Saturday, May 27, 2017

Richard Diebenkorn

Eastside Road, May 27, 2017—
Letter to an Italian friend
Matisse/Diebenkorn
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
March 17-May 29 2017

Richard Diebenkorn: Chabot Valley, 1955
19-1/2 x 18-3/4 inches
WE WENT YESTERDAY to see the SFMOMA show of work by Henri Matisse and Richard Diebenkorn, just in time, as it closes May 29. The exhibition is titled “Profound Inspiration: Matisse/Diebenkorn,” a title which seems to me only superficially inspired. What is inspiration? The breathing into a receptor by an external source. There is no doubt of the importance of Matisse to Diebenkorn, who referred to it himself publicly on many occasions; and there are certainly good examples in this show of works which show direct homages on Diebenkorn’s part to specific HM paintings, though in many other cases the connection is, to my eye, less a matter of direct “inspiration” than a developed affinity brought out, if at all, by curatorial statements on wall labels.

We took a old friend with us. The exhibition was crowded, but a combination of the timed entry and the fact that many viewers were wearing their headphones helped mitigate the crowd. First of all we jumped the line — someone recognized me for the long-retired art critic I am, said “You’ve paid your dues,” smiled, and waved us past the waiting line into the galleries. There, of course, many viewers waited in front of this painting or that while listening the their headphones, so I followed my usual practice of finding a painting being neglected at the moment and standing directly in front of it, viewing it as long as I wanted, leaning on my cane.

One of the key paintings was Chabot Valley, a small landscape from 1955. I’d been advised to pay particular attention to it, and thought I knew it: but of course I didn’t, as it’s still in the Diebenkorn family; I was confusing it with another painting, not in the show, which I see with my mind’s eye but don’t readily find among the various sources at hand. I am almost certain I had seen the painting before, though, hanging in Diebenkorn’s house outside Healdsburg, when I had a conversation with him in, I think, 1992. (RD died of emphysema in Berkeley in March 1993.)

I lingered, in the SFMOMA show, in front of Chabot Valley, an extraordinary painting for the success of its complexity and truthfulness in such a small scale — you can see why he would have kept it nearby for the rest of his life, as a sort of touchstone, a painting against which to check work under way. I think it’s likely the success of Chabot Valley developed of its own accord, and this is how: the external reality of the landscape he was painting, including of course its sky, and the example of the paintings by others (not exclusively Matisse by any means), and the painting itself as it developed from his palette and brushstrokes, all simply converged, partly from his conscious decisions, partly from the habits of hand and eye that he’d developed in studio work (including many hours of figure drawing and many others of printmaking), partly by consciously taking advantage of “accidents” presenting themselves in the course of painting.

Now Diebenkorn was an extraordinarily intelligent and thoughtful man. I spoke to him twice, once when he had a retrospective at SFMOMA in 1972; again in his Healdsburg home twenty years later. On both occasions his intelligence and thoughtfulness were immediately apparent: he spoke slowly, without ums and ahs, and referred to a wide range of reading, including the “reading” of visual work by other artists, contemporary and historical. I think any approach to his work, painting, drawing, or prints, that doesn’t include a similar approach, can begin to extract the richness of meaning that’s in it. I’m not saying this has to be conscious, or that his work is exclusively for similarly developed intelligences, of course even a viewer who’s only interested in painting-over-the-sofa interior decorating can find a lot to enjoy in an Ocean Park painting (not to mention Matisse. But there’s a lot more there, as Diebenkorn was quick to point out himself in interviews and conversation:

“I keep plastering it until it comes around to what I want, in terms of all I know and think about painting now, as well as in terms of the initial observation. One wants to see the artifice of the thing as well as the subject. Reality has to be digested, it has to be transmuted by paint. It has to be given a twist of some kind.”
(RD, quoted in Nordland, attributed to Paul Mills, Contemporary Bay Area Figurative Painting, Oakland: Oakland Art Museum, 1957, p. 12)
The current SFMOMA show includes a few vitrines housing books and periodicals from Diebenkorn’s personal collection, and you can be pretty sure his studio, like most painters’ studios, had reproductions of paintings pinned up here and there, more touchstones; though I believe certain works were burned into his memory and always cropped up someplace. I didn’t buy the Matisse-Diebenkorn catalogue and wasn’t allowed to photograph the wall labels (which annoyed me) and, given the crowds, my back, and our schedule, wasn’t able readily to take notes, but it’s likely this was a point the curator was making in this show.

It was probably helpful to me that our friend was with us, and asking intelligent questions from time to time: how should an intelligent and willing but basically untutored and in a sense painterly illiterate person approach these paintings? I talked about edges, the way Diebenkorn often squeezes a composition down into a rectangle slightly smaller than the canvas itself. I talked about palette, the way he finds new uses for colors found in previous paintings. I talked about composition and planes and perspective and vertical-versus-horizontal and recession and all that, without of course going into detail. I talked about the way certain touches reappear from one painting to the next — little flecks of color, little rectangles, little linear shapes (eyeglasses, bra-cups, the club sign from playing cards (heraldry, I remember the wall label had it), schematic faces recalling those of the Russian painter Alexei Jawlensky).

I’m fascinated that apparently I do all this quickly and subconsciously when I look at a painting, and it took the conversation with our friend to bring all this out. And on the way home, me sleeping in the back seat, I woke up and said, a propos of nothing, I hate doing that. What, our friend asked. Talking about painting like that: it’s all so glib. I know that’s how you feel, she said. (She was instrumental in getting me onto our local newspaper as a music critic, for a couple of seasons, after I’d left the Oakland Tribune.) Then we both fell silent. I think she disagrees, that she knows the value of journalistic criticism: but to me it’s public one-sided opinionizing too ready to lapse into a kind of authoritarianism.


