Friday, 7 December 2018

From the original Croatian and Estonian

In a country which pays too little attention to translating the literature of other European nations, MacLehose Press stands out as a beacon of integrity and inspiration. Its driving force, veteran publisher Christoper, formerly of Harvill Press, has brought out two volumes of Estonian grand master Jaan Kross's Between Three Plagues trilogy, the first instalment of which I praised here, and he strongly recommended The Czar's Madman

while Boyd Tonkin's review of the late Daša Drndić's penultimate novel, Belladonna, on The Arts Desk, turned me back to a  MacLehose publication I was afraid to approach, for good reason, her Trieste.

I suppose this could best be described as documentary fiction. I'm presuming that the protagonist and her family, including her long-lost son, are creations to serve Drndić's key concern that most people are passive bystanders, trying not to know too much about the horrors around them, who end up being incurably lacerated by events.

Life is stronger than war. For most people, the obedient and the silent, for those on the sidelines, for the bystanders, life becomes a small, packed suitcase that is never opened, an overnight bag slipped under the bed, baggage going nowhere, in which everything is neatly folded - days, tears, deaths, little pleasures, spreading the stench of mould. For those on the sidelines there is no telling what they are thinking, whose side they are on, because they do nothing but stand and watch what is going on around them as if they don't see a thing, as if nothing is happening, as if there is nothing going on...their self-deception is a hard shield, a shell in which, larvae-like, they wallow cheerfully.

The fate of Gorizia-born Haya Tedeschi is interwoven with the real nightmare of SS man Kurt Franz, the beast of Treblinka (pictured below), and Drndić is concerned to the point of obsession to drum into our head unalterable facts and names that might otherwise have been lost. In this she reminds me of the Polish guide who took us round Auschwitz - no rhetoric, no emotion, just 'remember this'.

The cynical might say that 'the names of about 9,000 Jews who were deported from Italy or killed in Italy [and?] in the countries Italy occupied between 1943 and 1945', taking up 43 pages of the book with four columns to a page, could be seen as space-filling, an easy way of fulfilling a commission for a book of a certain length. I'm sure the memorial is absolutely sincere, as are Drndić's selective facts about the key Nazi players and the evidence (or lack of it) they later give.

Drndić is ruthless in her chronicling of facts that still seem too surreal to be true: the Nazi control of every aspect of sex in people's lives, the prototype sex dolls called Borghild to be produced in three types, the service brothels (which we know something of through the film Salon Kitty), the raising of 'pure Aryan children' taken away from their parents which is the theme of the book's last third. And this is especially devastating, the unresolved sense of injustice, the mass-murderers freed prematurely from prison or never going there, the sense of horror within the victims, passed on to the next generation. It is indeed a 'joyless book', as Drndić wrote in the dedication to my partner 'with joy'.

And yet there is sympathy for the victims, which include places as well as people. Trieste, where the San Sabba Mill is the scene of the utmost horror,

does not want to die without a fight. It struggles to survive as best it can. Abandoned by Italy in 1943, it flails and succumbs, distraught....The morass inside it is deep and dark and sick, so sick that no-one and nothing dares go there, so all-embracing that Trieste itself is engulfed.

Yet cities change, like people. I had no inkling of all this in a serene time there, and now I feel a bit guilty for not knowing. Just as it is hard to reconcile the present dissolved border, across which we walked from Italy into Slovenia over a mountain pass with an unguarded customs post, with the scenes of such terrible conflict and bloodletting, so that the uncanny blue of the River Socac turned red with blood. 

We now understand more than ever - and for my generation it has come as a terrible shock - barbarism is always at the gates, released from the dark souls of people. Jaan Kross knew the terrible force of Russian repression, imprisoned by the Soviets for speaking truth to power just as the 'madman' of his novel's title, Count Timotheus von Bock, was incarcerated for challenging Alexander I to reform.

The action moves between the present house watch of 'Timo' on his Estonian estate after his 'release' by Nicholas I and the awful past of his captivity and torture, with the narrator, his craven brother-in-law, representing opportunism and the craven acceptance of injustice. It is just this view of Timo's courageous demands as insane which contributes to a perception of madness. One brief sample of dialogue will suffice to show Kross's technique of the 'unreliable narrator' at work. Timo is trying to explain his actions to his wife and her brother:

'...I am still convinced that whatever one may think of my action, subjectively, it also had its objective side. And objectively, it could have given the impetus for a rebirth of Russia. If the Czar had proven to be the man I mistakenly believed him to be. I was, of course, aware of the possibility of that mistake all along, and that was why I was ready for anything, from the very beginning.'

