Archive for December, 2010

New York noel

Although they are completely environmentally unfriendly, I always love the Xmas lights in New York. I am off to Spain and England to see my family – so have a wonderful Christmas and best wishes for the New Year.

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It’s not often you get to see a modern play written in verse. La Bête is set in the French court of 1654 but still seems relevant to today’s world of radio shock jocks, partisan talking heads, non-stop blogosphere and the ascendance of reality TV. David Hirson‘s play sets Elomire, leader of the high-brow royal acting troupe against low-brow street performer Valere.

Mark Rylance plays Valere and makes a stunning entrance with a 30 minute  monologue which constantly makes you laugh and David Hyde Pierce is his perfect foil as Elomire. Anyone who has watched Frasier will know that Hyde Pierce can do disdain quite like no-one else and he has my favourite speech:

“It shows that what you really do or say

Is less important than the commentary!

Good art – good deeds – become unnecessary:

What’s crucial is portraying them as good!

Hard facts count less than how they’ re understood;

Pretension and the truth become confused !

The honest word is violently abused;

And when the honest word is stripped of sense,

Its form assumes unnatural consequence:

The way a thing is stated holds more weight,

Than what, if anything, one seeks to state!

“I do my play in rhyme,” he says with bluff

As if refined expression were enough

To pardon an impoverishment of thought!

Yet that’s the place to which we’ve now been bought:

A place where men, as far as I can see,

Aspire to saying nothing endlessly!”

La Bête manages to say something with originality, style and verve and most importantly with humour – a combination of the skills of  Elomire and Valere.

Joanna Lumley‘s princess wants to bring the two together to create a whole out of their separate parts. La Bête brings together a script and a perfect cast to create a whole that makes you both laugh and think and that is truly great art.

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The Manhattan skyline is its own work of art but I love that the authorities encourage free public exhibitions that use the unique architecture of the city.

In 2008 there were the Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson and this summer I enjoyed Event Horizon by Antony Gormley.

More recently the Public Art Fund also bought together a group of six artists with a fresh take on figurative sculpture in Lower Manhattan’s City Hall park:

“They tend towards abstraction over realism, assemblage over the ready-made, construction of form over casting from life, and physicality and texture over refinement of finish. Conceptually sophisticated, historically informed, and expressively direct, Statuesque finds in the human figure a sculptural tradition ripe for experimentation.”

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A lot of visual inspiration this week :

an empty chair symbolises the absence of imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo who was not allowed to travel to Norway to collect his Nobel Peace Prize today. The image is given even more resonance as CNN says:

“The last time an empty chair was used to represent an absent winner was when German peace activist Carl von Ossietzky won the 1935 award. Ossietzky was under “protective custody” in Nazi Germany and could not come to accept the award in person, nor was he represented by anyone.”

The occasion also provides a good excuse to remind ourselves of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

– the Guardian has a selection of the best photos of the decade sent in by its readers;

– beautiful photos of snow from Magnum;

350.org, an environmental  group which raises awareness by creating huge artworks that are visible from space;

– and finally, Hans Rosling uses visual data to give you the history of 200 countries over 200 years in 4 minutes.  If lessons were like this schoolchildren would love maths:

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“She passed away in a perfected dream of tragic love – consumptive, wet-eyelashed, and as often as not singing her goodbyes to him in phrases borrowed from popular Italian opera.”

Julian Treslove in The Finkler Question

Completely by coincidence, while I was reading the Man Booker-prize winner, a friend invited me to a fabulous production of La Boheme by The Metropolitan Opera. In Howard Jacobson‘s book, Julian Treslove, an obscure BBC radio producer-turned-celebrity-lookalike, has a “Mimi complex” :

“He couldn’t picture them dying in his arms. Couldn’t weep for them. And where he couldn’t weep, he couldn’t love.”

The beautiful music of La Boheme builds up to the climax of Mimi’s death but The Finkler Question deals with the grief of those left behind. Treslove is friends with two recent widowers –  the elderly Libor Sevick, who was devoted and faithful to his “inspiration, his instructress, his companion, his judge” Malkie in a long marriage and, in contrast, a much younger Sam Finkler, who had a string of extra-marital affairs.

Treslove wants to ask Libor :

“How do you go on living knowing that you will never again – not ever, ever – see the person you have loved ? How do you survive a single hour, a single minute, a single second of that knowledge ? …. Was it better then – measuring the loss – not to know happiness at all ? “

Treslove is not a widower and unlike his two friends he is not Jewish. However after a sequence of events which starts with being mugged by a woman Treslove decides he wants to be a Jew, or as he says, a  “Finkler” :

“If this was what all Jews looked like , Treslove thought, then Finkler, which sounded like Sprinkler, was a better name for them than Jew. So that was what he called them privately – Finklers.

He would have liked to tell his friend this. It took away the stigma, he thought. The minute you talked about the Finkler Question, say, or the Finklerish Conspiracy, you sucked out the toxins.”

Jacobson uses the wannabe Treslove and the contrast between the old Eastern European Libor and the secular Finkler to explore questions of Jewish  identity, antisemitism, and Israel and Palestine. But he also uses humour, even when discussing the Holocaust:

“Perhaps they [Jews] were able by a glance to thought-transfer the Holocaust to one another. “

and Jewish stereotypes:

“It was what God gave the Finklers as the mark of His covenant with them – the ability to shrug like him.”

The humour strikes exactly the right tone so that it does not diminish the seriousness of the issues being discussed and the laughter highlights the mourning of the two widowers. The book manages to be both funny and sad and it also provides hope:

“At a funeral Jews wish one another long life. It is a vote for life’s continuance in the face of death.”

Continuance in the face of death is the subject of Joan Didion‘s  heartbreaking The Year of Magical Thinking. In her memoir she unflinchingly describes her feelings after the sudden death of her husband of almost 40 years, John Gregory Dunne, while their daughter Quintana lies critically ill in a New York hospital.

The first words she writes are:

“Life changes fast.

Life changes in the instant.

You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.

The question of self-pity.”

I read this book when it first came out in 2005 but re-read it when it was the most recent choice of my book club. I had forgotten just how good Didion’s writing is – the language is spare but crystal clear in portraying her feelings frankly and honestly, especially as she reaches the end of her year of magical thinking during which she keeps imagining John will be coming back. Anyone who has experienced the death of someone they love will find she has expressed the feelings they found inexpressible:

“The craziness is receding but no clarity is taking its place.

I look for resolution and find none…..

I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.

I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.

Let them become the photograph on the table.

Let them become the name on the trust accounts.

Let go of them in the water.

Knowing this does not make it any easier to let go of him in the water.”

Letting go is not easy but after reading Didion’s book you will know the answer to Treslove’s question – happiness is worth the measurement of  the loss.

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Looking up from the Bloomberg building on E58th and 3rd:

Looking up from the Bloomberg building

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I have been in the same room as a Nobel Laureate for the first time.

Last night I went to a lecture by Derek Walcott at the New York Public Library. Fellow poet James Dickey describes him as :

“a 20th-century man, living in the West Indies and in Boston, poised between the blue sea and its real fish, its coral reefs and gigantic turtles (endangered but also real), and the rockets and warheads, between a lapsed colonial culture and the industrial North, between Africa and the West, between slavery and intellectualism, between the native Caribbean tongue and English learned from books, between the black and white in his own body, between the sound of the home ocean and the lure of European culture, and, to turn the order of reference around, between the high-tech underground of the computerized silos and the steel bands riding with the guitar of Joseph Spence as he sings, ”Out on the rolling sea and Jesus speak to me.” “

I spend my day in a high-tech silo looking at digital words on a computer screen but as Walcott read his poetry I felt a  connection to the oral history our ancestors. They would have been equally enthralled listening to Beowulf, or The Iliad or Gilgamesh as I was hearing Love After Love. This was the poem emailed most often to NPL Live curator Paul Holdengraber once people found out Walcott would be speaking.

The evening was also a reminder that I  should read more poetry so that will be one of my resolutions next year – especially now I have a signed copy of White Egrets.

Walcott described the power of poetry perfectly in his Nobel lecture:

“Poetry, which is perfection’s sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops on a statue’s brow, combines the natural and the marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously: the past and the present, if the past is the sculpture and the present the beads of dew or rain on the forehead of the past. There is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary, and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery. “

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