Richard Diebenkorn: Ocean Park No. 54, 1972
100 x 81 inches
Anyhow we worked our way through the galleries, the Diebenkorns mostly but not all paintings I knew either from the flesh, so to speak, or reproductions, the Matisses not, in some cases, and then we stepped into the final gallery, where the Ocean Park paintings were. I stood for a long time in front of No. 54, a favorite of mine, one of the best I think and one in the SFMOMA collection — this is the one with the “Jawlensky” face, or a detail of it, at the lower right corner. As I backed away from it I overheard a tall man with curly white hair talking about it to his companion, trying to explain why he found it the best painting in the show, better than any of the Matisses. Besides, I interjected, somewhat rashly, Diebenkorn’s a better painter.

Thank you thank you for saying that, he said, that’s what I’ve been trying to say, it’s really that simple. (It isn’t, of course, it’s just that Diebenkorn is a better painter for me, for my purposes. And what are my purposes? To understand better how, using my eyes, I understand reality.) We had a little conversation and agreed that the Ocean Park series is simply magnificent. Each of the paintings, almost all of them, has in it all the things you want: landscape, figure, abstraction, light, perspective, color, edge, content, reference. Each of them has looked at Chabot Valley and thought about all the issues that early little painting raises (and resolves, you have to concede, on its own terms), and internalizes all those issues and resolves them anew, and leaves the painter’s eye out of the equation; they are completely ego-transcendent.

And then I was tired, and we left, and went to Zuni for hamburgers, and home.

Then this morning I looked into Gerald Nordland’s book (Richard Diebenkorn: Rizzoli, 1989) and thought about things and decided to write to you. I know you’ve looked into this catalog a lot, more than I have recently I’m sure. I was surprised to find I’d pencilled notes into it, probably when I was thinking of that interview in 1992. A magazine publisher had set up the interview, working through Diebenkorn’s gallery as I recall, overcoming my reluctance to do it. Finally I agreed to talk to Diebenkorn about why neither he nor I wanted to do an interview, to be published in his magazine. I went out to Diebenkorn’s Healdsburg house. He was not strong. I don’t recall whether he had breathing apparatus; I don’t think so. We had a nice conversation, one of those with long silences in which each was thinking of other things, probably Matisse, Chekhov, west coast jazz, the Bay Area school, and so on, each of us knowing what the other found valuable and enriching, and each of us knowing there was neither reason nor point in discussing these things, they were a matter of common knowledge and agreement.

It may be (and perhaps it must be) that Matisse's was similarly rich and thoughtful a mentality; I don’t know. Clearly he was more intellectual than was Picasso, but by “intellectual” let’s admit we’re meaning “articulate, verbal”: as I said to our friend, painters like Diebenkorn “read” paintings the way others — she and I, I said — read novels. And the greats — Matisse, Picasso, Diebenkorn — teach us, I think, to read “reality” that way, and landscape, and skies, and arrangements of things on tables, and the figure.

In the last analysis I don’t think it was a magnificent show; the curator’s point was made but it is God knows an easy point to make; many of the Matisses (by no means all!) were second-rate paintings for him, and the Diebenkorns were mostly first-rate. We saw a marvelous show in Fort Worth, years ago, pairing Matisse and Picasso, showing their mutual inspiration — no, not inspiration; more like homages to one another, as in Oh: you can do that? Look what I can do with it! It may be, as my Companion suggests, that that exhibition has grown in my memory of it, and that this one will grow similarly. In any case Diebenkorn is a creative force to be grateful for, a transcendent expression of his century, a painter who knew both intuitively and through careful thought and observation the things I was trying to write the other day about space, measure, and markings.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Space, measure, and markings

I  THINK OF space, measure, marks, and accent. Why? Partly because I live in this landscape: except when traveling, it is my everyday context. The lineaments and proportions of ridgeline, gradients, swales and hillocks; and the markings of windrows of cut grass, of cypresses and grapevines, mold and reinforce the way I see. And for that reason, perhaps, partly because that is how I seem to respond to what I read and hear. The other night, for example, we went to a production of an adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s Cinna. I don’t know Corneille well, that’s for sure; of his thirty-odd plays I think I’ve only seen L’Illusion comique, in an adaptation by Tony Kushner. (That was at the Pasadena company A Noise Within, which I support because it mounts productions of French repertory. Five years ago! I wrote about it here.)

I think you could refer to Corneille's plays as examples of French baroque, along with those of Jean Racine. When through with my summertime reading agenda I must turn to those two: as they pivot from the baroque toward Romanticism, reading them should nicely accompany the autumnal season.

I wanted to attend this production chiefly because it was accompanied by Lou Harrison's incidental music, composed in the late 1950s, when he too was thinking about the baroque, and had definitively left New York, and modernism, for a near-rural life in Aptos, California. I remember visiting him there in his cabin and seeing and hearing the tack-piano for which he scored Cinna, an upright piano with ordinary metal thumbtacks pushed into the hammer-felts, producing a sound reminiscent of the grand harpsichords on which Rameau's and Couperin's music is so glorious.

The piano was tuned in just intonation, based on today's concert "G," with, I think, an eleven-limit, meaning it was faithful to the acoustical overtone series up to the eleventh partial. Somewhere I have a recording of Lou playing one of the intermezzi of his Cinna on this instrument, and for a long time I thought that was all there was to it, three or four minutes of remarkably spacious animation, decorative, supple, sweet, and strong, like so much of Lou's music, and measured, like the sound of the narration at the opening of the Alan Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad, also a favorite of mine.

