Monday 30 July 2018

War and disquiet with Grossman and Lipke

Two remarkable men, a Russian and a Latvian, share equal honours here for respective perfection of the work and of the life. Above is Vasily Grossman in the thick of it in 1945, and below is Žanis Lipke in 1977 holding the 'Righteous Among the Nations' medal which bears the inscription 'He who saves one life saves the world'. You'll have to read some way on to find out how Lipke did it.

First time round with Grossman's long-concealed Life and Fate, I stopped around the page-180 mark. Who were all these people zooming into sight around Stalingrad with very little in the way of introduction? When I read in translator Robert Chandler's introduction that many of them had already featured in a previous novel dealing with the earlier stages of the German invasion, For a Just Cause, published in 1952, which to this day remains untranslated into English, I felt we were being cheated, presented with Life and Fate as a self-contained entity rather than part of a diptych.

It's complicated. For a Just Cause, according to Chandler, doesn't stick its neck out against the Soviet regime in the way that Life and Fate so startlingly does. Grossman thought the latter might be published during the Khrushchev thaw. He was wrong. In February 1961 KGB officers came to his apartment to confiscate the manuscript and anything related to it. But Grossman had left two other copies with friends, one of which was smuggled out on microfilm to the west with the help of Andrey Sakharov, among others, in 1974, a decade after Grossman's death; the novel was finally published in 1980.

Though Grossman wrote Life and Fate with the benefit of hindsight, and compressed into 1941-2 a timescale which actually extends up to Stalin's big drive against Russian Jews with the 'Doctors' Plot' a decade later, he lived through the events it describes as a reporter (his war journalism will be my next reading once I've finished Elena Ferrante's tetralogy).

The most lacerating transferal of his own experience into that of the man who becomes the novel's main character, Jewish physicist Viktor Pavlovich Shtrum, is of the loss of his mother, who was sent to her death in Treblinka from Berdichev, which he reached too late. This is why the last letter of Viktor's mother in Chapter 18 of Life and Fate's first part is one of the most powerful of all literary testimonies to the horrors of the Holocaust; no wonder it has been adapted for the stage both as a monologue and within Lev Dodin's very selective Maly Theatre adaptation, which led me back to the novel.

The other sequence that I found almost unbearable is the strand following unmarried teacher Sofya Osipovna Levinton's journey to Auschwitz, and her poignant adoption of a Jewish boy who dies in her arms. Later stages deal with the tragicomic compromises of Shtrum, who finds himself suddenly of use to Stalin again when Russia needs to develop a nuclear bomb. The book, unlike (as I am led to believe by one who's read it) its predecessor, makes it clear that Stalin's horrors, not least the indelible mark of the 1937 Terror, scar people as much as Hitler's. As with the even-handed condemnation of Kuznetsov's Babi Yar, this is what made Life and Fate unpublishable in Soviet Russia.

Shafts of light are often extinguished, despite the profound Tolstoyan humanity throughout. Another seminal chapter is devoted to the manuscript of Ikonnikov, a so-called 'Holy Fool' in another German camp. He decries the inevitable corruption of the 'common good' principle and contrasts it with

a kindness outside any system of social or religious good...Even at the most terrible times...this senseless, pathetic kindness remained scattered throughout life like atoms of radium...This kindness, this stupid kindness, is what is most truly human in a human being. It is what sets man apart, the highest achievement of his soul. No, it says, life is not evil! 

Later, the army driver Semyonov is taken in by an old peasant woman who tells him she has seen good and bad on both sides. Khristya Chunyak is the embodiment of Ikonnikov's 'stupid kindness'.

There is a memorial in Rīga to another, real person who epitomises the personal good, Žanis Lipke. Not exactly an ordinary Latvian - stevedore, dockworker and smuggler, he had always been a stalwart left wing activist. But when he was working at a warehouse under German command and heard that Riga's Jews were being massacred in the woods near the city, he devised an elaborate rescue scheme to make sure that many of the Jewish workers did not return to the ghetto and certain eventual death at the end of the day - unnoticed, miraculously - but to various shelters around the city. His reason? That it was simply the duty of a human being. When circumstances became too dangerous for the escapees there he transported them across the broad Daugava river to his home in semi-rural Ķīpsala

