Monday, 26 March 2007

The Akhmatova Journals

The Akhmatova Journals by Lydia Chukovskya
Lydia Chokovskya, Akhmatova's close friend, kept intimate diaries of her life and conversations with her. First published in Russia in 1987, this intimate insight into the daily life and sufferings of Akhmatova, as well as of those around her, is ' illuminating both of horror and of genius. '

The book ends with a long section containing poems by Akhmatova, those without which, as Chukovskya says, 'my entries would be hard to understand.'

The Cellar of Memory
But it's arrant nonsense that I live in sadness
And that remembrance nags at me.
Not often am I guest of memory,
And it always leaves me confused.
When I go down with a lantern to the cellar
It seems to me once more a landslip
Thunders down the narrow stairway after me.
The lantern smokes, I cannot now return,
But I know I go there to the enemy.
And I pray as if for mercy.....But there
It's dark and quiet. My feast day has come to an end!
Thirty years have gone since bidding the ladies farewell,
That joker is dead from old age.....
I have come too late. As if it matters!
I may not show myself anywhere,
But on the walls I touch the paintings
And by the fire I warm myself. Is that not a miracle?
Through this mould, these fumes, this dust
Two sparkling emeralds flashed,
And a cat mewed. Well, let's go home!

But where is my home, and where my reason?

Remembering Anna Akhmatova

Remembering Anna Akhmatova by Anatoly Nayman.
(Cover illustration shows a drawing by Modigliani)

Billo asked me some time ago to tell him some books about Akhmatova.
This is one by someone who knew her intimately in the last years of her life.
Akhmatova's life was tragic. During Stalin's years of terror she had seen her husband and son taken away to prison camps, suffered the disappearance of many friends, and had lived in cultural isolation and utter deprivation.

Anatoly Nayman was Akhmatova's literary secretary and disciple during her last years and he recalls here their conversations about literature and friends, anecdotes about family life and vignettes, some amusing, some ordinary and some tragic: Joseph Brodsky digging a fall-out shelter for her to her utter bemusement; Akhmatova's bravery in intervening with the authorities on behalf of Brodsky....
Throughout the book, the narrative of conversations and events is illustrated by quotations from poems by Akhmatova and others. This is one of her poems which Nayman quotes. It was written about a bouquet of roses given to her by a friend:

No doubt you're someone's spouse and also someone's lover
My casket's themes suffice without including you,
All day I've been entreated by the flute celestial
To make a gift of words as partners for her sounds.
And you were not the object which seduced my gaze.
So many avenues the night extends before me,
So many sad chrisanthmums September gives.

In his Foreword to Nayman's book (1991), Isaiah Berlin writes:
Anna Andreevna Akhmatova, a noble and most moving writer, is one of the four great poets whose art dominated and continues to dominate Russian literature; her genius and monstrous persecution by the state will be remembered as long as the history and literature of Russia continue to be known.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

The Aged Beast Takes a Sunday Stroll

A Sunday stroll on a fine Spring morning. Low tide. Blue haze of sky and sea. Skylarks larking and calling above

Friday, 23 March 2007

The Translation of Memories

Recollections of the Young Proust from the letters of Marie Nordlinger

This book, by P.F. Prestwich, records the friendship between Marie Nordlinger, the English cousin of the musician and composer Reynaldo Hahn, Hahn himself and Marcel Proust. The three young people (all in their early 20s) met in Paris when Marie went there to study art. It was to prove a life-long friendship, extending over almost thirty years and ending only with Proust's death in 1922. The friendship between the two cousins endured until Hahn's death in 1947.

Prestwich worked with Marie Nordlinger for some years transcribing the correspondence between Marie, Proust and Hahn. She became a close friend of the Nordlinger family and was the inheritor of Marie's archive of letters and other memorabilia.

Although Proust and Nordlinger were drawn together by their shared appreciation of fine arts, cathedrals and the countryside, the mainspring of their friendship was their shared devotion to Reynaldo Hahn, with whom both were, and remained, passionately in love.

Nordlinger was one of the first of Proust's circle to publish some of the letters she received from him - forty one of them are included in Lettres á une amie (Editions du Calame, Manchester, 1942). They contain an Introduction by her giving a brief account of her collaboration with Proust on the translation of two of Ruskin's books, The Bible of Amiens and Sesame and Lilies.

