Thursday, August 3, 2017

those fumbling airs that breathe and bend

And through this clear, unstagnant yet unturbulent air there rose the wild yet gentle cry of a multitude of birds. It was not the coarse brave cry of the gull that can breast tempests and dive deep for unfastidious food. It was not the austere cry of the curlew who dwells on moors when they are unvisitable by men. This was the voice of some bird appropriate to the place. It was unhurried. Whatever lived on the plain saw when the sun rose on its edge shadows as long as living things ever see them, and watched them shrink till noon, and lengthen out again till sundown; and time must have seemed the slower for being so visible. It had the sound of water in it. Whatever lived here spent half its life expecting the running of waveless but briny tides up the creeks, through mud-paved culverts into the dykes that fed the wet marshes with fresh wetness; and the other half deploring their slow, sluggish sucking back to the sea. Sorrow or any other intemperance of feeling seemed a discourteous disturbance of an atmosphere filled with this resigned harmony.
Virginia Woolf called the novel "an overstuffed sausage" and stopped reading it halfway through. Certainly the prose threatens to burst at the seams, far more dense writing than Woolf's, who was after all trying for the same psychological effect as West, though Woolf leaned more on the technique of stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative threads writ in that spare pointillist style she had. West was writing out of the Gothic tradition, a tale of an innocent woman trapped in a castle full of spirits and self-destructive secrets. Woolf was doing the same thing, but the castles were all interior to her characters, the ghosts haunting themselves in their own brains.

I think that had Woolf finished The Judge, she'd have possibly admired the structural planning that even looks ahead to that of her own To The Lighthouse, which was published five years later, in 1927. There is a break halfway through The Judge where the narrative ceases to focus on Ellen and turns to the history and interior world of Marion Yaverland, the victim and bearer of destructive societal forces. It becomes a different novel than it was, a strange Gothic novel, similar to the way that To The Lighthouse becomes a different and strange novel in the "Time Passes" middle section, where the prose thickens and becomes symbolic and threatening. Thick for Woolf, that is.
So some random light directing them with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, from some uncovered star, or wandering ship, or the Lighthouse even, with its pale footfall upon stair and mat, the little airs mounted the staircase and nosed round bedroom doors. But here surely, they must cease. Whatever else may perish and disappear, what lies here is steadfast. Here one might say to those sliding lights, those fumbling airs that breathe and bend over the bed itself, here you can neither touch nor destroy. Upon which, wearily, ghostlily, as if they had feather-light fingers and the light persistency of feathers, they would look, once, on the shut eyes, and the loosely clasping fingers, and fold their garments wearily and disappear. And so, nosing, rubbing, they went to the window on the staircase, to the servants’ bedrooms, to the boxes in the attics; descending, blanched the apples on the dining-room table, fumbled the petals of roses, tried the picture on the easel, brushed the mat and blew a little sand along the floor. At length, desisting, all ceased together, gathered together, all sighed together; all together gave off an aimless gust of lamentation to which some door in the kitchen replied; swung wide; admitted nothing; and slammed to.
The other thing about The Judge that strikes me right now is the way so much of it is focused on observing, on looking at the behavior of others and judging that behavior, on deliberately matching one's behavior to that of another person, on controlling how one appears, on the duplicity of being aware of and subsequently taking advantage of how we appear to others. It's a book about looking, and being seen, and play-acting and claims of truth. A battle between observer and observed, the battle swallowing its own tail, neither a victory nor an armistice possible.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Forget Amsterdam

Fine, no more posts about Amsterdam or the Netherlands. The conceit of tying my vacation to my reading was wearing thin, and no mistaking. This is just going to be a brief post to declare that I've begun revising, yet again, a manuscript called Go Home, Miss America. I'm going to work over the prose in every other chapter (don't ask; it's a structure issue) and submit it to an independent publisher I found out about this week, one that might actually want such a novel. No, it could happen, really, despite all of our shared doubts. So that's what I'll be doing with my not-so-copious spare time for the next couple of months, rather than actually reading novels. I have not made much progress with the revisions to Antosha!, a novel I'd planned to be submitting to agents this fall. Well, maybe that will happen in the spring of 2018. There is no hurry, as there is nothing at stake.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

served by tram lines 13 and 17

I'm reading the diary of Anne Frank, a true-life dystopian young adult book. The first time I read The Diary of a Young Girl, I was about 15, and the book was a class assignment. I'm reading it now for a couple of reasons, the primary one being that it's set in Amsterdam, where you know we've recently been. We've been to the house where the Franks hid themselves from the Gestapo for two years, so I can picture the house, the street, the canal that the house overlooks, etc. I've heard the bells of the Westerkerk, a church whose tower we saw almost every morning when we left our apartment.