Corneille's Cinna is in the requisite five acts, respecting the classical unities of time and location, and Lou (I knew him well enough that it feels unnatural to refer to him in any other way) wrote in fact five pieces, each, I feel sure, intended as a prelude to the following act. But last week's production was an adaptation, in English, boiled down to about forty minutes, read by its adapter Larry Reed, who modified his voice slightly to distinguish the major characters. (Each of the five acts, presented without intermission, was preceded by its opening lines in the original French, a marvelously evocative way to mark off the dramatic structure.)

The "actors" were shadow-puppets — wire representations of faces, in profile, of those principles (Octavius Caesar Augustus, Livia, Cinna, Maximus, Emilia, and the lesser roles Fulvia, Evander, and Euphorbus), manipulated behind a scrim. Lou, I think, would have approved this; it recalls his later opera Young Caesar, originally intended for large-scale puppets; and somehow it reveals the subconscious affinity of the baroque, and especially I think the French baroque, with certain Asian theater.

Linda Burman-Hall played the tack piano, and gave a little talk before the performance, explaining the instrument and suggesting that the music was intended to be descriptive of the characters in the play. This could be, but I'm not so sure. I think Lou was primarily an abstractionist, and that his music is descriptive of qualities, not personalities, though perhaps this is what Burman-Hall meant. In any case she played splendidly. (Her recording of the music can be bought online at the inevitable Amazon.)


WHAT APPEALS TO ME in Cinna is its measure. The play is about a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar, its discovery, and his forgiveness of the plotters who have proven their sincere remorse. As ever-helpful Wikipedia writes, "Corneille addresses the question of clemency and advocates an end to spiraling vengeance. His response is apologetic towards absolute power." He wrote, after all, largely with the indulgence of Louis XIV, during a time when social stability, if it were to be achieved, would depend on a stable structure itself dependent on a sustainable system of unequal social orders: Emperor or King, lesser nobles, clerics, merchants, peasants.

The social structure collapsed under the weight it built up at the top, through greed and the insistence on gloire, that majestic splendor which illuminates and radiates from absolute power, justifying it to the lower orders. In the mid-17th century France may have succeeded, for a few years, in maintaining the equilibrium; a century later of course it was crumbling toward the Bastille. (I wonder how all this will look a century hence.)

Lou's music itself is technically what is called "unmeasured," as I believe. (I haven't seen the score.) That's to say, it isn't barred off into regularly repeating "measures" of equal lengths, based on regular beats proceeding at a steady pace. This has always seemed a misleading terminology to me: the measure of the resulting music is felt by the performer, and expressed to the listener, in some other way than by the motor rhythms common to the music we mostly have in our consciousness (and even below that), whether it's "classical" concert music or commercial entertainment music.

Lou and his friend John Cage — they worked together for years — were greatly interested in this quality, which perhaps had something to do with the parallel historical development of abstraction in the visual arts. (And, to an extent, the literary ones: Gertrude Stein was the pioneer here, though I think perhaps even Proust is best read with measure in mind, more than narration.)

Their friend Virgil Thomson, the composer and critic of the New York Herald Tribune (where he hired Lou and John to turn in occasional concert reviews, always informative and entertaining), said that there were two kinds of (European-tradition) music, that based on song, which is vocal and strophic, and that based on dance, which is pedal and repetitive. Then came the 19th century and Romanticism and a third type, which he called spasmic, based on the movements of internal organs of one kind or another, mostly one in particular.

It's a cute summary and a useful one, but one result was the determination, by John and Lou, that it was high time for another approach to music, one that renders the listener tranquil — that is, in a non-self-absorbed state — and receptive to divine influences. And it's thence, I think, grows the concept of measureless music, music that requires the suspension of regular markings and events. Lou turned to the baroque — he'd earlier been much interested in early 18th-century Spanish music as known in the California missions — and John turned to purposeless abstraction reliant on chance procedures.

Of the historical events and processes I've known over the last sixty years and more I regret most, perhaps, the institutional neglect and contempt toward the procedures of the mid-20th-century avant garde. I lack John Cage's serenity in the face of that monumental social failure, and I have misgivings about Lou's apparent evasion, his withdrawal into gamelan. Apparent, I say, because I am certain within himself this was a perfectly successful adjustment to his position: but it is perhaps wrongly interpreted as an acceptance of and adaptive use of that quintessentially social and performative music, where I believe it was a recognition of a quality too easily unnoticed by the listener and even the performer: the spatial, long-measured structure enveloping the incessant (and to me distracting) motor-element of the beats.

Maybe it’s just the feeble complaint of an old man, but it seems to me we mostly lack an awareness of scale, an understanding of spaciousness, an appreciation of the long view, the big field. As societies and as individuals we lose ourselves in incessant nervous activity: we fidget. Of course fewer and fewer of us live among hills like mine; most of us are indoors most of the time, and the view out the window, when there is one, is likely to be the confining grids of rectilinear buildings across the straight and busy streets. John enjoyed it, serenely busy in his spare rooms above the noisy West Side. Virgil, that utterly urban francophile, seemed to take it for granted, basking in gloire.I can’t take it for long; it drives me nuts, as it did Lou.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary

Lindsey at the Erickson Gallery, Healdsburg
Sixes and tens for Lindsey on our anniversary


Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…


— Robert Browning: “Rabbi Ben Ezra”
*

We are the best: I mean
we have the best, the best that we can have.
Just now it’s difficult,
but it’s been a hell of a ride, you know,
asking for more at this point amounts to
greediness — or folly.