I found the selfish smoothness of his arguments a little trying.

'Even for having your teeth smashed?' I asked him.

'Jakob!' Eeva cried out, in a strangely horrified tone. For a moment I thought (we human beings are prone to absurd notions) that a reminder concerning Timo's teeth might act as a kind of trigger to release his demented train of thought, and that Eeva knew this. But Timo's reply was restrained, almost calm:

'Yes. Even for that. ..or maybe not - really... Because I did believe, after all...'

Both these books are masterly. Do read them. And let's thank Ellen Elias-Bursać and Anselm Hollo for their labours of love in translating them.

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Janáček: a more than earthly joy passed this way

A decade ago our Viennese friends Tommi and Martha indulged us on a whistlestop driving tour of Moravia, embracing Janáček territory from Brno via Luhačovice all the way to his birthplace in Hukvaldy as well as architect T's interest in Mies van der Rohe's Villa Tugendhat and the Bata development in Zlin. We stopped in Brno only for an afternoon, so I didn't have time then to take in its full wonders. Nor did it seem as pulsing and vital as it does now, with its thriving art, theatre and music scene and new artisan coffee bars all over the city. On that first visit I managed to visit the garden house in the grounds of the Organ School where the composer and his wife lived in later life, this time other crucial locations including the Augustinian monastery where Janáček was a lonely boarding chorister and music-maker

and the grave in the city cemetery pictured up top (the white chrysanthemums on the left are my offering, bought from one of the flower sellers at the gate). The quotation is from Janáček's setting of Tagore's The Wandering Scholar, with the selective words 'With his strength gone, his heart in the dust, like a tree uprooted'. Quite different from the life-goes-on optimism of his operatic epilogues, most radiant of all that in The Cunning Little Vixen after the heroine's death. where the Forester sings of  forest summer magic, adding that 'men and women will walk with heads bowed, and realise that a more than earthly joy has passed this way'. No wonder Janáček wanted this played and sung at his funeral. And how he loved animals - there are photos of him with a number of pet dogs at his home in Brno. I like this one featuring miniature poodle Cert ('Devil').

The pretext this year was the stunning Sixth International Opera and Music Festival known simply as Janáček Brno, and featuring all the operas for the second time. I'll be writing about my slice of the experience on The Arts Desk on Saturday. But the main point here is to highlight a production I didn't see, by Jiří Heřman, Artistic Director of the Janáček Opera Company. He's the same superb director whose very moving view of Smetana's Libuše, looking from Masaryk's founding of the Czech state 100 years ago backwards to the foundation myth and forwards to a second liberation, was the highlight among the five events I witnessed.

The Cunning Little Vixen was premiered in Brno's beautiful National Theatre (now the Mahen Theatre, pictured above), on 6 November 1924, opened the Janáček Theatre in 1965 and inaugurated the renovated building at the start of this year's festival. Although I didn't get to see an opera there, I was given a tour around the stage, auditorium and newly redesigned foyers.

Heřman's production, screened via Opera Vision and thus, miraculously, available on YouTube indefinitely, offers such a sensitive and profoundly moving interpretation, so detailed and yet doing no fundamental violence to anything in the work's scenario. Its starting point is a historical fact which not many of us outside Czechia knew about: that Rudolf Těsnohlídek, creator of the Vixen stories in his Brno newspaper Lidové noviny, found an abandoned baby girl in the woods near where he lived, in Bílovice nad Svitavou not far from Brno (I intended to take a short train journey there, but still had too much to see in town, so as the Vixen and her Fox sing, 'wait until next May comes'). His discovery led to the founding of the Dagmar Children's Home, designed for free by master architect Bohuslav Fuchs, many of whose buildings I explored thanks to the Tourist Information Centre's excellent little book on Functionalism in Brno. I'll be writing anon on here about my itinerary, which included the Stadion Sokol where the premiere of the Glagolitic Mass took place.

So Dagmar is the setting for the opening scene, illustrated in the first of three production photos by Marek Olbrzymek above, where the children all take delight in their wooden toys (this was genuine, says Herman, from a generation all too used to computer games). Eventually the eggshell walls

crack open to reveal the natural world beyond.

