Friday, May 29, 2009

Blather and a Poem

This backpacking training is exhausting, folks . . . I did so many flights of stairs yesterday and I've been running which is something I  haven't done since high school gym class. Between the exercise and my allergies (or rather the Benadryl I took for my allergies) and worrying about Pyramus' latest health issues (a urinary tract infection [probably], a worsening heart problem, and unexplained weight loss), I am one tired person. I'm also well on my way to being one broke person seeing as my cat is pretty much a pharmacy with fur. 

Which is all to say that I'm feeling a bit worn out. So in lieu of a coherent post please take this poem by Louise Glück:

Parable of the Hostages

The Greeks are sitting on the beach
wondering what to do when the war ends. No one
wants to go home, back
to that bony island; everyone wants a little more
of what there is in Troy, more
life on the edge, that sense of every day as being
packed with surprises. But how to explain this
to the ones at home to whom
fighting a war is a plausible
excuse for absence, whereas
exploring one’s capacity for diversion
is not. Well, this can be faced
later; these
are men of action, ready to leave
insight to the women and children.
Thinking things over in the hot sun, pleased
by a new strength in their forearms, which seem
more golden than they did at home, some
begin to miss their families a little,
to miss their wives, to want to see
if the war has aged them. And a few grow
slightly uneasy: what if war
is just a male version of dressing up,
a game devised to avoid
profound spiritual questions? Ah,
but it wasn’t only the war. The world had begun
calling them, an opera beginning with the war’s
loud chords and ending with the floating aria of the sirens.
There on the beach, discussing the various
timetables for getting home, no one believed
it could take ten years to get back to Ithaca;
no one foresaw that decade of insoluble dilemmas—oh unanswerable
affliction of the human heart: how to divide
the world’s beauty into acceptable
and unacceptable loves! On the shores of Troy,
how could the Greeks know
they were hostages already: who once
delays the journey is
already enthralled; how could they know
that of their small number
some would be held forever by the dreams of pleasure,
some by sleep, some by music?

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Balanchine-Tchaikovsky Spectacular

I meant to write about this last week but I was wrapped up in packing for a camping/hiking trip and then I was actually on the trip and time just got away from me. Of course now I'm trying to get in shape for four days of backpacking with my sister the hiking machine next month. I actually went for a run today, which I can tell you is nowhere near a regular occurrence. But anyway, on to talking about people who are far more fit than I'll ever be . . .

This seemed to me like a program put together with marketing in mind as opposed to audience enjoyment. Which isn't to say that each of the ballets isn't a pleasure in and of themselves, but that there was a certain sameness to them and I was longing for a bit more variety. There were two ballets I'd seen before ("Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" and "Theme and Variations") and two I hadn't ("Allegro Brillante" and "Mozartiana") and perhaps my preference for the two I'd seen previously had something to do with a greater level of familiarity. But I think it also had to do with the performances. 

I normally like Gillian Murphy a great deal but in "Allegro Brillante" she and Ethan Stiefel left me a bit cold. It's so fast and the architecture of the dance is interesting, but it didn't seem like much fun somehow. There they were, doing the steps with their usual proficiency and looking a little bit like they were ticking off boxes on a form. It was refreshing then, to see Paloma Herrera and Marcelo Gomes look like they were genuinely enjoying themselves. They brought a spontaneity and sense of fun to "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" that fit well with its flash and showoff-y quality. Also the first time I saw this ballet I whined about the costume for the man, so I guess I should say that I dislike ABT's costume far less. (Granted, they make up for  that with "Theme and Variations," but more on that later.)

I'm conflicted about "Mozartiana" though. I think Veronika Part is an absolutely gorgeous dancer: She has beautiful lines and is so musical. And it's nice to see such a womanly looking ballerina. But I think I need to see the ballet again because the first time around it didn't make much of an impression but at the same time I think it's a ballet I could work my way into as a viewer. 

My favorite ballet of the night though, was "Theme and Variations." I'd never particularly enjoyed Michelle Wiles's dancing, so I'm very glad that I did this time around (although I do feel like she'd benefit from dancing with someone who doesn't look like he could be her twin--a little contrast would be nice). And David Hallberg was wonderful, but that won't be news to anyone who has seen him dance. This looked so much nicer and more expansive and impressive on the big Met stage than it did at City Center.

What I don't understand though is why the ballet world feels the need to dress men up so they look like like, for example, a watermelon that's been attacked by a bedazzler. As in the pictures below.
David Hallberg, etc. from this New York Times slideshow
Daniil Simkin and Sarah Lane from this New York Times slideshow

Now, I'm not saying there's something wrong with a man being dressed up in a tacky, glittery outfit per se. But when the role is that of a noble cavalier I don't think it particularly works; at the very least it isn't in keeping with modern sensibilities. And as such it only serves to emphasize the museum piece quality that so much ballet has. Isn't this a problem? Is it really so hard to manage costumes that aren't silly?

