Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Six Stories of Sao Paulo: The 2nd Night (The Professor of Everything and the Professor of Nothing)

Regis Bonvincino

Nelson Ascher

On the second day of my first trip to São Paulo, Michael Palmer and I met with Régis Bonvicino for breakfast, and then walked a short ways to a coffee shop to meet the other editor of the book, Nelson Ascher.

Nelson—although a very different figure from our charming host, Régis—seemed affable enough. And as we began talking, we could see that he was warming to our company.

Of Hungarian background, Nelson was fascinated that I'd read some of the major Hungarian poets in translation, and as I shared my spotty knowledge with him, he filled in the gaps. Before long he was speaking of a great many things, with long disquisitions on all sorts of subjects, all quite coherently presented, but a bit like never-ending lectures that shifted quickly from theme to theme, and were, accordingly, almost impossible to follow.

As lunch approached, we ordered Antarctica beers and a bite to eat, but the conversation, mostly emanating from Nelson flowed forth, until I suddenly noticed the sun across the dark blue walls of the bar was beginning to set.

Both Michael and I were still suffering from jet-lag, and we were unable to take in much of Nelson said. At one point I recall Michael asking what Régis and Nelson felt were the most important books of Brazilian literature still needing to be translated into English. Régis quickly mentioned a couple of titles, but Nelson began a new lecture about the whole of Brazilian culture, a conversation that lasted long after I had any ability to coherently listen. We finally had to insist that it was time for us to go.

At first this free flow of information seemed almost comical, somewhat charming. But after the second day of the torrent of subjects pouring from Nelson's mouth, particularly when we were attempting to help our friends with the translations of our poems, his chatter became irritating. My explanation of a single English words would send him on discourse about several languages. That evening, after Nelson had left, Régis joked, "You see, Nelson is the Professor Everything. While I am the Professor of Nothing."

Some months later, when the two of them traveled to the United States to promote the book, those words grew to mean much more. If there had been an unspoken tension between the two editors in Brazil, by the time they reached the United States, Régis had begun to show signs of great impatience with his colleague. Nelson seemed quite oblivious, easily making friends with the American poets, because he spoke so openly—and so much; and he quickly won over friends such as Julian Semilian and my companion Howard simply because of his love of jokes. Régis seemed nervous and slightly tortured in his presence.

Indeed, when the two performed at a reading I had arranged in the Spanish and Portuguese Department of the University of California, Los Angeles, outsiders became aware of their growing enmity, and I had to step in as moderator simply to prevent it boiling over into the classroom. The Professor of Everything was slowly burying the Professor of Nothing in words.

I held a small party in my office that evening, and told both of them, staying at a nearby motel, that they had to be ready and waiting in the lobby by 7:00 the next morning so that we could catch the plane to San Francisco, the next leg of our travels.

At 7:00 I arrived at the motel, where Régis, as promised, stood ready. Nelson evidently was still asleep. I knocked on his door, awakening him and insisted that he had immediately to get dressed. We would miss the plane. As it turned out, he not even packed yet. And, as we nervously awaited him, Régis insisted we should leave him behind.

"I can't do that," I proclaimed.

"You'll make the plane if we leave soon," Howard consoled us.

"We should just leave him. He'll find a way up," Régis persisted.

"But he doesn't even know the name of the hotel," I argued. "And I'm responsible for him as well."

Finally Nelson appeared and Howard rushed us to our plane.

It turned out that Nelson was desperately afraid of flying, and he postponed every moment he could before getting onto the aircraft. When we arrived at our seats, I insisted on sitting between the two to prevent any further arguments.

But out of fear, Nelson began to talk, and to talk, and to talk. He talked first of the Hungarian language, of the roots of certain words and sounds. He talked of the towns and cities on the Danube and Tisza rivers. He talked of his uncles and aunts. I turned to Régis to speak, hoping it would stall his avalanche of information. It did not. Régis sat with teeth clenched.