After those rainy months
there’s a hot time ahead;
let’s make the best of it right now and here.
Our long parallel lives
converge in the reward
of this endless family around us

and the work that we’ve done —
whether or not anyone not yet born
knows or cares about it
at least it has kept us
from tearing at one another’s throats, all
these full and pleasant years.

Calm times and turbulence,
it all comes down to that:
anger, lust, passion, long silent moments,
love is using the other to make sense
of what can have meaning
but doesn’t, otherwise.

That’s just how I see it.
I can have no idea
what you make of love, marriage, life and death.
There never was any alternative.
Now, contemplation is
about all I can give —

Before too long, I think,
one or another of us, maybe both,
takes that walk over the ridge, just to see
what it’s like over there.
Our selves will just dissolve,
We know, like long marriage,
The possibilities are endless now.

— Healdsburg, May 11, 2017

*The first half of the first of 32 stanzas and by far the most memorable. I recall my mother quoting them, often, for some reason, when I was still just a kid, who knows why. I think about them now on my 60th wedding anniversary.)

Sunday, May 07, 2017

Approaching Africa

Eastside Road, May 7, 2017—
Ilja Leonardo Pfeijffer: La Superba
  (tr. Michele Hutchison)
Albert Camus: L'Etranger
Kamel Daoud:
  The Meursault Investigation
  (tr. John Cullen)
MY WORLD HAS SUDDENLY and necessarily grown considerably larger by the introduction into the family of a fine man born and brought to maturity in Algeria, of all places. That is what happens when a beautiful and intelligent girl spends a year abroad, in Italy; and then you take her for a month to Venice; and then she decides to go to college in Rome. International Relations! a course of study; then a prescription.

I'm not complaining: her betrothed is an excellent man, a journalist and a translator; as a writer myself I can forgive his being an editor. The wedding is set for — well, as soon as our government allows him a visa: if not this year in this country, then I would bet in Italy, whose view of immigration, troubled as it is, is officially more generous than that of our present administration.

Recently, then, my reading has gravitated toward the question of African emigration to Europe. Thank Zeus Xenios for our extended (though in truth mostly European) family! Tom was visiting here three months ago from Netherlands, and told me I had to read Pfeijffer's novel La Superba, not only was it all the rage in the author's native Netherlands, not only was it truly a good read, but it was a description, as well, of the very city we'd visited with Tom's parents only a few months ago, Genoa, "La Superba," a city we'd long wanted to become familiar with.

Well, we didn't become familiars, goes without saying; Genoa turns out to be a historical and social complexity rivalling Venice, Naples, and Palermo. Which is one of the things La Superba is "about." Pfeijffer is apparently an expatriate there, having left a small country grown too familiar and too internationalized-thus-boring to satisfy his authorial needs. You can't tell whether his novel is a novel; it's clearly part memoir; he weaves his authorial presence into and out of the book in that manner, troubling to many of us elderly readers, that erases the distinction — to me it was always a false one — between fiction and non-fiction.

(The proof of the falsity of the distinction: there's no better word for the supposed antithesis of "fiction" than "non-fiction.")

I was put off, at first, elderly and prudish as I am, by much of the language and imagery in La Superba, which opens with the narrator's discovery of a human leg and the quick attachment he develops to it — not physical, not truly fetishistic, but certainly erotic in an intellectual way. Quickly, though, the narrative reaches out into those mysterious Genovese streets and piazzas ranging up the hill behind the waterfront, and a populace, unseen by day and largely even at night by a casual tourist, is convincingly revealed, a populace of drifters, expats, barmen, transvestites, and immigrants.

The writing is very beautiful even though continuously vernacular. (I read the book in English, of course; Hutchison's translation seems to me effortless.) Pfeijffer has been compared to Calvino, and his book to Dante's Inferno; but the book made me think also of narrative cartoons. It's very visual, and would make a lovely film if handled by, say, the people who made Les triplettes de Belleville. Structurally it's broken into three big, roughly equal-size chapters, divided by two shorter interludes.

One of these is the harrowing and completely persuasive, hence plausible accounts of one refugee's escape from his native Senegal to his eventual place in Genova. The parallel with refugees from Central America coming here is inescapable to an American reader, I think.

Pfeijffer is himself — or his narrator is; hard to tell the extent to which they're identical — an immigrant, though a legal one, given the Schenken agreement within the European Union. But one of the subtexts here is: is any immigration truly "legal"? Or, perhaps, isn't all emigration legal, since ours is a wandering species, and all Europeans are ultimately descended from Africans?

Beyond the moral issue of migration, of course, or rather this side of it, there's the economic issue. How are these people to make a living? Tom, the Netherlander who recommended the book to me, is an economist by profession, specializing in entrepreneurship: he must have enjoyed this layer of La Superba. They make a living, "these people," by selling roses to diners in restaurants, or themselves to tourists of a certain sort (or to one another), or occasionally by cadging a spare coin or two. Pfeijffer befriends a couple of "these people" enough to get their stories, sharing café tables with them, ultimately becoming one of them — this is perhaps where the book becomes fiction — in his quest for the most beautiful girl in Genoa.

What you do not get, in reading this superb novel, is a sense of the locals, the Genovese, of Italians in general — they keep off these streets and piazzas. In Pfeijffer's world one's an immigrant, a tourist, or else part of the unseen normality that seems to have quite vanished.