There eight to 12 people at any one time were housed in a three-by-three-metre hole in the ground. All the family were involved in the task, including his wife Johanna, whose words and eloquent visage (such eyes!) are so movingly captured in an interview you view on a screen at the bottom of the new building's central well, 

and young son Zigfrids who stood guard above. As the numbers grew, Lipke arranged with a distant parish to shelter people in three farmsteads. He saved around 50 lives. None of the 25 people who helped him was ever betrayed. Later, when he was interrogated by the NKVD, he told his questioners that the Communists were even worse than the Nazis - the latter shot you while looking you in the eye, the other shot you in the back. Astonishingly, he wasn't carted off to Siberia for that. Pictured below, Johanna and Žanis in 1946, seated to the right with some of the Jews they rescued.

Ķīpsala is still a beautiful part of town with many wooden houses and much greenery, but the main reason for visiting is to see the stunningly-constructed memorial, created by architect Zaiga Gaile at the end of an alley with an almost hidden entrance (you only grasp the building properly on exiting at the other end).  Māris Gailis, businessman and former Latvian Prime Minister, and film director Augusts Sukuts wanted to make the tribute because what we usually hear is how Latvians welcomed in the Germans all too readily (as in Estonia, it was complicated; life under Soviet rule had been so harsh that many citizens thought at first the Germans would be more 'civilized'. They soon found out how wrong they were). The Žanis Lipke Memorial was opened in 2013, and it's a model in its restraint and simple artistry. In the opening ceremony, Shimon Peres echoed Grossman when he said:

I don't think I've ever seen a museum like this one anywhere in the world. It's special, it's different, it's deep, it's moving....I'm not sure that the majority of people are saints. But I'm sure there is a minority of people who are brave, who are right, who are just. And I do believe that this minority saves lives.

Tuesday 24 July 2018

Bach and Dante: hellish trials, heavenly light

So while I reached the Empyrean with Dr Scafi and Professor Took at the Warburg, and got to the end of reading Paradiso shortly afterwards, serendipitously just prior to visiting the Ravenna Festival, the one-Bach-cantata-per-Sunday scheme bit the dust again, this time on the first Sunday after Trinity. I'd already accumulated a backlog, which just got too much with so many summer weekends away.

It does seem good, though, to end on a very rich masterpiece which I also got to hear in John Eliot Gardiner's second Bach cantatas concert in the Barbican's rich Barbican weekend (alas, the only one I could make). BWV 20, 'O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort', had to be a big statement - it launched Bach's second Leipzig cycle on 11 June 1724 (thus another image of the Thomaskirche from my first acquaintance with it last December). 

No-one could write about this thunderbolt of invention better or with more inside knowledge than Gardiner, and he does so in Music in the Castle of Heaven, pages 313 to 317 (I recommend you read it all, of course).

It is an astonishing piece, one that sets the tone for the whole cycle and sums up so many of the original features we will encounter - a new range of expression, the use of operatic technique to enliven the doctrinal message and wild contrasts of mood....We seem to be already in the death-throes of the Trinity season, not at its start - but then Bach's was an age that had a taste for apocalypse and the theme crops up regularly and unexpectedly.

What, in  briefer terms, does Bach serve up? First a choral fantasia in the form of a French overture, starting with an astonishingly original idea and freezing us in our tracks on a diminished seventh, followed by heart-quaking fragments in a slower middle sequence. What an effect the three stammering oboes have at this point. No idea whose performance this is, but good to have the score accompanying the opening chorus on YouTube.

A tenor aria with a turbulent bass line and sorrowing strings 'piles on the agony' (Gardiner). The bass seems to shift into an almost comical light for the over-assertions of 'Gott ist gerecht', but we are back with pain and grief with the alto's tragic chromatic number. The coda, piano, for strings alone reprising what's been sung, is a subtle dramatic coup.

After this, prefaced by a hymn stanza, the preacher would have given his sermon. His the prerogative to make the transition to a very different mood, striking with the huge range of bass backed up by trumpet and strings. To my ears it outdoes Handel's 'The trumpet shall sound', but maybe familiarity has bred a certain taking-for-granted of that magnificent aria. There's a very expressive 'repent ye' alto solo, and then what struck in the Barbican concert, almost whispered throughout, as one of the most extraordinary, dramatic inventions in all the cantatas.