Prestwich's book throws fascinating sidelight on the three characters during all the years they knew and corresponded with each other. Nordlinger herself is worth studying - the talented, artistic daughter of the typically liberal, hard-working Victorian middle class living in Manchester at that time achieved recognition as an artist and sculptor. She also became the agent for a wealthy American collector who gave her carte blanche to travel around in America buying and selling on his account, only marrying when she was 35.

The book gives a wonderfully clear and intimate insight into Proust's work and pre-occupations during the years before he finally published Á La Recherche, as also of Hahn's development as the eminent composer and conductor he eventually became.

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

The Last Moghul by William Dalrymple

In an interview Dalrymple says this: The narrative revolves particularly around the last Moghul emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who creates this wonderful renaissance at the very end of Moghul rule, and who lived to his old age to see that destroyed when the Indians rose up in mutiny against the British and were crushed horribly, in what remains one of the great unwritten genocides of the British Empire. People are aware now of the destruction of the Aborigine peoples of Australia and Tasmania, the Irish potato famine is well documented; this is an imperial horror story of a similar scale, when the British surround and destroy Delhi. It’s never been written up completely for example how the British track down, hunt and kill every last Moghul prince they can find.

Dalrymple's research for this book was as thorough and meticulous as we would expect of him. What was amazing was to learn that he and his colleagues found the Persian and Urdu documents relating to Delhi in 1857, known as The Mutiny Papers and housed in the National Archive of India in New Delhi, virtually unused. He describes his discovery of this treasure as one of the highlights of the whole project. What he describs as 'the street-level' nature of some of the material enables him to layer his narrative, giving it a totally convincing graphic quality that conventional histories miss. We get 'the larger picture', the political, religious and military forces at work, as well as detailed accounts of the way in which these were experienced by innumerable individuals, members of Zafar's family and court as well as the commmon citizens of Delhi.

Irfan Husain, a Pakistani commentator, in an article in Khaleej Times Online says:
As so brilliantly chronicled by William Dalrymple in ‘The Last Moghul’, the British exiled the King and killed his heirs, thus ending the dynasty started by Babur over three centuries ago. To be accurate, the line had been in a state of decline for years, and the Uprising was the last nail in its coffin.

Husain goes on to explain that it was Dalrymples' book which encouraged him to search Karachi's Sindh archives and find there yet more records of the fall-out from the Mutiny - that, for example, some of the exiled prisoners from Delhi were transported from Karachi to the Andaman Islands. The whole article is here:§ion=irfanhusain&col=yes

Dalrymple ends the book by tracing the 'fall-out' from the destruction of the Mughals' 'peaceful and tolerant attitude to life', regretting what he sees as 'the bleak dualism' of today's confrontations beween nations, ideologies and religions. There is, he says, '..much to regret in the way that the British swept away and rooted out the late Mughals' pluralistic and philosophically composite civilisation.'

Friday, 16 March 2007

Proust in the Power of Photography by Brassai

This brilliant little book by the photographer Brassai is a fascinating study of the importance in Proust's life and writing of photography; Proust was an avid collector of photographs of his friends and social acquaintances, sometimes to the point of obsession.
Brassai (Gyula Halász) himself was born in Transylvania and after moving to France learned the language through reading Proust. He writes:
'In his battle against Time, that enemy of our precarious existence, ever on the offensive though never openly so, it was in photography, also born of an age-old longing to halt the moment, to wrest it from the flux of 'dureé' in order to 'fix' it forever in a semblance of eternity, that Proust found his best ally.'
The epigraph at the begining of Brassai's book is a quote from A L'Ombre des Jeunes Filles en Fleures:
'Pleasures are like photographs: those taken in the beloved's presence no more than negatives, to be developed later, once you are at home, having regained the use of that interior darkroom, access to which is 'condemned' as long as you are seeing other people.'
C/f Wordsworth:
And when upon my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude.