Oh well. The next ABT performance I'm going to is the All-Prokofiev evening, which I'm very much looking forward to. 

Thursday, May 21, 2009

3 Dancers, 4 Chairs, 26 Words

I attended this on Saturday with performance club and very much enjoyed it. It felt like such a fragile thing . . . so contained and particular and carefully crafted. The performance club post and discussion is here. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Desire Under the Elms

My grandmother and I went to our monthly dinner and a show on Thursday. We ate at the sort-of expensive restaurant we sometimes go to when my grandmother can get double air miles by eating there. The food is good enough, but I'm really in it for the apple crisp with cinnamon ice cream. Priorities, right? I mean, that was totally the highlight of the night. And while, admittedly, food is often a highlight for me, the problem here was that I really didn't like the play.

Anyway, it's not that I didn't know that Desire Under the Elms is a depressing play. I knew that. But it's so goddamn stagey. The dialogue, the plot, the way the actors--Carla Gugino excepted--speak . . . it all rings so false and strips the play of whatever power it might have. And the staging and set seem calculated to make the play feel less dated, but it doesn't really work. Mostly the set looks expensive and attention grabbing. Granted, it helps create a feeling of claustrophobia and heaviness, but I'm not sure it's necessary to have a giant house hovering above the stage to create that feeling. I don't know, the play as a whole wound up feeling kind of bland and tiring to me. Tedious, even.

It was one of those nights where you sit in the theater thinking what am I doing here and why are they reviving this instead of doing something new. And that's never a good feeling. Sure, Gugino is fantastic. But I would have preferred to see her be fantastic in something else.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Cezanne and Cheesesteak

A few weeks ago now I went to Philadelphia with friends to see the Cezanne exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The only place in Philly that I'd ever spent any time was the train station so when a friend said asked me if I wanted to join them on their trip down I jumped at the chance. 
You couldn't have asked for a better day to see a new city either--the weather was absolutely gorgeous. You could, however, ask for slightly better planning on our part. By the time we got to the museum the earliest available tickets to the Cezanne exhibit were for around 4:00. Which was pretty much the time we were planning on leaving Philly. Oops.

We spent the morning wandering around the museum--which is fantastic and worth the trip on its own--and then took a break from the high culture stuff by getting cheesesteaks for lunch. These places--Pat's and Geno's--had been featured on a TV show (I didn't see it) and are right across the street from each other. So we had to try both in a not-terribly-formal taste test. 

Pat's is the very old-school, no-frills looking place:

Geno's is all bright orange and neon:

Never having had a cheesesteak before that day (or cheez wiz for that matter) I'm not at all qualified to judge. But if I were to go back, I'd probably go to Pat's.

After we'd finished eating it was finally time to go back to the museum and actually get in line at the art museum for the Cezanne exhibit. The long line.

Happily it was a good enough exhibit to make that worthwhile. I'd seen paintings by Cezanne before, of course, and liked them well enough but I can't say I'd ever given him much thought or considered how he might have influenced other artists. But this show did a great--if extremely literal--job of illustrating his influence on later artists, some of whom appear at first glance to be very different from him. And was just the right length. Sometimes these art shows are so long that you're just dead on your feet at the end. This one felt complete without taking you to that point. And had a very good audio guide to boot. Totally worth seeing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

PEN World Voices: Pétér Nádas

I had originally wanted to see this "conversation" (aka interview) because Daniel Mendelsohn was supposed to be asking the questions and he's such an interesting critic. As it turned out though he wasn't able to make it, and unfortunately I didn't catch the name of the woman who was pinch hitting for him. I'd never heard of Pétér Nádas before but learning about authors you've never heard anything about is kind of one of the things that makes the PEN festival fun. 

Anyway the interviewer began by asking Nádas how much of his own life experience showed up in his writing and also asked him to speak about confession and memory. Nádas--who spoke through an interpreter--explained that he uses his own life as a "point of orientation," and that his aim was navigating between imagination and reality without going into port on either side. His own life, he said, was an important element but only as a mechanism of control. Something that allows him to check whether the products of his imagination are "acceptable." The character then is not him but also not entirely imaginary. "An imagined common."

The interviewer then asked if he was searching for Truth, and if imagination got him closer to that than his own reality did. Nádas said that he was searching for something more "object-like. Declarative." And that would ideally contain elements of Truth. When the interviewer asked what that object was he provided a list that, one got the feeling, was in no way intended to be definitive. Thought...a act...a series of acts...a series of events...the entire arc of a plot...

They then talked about the intimacy and politics of his writing and the way the two intertwine. Is such intimacy exhausting? It's exhausting to live so it's also exhausting to write. He said that he didn't think his profession was more exhausting or demanding than others but also that, "things can't be pushed aside. 

She asked about the fact that his Book of Memories was held by the censors for five years and wondered if maintaining a private life separate from the state was  a political act. Nádas said that it was a test of how certain things operate under a dictatorship. And also that it's hard to separate the private from the public because you, "can't just take a pair of scissors and cut." There is less space for a private life under a dictatorship and he wanted to see how much space was left for love and if the dictatorship infects even that. He was exploring whether or not love might be freedom. But it's not so. 

The interviewer then asked about the excitement of the Hungarian Revolution and, I think, if it was still exciting (I think I missed something with this question). Nádas said that there is no excitement anymore. Perhaps sadness or despair but even that not very much. He claimed that the era of revolutions has ended and "many things have ended with it." He described the Hungarian Revolution as the last European revolution and when the interviewer asked about the revolutions in the 80s and the fall of Communism he said that there was no revolution there. The Soviet Union collapsed. It wasn't even Communism that collapsed because there were no communists left and "it's hard to say that Communism collapsed without communists."

She then asked him about his decision to write explicitly about sex which is apparently atypical in Hungarian literature (having never read any Hungarian literature I wouldn't know). Nádas said that it was part of the attempt to engage the dictatorship by lending the private life authenticity. How was the homosexuality received? People wrote about the book without taking any notice, this being possible because Hungarian doesn't have gendered pronouns. He said that not a single review mentioned it but a couple alluded to it and excused him as just writing about love (which was his aim anyway). Was it easier to write about two men? No. More difficult because it was provocative. 

They spoke a little about the Hungarian language which he said was full of opportunity because it is a young literature. That in the great languages of literature it's hard to create something new. He also said that it's hard for translators because they are always looking for an "existing formula" but when you use these formulas it, "doesn't represent the object in movement. About his writing process he said that if he can't surprise himself with something in his writing then it's not a good work day. He also said that while he worked on Book of Memories in a state of great depression he, "doesn't think depression is the enemy," and while in certain professions it is probably a good thing to fight depression in his he needs to work through it. 

The interviewer than asked him about being compared to Proust and Mann. He said that the diplomatic answer is that it's a great honor and of course he has to refute it. What he actually thinks though, is that it's an easy way out for the critics and allows them to avoid analyzing his work. He said that he has explored things they did not, wrote about things they did not, forms they considered forbidden. 

This was followed by an audience question and answer session during which there was the usual parade of uselessness and self-involvement (I really hate these question and answer sessions at events like this). The one question that did elicit a particularly interesting response thought was a request to elaborate on what has been lost along with revolutions. Nádas answered that Western European and American societies are ones of opportunism. And this took the place of a quest for enlightenment. He talked about the "renunciation of the possibility that we can say something new to one another as people or artists," and said that the summit of that is post-modernism. An absence of critical thinking creates the space for this opportunism and causes the confusion between what is real and what is virtual. 

These author interviews can be kind of hit or miss. Sometimes the authors have interesting things to say about literature in general and their own writing in particular and sometimes they don't. I think you want to leave these things thinking about how you'd really like to check out so-and-so's books, but sometimes you leave them thinking, man, what a douche and that you have no interest reading anything they've written ever. So I was glad that Nádas had insightful things to say and left me more interested in reading his books rather than less. 

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Pen World Voices: Women Translating Women

I'm a totally stereotypical monolingual American. I have no natural talent whatsoever for languages and instead of struggling through it I took Latin in high school and college because I figured then I wouldn't have to try and speak in another language. Which was, as it turned out, and accurate assumption. But also not a great decision, all in all. 

Anyway, this is all to say that I think one of the reasons translation fascinates me is because I can't do it myself. Good translations seem like alchemy. So I was hoping PEN's panel on women translating women would be particularly interesting. But for the most part it wasn't particularly. Some of what the translators had to say about translating from gendered languages to English was neat but it didn't necessarily seem particular to translating the work of women and for the most part I didn't feel like having a panel of female translators brought all that much to the table that a more general panel wouldn't also have brought. And I think maybe that's at the root of the fascination for me since it's something I could never do.

Still though, once I revised my expectations I did enjoy the panel. Esther Allen talked about the way in which translation lets you, "leap beyond what you are in everyday life," and, "posits that we are not limited by our present context," which is something I had never thought about before. Because who you are physically becomes irrelevant a translator can transform him or herself into someone he or she could never otherwise be or pretend to be. 

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Enchantress of Florence

This seems to be a polarizing book. The people who hate it--and they are numerous--really, really loathe it. The New York Times review said that the novel, "revels in writerly self-congratulation," and even if you, like me, wind up liking it, I don't think you can argue with that. That Rushdie is a flashy writer isn't a surprise at this point. He likes to show off, to pull literary tricks our of his hat, to draw attention to just how good he is. That's a feature of even his best books like Midnight's Children and there it's a part of what makes it a great novel. But here there's no restraint and it leads to a book that's fun but horribly overwritten.

The real problem with this--setting aside the eye-rolling moments--is that it's all surface. There's a lot going on but nothing getting done and you don't really give a shit about the characters or what happens to them. So I guess how much you like the book depends on how much you care about that.