Blake: The Book of Urizen

January 30, 2023

The Book of Urizen
William Blake
(Random House, 1978) [1794]
102 p.

Twenty years ago I spent some time reading Blake’s prophetic writings, and could make nothing of them. To be more precise, they were lunatic. In them he described — though that word implies a certain clarity of presentation that I could not discover — a complex mythology peopled by mysterious beings of his own creation: Los, Thiriel, Orc, Urizen, and many others. The verse was, or appeared to be, heavily symbolic, so much so that the poems begged, to my mind, to be decoded into something more didactic, but, lacking the decryption key, I gave up in frustration.

I’ve tried again, with, I’m afraid, little better results. The Book of Urizen is one of his earliest works in this genre, and it tells, in verse of deep purple, how the world was created by an evil being called Urizen, who then dominated it, shackling up its denizens with chains of Science and Religion. According to the notes accompanying this edition, Urizen represents, in the mythology, opposition to spiritual awakening and progress, and the poem is about how such opposition came to control the world. Blake saw systematic reason, embodied in both Newtonian science and in organized religion, as an obstacle to spiritual progress.

Without some hand-holding, however, I’m not sure I would have been able to extract even that basic understanding of the poem. Perhaps it’s worth looking at some of the verse. After a brief invocation of the muses, it begins in this way:

Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all repelling. What Demon
Hath form’d this abominable void,
This soul-shudd’ring vacuum? Some said,
“It is Urizen.” But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.

Sense can be made of it, but it has an ugly, crabbed sort of feel. Later we read about a sphere of blood:

Life in cataracts pour’d down his cliffs.
The Void shrunk the lymph into Nerves,
Wand’ring wide on the bosom of night,
And left a round globe of blood
Trembling upon the Void.
Thus the Eternal Prophet was divided
Before the death image of Urizen;
For in changeable clouds and darkness,
In a winterly night beneath,
The Abyss of Los stretch’d immense;
And now seen, now obscur’d, to the eyes
Of Eternals the visions remote
Of the dark separation appear’d:
As glasses discover Worlds
In the endless Abyss of space,
So the expanding eyes of Immortals
Beheld the dark visions of Los,
And the globe of life-blood trembling.

The globe of life-blood trembled,
Branching out into roots,
Fibrous, writhing upon the winds,
Fibres of blood, milk, and tears,
In pangs, Eternity on Eternity.

I have no idea what is going on here. A lot of the poem is like this. The words are syntactically correct but convey little meaning. I’m not saying there is no meaning — Blake laboriously traced each word onto bronze plates, and clearly meant each word to be there — but for most readers the effort to penetrate the meaning will be considerable. Most readers, in the intervening two centuries, have not bothered, and I can’t blame them. The verse itself is not very musical or memorable. I’m afraid this is as far as I’m inclined to go with Blake’s mythology. Twice bitten, thrice shy.


Conan Doyle: The Sign of Four

January 24, 2023

The Sign of Four
Arthur Conan Doyle
(Dover, 2003) [1890]
99 p.

In this, the second Holmes novel, our detective of the strict observance lands in the middle of a head-scratching international murder-robbery in which a one-legged man and his dwarf have commandeered a chest full of gems and other delights. The quest: to find the one-legged man and his dwarf, which you would think would be pretty easy, but proves otherwise.

It’s not as good a novel as the earlier one, though it’s a challenge to say why. For one thing, the crime itself is quite convoluted, proceeding in stages, and I had trouble following exactly what was happening, and trouble remembering what had happened already. Maybe I was reading too often on the brink of unconsciousness. But then Holmes’ special powers of detection were not quite so impressive on this outing as they were before. Familiarity breeds contempt? There just didn’t seem to be that much for Holmes to do that might not have been done by a lesser mortal. Also, he’s a tad too keen on cocaine.

Holmes, I thought, lived by a maxim that ran something like this: “When you have eliminated the likely explanation, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” In this book he gives an odd variant: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”. Surely one does not have to eliminate, in any practical sense, the impossible. Maybe it was the cocaine talking.

On the positive side of the ledger, this book introduced a winsome romance between Dr Watson and Mary Morstan, whom I gather will be soon married.

After publication, Conan Doyle abandoned novels for a decade and devoted himself instead to short stories, where Holmes, I am told, really came into his own. We shall see.


Calderon: Life is a Dream

January 16, 2023

Life is a Dream
Pedro Calderón de la Barca
Translated from the Spanish by Gregary Racz
(Penguin Classics, 2006) [c.1630]
xxvi + 123 p.

Pedro Calderón, who, it so happened, was born on a boat (hence, ‘de la Barca’), was a Spanish playwright of the generation after Lope de Vega. Unlike de Vega, who tossed off plays like Denny’s tosses off hotcakes, Calderón was known for his careful polishing, revisiting and revising his plays in order to invest them with beauty and philosophical depth. He had an interesting life. He was already writing for the stage in his twenties, and achieved renown in his thirties. When he was fifty years old, however, he (mostly) gave up writing plays and became a priest, devoting his talents thereafter to the composition of autos sacramentales, one-act allegorical dramas traditionally performed in Spain during the Feast of Corpus Christi. Perhaps we’ll read one of those at a later date, if we can find one.

Life is a Dream is apparently generally considered to be one of his greatest achievements. It takes place in Poland, and is involved with a succession problem in the Polish court. The king is elderly, and, though he has a son, Segismund, his son has, since birth, been imprisoned in a tower because it was foretold, by various omens, that the king’s son would be a ruthless tyrant who would destroy the realm. The king ordered him confined for the good of the kingdom.

But the king is a Christian, and is unsure whether he ought rightly to trust the omens and astrologers who claim that the prince’s fate is fixed:

The direst fate, we know for fact,
Much like the rashest temperament
Or strongest planetary pull,
May boast some influence on free will
But cannot make man bad or good.
(I, vi)

He therefore decides on a clever stratagem: drugging his son with a strong sedative, he removes him from the tower and brings him to court, setting him up amid all the trappings of royalty. The idea is to see if he behaves justly or tyrannically. If the former, he can become heir; if the latter, he will be sedated again, returned to the tower, and told that the experiment was just a dream.

The prince, it turns out, behaves very badly indeed. Nearly his first act as “king” is to defenestrate a servant, and he is bent on worse. Back to the tower he goes, where, awaking, he speaks to his tutor with amazement about his “dream”:

My heart made bold with power and vice…
I’d thought to rule with tyranny
And match the evil I’d been done.
(II, xviii)

But sleeping princes, unlike sleeping dogs, cannot be allowed to lie. The people now know that their prince lives, and they raid the tower to liberate him. A civil war ensues, son against father, for the throne.

The play seems destined for a familiar tragic ending, bodies littering the stage. But — at the risk of spoiling a 400-year-old story — a funny thing happens, and it ends in joy instead, marriages all around. Just how this reversal comes about is presumably an ingredient in the play’s good reputation, although I myself feel that I’d like to see it staged before deciding whether it manages the tricky maneuver successfully.

**

There is much rumination in the play about the difference between dreams and reality, between sleeping and waking. How do I know that I am awake and not dreaming? Am I the same person when I dream? Do my actions in a dream reveal, or even shape, my character?  The structure of the story allows these kinds of questions to arise in an intriguing way.

Years ago I took an interest in the phenomenon of ‘lucid dreaming’, in which one becomes aware, in a dream, that one is in fact dreaming, and then consciously uses the greater freedom of dreams to have experiences, like flight, which are otherwise impossible. I never made it far enough into this practice to discover if it is a real thing or not, and for years now dreams of any kind have been rare, but the play reminded me of the strangeness of dreams, that shadow world in which we, at least sometimes, are awake even while we sleep. “I sleep,” said the singer of songs, “but my heart is awake.”

I was also reminded of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception, which is similarly all about the interplay between dreaming and waking. Those familiar with the film might have been dismayed, as I was, by the prevalence of those faults that beset so many science fiction films: arbitrary rules, non sequiturs, and irrational choices. Why is the implanting of a thought — “inception” — thought to be difficult to achieve? Doesn’t it happen every day, all the time? How exactly does the token help distinguish the dream world from the real? Why must they not “die” in the dream? The entire film is sustained by a tissue of these logical lacunae. But the difficulties vanish if we suppose that the film’s “reality” is actually a dream, for dreams are full of these kinds of non sequiturs. The whole “reality” of the film is, on this reading, happening in the mind of the main character while he dreams, and in fact the film contains quite a number of hints that this is indeed the case. The main difference with Calderón’s play is that in the film a dream state is mistaken for reality, whereas in the play it is the other way around.

Nor should we forget that a film, like a play, is a sort of dream for us: an alternate reality that we inhabit for a time. While we watch it we are “asleep”; when it ends we “awake”.

*

There are a number of interesting ideas at work in the play, therefore, and I enjoyed reading it. One feature of the play that I appreciated was that Calderón gave his characters several long speeches; this is something that we find in Shakespeare, but which I really have not found in the other English playwrights from the time. These long speeches allow us a sustained window into the thoughts of the characters, which I found enriched the play considerably.

As to its literary merits, it’s hard to judge in translation. Calderón wrote in verse, and in this Penguin edition Gregary Racz does his best to mimic the verse forms in English, complete with rhyming, where appropriate. It was pleasant to read, but it’s not really possible to say more.

There are a few more plays by Calderón that interest me, so I believe I’ll be returning to him again over the next few months.

 


McCarthy: Child of God

January 12, 2023

Child of God
Cormac McCarthy
(Vintage, 1993) [1973]
197 p.

They came like a caravan of carnival folk up through the swales of broomstraw and across the hill in the morning sun, the truck rocking and pitching in the ruts and the musicians on chairs in the truckbed teetering and tuning their instruments, the fat man with guitar grinning and gesturing to others in a car behind and bending to give a note to the fiddler who turned a fiddlepeg and listened with a wrinkled face.

So begins this harrowing tale of a loner turned killer in rural Tennessee. Lester Ballard is poor, homeless, without a family, and incapable, it seems, of living in society.

He is small, unclean, unshaven. He moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a constrained truculence. Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of God much like yourself perhaps.

He roams the countryside, scavenging, bedding down in abandoned out-buildings, treasuring his rifle and not much else. He might be crazy. When, one fateful day, he discovers two lovers dead in their car on a deserted road, he does something that removes all doubt, and the novel, which was already sombre and crepuscular, takes a hurtling plunge into the dark.

So dark and depraved does it become that this reader, at least, began to wonder what the point was. I expect McCarthy’s books to be violent and disturbing, but in later novels like No Country for Old Men and The Road there is always a glimmer of light around the edge, a crack through white a hint of redemption or justice might be glimpsed. That glimmer is harder to find here. What is McCarthy up to? Is a portrait of evil enough? Are we to feel compassion for this man? Hatred? Should we long for justice, for him and those whom he harms? I think it’s possible, as readers, to answer all of these questions in the affirmative, but how the book itself answers them is sometimes murky. The title, maybe, gives us a hint.

Certainly one good reason to read the book, despite its difficulties, is the rough allure of its prose. Muted, laced with idiomatic colour, severe, and sometimes starkly beautiful, his voice is one of a kind. Look again at that opening sentence above. It’s quite long, and has a meandering feel, but it functions something like a cinematic image: we see first the wide shot, with a row of vehicles coming up, and then we’re focused on the back of the truck, and then an individual man, and finally an individual face. We get a sense of motion, both back and forth, as they rock over the ruts, and also forward and in. And then there is the alliteration: caravan and carnival, teetering and tuning, guitar and grinning, fiddlepeg and face. And the touches of poetry: “swales of broomstraw”. I read that sentence, set the book in my lap, and smiled, happy to be in the hands of a master again.

To take another example, consider this passage in which Lester is lost inside a cave:

Ballard lay listening in the dark but the only sound he heard was his heart. In the morning when the light in the fissure dimly marked him out this drowsing captive looked so inculpate in the fastness of his hollow stone you might have said he was half right who thought himself so grievous a case against the gods.

Again, we have a sentence that keeps going where another author might have split it up, more tidy-like. There’s a striking visual image of Lester lying on the rock, like a figure sketched in chiaroscuro, and a blending of the narrator’s voice, I think, with Lester’s own, a hint of which comes through in the last phrase. It has a stern beauty. The book is full of things like this.

It is not full, though, of quotation marks.


Aeschylus: The Persians

January 9, 2023

The Persians
Aeschylus
Translated from the Greek by S.G. Benardete
(Chicago, 1991) [472 BC]
44 p. Second reading.

In 480 BC the Persian army, led by the emperor Xerxes himself, invaded Greece in an attempt to subdue the regions, including Athens and Sparta, that had resisted his father’s invasion ten years earlier, but in a remarkable series of battles — first at Thermopylae, then Salamis, and finally Plataea — the Greeks, against the odds, defeated him. It was one of the most important, formative series of events in Greek history, and they could be justifiably proud of what they had achieved.

Less than ten years later, Aeschylus presented this play at the annual Dionysia festival. It is the earliest of his plays to come down to us, and it is unique among surviving Greek tragedies in portraying a recent historical event, for it relates the aftermath of the Greek victory over the Persians. Remarkably, it is set in the Persian court. The characters are Xerxes, his mother, and the ghost of his father.

Even more remarkable than Aeschylus having set his drama in the enemy camp, so to speak, is that he adopted the Persian point of view. The events are tragic for the Persians, and for the pathos of the drama to work his audience must feel their pain. They must consider the Persians not as victims to be gloated over, or bullies to be treated with contempt, but as people suffering a loss and deserving of some level of sympathy. It stands, therefore, as a notable testament to Aeschylus’ magnanimity, and, presumably, since it won first prize at the festival that year, to the magnanimity of the Athenian audience.

The play itself follows the conventions of Greek tragedy, of course. There are long speeches from the few characters, there is a gregarious chorus that comments on the action, and, for those of us reared on Shakespeare, it feels stiff and slight on circumstance. The theatrical conventions were very different, and it is difficult, at least for me, to form a mental picture of the action and to get the feel of the thing.

But I am pleased to have read the play (again), for it stands close to the headwater of the amazing torrent of creativity and generous humanity that was to pour from Athens over the succeeding century or two. We are onto a very good thing.


Musical anniversaries in 2023

January 5, 2023

There are a few notable musical anniversaries to celebrate this year. From a thorough list (Thanks again, Osbert) I have culled the following set:

Memorials

  • 25 years:
    • Alfred Schnittke
    • Michael Tippett
  • 50 years:
    • Gian Francesco Malapiero
    • Noel Coward
  • 400 years:
    • William Byrd
    • Thomas Weelkes
  • 450 years
    • Christopher Tye

Birthdays

  • 50 years:
    • Lera Auerbach
  • 100 years:
    • Gyorgy Ligeti
  • 150 years:
    • Sergei Rachmaninov
    • Max Reger

As usual, I will structure some of my listening this year around these anniversaries. I only made the acquaintance of Tippett’s music for the first time in the last couple of years, so I’m looking forward to exploring more this year, and I am a little surprised to find that I have only one disc of Noel Coward’s songs in my collection, so this anniversary year is a welcome chance to improve my familiarity with him. Lera Auerbach is a young(-ish) composer whose music has, on limited exposure, intrigued me, and this year seems a good opportunity to hear it again.

I suppose the 800 pound gorilla is Rachmaninov, and of course I’ll hear the All-Night Vigil, which I love, and I’ll probably pull down the symphonies and piano concertos, though I’m not really enthusiastic about it. For me, the two big names this year are Schnittke and Byrd; I’m really excited at the prospect of spending some significant chunk of time with each of them.


Favourites of 2022: Music

December 30, 2022

Of all the many recordings I listened to this year, my ten particular favourites were, in no particular order (though with my “record of the year” at the end):

***

Busoni: Bach Transcriptions
Holger Groschopp
(Capriccio, 2014)

I have a weakness for transcriptions of Bach’s music. There’s a little cottage industry devoted to making them, and they range from the dubious to the delightful. Some years ago Hyperion did an entire series devoted to transcriptions for piano, and they are terrific. One composer, though, made so many piano transcriptions of Bach that he has the honour of actually having his name married to that of the great man. I refer, of course, to Bach-Busoni. Maybe the best known of his transcriptions is that of the Chaconne, and it is indeed magnificent, but he made many more, and here Holger Groschopp plays two hours’ worth of them. Many are transcribed from the organ; there is a set taken from the Musical Offering; there are chorale transcriptions; and an assortment of other things. All of the music is good, naturally, and it’s nice to hear it on a big, warm piano, and played so beautifully.

*

Romantic French Arias
Joan Sutherland, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Richard Bonynge
(Decca, 1970)

A golden oldie from Joan Sutherland. First issued in 1970, I only heard this classic record for the first time this year, and it is a knock-out. Sutherland lets loose her dazzling vocal pyrotechnics in a programme of nearly two hours of French opera that reaches as far back as Charpentier, but is focused on nineteenth-century music: Delibes, Meyerbeer, Bizet, Gounod, Massenet, and Offenbach. Singing doesn’t get any better.