Westerkerk tower in the distance. Photo: Mighty Reader

We did not, however, actually set foot inside the Frank's house. We stood on the pavement in front of the house, confused for a few minutes before we walked on in search of a place to eat breakfast. It turns out that you need to order tickets to the Anne Frank House online, at least a month in advance. So next time, if we remember.

Frank mentions in her diary that the house is served by tram lines 13 and 17. Mighty Reader and I have ridden on both of those trams, which still serve the neighborhood. The public transportation in Amsterdam is pretty good. Frank also mentions bicycles several times, and her sadness that under the Gestapo rules Jews are not allowed to own bicycles (or ride the trams or the ferries or in cars or move about in any way except on foot). Because a Jew on a bicycle is a danger to public order, one assumes.

Typical Amsterdam scene, bikes thick on the pavements. Photo: Mighty Reader

We managed to drag all of our luggage via tram from the apartment to Amsterdam Centraal Station when we traveled by train outside of Amsterdam. The trams are not large but they have reserved areas for luggage, prams, and wheelchairs. People were polite about giving us room for all our junk. In 1943, a person schlepping four pieces of luggage around would've been subject to being stopped and searched on the chance that he was a Jew trying to escape town. A Jew on the loose in Europe was a danger to public order, one assumes.

Without our luggage, we managed to bike just about everywhere. Mighty Reader will tell you that she loves her own bike--a 21-speed hybrid she calls "Bessie"--so much because the bike represents personal freedom, the ability to get up and go wherever, whenever, in a swift, light and maneuverable manner. I don't quite feel that way about my Cannondale (lately dubbed "Bernardo"), but it's always good to be out on the road on our bikes.

Bessie and Bernardo shopping for books in Seattle. Photo: Mighty Reader

The cycling culture in Holland, especially in Amsterdam, is terrific. Everyone yields to bikes, even trams and pedestrians. There are bike racks everywhere, bike paths running parallel to streets and roads, bike shops galore, and the understanding that bikes are not rude intruders into a city whose streets are owned by cars and trucks. It was a little bit of a culture shock to return to the streets of Seattle, where drivers have not quite embraced the idea of sharing the road. We have become more assertive cyclists after our brief visit to Amsterdam, though I'm not sure that's a wise development.

I cannot imagine Amsterdam under the control of the Gestapo, with some of the population's civil rights dramatically curtailed, forced to wear an insignia that publicly identifies them as enemies of the state until the state decides to cart them away to death camps. The prohibition against owning a bicycle was the least of their worries, but equal protection for all under the law helps keep us from objectifying our neighbors, allowing us to maintain our own claims to humanity. Equal protection under the law is the basis for the moral authority of democracy.

Monday, July 31, 2017

there was a secret chord

We took a day trip from Amsterdam to The Hague, to see the paintings at the Mauritshuis. If pressed, Mighty Reader might tell you that our Netherlands trip was inspired by the fact that there are paintings by Vermeer at the Mauritshuis and at the Rijksmuseum that she had not yet seen in person. Vermeer's paintings emit an almost gravitational force that pulls constantly at Mighty Reader. I don't feel that force about Vermeer but I understand it.

The Hague is a pretty town, which for some reason surprised me. I'm not sure what I expected. Maybe it's simply that we visited on a lovely summer day, the weather mild, the train ride was simple enough to arrange and carried us through picturesque farmlands in South Holland. The Mauritshuis is a good museum; not too large, not too small, with masterpieces around nearly every corner and a decent restaurant (with excellent coffee).

The main attraction of the collection is Jan Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which everyone knows. In the same room as "Girl" is the large painting "View of Delft," a remarkable cityscape with vibrant colors and crisp lines and a whole lot of sky. The big surprise was a third Vermeer, "Diana and her Nymphs," an early work that neither of us knew about. In my opinion (not shared by Mighty Reader), "Diana" was the best of the three paintings, full of movement and color and contrasting light/shadow and a more interesting and challenging arrangement of subjects than either "Girl" or "Delft." It was also the only Vermeer in the room being ignored.

