Sunday, December 14, 2014

BOOKS ARE NOT PRODUCTS: Reflections on Reading Bad Reviews of Classic Books On-Line


I recently confronted someone on one of these endless book review sites (Goodreads, etc.) who gave Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a 1-star review.  The review consisted of little more than an expression of annoyance that she had even picked up the book; it was boring, it had no interesting characters, and worse still, it wasn’t even scary!  She dismissed it with a one-star review and warned others not to bother with it, since she had no idea why people considered it a classic.  I asked her if she didn’t think it was a bit harsh to give a book that had survived well over a century and was beloved by millions (and had created a cultural myth that had given rise to countless copycats, such as The Hulk) a mere one-star.  The reviewer hotly responded that it was “her right” to give the book one-star, and that “you can’t censor my reviews!”  She went on to say that “I hardly think I’m going to hurt Stevenson’s book sales, so what does it matter?”  Clearly, my “attack” on her (as she called it) was based more on capitalism than aesthetics: once assured that his books would continue to sell, and make money for his estate, I should rest easy and withdraw my petty scruples about damaging the book’s reputation.  Isn’t it all about money, after all?  Clearly that’s what pissed her off so much...that she had spent, what, a few bucks for the book (or the e-book) of the novel only to be so bitterly disappointed?

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Prokofiev’s Symphonies: A Cycle for the Ages?


In classical music we refer to Beethoven’s Nine Symphonies, or Schumann or Brahms’ Four, or the Nine of Bruckner or Mahler.  To a lesser extent, the Seven of Sibelius are invoked, or the Fifteen of Shostakovich, the Three of Rachmaninov, or the Nine of Dvorak (though almost no one plays the first four).  Then there are composers who despite writing a good deal of symphonies, never composed a true “cycle” in the Romantic sense.  For many critics, a composer’s symphonies need to have some kind of consistency or development which makes them all of a piece, each one building on the other or reaching to some immeasurable height.  Beethoven’s Nine are all great statements, even the early, Mozartian ones; this is certainly true of Bruckner’s massive essays in symphonic form, as each one attempts to take up the struggle where Beethoven’s Ninth left off. So what do we do with someone like Prokofiev, who wrote seven magnificent, eccentric, erratic works which often defy categorization and are almost never played (and rarely recorded as a set).  Can we approach his symphonies are a cycle, though his approach to symphonic writing was haphazard and often blatantly theatrical (as several works borrow from his stage music)?  Or even more to the point, does a cycle have to consist of equally popular and lasting works, or can some have almost no identity outside of the cycle itself?  Here’s a quick look at Prokofiev’s seven—er, seven and a half—symphonies and why they should be considered as a cycle in their own right, as well as magnificent compositions individually. 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Precusors to Comics: The Art of Franz Masereel


FRANZ MASEREEL

Considered the greatest twentieth-century master of the woodcut, and by many as the grandfather of the graphic novel, Franz Masereel (1889-1972) was born in Belgium and lived throughout Europe in the years before WWI.  Honing his craft as a graphic artist in various journals, Masereel perfected an expressionist style influenced by contemporaries such as Delaunay, Braque, and Marc.  Additionally, his literary influences can be seen in the numerous illustrations he did for authors such as Thomas Mann, Stephen Sweig, and Emile Zola.  Masereel emerged as a pacifist in WWI with strong Communist sympathies—ideals embodied in his most ambitious works, his so-called “novels” in woodcuts.  These works tell visual narratives about capitalism, man’s isolation in his modern metropolis, the decadence of the bourgeois, and the rising might of the proletariat.  His most famous works are A Passionate Journey (1919), an allegorical narrative of modern man’s existence, and The City, a “vision in woodcuts,” which documents the decline and eventual fall of a Berlin-like metropolis.  Though he sided with no one political movement, his works were warmly championed by Socialists and banned by the rising Nazi movement (forcing him to flee Paris on the eve of the Nazi occupation).  However, his humanity and sheer artistic appeal make it impossible to read his works as propaganda.  The pioneering graphic novelist Will Eisner (The Spirit, A Contract With God) cited him as a seminal influence on his work, and one of the first true visionaries of the comic book form—though he never viewed his work in this medium.  His influence has been further cited by notable comic book critic, Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics), and undoubtedly influenced Marjane Satrapi’s woodcut-style drawings in Persepolis I & II.  

