Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Twelve Tales in Another Town: The 7th Tale (Munich Holidays)

Anna Pultuskier

Oktoberfest Beer Tents

In 1986 I attended the Frankfurt Book Fair as I did many years throughout the 1980s and 1990s. On the Saturday that the Fair closed, I decided to pay a visit, as my then Senior Editor, Perla Karney had long encouraged, to her mother in Munich. I had not previously given much thought to the trip or I most certainly would have called her earlier; but on the very morning I was planning to set out on that journey, I now telephoned, asking whether it might be possible to visit her.

Anna Pultuskier, I was soon to discover, was a very accommodating woman, and it must have seemed impossible for her to decline the visit of her daughter's employer. She did admit, however, that she was planning a large dinner at about 2:00. Could I possibly reach their home by then? "You know, it's a holiday, Rosh Hashanah."

I was embarrassed for my inconsiderateness. "No," I admitted, "I had not known. Please, let us get together another time when you are not so occupied."

"No, no, you must come! We would love to have you. It would be a real treat to have you join us."

"But I feel like I am severely intruding," I admitted. "I have celebrated a great many Rosh Hashanah's with my companion's family," I stated, trying to help her to understand it was not my religion that was holding me off, "and I know how difficult such large events are. I'll visit you next year, and let you know beforehand."

"No! Please, you must come. It will be a great celebration for you to be there."

So, I was soon on my way to Rosh Hashanah.

Perla had told me a few things about her mother and about her experiences during and after the war. Her mother, a Russian, escaped the concentration camps; however Anna's sister and family were murdered by the Nazis as they advanced into Russia, while Anna and fourteen other family members evaded the advancing forces. With the fall of Germany, Anna, with her second husband, himself a escapee from the Warsaw Ghetto (Anna's first husband was killed as a soldier on the Russian front), became displaced persons in refugee camps in The Soviet Union (where their son Josef was born in Uzbekistan) and, ultimately in Austria and Germany, where Perla was born in Pocking, Bavaria in 1947. The family spent a year or so in an American wartime camp after liberation for protection against the German citizenry.

Their new home might be seen as anything but welcoming. In 1910 the Jewish community in Munich was at its highest level, with approximately 11,000 members. Nine years later, with the rise of anti-Semitic propaganda, the Jewish congregation, as it was called, increasingly began to fear for their lives, and in 1923, in the context of Hitler's failed coup d'état, several Jewish businessmen were taken hostage. Yet, as late as 1932 there were still as many as 68 Jewish clubs and associations throughout the city. Between 1933 and 1942 more than 7,500 Jews were forced to emigrate, while within the city synagogues and Jewish-run businesses were destroyed. In 1939 alone, for example, Jewish businesses fell from 162 to 27 at year's end. In 1942 and 1943 approximately 3,000 were murdered in the camps and en route by German soldiers. By 1944 the city claimed only 7 remaining Jewish citizens.

Despite these tragic events, so Perla told me, there was now a small, but growing Jewish community in Munich, at whose center, it appeared, was her mother, Anna, proclaimed by many to be the "Jewish mayor." Suddenly, I realized that I was speeding towards that religious center, and I was excited to have the opportunity to meet them.

I arrived relatively on time, and took a taxi to her house. I was greeted by Anna at the doorway and quickly whisked upstairs to the dining room. "We have been waiting," the slightly overweight but still beautiful woman whispered in my ear as I entered the large dining room around whose table sat 30 to 40 individuals. There were three or four children playing about the floor.

I was immediately seated at the center of this group and introduced. The whole community seemed overjoyed by my presence; perhaps they were just hungry and glad I had finally arrived. Throughout the meal, however, they seemed jovial and questioned me on my work and Perla, who I could unabashedly claim, I adored. The meal shared much in common with the ones I'd celebrated on Rosh Hashanah in Baltimore, with gefilte fish, lamb, sweet potatoes with prunes, and challah. The lamb was particularly delicious, with several small bones from which, evidently, one sucked the fat. I put one I had finished on a side plate, only to hear my host complain: "What's the matter, you don't like?" I laughed, seeing no evidence on the bone of any meat or fat remaining. It was a joyful afternoon, and one could feel the special love and devotion among all the guests, with particular attention to the few children in their midst. This was the beginning of a new generation.