La Superba is completely successful novel/journalism on many levels: a page-turner of a narrative, a fragrant evocation of place, a provocative query into overwhelming social and economic problems at the beginning of the 21st century, a statement of language and narrative structure perfectly at home with its antecedents (Joyce, Calvino, Swift).

The Meursault Investigation is none of those things. Its premise is fascinating: an account of the narrative central to Camus's L'Etranger from the point of view of "the Arab," told by a much younger brother of the man Camus's hero-antihero Meusault fatally shoots in his own novel. I was curious to read The Meursault Investigation, hoping it would give me some insight into the mentality of a people released from colonialism only to be hounded by a return to the authoritarianism of the ancient tradition European colonialism had worked so hard to erase.

I knew, though, that it would be useless to tackle The Meursault Investigation without having Camus fresh in mind. I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never read L'Etranger. I attempted it, sixty years ago and more, but my French was not up to it: and what I could understand, in the opening pages, was eclipsed buy the brittle brilliance of Camus's style.

But I downloaded a French-language edition of the book — its cover curiously giving the title as "L'Estranger" — and had at it, and discovered the book is so compellingly written, in such clear, limpid French, that with the useful help e-book reading offers in terms of glossing unknown words the story at least, and the profound moral and philosophical questions the story raises, were perfectly clear. Camus writes with Hemingway's pen, but Dostoevsky's soul and brain.

His book is straightforward: Meursault, a young single pied-noir (French ethnically born in France-colonized Algeria), bored with a mediocre life, falls into dubious company, allows himself out of boredom and inertia to pledge his honor to an act of revenge, kills an unnamed young Algerian who has pulled a knife on him (true enough: in an apparently unthreatening gesture), is imprisoned, tried, and sentenced.

Behind this narrative the book is "about" the equivalence of socially normal and heinous behavior given a colonialist context depending on social stratification, compounded by relentless heat, perhaps engendered by failed domestic life (the father is mysteriously absent, the mother inert), and not at all relieved by a religion whose basic assumptions are irrelevant.

Meursault's existential quandary cannot be resolved, which has led many to question the morality of Camus's book. His outlook reminds me of Wittgenstein's dictum: Of what we cannot know, of that we should not speak. But Chekhov isn't far away; you can imagine Meursault, if Russian, then Treplyov. But of course L'Etranger is French: rational, objective, phenomenological, it's well within a trajectory of literature more connected to Flaubert or Francis Ponge or the George Perec of Les Choses than it is to Dante or Dostoevsky.


Which brings me finally to The Meursault Investigation, a first novel significant for its place within post-novelistic literature and its introduction of a North African voice to its European audience. Alas, I could not get hold of a copy in French, but John Cullen's translation seems perfectly satisfactory; you can't think the prose style and the book's architecture depends on an essentially untranslatable linguistic style.

I had hoped Daoud would be using his novel to state an "Arab" view of Meursault's existential quandary, either refuting it thanks to some intellectual instrumentality foreign to the western European mentality or (perhaps more satisfyingly) reinforcing it through parallels or resonances resting on a Moslem sensibility. But this is not Daoud's intention.

Instead he focusses on the least interesting aspect of Camus's profound book: its top layer, its straightforward narrative of objectively verifiable details of plot and character. He gives us a counter-L'Etranger, told by the much younger brother of Meursault's nameless victim, resting on a similarly compromised relationship with his maman, punctuated by a similar acte gratuite whose philosophical usefulness is damaged by its undoubted political motivation.

Like L'Etranger, The Meursault Investigation is short and quickly read; unlike Camus, Daoud takes some time to hit his stride in the book. Through his narrator he admits he lacks the magical, precise evocation Camus is so famous for. (I seem to remember he blames this problem partly on the French language, native to Camus, learned, specifically in order to read L'Etranger, by Daoud's narrator.)

What is most fascinating about The Meursault Investigation is what it says about our present literary and political moment, so different from that of Camus. Daoud's book is materialistic, narrative (when it finally gets under way), filmic, and specific because bound to unchangeable injustices in the colonialistic past, where Camus's is meditative, evocative, theatrical, and — I think — universal in its implications. It's too bad, I suppose, to fault the new book for not having the older one's virtues; but the comparison is ultimately the point of The Meursault Investigation. I'm glad I read it, and I recommend it (though not without a recent reading of L'Etranger in mind); but it does not expand this reader's mind to further understanding of that of the postcolonial African. Maybe that's the point.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Rome, 14: The controllers of destiny

Eastside Road, April 30, 2017—
TESTACCIO IS A QUARTER of Rome across the river from Trastevere and south of the Aventine hill, a quarter that always makes me think of the San Salvatario quarter in Torino because unlike every other quarter of the old city it is laid out on a grid. (I don’t include Prati among the old city; I don’t know why; it may be that it’s just as old as Testaccio.

Testaccio is the belly of Rome. It used to harbor the slaughterhouses, and continues to house its share of good restaurants often featuring that subspecialty of Roman cuisine that is founded on meat, and more specifically on offal. Many of us do not often eat offal, of course, or find it not to our liking — unattractive and off-putting. I like quadruped liver as much as anyone, and never pass up a chance at fegato Veneziano when in Venice, and I’ve managed lamb hearts, which were featured, oddly I think, one Mother’s Day at Chez Panisse; but I’m one of those who is made uneasy at the thought of brains, or tripe, or kidneys, or various other things. Perhaps it’s because I spent time as a child on a farm where we butchered our own animals, and I saw these items as they were removed from the carcass — and, thanks I suppose to my mother’s fastidiousness, thrown to the dogs.

