Monday, July 27, 2009

Ian McEwan

I came late to Ian McEwan’s writing, but I finally have to admit that I’m a big fan. I’ve just read my third McEwan novel – I devoured it in about 24 hours – the short, concisely plotted Amsterdam (1998), and have been filled with admiration for McEwan’s ingenuity at creating the perfect blend of satire, surprise, and keen observation of the human psyche. Previously I read Enduring Love (1997) and Atonement (2001), and have found all his novels equally compelling.

It’s also rather breathtaking to consider how many of his novels have been translated into film – Atonement, Enduring Love, The Comfort of Strangers, and The Cement Garden – in addition to his authorship of original screenplays (The Good Son and others). Taken together, his novels and screenplays represent a world that is, to use my friend Amy’s word, unnerving. In some – The Comfort of Strangers comes to mind immediately – “unnerving” is an understatement.

On reading Enduring Love last month I recognized what is not exactly a formula for McEwan’s novel, but may be more accurately described as a trope, or a technique for developing the plot: he throws together a group of people (mostly strangers), subjects them to an intense emotional experience, and then explores what happens to them (as individuals and in relationship to each other) as a result of the traumatic incident. He devotes lavish attention to setting up the situation, the emotional crucible, which is most fully developed in Atonement: the climactic event – the rape of a visiting young cousin – is preceded by the description of one day’s events which takes up practically the first half of this novel. In Enduring Love, the first chapter was described by one critic as the best first chapter of any novel he’d ever read.

The characters McEwan throws together are either complete strangers or a mix of strangers and intimates. In The Comfort of Strangers they are two couples; in Amsterdam they are four men whose connection is that they all loved the same woman (the glamorous Molly, whom we never meet – the story begins with her funeral). Two are best friends, but all four are rivals.

McEwan explores consequences, the effects of events upon individuals’ emotional and psychological states. He’s interested in perceptions: the differences among different people’s perceptions of an event, the subjectivity (and hence unreliability) of perceptions, and the way our perceptions color our responses and reactions. Perception may be unreliable and sometimes completely wrong, but we are trapped within our own perceptual boundaries; perception is all we have for understanding our world, our relationships, our lives.

Another common feature of McEwan’s novels is that they always end up being about something completely different from what the reader initially thinks they’re going to be about. By the end of the novel, the main character is doing something that would have been wholly unthinkable at the beginning of the novel, yet McEwan takes them (and us) there in a convincing manner.

McEwan is interested in the darker sides of the human psyche. Sometimes this takes the form of extreme sexual perversity, but more often it’s an exploration of jealousy, obsession, delusions of grandeur, rationalization, selfishness, malice. He presents moral and ethical dilemmas, and his characters’ failure to act nobly. My, how they rationalize their behavior! Only in Atonement does the main character display remorse over her action and its dire, irreversible consequences.

As it happens, one of my first posts on this blog was a review of Atonement; here I will say a few words about the other two McEwan novels I’ve read recently:

Enduring Love

This novel is about something called “de Clérambault’s syndrome,” or erotomania, and includes as an appendix an article on the syndrome published in the British Review of Psychiatry. It’s very well researched, and in fact is based on the true story described in BRP. Initially I thought it might turn out to be like the film Notes on a Scandal (based on the novel What Was She Thinking? By Zoe Heller), with an unreliable narrator, but it wasn’t at all.

Coincidentally, erotomania is the subject of the French film He Loves Me…He Loves Me Not, starring Audrey Tautou, which is one of my favorite films. (See my review of He Loves Me...He Loves Me Not elsewhere on this blog.)


This is the shortest and funniest of the three McEwan novels I’ve read, and it won the Booker Prize in 1998. It’s a work of biting satire in which McEwan ridicules politicians, journalists, and bohemian artsy types. The rivalry among four men involved with one woman reminded me too of The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s 1943 novel about four men, three of whom are involved (successively) with one woman. The Fountainhead is not a work of satire by any means – it’s more like an allegory of capitalism in which each of the men represents a different political ideology. Like Amsterdam, The Fountainhead’s cast of characters includes a publisher and an artist (the architect Howard Roarke). Other than that, Amsterdam and The Fountainhead have nothing in common; Ayn Rand has virtually no sense of humor, but she does write a compelling tale.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

"Rambling" - a poem by Mescal Hornbeck

(This poem was written by my grandmother, Mescal Hornbeck, who turned 98 last month. Mescal is an active writer of poetry, essays, and letters to the editor of the local papers. She lives in Woodstock, New York. When I asked her if I could publish this poem on my blog, she agreed, and commented on what a funny word "blog" is. Then she said "I'd rather be blogged than flogged!")