I have to quote JEG on this, since he clearly thinks so too:

It is not very often that Bach resorts to lurid pictorialism of the Hieronymus Bosch kind; yet, in the ensuing duet delivered to the errant programme as though by Bunyanesque angels (alto and tenor), he treats us to a ghoulish cameo of 'howling and chattering teeth', of the ominous approach of the hand-drawn hearse as it clatters across the cobbled street. Successions of first inversion chords over a disjointed bass line in quavers with parallel thirds and sixths in the voice parts give way first to imitative and answering phrases, then to an anguished chromaticism evoking the bubbling stream and the drop of water denied to the parched rich man. The voices join for a final flourish. We hear the gurgling of the forbidden water and the continuo playing a last furtive snatch of the ritornello. Then, dissolve...fade out...silence. Extraordinary.

This performance isn't a patch on Gardiner's, and I've got so used to hearing top mezzos and contraltos on the Rilling set that the countertenor doesn't please me much, but it's helpful to see what Bach is doing in the score.

There is light at the end of the concluding chorale, but the overall impression is one of disruption - and total, timeless genius. I may have given up this year, but I'll be thrilled to pick up where I left off in June 2019, sticking to the 1724 sequence.

In my last post yoking Bach and Dante, I was worried that our Warburg discussions about selected cantos of Paradiso were more interesting than the poetry in question. All that changed when Dr Scafi read, and Professor took reflected upon, Canto 17. We are in the heaven of Mars, moving upwards through concentric circles of planets, where we meet Cacciaguida, who died before Florence turned, in Dante's view, to the bad. This is the chance for our poet to lament the moral decline of his beloved city and to make the third, last and most explicit reference in the Divina Commedia to his own exile.

Cacciaguida, 'gazing at the point to which all times are present', makes this prophecy to Dante:

Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
   più caramente; e questo è quello strale
   che l'arco de lo essilio pria saetta.

Tu proverai sì come sa di sale 
   lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
   lo scendere e 'l salir per l'altrui scale. 

E quel che più ti graverà le spalle, 
   sarà la compagnia malvagia e scempia
   con la qual tu cadrai in questa valle; 

che tutta ingrata, tutta matta ed empia 
   si farà contr' a te; ma, poco appresso,
   ella, non tu, n'avrà rossa la tempia. 

Di sua bestialitate il suo processo 
  farà la prova; sì ch'a te fia bello
  averti fatta parte per te stesso. 

You will leave behind everything loved most dearly, and this is the arrow that the bow of exile first lets fly. You will learn how salty tastes the bread of another, and what a hard path it is to descend and mount by another's stairs. And what will most weigh upon your shoulders will be the wicked, dimwitted company with whom you will fall into this valley, who will become utterly ungrateful, mad and cruel against you, but shortly after they, not you, will blush. Of their stupidity the outcome will provide the proof, so that for you it will be well to have become a party unto yourself.

The literal translation, as in previous blog instalments, is by Robert Durling, though I haven't scanned it as he does. Shall find it impossible to read more 'literary' versions, having once seen the unreproducable beauty of the Italian.

Dante, as ever, is sure of his place in history, perhaps in all eternity. Caccaguida advises him to 'make manifest your whole vision', however galling that may be at first to those with a guilty conscience. And in fact he didn't suffer in his wanderings for long, coming under the wing of the Lombards and then finding his final haven in Ravenna.

His destination as the pilgrim of Paradiso, though, is the Empyrean, and a brief vision of God in the final Canto, 33, which must have had some impact on Cardinal Newman in The Dream of Gerontius. As we move towards the greatest luminosity, Dante coins ever more neologisms - 'trasumanar', 'transhumanizing', the most famous of all, was actually introduced in 1.70 and begins to be properly realised in Canto 30 - and finds ever more poetic ways of saying 'I lack the words to describe what I saw' (the last two are in 33, lines 54-7 and 120-2).

Finally, within 'three circles, of three colours and one circumference' - the Trinity - he sees 'what seemed to me painted with our effigy'. Does this mean that man/mankind is the last vision - that, as Professor Took put it, 'central to the Godhead is the human project', that neither God nor man should be alone? I love, as usual, his summation of Dante heading 'into a plenitude of proportionate understanding and ultimate love'.

My end is going to be another beginning, which I've described on the musical front on The Arts Desk: Ravenna, where Dante could not have been unaffected by the dazzling domes of light, whether in the blue-and-gold intimacy of Galla Placidia's Mausoleum - pictured at the top of the post - or the lofty heights of San Vitale.