I have friends and very good ones who choose not to eat meat, I think often for the same principle that led me not to eat at all on Tuesdays — to acknowledge that our lives depend on the deaths of other organisms. (Well, we do have toast and coffee on Tuesday mornings, and tea and nuts in the evening.) I find it enchanting, I think the word not too strong, that the Protestant Cemetery and Cestius’s memorial pyramid are on the edge of Testaccio, that carnivorous quarter, and that Monte Testaccio is too, the biggest of Rome’s garbage heaps, a pile of broken pots half a mile round and over one hundred feet high.

The pots were mostly from Spain, and carried olive oil. (Some were from North Africa.) Nearly all commodities were shipped in terra cotta jars in those days; they were the smaller versions of today’s containers, with a capacity of twenty gallons or so. Wheat and wine were shipped in them, and when their jars were no longer useful they were broken up to be used as landfill or in the production of concrete.

These olive-oil jars, though, were too oily for such use, and about the time the early Christians were or were not being persecuted, these jars were stacked up in terraces, whole ones making the walls to hold back shards carefully laid behind. So Imperial Rome, like the contemporary “developed” world, depended on the importation of oil, and on the conquest and administration of such lands as Iberia and North Africa to supply it. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Of the restaurants in present-day Testaccio we like Perilli: but in this month in Rome we did not visit any restaurant in the quarter, though we did have delicious sandwiches at a counter in the oddly new open-air market at the edge of the Monte. We often rode along the edge of Testaccio, though, on the number 3 tram, which takes us out the Via Marmorata, its northern boundary, as far as the Pyramid, before turning north for the delightful ride over a shoulder of the Aventine and an always impressive sighting of the Colosseum. So Testaccio, and its reminder of the persistence of daily life across centuries of human history, was often on my mind.

That pile of broken jars is a testament to civic engineering and design; someone had the idea, made the drawings, did the surveying, organized the slaves and donkeys. Ditto the planning for the layout of olive groves in what we now know as Libya, Tunisia, and Andalusia. Ditto, a few centuries later, the organization of the books of the Bible, the development of the narratives and iconography of the saints, the political structure of the evolving Christian church. What I want to know is: what is the force that transcends individuals and individual lifetimes to create and animate these social movements? I know my body is host to perhaps three bacteria for each of my perhaps forty trillion human cells, and that they all have their individual lives, no doubt with as much meaning and importance to them, to the extent of their awareness, as mine as to me: is this an analogy of the zoology of the Roman Empire, or the Catholic Church, or NATO?

Belief, faith, knowledge : I began this month’s musings planning to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death. Maladjustment of my own cells has made me more than normally aware of mortality. And what have the trams and ruins of Rome brought me to contemplate? Cats and garbage heaps on which grain had taken root over the years. Gardens and palazzi ; conversations with strangers; public behavior; the embrace of family; a toy boat; a pile of broken pots. The events and detritus of everyday life, in short. Nothing special, but constant reminders that there are things we see and so believe we know, transactions we share and so know we feel, concepts (and constructs) we hear or read about and so strive to understand. And I keep coming back to Montaigne: Que sais-je, What do I know?

In an attempt to understand Algeria from an Algerian point of view — or, rather, in preparing the attempt — on getting home from Rome, four days ago, I read Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. High time. I’d attempted it years ago, probably more than sixty, when my French was not up to it, and its reputation as philosophy was daunting, and I was mesmerized by the chiseled beauty of its prose, blinded, you might say, as Meursault is by the Algerian sun.

I may write about my reading of it here, later on, after I’ve read Kamel Daoud’s Meursault, contre-enquête, the recent re-telling (that word’s not quite right) of Camus’s novel from the point of view of the brother of the man Camus’s central character kills — for which he goes to the guillotine. (It maddens me that I cannot buy an e-book of Meursault, contre-enquête except in translation: I read the Camus in that form, very useful for its enabling of instant definition of words one’s not sure about.) I think Daoud’s book probably minimizes Camus’s, making of it a political affair centered on colonialism. One of my points in these last sixteen thousand words is that all human activity is colonialism in one form or another; even the malignant cells in one’s body are colonialists; even the refugees from Africa to Rome, or to Ilja Pfeijffer’s Genova (see La Superba ), are reverse colonizers, you see their colonies in European countries and cities everywhere, it’s that that animates the rejection of immigration by the Right, here and abroad. I was struck by this passage, late in L’Etranger :

Dans le fond, je n’ignorais pas que mourir à trente ans ou à soixante-dix ans importe peu puisque, naturellement, dans les deux cas, d’autres hommes et d’autres femmes vivront, et cela pendant des milliers d’années. Rien n’était plus clair, en somme. (Ultimately, I wasn’t unaware that whether to die at thirty or at seventy matters little since, naturally, in either case, other men and women live on, and that’s been going on for thousands of years. Nothing clearer, in fact.)
That’s my translation, and it’s quick and literal, and fails, I know, in the last two words, which brings me back, en somme, to “fact” and facticity. Meursaults’s clearly stated position on this — he’s the central intelligence, the “hero” (some say “anti-hero” of Camus’s novel, I should have said before — is that it’s a question that doesn’t interest him: which brings the whole thing down to the relationship of Self to Externality. I suppose that’s been my dilemma.

I believe our destiny is death, and I think the observable facts bear me out. Others have other ideas about this, but they require various elaborate constructs that don’t interest me. I’m sorry, a little, that I suggested, with the title above, that there might be some Controller of this destiny: I think it’s a matter beyond control, too complex in its numbers and its turbulence to be controlled by any demonstrable agent. The meaning of life? Meursault:

les plus pauvres et les plus tenaces de mes joies : des odeurs d’été, le quartier que j’aimais, un certain ciel du soir, le rire et les robes de Marie.