If God created the universe
Who created God?
If the world BEGAN with those
Wee microscopic elements
Where did they come from?
Must we know
What and where the things
We see came to be?
Pain and futility
Are what we’ll get
And little joy if
We can’t be content
Just to be, feel, and see.
Aha, I know
Where God came from!!!
Because man has always
Thought that there just has to be
A cause for everything
He believed there had to be
A cause for you and me.
And so man invented God.
In Man’s own image
Invented he Him.
Unable to see that
Some things that be are
Quite inexplicable
For instance, do you really know
What makes the things
We do happen?
Can you possibly explain
What invisible force
Causes a man and woman
To Suddenly feel a strong
Magnetic pulling together?
And this does happen to
Any couple of people.
And none can say they just know
When the two happen to be
The same gender it is
Because they decided it
It should be that way,
As if their minds
Made the decision.
Not believing some things are mysteries.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Don Giovanni at the Komische Oper in Berlin

On Monday night I had the pleasure of attending the most unusual opera production I’ve ever seen: Don Giovanni at Berlin’s Komische Oper. Berlin is famous for experimental opera productions, and this is the first one I’ve been to. I was blown away.

As a disclaimer, let me say that I have never written an opera review before. I’m no expert on opera, but I do enjoy the medium, and Don Giovanni is my favorite opera of all. This was my fourth time to see Don Giovanni, which is one of the few operas I’ve seen more than once (and the only one I’ve seen more than twice). I used to listen to it all the time on CD, back when I lived in Southern California and spent a LOT of time in my car. In other words, I know this opera extremely well, which is why I feel qualified to write about it. At least, that is, I know the version with the Italian libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte; I can even sing along with some of the arias. If you are not so familiar with the plot of Don Giovanni, you can go to this Wikipedia link to read a synopsis of the plot.

I realize that saying Don Giovanni is your favorite opera is sort of like saying the Mona Lisa is your favorite painting; noone can really question its excellence, but it’s not a very unique or original preference, either. Mozart is my favorite composer – also not an original preference at all, but by no means universal. My mother’s favorite opera composer is Puccini, but I find his stuff too melodramatic. One thing I like about Mozart’s operas is the humor. But above all, I love the music.

The Berlin Don Giovanni was not like any other production I’ve seen. Even though it used Mozart’s music, it had a different libretto which gave the plot a significantly different nuance – enough to really question the moral implications of the plot as it’s been traditionally understood.

Most importantly, the singing was fabulous. Carsten Sabrowski as Leporello was magnificent; in fact, all of the cast were fantastic. Dietrich Henschel as Don Giovanni brought an amazing amount of energy to the stage. The women were fantastic too, especially Erika Roos (Donna Anna) and Elisabeth Starzinger (Donna Elvira). I loved every minute of it.
Where do I begin to describe this production? I think a list might be the best approach:

1. The Berlin production was not sung in Italian, much to my initial dismay. It was sung in German, and this was the first occasion on which I really, really wished I could understand German. The German text was written by Bettina Bartz and Werner Hintze.

2. This was NOT a period piece. Most opera productions I’ve seen use period costumes (18th century in Mozart’s case) and at least minimal furniture and props to resemble rooms, streets, etc. Here the costumes were all late-20th-century suits and dresses, and there were hardly any sets at all. Most of the characters wore black or varying shades of gray, except for Don Giovanni, who wore all white with a saffron-yellow cape. He was also barefoot. The suits, I guess, were supposed to make the characters resemble mobsters; there were also a lot of guns. The characters all had sunglasses too.

3. There was a giant revolving stage, with two sort of triangular “walls” that moved constantly to obscure and reveal different scenes and characters. Above was an enormous circular contraption with all the lights, which moved; I can’t really describe it, but I took some photos with my cell phone that give you an idea of how big this thing was and how it worked. It reminded me of the spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

(Note on the photos: many of these – the good ones, where you can see the performers close up – are photos from the program; others are from my cell phone, and I’m sure you can tell which ones those are, i.e., the small and poor-quality photos.)

4. There was an interesting and unconventional framing device, in which three actors appeared onstage during the overture. These were NOT part of the opera’s singing cast, and their performance was done completely in pantomime. Their scene was the only part of the opera with period costumes. First there were just two actors: a boy (the young Mozart) seated at the harpsichord and banging silently away on it; and the tyrannical father standing over him at his lesson. Their interaction begins before the overture begins; then the father suddenly turns on the boy very aggressively, and that’s when the overture begins with its super-dramatic opening chords. The boy then throws open the harpsichord case, and a woman in a white sleeping gown, her head wrapped in a white turban, emerges from the instrument as if from a coffin and protectively takes the boy away from his violent father.

Critics have often remarked that the unforgiving character of the Commendatore in Don Giovanni, whose role in the opera is to punish the wayward young man, represented Mozart’s father; but this is the first time I’ve actually seen Don Giovanni staged in such a way as to foreground that Freudian reading.