Me and the other, other Vermeer

The Mauritshuis collection has that wee goldfinch painting used as a prop in the latest Donna Tartt novel, too. It's hanging out in a hallway between rooms, I think, like an afterthought, like something someone's mother painted that had to go somewhere in the house.

I'm currently reading the poetry of St. John of the Cross, and one of the poems references Simeon in the temple, holding the Christ child in his arms:
En aquestos y otros ruegos
gran tiempo pasado había;
pero en los postreros años
el fervor mucho crecía,
cuando el viejo Simeón
en deseo se encendía,
rogando a Dios que quisiese
dejalle ver este día.
Y así, el Espíritu Santo
al buen viejo respondía;
­Que le daba su palabra
que la muerte no vería
hasta que la vida viese
que de arriba descendía.
y que él en sus mismas manos
al mismo Dios tomaría,
y le tendría en sus brazos
y consigo abrazaría.
Rembrandt painted this Biblical scene, and the painting is in the Mauritshuis collection. I wasn't particularly moved by the work, but on the adjacent wall of the gallery that contains "Simeon and St Anne" (by Rembrandt's pupil Arent de Gelder) hangs the impressive and large "Saul and David," a painting only recently proved to be a genuine Rembrandt after eight years of restoration. Rembrandt's David looks suspiciously like Bob Dylan, and when I saw the painting I spontaneously began to sing Cohen's "Hallelujah" in a Bob Dylan voice, forgetting that Dylan has actually covered the song. I was not asked to leave the museum but I didn't sing the whole song, either.

David Zimmerman, harpist to the king

After having seen the wares of the Mauritshuis, we wandered around a little in The Hague, spending some time in the dappled light of a small square, looking through piles of stuff at a flea market. I was tempted by a 1922(?) Baedeker of northern Germany, in English, but I did not buy it despite the many full-color fold-out maps. Maps emit an almost gravitational force that pulls constantly at me. Most people don't feel that force.

Friday, July 28, 2017

mile after mile, who would have guessed

square miles of meagre modern houses whose principle purpose was the support of TV aeriels and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing up to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of the traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but no one has been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it. To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed
--Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
Iam McEwan's novel Amsterdam takes place mostly in London. I know this because I read the Guardian review of it; I haven't read the novel itself. I've been tempted, off and on, to read McEwan's book because it contains a character who composes classical music, and I have a sometime weakness for stories about composers. The probable high level of McEwanness in the novel keeps me away from Amsterdam, however.

When we were in Amsterdam, Mighty Reader and I went to a concert at the Royal Concertgebouw, a place I've wanted to visit ever since one of my older brothers bought a copy of Paul McCartney and Wings' "Band on the Run" and played it incessantly from 1973 until 1976 when he abandoned Wings and became a Rush fan and a Randian. Mighty Reader and I did not go to see either Wings or Rush at the Royal Concertgebouw; we went instead to an evening of chamber music, a program called "Dream with me," featuring songs from Romantic and Impressionist composers sung by mezzo soprano Cora Burggraaf, accompanied by cellist Pieter Wispelwey and pianist Ed Spanjaard. There were also a couple of fine cello and piano duets to break things up. Here's the program:
Brahms - Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante) (uit 'Tweede sonate in A', op. 100) (arr. P.R. Wispelwey)
Brahms - Zwei Gesänge, op. 91
Brahms - Ständchen, nr. 1 (uit 'Fünf Lieder', op. 106)
Brahms - Junge Lieder I/Meine Liebe ist grün, nr. 5 (uit 'Lieder und Gesänge', op. 63)
Dvořák - Rondo in g, op. 94
Chopin - Melodia (Melodie), nr. 9 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Chopin - Narzeczony (De bruidegom), nr. 15 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Chopin - Moja pieszczotka (Mijn lieveling), nr. 12 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Sjostakovitsj - Het lied van Ophelia, nr. 1 (uit 'Zeven romances op teksten van Aleksander Blok', op. 127)
Debussy - Intermezzo, L. 27
Massenet - On dit!
Massenet - Elégie
Bosmans - Complainte du petit cheval blanc
Bosmans - Nuit calme
Bosmans - Le diable dans la nuit
Von Brucken Fock - Berceuse d'armorique
Von Brucken Fock - Les cigales
Diepenbrock - Berceuse
Ms Burggraaf sang in Dutch, French, German, and for an encore, English. It was all quite lovely music, well worth the effort of shifting ourselves after a busy afternoon of full-contact tourism. Mr Wispelwey fulfilled enough of my "rock show at the Concertgebouw" youthful dreams by taking on the affectations of a prog-rock lead guitarist, channeling Jimmy Page much of the time with his puffy-sleeved blouse, his head shakes, his aggressive posture and elaborate preparatory gestures. He also sort of looks like Robert Fripp, maybe after a few pints. Ms Burggraaf assumed a quite serious face during her singing, her brows perpetually knit in what seemed an habitual expression learned at the conservatory; a little distracting but her singing overcame the artifice of the sad face. She wore a pretty white dress. Mighty Reader's French and my German are good enough that we were able to translate the lyrics to each other, which is nice, not that I don't enjoy singing I can't understand at all: my iPod has a bunch of Paul Verlaine poems set to music that I can't comprehend but it's sure nice listening.

