Archive for October, 2008

Enter freely, and of your own will

October 31, 2008

Dracula (1897)
Bram Stoker (Viking Studio, 2006; illus. Jae Lee)
390 p. First reading.

Each year at about this time I indulge in a little spooky reading.  For the past few years I’ve been reading short stories, but this year I decided to forego that route in favour of one of the classics of Victorian horror.  (Come to think of it, are there any others?)

Coming to the book I admit that I did not know much about vampires.  I was aware that they are afraid of garlic and crucifixes; I did not know, but well believe, that they are also afraid of the consecrated Host. I knew that to kill a vampire one must drive a wooden stake through its heart; I did not know that for good measure one should also cut off its head.  I was completely unaware that vampires have a special affinity for wolves, and can even change into one if necessary.  Naturally I understood that vampires are creatures of the night, but was surprised to learn that during the day they must retire to a bed of consecrated earth from their native land.

I believe that our fascination with vampires derives in part from the manner in which they seem to combine incompatibles. The Un-dead confuse the basic distinction between life and death, and their behaviour is driven by a perverse combination of sensuality and violence.  If we are creatures with feet of clay and our heads in the heavens, then vampires could be seen as exaggerated versions of ourselves: their immortality gives them a god-like status, yet they are consumed by bestial lusts.  Their manner of feeding flirts with cannibalism, and is perhaps also a grotesque parody of the Eucharist.

Bram Stoker’s tale of Count Dracula started well.  The opening sequence, telling of Jonathan Harker’s arrival at Dracula’s castle, his growing understanding of the macabre appetites of his host, and his eventual decision to escape, was superbly done, and I found it genuinely frightening.  (The only misstep was the too-soon revelation that mirrors to not reflect the Count’s image, which sapped the rising dramatic tension.)  The book’s second major set-piece, about the gradual disappearance of a ship’s crew as it carries Dracula to England, was also excellent.  As the book progressed, however, I found that the inspiration flagged.  By the time the men, led by the wonderful Dr. van Helsing, were leaving Mina Harker alone at night, thereby unwittingly providing a convenient meal to Dracula, they were too unwitting for comfort.  The last third or so of the book read like a fairly conventional thriller.  As the story drew to a close, with the net drawing ever tighter around Dracula, matters improved, and the closing sequence was quite good.  I do wish, though, that it hadn’t relied so much on Mrs. Harker’s strange telepathic powers.  To my knowledge this is no part of vampire lore, and, if it is, it ought not to be.

Speaking of which, Stoker makes use of a number of devices presumably rooted in vampire lore, but about which I have some doubts.  Can vampires really dematerialize themselves into clouds of dust?  Are lunatics specially attuned to the presence of vampires?  Can a vampire and his victims read one another’s minds?  Most importantly, does killing a vampire also cure of vampirism his various victims?  Stoker’s plot relies on affirmative answers to all of these questions.

The edition of the book that I bought is handsome.  A number of illustrations have been provided by an artist named Jae Lee, and they are very striking.  He has made good use of silhouette, and given the scenes a vaguely Japanese flavour, which one might think would not work, but does.


After reading the book I watched Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Dracula.  It is a disaster.  It is so bad that the best thing in it is Keanu Reeves.

Victoria: Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae

October 29, 2008

Tomás Luis de Victoria
Officium Hebdomadae Sanctae (Rome, 1585)

La Colombina; Schola Antiqua
(Glossa GCD 922002; 188:24)

Together Holy Week and Easter constitute the high point of the Christian year, and over the centuries a vast amount of music has been written to accompany the liturgical celebrations.  This set gathers together, on three well-filled CDs, the music for Holy Week composed by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611), unquestionably one of the great masters of the Renaissance polyphonic style.  Many of these pieces have appeared here and there on other recordings, but never before have I seen them presented as a unity.

The music is arranged chronologically, beginning with Palm Sunday.  The great majority of the music is devoted to the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, and particularly to the Tenebrae services traditionally held during the night. Victoria composed three lamentations for each night office, masterfully balancing the agony and tears of the text against the warm beauty of the polyphony.  They are magnificent pieces.  For Good Friday he has supplied a moving setting of the Reproaches, which were (and sometimes still are) sung during the Veneration of the Cross. The set concludes with music for the Matins of Easter.