Never in my experience - which so far totals six productions - have the adult and children's worlds been so perfectly in balance, or so beautifully and touchingly united in the final scene. Heřman's many ideas are as thoughtful as those of the (over) intellectual Stefan Herheim, sidestepping or postponing the obvious, but he's far more tender and human with the personenregie, which makes us warm so much to Forester and Vixen. Do set aside time to watch and shed a tear or two.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Around the Shostakovich quartets

The Dante Quartet (violinists Krysia Osostowicz and Oscar Perks, viola-player Yuko Inoue and cellist Richard Jenkinson) plus Jim Page (left) and Jenny McGregor-Smith (second from right), the two inspiring organisers of the Bromsgrove weekend devoted to all 15 quartets in chronological order - a first for me - salute DDS at the end of the adventure. I was called in at a late stage to replace my good friend Stephen Johnson - now returned to reasonable health - in talks before each of the concerts. Toasting him with a 'present absence', including a two-stringed instrument set up by Yuko to save damage to her own instrument in the Thirteenth Quartet, where Shostakovich requires each of the players to 'play on the belly with the stick of the bow' during the boogie-woogie centrepiece.

As it turned out Elizabeth Wilson, doyenne of the best single book on the composer, Shostakovich Remembered, was also coming for two events and was quite happy to share my burden, so I kicked off with the introductory talk and then we alternated. Jim's and Jenny's magnificent series of events also included David Rudkin talking on the screenplay of Tony Palmer's Testimony film, Alan George of the Fitzwilliam Quartet on meeting Shostakovich. Robin Ireland - another Fitzwilliamite - giving a masterclass with the Dunev Quartet of the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire (the part I heard dealt with the second movement of the Eighth Quartet, and he really got them to bite into it)

and David Fanning and Michelle Assay linking the quartets with the two Kozintsev Shakespeare films which Shostakovich scored so hauntingly. Later that Sunday afternoon I chaired a forum with those of us talkers left by then, and it was such fun. Here we are at the end of the marathon.

Two more here: one of Liza with Yuko, who know each other well as players,

the other of David and Michelle with Richard.

Liza I liked tremendously when I met her at Bard College's Shostakovich symposium 14 years ago, and though I'd not seen her since, we had a lively e-correspondence. Now, I hope, we're proper friends. It was such a bonus that she was giving a lecture at Pushkin House the following Tuesday on the extraordinary pianist Maria Yudina, whose biography she's preparing, and that turned me on to a great artist of whom I'd previously heard too little. Just listen to this performance of Bach's Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue.

Yudina led a fascinating life, a human being of total integrity who somehow escaped prison, though not punishment, under Stalin; a holy person always short of funds because she gave all her money away; an interpreter who, though superlative in Bach, had the curiosity to seek out the contemporary, not least Hindemith and Stravinsky (her Serenade and Sonata are also among the best performances I've heard). Can't wait for the book.

But back to Shostakovich. Although I can't say the cycle as a whole was quite up to the mark of the Jerusalem Quartet's Wigmore series (of which I missed one), and though Krysia swapping roles with Oscar didn't always yield the best results, these were sensitive and perceptive musicians attempting the Everest parallel to the Beethoven series for the first time, and I found so many revelations. Chiefly, I'd say, in the Ninth and Tenth, the Passacaglia of which was the highlight of the cycle for me (it's the quartet I knew least well). Plus Richard's sounds in several dying falls were so unearthly. Remember too that most quartets break up their series over a season, so it was hardly surprising if there were points of tiredness: it was as much a test to themselves as a gift to us that the Dantes undertook the odyssey.

Liza spoke before Quartets 2 and 3, then 7-13, with such lucidity in journeying through each work (she knows most of them from the inside as a fine cellist). My approach was to link to other works contemporary to each of the quartets in question, so the recorded excerpts avoided what we were about to hear. I handled 1, 4-6, 14 and 15 - with gratitude to EW for highlighting the quote from the slow movement of Prokofiev's Second Quartet in the Lento of the Sixth Quartet, a 1956 homage to the colleague who had died three years earlier on the same day as Stalin.

I had to hand the reference to Shostakovich pupil and love-object Galina Ustvolskaya's Trio for clarinet, violin and piano of 1949, but I'd never thought of its first careful placing -fff, espressivo - at the height of the first-movement development - as opening a space in the high wall of the last Stalin years. Though it's a severe theme, could this be Ustvolskaya keeping DDS sane in extremis?

