Sunday, July 17, 2011

Cynthia Ozick – ‘Foreign Bodies’

Paris in the 1950s. An American family settled in California, the father having made a fortune by marriage and then business. Marvin Nachtigall is practical, a scientist by education, and doesn’t hold with music, novels, or anything that doesn’t advance one in some solid, demonstrable way. He is intolerable both as husband and father, driving his wife to an asylum, and his two children to Paris, which as far as he is concerned are roughly equivalent. Because Paris in the ’50s, as everyone knows, was not so much a city as a playground for American rich kids who wanted to forget about the hard work that earned their money and indulge their artistic side. Julian, the son, has this chat-up line, ‘So which one are you, Gertrude or Alice?’, and at first inspires the contempt of Lili, who will soon become his wife:
Paris was infested with these imitation baby Sartres and Gides sitting in cafés over their inky manuscripts, an apéritif placed just so at the nearest knuckle to authenticate the parody (p. 101)
Just like The Magnetic Fields’ ‘I Don’t Want to Get Over You’ – ‘I could dress in black and read Camus / Smoke clove cigarettes and drink vermouth’. It’s a cliché, as both song and novel know, and the problem with the novel is that it coasts along on this cliché, describing but never escaping it.

In The Guardian recently, Ozick was candid about the inspiration for Leo Coopersmith, the composer and ex-husband of Marvin’s sister Bea. ‘“Yes, it’s a snow job,” she says. “Bullshit. It’s just a transposition of one kind of passion to another.”’ Some kind of false modesty double bluff, perhaps? But it turns out to be entirely accurate. There is some mighty clunky imagery, for a start – a grand piano left by Leo in Bea’s New York apartment after their brief marriage, which takes up practically all of the living room, for twenty years. Bea herself can’t play, has no musical aptitude at all, but has the piano tuned regularly, keeps it polished. She never touches the keyboard. Her niece, Iris, staying with her overnight before going on to Julian in Paris, hits a single key, causing consternation and reverberations for her aunt. She, in turn, hits a larger selection of notes on Leo’s current piano, improbably opening his ears:
How had she done it, how exactly had those polyphonic antiphons, if that’s what they were, come into being, and from no recognizable system – what could you call that sound? When he tried to imagine it (he was always trying), it was scarcely stable, it was a fleeting exultation, or else a hideous hollow, like an anus, or a growly scrabbling of animal claws. (p. 179)
I don’t think there is a musical version of the Bad Sex in Fiction award, but if there were, Foreign Bodies would do pretty well. The bit about the ‘tender secret testicles that lurked like darkened planets between his legs’ might win both. The resulting symphony, The Nightingale’s Thorn, is in B minor, causing Bea to wonder, ‘Bea minor, is that what he meant?’ I am not making this up.

Of course, I could be missing the point*. Foreign Bodies is a re-imagining of Henry James’ The Ambassadors, which I haven’t read. Bea is Marvin’s ambassador in the sense that she is supposed to bring Julian and Iris home from Paris. She is always hiding bits of information in both directions, which sounds like good ambassadorial behaviour – sometimes to keep the peace, and sometimes in accordance with her own agenda. It isn’t much of an agenda really – she wants to keep Marvin at a distance (just as Julian and Iris do), and she wants some kind of re-acquaintance with Leo, though she doesn’t want him back. The grand piano finally gone from her apartment, and his symphony on her table (she can’t read it, of course), she ends the novel in a better position, psychologically speaking, than she started out with. But it isn’t nearly enough.


* From the Guardian piece, here is the point I missed: ‘Foreign Bodies is, Ozick has said, a sort of inversion of James’s The Ambassadors, in which Americans in Paris are charmed and restored by the European sensibility. In Ozick’s telling, they encounter a postwar city of dark, grim truths.’

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Terry Castle – ‘The Professor and Other Writings’

I came to this via a review in n+1 magazine, which first published some of the chapters which make up Elif Batuman’s The Possessed. Grouped together with a couple of populist manifestos defending the humanities disciplines and their currently imperilled funding, it was recommended as a ‘less abstract’ take on the same subject, demonstrating ‘in intimate terms why one studies in the humanities, what it feels like to do so, and how doing so changes the way one feels.’ That sounded a lot like The Possessed itself (is academic memoir a new genre?), but actually there are more differences than similarities. Castle, in her fifties, is looking back from a later stage in her career than the thirty-something Batuman; the focus is much more on the personal, with academia a necessary backdrop (lesbian social trends join it here); Castle is a more nervy presence, Batuman’s languor is replaced with an urgency which is less charming, but – here’s the trade off – more vital. I was pleased to note that she is a fan of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, but when her boom box fails to work during a long drive home to San Diego for Christmas, she doesn’t react well to not being able to play it (or any of her other CDs). Bev, her ex, is driving, and all she has are...
Tapes! I glared at her and peered into the shoebox of dusty old cassettes in the trunk. Could I survive for ten hours solely on Sylvester, the soundtrack from The Crying Game, and The Greatest Hits of Etta James? Now, “Down in the Basement” is a major song and Etta one of the supreme live performers. Once, at a surreal outdoor concert at the Paul Masson Winery, marooned among pre-tech-stock-crash Silicon Valley yuppies dutifully sipping chardonnay, I watched her do the plumpest, most lascivious cakewalk imaginable. But I could hardly live on her for the rest of the day. I started squawking like an infuriated baby vulture.
Whilst is undeniably decent of Bev to have undertaken this long drive, my sympathy here is with Terry, and the lost oasis of ten hours spent listening to music. The list of silenced CDs is interesting, but too long to quote in full (sample: ‘…the Ramones, Astor Piazzola, Ethel Merman’s Disco Album, Magnetic Fields, Flagstad and Svanholm in Die Walkurie, Lord Kitchener and the Calypso All-Stars…’).