Along with these major elements we also find a variety of antiphons, responsories, hymns, and motets, sometimes composed by Victoria and sometimes drawn from the Gregorian treasure-house.  The whole has been arranged into a quasi-liturgical setting, permitting us to hear how the polyphonic compositions would have alternated with the more austere chant melodies in an actual Holy Week liturgy.  The singers have even gone so far as to include two lengthy (15-20 min.) sung settings of the Passion narrative, from St. Matthew and St. John.  These are very spare settings — nothing like Bach’s more familiar works — entirely monophonic apart from the brief cries of the crowd.  Fittingly, they have used Victoria’s own settings of these short polyphonic outbursts.  Unfittingly, but understandably, the Passion narratives are incomplete, intended more to give the aesthetic flavour than to be faithful presentations of the Biblical text.  (Listeners who would like the unabridged experience might seek out the Theatre of Voices’ recording of a monophonic St. Matthew Passion, in which the brief polyphonic episodes have been composed by Victoria’s contemporary Orlandus Lassus.)

The choirs on these recordings are La Colombina and Schola Antiqua, both, like Victoria himself, from Spain.  I’ve never heard of either of them before, but on the strength of these performances I’m ready to hear more. They are small ensembles, together composed of just 22 voices.  The singing is of high quality, especially considering that the recording was made live.  There are occasional waverings and strainings, but in this emotionally charged music that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and the problems are not distracting.  For the most part the voices are strong and full, with good blend and tuning, minimal vibrato, and an appropriate solemnity reigns.  The recording is also good, with a warm resonance around the voices that remains unobtrusive.  The aural image I have is of voices emerging from darkness and retreating again, which is wholly proper given the context.  The packaging of the discs is also admirable, but unfortunately the texts, though provided in Latin, are without translations.

Publishing notes

October 27, 2008

Some of us have been waiting for well over a year for David Bentley Hart’s long-delayed next book, which has heretofore borne the title The Christian Revolution.  Today I discover that a new publication date has been set — 21 April 2009 — and the book’s title has been altered to Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.  Judging from the advance blurbs, the book has been re-focused as a rejoinder to the rash of “new atheism” books that have hit the shelves of late.  A few such rejoinders have already been published, but I expect that Hart’s will best them.  Those anxious for a preview might look to his light-hearted, but penetrating, essay that appeared in First Things a while back: “Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark”.

While waiting, we could do worse than spend some quality time with Charles Dickens.  I was delighted to see that Duckworth Press will next month publish a further three volumes in their handsome Nonesuch Edition of Dickens’ work.  Two years ago they issued the first six volumes of a projected 24-volume set, with the promise that a further six volumes would appear each year.  Last year passed with nary a peep, and I was worried that perhaps the project had been cancelled, but the promise of these new volumes allays my fear.  The project may be going more slowly than expected, but at least it isn’t dead.  The new volumes will be A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, and Martin Chuzzlewit.

And if you’re looking for a book that is available today, I note with pleasure that Ignatius Press has, at last, issued a second volume of G.K. Chesterton’s poetry as part of their Collected Works.  It warms my heart.

Dr. Johnson and me

October 25, 2008

I think I may have mentioned that it is book sale season around here.  Last night I went to a sale and passed a few happy hours hunting through the stacks.  As I was preparing to leave, I passed the section devoted to “Sets”, and what to my wondering eyes should appear?

(Click to enlarge.)

This is the 1929 New Cambridge Edition.  It is a limited edition; only 500 sets were printed, this set being number 252.  The set includes The Lives of the Poets, The Lives of Eminent Persons (including his biography of my academic ancestor Hermann Boerhaave), Rasselas, essays from The Idler and The Rambler, his Preface to Shakespeare and Preface to the English Dictionary, as well as Boswell’s Tour of the Hebrides, various letters, sermons, and prayers, and whatever else might delight the heart of an admirer of Dr. Johnson.