In conversation with David Curtis of the Coull Quartet and the Orchestra of the Swan, Liza gave us so much chapter and verse about her meetings with Shostakovich during her years as a young cellist under Rostropovich's guidance at the Moscow Conservatoire from 1964 to 1971. Two memories in particular struck me. One she mentioned in Shostakovich Remembered, but not in quite such poignant detail as this - namely, that DDS had arranged a private hearing for Britten and Pears in his apartment of the Thirteenth String Quartet. She was present, mostly as interpreter (and her family already had connections with Aldeburgh, so she knew Shostakovich's English counterpart). At the end of the short but harrowing performance, Britten went down on his knees in front of Shostakovich, kissed his hand and asked to hear the whole thing again.

The other memory which brought tears to my eyes was that the students all knew DDS - he always had time for them - but when they saw him in his later illness attending public performances, where he would always insist on getting up with much difficulty to greet people he knew, they tactfully took a longer way round so as not to pass him and put him to that trouble. Anyway, here's Liza with Rostropovich in a photo from that time.

If anyone doesn't own Liza's book - or, indeed, her scrupulously researched and honourable biographies of Slava and Jacqueline du Pré - I urge you to rectify the situation. At the Pushkin House event, I was talking to Rosamund Bartlett and we were talking about how we both bought the book when it came out, but were equally thrilled to own the second edition, where EW, clearly urged to expand her considerable musicological knowledge, writes more about the works themselves. Anyway, there is no end to what we can learn about these great masterpieces.

Accompanied by a moon still visible on the Saturday morning of the weekend, when it briefly snowed as I dashed across from hotel to arts centre, I love to quote, as EW does in Shostakovich Remembered, those Michelangelo lines which Shostakovich set at the end of one of his own last monuments.

Here fate has sent me eternal sleep;
But I am not dead: though buried in the earth,
I live in you, whose lamentation I hear,
Since friend is reflected in friend.

I am as though dead, but as a comfort to the world,
With its thousands, I live on in the hearts
Of all loving people, and that means I am not dust;
Mortal decay cannot touch me. 

Friday, 23 November 2018

What we 700,000 marched for...

...seems like it stands a real chance of becoming reality as day by day more influential figures call for a People's Vote and Mrs Mayhem's 'deal' seems doomed in Parliament.

Now's the time to start thanking the organisers for having a long-term goal in mind and keeping up the momentum. Because a poor deal and no deal are no longer options.

Not that I was able to follow the route, as I did earlier this year, in March and June, and for the anti-Trump march. My good friend Deborah had come up from Lacock and we were both due at Glyndebourne at 4pm for the tour production of Massenet's Cendrillon.

So we got to Hyde Park Corner for the start, realising that bigger-than-anticipated crowds were likely from the queues up the escalator at the tube station.

By all accounts it took three hours for the march to get started, by which stage we were gone, though J marched on our behalf later. Still, the start was a merry melee, and just about the first familiar face we saw was Anna Soubry's.

Plenty of monuments supported the fighting spirit

and the banners I remember from the spring march were out in force again

along with quite a few sporting this witty commentary on the First Big Lie (for which BoJob looks up for prosecution). This was the best designed that I saw.

At the entrance to Hyde Park, a different cause was being espoused

and I don't know if this band was part of the set-up, but they helped the carnival spirit,

Heading to Victoria, we finally saw the young who had been very much in the minority at the start finally having risen to join. And then it was a convoluted journey to Glyndebourne, bus replacement included, but nobody minded too much on a glorious afternoon. We decided not to change

and had nothing but delightful conversations with operagoers who wished they'd been able to attend. If anyone was hostile, nothing was said. Great gardener Deborah was fascinated by the abundance of purple-flowering sage. This is the best, along with Japanese wind anemones, for the end of season

and of course the trees were all displaying in advance of a change in London.

Walking round the lake couldn't help but remind me of one tour visit the day after the big hurricane - the opera was Nigel Osborne's punchy and very short The Electrification of the Soviet Union - when so many specimens were uprooted and showing their chalk-covered roots.

Sheep were back across the haha

and folk were out enjoying a very warm sun. 

If only Fiona Shaw's production of an opera I adore hadn't been such a mess. Much work to be done if it's to make sense in the main season next year. Meanwhile our labours continue to get to that People's Vote. Golden October may have declined into sombre November, with 24 hours of lashing rain and cold on Tuesday marking the start of winter - this was the view from the study window -

but we keep our hearts and minds stoked.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Snyder's recent history: inevitable v eternal + hope

The first of many intriguingly phrased ideas in Yale Professor Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom is the notion that 'the politics of inevitability', the belief in the progress of capitalism and/or history, is collapsing, or has collapsed, in the face of 'the politics of eternity', 'manufacturing crisis' and 'drowning the future in the present': 'eternity politicians deny truth and seek to reduce life to spectacle and feeling' . Perhaps it might better be called 'the politics of neverland', and of course its chief manipulator is Vladimir Putin.