It was late, almost full dark and raining when we got out of the show. The tram station is directly in front of the Concertgebouw, so we hurried across the cobblestones and stood under the glass shelter with scores of other middle-aged people in nice clothes. Most of them got onto the first tram that came along, which was not our route, and so when our tram showed up a minute later, there were plenty of seats, which is a blessing at the end of a long day.

Chandelier in Royal Concertgebouw lobby. Photo by Mighty Reader.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Falling into Amsterdam

We were in the Red Light district, or at least we crossed through it on our way from the Hermitage Amsterdam to the shopping district along Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. We did not make it to Zeedijk, where supposedly the Mexico City bar used to be located. The Mexico City bar is one of the settings of Albert Camus' novella The Fall. Before Mighty Reader and I truckled off to Amsterdam, I wanted to read a novel set in that fair city, and as it happens the only such novel we had in the house was The Fall, which I'd read way back in the 1980s and remembered very poorly, as it turned out.

Camus' Amsterdam is not the Amsterdam I visited. Camus' Amsterdam is dark, seedy, foggy and claustrophobic like Dostoyevsky's Petersburg in Notes From Underground; Camus lets the nested half-circles of Amsterdam's canals stand in for the circles of Hell out of Dante's Inferno. Everybody knows that image already, but I tell you anyway. The Amsterdam we trammed, walked, and bicycled through was a clean, bright, vibrant city of life. Except for the exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam, which was a clean, bright, depressing exhibition of murder and repression. Thanks, Putin. I digress, to the surprise of nobody.

When I was a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I learned in a history class that Amsterdam was built at the mouth of the Amstel river, where it emptied into the Zuider Zee. I have remembered "Zuider Zee" all these decades, possibly only because it's such a swell couple of words. But as soon as Mighty Reader and I decided to visit Amsterdam, I looked forward to standing on a dike and looking out on the gray fogs of the Zuider Zee. I did not know that the Zuider Zee no longer exists. In the 1930s, the citizens of Amsterdam (or maybe the Dutch government; I'm hazy on facts) decided to build a couple of dikes to separate the Zuider Zee from the North Atlantic, and they also reclaimed a tremendous portion of the lower Zee, creating a new territory known as Flevoland. Flevoland fills in the southernmost third of the former Zuider Zee. This was a disappointment to me, but likely the residents of Amsterdam and Flevoland are happy about it. After all, most of the Netherlands (or at least of North Holland) is reclaimed land, just like Flevoland. I continue to digress. But I'm pretty sure Flevoland did not exist when Camus visited Amsterdam, and it is not present in the fictional Amsterdam of The Fall. (I believe--though I can't find my source for it now--that Camus was in Amsterdam in the 1930s, and The Fall is set in the 1950s, which means that most of the reclamation of land in the Zuider Zee happened after Camus saw the place. There is also the theory that Camus deliberately has his narrator describe an Amsterdam, a North Holland, that is at odds with the real world of the 1950s in which he lives. Maybe, I say. The narrator is a liar, or he believes different truths than are on display to the rest of us.)