Tuesday, 13 March 2007

Wordsworth's River Duddon

I offer this 'Thought' to all who write, or make, or aspire to do either:

‘Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go
Through love, through hope and faith’s transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.’
Wordsworth: The River Duddon. Afterthought

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

Loveless Love by Luigi Pirandello

Loveless Love by Luigi Pirandello

‘The Sicilian writer, Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) , is one of Italy's foremost literary figures. A teacher, translator and Professor at an Italian University, his biggest contribution was to theatre, challenging conventional dramatic Naturalism, and paving the way for playwrights such as Brecht and Beckett.’ He was most famous for his play, Six Characters In Search of an Author, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1934 ’ (J.G.Nichols)

Loveless Love is a collection of three remarkable, but slightly chilling, stories, all dealing with ‘sterile, frozen love’. In his Introduction, J.G. Nichols reminds us that Pirandello was more or less contemporary with Freud (1856-1939) and although there is no suggestion of any mutual influence, he notes that they were both involved in ideas and ways of thinking about ourselves which dominated intellectual life in their time and still continue to do so. ‘They are concerned with revealing the motives of human conduct, and not only the motives which we hide from others, but also those which remain hidden from ourselves.’

While Freud's purpose was to heal his patients by formulating theories which he hoped would clarify some of their hidden motivations, Pirandello, being an artist rather than a psychiatrist, is not concerned with theory but presents his characters in concrete situations; he just shows us what happens and what is said. It is worth noting that a great deal of the narrative is delivered through dialogue, anticipating the plays which are now considered to have been Pirandello's greatest achievement.

The question implicit in all Pirandello's stories is: What is love? His answers come in different forms, but none of them make love sound conventionally rosy. His characters are not much swept off their feet by pure, irrational passion - there are always underlying currents and motivations, usually destructive.
In The Wave, a young, well-to-do man regularly rents out part of his property and makes a habit of flirting and falling in love with his female tenants, but never with serious intentions towards them. His contracts with his tenants are only for one year so he always has an easy way out of any involvement. This situation only changes when one of his female tenants proves totally indifferent to his advances because she is in love with someone else. When she is jilted, he first falls in love with her misfortune and finally is in love with what he regards as his triumph over his former rival. In the end, the pleasure he hopes to gain from this somewhat perverse form of devotion is undermined; marriage, and especially pregnancy, have deprived his wife of her youthful beauty. ‘Her condition did not allow him to achieve a complete victory, since by this stage [she] could perhaps no longer inspire in that man [i.e.his rival] the torments of jealous love.’

In A Friend to the Wives, a woman attracts advances, then repels them, so that eventually her would be suitors find wives elsewhere. Why she is so determined to reject all aspiring lovers is never made explicit, but having done so she then deliberately sets out to prove herself to be such a capable and accomplished woman, befriending the new husbands and wives in every possible way, that the husbands fall in love with her, or rather with the unattainable ideal which she represents. But her own underlying motives can only be guessed at: what is she in love with? With power? With the desire for revenge? With being loved?

These are not comfortable stories. J.G.Nichols sums them up as ‘ bleak narratives of mistakes and frustrations.’ He goes on as follows: ‘Why then are they so enjoyable? The answer is, I think, that, even if we cannot know ourselves, we are still creatures with an irresistible urge to know, and we even enjoy getting to know that we cannot know. Pirandello's birthplace was Cavusu, which in Sicilian means "chaos". It is a kind of chaos of which he writes, but his way of doing so is both controlled and calm. We can enjoy in art what we would find unbearable in life.’

Saturday, 3 March 2007

Anselm Kiefer at White Cube Gallery

On reflection, it was probably a bad idea to have read Simon Schama's Guardian review of this exhibition before actually seeing it: nothing on earth (or in art) could ever have lived up to the Schama hyberbole. Added to that, this was my first experience of Kiefer's work 'in the flesh' (or paint) so I was, in a sense, viewing it out of context. My response, therefore, was simply based on an assessment of what was before my eyes - a response somewhat modified by having read the aforementioned review.

In fact Schama's review was couched in such adulatory terms that one could be forgiven for feeling a tad sceptical before ever setting foot in the gallery.

At one point, Schama says:

The practice of perspective, invented to imagine a bucolic world where pastoral fancies were enacted in a neverland of happy radiance, is recycled in Kiefer's landscapes to exterminate the fantasy. Kiefer's skies are often black, streaked with the phosphoric licks of a descending firestorm, and what vanishes at the vanishing point are the balmy consolations of rusticity. Bye-bye Hay Wain, hello the Somme.

