Saturday, October 31, 2009

Tosca's Kisses (on Puccini's opera Tosca)

Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Ciacosa (libretto), based on a play by Victorien Sardou, Giacomo Puccini (music) Tosca / premiere at Teatro Costanzi, Rome, January 14, 1900 / the production I saw was from The Metropolitan Opera's HD production of October 10, 2009 (the encore production I witnessed was on October 29, 2009)

By coincidence, soon after seeing a filmed version of Puccini's La Bohème (see below), Howard and I attended the High Definition film production of The Metropolitan Opera's October 10, 2009 performance of Puccini's Tosca.

Both Howard and I had watched Tosca on film and, together, witnessed the Berlin Opera's production at the Kennedy Center in 1975-1976. Howard saw the same production in Berlin the next year.

Accordingly, we felt we knew the opera quite well, and perhaps I do not need to repeat the entire plot for most readers, although it is easily summarized.

The painter, Mario Cavaradossi (brilliantly sung by Marcelo Álvarez) is at work on a painting of the Madonna in the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle in Rome when he discovers a friend, Cesare Angelotti (former Consul of the Roman Republic) hiding in a family crypt nearby. Angelotti has just escaped from prison, and Cavardossi offers him a hiding place in his nearby villa.

Enter the noted opera singer Floria Tosca (Karita Matilla), Cavaradossi's lover, who immediately becomes suspicious that her beloved is seeing another woman, having overheard Cavaradossi whispering to someone. He assures her that he is in love with only her, but when she notices the painting on which he has been working, she recognizes the face of the Marchesa Attavanti (Angelotti's sister), who Cavaradossi has observed praying at the church. Her jealousy returns, as she demands Cavaradossi change the blue eyes of the painting to her own darkly-colored eyes.

A cannon is shot from the prison; they have detected the escape of Angelotti, and Cavaradossi promises his help to his friend. Enter the Chief of Police, the evil Baron Scarpia (George Gagnidze), who, upon discovering the Marchessa's fan in the crypt, successfully stirs up Tosca's jealousy once again. He himself would like to become Tosca's lover, and, as he sings of his evil machinations, the priests, chorus boys, and attending parishioners march forward in the Te Deum, which, in total hypocrisy, he finally joins.

Later that night, Scarpia awaits Tosca in his home in the Farnese Palace. His henchman have discovered and arrested Cavaradossi in his home, suspecting him having hidden Angelotti. As Tosca arrives, Scarpia orders Cavaradossi to be tortured in the next room. He demands Tosca tell him what she knows about Angelotti, but she claims to have no knowledge and refuses his demands. As the torture continues, however, she wavers, and finally unable to bear her lover's cries, confesses that Angelotti is hiding in a well near Cavaradossi's hut. The artist is released, taken off to prison to be hung.

Tosca now pleads with Scarpia to save Cavaradossi, but he is unwilling to do anything unless she give herself over to his sexual desires. In what is perhaps the most dramatic scene of the opera, Tosca hatefully gives herself up, but only if Cavaradossi's life is spared and they, together, are given a letter of free passage out of the country. Scarpia orders his henchmen to perform a mock-shooting of the artist and writes out the letter. As he moves to Tosca for his reward, she stabs him in the stomach, proclaiming the knife to be "Tosca's kiss."

The final act is a short one, as Cavaradossi awaits to be killed. Tosca arrives, quietly telling him the news that she has killed Scarpia and the artist's life has been spared. All he has to do is dramatically fall as the soldiers pretend to shoot, and when they leave she will tell when it is permissible to "return to life." Liberty is at hand!

But even in death Scarpia has extended his control over them. The guns are filled with real ammunition and Cavaradossi is murdered. The dark irony of their love is dramatized by Tosca's continued warnings to the artist to wait just a little longer, just a little longer, as the soldiers march away; finally, she commands him to stand, but as she rushes over to help him, she discovers the reality that he is dead. As the policemen arrive, having discovered Scarpia's corpse, she rushes to the parapets of the fortress, screaming "O Scarpia, we shall meet before God!" before jumping to her death.

There have been numerous books and hundreds of essays written about this popular opera, and I have little of great originality that I could add. I would just reiterate the fact that, although this opera seems, in Puccinni's hands, to be centered upon emotional issues of love and passion, jealousy and hate, it is just as significantly motivated by the politics of the moment. Both drama and opera are set on a single day, June 17, 1800, a day in which, after having crossed the alps with his army, Napoleon Bonaparte met in the Battle of Marengo with the Austrians, led by General Mélas. The events of the play follow the historical reality. Early in the play we hear that Napoleon amazingly has been defeated by the Austrians, and Tosca's evening performance is given, in part, in celebration for that event. Later in the day, however, the truth is revealed: new troops joining Napoleon's army helped reverse the situation, and by evening, just as Tosca was performing in celebration for the French defeat, Napoleon's army crushed the Austrian forces. When the news reaches Scarpia's rooms, we observe Cavaradossi celebrating the fact before he is taken away to be tortured.

A little back history may explain the situation. Just two years earlier, in February 1798, French troops, headed by Napolean's general Louis Alexandre Berthier Louis Alexandre Berthier, occupied the Vatican State, proclaiming the establishment of the Roman Republic. The Pope, Pius VI, was forced to flee to Tuscany, and, ultimately, to France where he died. Cavaradossi's friend, Angelotti, was one of the Republican leaders, a consul.

The Bourbon king Ferdinando IV, King of Naples, attempted to rescue the Pope and restore the Vatican but was defeated. For a brief time in 1799, the Roman Republic was incorporated into the Napolean-supported Parthenopean Republic which included Naples, but by April of that year General Suvorov, heading the Austrian-Russian army crossed into northern Italy and defeated the French Republics. Soon after the Bourbon's were returned to power, which, under the orders of Maria Carolina of Austria, wife of Ferdinando IV, began a "cleansing" of former Republicans, liberals, artists, scientists and others who had supported or been sympathetic to French rule. Both Angelotti and Cavaradossi, accordingly, were in danger, Angelotti imprisoned for his political position and Cavaradossi under suspicion for his artistic avocation. Thousands of men and women were killed under the eye of the newly appointed Baron Sciarpa (upon whom Scarpia is said to based).

In reverse of Napolean's battle, what seems to have saved the day in Cavardossi's and Angelotti's lives ends in death.

Tosca's political position in this time of general turmoil is quite vague. She comes from the northern Italy, which clearly is attempting to defend themselves from Napoleon's advance, and her intense religiosity seems to suggest, as does her participation in the celebration of Napoleon's supposed defeat, that she has aligned herself, despite her lover's sympathies, with the Bourbons.*

In any event, we can observe in the very political context of these momentous times that all the characters of this opera are, as one observer has suggested, not what they seem to be. The artist is also a revolutionary, the diva and sexually attractive lover is also religiously devout, the outward devout chief of police is a lustful lecher and liar. Even Angelotti is ready to don a woman's dress to escape. If for no other reason, the shifting realities of these figures might justify director Luc Bondy's decision to remove the brilliant colors of Franco Zeffirelli's previous Metropolitan production, leaving the viewer with vast abstract spaces murkily lit. It may be a justification, but, in my estimation—and apparently in those of many other opera goers, who loudly booed the opening night production—it was not successful. At times it was simply difficult to "see" these brilliant singers, and one missed the elaborately artificial trappings in which they might have further hidden their identities.

My point in all this historicity (other than my feeling that, in part, it is the very basis of the My Year volumes, in which I am attempting to remember what is so easily forgotten), is that, politically speaking, the characters are at "war" with one another even before the curtain has been raised.

Floria Tosca is not only emotionally at war with both Cavaradossi and Scarpia because of her love and jealousies, but is spiritually at war with them, more pious than Cavaradossi's all too human depiction of the Madonna and Scarpia's hypocritical worship of the symbols of the church. She is, as Cavardossi's warns early in the opera, a natural confessor, telling her own confessor "everything." It is strange, accordingly, that he allows her to discover the circumstances surrounding Angelotti, for, inevitably, even if it is presumably to save Cavardossi's life, she betrays the cause.

Tosca's kisses, accordingly, are all inevitably lethal, not only to Scarpia, whom she kisses metaphorically with the knife, but to Cavardossi, whom she kisses passionately, only to condemn him, unintentionally, to death. In such a world, in short, no one is to be trusted, for it is a world in utter chaos, official rule changing nearly instant by instant. The Battle of Marengo allowed Napoleon easier access to Italy, and Rome would soon fall to his forces, his son given by birth the title, "His Majesty the King of Rome."

Los Angeles, October 30, 2009

*In Shirley Hazzard's 2008 book, Ancient Shore (see my essay in Rain Taxi), she describes a 20th century dinner conversation with friends, a couple fiercely debating still about the Bourbon reign of Italy. Apparently, Italians are still divided on the issues.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

City of the Living (on Mary Beard's The Fires of Vesuvius)

Mary Beard The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2008)

What I described as a dead city, Mary Beard, in her transformative study of Pompeii, The Fires of Vesuvius, reveals as a living—one might almost raucous—city of anywhere from 30,000 to 64,000 people. Beginning with the day of the eruption, August 25 79 CE, Beard takes us back to its earliest known roots, which may have been Etruscan, through various sieges and political developments which ultimately brought it into the Roman Empire.

Early in the book Beard warns us of easy assumptions, forcing us to question even what visitors appear to witness on their pilgrimages to the city, reminding us that although the city was destroyed in 79 CE, there had long been warnings and smaller eruptions of the impending volcano, most of the citizens consequently escaping, often with possessions in hand, long before August 25th. To date only around 1,100 bodies have been unearthed, and speculation is that, at most, 2000 people died in the August eruption. So what we see at Pompeii is not precisely a city with everything remaining frozen in time and space. In 62 CE, moreover, the city had been badly damaged in an earthquake, and as late as the Vesuvius eruption a great deal of repair work was still underway.

Although the world did not discover the wonders of Pompeii until the late 1700s, locals had known of the ruins for hundreds of years, over which time numerous digging looters had raided and destroyed several buildings. The original archeologists, moreover, were in some cases untrained and careless in their handling of artifacts. Even since its slow uncovering, the city has crumbled and faded in the Italian weather and sunlight. Bombings during World War II also damaged the city extensively. Five larger regions of the city remain unexcavated even today. In a sense, accordingly, what one witnesses in the vast array of buildings in Pompeii is a city often very different in appearance and quality from the Pompeii of 79 CE.

Step by step Beard takes us through the city through a series of lenses: general living, street life, house and home, painting and decoration, making a living, government, pleasure of the body, fun and games, and religion, all in a brilliant recreation of what it meant to be a Pompeiian citizen. The route, however, is not a easy one. Hundreds of standard assumptions are questioned, pet critical theories of scholars are challenged, and conflicting interpretations vetted. If there is one theme that the reader comes away with at the end of reading The Fires of Vesuvius it is that we know less about these subjects than we might presume.

Fascinating issues such as the filth of the streets (mixes of urine and dung [human and animal], garbage, and water)—which help explain several large stepping stones rising from the pavement— combined with night time dangers of near complete darkness, make for a clear sense of danger for the average citizen. The small size of rooms for the average houseowner, combined with cohabitation of slaves and extended family, further add to a modern reader's sense of discomfort. The noise, night and day, would seem to have been nearly unbearable, not to mention the proliferation of smells. Some of the most beautiful houses had to endure neighbors serving as fulleries (with its smells of hide and urine) or garum (fish oil) manufacturers. Homes and public buildings, inside and out, were apparently marked with graffiti.

Further, the myths we have of Roman dining, three to a couch while consuming a vast quantity of fish, fruit, and meats seems to have had little reality in Pompeii. While some houses, such as The House of the Golden Bracelet, show evidence of elegant dining (in this case, surrounding a small pool within a garden) Beard argues that most individuals were forced to eat out and even in wealthier homes eating shared more in common with fast food dining in contemporary American households, food consumed in various places throughout the house.

It was also a society very much controlled by a few wealthy men. Women had little power (an exception may have been the wealthy benefactor and priestess Eumachia) and wives spent most of their life raising the children and weaving. Men ruled the city, through aediles and duoviri, the latter of which were expected to pay for entertainments (public pantomimes or gladiator bouts) in return for their clout. The wealthy Pompeiian males found sexual pleasure in the bosom of his slaves (both male and female), while the poor sought sexual release in bars, some baths, or in the one likely brothel unearthed. Bathing, Beard explains, was a necessary social activity, but the pollution of the water was recognized to be a dangerous thing that could sometimes lead to infection, gangrene, even death.

Besides this more sordid information, the author also takes the reader on spellbinding trips through many of the homes, public buildings, and temples, pointing out their beautiful paintings and tiles, the arrangement of rooms, views, and other information, much of which is no longer visible. Beard explains to the lay reader the centrality, yet cultural mix of Roman religion. We begin to comprehend Pompeii's relationship to Rome itself. In short, by the time Beard completes these intellectual spins through the bustling, active city, we feel rather electrified by the exhausting trip. When the author returns us to the cities of the dead, the cemeteries just outside city gates, we realize that Pompeii is something we might never before have imagined. Too bad I had not been able to read Beard's remarkable book before my own stumble through the ruins of that city in 2007.

Los Angeles, October 22, 2009

Friday, October 23, 2009

City for Failed Acrobats (on Vitezslav Nezval and Milos Sovak)


Some spires of Prague

Jerry and Diane Rothernberg and the Sovaks in their Paris apartment

Vítězslav Nezval Antilyrik, translated from the Czech by Jerome Rothenberg and Milos Sovak (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2001)

After a couple of years in pre-production, my Green Integer press finally published this July Jerome Rothernberg's and Milos Sovak's excellent translation, Antilyrik, a selection of poems by the forgotten (almost unknown, at least in the US) Czech experimentalist, Vítězslav Nezval.

Nezval, born in the village of Šamikovice in Southern Moravia, studied philosophy in Charles University in Prague at the very time when Czechoslovakia was as the "first real and socially oriented democracy in central Europe" (Rothenberg and Sovak), and like most Czech intellectuals of the time aligned himself with the Communist Party. The artistic counterpart of the political revolutionary spirit of the day was, for Nezval, an alliance with what was called the "Nine Powers" (Devetsil), a poet and artist collective that included some of the major figures of Czech experimentalism, including Jindrich Styrsky, Jaroslav Seifert, Karel Teige, Frantisek Halas, and Toyen (Marie Germinova). One of his first publications with this group was his long poem The Remarkable Magician, published at the age of 21.

From 1923 on Nezval presented his own program of poetics described as "Poetism," which set itself against "literary poetry" and proposed "a new art which will cease to be art." This movement would later ally itself with the Surrealists of Paris, particularly after Nezval's meeting with André Breton in 1932. Over the next 35 years Nezval would continue to publish, despite periods in which his art was banned and described as "degenerate," dozens of audacious works of poetry and fiction, as well as works of drama and art.

Our collection was only the third selection of his work to appear in English, and included several remarkable poems, including "City of Towers," where Nezval mesmerizingly repeats the word "fingers" to celebrate the creative tool that allows his poem itself to bring his Prague into life:

o hundred-towered Prague
city with fingers of all the saints
with fingers made for swearing falsely
with fingers from the fire & hail
with a musician's fingers
with shining fingers of a woman lying on her back
with fingers of asparagus
with fingers with fevers of 105 degrees
with fingers of frozen forest & with fingers without gloves
with fingers on which a bee has landed
with fingers of blue spruces
with fingers disfigured by arthritis
with fingers of strawberries
with spring water fingers & with fingers of bamboo

"The Dark City" presents a dream-like ghoulish world a city like a carousel, houses like accordions, streets composed of beds from which the citizens come out like "giant worms" or "A pack of dogs that leaped out of a mirror." As the narrator escapes this nightmare world, the city crumbles into ruins and is left as only a pile of earth and ash.

A similar nightmare world is experienced in "The Seventh Chant" from The Remarkable Magician, in which the sights and sounds of the city are linked to European history:

I heard the secrets in a kiss
the words around it circling like a line of colored butterflies
saw thousands of bacteria
in a sick man's body
& every one of them looked like a spiky chestnut
like a cosmos making war
with a skin of scaly armor

I saw a human break free from his dying comrades
in the pit of history that has no bottom

"Fireworks 1924" consists of 82 directions which Nezval defines as a "cinemagenic poem."

"Diabolo: A Poem for Night" is a longer more narrative work that recounts the movements of a sexually attractive but also a vampire-like woman as she removes her clothing and ultimately "her breasts & rests them on the nightstand / then slips out thru the monastery crypt to take confession." Like the poem that follows, the woman's courtier is represented at times as being an "acrobat," a man caught upon the wire "between his wife's bed / & another woman's." The "nite vaudeville" Nezval describes becomes a story of equilibration, a "marriage halfway station for failed acrobats," presumbably fallen beings from the wires connecting the city's many spires (Prague is commonly known as the city of a hundred spires).

In his 1927 poem "Akrobat," Prague becomes a meeting place of all Europe as the acrobat, both a marvelous shape-shifter and a fallen fool, reveals all the pleasures and tortures of modern life. Like a fairy tale, the poem, Nezval argues, "redeems our happiness," to which, by the end of the poem, Nezval bids "farewell": "I leave you now so I can keep returning."

Jerry Rothenberg, is a long time friend of whom I have written elsewhere. Milos Sovak, who was formerly a physician and now heads up a medical research company in San Diego, also has homes in Paris and Prague, where he grew up. I visited his Paris home on Rue Jacob in 1997, having a beautiful luncheon with him, his wife, and the Rothenbergs. When I told him where I was staying, the Hotel Notre Dame, he claimed he had always stayed there before buying his Paris apartment. On this occasion Sovak also displayed several of the beautiful books of poetry by friends such as Cees Nooteboom and Manuel Ulacia he had published, each accompanied by original art works by noted painters.

In 1999 I visited Milos in Prague.
Milos, who comes from a illustrious Prague family, spent a couple of days touring me through the city, the first night taking me to the Švejk restaurant whose walls carry the drawings by Joseph Lada and George Grosz for famed Czech novelist Jaroslav 's Hašek The Good Soldier Švejk.

The next day Milos was kind enough to take me on a long walking tour of the old town and other parts of the city. At one point he showed me a large building where, during the final days of Nazi control, his father had worked as head doctor. As the German tanks were leaving the city in the early days of May 1945, one gun tank was conspicuously pointed at the hospital; it was clear that the Germans were determined to destroy the hospital (the only one that would accept Jewish patients) as they left. Those at work in the building, including Milos' father, were horrified by their imminent destruction. Meanwhile, as Milos describes it, an elderly woman who worked as the head secretary, sitting at her window and witnessing the scene, carefully took out her pistol from the drawer of her desk, and aimed it at the operator of the tank, shooting him directly in the head. The tank careened around the square for several minutes before finally coming to rest.

That afternoon, Milos and I visited Argo publishers, where I met the publisher and his assistant, who some days later joined me in Frankfurt (in attendance at the Frankfurt Bookfair) for a Japanese dinner.

Back in Prague Milos took me out to a splendid dinner at a lovely restaurant. I believe I ordered boar. On our way back home we walked across the Vltava river, stopping in a small park along the way where he pointed across to the home (more like a lit-up mansion, it appeared to me) in which he had grown up. "What a beautiful city," I sighed.

Prague was in near-complete renovation when I visited, nearly all of the buildings which had not previously been repainted, were enjoying new coats of the bright colors that now identify the Prague sky-line. Milos scoffed, somewhat jokingly I presume, at all the renovation. "I somehow got used to and now prefer the old gray city Prague was for so many years under Soviet rule. Everything now seems so artificially bright!"

A few years later, Milos introduced me in Los Angeles to beloved Mexican poet Manual Ulacia, with whom Horácio Costa had lived for several years before I met him on my first trip to Brazil. Ulacia drowned while swimming in the ocean this year. A good swimmer, he was swept out to sea by undercurrents and was unable to return to shore.

Los Angeles, August 19, 2001

In 2002 Milos and Jerry won the PEN Center USA award for their translation of Nezval's Antilyrik.
On January 26, 2009 Sovak died in San Diego, after a prolonged illness, at the age of 67.

Los Angeles, October 18, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Secret Lives (on the short fiction of Joseph Roth)

Joseph Roth Collected Shorter Fiction of Joseph Roth, translated from the German by Michael Hofmann (London: Granta Publications, 2001)

Most of the wonderful stories and novellas collected in this volume represent worlds in which the characters act in ways that seemed destined, the figures themselves moving forward in life without seemingly knowing what motivates them and how they might have in any way transformed their own worlds.

This is particularly true of the earliest stories of Roth's as in "The Honors Student," a perfectly terrible portrait of the bourgeoisie mentality epitomized by Anton Wanzl, the overachieving but completely unimaginative son of the local Postmaster. Anton is the perfect student, aping his masters and winning their favor so successfully that honors are heaped upon him:

His glowing reports, ceremonially folded, were kept in a large
brick-red envelope next to the album of specially beautiful

Yet Anton, moving quietly though his life, is not a happy child, but one "consumed by a burning ambition," we are told, by "An iron desire to shine, to outdo all his comrades...." Beloved by his proud parents, Anton returns no emotion. As Roth tells us "He lacked heart," and his first relationship with a young woman, Mizzzi Schinagl, is run more like a campaign to win her mother and father's respect than to romance the girl herself. As he moves into the Gymnasium, he easily forgets her and moves on to a relationship with the daughter of a more successful individual, Court Councilor Sabbaeus Kreitmeyr, eventually winning her hand in marriage over the more romantic entreaties of the artist Hans Pauli.

Anton goes on to become a teacher, ultimately requesting to be transferred back to the small town in which born and raised. There, instead of seeking for a higher position, he feels fulfilled, eventually becoming the Director of the school where he was educated before his frail sensibility, hitherto subject to his intense ambitions, wins. He dies of pneumonia, highly respected by the locals but without having done anything meaningful in his life.

In a similar way, a mother, "Barbara," sacrifices her life and love of her lodger Peter Wendelin to make certain that her son is given every opportunity. The child achieves a kind of success, ultimately becoming a student of divinity. But the thick-skinned boy has no ability at feelings, and, as his mother lies dying, he spends his time with her in abstract talk "about the hereafter, and the reward that awaited the faithful in Heaven." rather than expressing his love. As he "stifles a yawn" and goes out for a breathe of air, Barbara lies dying, alone as ever, "stumbling towards Eternity."

In one of the very best tales of this collection, "April," Roth's narrator is a stranger to a small town wherein he notes the comings and goings of the town's figures. He soon is involved with a lusty barkeeper, Anna, and is amused by several other figures, including the local and beloved Postmaster. One man alone he cannot abide, the assistant railwayman.

I hated the assistant railwayman. He was freckled and unbelievably tall
and erect. Every time I saw him, I thought of writing to the Railway
Minister. I wanted to suggest he use the ugly assistant railwayman as a
telegraph pole somewhere between two little stations....
I couldn't explain my hatred for this official. He was exceptionally
tall, but I don't have principled hatred for anything exceptional. It seemed
to me that the assistant railwayman had shot up so much on purpose, and
riled me. It seemed to me that he had done nothing else since his youth
but acquire freckles and grow. On top of everything else, he had red hair.

One day he discovers, while dining in a nearby restaurant, a beautiful woman in the Postmaster's home who completely captures his attention. Another day he nods to her, and everyday thereafter they greet one another from a distance, the storyteller imagining that she comprehends what is on his mind. The narrator is told that she is the Postmaster's daughter, who is ill. Soon the narrator discovers himself in love with this beautiful woman, but, unable to communicate with her, he determines that he need leave this small town.

It was so ridiculous, I thought, for me to hang around night after night
in front of the windows of a girl who's about to die, and whom I won't
ever be able to kiss. I'm not that young any more, I thought. Every day
is a task, and each one of my hours was a sin against life.

As he enters the train to leave, he sees the abhorrent assistant railwayman, the beautiful girl in the window trailing after.

"Stay, won't you!" I heard the railway employee say to her. "I'm almost
But the girl didn't listen to him. She looked at me. We looked at each
other. she stood upright, and she was wearing a white dress, and she was
healthy, and not at all lame, and not at all tubercular. Obviously, she was
the assistant railwayman's fiancée or his wife.

The irony of the situation sends the story's narrator on a long voyage to New York.

The idyll "Strawberries," told primarily through the voice of Naphtali Kroy, describes the adventures of various figures living in a small Eastern European town where each member of the community, poor or rich, play nearly equal parts, the poor being fed by the local Count, and the Count depending for his significance of the local folk. Each of these lives, sometimes comically and at other times tragically are interwoven. But gradually we see the small town changing. The new hotel is constructed, even though there is hardly anyone to inhabit it. To the town square is added a new sculpture dedicated to a local poet, Raphael Stoklos. Finally, an Englishman comes to the city and builds a large new structure without any windows, "a big store, a department store."

The following story, "This Morning, A Letter Arrived..." obviously a follow-up tale in what was presumably to have been a longer fiction, shows the Diaspora of that former community, as Naphtali is described in Buenos Aires and, later, Vienna.

The ordinary Stationmaster, Adam Fallmerayer, married to an even more ordinary woman, one day falls madly in love with a Countess he encounters in a train accident some distance from his station. Drafted into War, the Stationmaster teaches himself Russian and, one day, finds himself stationed not far from the Countess's home in the Kiev region. Visiting her, he arranges another meeting and before they know it the two have fallen in love. Fallmerayer's wife writes to say she is leaving him. As the Russian revolutionary forces move toward them, they flee to Monte Carlo, where the Countess becomes pregnant.

By coincidence the Count, who has also been fighting in the war, arrives in Monte Carlo, where he is greeted by the Countess and her lover. But the man Fallmerayer discovers is not at all one with whom he might battle for his love.

Fallmerayer looked at the Count's long, yellow, bony face, with
its sharp nose and bright eyes and the thin lips under the drooping
black moustache. The Count was wheeled along the platform like
one of his many pieces of luggage. His wife followed the wheel chair.

As the wife plumps up one of her husband's pillows, Fallmerayer says good night, never to be seen again. For his life, if he were to stay with the Countess, would now mean his own attentive devotion to the old man.

The secret life of Dr. Skovronnek, who in "The Triumph of Beauty" specializes in caring for women at a local spa, is revealed through his incredible story of a friend, a young "upper class" diplomat and a beautiful, but rather stupid English woman, whom the young galant marries. While the story portends to be an objective description of how the young man is tricked by a course woman (she loves Wagner, he plays Mozart with the Doctor), we soon recognize the tale as misanthropic fable about women in general who trick and destroy their innocent husbands. What is clear is that the Doctor himself is enamored of the young man and angry at the wife for coming between them. The final flurry of hatred towards women expresses the Doctor's condition quite clearly:

Many, many women passed me in the street, and some of them smiled
at me.
Go on, I thought, smile, smile, turn, look over your shoulders, swing your
hips, buy yourselves new hats, new stockings, new bits and bobs! Old age
will catch up with you! Give it another little year or two! No surgeon will
be able to do anything about it, no wigmaker. You will be disfigured, em-
bittered, disappointed, you will sink into your graves and then further, into
Hell. But go on, smile, smile!...

The last tale of this marvelous collection, "Leviathan," also is a story of a secret life. In the town of Progrody lives Nissen Piczenik, a renowned coral merchant, a successful Jewish businessman. Secretly, however, corals are not just the source of Piczenik's income, but represent an obsession, a kind of madness that includes all things connected with the ocean. When a local boy who has joined the navy returns for a visit home, Piczenik takes up with him, questioning him about everything to do with ocean waters, for Nizzen has never himself been to sea. So compelled is the coral merchant with the subject that, when the young man must return to his ship, he accompanies him to Odessa, claiming he is the boy's uncle and joining him for a tour of the vessel and staying on in the city for three days.

With his return to Progrody, Piczenik discovers his business is dwindling and, soon after, another coral merchant opens a shop in a nearby town, selling only synthetic corals at great discount. Against all his principles and his love of the objects he sells (which the merchant perceives as living beings) he begins to mix the synthetic with the real. Sales drop even further, and since he cannot sell only the real ones, determines to emigrate. On his way to Canada, the boat sinks, Piczenik leaping overboard to join his real corals.

Interestingly enough, in Roth's early stories absolutely exceptional-seeming individuals were revealed as absolutely ordinary and boring figures. But in the best of these tales the ordinary men and women he portrays, when their surfaces are slightly scratched, are represented as extraordinarily complex individuals, flawed yes, but amazing for their secret passions of life.

Los Angeles, September 24, 2001

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Creepy Stuff I Did (Letterman, Allen, and Polanski)

David Letterman and his wife, Regina Lasko

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate

Roman Polanski today

David Letterman Late Show with David Letterman, October 1, 2009, CBS
Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman (writers), Woody Allen (director) Manhattan / 1979
Joe Bini, P. G. Morgan, and Marina Zenovich (writers), Marina Zenovich (director) Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired / 2008, the showing I witnessed was at the Melnitz Theatre, UCLA, on October 1, 2009

While recently listening to David Letterman's "confession" of his sexual encounters on late night television, I was bemused and more than a little frightened, once again, by my fellow citizens' sexual prudery and by the underlying attitudes we Americans seem to have about sex in general.

Letterman, as most Americans now know, was being blackmailed by CBS producer Robert "Joe" Halderman for having had—are you sitting down?—"sex with woman who work with me on this show." Allegedly these sexual relationships all occurred before his marriage to Regina Lasko and the birth of their son, although there are now suggestions that he took one of the women, Stephanie Birkett, on a Caribbean vacation with his wife and son.

However, unless Letterman threatened these women with dismissals ffrom their jobs if they did not have sex with him, it amazes me that anyone might have thought that he could get away with blackmail or that viewers might even imagine this to be of interest except to Letterman, his wife, and the women with whom he had sex. Certainly, it can (and evidently has) lead to matrimonial difficulties and may some day end up as an issue in divorce court, but in my estimation those issues have no place at all in the minds of prurient American television viewers, who every day, it seems, are shocked and absolutely amazed that our celebrities and leaders lead lives as sexual beings!

The media, of course, mightily fuels this ridiculous outrage. In France or even Italy, the public and press might hail Letterman as an ordinary man. But here he is forced to describe his noncriminal behavior as "creepy," as if he were some strange deviant, hiding his actions from an innocent American mass. Although the American divorce rate, as some sources show, has decreased in the last few years by 30%, it is still, according to The Marriage Index, 2-6 times higher than in Canada and European countries. Obviously, divorce may occur for numerous reasons, yet infidelity is obviously high among its causes. Accordingly, Letterman may be a very ordinary man. Why are we so fascinated by the topic?

On the other hand, if one of these women had been an underage intern, it would be a different matter. And that is what we must consider in the recent arrest of Roman Polanski, to whose side numerous Hollywood figures have recently come in support of his being freed from the Swiss prison and possible U.S. extradition.

At some point in the pages of these volumes I would like to discuss American and current international attitudes (largely in response to American pressure) about sexuality and children. As a society, the rising hysteria about child abuse—and I will assert that it has reached that level of behavior, is something that cannot be rationally discussed—is dismaying to the say the least. Our viewpoint is based on a Victorian notion of childhood isolation, a blessèd time of innocence in which children are to be protected from the world at large, and there is a certain wisdom, I am sure, in this vision, even if the reality seems to be pointing to the opposite, that today's children are increasingly behaving, earlier and earlier in their childhood, as adults (with results both good and bad). Those facts, also fueled by the media, in turn, fans the flames of further fears which Americans play out.

Nearly everyone save sexual predators themselves, recognizing the power adults have over children's minds and bodies, want to protect juveniles from the sexual advances of men and women who may psychologically hurt them, physically abuse them, or even kill them; most civilized societies understand those dangers and seek to protect their young. But at what age to draw the line? We have somewhat arbitrarily named the age of 18, even though one can enlist, without parental consent, to go to war at age 17. Evidently, children have permission to die, as long as do it as virgins.

No matter what age is chosen to be appropriate, on the other hand, there will always appear to be exceptions, children more advanced, physically and sexually, than their peers. And one cannot expect the judge or jury to make such determinations, to pick and choose among the victims. On the other hand, in severe cases of murder and mayhem there seems to be an increasing decision among prosecutors to try some juveniles as adults. Not being a lawyer, I don't know what kind of criteria goes into these determinations, but it does seem somewhat hypocritical when we can pick and choose how we can apply life imprisonment or even the death sentence to underage children, while making no allowance for their sexuality.

In his 1979 film Manhattan, Woody Allen flirts with this very issue. Recently revisiting this film, I was a little abashed to remember that the girl Allen has taken up with after his second wife (Meryl Streep) has run away with another woman, is a 17 year-old high school girl (Mariel Hemingway). Although the Allen character is clearly someone uncomfortable with the idea throughout the film—joking at one point, "I'm older than her father, can you believe that? I'm dating a girl, wherein, I can beat up her father."—no else seems appalled by the fact. Indeed all of Allen's friends in the movie seem to be involved, like Letterman, in extramarital affairs (particularly the character Yale, played by Michael Murphy) or, in the case of Diane Keaton's character, easily shifting from bed to bed. Only Tracy, Allen's 17 year-old lover, seems to know what she wants, an older lover to "fool around" with. Not until Allen has sent her packing does he realize how much he misses her; but she's now 18 and on her way to a new experience in life, a six-month stay in England, which, incidentally, he had previously recommended to her.

That film received nearly unanimous praise, and no reviewer I've read seemed at all appalled that it was, in some senses, a film about child abuse. Maybe because it was fiction it was saved from public outcry, although one must remember that just two decades earlier Lolita, another fiction about this subject, was banned in the USA.

Allen, one should recall, has had his own sexual scandale, involving himself in an affair with Soon-Yi Previn, the adopted daughter of Allen's lover of the time, Mia Farrow, a romance she discovered by finding nude pictures of her daughter taken by Allen. Frankly, I might describe Allen's actions as far more "creepy" than anything Letterman has done. Ultimately, Allen married Soon-Yi, and they remain married today. It comes as no surprise, accordingly, that Allen is one of the signatories of the petition demanding Polanski's release from jail.

If in the film-fiction Manhattan Tracy is apparently more mature than all the adults of that film, the girl with whom Polanski had sex in 1977, Samantha Geimer, although a mature looking girl, was not even close to legal age; she was only 13 at the time. Geimer, moreover, clearly did not want a sexual relationship with her photographer and reported his sexual advances as rape to the police. Whether Polanski had set out to rape her or whether his sex with her seemingly arose from a too-intimate setting, a sauna at Jack Nicholson's house, is not really the issue. Polanski fed her both Champagne and part of a Qualude before engaging in sex. And even imagining that, as a sexual swinger of the international set, he was unaware of how serious Americans took such infractions, he surely couldn't have been so stupid to think his actions would have no consequence.

Although one might find it psychologically fascinating that he committed these infractions just a few years after the brutal slaying by Charles Manson and his dreadful followers of Polanski's beloved wife, Sharon Tate, events all further interwoven, surely, with his childhood memories of the murder of his parents in the death chambers of World War II concentration camps, it can have no direct bearing on his criminal behavior, particularly since he was twice found to be free of serious pyschological problems. It may be fascinating to consider those issues when discussing his films, but cannot be seen, as some have attempted, to be an excuse for his actions.
Finally, it seems ridiculous to argue, as some in Hollywood have, that he should be excused from this sexual "slip up" because of his immense talent. When will we learn that great artists, writers, and other geniuses often support evil actions and those behind them? I love the writing of Knut Hamsun, but to do so one must also accept the fact that we was a supporter of the Nazi cause and actually met with Hitler. My own thinking about poetry has been very influenced by Ezra Pound, but I cannot condone his support of the Fascists and his anti-Semitic writings. Great artists can also be bad human beings.

Yet Polanski's acts are even more muddied by the actions of the press, lawyers, and judge overseeing his criminal case. As Marina Zenovich's 2008 film, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired (screened at UCLA soon after Polanski's Swiss arrest) reveals, from the moment of Polanski's act he was hounded by the news media, who cast him as the perfect target for Americans who hated the intelligentsia, were xenophobic, and who feared the sexuality he exuded.

The appointed judge for the case, Lawrence J. Rittenband, was noted for his relationships with celebrities, and sought out the case, purposely generating news coverage of the hearings. The opposing lawyers, Douglas Dalton (Polanski's lawyer) and Roger Gunson (for the accuser) were intelligent and dedicated lawyers forced to play charades by the judge's shifting impositions of law. Even when the parties agreed to drop all charges except rape and that Polanski would undergo psychological observation, Rittenband further played to the grandstand, demanding a series of new tests in Chino State Prison. Once again all parties agreed to his demands, yet Rittenband audaciously made them perform his decision out in court, each lawyer playing out the case that had been already previously decided.
Even after serving his time in the Chino prison, Polanski and his lawyer were further threatened by the judge, and after flying to Europe, where the filmmaker was captured in pictures at the Munich Ocktoberfest surrounded by young women (an event Polanski had not even wanted to attend, but was encouraged to by a German friend), Rittenband threatened to sentence Polanski to more time in Chino and demanded, illegally, that Polanski give up his rights for deportation. Dalton and Polanski refused. Even the blue-eyed upstanding Mormon prosecutor Gunson admits, had he been asked to do what Rittenband had demanded, he too might have left the country. In 1978, after almost a year of such public torture, Polanski illegally fled the US.

That the California enforcers are still vigilantly attempting to return Polanski to the US for sentencing—a sentencing which clearly threatens, as the New York Times recently pointed out (Sunday, October 11, 2009), to be a less forgiving prison time for his acts—seems unfair at best.

Although there is little question that Polanski "got off," the first time around, with a very short time in jail, in the end one must ask what is justice, what is imprisonment about? Certainly, justice did not win out in 1978, either for the accuser or accused. Why do we imprison people? Obviously, in part, we incarcerate the guilty as punishment for their crimes. But we seem to have forgotten that we also jail individuals with the hope of reformation, with the desire of somehow redeeming their lives. Today, it appears, particularly when it comes to sex crimes, that we no longer believe in that possibility. And we all know that some sexual abusers, particularly when it comes to children, have committed crimes over and over again. I do think, however, that we should not presume by such recidivism that all such criminals are unable to be reformed.

Clearly, Polanski has led, in the 31 years since his escape from America, a productive and seemingly governed life. What can be the use of trotting a 76 year old man off to prison for a crime he committed at age 44? It seems to me that Polanski has been more than punished for his acts, unless, as I suspect, we are a terrifyingly vengeful society when it comes to sex.

Los Angeles, October 12-13, 2009

Thursday, October 1, 2009

20 Days in the City of Angels: The 19th Day (Interviewing the Inteviewer)

Army Archerd with Marilyn Monroe

The condominium in which I live lies directly across the street from a high rise building in which are currently located the offices of Variety, an entertainment daily magazine to which I do not subscribe, but which, as a child—on those rare occasions when I came across a copy in Marion, Iowa—utterly fascinated me since it was an entire newspaper devoted to theater, film, and other of my favorite cultural activities. Even today, I can't imagine who in my small city might have been subscribing to it and how I might have encountered copies, but—as any regular reader of the My Year volumes knows—stranger things have happened to me.
Recently I read of the death of one of Variety's most noted columnists, Armand "Army" Archerd, on September 8th of this year, and that, in turn reminded me of the February 7th, 2008 press opening of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's new Broad Museum, when I had lunch with him. It was not a true interview, of either him or me, but an accidental seating arrangement of which I took advantage to introduce myself and to question him on his long career.

I had known a little about him, simply through celebrations in print of his life. Archerd replaced columnist Sheilah Graham (the noted girlfriend of F. Scott Fitzgerald) in 1953, and worked at Variety for the rest of his life, most notably covering Hollywood news and gossip in his "Just for Variety" column. Close acquaintances describe him as a handsome, always nattily dressed man; he was both on that the day I encountered him as well, although when I met him he had just recently reached the grand age of 86.

Unlike some gossip columnists, who cattily and often nastily seemed to spy on Hollywood performers, Archerd interviewed them, often reporting their own corrections to tabloid gossip and sharing information the stars themselves wanted to be made public. Accordingly, he was beloved by many in the Hollywood community, and was highly celebrated in a 40th anniversary event thrown for him by his own paper at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1993.

Among his hundreds of famous pithy observations was Hitchcock's comments in 1966:

He [Hitchcock] also regrets too many film writers today believe plot
is out of fashion. "Plot in a short story and a movie is the most
important thing. The motion picture is like a short story—it's the only
medium you expect to see in continuity without a break. You have to
consider the endurance of the human bladder."

or the wonderful quip from Cary Grant in his 1975 column:

Cary Grant has his attorneys investigating suits vs. People mag and Associated
Press, the former for printing he has false teeth. "I want to get into court
and open my mouth," said Grant. And the AP suit involves their quotes
from a Redbook yarn (which Grant claims doesn't exist), saying he never
loved any of his wives.

and his 1960 news item:

The "mystery malady" which laid low Marilyn Monroe is an allergy to
medication, she says. "At one time I was out cold," she admits. "Now
the only thing I'll take is aspirin." MM mystified guests at her cocktail
party launching "Let's Make Love," Friday, by showing up on time.

I asked him what he was presently working on, and he replied without an instant of thought: "A memoir."

"Wonderful," I responded. "It will have to include everyone! I'll read it."

"Except Greta Garbo. I never got to interview her," he admitted.

I briefly explained my work on my own "cultural" memoir, in which he seemed interested. I wish I'd been able to send him a volume or two.

I asked which piece of his reporting he felt had been his most important.

"Oh definitely, my piece on Rock Hudson announcing that he was sick with AIDS."
That 1985 item began:

The whispering campaign on Rock Hudson can—and should stop. He has
flown to Paris for further help. The Institute Pasteur has been very active
in research on Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Hudson's
dramatic weight loss was made evident to the national press last week
when he winged to Carmel to help longtime friend Doris Day launch
her new pet series. His illness was no secret to close Hollywood friends, but
its true nature was divulged to very, very few. He left for France and
possible aid from scientists there over the weekend. Doctors warn that
the dread disease (AIDS) is going to reach catastrophic proportions in all
communities if a cure is not soon found....

"Of course many Hollywood columnists had long hinted about Hudson's gay sexuality," I added. "I recall reading one such column in 1950s in which the writer warned that if a well known actor showed up once again on Santa Monica Boulevard, trying to pick-up a trick, there would be no way she could any longer hide his identity.

"I never did that kind of writing," he protested.

"I know. But Hudson was pretty obvious," I admitted. "I once saw him with Rod McKuen on an interview show with Dinah Shore. I guess they were doing some kind of record together. It was quite embarrassing, each of them almost swooning over the other, hardly able to keep their hands to themselves."

"Today, I think there would be way to cover up such behavior. But we—others and I—kept some respect for the stars' privacy. It was the only I knew how to write about the men and women on whom I depended for my career."

We ceased chatting and dug into Chef Joachim Splichal's delicious rib tips.

Los Angeles, September 30, 2009