(the poorest and most tenacious of my pleasures: the scents of summer, the quarter that I loved, a certain evening sky, Marie’s laughter and her dresses.)

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Rome, 13: The toy boat

Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 26, 2017—
Via Damaso Cerquetti, Rome, April 25, 2017— PROPRIETY AND THE APPROPRIATE pace of intended decay-repair-replacement-and-ultimate-concession of Self, too. I arrived here three weeks ago, weak and unwell and out of sorts, intending to contemplate my feelings about religion: past and permanence, decay and defiance, self and society, faith and belief, fact and facticity, life and death.

The other day, strolling through the Pamphilj garden, we stopped to watch a grandfather (one assumes) winding up the screw on a home-made boat he’d made (one further assumes) for his little grandson. The boat was cobbled together out of scraps of wood: a slab whittled to a point at the bow, some kind of lattice-work set on the stern, a couple of blocks for the cabin. The screw was four oversize blades snipped out of an olive-oil can, I imagine; it was driven by a rubber band, the other end hooked over a bent nail under the bow.

The little boy stood by patiently while the old man slowly and methodically wound the blades. When the rubber band was tightly wound, holding the blades lest they turn too soon, he put the boat in the pool of the fountain. Was it the Fountain of Venus? I think so. The boat powered away a meter or so, then drifted to a stop; the little boy pulled it to him with a string that had been attached with forethought to the prow. The entire performance was carried on in silent concentration. Perhaps this was the boat’s maiden voyage. Neither of the actors showed any emotion at the proceedings. I might have been disappointed, as either grandfather or little boy, with the apparent failure — the word’s too strong — of the voyage. They seemed completely untroubled. The boat seemed to be a third actor, with power and flaws of its own. I think in its pathos, in its ingenuity and enterprise, and in its care for symbolic representation of the parts of a real ship — a tugboat, say — the little boat was a work of art.

Grandfather knew this, and little boy knew this. The boat was a transaction between them; its performance a loving dance of entropy warning both, no doubt without their conscious awareness, of the running down of things, but also the optimism of the making of things. And then simply physically, and to the eye, the little boat made me think, as so much does, of the painters Gordon Cook and Philip Guston, whose view of — or, some would say, interpretations of — external reality are so individual, so clearly charged with deeply known meaning which can only be represented, realistically, as unknowable by anyone else. The things other people make, whether physical objects like toy boats or paintings or fugitive things like songs and dances, if they have any significance at all, are full of meaning to the people who make them, aware of it or not, but rarely the same meaning to us, even if we think we know much of the history or tradition behind them. So a toy boat in its pathos and its physicality brings me closer, in contemplation, to a Mozart piano concerto.

What does grandfather know? What does he believe, in what does he have faith? To what extent does he want this little boy to share any of this? I ask this because, after all, I’ve been here with fourteen-year-old, hardly a little boy, a boy wide-eyed and fiercely observant most of the time on this first trip to Europe, a boy still to young to appreciate the stronf flavors of anchovies (think of the sea, his ten-year-older cousin wisely says), a boy caught, unknowingly I think, in the sadness of the farewell to childhood.

I stroll and catch the random observation and dwell on it at absurd length and, if I’m not too lazy, write about it at even more ridiculous length, in order to find out what I know, what I believe, whether I have any faith. On the way to this of course I sometimes talk; each day seems to have its focus.

Yesterday, for example, it was units of measurement, begun with a discussion about the metric system, the paucity of hecto- given the frequency of centi-, the way the French determined the length of the meter with their straight line from Normandy, I think it was, to Barcelona; and from there to the unit of measurement of dogs (a wire-haired terrier equals six, possibly eight chihuahuas), of trams and buses, of waits for trams and buses.

Always, apparently, contemplations of turbulence: You’re obsessed with Tahiti and turbulence, he observes, though I’m not aware of having spoken more than once, and that just now, about Polynesia. The toy boat brought Turbulence to mind, of course, but not Tahiti; so he must be wrong about obsession. Yet this observation of his, to him, is an observation of fact, whereas I think of it only as a mistaken impression. The mistaken impression of a grandfather’s interests is less eventful than the erroneous interpretation of the course of history. I’ve taken some care not to discuss, with him, the perhaps deliberate and certainly tireless attribution, by Christians, of their willful destruction by the early Roman empire, and I’ve certainly not gone into the symbology of those innocent lambs in church facades and frescos. (This must already have been the fruit of urbanization: no one involved in the actual husbandry of sheep would think of them as symbols of innocence and purity.)

The facts of Rome are the ruins of its past, the turbulence of what Gertrude Stein would call its continuous present, the uncertainty of its future. These are facts to me and I believe I know them. I infer from their evidence motivation and futility on the part of Roman actors: emperors and popes, gardeners and stonecutters, poets and architects. I believe I’m often right about that, too, though I can’t give you any tangible proof. I think, and some will find this sad, which I’ll dismiss as sentimentality, that I lack faith. Faith seems to me to be allegiance to a concept denied by every present evidence. I think it wrong to insist on it, and certainly wrong to insist on others accepting ours, if we have any.

