothing can derail it until Poppy decides to take driving lessons for the first time and is assigned to Scott (Eddie Marsan).  Scott adds precisely what is needed in such a scenario: a second opinion on Poppy's happy-go-luckiness.  He is rude, angry, lonely, bitter, and a few disenchanted adjectives more; yet he is greatly taken with Poppy's looks and congeniality, both of which seem to have been lacking in female form from his life for many a year.  Their driving scenes have the necessary element of comic and straight man, but devolve by the end of the film into something far more serious and disturbing.  Marsan's volcanic performance is so outstanding without being a parody that, despite his hijinks, we actually feel quite sorry for him and momentarily resent Poppy for her flippancy.  Other small details so keenly observed as to be remarkable: Zoe's look of angst at Poppy's new boyfriend; the look the two exchange when hearing about a pupil being beaten by his mother's boyfriend; the way in which Poppy does not try to change people but simply won't sink to their level; the bickering about old subjects between Poppy, Suzy, and a third, much more bourgeois sister who have spent their life together; and the unsaid wounds of Poppy's family (something involving her mother, it appears).  By the time we see her at the film's end rowing on a lake in this park, we are convinced that she is happy not because she is hiding a crate of skeletons, angst, and regrets.  In spite of her quirkiness, she is simply mature enough to see that this attitude really is the only way to live.

Detractors have claimed that the whole production is overly improvised (a common Leigh tactic) – as if we never improvise in real life and real time from some other source: from parents' and friends' advice, from the role models in books and films, from what we think we should do and what we want others to think of us.  Many reviews also commit the error of praising Hawkins for being so restrained in her presentation, yet I believe something else is at work here.  Knowing Leigh's methods, Hawkins was likely selected not because she could perform the initial script, which probably existed in very broad strokes, but because Hawkins herself has nothing that could convince us otherwise.  She is not beautiful, nor striking in any way; her age is around thirty; her body shapelessly that of a teenager; her smile neither the nicest nor the least sincere.  It is in observing Hawkins, or Hawkins dressed up in Poppy's preposterously garish outfits, that one character late in the film sees as evidence of a need for attention, that we forget that she is an actress.  Actors may need to be comely to further their career, and, to some degree, they may need to act.   But certain persons are so physically striking that we always know when they cross our screen, even if we are not acolytes of the latest fads or gossip.  For that curious reason, some of our more attractive stars and starlets are praised when they actually do what their résumés claim they have done for years.  Not that films need to be about average people whom we could not distinguish from the rabble; but they do need to convey the sense of art that goes past what one handsome individual can or cannot do.  To put it another way: if I am to learn something about art from a cinematic work, it must be that this work adds another line or interpretation to art's ultimate meaning. That line cannot include a name of an individual who happens to think himself bigger and more important than the cinematic work.  Thankfully, being big and important is the last thing on Poppy's mind.

Saturday
Sep172011

Conversation(s) with Other Women

Since there are two sides to every love story, split screen proved to be the perfect way to tell both sides of Conversation(s) with Other Women.  The technique is traditionally used to show two scenes that are happening in different places at the same time (Pillow Talk is a classic example).  While we use split screen this way, it is most often used to show the different experiences of our two characters in the same scene at the same time.
You will often read dismissive criticism about this other film, whose scenes proceed in inverse chronological order (the most recent is the first, and so forth), to the effect that “had it been chronological, the film would be plain and bland,” which is equivalent to saying that if that Gregor Samsa had just had a case of pneumonia, this brilliant tale would be rather commonplace.  The structure of a truly artistic work should be a reflection of the work itself, and not simply there to induce oohs and aahs from more impressionable readers or moviegoers.  Had this novel been set over the course of a month, all its compressive power would have dissipated into a frivolous Dublin soap opera; put this famous play into prose (or, horror of horrors, modern English) and you will get some philosophy, doubtless, but you will also lose all the wit of its evil world, every last drop of poetic justice and damnation.  When a work promotes a somewhat unorthodox structure, this choice must symbolize the motifs of the work itself, which is precisely how the above explanation, culled from the film’s official website and presumably from the mouth of first–time director Hans Camosa, will be used again and again to justify its gimmicky aspect.  