Anna had seated me next to a kind gentleman who worked at one of the consulates. Over the course of the meal he told me of the group's history, of their hopes, of their plans. I felt that I was suddenly at the center of a new world, a world of possibility after so many years of despair. Most of the people in this room had had to leave, returning after the war, and they could recall all of the suffering of their families and friends.

After dinner and more wine, I was introduced to Anna's son, Perla's brother Josef, who had arrived after the affair to meet me. Josef, so I had been told, was a very successful businessman, who had bought and sold shopping centers even in the US. He was, in short, a "new German Jew," rather handsome and self-assured. For his part, he could not comprehend why his mother went to so much trouble by inviting so many people into her house. "Why couldn't she make it easier on herself? I don't like such events," he observed.

He asked me whether I had ever been to Munich's famed Oktoberfest which the city was currently celebrating. For a moment I couldn't even answer: I had forgotten about that holiday as well. "No," I admitted, about to add, "and I don't think I care to see it."

Fortunately before I had time to utter the last phrase, Josef interrupted, "I must take you there, of course!" And off we went.

It was a strange experience, fascinating to see the gigantic tents, which looked less like makeshift structures than alien-built buildings. But walking between these leviathan-sized constructions was also a slightly alienating experience, with few people to be found outside. "Here, all around, is where the drinkers come to vomit," Josef pointed out.

He explained that over the course of the several days of Oktoberfest he had to visit it several times with his employees. It was an unspoken requirement.

I couldn't determine, as we moved toward one of the largest of the tents, whether he found the event a pleasurable one or a necessary nuisance.

Suddenly we were within the large center room. Like something out of World War II movies, there was a gigantic platform filled with drinkers, with large steins of beer crashing into those of their fellow singing celebrants. A huge rotisserie stood to one side, roasting gigantic cow knuckles, while all around bosomy women carried the steins to the various rows of tables. Josef suggested we sit in another room, slightly off to the side. Was this so that we wouldn't have to encounter to slightly obnoxious scene? Was it a place of class elevation or ostracization? Or perhaps simply a quieter place to be. I couldn't read the situation or comprehend Josef's true feelings. The dinner had been so clearly revealed; this was confusing and, even, a bit frightening. I love beer and beer stubes, and German beer is among the world's very best. Inexplicably, I was uncomfortable here, and perhaps my face showed it. For a few minutes we sat in quiet.

"You know," Josef suddenly interjected, "at this moment there is also an international fashion show going on in Munich, an event attended by some of the most sophisticated figures in Europe. Would you like me to take you to a popular bar in the old center of the city?"

"Yes, I'd very much like that," I brightened.

We were soon in a very pleasant bar filled with beautiful young people, whose dress and conversations seemed light years away from the Oktoberfest. Was he happier here? I never did come to know. I had the feeling, however, that we had both been dragging along the other: he in an attempt to provide me with what any German might imagine a normal American might want to see, me in the fear of rebuffing, even recoiling from one of his city's most noted events. We both seemed to be, on the other hand, more at home in this small bar than in the gigantic shell from which we had just escaped.

Finally, I had the feeling that this highly successful new German might never completely feel at home in this city, wherever he went, while his mother, Anna, had rightfully claimed it as her own.

I encountered Anna once again on the occasion of Perla's daugher Anessa's wedding in Los Angeles. The "Jewish mayor" of Munich died in that city in 2003.

Los Angeles, Rosh Hashanah, 5764 (2003)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Facing the Cold (on the 2008 film of La Boheme)

Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa (libretto), based on Scénes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger, Giacomo Puccini (music), La Bohème
Robert Dornhelm (director), La Bohème [a film] / 2008

On Sunday, September 27, 2009, Howard and I attended a movie presentation of the opera La Bohème at the Music Hall theater in Beverly Hills.

Although my intention in this short piece is not particularly to evaluate the film or opera itself, I should mention that I found a great many of the filmic details to be quite annoying. Dornhelm's aerial flights between scenes gave the "realist" drama a kind fairy-tale like quality, as if God-in-all-his-wisdom were looking down on these poor folk, which was further enhanced by an presentation of the Latin Quarter—which in this version looked more like some Alpine village—in black and white before fading into color.