I’m over the moon with happiness.

Halloween costume ideas from Bob Dylan

October 24, 2008

Halloween, with its strange sartorial obligations, is now just one week distant.  If you’re stuck for ideas, you might consider going:

I could go on and on.  Any other suggestions?

(HT: Boing Boing)

Worth noting

October 22, 2008

It is worth noting, by the way, that the most sentimental people, who are loudest against the right to wage a just war, or execute a criminal, are just the people who are most likely to be in favour of ‘putting incurables out of their pain,’ which the commandment against murder most emphatically forbids.

— Hilaire Belloc
Characters of the Reformation (1936)

Brébeuf and his Brethren

October 22, 2008

Brébeuf and his Brethren (1940)
E.J. Pratt (Macmillan, 1974)
80 p.  First reading.

Every year at about this time the University of Toronto hosts a series of second-hand book sales, and this year I found this little volume at one of them.  It is discoveries like this that make attending these sales so worthwhile.

E.J. Pratt was for many years a professor of English Literature at the University of Toronto, and three times the winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Award for poetry (1937, 1940 (for this poem), and 1952).  Brébeuf and his Brethren tells the story of the mission and martyrdom of St. Jean de Brébeuf and his Jesuit brothers who came as missionaries to the native peoples of North America in the seventeenth century.

Brébeuf first came into (modern) Ontario in 1625, following in the wake of Champlain, and committed himself to the care, both physical and spiritual, of the Huron tribe.  Over the years he was joined by other Jesuits from France, and they slowly established a modest mission amid difficult circumstances.  They learned the language, produced a written form of it, and studied the native culture, intent on finding ways in which the people might be receptive to the gospel.  Pratt, speaking of Brébeuf, emphasizes the self-denial this mission demanded of these men, and imagines how their presence may have been perplexing to those whom they sought to serve:

Three years he had been there, a friend
Whose visit to the tribes could not have sprung
From inspiration rooted in private gain.
He had not come to stack the arquebuses
Against the mountains of the beaver pelts.
He had not come to kill.  Between the two —
Barter and battle — what was left to explain
A stranger in their midst?

By the 1640s their patient presence began to bear fruit in the form of baptisms and newly established mission outposts.  Meanwhile, however, hostilities were brewing between the Huron and the Iroquois, with river ambushes and war raids increasingly common, and the mission became dangerous.  It is also true that some regarded the priests — the “black robes” — as shamans who brought trouble with their foreign rites and their prayers to a strange God.

Though given the opportunity to return to France, many decided to remain and continue the work, despite the danger and the very real possibility of death.  They were not naive.  Isaac Jogues, who joined the mission in 1642, was captured by the Iroquois and enslaved.  He was brutally tortured, beaten with clubs and made to roll in hot coals, his fingernails plucked out, his fingers and thumbs mutilated or torn off.  Near death, he was offered escape on a Dutch trading vessel, and took it.  Yet after returning to France and recovering his health, he returned again to Canada to rejoin the mission.  In 1646 he was taken by the Iroquois and beheaded.

There are other stories like his.  St. Antoine Daniel advanced toward an Iroquois war party carrying a cross aloft, intending to buy the Huron time enough to escape before he was filled full of arrows, like St. Sebastian.  St. Jean de Brébeuf and St. Gabriel Lallemant were also captured by the Iroquois, tortured, boiled alive, and scalped.  For their commitment to their mission and the sacrifice of their lives, Brébeuf and seven of his brothers were canonized by Pope Pius XI in 1930.  Together with St. Joseph, they are the patron saints of Canada.

Considered as an interesting and informative account of the mission, Brébeuf and his Brethren is an admirable poem.  Considered qua poetry, however, I’m less enthusiastic.  It begins this way:

The winds of God were blowing over France,
Kindling the hearths and altars, changing vows
Of rote into an alphabet of flame.
The air was charged with songs beyond the range
Of larks, with wings beyond the stretch of eagles.

