A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Better Than Shakespeare?

I told a friend recently that I had no interest in seeing the film Life of Pi because I admired the book so much. But tonight, watching a recording of the San Francisco Opera production of Otello, I realized it's possible to admire both an original and its copy in another medium. In fact, I'm not sure that I don't think Verdi's Otello is even better than Shakespeare's Othello. The SFO production is not ideal -- Johan Botha is neither physically nor vocally what one would want in the title role -- but even a flawed production brings back memories of less-flawed performances, such as Jon Vickers and Placido Domingo in the role, or of the old recording with Giovanni Martinelli as Otello and Ramon Vinay as Iago. And the score itself carries so much of the glory of the opera.

So is Verdi's (and Boito's) version really better than Shakespeare's? No, something is inevitably lost in translation: "Abbasso le spade!" is certainly not a patch on "Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them," when it comes to beauty and wit. And Shakespeare's Desdemona has more depth of characterization than Boito's. But there is nothing in the play that has the impact of the great operatic scene in which Iago goads Otello into an oath of vengeance, especially when performed by two stellar singing actors like Piero Cappuccili and Domingo in this 1976 La Scala production:

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Be Good, Sweet Novelist, and Let Who Will Be Clever

Lately I've read two novels by distinguished contemporary writers that left me wondering if it's possible to be too clever for a novelist's own good.

The other day I posted about one of the novels, Ian McEwan's Sweet Tooth, which has lately established itself firmly on the bestseller lists and on some of the ubiquitous "best novels of 2012" lists compiled by various critics. I observed that although the novel seems to be heading in the conventional direction of first-person narratives with an ironically self-deprecating voice characteristic of some British fiction, McEwan was also using his narrator to score a few points about the recent and contemporary British novel.

It turns out that McEwan is doing precisely that and more. His narrator -- or rather let us say, without giving too much away, his ostensible narrator is Serena Frome ("rhymes with plume," as she remind us and others from time to time), a young woman who, fresh out of Cambridge with a not-very-distinguished degree in mathematics, goes to work for British intelligence." Eventually she is asked to perform a "secret mission," to inform a young writer named Tom Haley that he is the recipient of a lucrative grant from a foundation that supports up-and-coming writers. In fact, the grant is funded by MI5, which has set up a program to support anticommunist artists, in a rather lame and half-hearted attempt at tilting the propaganda war against left-wing Brits. If you remember the scandal in which the British literary magazine Encounter was revealed in 1967 to have been funded by the CIA, leading to the resignation of its editor, the poet Stephen Spender, you know what's at work here.

Haley accepts the grant, and he and Serena fall in love. Since she's a very junior staff member in MI5, usually tasked with typing and filing, she's eager for advancement. But she really is in love with Haley, and is tormented by the fact that she's forced to lie to him not only about the source of the money he's receiving but also about her role in selecting him to receive it.

Now, there are some very obvious ways a novel with a plot like this can go. She can risk losing him and/or her job by telling him the truth. She can keep lying and get found out. And once he learns the truth, he can either break up with her in anger and disillusionment, or he can forgive her and they can live happily with the deception. But although there are plenty of novels that would resort to either the happy lie ending or the painful truth ending, both endings have something phony about them. They're characteristic of popular fiction, not of the kind of keen-edged literary fiction McEwan is known for.

I won't tell you how McEwan resolves his plot, except to say that it's extremely clever. And that it seems like a cheat anyway. He has set up a romantic dilemma and resolved it with a metafictional gimmick. Yes, it's thought-provoking, and when you look back through the novel you can see how carefully McEwan has set it up. At one point, a character tells Serena,
In this work the line between what people imagine and what's actually the case can get very blurred. In fact that line is a big gray space, big enough to get lost in. You imagine things -- and you can make them come true. The ghosts become real.
The "work" being referred to is Serena's work for MI5. But it can also be taken to refer to the "work" that is McEwan's novel. Double-meanings of this sort abound in Sweet Tooth.

Don't get me wrong: I was entertained and intrigued by the novel. It's a pleasure to see fiction stand itself on its head. But at the same time, I don't read novels to solve puzzles, and something of the heart went out of the book when I discovered what McEwan is doing.

Which brings me to another terribly clever book, Michael Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, also ensconced on bestseller and best-of lists. Here the cleverness is not in the plotting, although Chabon is certainly skillful in that regard. It's a story set in contemporary Oakland and Berkeley, and its major virtue is that, unlike McEwan, Chabon introduces us to a set of vivid characters that we've never met before. It deals with the owners of a used-record store in Oakland whose livelihood is threatened by the arrival of a chain megastore -- the Walmart of used records plus electronics and other goodies -- and with their families and customers and competitors and so on. This is a novel teeming with colorful characters.