Continuity throughout the film was poor, with obviously false snowflakes alternating between blizzard and gentle snowfall in a matter of seconds. Mimi's eyes in some scenes looked less like a victim of consumption than that a prize-fight boxer who'd been terribly roughed up; yet a few seconds later her makeup lightened and she was relatively pale.

Dornhelm also presented some of the operatic duets as internal dialogues rather than sung recitatives, giving the characters a strangely mute appearance, often at the most lyrical moments of the music.

For the most part, the singing was admirable, with beautiful performances by Rolando Villazón as Rodolfo, Anna Nerebko as Mimi, and Nicole Cabell as Musetta. But why Dornhelm could not find two Baritones, Marcello and Schaunard, who could both act and sing (George von Bergen's and Adrian Eröd's performances were sung by Boaz Daniel and Stephane Degout) is beyond me. I thought every young Baritone cut his teeth on these roles? I found the lip-synching distracted.

For all that the opera was as joyful and emotionally wrenching as any La Bohème, and most of the rather geriatric audience could be observed weeping at opera's end.

Normally, I might not have even written on such a well-known chestnut, presuming there is little more to be said. Yet, given this year's selected "topic," "Facing the Heat," I could not but observe that the major tropes of this work are related; throughout the opera the characters seek, other than food and the money to purchase and sustain them, primarily only three things: heat, light, and love. Of course, love can also provide some spiritual heat and light, and light, in turn, often results in heat and, particularly in the Spring, emanations of love.

The problem for these bohemians however, one they daily face, is that they have little of the first two. Luigi Illica's and Giuseppe Giacosa's Paris has always seemed to me to be more like a Siberian settlement than the City of Light. Yes, we know it snows in Paris, and the temperature can be frigid; in January of this year, thousands of travelers were stranded at Charles DeGaulle International Airport, the Eiffel Tower was closed, and temperatures for several weeks plunged to 10 Celsius. But most would tell you that while it snows in Paris, it is not a common event. Yet the world of La Bohème is a particularly dark one, in which, so it seems, every day is a frigid challenge.

Roldolfo and his friends begin the opera singing of their cold bodies, determining to burn either the room's only chair or Marcello's new painting; Rodolfo offers up the pages of new play, which "perform" very badly. The "play," so they jest, is not one that will last. Schaunard arrives just in time, food and wood for the fireplace in hand; he has been paid for playing the piano for a parrot.

Soon after, with Rodolfo alone in the room, Mimi knocks, claiming her candle has gone out, and much of the rest of the scene is spent with the two of them crawling about in the dark as they look for her lost key and fall madly in love. Rodolfo's first touch of her shivering hand reveals what will remain the theme throughout the opera, how to keep Mimi warm. As their candles both dwindle, they sing of their dreams, love of the Spring and light, Mimi explaining her pleasure in roses.

One of the first of Rodolfo's acts after meeting Mimi is to buy her a bonnet, his attempt, symbolically, to warm her. The Second Act continues the warming theme with food, drink, and the emotionally-wrought and comic song of Musetta, aimed primarily at her former lover, Marcello. Sparks fly. All in all, this is the most well-lit and warmest scene in the entire production.

For Act Three, performed entirely in the cold winter air and, symbolically, at the very gate of the City, is the coldest of the opera. The characters remain not only outside of society and at the very edge of the City, but literally outside on the street. It is here, after suffering her lover's symbolic heat of his jealousy and fury, that Mimi tells Marcello of Rodolfo's behavior and determines to leave him. But, as we know, she does not return home, staying to overhear Rodolfo's woeful tale of her tuberculosis and her certain death, all made worse by the fact that he has no way of altering their fate. His own poverty provides no warmth for the frozen woman, no light, and, in this context, no proper expression of his love. In this regard Puccini and his librettists literally create a "frieze," placing their characters costumed, in this movie version, in dark coats and dresses set against the white frozen world in which they are attempting to survive. As if Rodolfo's sorrow and Mimi's shocking discovery of her own condition were not enough, Marcello and Musetta also begin to fight, the terrified foursome revealing even further that love is nearly impossible in the world they inhabit.