Monday, November 10, 2014

"I thought myself very rich in Subjects": Re-Reading Defoe's Robinson Crusoe


“I thought myself very rich in Subjects”: Re-Reading Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

Robinson Crusoe is a book everyone sort of knows, perhaps more for the man than for his book.  The central myth of the shipwrecked Englishman, forced to reconstruct society from the debris of a dashed vessel, appeals to a deep, secret well of childhood within us all.  For this reason, the 18th century virtually adopted it as a children’s book, with writers such as Rousseau suggesting it should be the first and perhaps only book in a child’s library.  Partly this was to inspire the imagination with bold, noble deeds of self-sufficiency, but also because the book spoke so clearly and directly to all men.  Writing in 1822, Charles Lamb noted that Defoe’s manner of writing “is in imitation of the common people’s way of speaking, or rather of the way in which they are addressed by a master of mistress, who wishes to impress something upon their memories, and has a wonderful effect upon matter-of-fact readers.”  For generations, this ability to speak to common people of a common man who did uncommon deeds assured its literary immortality.  Only later, toward the 20th century, did readers begin to draw back from its unrelenting “matter-of-fact” tone, and its inability (to paraphrase Dickens) to make readers either laugh or cry.  In a book that promised exotic landscapes, strange peoples, and the occasional scrape with pirates, Defoe merely gives us lists of seeds planted, gold discovered, and natives slain.  Pirates of the Caribbean it most decidedly is not. 

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Forgotten Russian: The Music of Anton Rubinstein




The Forgotten Russian: The Music of Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)

“Russians call me German, Germans call me Russian, Jews call me a Christian, Christians a Jew. Pianists call me a composer, composers call me a pianist. The classicists think me a futurist, and the futurists call me a reactionary. My conclusion is that I am neither fish nor fowl—a pitiful individual” (Anton Rubinstein)

History is like a great wave crashing down on the sandcastle of art: for a moment, everything is obscured, but once it begins to recede, a few details of the castle remain—a tower, perhaps, standing tall against the ruins of time.  Our moment of time is like the wave; we can’t really tell what will survive and what will perish.  Only with the passing of time can we recognize art that continues to speak to us, with a voice that even hundreds of years later we can understand.  However, this metaphor leaves one important detail out: the castle can be rebuilt.  With art, the reconstruction is simple; discovering the work of one ‘survivor’ often leads to curiosity about his/her contemporaries, whose works may have been washed away into the ocean of time.  Yet most of these works remain, buried quite shallowly in the sand.  A simple plastic shovel (and in our time, the wonders of the internet) is all that is required to earth the treasure trove of riches lying scattered at our feet.  And what riches!  The ocean, it seems, is quite fickle and can’t really distinguish between good or bad, timeless or worthless art.  Quite often, a great work—say, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons concertos, or Aphra Benh’s Oroonoko—are uncovered after hundreds of years of neglect.  At other times, we merely find a completely enjoyable work of art that will probably disappear with the next wave.  Such a discovery is the work of Anton Rubinstein, a once celebrated composer/pianist whose memory lives on solely through his association with a much more lasting composer, Tchaikovsky. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Rutu Modan's The Property (2013), translated by Jessica Cohen


“I know why you came to Warsaw, Regina.  You came to tell me that our son is dead.” 

This statement, made by an old man to a locked hotel door, is one of the most poignant moments from Rutu Modan’s stunning graphic novel, The Property.  I’ll tell you the significance of this statement later, but first I need to give you a sense of the tremendous scope and intimacy of this novel.  It concerns a grandmother and her granddaughter traveling to Warsaw, ostensibly to go on a “survivor’s tour”—not only to see the infamous concentration camps, but also to revisit old towns and neighborhoods which were once thriving Jewish centers.  Secretly, however, the grandmother (Regina) plans to visit a man from her past, a Polish lover with whom she had a son before fleeing to Palestine in the dawn of WWII.  This man, interestingly, now lives in the apartment once occupied by her parents, possibly under dubious circumstances.  Her granddaugher, Mica, knows nothing of all this, though assumes the purpose of the trip is partially to recover her property (a lawyer wrote the family a letter about it in the 90’s, but the grandmother refused to investigate—until now). 

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Should Literature Professors Write Fiction?


When I was halfway through my MA program for Literature, a PhD student in the program gave me the following sage advice: “If you’re going to be a serious student, don’t take creative writing courses.”  Partly he meant that since you’re getting a degree on literature, you should chase one rabbit at a time.  Writing a short story is time you could be writing your MA Thesis, or drafting an article, or doing something to get you into a conference or PhD program.  However, beneath this was a threat of not being taken seriously: enrolling in a creative writing course at the MA level (for a non-creative writing MA) is amateurish.  It smacks of not being quite serious, or worse, being a dilletante.  “I would never enroll in a creative writing course,” he said, without a hint of sarcasm.  I went ahead and took the course, since it was taught by an author whose works I deeply enjoyed.  No regrets, either: I learned a lot from the course, finished my MA Thesis, and got into a halfway decent PhD program.