On this visit, my second since leaving my last Interrailing pal in the city's youth hostel and making my first independent travel in 1982, I fell in love with Dante's final resting place. On, then, eventually, to those most heavenly of mosaics.

Sunday 15 July 2018

Bergman on holiness, music and death

I originally posted this, which because of what the master says is one of the most important entries here to me - as is my Fårö report with respect to The Arts Desk - eight years ago, on 16 July 2010. The actual 100th anniversary, 14 July, almost passed me by yesterday- it was only because there seemed to be so many Ingmar clips up on LinkedIn that my memory was revived. Happy to reproduce this again, because I still find IB's words intensely moving.

Not a day passed when the master didn't think of all three [holiness, music and death]. So it was quite an experience after the visit (hopefully numinous images from which I reproduce throughout) to return to Bergman on Fårö, one of the five detailed films Marie Nyreröd made with him at the very end of his life, and find that he had whittled down his often unruly thoughts to essentials. No doubt his 'demon of control', as he put it, made sure what went alongside the interviews in terms of film clips, how he was filmed and where; and why not?

The first chunk is from when he takes Nyreröd into that wonderful little cinema at Dämba and shows her and us a very specific clip, from Private Confessions (1996). This is Max von Sydow's Bishop Jakob being asked by Pernilla Ostergren's character whether he believe in God. His answer:

Don't use the word 'God'. Say 'holiness'. There's holiness in everyone. Human holiness. Everything else is attributes, disguise - manifestation and trickery. You can never capture or figure out human holiness. At the same time, it's something to cling to. Something tangible, lasting unto death. [Bach's 'Jesu, joy of man's desiring' is heard] Whatever happens then is hidden from us. Only poets, musicians and saints may depict that which we can but discern: the inconceivable. They've seen, known, understood - not fully, but in fragments. For me, it's a comfort to think about human holiness.

The projectionist stops the film. Bergman turns to Nyreröd and adds his commentary:

We've been talking a lot about the religious aspects of my oeuvre. And really we should try to concentrate it, and instead of our sitting stammering through an explanation, I think the Bishop here has put it succinctly. He says exactly what I feel: that we shouldn't talk about God but about the holiness within man. And that through the musicians, the prophets and the saints, we've been enlightened about other worlds. Particularly through music, of course. We ask: 'where does music come from?' I've asked so many musicians, famous and less famous, why we have music, where it comes from. And the strange thing is that they've never had a proper answer.

The film cuts to Bergman putting a recording of the Sarabande from Bach's Fifth Cello Suite on the turntable at Hammars.

Let's cut ourselves to the final question.

I wrote a film about death...The Seventh Seal. It was excellent therapy. Sometimes the things you do, the things you write, can be therapeutic. And this was. [sighs] But then something curious happened. What happened was that I developed an abscess with early signs of blood poisoning and the swelling had to be cut away. That was done at the Sophiahemmet Hospital [in Stockholm, where he had lived as a child]. I felt a little prick and then nothing. Eight hours of my life, you see, were completely obliterated. I was hypersensitive to the anesthetic and they'd given me too much. This fascinated me because I thought, 'is this what death is like?'. You are a light that's lit, and then one day it's extinguished. There's nothing, no flame left. So death is nothing to be afraid of. It's something exceedingly merciful, something magnificent.

So having understood that, I lived a contented life. I noticed that my daily thoughts of death could be brushed aside. They always came, especially during my hour of the wolf just before dawn, but I could dismiss them by telling myself they were nothing. From being something, suddenly I'm nothing. I liked the idea. And then came [sighs, trembles] - the big problem. The devastating problem. That was when Ingrid [his last wife of 24 years] died almost exactly eight years ago.

And logically, I said to myself, I'll never see Ingrid again. She's gone for ever. But the strange thing is that I feel Ingrid's presence, especially here on Fårö. Acutely. And I think, I can't feel her presence if she doesn't exist, can I? [rubs his left eye nervously] So this operation was a chemical reaction. It wasn't a real death, but an artificial reaction. In actual death, maybe Ingrid is waiting for me and she exists. And she'll come to meet me [the film cuts to an essential monologue from Bergman's last film, Saraband] I accept that I'm going to meet Ingrid, and I've completely erased that other nightmare thought that I'll never again meet her. I acknowledge the fact that I'm going to meet Ingrid.