At several points, as Régis reminds me, Nelson got up from his seat and attempted make conversation with the stewardess. After about three such occurrences, she brought him back to his seat and demanded that he remain there. "I was just trying to make friends," Nelson insisted.

When we finally reached our destination we rushed to the baggage chute, but stood waiting. Nelson's over-large suitcase did not arrive! I told the baggage handler our address, and off we rushed to the hotel via taxicab.

On the way, I attempted to share with both of them some of San Francisco's sights, but every time I pointed out a spot, Nelson brought up the Hungarian language and the etymology of certain words. I too was growing very impatient with the Professor of Everything. It was no longer charming or even funny. When I attempted to show him a San Francisco streetcar, he looked the other direction.

"Nelson," I scolded, "I was attempting to show you something. One of the famed San Francisco streetcars."

Nelson looked at me for a second, and with a totally serious grimace on his face, answered in a deep growl: "I have seen their tracks!"

Régis and I erupted into laughter, as Nelson scowled, seeming to ponder his fate.

When he reached the hotel, we quickly retreated to his room and suggested, via telephone, that perhaps he was not wanted at the party I was planning that night.

"No, Nelson you have to be there! I've put together a huge event and invited all my San Francisco friends. I want them to meet both you and Régis. I'm sorry if I offended you. I just wanted to make sure that you saw a bit of the city while you were here."

Régis had already rushed into the streets to discover the city for himself. Nelson stayed in his hotel room all afternoon, napping

Nelson attended the evening event, charming, I am certain, a great many of my poet friends. But the next day, instead of returning with us to Los Angeles, he bought a train ticket to New York.

Los Angeles, August 13, 2000
Reprinted from Sibila (November 2009) in Portuguese as "Memória: O Lançamento de Nothing the Sund Could Explain."

Article on David Bromige appears in Shearsman

Shearsman, vols. 83 & 84 have just published my essay on David Bromige, who died in June of 2009, titled "Changing Hands." You can purchase copies at

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Fallen Stars (on Miklos Vamos' The Book of the Fathers)

Miklós Vámos The Book of the Fathers, translated from the Hungarian by Peter Sherwood (New York: Other Press, 2009)

Miklós Vámos' popular Hungarian fiction is a grand picaresque spanning 13 generations of the Csillag-Sternovsky-Stern family, tracing its roots through the last 300 years of Hungarian history. As Vámos himself makes clear in his Afterword, that history is not a pretty one, revealing that the Hungarian people have seldom been on the winning side of a battle, and the Csillag-Sternovsky-Stern family, whose names represent the Hungarian, Polish, and German equivalents of "Star," suffer the fate of their homeland.

The fiction begins in the village of Kos in a territory of Hungary regularly attacked by both the Kuruc forces (vagabond guerrillas against the Habsburgs) and the Labanc (Austrian collaborators and reactionaries). The people in between these two groups are killed, their homes and businesses destroyed.

When Kornél Csillag's family is attacked they hide, with other villagers, successfully in a cave; but when the marauders temporarily retreat some are lured outside, and when they return they are followed, the cave bombarded. Everyone within, accept for the young 4-year-old Kornél, are slaughtered. He survives only by accident.

We soon find out, however, that Kornél, a born storyteller, has other powers that are handed down by birth to the first-born sons, the ability to know the family's past without being told and, in some instances, even to see hazily into the future.

These powers often provide great comprehension and talents—Bálant Sternovsky, Kornél's son, for example, knows hundreds of Hungarian tunes and sings them beautifully without any musical training—but it does not necessarily help the family to survive. Bálant, as almost every first-born son, meets an untimely and violent death; and those who do not, often end life bitterly.

The 4th generation, that of Richard Stern, is one of the most successful. Richard, who falls in love with a Jewish girl, converts to Judaism and develops a successful wine business with his wife's family. His end, however, begins a long period of hateful prejudice and religious persecution which, even though the Stern-Csillag's no longer practice the religion, destroys entire generations in World Wars I and II, and leads the prison camp survivor Balázs Csillag to declare himself a Roman Catholic. Balázs lives a long life, but remains bitterly empty and lonely, leaving his son to try to comprehend why his father was such a cold and forbidding man.