The bar Mexico City no longer exists, either. Apparently there is a monument or something on Zeedijk, and quotations from the novel are among the graffiti along the canal (maybe the Geldersekade) near the monument. Like I say, we didn't make it to that part of town. Our short jaunt crossways through the Red Light district was enough for me. Yes, prostitutes standing in their underwear behind plate glass windows, inches away from the foot traffic. Yes, sex shops, peep shows, wee XXX cinemas, etc. I was transported via my memory back to Times Square in the 1980s (I vividly recall a man handing out coupons in front of a basement-level theater, calling out "Naked women, gentlemen! Naked women!" Old New York, now only a dream). Amsterdam's Red Light district is also the home to a surprising number of restaurants selling Argentinian beef.

From the point of land north of the village of Marken, which we reached via ferry and then bicycle, one can stand at the gate barring the path to the light house and look out over what used to be the midsection of the Zuider Zee, and even on a sunny day the water is gray, or gray blue, but quite pretty, almost the pearly gray found inside fresh oyster shells. Fishing schooners sailed past in the middle distance, their red and orange sheets blown taut by the light wind. Eurasian oyster catchers poked about in the pale fine sand. The waves were gentle and slow. Camus' Jean-Baptiste should've gotten out of the city more often.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The necessity of looking as if she were used to and even wearied by this sort of thing weighed heavily on her

she bent over the menu, and gave orders that trembled on the edge of audibility to a waiter whom she appeared not to see...

That's pretty great, that line, that observation. It's from Book II of Rebecca West's The Judge, a novel I've been slowly reading for about three weeks now. Two of those weeks were interrupted by a trip to the Netherlands during which I did precious little reading of anything but menus and road markers, which is a not a good way to learn conversational Dutch but otherwise a fine way to spend one's time.

The Judge continues to strike me as very Lawrence, and so a sort of precursor to a lot of Byatt's work, which is fine. The prose is quite dense and full of pointed social observation, this being a social novel in a lot of ways (it's also a Gothic romance in the tradition of the Bronte sisters):
The air of the little quadrangle was fairly dense with the yellowed rays of extravagant light, and the walls were divided not into shops and houses, but into allegorical panels representing pleasure. They had stopped outside a florist's, in whose dismantled window a girl in black stretched out a long arm towards the last vase of chrysanthemums, which pressed against the glass great curled polls almost as large as her own head. It was impossible to imagine a Scotswoman practising so felinely elastic an attitude before the open street, or possessing a face so ecstatic with pertness, or finding herself inside a dress which, though black, disclaimed all intention of being mourning and sought rather, in its clinging economy, to be an occasion of public rejoicing.

Inconceivable, too, in Edinburgh, the place beside it, where behind plate glass walls, curtained with flimsy brise-bises that were as a ground mist, men and women ate and drank under strong lights with a divine shamelessness. It couldn't happen up there. There were simply not the people to do it. It might be tried at first; but because middle-aged men would constantly turn to middle-aged women and say, "Catch me bringing you here again, Elspeth. It's a nice thing to have your dinner with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the street watching every mouthful you take," and because young men would as constantly have turned to young women with the gasp, "I'm sure I saw father passing," it would have been a failure. But here it was a success. The sight was like loud, frivolous music. And on the other side there was a theatre with steps leading up to a glittering bow-front, and a dark wall spattered with the white squares of playbills, under which a queue of people watched with happy and indifferent faces a ragged reciter whose burlesque extravagance of gesture showed that one was now in a country more tolerant of nonsense than the North.
I love that the first view Ellen has of London is made up of claims of pleasure, rather than of actual pleasurable things. It is a continuation of the class argument West is making in Book I, but this time there is a rebuttal from one from the moneyed class:
She said in her rapid, inarticulate murmur, "They don't strike me as being particularly happy."

Ellen was taken aback, and said in the tones of a popular preacher, "Then what are they doing here—feasting?"

"I suppose they're here because it's on the map and so are they," she answered almost querulously. "They'd go anywhere else if one told them it was where they ought to be. Good children, most people. Anxious to do the right thing. Don't you think?"
An accusation of a different sort, that.

Maybe later this week I'll post a pic or two from the Netherlands.