Snyder's orderly chapters positing a series of oppositions offer essential summaries of how we got into this mess, going back beyond the essential turning point - Putin's essential failure in the Russian election of 2012 and how, to deflect, he spread his country's latest breakdown worldwide in an increasingly successful strategy - to roots in Russia, America and Europe.

If you only read one chapter, as a European it would have to be the third. Only a master historian could take us so succinctly to the essence of the EU project. He then points out that 'the EU's vulnerability was the European politics of inevitability: the fable of the wise nation', the fact that not only young east Europeans but others everywhere else on the continent - and above all in Britain - were not educated to see that their countries were doomed 'by structure' 'without a European order...As a result, the fable of the wise nation made it seem possible that nation-states, having chosen to enter Europe, could also choose to leave'.

Revelatory and gobsmacking to me was Putin's manipulation of fascist ideology, starting with a 'philosopher' of whom I knew nothing, Ivan Ilyin. Lest one thinks this overstated, the quotations from Putin and Kremlin pundits show how it became state ideology. State scumbags' laughable running-down of western countries as subject to Satanic gays and Jews, their fantasy of Eurasia with Moscow at its centre appealing to an imagined 'primal Slavic experience', would be funny if it hadn't gone down well with the Russian people. And all this because Ukraine decided to throw in its lot with a properly European future.

The most jaw-dropping example here is of the Izborsk Club, inaugurated in September 2012, chief point of its manifesto 'Russia does not need hasty political reforms. It needs arms factories and altars'. A lunatic fringe? No, a club of heroes according to the Kremlin:

One of Russia's long-range bombers, a Tu-95 built to drop atomic bombs on the United States was renamed 'Izborsk' in honour of the club. In case anyone failed to notice this sign of Kremlin backing, Prokhanov [fascist novelist and Izborsk Club founder] was invited to fly in the cockpit of the aircraft. In the years to come, this and other Tu-95s would regularly approach the airspace of the member states of the European Union, forcing them to activate their air defence systems and to escort the approaching bomber away. The Tu-95 'Izborsk' would be used to bomb Syria in 2015, creating refugees who would flee to Europe.

Snyder doesn't just state and imply, he can get very angry. In the fourth (Ukrainian) chapter, 'Novelty or Eternity', he paints such a moving picture of Ukrainians of all ages flocking to join the citizens of the Kyiv Maidan that I wish I'd gone out to witness this incredible event before the Kremlin triggered the massacre (that it was oddly reported in the UK press is explained later by Snyder). Then he unleashes his ire on the lie machine that would deny the achievement:

Russians, Europeans, and Americans were meant to forget the students who were beaten on a cold November night because they wanted a future. And the mothers and fathers and grandparents and veterans and workers who then came to the streets in defence of 'our children'. And the lawyers and consultants who found themselves throwing Molotov cocktails. The hundreds of thousands of people who broke themselves away from television and internet and who journeyed to Kyiv to put their bodies at risk. The Ukrainian citizens who were not thinking of Russia or geopolitics or ideology but of the next generation. The young historian of the Holocaust, the sole supporter of his family, who went back to the Maidan during the sniper massacre to rescue a wounded man, or the university lecturer who took a sniper's bullet to the skull that day.

Our great chronicler of conscience is also a master of coining the right phrase: 'implausible deniability' for the Kremlin's lies (I remember the first time I realised that Putin was going to break all rules of international diplomacy, when in early 2014 he declared 'we have no intention of rattling the sabre and sending troops to Crimea', then did just that; 'schizo-fascism' ('actual fascists calling their opponents fascists'); 'cruci-fiction' for Alexander Dugin's outrageous lie about a three-year-old boy crucified by Ukrainian soldiers in Sloviansk, which drummed up volunteers to fight for Russia in eastern Ukraine from all over the former empire; 'strategic relativism' for faltering Russian state power trying to hold on by weakening others, the 'winning' of 'a negative-sum game in international politics'; 'sado-populist' ('a someone who proposes policies to increase opportunities for the masses, as opposed to the financial elites. Trump was something else: a sado-populist, whose policies were designed to hurt the most vulnerable part of his own electorate').

Then there's the myth of 'Donald Trump, successful businessman', saved by Russian money from 'the fate that would normally await anyone with his record of failure'. Let's just hope that fate has merely been delayed, and is coming soon, to the Horror Clown, Nigel Farage, Arron Banks and many others.