Rodolfo and Mimi are too deeply in love, however, to separate in this frozen landscape; they can only wait until April, when, at least, light returns and the flowers, and with them come the warmth of Spring and Summer.

The end of this constant struggle, the necessity of having to continually face the cold, is played out in the last act, inevitably with Mimi's death. Yet even here, as they try to symbolically warm her, Musetta and Marcello running out to buy Mimi a muff, there is little warmth and even less light. Even trying to warm Mimi's medicine is an effort, as the flame threatens to go out. Singing to his coat—the only thing he has to keep the cold away from his flesh—Colline prepares to pawn it, sharing the money with his fellow sufferers. Love, it is clear, has survived in all of these good people, but without heat or light their love cannot heal or salve the living.

Los Angeles, September 28, 2009

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Black Flame: Lies in a World of Truth (on Per Olov Enquist's The Royal Physician's Visit)

Per Olov Enquist

Christian VII of Denmark

Johann Friedrich Struensee

Per Olov Enquist Livläkarens besök (Stockholm: Norstedts Förlag, 1999), translated from the Swedish by Tiina Nunnally as The Royal Physician's Visit (New York: The Overlook Press, 2001)

The web-based encyclopedia entries on Christian VII of Denmark each restate that the young king, who came to power at the age of 17 in 1766, "had a winning personality and considerable talent," but was "badly educated," terrorized by his governor, Detlev Reventlow and "debauched by corrupt pages." He suffered, so the entries tell us, possibly from schizophrenia. After his marriage to Princess Caroline Matilda (Queen Caroline Mathilde), he "abandoned himself to the worst excesses, especially debauchery," giving himself up to the courtesan Støviete-Cathrine, declaring he could not love Caroline because it was "unfashionable to love one's wife." Thereafter he "sank into a condition of mental stupor" with the symptoms of paranoia, self-mutilation and hallucinations.
The entries concur that he "became submissive to upstart (italics my own) Johann Friedrich Struensee, who rose to power in the late 1760s." The neglected Caroline "drifted into an affair with Struensee. Without explaining the palace coup, the enclyopedias report that the king's marriage to Caroline Mathilde was dissolved. Struensee was arrested and executed, Caroline sent, without her children, Frederick VI and Princess Louise Augusta (possibly Struensee's daughter), into exile in Celle. The government continued to be run by Christian "under the pressure" of his grandmother, Juliana Maria of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel and the "Danish politician" Ove Høegh-Guldberg until Frederick took over in 1784.

I don't know of the veracity of these recountings (repeated, word for word, on several online encyclopedias, including Wikipedia), but it sounds suspiciously like some official whitewash of events. Nowhere, for example, is there any report of changes in law accomplished by "the upstart" Struensee; indeed, one report claims no changes were effected. Nothing is said at all about Struensee's own links to, nor the young King's involvement with Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire and Diderot.

Thank heaven for Swedish writer Per Olav Enquist's new fiction, The Royal Physician's Visit, which, whether it is a true story or not (although the historical research Enquist has put into this writing is quite apparent), reads as a far more truthful and, quite frankly, believable and fascinating history than that touted by supposedly learnèd sources. If the account I outlined in the first two paragraphs is historically correct, give me Enquist's fictional version of reality; I can better live with that.

For Enquist the tutor Reverdil was a loving and enlightened young teacher dealing with an already mad boy-pupil, who through the tyrannies of King's father and court ministers, had come to believe that his whole world was, as Shakespeare put it, "a stage," upon which clearly he had not yet properly learned his part. Most of Christian's time, accordingly, was spent in trying to discover how to "play his role." It is clear that this child had no other understanding of "play," and cowered away from the men whom were suddenly thrust upon him as his subjects.