But it's also a bit like a party at which there are all sorts of interesting people to meet and talk to, except that it's being thrown by a host who just won't shut up and let you meet them. He (i.e., Chabon) is interesting and fiercely witty himself, but every time you start getting to know one of his guests, he pops in with his own comments and asides. He is also a master of what McEwan's Serena referred to as "a form of naive realism." In Sweet Tooth she says of the novels she reads,"I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car." And Telegraph Avenue is rife with that kind of mentioning: places, people, events, trivia all centered on the Oakland-Berkeley area, particularly the parts adjoining the titular avenue. 

Some of this is gratifying to a Bay Area resident like me, and I was amused when Chabon alluded to the old station breaks on a local TV station, which featured dogs who turned their heads toward someone off-camera when the words "Channel 20" were spoken. It's the sort of in-joke you feel oddly, somewhat smugly pleased at sharing with the author. But it's also irrelevant. It's local color for the sake of being locally colorful. 

There's way too much of that sort of thing in Telegraph Avenue, whose stylistic cleverness is as provoking and distracting as McEwan's cleverness in upending his narrative. 

Friday, December 28, 2012

Multiculturalism

Tonight I watched an American opera company's production of a German opera based on a play written in French by an Irishman who then translated it into English. It was Richard Strauss's Salome, of course, a production of the San Francisco Opera that I recorded several months ago and just now got around to watching. The title role was played by Nadja Michael, a German soprano who's a better actress and dancer than singer -- she stirred up some real intensity playing around with Jokanaan (Greer Grimsley) both alive and decapitated. It was certainly a more, uh, vivid performance than the only live Salome I've seen, a Dallas Opera performance with Roberta Knie, a rather large young woman but a much better singer than Michael. It must have been in the mid-1970s, because Knie made her American debut in Tristan and Isolde in Dallas in 1975; the Tristan was Jon Vickers.

Here's the final scene from the 1974 film of the opera with Teresa Stratas as Salome, Hans Beirer as Herod, and the great Astrid Varnay as Herodias. The conductor is Karl Böhm.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

What I'm Reading

Ian McEwan, Sweet Tooth

The narrator of McEwan's latest novel is a young woman (in my mind's eye she's played by Romola Garai) who goes to work for British intelligence in the 1970s. I was feeling quite smug about having identified her voice as that familiar one of ironic self-deprecation so characteristic of British first-person narratives.

But then I realized that McEwan is smarter than me, when he homed in on how typical his narrator's voice is, and how his own novel both exemplifies and transcends a particular type of British fiction. His protagonist reads Doris Lessing, Margaret Drabble, and Iris Murdoch in search of herself, but finds the women in them "too educated or too clever, or not quite lonely enough in the world to be me."
I suppose I would not have been satisfied until I had in my hands a novel about a girl in a Camden bedsit who occupied a lowly position in MI5 and was without a man. 
I craved a form of naive realism. I paid special attention, I craned my readerly neck whenever a London street I knew was mentioned, or a style of frock, a real public person, even a make of car. Then, I thought, I had a measure, I could gauge the quality of the writing by its accuracy, by the extent to which it aligned with my own impressions, or improved upon them. I was fortunate that most English writing of the time was in the form of undemanding social documentary. I wasn't impressed by those writers (they were spread between South and North America) who infiltrated their own pages as part of the cast, determined to remind the poor reader that all the characters and even they themselves were pure inventions and that there was a difference between fiction and life. Or, to the contrary, to insist that life was a fiction anyway. Only writers, I thought, were ever in danger of confusing the two. I was a born empiricist. I believed that writers were paid to pretend, and where appropriate should make use of the real world, the one we all shared, to give plausibility to whatever they had made up. So, no tricksy haggling over the limits of their art, no showing disloyalty to the reader by appearing to cross and recross in disguise the borders of the imaginary. No room in the books I liked for the double agent. That year I tried and discarded the authors that sophisticated friends in Cambridge had pressed on me -- Borges and Barth, Pynchon and Cortázar and Gaddis. Not an Englishman among them, I noted, and no women of any race. I was rather like people of my parents' generation who not only disliked the taste and smell of garlic, but distrusted all those who consumed it.


  

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Monday, December 24, 2012

Why I Still Celebrate Christmas

I guess if you had to label me anything (though why you'd want to is beyond me), I'm an atheist. But I still love Christmas. That's because it's such a good story, with virgin and manger and star and wise men and shepherds and angels proclaiming peace on Earth. And stories are what we use to make sense of our lives -- as long as we realize that they are stories. If there were holidays celebrating the courtship of Elizabeth and Darcy, or Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, or Frodo's taking the Ring to Mount Doom, I'd celebrate them too.

Stories are always true, because they come from the rich imagining of the human mind. They only become false when people use them to further their own ends, finding ways to warp and distort them into creeds and causes and religions and ideologies. When an ugly old man in the Vatican uses a Christmas address to proclaim his hatred of gay people, or when a TV network promotes closed-mindedness by claiming that those who want to include all believers and non-believers in their celebration of a holiday are somehow waging war on Christmas, then the stories become false.

So whatever you believe, peace be unto you.