5. The opera’s opening scene is quite dramatic – while Don Giovanni’s servant Leporello is standing guard, Don Giovanni himself (better known by his Spanish name, Don Juan) is seducing Donna Anna.

According to Mozart and Da Ponte, Don Giovanni is pretending to be her fiancé, Don Ottavio, and since it’s a dark room she supposedly can’t tell the difference. When Donna Anna discovers that it’s not Don Ottavio, she shouts (i.e., sings), and her father, the Commendatore, comes to her rescue. As he defends his daughter’s honor in a sword fight with the intruder and would-be rapist, he is killed by Don Giovanni, thus setting in motion the revenge plot in which Donna Anna and Don Ottavio pursue her father’s murderer.

In the Berlin production, however, Donna Anna clearly KNOWS this is not Don Ottavio, yet she is sleeping with the seducer anyway. And the father, rather than trying to kill Don Giovanni, is about to beat his daughter with his cane. Don Giovanni kills him in order to protect Donna Anna. Thus the moral implications of the original plot are turned on their heads – Don Giovanni is not such a cad, Donna Anna is not so pure, and the Commendatore isn’t such a great guy either.

Really, this makes a lot more sense; I’ve always wondered about the strict moral tone of the original opera – its judgmental and moralistic aspects have always seemed incongruous with Mozart’s own personality and his life.

6. There’s a lot of skin in this production of Don Giovanni. And a lot of stripping. In fact, taking clothes off, then putting clothes back on so you can later take them off again, is one of the main onstange activities after singing. Clothes are the primary props in this staging of the opera.

Left: Donna Elvira in a black lace teddy

This version of Don Giovanni is, overall, much more sensual than any traditional opera. The sexuality that is at the core of the Don Juan story is made much more explicit and more believable in this production. In fact, Da Ponte’s “wedding party” is, in the Berlin production, an orgy. There’s even a pole for pole-dancing in the Don’s living room.
Don Giovanni himself, played/sung by Dietrich Henschel, exudes a writhing sexuality and animal magnetism that the women in the story can’t resist. His appeal is necessary for a legendary seducer who has, according to the so-called “Catalogue Aria,” bedded 2065 women (plus a few more by the end of the opera).
Above: At the wedding party / orgy, Masetto (the bridegroom) is being dressed in a black bra by Leporello.
Below: Don Giovanni coming between the bride and groom (Zerlina and Masetto).

7. Then there are the guns. In the second act, the performance takes a major departure from tradition; five characters get shot, beginning with Masetto (the bridegroom). His bride, Zerlina, sings her love song to his corpse. In traditional stagings of the opera, it always seemed a bit awkward to have Masetto on stage being sung to, not singing anything himself, and serving as a living prop in Zerlina’s performance. In this production, his role is a whole lot easier – lying there dead while she sings to him. It makes sense, in a way; if he’s not actually doing anything or singing anything, he might as well be dead, right?

In another dramatic departure, Don Ottavio is singing his climactic aria when Donna Anna shoots him in the back. (In this production she never really seems to like him very much anyway.) He doesn’t fall down, he just stops singing and launches into a lengthy spoken monologue. Unfortunately it was in German, so I had no idea what he was going on about; I’m sure it shed some light onto the strange interpretation of the opera that we were witnessing. Then he finishes singing the aria.

Need I point out that there are no guns in the Mozart / Da Ponte version of Don Giovanni? Especially not handguns. And these characters – Masetto, Zerlina, Leporello, and Don Ottavio – do NOT get killed in the original opera. (I know there was a fifth one, but now can’t recall which character it was.)

8. And THEN, all those characters who got shot and killed REAPPEAR onstage to perform their roles. But it’s not as if nothing had happened. In fact, when Don Giovanni brings the Commendatore home (somehow not realizing it’s a ghost sent to punish him), the rest of the cast (including the large chorus) reappear onstage wearing light gray suits; instead of Don Giovanni being pulled down into hell, he is dressed in light gray suit by the rest of the cast, who, we can safely assume, are themselves dead and residing in the underworld to which Don Giovanni is being brought.

ALL of the cast are in that underworld of punishment – Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, etc. etc. It’s not just Don Giovanni who is condemned for his crimes, his sins, and punished; it seems that everyone is in for some share of blame. But it also seems more like a party than a punishment. Donna Elvira pulls a camera out of her backpack and takes photos of people posing with Don Giovanni and each other.

It’s all a bit crazy. But then, isn’t opera already a bit crazy? I think Mozart himself would have approved of this production.