Gimmicky insofar as the structure, on occasion, supersedes the content, an encounter between a Woman (Helena Bonham Carter) and a Man (Aaron Eckhart), purposefully unnamed for clear symbolic reasons.  They meet at a wedding, where they seem to have friends enough in common to engage in superficial, almost gossipy banter, although it is obvious that they are attracted to one another.  As each probes the other’s emotional contours with the usual barrage of coy quips, it becomes painfully certain that these two souls have been connected for much longer than a half–inebriated wedding reception.  Not because they brandish their knowledge like billy clubs and take cheap shots that we can only understand as such when the other party winces, but because they are not talking about the present or perhaps a long and lusty night together, but about the past.  The Man mentions that when he first saw her, oh about a decade and a half ago, she was wearing a blue dress.  He remembers the dress but not the book she had in her hands, which would be more typically male and would indicate some literary context (especially if the book were by, say, this British authoress).  He also reveals that she was so fetching at that time and in that dress, that he could have kissed her then and there, which is the past intruding into the present, a theme that blooms slowly but vivaciously until the film’s conclusion.

And what of the present?  She is married to a doctor in England (Bonham Carter retains her native British accent), whilst he is dating a much younger woman, a dancer in her early twenties as the conversationalists are both roughly in their late thirties.  A telltale sign that he hasn't emotionally matured?  Or rather that he loves someone fifteen years younger because it was at that age that he met his soul’s twin?  An old chestnut for romantic movies, but one given emotional immediacy by the smoothness and chemistry of two people who know when to hold off on exploiting intimate knowledge.  One of the easiest things in the world is to expose the faults of someone you know well.  We may conclude therefore that knowing someone well means being thoroughly versed in that person’s shortcomings.  The Woman has one of the most bone–rattlingly banal faults of our modern times: she smokes. Yet this remains but a closet habit which does not please her medically–minded spouse, but which doesn’t bother the Man at all since his swagger would never be derailed by such a minor vice.  And herein lies the film’s only drawback, if one can call it that: the two leads, as straightforward and demure as they initially appear to be, have not developed as human beings with or without one another.  They are trapped watching themselves unravel over the years from that first wholesome blue dress to Bonham Carter’s strapless tea rose number, and they don’t particularly like what they see.         

A friend of mine told me that she was once chastised by a creative writing teacher in late high school or early college because she refused to write about relationships, which is “what you’d expect from young people” (she preferred moats, storms, and other gothic gadgets, but that's a story for another day).  She’s right of course, and not only because young people tend to have more relationships than the less volatile middle–aged crowd.  Teens and twentysomethings also often find that the only thing into which they have any insight is love, maybe because it's the only thing of any value they have ever experienced.  Love then becomes their compass, in both the good and bad sense, through life.  Conversation(s) with Other Women has precisely that inherently juvenile slant to it, an imagined reencounter with a loved one that is one of the deadest of all romantic clichés.  It is a tedious cliché because we all want our tales of romance and release to have meant something in our narrow little universes, to have been subjected successfully to the criteria of tragedy and to remain with us like scars only visible from very close up. 
 
And in that imagined future encounter, it is often the case that we have little to say and that we stand staring at that loved one, adrift on distant bliss.  Perhaps even very adrift.  Yet this couple has a lot to say to each other.  What they say may not always be profound, but nothing could be more everyday than coping with private tragedies.  Keeping the dueling debaters anonymous does seem to generalize what they espouse, but it also allows the viewer to re–experience the fundamentality of this battue through our emotions and thoughts.  And when the man says, in self–defense against one of the woman’s many accusations, “it is what it is,” she replies: “Oh, I do hate that expression.  It reminds me of death.”  Twelve years of death to be more specific.      
Saturday
Sep102011

Baudelaire, "Confession"

A work ("Confession") by this French poet.  You can read the original here.

One time a nice, sweet solitary lass
Her bright arm by my own did rest
(This memory has hardly waned in mass
Within my soul's most darksome depths).

'Twas late; just like a coin in newest sheen  
The moon so full and thick was borne;
And like a river, night's solemnity
Streamed o'er a sleeping Paris morn. 

Along some houses and coach entryways,
So furtively the cats did glide;
Their ears alert, or like our dearest shades,
So slowly keeping with our strides. 

When suddenly amidst our freest throes,
Revealed by your wan clarity, 
Rich and sonorous instrument, where flows
But radiance and gaiety;

O spectacle so joyful to behold, 
Beneath the twinkling morning's fire,
You let a strange and plaintive note unfold,
While all this time you wobbled, tired,

Like some weak, bestial, somber, wicked girl,
Whose family would blush, dismay'd,
And would not wait to hide her from the world,
Within some secret, distant cave.

Poor angel! So in piercing shrills she ached:
"No thing down here can be believed:
Regardless of the pains one may so take, 
The human ego e'er deceives." 