Ingmar Bergman was born in Uppsala 92 years and two days ago*, and died on Fårö on 30 July 2007, four years after these films were made.

*100 years ago yesterday as far as the update is concerned.

Saturday 14 July 2018

Carnival of resistance

'I hate Trump even more than I hate crowds,' as one of hundreds of ingenious placards and banners read, so there I was among peaceful thousands for the fourth time in a month, following the People's Vote March and the Latvian song and dance celebrations. Never, surely, has there been a funnier or, weirdly, more joyous demo. It was indeed, as many banners declared, a 'carnival of resistance,' and I laughed and smiled my way from Langham Place to Trafalgar Square. This was a reminder, too, of all the vital causes the Horror Clown has been besieging, resulting in a rainbow coalition of protesters.

Worried that I might be a bit late - 2pm was the start, and I had to tidy up Glinka notes for the Proms, just past the mid-day deadline, before cycling off. I came at it all from Wigmore Street, and first joined what I was told was the back of the procession in Chandos Street, complete with Handmaids (later I saw a witty banner, 'The Handmaid's Tale is not an instruction manual').

The first three people I encountered were all sporting - albeit not wearing, in high temperatures - the 'Trump stinks' face masks I'd seen the sublime Janey Godley and friends display online, so I asked them to don the masks for a photo-op, in which they were happy to oblige.

Here, too, were an American father with his infant

and a group with the first of many dogs I saw.

This one is cutely adorned with 'Dump Trump,' and didn't seem to mind too much.

But behind us another procession was moving towards Langham Place, so we quickly joined that and found it to consist mostly of pro-Palestinian Muslims, including headscarved women

and this genial gentleman.

Behind them came orange people, in solidarity with Guantanamo inmates.

Let's feature some of the ingenious slogans and pics now. One of my favourites came from this lady

who had an equally ingenious inscription on the reverse.

This one was more earnest.

and later on, the reverse of a 'F*** Trump' spread had serious messages, too.

Demi-dragged Donald

soon joined forces with Trumpelstiltskin and 'Muggy May' (not sure I got that one)

though it was only at the end that I spied a couple of the drag-queen group sashaying away.

Americans warned to stay away by their loathsome administration were not taking any notice

and this one represented overseas voters who need to help make a difference in the mid-terms.

Humbler hand-made efforts still got their point across amusingly.

I assume this one is on the right side of humorous.

Found myself hailed by a familiar voice - that of good friend Christine, closely followed by husband Duncan, who was promming later in the day (he's a season ticket holder).

We were touched by an Indonesian gentleman who wanted to photograph my 'No man is an island, no country by itself' t-shirt, earnestly saying that we are all human beings who must join together.

The priestly community was out in force. Not sure what the lying threesome was proclaiming - couldn't read the message,

Of this genial group, the best banner - 'My boss told me to come' - isn't quite visible.

It took much longer than I expected to reach Oxford Circus, after which things moved more rapidly down Lower Regent Street. Here I caught the ingenuity of the best 'models'.

I had a nice chat with the ever-beaming lady on the left about the humour factor of it all. More mixed responses from the huge numbers of police when I remarked to the effect that it didn't look like trouble, did it? A smiling black policewoman said 'absolutely not';  a grimmer plod replied 'not yet'. Not at all, as it turned out.

Anti-fracking sideshow:

The chap just visible on the left below had a job to do, and he was getting on with it, though smiling all the while. Note ' Christian? Like Martin Luther King?'

More good signs. 'Nightmare on Any Street' was Amnesty's contribution.

EU flags still part of the picture (I now have a sticker with not only 'Bollocks to Brexit' but also 'Bollocks to Trump').

And so I took a slight detour at Piccadilly Circus, to rejoin the march at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where the handmaids were in full spate

And on to Trafalgar Square, where I filled in a pro-EU postcard to my MP (not that Andy Slaughter needs any prompting) and the good banners kept on coming.

Poor Madge. But did she have to smile? And did Mrs Mayhem have to take the Horror Clown's hand again? Well, their charade was going on while we were part of the Real Thing. Here's a glimpse of the alternative - the Blump flew in the morning, though not very high - courtesy of Ileana Antinori, a LinkedIn connection.