Musical Director -- Kimbo Ishii-Eto
Don Giovanni -- Dietrich Henschel
Donna Anna -- Erika Roos
Don Ottavio -- Adrian Strooper
Il Commendatore -- Hans-Peter Scheidegger
Donna Elvira -- Elisabeth Starzinger
Leporello -- Carsten Sabrowski
Masetto -- Ingo Witzke
Zerlina -- Olivia Vermeulen

Left: Don Giovanni in - what? - opera underwear? I didn't know there was such a thing.
Final Note: I attended Don Giovanni with our friend John Evelev who was visiting from Missouri. I have to thank my wonderful husband who made the whole evening possible, because he stayed home with our son because we couldn't get a babysitter. He even paid for my ticket!

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Living in a Windmill

During our week in Brittany, we drove numerous times along the coast between Cancale and about halfway to Mont-St.-Michel before heading away from the coast towards our tiny village of Bazouge-la-Perouse, east of Combourg. On this rocky, windy coastline were countless windmills, or I should say former windmills, most of which had been successfully transformed into houses or other useful purposes. According to our guidebook, The Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy, a century ago Brittany had five thousand working windmills. That's right, five thousand. So it's not surprising that some of them have survived into the age of nuclear power in France and have been refunctioned.

It makes complete sense that these buildings should continue to have a useful life. I mean, they are solidly built stone structures that could endure indefinitely. It's nice to see that they haven't been allowed to turn into ruins (though I do like ruins).

Driving past them day after day I began to appreciate the myriad ways in which they had been transformed. Most simply have had a conical roof applied to them, as below:

In this photo notice the miniature windmill standing in front of the house. It's not a mailbox, just a lawn ornament of a sort: [ha ha! as if the French would have anything so tacky as a lawn ornament!]

Other windmills have had rooms added onto them; here you can see the addition in the rear:

This one is my favorite: made to look really grand (for a former windmill), it has symmetrical exterior staircases on either side of the enlarged entryway; an enormous addition on one side; and even a balustrade around the roof so to create another level of usable space:

Now if only I could figure out how to get invited inside one of these fantastic structures...

Roches Sculptées (Sculpted Rocks) in Brittany

Why do people make art? With so many kinds of art having been produced for practically all of human history and prehistory, there clearly have been a variety of reasons to explain the evidently universal human urge towards creative expression. I’m always intrigued by these sort of crackpot artists who work in relative isolation for years or even decades to realize a vision that is neither financially profitable nor tied in with the artistic trends and movements of the day; I think of Simon Rodia with his Watts Towers, or Harvey Fite with his Opus 40. (I use the word “crackpot” as a term of endearment, not in any pejorative sense.) The most recent example I’ve found is the site known as Roches Sculptées (Sculpted Rocks) on the north coast of Brittany.

The three of us spent a week in Brittany in April, but I haven’t had the opportunity until now to blog about our experiences there. So in a way this is sort of a “backblog,” since we were there three months ago, but better late than never.

The Sculpted Rocks are located just inside the eastern end of St.-Malo’s city limits as you’re driving east towards Pointe du Grouin and Cancale. The Breton coast is famously austere, rocky, and forbidding; the views both of the coast and from the coast are breathtakingly sublime. It's not like it needs any human intervention to be of interest; however, the sculpting of the existing landscape could actually be the only kind of artistic intervention that belongs in such an environment.

According to The Rough Guide to Brittany and Normandy,

The hermit priest Abbé Fouré spent 25 years, from the 1870s onwards, carving these jumbled boulders into the forms of dragons, giants and assorted sea monsters. Perched on a rocky promontory high above the water line, they’re quite weathered now, and not all compelling in themselves, but with the town well out of sight this makes an appealing spot to stop and admire the coastline.”

Dodo Love

Dodos are making a big comeback. I'm not talking about attempts to clone or to breed an extinct species; but I am noticing that they play a big role in the public imagination. Their images are everywhere. According to Wikipedia, it has been extinct since the mid- to late-17th century. They were also popular in the Victorian period, as suggested by the Dodo being a fictional character in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

I love dodos; I guess that makes me a big dodohead. What other animal is so patently ridiculous-looking, so awkward, so improbable? A close relative of the modern pigeon, the dodo weighed up to 50 pounds! Thank goodness pigeons don't take after them in that respect. However, our image of the dodo as a fat clumsy bird are based on those specimens that became obese in captivity because they were overfed; in the wild, scientists think they were probably not as rolly-polly.

Dodos lived exclusively on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar. Their extinction came about as a result of European exploration -- not just from hunting, but from destruction of habitat and the introduction of non-native predatory animals.

Above: Museum of Natural History, Berlin (part of the exhibit on taxidermy)

Above: Eli's drawing of a dodo bird, February 16, 2009

Above: Dodo drawing at the "Dodo Manege" carousel in Paris

Above: Dodo on the "Dodo Manege" carousel of extinct animals in Paris at the Jardin des Plantes (see my blog entry about the carousel)

Above: Drawing of a dodo by Roelandt Savery, 1626

Above: The Dodo in the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland
Below: Edward Lear's drawing of the Dodo for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland