Friday, 7 June 2013

Postwar demons

Warnings of extreme sado-masochism inclined me to think I wouldn't be much interested in the film of  The Piano Teacher, nor in the Elfriede Jelinek novel on which it is based. I now know better about Michael Haneke through The White Ribbon and Amour, of course, and I've only just discovered the truth about the genius of Nobel prizewinner Jelinek.

I was browsing in the unusual little bookshop - I forget its name, but it shares office space with the local monthly magazine of quality - up a side-alley off Lewes High Street*. This shop, unlike the others, nearly always has a book I really want to read, and of course there was the volume of Poulenc's letters ten quid cheaper than I'd paid for it at Travis and Emery. But for some reason I was encouraged to take a sample of Jelinek's style in Wonderful, Wonderful Times, and realised that was the book for me. The gentleman- seller told me it was his daughter's copy; she'd been very low at the time of buying it, and of course soon came to realise that the title meant anything but feelgood.

Die Ausgesperrten (literally The Shut-Out Ones; wouldn't The Dispossessed do?), as its original title has it, soon sucks you into its topsy-turvy world. Advertised as a Clockwork Orange for 1950s Vienna - I can't say as I haven't read Burgess's book nor seen the film either, though it used to be shown regularly at a Kings Cross cinema - its ensemble of characters is a quartet of disaffected teenagers, each of them affected at one remove by their dysfunctional or abusive parents' experiences in the Second World War. There's something of the Dostoyevskyan Napoleon complex about their desire to commit naughty deeds in a bad, bad world. Which they do, sporadically, until the terrible denouement.

More important than any plot line is how you get to know and, for the most part, to sympathise with these wounded as much as wounding young people. And this is the key - Jelinek's unique style, which I'm guessing has been brilliantly rendered into English by translator Michael Hulse. I've never read anything approaching her often ironic authorial omniscience, which sometimes dissects but more often affects to understand her human puppets' motives. And then, just when you truly begin to feel for at least two of the characters, real tragedy strikes. But read it for yourself.

It ought, of course, to be a film, too, though I can't imagine how Haneke's Piano Teacher found an equivalent for the novelistic point of view; now I want to see it. Very close to the spirit of Wonderful, Wonderful Times is Lars von Trier's The Idiots: another sometimes alienating masterpiece which has a truly beating heart. Given that, anything terrible in a book or a film can be borne. Now I've got other Jelinek novels lined up to read. but given that I've also just discovered her equally brilliant fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard - more on him when I've properly grasped the nettle - a fine balancing act between the two lies ahead.

I'm less convinced by leading Czech author Jáchym Topol's The Devil's Workshop (originally Chladnou zemí, Through a Cold Land). The idea is a very original one: how the need to memorialise sites which saw atrocities in the Second World War can be turned on its head to produce grotesque theme parks. The first half of the book, dealing with the protagonist's postwar upbringing in the fast-fading town of Terezín, is utterly compelling. The second, about which all I'll say is that it takes place in the horrible country of Belarus, is less convincing in its fantasy dystopia. But since it's a short book, I'd say it's well worth your time.

A real-life story of enfants terribles after the war is a strand in the last chapter of Michael Haas's Forbidden Music: The Jewish Composers Banned by the Nazis (nb the subliminal 'Hitler sells' black-and-red coloured jackets for both this and The Devil's Workshop). The devilish dead hand of Schoenbergian followers in sweep-away-the-bad-traditions Darmstadt - though, as Poulenc always pointed out, Boulez was a cut above - had a lot to answer for, especially in the world of musical academia, and I grew up feeling its effects.

Anyway, you can hear a trio of thumbs-up on this one when Tom Service quizzes Prof John Deathridge and myself on Radio 3 Music Matters a week this Saturday. I should add that it's in the can already, so I'd better keep stumm on the rest**. Again, a book everyone should read, and in this case certainly not just music-lovers. And what fun it was to be back again in the BBC's old-new Broadcasting House again, and swish past the odd media star, a day before Madge cut the red ribbon to declare the building officially reborn.

*It also doubles as a lending library, which makes it especially charming. 
**17/6 Listened to the broadcast on return from Deutschland - the discussion can be found somewhere towards the end of this 'chapter'. I take my hat off to the editing, and reason that perhaps the world doesn't need to know of my desire to hear Hans Gál's comic opera The Sacred Duck (Die heilige Ente).


Susan Scheid said...

David, I really don’t know how you do it—not only reading and listening, but absorbing and able to comment cogently on so many things, and so quickly. Were I to lay down my feeble pen and stop doing all my chores, I would never keep up. I’ve bookmarked the Tom Service show for a listen of the discussion of Haas’s book. This statement of yours of course leapt out at me: “The devilish dead hand of Schoenbergian followers in sweep-away-the-bad-traditions Darmstadt - though, as Poulenc always pointed out, Boulez was a cut above - had a lot to answer for, especially in the world of musical academia, and I grew up feeling its effects.” I’m first of all interested in what Poulenc had to say about Boulez, for, to me, Boulez seemed to have been the enfant terrible in chief for quite a long while. Perhaps, along the way, you’ll write us something about that. As for growing up feeling its affects, even as a “lay listener” who didn’t suffer the slings and arrows of musical academia, does that ever resonate with me.

Beyond that, having puzzled through City Noir, I’m right now in the midst of a Prokofiev binge of sorts (nothing on the order of what you’re capable of, I’ll quickly add). As part of it, I’m reading about the war years, and reminded again of the oppressive forces with which he, Shostakovich, and so many others had to contend. The post-war academic establishment in music to which you refer seems to have traded one kind of oppression for another, which is something that, even though I can probably explain intellectually, I’ll never truly understand. (As an aside, I’m astonished at Prokofiev’s ability to just keep churning it out, despite it all. He seems to have had a strong pragmatic bent, compared to Shostakovich, though that’s likely simplistic, if not downright wrong.)

Laurent said...

Thank you again for suggesting so many interesting books to read. But first your book on Prokofiev.
I say I was a little confused today about Ms. EIIR opening the new BBC HQ is this Bush House refurbish or some other building and what no shopping mall attach to it.

David said...

Some Poulenc snippets for you, Sue, as requested. In June 1947, in the middle of the battle between the Messiaenists and Stravinsky, he notes that young composers are 'often quite disoreintated between Messiaen and the outdated twelve-tone system'.

Then in 1950 he writes from San Francisco about Stravinsky's Orpheus, adding 'That is why at heart I approve of the young Europeans searching for new emotion in the not yet ossified twelve-tone system, and why I find it lamentable that here they are still buzzing like flies around Hindemith and Igor...Take careful note of what I say (and believe me when I tell you that the young Europeans do not like me at all): once again, it is out of old Europe that new ideas will come'.

1956, writing about a Marigny concert: 'The Boulez is remarkable...What a delight such a gifted and intelligent being truly is! Very beautiful Webern. There is a touching atmosphere at these concerts. Crowds of young people cram in together for standing room at 150fr. I do not understand how anyone can ignore a trend like this. When I think that poor old X sniggers and says: 'if there are mistakes in my material, they will think it's dodecaphonic'. It's as rich as "My child could do better than that" as a response to a picture by Paul Klee. Having said all that, I shall continue to write mi so doh and disapprove of Stravinsky - who has taken to wearing hats too young for his age [having taken up serialism in his last years]'.

Enfin (my favourite), from Milan, 1957: 'Yesterday I spent the day at the RAI listening to a lot of electronic and serial music. Very beautiful sonata for flute and piano by Boulez although a little too long, but by a true musician. Compared with that, what a lot of twelve-tone old hat from so many young musicians!!!! There is already so much cliched stereotype in the genre. The instrumentation of Puccini's Manon Lescaut last night was more rich in surprises'.

Precisement. As for the Broadcasting House refurbishment, Laurent, it's the building in Langham Place, not Bush House, which alas has now passed out of the hands of the BBC World Service. In this case a whole new extension has been built on to Lutyens's splendid edifice at the back to accommodate lots of TV people. No shopping mall. The deco is as splendid as ever.

The centre of London is not quite Istanbul as yet, though there are some pretty grotesque projects like the one in Knightsbridge, and far too much building of luxury basements making the lives of Kensington dukes and duchesses a misery.

Susan Scheid said...

The Poulenc quotations are remarkable--no wonder you are so taken with his letters! Is this the book you have: Francis Poulenc. "Echo and Source". Selected Correspondence 1915-1963, translated and edited by Sidney Buckland, London, Gollancz, 1991? I have such a stack already, but he seems to grasp the music of his time with such deep insight that it may become irresistible to try and get hold of this. As an aside, on the serialism/music academia issue, Tommasini has written quite a thoughtful article on "Britten at 100," in the New York Times today, that I think you may appreciate. It's here: here. I may need to revise my view of T after this. (I'll never forget your introducing me to Apollo and Les Illuminations. I've been listening to Britten's String Quartets tonight. How lovely they are.)

David said...

Yes, Sue, that's the one. If you have trouble in finding it on abebooks or some such, let me know and I'll see if I can extricate that copy from the near-invisible bookshop in Lewes.

Tommasini makes a very good start, and the rest may be interesting to those who want to learn more about BB. His comment about Grimes reminds me of a more recent encounter I had with stroppy audience members at a discussion on Shostakovich quartets to tie in with the Borodin Quartet's cycle in Norwich. Was there anyone who wrote music of comparable torment and depth NOT under a Stalinist regime? Britten, I suggested: the repression/oppression there was of a different sort. But he was absolutely Shostakovich's equal. Howls of protest, can you believe?

Well, I shall be at that Grimes on the beach performance, though the wiser part of me says it's foolish. The only reason I finally decided to go was because the whole bizarre, gimmicky seeming project is in the hands of Tim Albery, whom I've never known to go wrong production wise. Vedremo. Before that, though, the War Requiem in Berlin...

David Damant said...

I might suggest that Shostakovich would have written the same music even under a benign regime. Genius streams up from inside. If the parallel is not too strained, I cannot believe that Shakespeare turned to his tragedies after a death in the family. as has been argued. It is the human predicament itself which is the tragedy ( or comedy if you turn the mask the other way)

David said...

One thing is certain: without the fallout from the (Stalin directed) Pravda attack on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, Shostakovich would have continued to write symphonies in the seemingly anarchic mould of the Fourth. The Fifth was a canny change of course, and its structure MUST be determined by how much personal tragedy Shostakovich could reflect within it, and where.

Let's just say that a work of art/most works of art reflect the sum total of the creator's experience up to that point. That may seem like a romantic notion but not, I think, as applied to the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.