"How hard a task to be but beauty's spawn!
How dull the work of such a child!
A cold, mad swooning dancer girl gets on
With insincere and metal smiles."

"'Tis a fool's plan to build on heartfelt whims;
For love and beauty too shall flee
Upon that day they're sacked by Oblivion,
And gifted to Eternity!"

This wild enchanted moon I've oft evoked;
This silence, this lethargic chart; 
A horrid confidence in whispers' choke, 
A sad confession of the heart. 

Tuesday
Sep062011

Bunin, "К воспоминаниям о Толстом"

An essay ("On some memoirs about Tolstoy") by this Russian man of letters.  You can read the original here.

I read N. A. Tsurikov's Meetings with Tolstoy published in Vozrozhdenie – some very good and valuable articles.  Tsurikov is correct when he asserts that there is no end or limit to the memoirs written about Tolstoy.  Yet hitherto have we really seen many in which the real Tolstoy can be felt?  In the memoirs of Tsurikov he feels unusually alive.

Most of those who have written about Tolstoy, Tsurikov says, belonged to a very different milieu than their subject – and here I would like to add that this is precisely the problem.  Yet Tsurikov's work is another matter.  And for that reason, one would hate to see Meetings with Tolstoy lost amidst other works of this kind.

Tsurikov's work should also serve to correct others' memoirs and articles on Tolstoy.  Take, for example, a recently published article by a Mr. Brodsky in Rul', about the language of Tolstoy – the daily not the literary language – based on memoirs by Goldenweiser.  Brodsky actually comments that, "in the life of great artists, the details of their existence, the habits that seem insignificant at first glance, clothes, their manner of comporting themselves, their outward appearance and their language – again, their daily not their literary language – frequently yield what whole volumes of biography cannot replace," and to this end produces from Goldenweiser's book "some particularities of Tolstoy's language."  Were these particularities, however, personal traits of Tolstoy?  Ask Tsurikov and he will say: of course they weren't, they weren't at all.

This is precisely what I, Tolstoy's compatriot, would also say, having coming from the same way and stratum of life as Tolstoy.  No, these are not Tolstoyan traits, but our own general characteristics.  The particularities of language of that comparatively small locality, those distant points forming a circle whose center is Kursk, Oryol, Tula, Ryazan and Voronezh.  And haven't nearly all our greatest Russian writers used this very same language?   Because almost all of them are ours.  Tsurikov and I discussed this recently, a subject already mentioned in his Meetings with Tolstoy: we have so many famous compatriots from this remarkable region!  Zhukovsky and Tolstoy are from Tula; Tiutchev, Leskov, Turgenev, Fet, the Kireevsky brothers, and the Zhemchuzhnikov brothers hail from Oryol; Anna Bunina and Polonsky are from Ryzan; Kol'tsov, Nikitin, Garshin and Pisarev from Voronezh.  Even Pushkin and Lermontov are partially ours, since their kinsmen the Voyekovs and the Arsenevs are also from our area, from our beans and sprouts, as we say in these parts.   

I repeat: from the plethora of examples that Goldenweiser presents as evidence of the particularities of Tolstoy's language, I have yet to find a single one which would convince me of its uniqueness.

"Tolstoy lisped slightly, so that, for example, the word luchshe [better] was pronounced lutche."

Lisping has nothing to do with it.  I have never lisped and have always said lutche because that it how it is said in our parts, at home, in public, and in the countryside, where they used to sing:

'Tis better a life without care, than to stroll as a rich man!

"In most situations, Tolstoy pronounced the letter 'g' like a soft French 'h' (asche)."

On the strength of this statement above, even I, after six years of residence in France, say "Gospodi" [o Lord] almost like "Khospodi."

"Tolstoy used expressions such as namedni, davecha [recently], edakoi instead of etakii [such a], svita instead of armyak [a type of heavy coat]; Tolstoy said skrypka instead of skripka [violin], skorodit' instead of boronit' [to harrow], and stressed the penultimate syllable in the expression do smerti [until death]."  

And again I have to laugh because all of us have always spoken this way!

Incidentally, a general observation about our regional language.  Of course, it does not hurt to remember Pushkin's overused quote about the language of Muscovite prosphora bakers.**  And was our language any better?  To protect themselves from Tartar incursions, many from the service class whose origins could be traced to all corners of Russia came to us from Moscow.  Isn't it natural that precisely here an unusually rich language would be formed, the richest language of all, in fact?  In my opinion, that is exactly what occurred. 

--------------------------

** Не худо нам иногда прислушиваться к московским просвирням, они говорят удивительно чистым и правильным языком.  "And it would do us no harm sometimes to listen to those Muscovite prosphora bakers; their language is surprisingly pure and correct."

Saturday
Sep032011

The Dead Hand

We may not recall the first ghost story we heard as children, but we will certainly remember the first time we realized a fear more complex than hunger, darkness, or separation from our parents (mine was at the age of seven or so, when I learned the word "dusk" in a story about, bizarrely, a train station and the ghost of a werewolf).  And what form this fear will assume predicates what we might have come to understand.  Do children comprehend death?  Regret and atonement?  The immortality of the human soul?  Considering that a large percentage of adults reflect little on such subjects, the answer must probably be no.  But a subtler answer would claim that children understand the everlasting soul as a natural extension of a near-endless terrestrial existence, because to a child life never seems quite complete.  Some children, however, do not have the luxury of sustained curiosity and innocence, which brings us to this famous tale.

Disliking a protagonist may detract from a story's enjoyment as much as overidentifying with him, and we cannot confess to liking Arthur Holliday.  Arthur is one of those lucky fellows who have nothing to say of any profundity because they have always floated atop the lapsing waves under the approval of the almighty sun.  They are rich, comely, and carefree, which makes them ideal for indulging in most of what our earth may offer:

Thus far, his life had been the common, trifling, prosaic surface-life of a prosperous young man, with no troubles to conquer, and no trials to face.  He had lost no relation whom he loved, no friend whom he treasured.  Till this night, what share he had of the immortal inheritance that is divided amongst us all, had lain dormant with him.  Till this night, Death and he had not once met, even in thought.

Over time, of course, these types are confronted with decrepitude and stare back only to find that their corpses look remarkably like all the wizened blighters they have spent their lives walking quickly past, not inspecting them too closely out of guilt.  Right now, however, Holliday is more concerned with the annual horse race in Doncaster.  He arrives in this small town and finds, to no one's surprise except his, not a single available room for the night.  Yet he is far from discouraged:

To a young fellow of Arthur's temperament, the novelty of being turned away into the street like a penniless vagabond, at every house where he asked for a lodging, presented itself in the light of a new and highly amusing piece of experience.  He went on with his carpet-bag in his hand, applying for a bed at every place of entertainment for travellers that he could find in Doncaster, until he wandered into the outskirts of the town. 

Holliday's spirits will soon decline.  But for the time being, he is content with his incognito gandering through a rustic province, since such experiences are usually alloyed with fictional details to make them even more appealing to his dinner party commensals (Holliday remains, by nature, a smarmy raconteur who adjusts his lies to his audience).  After losing more hope than he could reasonably be expected to nurture in his narrow breast, he comes upon a large sign in the shape of a hand and follows its index finger to an inn where one customer just so happens to be checking out in no small haste.  Why that man wishes to vacate such a precious berth on such a stormy night will not be discussed here.  Suffice it to say that Arthur overpays a conniving innkeeper for a shared room and does not bother to ask himself the question in our last sentence.  Surely, as an old French film terribly tells us, everyone has his reasons, with the implication being it is neither ours to know or to understand even if we did. 

Ghost stories have often functioned as a warning to children and young adults who may not take the consequences of their actions as seriously as they should – but these tales, with very few exceptions, now appear woefully pedantic.  As we have become more liberal in print, so have modern spooks engaged in far too much bloodletting to be considered nothing if not disgusting.  Somewhere in between these extremes lie the wonderful compositions of James, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Machen, and Doyle – atmospheric, elegant, and yet ghastly in their own wicked way.  Unlike subsequent horror writers, Collins did not possess a fascination with the macabre as much an incomparable eye for human frailty.  As such, the pleasure of reading him cannot be understated: his is a subtle craft made enthralling by an inborn ability to extricate intrigue from the mildest of subjects.  That he was once the most popular writer in England shows good taste occasionally even runs in whole countries.  We may think we understand the twists in his tales; but then it turns out that his twists have twists, and his tales have tails.  The secret he knows we are instinctively looking for is often mentioned very early on, almost as an aside.  Yet when we come to it at last it is revealed to have been a simple plot detail made somewhat more significant by the fact that what we thought would happen did indeed.  Ghost stories, after all, may not necessarily be explained by earthly logic.  And you may ask yourself why there can be no better name for our lonely inn than The Two Robins.