This is just glib - we didn't just jump from Constable to Kiefer.

For a more measured response, try this:

Hearing the artist vigorously (disingenuously?) disavow any resonance about September 11th a few nights later on the radio – in what seemed to me a deeply shocking diminishment of the significance of that day - I went to White Cube to see the new “wall works” with mixed feelings. With Simon Schama’s recent eulogy in The Guardian in mind - an anointment of Kiefer that must have embarrassed the artist in its fulsomeness - I went to White Cube prepared to be transported by greatness, or conversely disappointed. In the event, I was neither.
I am well aware of Kiefer’s reluctance to be “understood” and his dislike of interpretation. I enjoy the deliberate opacity and complexity of his iconography, and appreciate his desire for the viewer to use his or her own stores of cultural memory. The didacticism of so much recent art shown in this gallery is tedious, so this show, Aperiatur terra (et germinet salvatorem et iustitia oriatur simul (Let the earth be opened and bud forth a saviour and let justice spring up at the same time) is very liberating and resistant to pat interpretation.
On the ground floor of this exquisite space there is Palmsonntag. Museum vitrines of plaster “embalmed” palm fronds stand sentinel over a palm tree – magnificent in its death upon the pristine gallery floor. This work is heavy with reverence and ideas of renewal. The tree is an emblem of nature in all its magnificence and Kiefer is giving its growth a form of eternity in the glass cases. The archivist in him is very present; the taxonomist too. But there is mortality and the fragility of nature in this room. Of course there is also a more human, if numinous reckoning too. We are well aware of the poignant story of Christ’s joyous arrival in Jerusalem, before the agony on Golgotha. This is Kiefer after all.

Downstairs, there are three large paintings, Aperiat Terra et Germinet Salvatorem, Olympe – für Victor Hugo and Rorate caeli et nubes pluant iustum. Though I feel Kiefer would not have it so, these are noble failures. They are almost conventional landscapes with evident vanishing points upon the horizon. Kiefer negates the eye’s natural travel into the paintings with smeared, kitsch images of poppies, with all their tragic associations, upon the paintings’ surfaces of baked earth, paint and shellac, and the result is awkward. I suspect the garishness is entirely desired, but the result is curiously antipathetic towards looking, and surely this is what he wants us to do? Kiefer’s flaws as an artist are courageous and interesting – if disturbing. In his own words the gallery holds work that takes us to “that place where we can find the goal which we can never find on purpose” but it is worth the detour to find that place in central London.
(Robin Richmond, writing on A World To Win’ website, qv: )

Tnis book review, by Sarah Rich (1917 –2006), is also helpful:

Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger. - MATTHEW BIRO Anselm Kiefer and the Philosophy of Martin Heidegger New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. 327 pp.; 109 b/wills. $79.95
LISA SALTZMAN Anselm Kiefer and Art after Auschwitz New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 186 pp.; 40 b/w ills. $39.95
As an artist of the generation born just after the Second World War, Kiefer has frequently referenced Nazism and its impact on German culture, albeit in rather ambiguous terms. In his early work, Kiefer had himself photographed in his studio and outdoor locations as he raised his right arm in the "Heil Hitler" gesture. In subsequent decades, he has produced "expressionistic" canvases of epic magnitude that, in both tide and pictorial content, evoke narratives of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. However, much of Kiefer's work, in all its Wagnerlust and return to the German soil, can seem Teutonic in the extreme, wavering between critique and complicity. Kiefer has thus been praised for his courageous attempt to recall wartime histories all too frequently repressed in Germany, even as he has been condemned for cavalierly reproducing pathos-laden scenes of wartime destruction without unequivocally condemning Germany's role in the conflict.

My response to the glass-cased collages was purely subjective: I love the idea of using found objects - especially plants and ex-living objects - as a basis for art; it takes me back to my Cornish childhood, when we used to use early-flowering rhodendron and camellia flowers to 'embellish' other, less floriferous shrubs. Also, the earthy colours of Kiefer's backgrounds add a subtle romanticism to the over-all effect - the shades and tints of the sandstone landscape in which I live.