The first half of the book contains essays on seemingly unconnected topics (World War I, Art Pepper, Sicily, Susan Sontag, shelter magazines, Georgia O’Keeffe vs. Agnes Martin), but which are also autobiographical, and leave the reader with a pretty good idea of how Castle spent her early life, and how she lives now. Her family was messed up enough to give her something to run from, into the arms of academia, and ultimately Blakey, whom she married in the brief window allowed by California state law (how crazy is that?). The essays get progressively less edgy, at least after the Sontag one, and my enthusiasm began to wane a little; I wondered whether their chattiness wasn’t overdone (e.g. referring to Wikipedia as ‘the Wikster’, or the bit about rubber stamp collecting), and whether I was after all going to follow up reading The Professor with Art Pepper’s Straight Life, Castle’s favourite book, which had certainly been the plan during the chapter about him, ‘My Heroin Christmas’.

This tailing off – or settling down – strikes me now as deliberate: Castle wants to ease the reader gently into the long final chapter, ‘The Professor’, a reminiscence covering what has hitherto been skirted around, an episode which was plainly the most painful part of her early life, notwithstanding the broken home; the unsettling migrations between England and the States after the parental break-up; the suicide of her half-brother, the violent, unknowable Jeff; the loneliness of bookish teenage years (she is merciless on her younger self’s delusion that hard work would make her popular). It’s a love affair, and it is messy. It is with one of two gay professors at the college Castle attends to do her Ph.D. on eighteenth century literature, one of whom, Jo, is openly gay, unmysterious, approachable, involved in local women’s groups. The other – unnamed here, always ‘the Professor’ – hides her sexual orientation, and has no truck with the politicisation of sexuality. Which has its appeal: ‘The Closet, all of a sudden, turned out to be fantastically exciting – far more so in fact than Destroying the Patriarchy’. The trouble is, the relationship is too exciting: the disparity in age, confidence and social position between the two women mean that the one with the power would have needed to secede it – would need to be as kindly as Jo – to give them any chance of staying together.
The Professor had problems of her own, it would turn out – manifest above all in a steely, seemingly insatiable appetite for emotional control. Combined with my own equally insatiable desire – to be taken care of – the result was near-instant psychic mayhem. The Professor became cruel; I succumbed to a kind of Sapphic Stockholm syndrome.
So Terry quickly becomes a doormat, the Professor begins to take other lovers within weeks, and it is all hopelessly sad. I guess – though it’s been a long time – I recognise the feeling of being completely seized up and devoted, fighting against the influence which is all that seems to matter. How could you be so cruel? Is the wrong question. How do I get away? The one you’re too blind to see. This is Terry’s nadir:
once or twice I couldn’t help it: I blurted out that I felt bad when the Professor slept with Molly. My own failing, of course, but yes, okay – I do feel a tiny bit hurt…. Such dazed admissions typically prompted indignation in her, followed by self-recrimination on my part. (I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m so so sorry, etc., etc.)
Poor, poor thing. But what an incredible book.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Welcome to Japanese New Music Festival!

It is possible that the picture in this post isn’t typical of how tidy my flat usually is. That may even be true of the table itself, actually. But I do tidy up sometimes, and today I’ve been going through some minidiscs, with the idea that if I put the recordings on a hard drive I’ll claw back half a drawer of storage. The recordings I’ve copied today all come from a 2003 music / film event at Dundee Contemporary Arts, and whilst I was expecting to – and did – enjoy Ira Cohen’s gonzo poetry rant (it turns out he died recently, sad to hear that), I’d forgotten all about Ruins’ set, which began with some sample based songs about a zipper, a toothbrush, a camera, and a wine cork. After that they did some longer songs which were also great, if less obviously conceptual. Here is the first third of the set – I’ve never heard anything else like it.

Ruins at Kill Your Timid Notion, DCA, Dundee, 19th Oct 2003 by steamboatbill

Blog archive