I guess that’s alright.  I’m not a great lover of blank verse, so perhaps my prejudices are getting in the way.  He is at his best when painting the physical hardships and the rugged, untamed landscapes, as in this passage:

…the stories of those northern boundaries
Where in the winter the white pines could brush
The Pleiades, and at the equinoxes
Under the gold and green of the auroras
Wild geese drove wedges through the zodiac.

But I’m afraid that such evocative images are the exception, and the text too often sounds like prose that has been carefully converted to poetry by judicious insertion of carriage returns.  Here is a passage chosen more or less at random that can be considered representative:

Bad days had fallen on Huronia.
A blight of harvest, followed by a winter
In which unusual snowfall had thinned out
The hunting and reduced the settlements
To destitution, struck its hardest blow
at Sainte Marie.

I suppose that is not quite drab prose — not as drab as my prose, for instance — but neither is it quite poetry, at least not to my ear.

Even so, I’m counting my blessings.  This poem could almost certainly not be published today, not with its politically incorrect subject matter (it would have to be filed under “cultural genocide”) and its un-ironic, admiring treatment of missionaries.  Even if it were published today, it would almost certainly not be published by a major press like Macmillan.  And if it were published by a major press, it would almost certainly not win the Governor General’s Award.  There are few things as valuable as the past to show us the present.


Audio clip: E.J. Pratt discusses the poem (Duration: 1:41)
(Recorded in 1960)

Audio clip: E.J. Pratt reads from Brébeuf and his Brethren (Duration: 3:47)
(Recorded at Victoria College Library, Toronto in 1956)


Related reading:
Brian Moore – Black Robe (also a film)
John Gerard, S.J. – Autobiography of an Elizabethan

The neighbourhood’s gone to hell

October 20, 2008

A few months ago I was at a pub with some friends, and we were catching up after a lapse of several months.  “Where is your new apartment?” I was asked.  “Oh, it’s at the corner of such-and-such,” I replied.  My interlocutor responded with astonishment: “Is that the Halloween building?”  My eyebrows went up.

It is slowly becoming clear what he meant, and, yes, we live in the Halloween building.  It seems that nearly every day some new and disturbing alteration is made to either our lobby or our front lawn.  Here are a few documentary photographs, taken yesterday:

A suddenly sprouted graveyard.  (Click to enlarge.)

A suddenly sprouted graveyard. (Click to enlarge.)

A terror to all pumpkinphobes.

A terror to all arachnophobes and pumpkinphobes.

I actually expect to see this more often than I do.

I'm actually surprised not to see this more frequently.

We will continue to keep an eye on the situation…

Sunday night suspense

October 19, 2008

Olivier Messiaen ponders organ registrations:

Messiaen in Montreal

October 18, 2008

Perhaps not everyone is aware that this year is the centenary of the birth of the great French composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992).  Festivities marking the occasion have been distressingly rare.  This is difficult to understand given the wealth of fabulous possibilities that suggest themselves: zoos around the world could hold concerts in their tropical bird exhibits; the Quatuor pour la fin du temps could be performed in mock concentration camps, which would have the benefit of being both entertaining and educational; a full complement of orchestral musicians could be suspended beneath military helicopters and flown through the Grand Canyon while playing Des canyons aux étoiles… — I’m sure you can think of your own examples.

As for me and my house, we (well, ok, technically only me) have been listening through Warner Classics’ enormous Messiaen Edition, but this has seemed somehow insufficient.  Owing to a disastrous oversight, I missed attending our local symphony’s performance of the mighty Turangalîla-Symphonie back in April, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to make amends.

Imagine my surprise, delight, and frustration to discover that in December the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, under their new musical director Kent Nagano, will be performing a concert version of Messiaen’s glorious masterpiece Saint François d’Assise.  (I have written about this opera in this space before.) Nagano knew Messiaen well, conducted the premiere of Saint François, and has presided over the best recording of the work, and I’m sure it will be a marvellous concert.  The downside?  I’m not so bothered to see that the concert lasts six hours — one can’t have too much of a good thing, right? But the concert is in Montreal, which is about a six hour drive from here.  If I went I’d have to find some overnight lodgings, which gets expensive.  Oh dear, oh dear.  What am I to do?