Enquist begins his historical fiction by providing us with the report of British Ambassador Robert Murray, written four years after Struensee's death, of attending a dinner where the childlike "mad" King Christian "began wandering around the audience, muttering, his face twitching oddly," under the watchful eye of Guldberg, whose role, according to Murray, seemed to be that of a father with a sick child. Despite the strange behavior of the King, the court basically ignored him, even when he began to grow loud and disruptive. In the middle of a play by the French writer Gresset, Christian "suddenly got up from his seat.., staggered up onto the stage, and began behaving as if he were one of the actors. ...It was clear that the King was strongly engaged in the play and believed himself to be one of the actors, but Guldberg calmly went up on stage and kindly took the King by the hand. The monarch fell silent at once and allowed himself to be led back to his seat."

The "Danish politian," in Enquist's telling, was a minor court figure who through quiet stealth and insinuation, with the help of the Dowager Queen, negotiated the uprising four years earlier against Struensee, not so much for their own gain as for their hatred of Struensee's Enlightenment policies; part of the old guard, they preferred the religious restrictions which had so long controlled the populace, forcing them into lives of poverty and misery.

Into this mad world had stepped a young doctor from Altona, Johann Friederich Struensee, whom court advisors, terrified by the young King's behavior, sought out as a kind of mentor-protector for Christian. A quiet man, happy to work as a local doctor equally treating the rich and the poor alike, Struensee, at first, wanted no part of government involvement, and refused Count Rantzau's entreaties, but gradually was convinced.

As early as Reverdil's tutelege, Christian, in moments of sanity, had read major Enlightenment figures such as Voltaire, and had once written him, to which Voltaire magnanimously had responded. Before Struensee's entry into court, Guldberg and others had exiled a young courtesan, Bottine Caterine, who given Christian's inability to sexually engage his young Queen (in Enquist's telling the two engaged in sexual activity, if you can describe it as that, only once), had provided the King with a kind of maternal love. In secret search of that woman, who the mad King described as the "Sovereign of the Universe," Christian, with court members, undertook a European journey during which he met with several Enlightenment figures, Diderot taking Struensee aside to share with him Voltaire's message:

"My friend Voltaire is in the habit of saying that sometimes by chance,
history opens up a unique...aperture to the future."
"Is that so?"
"And then one should step through."

In the years following, Struensee, against his own doubts and fears for what he recognized was the "dark flame" of the King, took that momentous step, ordering, with the King's signature, that all court declarations pass through him. Within the short period of his powerful rule, Struensee made hundreds of enlightened changes to Danish law, changes that significantly altered the freedoms of Denmark's masses. The problem is that these uneducated masses had no comprehension of what the changes meant, and Struensee, in turn, had no deep comprehension of the "common folk" for which he was fighting. Agitators such as Guldberg and other court lackeys found it easy, through pamphlets and other methods, to bring suspicion upon most of Struensee's important changes of law.

The young British-born Queen, understandably, was lonely and without sexual satisfaction, and Struensee, at least in Enquist's version, was encouraged by the King to take her off his hands. Perhaps the greatest of Struensee's failures was his inability to perceive how an affair with the Queen might end in his downfall. Yet, the couple, who soon fell in love, were stupidly open about their affair, even after Mathilde became pregnant with Struensee's child. That affair, above everything else he did, doomed him in a world were Medieval concepts still held sway over the minds of individuals both outside and within the court.

After a near perfect summer at the King's castle at Hirschholm—a castle, that in the people's retribution for Struensee's and Mathilde's relationship would soon be completely destroyed, brick by brick—Struensee and the Queen were arrested. Although the German had long feared just such an end, it was nearly incomprehensible to him, after his "step through the aperture," that the good he was attempting to accomplish, such a determined and often difficult search of the truth, should end in such hatred. What had he done wrong, he queried of himself again and again.

Enquist does not provide an easy answer. Love and truth were simply not what the populace wanted at that very moment. Yet the huge crowds that gathered for his execution left it not as a mob, but, in Enquist's fable, as a citizenry disgusted by what they had just seen. Despite Guldberg's and the Dowager Queen's evil machinations, despite even the "dark flame" that Christian's mind had spread over the kingdom, reason did, ultimately prevail. Men and women had recognized in "the Struensee era" what was possible, and with the reign of Christian's son came many of the changes that Guldberg had worked to abolish. In Enquist's engaging retelling of the tale, history could not entirely be silenced, a "truth" I would prefer to believe.

Los Angeles, December 14, 2001