I believe in Beauty, generosity and gratitude, and the ineffable love of family, and I’m grateful to our nature that those beliefs seem to be built in to the human sensibility. I don’t see any reason to strive for more, or to listen to anyone arguing a moral position that requires more.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Rome, 12: Parva. sed apta mihi

In the Coppedè
Via Damaso Cerquetti, April 25, 2017—
ON THE OTHER HAND, if you are going to build palaces, why not build them with taste and thoughtfulness?

The Italian word for "apartment house" or "apartment building" is, amusingly I think, palazzo: we have been occupying a palace of our own these last three weeks. I've described it and its environs and won't repeat here, other than to note that for the most part these palazzi, built within the last fifty years, are handsome in a plain way: internally for their ease of maintenance and care for light and silence; outside for their uniformity, relieved by their siting on curved streets, or straight but short ones, and, again, their openness to light and sky.

Yesterday, though, we strolled through a part of town I particularly like to show new visitors to Rome, the Coppedé district. Done only a little less successfully this quarter might be annoying, little more than Hollywood stage-set. But the architectural detail, the scale, the siting, the play among styles, shapes, and sizes, and the landscaping — all this makes a splendid example of comfortable, tasteful, bourgeois communal residence.

You take the tram to the piazza Buenos Aires, either the number 19 from the Piazza Risorgimento, near the Vatican, or the tram 3 from Trastevere. At the Piazza you'll find Santa Maria Addolorata, a remarkable church built between 1910 and 1930 in a fanciful, part historicist and part modern style that foretells the pleasures to come in the Coppedé district beyond. You're attracted to the church first for its siting: it's set at a forty-five degree angle to the Viale Regina Margherita, between its sober yet pleasing bell-tower and a cluster of trees.

The facade is decorated with a truly beautiful mosaic in gold and blue, responding to the one (just now undergoing restoration, so unfortunately behind veiling) so many miles away across the Tiber on Santa Maria di Trastevere. If you know the two churches you can almost see and hear them conversing about Byzantine mosaicists, sheep, and faith, as if the bustle of the Via Veneto and the Spanish Steps were utterly inconsequential. I supposer it's politically incorrect, in art-history terms, to equate the two mosaics, but I'll set them side by side anyway. Maybe art critics shook their heads at the Byzantine artists when they were working in Trastevere, finding their work garish and modern and not at all appropriate let alone to their taste.

Santa Maria Addolorata: facade

For all the drama and exuberant color of this mosaic there's something domestic and modest about the building itself. It was constructed by the Argentine community in Rome (hence the Piazza Buenos Aires, and perhaps hence the delay in its completion, for financial reasons), and — perhaps only because one knows this — the architectural style seems to have something modified-Iberian about it. Inside, though, historicism takes over: there are nods to the early style of San Giorgio in Velabro.

The baldacchino is neoclassical, reminiscent of Greek temples, supported on granite columns, but behind it a striking mosaic in the apse portrays the Deposition beneath a cross whose curved arms, following the curve of the wall, seem ready to embrace the viewer. And an even more striking mosaic of Mary in her glory, at a side chapel, is nearly blinding in its use of gold: Salvador Dali would have been envious in the way this depiction seems to translate Mary into pure light and energy.

Walk from the church up the Via Tagliamento a short block to come to a monumental gate formed by fantastic buildings arching to one another across the Via Dora (Hello there, Piemonte!), and you enter the magic world of Coppedè. Ahead is an enormous fountain clearly thinking of the Fountain of the Rivers in the Piazza Navona. It's clearly temporary; no one will ever steal its statues to put in a museum, or burn for lime, because they're concrete with plaster skin, peeling here and there. That's what historicism is all about: accelerated ruination. In his fascinating book The Memory of the Modern Matt Matsuda writes about this:

As History accelerates, the "lieux de mémoire" are designated sites which defy time's destroyer, the places of commemoration where memory anchors the past… my subjects are… histories of accelerated memory, subjected to the dramatic rhythms of an age.
(Elsewhere he writes, I think, something like "cultures accelerate themselves to death".)

In the Coppedè
Now there's no denying there's some wishfulness and some nostalgia going on here, particularly when you consider Coppedè began designing this district just before the outbreak of the First World War, and built it through that war and the buildup of Italian fascism. But it seems to me his vision has the redeeming qualities of optimism and pleasure. I look at these buildings, designed as residences in the first place, with, I'm sure, servants' quarters, and I think of Moravia's novel Gli indiffernti, which portrays the nature of a private and social life made too complacent by excess money and a paucity of things-to-do-with-one's-self.

On the other hand, as I keep saying. On the other hand, there's a relatively smaller building bearing the delightful inscription

PARVA, SED APTA MIHI, SED NULLI OBNOXIA
which turns out, with a little Googling, to bave been the device Ariosto inscribed on his own "last house" in Ferrara:
Small, but suits me, and no one can
and here it gets difficult:
take advantage of it, [since] it's decorous, and bought with my own money.
(The part beginning with [since] may continue around the corner of the building: I wasn't able to tell, from the street.)

Ariosto! Who would have thought he'd turn up here — but why not? These buildings now house foundation offices and embassies, many of the latter representing African nations. So Coppedè, in his architectural and city-planning design, links the emerging African nationalism of our time to the sprezzatura of the Florentine renaissance.

I think, given the maddening increase in world population, and its increasing urbanization, and the need to achieve a sustainable and equable economy, not to mention the need to address climate change and to eliminate warfare, the only hope for the future is a kind of socialized technocracy. If it comes, I hope there are places for Coppedès, and for tramlines too, and for the possibility of pleasurable strolls, on foot or with slow wheeled assistance. Propriety and the appropriate pace of intended decay-repair-and-replacement is what should be foremost in civic agendas.