Here is a very brief excerpt from Meyerbeer’s L’Etoile du Nord in which she sings a messa-di-voce trill (in which the dynamics are varied in the pattern piannissimo-fortissimo-pianissimo). Stupendous!

*

Chamber Music Arrangements
Linos Ensemble
(Capriccio, 2018)

Speaking of adapting music, here is a beautiful set: 8 CDs of orchestral pieces arranged for chamber ensemble. The music dates from around the turn of the twentieth century, give or take a few decades: we get several waltzes of Johann Strauss II, Bruckner’s Symphony No.7, lots of Mahler, healthy doses of the Second Viennese School, and a few pieces by Debussy, Reger, and Zemlinsky. Personally, I usually prefer the intimacy and clarity of chamber music over big orchestral pieces, so these transcriptions, scaled down to fewer than ten musicians, have been very enjoyable for me. They have a certain historical importance, too, as many (all?) of them were made for the Viennese Society for Private Musical Performances founded in 1918 by Schoenberg. Schoenberg himself made several of the transcriptions. Webern’s transcriptions of his own Op.6 Pieces are also here. It’s a delightful collection, full of fascinating details and wonderful music, that has given me many hours of enjoyment.

Here is the arrangement of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, which I think sounds wonderful in this smaller, more transparent setting:

*

Mozart Momentum 1785
Leif Ove Andsnes, Mahler Chamber Orchestra
(Sony, 2021)

What I love here is the concept: it’s a two-disc set of music that Mozart composed in one calendar year: 1785, when Mozart was in his late-20s. (There is a companion set that focuses on 1786 as well.) He wrote 15 or 20 pieces that year, and 5 of them, suitable for this ensemble to play, are included: we get the famous piano concertos Nos 20-22, the Piano Quartet in G minor, a bit of Masonic funeral music, and the Fantasia in C minor for piano. It’s a nice mix of orchestral music, chamber music, and solo recital, with the piano part taken by Andsnes, who also leads the orchestra, just as Mozart would have done. We get a sense for how Mozart changed gears between pieces, or worked on things of quite different character simultaneously. The music is wonderful, of course, and the music-making is fleet, the sound is clear and warm, and it all works together marvellously well.

Here they are playing the final movement of the Piano Concerto No.21:

*

Shostakovich: Symphonies 1, 5, 6, 8, 10, 15
Kurt Sanderling, Berlin Symphony Orchestra
(Berlin Classics, 2006)

I embarked on a major Shostakovich symphony voyage this year, and of all the recordings I heard, this is the set that stood out to me. Kurt Sanderling and the Berlin Symphony Orchestra play fewer than half of the symphonies, whether for contractual or artistic reasons I do not know, but they are magnificent. Shostakovich’s music can be emotionally ambiguous — is this real feeling, or sarcasm? — but Sanderling goes straight to the heart, choosing to bring out the qualities of darkness, brooding menace, and, when appropriate, ferocity. The symphonies sound big and bad, in the best sense. It’s music-making to haunt your dreams.

If you have the time, here is the whole of Symphony No.5:

*

A Meditation: St. John Henry Newman
The Sixteen, Harry Christophers
(Coro, 2022)

John Henry Newman was canonized in 2019, and here the great British choir The Sixteen gives us a meditation on his spiritual legacy and ongoing influence. The disc features four new compositions based on texts by St. Newman by Will Todd, Anna Semple, Eoghan Desmond, and James MacMillan. (These latter two set the same text, which gives us a nice opportunity to compare their different approaches to it.) The disc also includes a few older Newman settings of “Leady, Kindly Light” (W.H. Harris) and “Praise to the Holiest” (R.R. Terry), and is filled out with a few classics by Elgar. It’s a truly lovely disc with a pleasing mixture of romantic and modern music, and it does honour to a great man. The singing, as always with The Sixteen, is beyond criticism.

*

Weinberg: Sonatas for Solo Violin
Gidon Kremer
(ECM New Series, 2022)

It wouldn’t be another year without another outstanding recording of the music of Mieczylsaw Weinberg. Gidon Kremer has emerged as one of his most eminent champions, and on this ECM record he tackles the three sonatas for solo violin. This music has been recorded a number of times in recent years, and I recall that in 2016 I picked Linus Roth’s recording as one of my favourites. My comments about the qualities of the music on that occasion still apply. Not having done side-by-side comparisons of the two, I’ll not venture to make comparisons between Kremer and Roth, but suffice to say that this newcomer is excellent in every respect, and maybe has the edge sonically. The ongoing rediscovery of Weinberg’s music is one of the most cheering subplots in the world of classical music today!

*

Sisask: Gloria Patri
Chamber Choir Eesti, Anne-Liis Treimann
(Finlandia, 1994)

Urmas Sisask is an Estonian composer, still active, whose music I had heard in bits and pieces over the years, but whom this year I began to explore in earnest. The jewel from those explorations is his Gloria Patri…, a collection of 24 choral pieces on sacred texts. There’s are Marian hymns (Ave Maria, Ave Regina Caelorum, O Sanctissima), Eucharistic hymns (O salutaris hostia, Ave verum corpus), almost an entire Mass (only the Gloria is missing), and a variety of other things, even a Stabat mater! It’s a cornucopia, and the music is glorious. Sisask is of a younger generation than Arvo Part, and I think I can hear the latter’s influence in the crystalline textures and directness of expression, though the music is Sisask’s own. It is unfailingly lovely. A real discovery. The disc is filled out by Sisask’s large-scale (35 minute!) setting of the Magnificat, which is equally splendid.

*

Josquin’s Legacy
The Gesualdo Six, Owain Park
(Hyperion, 2021)

At the start of 2022, it had been some years since I’d been to a concert, not just because of the Covid-related matters, but because, you know, babysitters and all that, but this year my wife and I ventured out to hear the Gesualdo Six when they visited our parish. What a great evening it was! The first piece was sung from the back of the church, and I’ll not soon forget that first chord, so perfectly tuned, that made the hair on my neck stand up. And the rest of the night was no less fine.

Anyway, the programme that night was not exactly what we find on this disc, but there was a good deal of overlap. The music is structured around a year that Josquin spent at the court of the Duke of Ferrara, one of the musical hubs of Europe at the time. The music was either copied and performed there, or was written there, or was written by composers who spent some time there, or otherwise had some sort of relationship to it. Highlights include Josquin’s lament on the death of Ockeghem, Nymphes de bois, and his lovely Marian motet O virgo prudentissima. Wonderful music, gloriously sung, and a fine souvenir from a memorable evening!

*

Josquin: In memoria mea
Rebecca Stewart, Cantus Modalis, Seconda Prat!ca
(Carpe Diem, 2021)

Last year (2021) was the Josquin anniversary year, and in last year’s review I highlighted my favourites of the records made to mark that occasion, but here is one that I missed at the time. Rebecca Stewart here leads two ensembles, Cantus Modalis and Seconda Prat!ca (yes, the exclamation mark is part of the name), in a selection of unaccompanied choral music of Josquin, centered around his Missa mater patris. I have praised Rebecca Stewart in the past, when she directed other ensembles, and I am happy to do it again. Here is a musician who brings a highly personal musical vision and sensibility to the music of this period, without any gimmickry. Under her direction, the music has space to breathe, and it develops an intense inwardness, a sense of attention and contemplation. You might think this describes much music of this period, but I’m pointing out that this is something special, not at all standard issue. It’s a treasure, and my favourite of the records I heard this year.


Favourites of 2022: Film

December 28, 2022

Of the films I saw for the first time this year, here are brief remarks on the ten that I most appreciated.

***

Le rayon vert
(Eric Rohmer, 1986)

One of the goods of film is that it allows us the opportunity to see through another’s eyes, to live someone else’s life for a time, to experience things outside our ordinary ambit. A number of the films on this list are films that are good in this way.

But another, rarer, good, by contrast, is that, once in a while, I myself appear on screen, and I have opportunity to see myself from the outside, and to reflect on the life I am living.

Well, Delphine, c’est moi.

Or, at least, Delphine, c’est moi dans une autre vie. Who knows? Had things not gone so well as they did, maybe I would be as stuck and frustrated and hapless as she is. Her personality and mine overlap a good deal: bookish, reserved, a bit melancholic. We are much alike.

As I watched, I reflected, with a kind of astonishment, that somehow I did not fall into the quagmire in which she is struggling. And what would I have done under those circumstances? No better than her, probably, and perhaps not so well.

In any case, I finished The Green Ray feeling a profound gratitude for my family, who give so much meaning to my life, and who fill it with so much love. Though, considered specifically visually, this is about as subdued and drab as most of Rohmer’s films, it is nonetheless my favourite film of the year.

**

The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek
(Preston Sturges, 1944)

The proximity of soldiers stirs the hearts of certain young women, and Trudy Kockenlocker — yes, Kockenlocker — is one of those. And so, when a local regiment is preparing to depart overseas, she can’t resist going to the send-off bash. One thing leads to another, as they do, and she wakes next morning wearing a wedding ring, but can’t recall the name of the young man. (Was it Ratzkywatzky, or was it Zitzkywitzky? Something with a ‘z’, she’s pretty sure.)

It’s a wonderful premise for a screwball comedy, and Preston Sturges delivers on the promise. A remarkable thing is that our temporal distance from the film’s creation has only increased its value, for it comes to us from a time when attitudes toward marriage and family were quite different. Rules were stricter, social norms were stronger, expectations were clearer, stakes were higher. Were the same story attempted today it might well end in tragedy, but Preston Sturges finds comedic gold.

There are so many wonderful touches. The screenplay is full of delights.  It rises gradually to a magnificent comic crescendo in the closing quarter-hour. I haven’t laughed so much, nor so well, in a long while. Bravo!

***

The Northman
(Robert Eggers, 2022)

Full immersion in the Viking world is what Robert Eggers gives us. No modern sensibilities smuggled in. No bromides about liberal values being natural and universal. No traces, either, of Christian compassion or forgiveness. Instead: fate, and honour, and vengeance.

The film, as far as I can tell, is totally consistent to its premises. It begins with the voice of Odin himself, and ends with our Northman, blood-soaked, riding to Valhalla. It’s an approach that allows us to see and experience another world, but also to see and experience our own world afresh, by way of contrast. It’s a wonderful gift.

Cinematically, this is magnificent. It is beautifully and atmospherically shot. There are bravura filmmaking sequences, such as fighting scenes done in continuous tracking shots. It is big-boned and confident filmmaking, a very exciting return to form for Eggers after the (for me) disappointment of The Lighthouse. In fact, as much as I admired The Witch, I think this may be his best film yet.

***

L’amour l’après-midi
(Eric Rohmer, 1972)

Eric Rohmer made a series of films he grouped together and called Six Moral Tales. This year I watched them in sequence, and while I still maintain that the one previously familiar to me — Ma nuit chez Maud — is the best of them, I also loved this one, a beautifully constructed, excruciating tale of the slow, all too understandable way in which a man is led, step by tiny step, into infidelity.

What starts with a general, unfocused “appreciation” of women passing on the street leads, as opportunity arises, to a man pulling off his shirt while a strange woman lies in bed. The film is a triumph for how it documents this slowly boiling frog.

Equally impressive is the means by which this man is rescued and returned home. It is perfectly judged: a sudden realization, conveyed entirely visually, that he is a man with responsibilities, accountable to others for his actions, whose integrity hangs in the balance. Rohmer’s style can be drab, but moments as economical and finely judged as the crucial moment in Love in the Afternoon make me realize just how good a filmmaker he was.

***

Memories of Murder
(Bong Joon-ho, 2003)

After Bong Joon-ho’s triumph with Parasite, I wanted to explore some of his previous films. Memories of Murder follows a group of small-town detectives grappling with a string of gruesome and mysterious murders. They have no particular talent for their work, and bumble their way through the investigation as the bodies accumulate. The film’s particular strengths are intricate plotting, an ensemble of interesting characters, and a zany undercurrent that gives us a feeling that anything might happen.

The film impressed me with its tonal complexity. It is often extremely funny, though the subject matter is grave. It might have become a black farce, or a sadistic comedy, but I don’t think it does. There is always some thread that remains in earnest. Somehow Bong manages to hold the pieces together into something complex but coherent.

In a murder mystery the all important question is usually “whodunit?”. That is not the all-important question here, though of course it is a catalyst for the story. Instead, Bong shows us human frailty and failure as his characters make mistakes, follow cockamamie theories down dead ends, abandon their principles, trust their faulty guts, and generally fail to protect the innocent. The ending makes it a very unconventional whodunit indeed.

***

La Maison en Petits Cubes
(Kunio Katou, 2008)

What a filmmaker can do with 10 minutes of wordless imagery is limited, but nothing is wasted in this brief animated film. A beautiful visual metaphor is used to explore the shape of a man’s life. The past cannot be recovered, but neither can we be separated from it. It remains with us, submerged, supporting us. Each of our lives passes through stages, building on what came before. If we had the presence of mind to live with the awareness that each stage — this present stage! — is bound to pass, how much more we would treasure it. I know nothing about the filmmaker, but his film is touching, warm-hearted, and wise, and I have been thinking of it all year with gratitude. Available on YouTube.

***

Secret Sunshine
(Lee Chang-dong, 2007)

I still don’t know what to expect from this filmmaker. Poetry, the first I saw, was gentle and careful; Burning was dramatic, violent, and a bit of a puzzle. Secret Sunshine begins as though it’s going to be more like Poetry, but it takes a number of turns, and ends up being one of the more intriguing explorations of Christian faith that cinema has given us in recent decades.

The film introduces us to a young mother, Sin-ae, whose husband has recently died, and she is in the process of moving to a new town. The tone is casual and quotidian, at first. But something happens, which I shan’t spoil, that sends the film veering into emotionally difficult terrain, and plunges Sin-ae into crisis. As she grapples with her problems, she joins an evangelical Christian church, and discovers a life of faith.

You might think, as I did, that this crisis and this discovery were the main substance of the film, but, in a brilliant scene, a further crisis arises when Sin-ae tries to forgive the person who harmed her. The character arc leading up to this disastrous episode, in which she had discovered her identity — her true identity — as a beloved child of God, continues afterward along a bent but not broken path. Her docility turns to rebellion, but it is specifically rebellion against God, a lover’s tryst turned to a lover’s quarrel. The course of love never did run smooth.

It’s an unusually perceptive and thoughtful film, then, about faith and the spiritual life. Lee Chang-dong uses a light touch throughout, with an appealingly subtle sense of humour threaded through the often difficult and troubling story. Jeon Do-yeon won at Cannes for her portrayal of Sin-ae, but I think the marvellous Song Kang-ho deserves praise also in the role of the spurned but undefeated lover, whose dogged and earnest pursuit of Sin-ae leads him, also, to a surprising place.

***

Il peccato
(Andrei Konchalovsky, 2019)

This historical film follows Michelangelo during the transition of power in the Vatican from the Della Rovere family (Pope Julius II) to the Medici family (Pope Leo X). The popes were his patrons, and Michelangelo was caught in the rivalry between the families. This would have been in about 1513, I guess, when Michelangelo was approaching 40 years of age.

Michelangelo is played wonderfully: passionate but undisciplined, almost childlike in his naivete about politics and power. If there is an aspect of the film that disappoints me, it is that we see little of him as a creative artist. Maybe it would have been foolhardy to try to go there. Instead, the film focuses on the complexities of the patronage system, the rivalries between artists, the nuts and bolts aspects of quarrying, and the hubbub of life outside the studio.

Konchalovsky’s Rome is a tornado of ambition and filth. Everything is covered in grime. Life is a chaos, and it is well-captured by an Altman-esque approach to dialogue and sound. Everybody talks at once, but in Italian, which makes it even better.

Vasari tells us that Dante was Michelangelo’s “best beloved poet”, and most touching to me is the way the film honours that admiration. At one point Michelangelo gets to sleep in a room where Dante slept, and he is overwhelmed by humility and awe. Later, in a development that made me leap from my seat, his devotion is repaid.

All in all, I found it an often fascinating film that, despite a certain lack of focus, gave me much enjoyment and food for thought.

***

The Worst Person in the World
(Joachim Trier, 2021)

The title hovers over the film like a presiding spirit. Julie is certainly a person who doesn’t know herself, and who makes a series of terrible decisions that harm herself and, in time, those around her, so she’s not a particularly good person, but she is trying, in her faltering way. She’s probably not actually the worst person in the world.

I was impressed especially by the emotional rawness. Both in its joy and its misery, it felt compelling and honest, even when the joy was foolish and the misery well-earned. Trier allows his characters to sit in silence, which is, as is so often the case, richer than anything else. There is a strange streak of dry humour — and I mean Sahara dry — running through the film, as it treats remarkably tasteless material with perfect equanimity. And it has the guts to poke fun at sacred causes like environmentalism and wokery. All of this was delightful.

The film rolls out as a study of a wayward, lost soul, but, reversing the figure and ground, we might see it as a critique of a wayward, lost society that no longer provides guidance and expectations to its younger generations. Norway, in this film, seems a moral, social, and spiritual wasteland. Julie makes mistakes, certainly, but she is working under difficult circumstances.

As Julie is trying to figure out how to be in the world, the film seems to be doing the same thing. It switches from frank naturalism to magical fantasy, from earnest to acerbic, from realist to surrealist. I could see this working against it, in theory, but personally I thought it was creative and thematically apt. The Worst Person in the World has been my first film by Joachim Trier, and I’m very interested to see another.

***

The Oresteia
(Peter Hall, 1983)

Not “films” in the conventional sense, these are filmed stage productions of Aeschylus’ trilogy. Nonetheless, I am sneaking them onto the end of this list just because they are so good.

Filmed in the 1980s in Britain, they were an attempt to realize Greek tragedies on the stage in something like the manner in which they might have been performed in ancient Athens. The ensemble is all male, and the actors wear oversized masks, so that the drama relies on gestures and intonation to convey the meaning.

Specialists, I’m sure, can quarrel with aspects of it, but the overall impression is the main thing for me. The plays become solemn, almost ceremonial, events. The chorus, which on the page I’ve usually found hard to manage, comes to life beautifully in these productions, with individual members taking individual lines, and becoming a kind of super-actor, far-seeing, multifarious, and ominous.

A major part of the success of these productions is the music, written by Harrison Birtwistle. It creaks, bleats, and plucks its way along, adding a spare, eerie ambience to the drama. The rhythm of the music provides a beat for the actors’ lines to follow, and the overall effect is that this very strange, very slow drama attains, at times, the quality of song. It is superbly done.

The translation used in these productions was by Tony Harrison. Without knowing anything about him or his intentions, I think I am safe in saying that he took his bearings from alliterative English verse, like that in Beowulf. The text is thick with compound neo-logisms, and raw.

Choler for choler, bloodgrudge for bloodgrudge,
while Zeus the high-he-god is still the gods’ clanchief
the law for the living is killers get killed.

Granted, this feels worlds away from Richmond Lattimore’s (purportedly) more literal translation, and maybe we should talk about an “adaptation” instead of a “translation” when the target is so different from the source, but I found I really appreciated the tough, primitive rhythms and blunt, Anglo-Saxon diction, which suited this blood-soaked story very well.

All three plays — Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides — were filmed, with a total performance time of about 3-1/2 hours. Film productions of Greek tragedies, I have discovered, are rare, and these are, so far, the best that I have found.

**

Honourable mentions: Pickpocket (1959), The Bakery Girl of Monceau (1963), Cries and Whispers (1972), The Sting (1973), An American Werewolf in London (1981), Where is My Friend’s House? (1987), Dead Man (1995),  Joint Security Area (2000), Mommy (2014), November (2017), A Quiet Place 2 (2020), Man of God (2021), Licorice Pizza (2021), The French Dispatch (2021).

Abandoned unfinished: The Trojan Women (1971), Top Gun: Maverick (2022).

Disappointments: Koyaanisqatsi (1982), The Card Counter (2021).

Watched again: Sherlock, Jr. (1924), The Sound of Music (1965), Ma Nuit chez Maud (1969), The Black Stallion (1979), Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), Pride and Prejudice (1995), The Thin Red Line (1998), 300 (2006), Les Signes (2006).

2022 films: Nope, Top Gun: Maverick, The Northman, Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Oldest films: Pool Sharks (1915), The Immigrant (1917), The Battle of the Century (1927).

Actor of my year:  Song Kang-ho. With two films in my top 10, and one honourable mention, he is the rather surprising winner. But he’s a wonderful actor who chooses wonderful films.

Multiple films by same director: Eric Rohmer (6), Ingmar Bergman (2), Kenneth Branagh (2).

Quod linguam dicent? French (12), Korean (3), Italian (3), …


Favourites of 2022: Books

December 27, 2022

C.S. Lewis once said that an unliterary person may be defined as someone who reads books only once. It’s a remark that’s always stung a little, but in 2022 I enjoyed, for a limited time at least, the pleasure of being a literary person according to Lewis’ standard, for I did a good deal of re-reading. In fact,  my favourite books of the year — Homer’s Odyssey and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment — were both re-reads, and I wrote at some length about them in this space.

It was also a year in which I completed the Roman reading project in which I’d been engaged for a few years, and launched a similar Greek reading project that will occupy me for a few years more, if all goes as planned.

But today I’d like to highlight my favourites of the books I read for the first time this year. There are plays, biographies, novels, and a few nonfiction titles. It was a great year of reading!

**

In alphabetical order:

Blake: A Biography
Peter Ackroyd

I like to pick a particular poet and spend a few months with him. I began the year in the company of Robert Frost, was irritated for quite a while by Walt Whitman, and am ending the year perplexed by Gerard Manley Hopkins’ grammar, but mid-year I spent time with William Blake, and read this biography as an adjunct. Neglected in his own lifetime, we now look back on him as an important figure, not only on account of his positive achievements, but for how his figure stands out against the historical ground, and Ackroyd’s careful and meticulous biography greatly improved my understanding and appreciation of the man.

*

Piranesi
Susanna Clarke

Susanna Clarke’s slender Piranesi unfolds as a kind of metaphysical science fiction story, where the setting and the situation are so strange and unfamiliar that it takes time for us to get our bearings, and longer still to understand where the story is going. Yet it’s also a compelling tale from the outset because of its winsome central character. The book is concerned with such matters as the honour we owe the dead, the duties of friendship, and the virtues that make a man great. It adds up to a thoughtful exploration and presentation of natural piety in the guise of a cosmic mystery. A remarkably beautiful book.

*

I have continued my tour of early-ish modern drama, reading mostly lesser-known playwrights of the generation or two after Shakespeare, both in England and on the continent. Of the dozen or so plays I read in 2022, two stood out for their excellence and, as it happens, for their opposite tendencies. John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, from 1633, is a sordid business that puts disturbing sexual depravity on the stage, and John Milton’s Comus, from 1634, is a celebration of chastity and purity. Both are beautifully written, both, I would think, dramatically effective, and both, though by contrary means, a portrait of the destructive power of lust in action. A brilliant double-bill!

*

The Mayor of Casterbridge
Thomas Hardy

Another trip to Wessex, another tragic tale. It’s a story about a man who rides fortune’s wheel up, then down again, but is fundamentally, I think, about the importance of truth-telling, and of the dangers that attend concealment and deception, especially between those who love one another. Hardy is a master, and it was a consolation just to read such a superbly well-written novel.

*

Kenogaia: A Gnostic Tale
David Bentley Hart

In a world where authority keeps a strict watch on its people, and access to information is restricted and curated, sometimes the thing to do is to train your eyes on things above. Maybe you’ll see something. That’s what happens to the hero of this rousing adventure story, and it sends him careening through a series of amazing discoveries en route to a revelation that breaks his world open, almost literally. I’ve had a hard time keeping up with Hart’s breakneck pace of publication over the past few years, but I’m glad I found the time for this one. [notes]

*

Child of God
Cormac McCarthy

McCarthy’s novels are often dark and disturbing, and Child of God is more dark and disturbing than most. It’s a truly harrowing tale about a man who commits unspeakable acts of violence and disgrace. We have a right to ask why we should trouble ourselves to read it, much less to recommend it to others, as I am doing here. McCarthy has an established habit of introducing into his bleak and troubling stories some glimmer of light, some shred of hope, some rumour of grace or justice. It can be slight and subtle — it is certainly so here — but it is there nonetheless. We are to see, I think, that evil can never be completely triumphant, A green shoot always arises from the ashes. And that is worth knowing. A second reason to endure the tale is the tough, spare beauty of the prose; nobody else writes like this.

*

Art & Scholasticism
Jacques Maritain

Over the years I’ve accumulated a sizable stack of books by Jacques Maritain, but for one reason or another I’ve not got around to reading them. This year I pulled down this relatively slender volume in which he gathers up various scraps of commentary about the arts let fall from the workbenches of the scholastic philosophers, especially Thomas Aquinas, and arranges them into something like a systematic treatment. I found it a fruitful enterprise. Despite a certain amount of pedantry about species and genus, the book contains lively analyses of, among other things, what counts as art, how art relates to beauty, how art relates to morality, and how the arts can be corrupted. Do the scholastics ever disappoint?

*

The Figure of Beatrice
Charles Williams

Beatrice was for Dante much more than just a love interest, and in this study of Dante Charles Williams explores what we can learn from Dante about what he learned from her. In so doing, he develops a kind of theology of romantic love that I found surprisingly creative and insightful, and which helped me to deepen my understanding of my own experience of love. Much food for thought, and a fine guide to the Divine Comedy as well. Beautifully written.

*

A Pelican at Blandings
P.G. Wodehouse

This was the last Blandings novel that Wodehouse completed, and, since I was reading them in order, it has served for me as a kind of milestone. I have walked the extensive grounds, but have now reached a neighbouring hilltop where I stand, looking back. I see Beach, the butler, arranging flower pots on the balcony. The Hon. Freddie Threepwood is on the lawn, setting out a bowl of Donaldson’s dog biscuits for somebody’s pooch. Rupert Baxter, secretary to Lord Emsworth, is around back of the house studying the eaves, and he appears to be wearing yellow pyjamas. I see Galahad Threepwood lounging easily on a chair down by the fish pond. Away in the distance, partly concealed behind a tree, I think I see Sir Gregory Parsloe-Parsloe with binoculars pointed in the direction of the pig-pen. And, yes, sure enough, following his gaze, there is Lord Emsworth himself, plying the Empress of Blandings with apples and potatoes. I’m going to miss this place. [notes]

***

Read again: Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Gorgias, Protagoras, Meno; Shakespeare: The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, Macbeth; Homer: Iliad, Odyssey; Aeschylus: Oresteia; Sophocles: Theban Plays, Philoctetes; Euripides: Medea, Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, The Bacchae; Lewis: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Magician’s Nephew; Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment; Tolkien: The Hobbit; MacLachlan: Sarah, Plain and Tall; Herodotus: Histories; Burgess: The Adventures of Prickly Porky, The Adventures of Grandfather Frog; Pressfield: Gates of Fire.

Multiple things by the same author: Plato (12), Sophocles (5), Aeschylus (4), Euripides (4), Robert Frost (4), William Shakespeare (3), Gene Wolfe (3), Arthur Conan Doyle (3), Homer (2), Hesiod (2), P.G. Wodehouse (2), Philip Massinger (2), C.S. Lewis (2), Pedro Calderon (2), Thornton Burgess (2).

***

As is my custom, I made a bar graph of the publication dates of the books I read this year. It looks like this:

This year I had a double-humped distribution: the cluster on the left contains the things I’ve read for the Greek reading project, and the cluster on the right is everything else. Coverage since 1500 was not too shabby this year. That yawning gap in the medieval years is sad.

All in all, though, it was a pretty good year of reading.


Christmas Day, 2022

December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas!

***

Here is a new setting of Chesterton’s Christmas poem “The Christ-Child Lay on Mary’s Lap”, by Mark Nowakowski.

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap,
His hair was like a light.
(O weary, weary were the world,
But here is all aright.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s breast,
His hair was like a star.
(O stern and cunning are the kings,
But here the true hearts are.)

The Christ-child lay on Mary’s heart,
His hair was like a fire.
(O weary, weary is the world,
But here the world’s desire.)

The Christ-child stood at Mary’s knee,
His hair was like a crown.
And all the flowers looked up at him,
And all the stars looked down.

— G.K. Chesterton —