By the end of the family history, the Csillag's no longer know their own pasts, and the magic powers of memory and foretelling have disappeared. Balázs destroys the two volumes of The Book of the Fathers. It seems almost an accident that Henryk Csillag-Stern has a child, and we are not certain that the final Csillag, Konrad, will even marry; but he does, by fiction's end, begin to show amazing linguistic powers that may link him with the illustrious personages of his past.
Each of the generations is given large chapters in which they and their families play out, in ordinary and amazing ways, their personalities against the backdrop of Hungarian landscape and history. And there is no question that Vámos is a man of great literary talent. Yet it is the very generational structure he his imposed upon his work that brings with it a kind of flacidness defeating some of the dramatic narratives he relates. After a while, not only do we know the patterns—birth, short or long life, sudden death—but we lose interest in family members, just as they seem to lose interest in themselves. That is not say there are not brilliant moments throughout, and this reader, at least, was not at all exhausted by the 466 pages of the text. But one might have longed for more radically stylistic differences, more variance of the narrative method.

Vámos is clearly one of the many talented contemporary Hungarian fiction writers, ranging from the highly postmodern twists of plot of the works of Péter Esterházy, to the metaphysical constructs of László Kraszhahorkai, to the intensely personal and often quirky narratives of Péter Nádas and the quasi-autobiographical speculations of Imre Kertész. All of these writers are significant; my only wish for Vámos' The Book of the Fathers is that he might have whipped some of the wondrously personal mysteries of Kraszhahorkai and Nádas into his towering soufflé.

Los Angeles, March 23, 2010

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Waiting for Something Else (on Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice)

Andrei Tarkovsky (screenplay and director) Offret (The Sacrifice) / 1986 / The screening I saw was at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on February 5, 2010

Compared with the epic works such as Andrei Rublev and even Stalker, Tarkovsky's last film seems narratively simpler. His roving and constantly shifting images become, in the hands of cinematographer Sven Nykvist (also Ingmar Bergman's cinematographer), a series of longer and more focused scenes; in a film of 149 minutes there are, reportedly, only 115 shots.

Also because of its Bergmanian and, particularly, Chekovian influences, the narrative shifts from Tarkovsky's emblematic method of story-telling in his previous films to a more traditionally Western story-line—although Tarkovsky often purposely thwarts the more normative dramatic results.

Isolated on Bergman's island of Gotland, the family at the center of this film live, as does the family in Chekov's The Seagull, in what might be described as a summer house, this located by the sea instead of a lake.

Their home, a place that seemed to call out to both Alexander (played by Bergman actor Erland Josephson) and his wife Adelaide (Susan Fleetwood) upon their first encountering it, is something they both still love and yet is a container for all their hurts and pains. Dressed almost as turn-of-the-century women right out of Chekov, both Alexander's wife and his daughter (Valérie Mairesse) quietly spar with each other. Indeed something seems to be sickening all the inhabitants of this house. The young son, nicknamed "Little Man," has just undergone some sort of throat operation, and is mute throughout most of the film. Alexander, a former actor, and now, a successful aesthetician, journalist, and professor, is undergoing a kind of existentialist crisis, and is unable to find meaning or belief in his life. Alexander's behavior alternates between long philosophical monologues and self-consumed silence. As his friend Otto chides him, like a Beckett figure, he is one of those desperately "waiting for something else."

Otto, a part-time postman, collects strange incidents and falls into temporary faints. The Icelandic maid, Maria, to put it simply, is most strange. Yet, as their doctor friend and visitor, Victor, later reveals, it is Adelaide and her incessant attacks on her husband, and her outspoken dismissal of those around her that most makes this house an unbearable place in which to exist. By film's end, Victor is determined to leave it (and, apparently, the daughter) for Australia.
The day in which the film begins is Alexander's 50th birthday, and all have gathered here to endure a celebratory dinner. At this point, however, Tarkovsky turns the tables, so to speak. What has been a Chekov-like family comedy-drama is suddenly transformed into an international event as the radio and television, in blips of static, report that the world is on the throes of another great War, with the certainty of a nuclear holocaust.

Adelaide lapses into a fit of terror, screaming out for the men "to do something," as Alexander retreats to his room upstairs, pondering the unbearable wait of the next few hours. This, he is suddenly certain, was what he was waiting for, a call to action. Although he has previously described himself as a nonbeliever, he now intensely prays to God, insisting that he will give up everything he loves, his son, his house, his life, if only the holocaust can be averted.

While we hear the roars of jet planes flying overhead, the family, some now sedated by Victor, quietly wait out what is suddenly a real tragedy, reiterating their personal pains and failures. Otto, who has previously left, climbs secretly through a second-story window to ludicrously reveal to Alexander that he must go to the house of the Icelandic maid—who is a witch, but of the right kind— and lay with her through the night in order to save the world.

Suddenly we begin to suspect that Tarkovsky is pulling out the rug from his story once more. Just as we might have imagined that the original comic-tragedy has reverted into an allegory of horror, by now combining pagan acts with Christian prayers, we begin to see another kind of comic potential in this work.

In his essay "Zarathustra's Gift in Tarkovsky's Sacrifice," Gino Moliterno convincingly argues that Tarkovsky is reiterating in his film Nietzsche's Zoroastrian notion of the Eternal Return that Tarkovsky intimates at the beginning of the movie with a reference to Zarathustra's dwarf. Alexander, he argues, who has come to the crossroads of his life (like Tarkovsky, who himself was dying of cancer at the time of the filming), is by film's end willing to say, "Is that life? Well then, once again!"

I argue that Tarkovsky purposely combines both the pagan and the Christian worlds, symbolized by the gentle drama of the turn-of-the-century combined with images of the horrors of 20th century wars. What some critics have complained as a murky mix of paganism and Christianity or seen as a narrative incongruity, is, in fact, a kind of delicious pot au feu in which Tarkovsky's character pluckily mixes religions of the present and the past represented by various dramatic genres in order to transform the present into another kind of reality, pointing up both the past and the potential, different future. The witchcraft of Maria weaves its spell, just as the Christian moral choices of abstinence motivates Alexander's acts.

Waking the next morning, the electricity has returned, and all seems like it was earlier the day before. The other figures quietly share a breakfast table, seeming to have forgotten what they have undergone during the night. Was it all just a dream, a horrible nightmare spawned by Alexander's troubled mind? In some ways, it does not matter. The house is still sick, the patients still in need of a cure, even if the world at large has been salvaged.

Tricking them to take a morning walk, Alexander dances and trots around the house, almost comically snacking on tabletop leftovers as he prepares a fire which, once he has set, quickly creates an inferno.

As family and friends come running back to the burning pyre, an ambulance miraculously arrives to cart Alexander, a man apparently gone mad, off. Such a truth-teller must be put away immediately. Whether or not he has redeemed their lives, has managed to resurrect the lives of his family and friends, he has redeemed his own life; for once he has acted instead of passively waiting for the end.

Tarkovsky's brilliant film closes with a scene in which "Little Man," a future Alexander, lays under a tree which the two of them have planted in the very first scene. The child, in his first and only lines of the film, speaks: "In the beginning was the word...why is that, papa?" If Alexander is determined to spend the rest of his life in silence, to give up all that life has meant, the boy will continue to speak in a dialogue with and for him in the next generation with its new possibilities. The magic, Christian or pagan, has been accomplished.

Los Angeles, April 15, 2010

When I first saw The Sacrifice years earlier, I was immensely moved by it, and had the feeling that when I fell asleep that night that I dreamt the movie all over again, as if it had somehow rewound itself in my head. I did not know at that time that Tarkovsky had had a somewhat similar instance occur during the work's filming. When they first attempted to film the burning house, the camera jammed, and they lost the crucial shot. At great expense and time that Tarkovsky, ill during the shooting, did not have, they rebuilt the house and filmed the scene again with two cameras.
Moliterno points to this ironic situation that might have reiterated one of Tarkovsky's themes: "Is that life? Well then, once again!"

Los Angeles, April 16, 2010

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Interpretation of Dreams (on The Festival Play of Daniel and The Book of Daniel)

Anonymous The Festival Play of Daniel, James Conlon, conductor, Eli Villaneuva, director / performed by singers of the LA Opera, with members of the LA Opera orchestra, Hamilton High School Academy of Music Symphony Orchester, The Colbun String Orchestra, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels Choir, the Colburn Children's Choir and Opera Workshop, the Pueri Cantores San Gabriel Valley Children's Choir, the St. John Eudes Children's and Adult Choirs / at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels, Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Book of Daniel, King James Version

The Old Testament Book of Daniel—which Howard and I reread before our attendance at the Medieval festival play based on it—is certainly one of the strangest books of the Bible. Although it contains three of the most famous stories of biblical literature—the burning and resurrection of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, Belshazzar's inability to read the writing on the wall, and Daniel's imprisonment in the lion's den—much of the story is a revelation-like maze of dreams, foretellings, and detailed interpretations of those dreams.

Daniel, a slave in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, quickly rises in the court when he is able to interpret Nebuchadnezzar's dream, even though the dream forebodes the end of his realm.
Similarly, he interprets the writing on the wall for Nebuchadnezzar's son Belshazzar, again predicting the fall of the empire, but is praised nonetheless for his ability.

The Persian Darius who next rules admires Daniel from the beginning, but is tricked by his advisors into commanding all men to bow before his image. When Daniel prays instead to his God, Darius has no choice but to arrest him and send him into certain death in the lion's den. When he opens the den the next morning to find Daniel has survived, he seemingly converts:

I make a decree, That in every dominion of my kingdom
men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for he is
the living God, and steadfast for ever, and his kingdom that
which shall not be destroyed, and his dominion shall be even
unto the end.

But these are the least complex of the that book's events. Much more perplex are the interweaving of dreams and tales, some told directly by Daniel, others by the kings. The texts quickly shift in form and content, one dream standing out almost as a surreal series of images that might be at home in any contemporary, animated science fiction flick.

At one point Daniel is visited by God or, perhaps, an angel, where he is told of a series of predictions that call to mind the New Testament Book of Revelations, ending in a vision of a figure similar to Christ. Even more strangely, after the vision occurs Daniel is ordered to "shut up the words and seal the book." In short, the prophet has been told to cease prophesying at the very moment of his greatest revelation.

The Christian-based Festival Play of Daniel concentrates its energy on Belshazzar, the inexplicable writing on the wall, Daniel's incarceration by Darius in the lion's den, and the prediction—much more emphatically stated than in the Bible—of the coming of Christ.
The production I saw was clearly revised and "filled in" with full choruses and orchestras, vast dances and a request for the audience to share in singing the closing song.

The Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels was filled with people of great racial and financial diversity (tickets were free), along with numerous children which were highly entertained by the long processions through the aisles of kings (Belshazzar, likeably played by Yohan Yi, and Darius by Robert MacNeil), queens (Danielle Walker), and an angel upon stilts (Caleb Barnes). The lions, for my taste, were too reminiscent of The Lion King, but obviously delighted the children in our midst.

I might wish to see this grand spectacle in a production performed closer to the original and directed more in the spirit of emblematic tableauxs rather than with such narrative flourish; Conlon's and Villanueva's production clearly served its purposes, bringing spiritual enlightenment to the audience through the more flowing and musically narrative passages. I admit that overall the production even brought tears to my eyes.
While the last phrase of the music (sung by audience and players) admitted that in God "we own the mystery," however, the many mysteries of Daniel were somehow painted over by this modernized recreation, and we left more in joy than in wonder.

Los Angeles, March 10, 2010