Friday, May 17, 2013
The Yellow Hope is the stage name of the singer, songwriter, guitarist, and applied mathematician Arnold D. Kim, who when not recording and performing is deputy director of the UC Merced Center for Computational Biology (not your typical day job, but hey, you do what you gotta do). He has put out two CDs, Even the Beautiful Get Lonely (Sometimes), from which this track is taken, and the recently released Fifty Shades of Yellow, which features a duet with Syd Straw, no less.
A fine guitarist with an unassuming but appealing singing voice, Kim is content not to try to push his songs too hard. His subject matter pretty much hews to the usual range of romantic infatuation and disappointment, and at his best, as in this quietly affecting little song, he's quite good. The place names mentioned in the lyrics trace a stroll through the streets of Madrid, described in more detail (and with pictures and a map) on the Yellow Hope Project blog.
The two Yellow Hope Project CDs are available from CD Baby.
Sunday, May 12, 2013
I haven't been able to determine whether "Cara Mamma," the Primo Levi story from which the following excerpts are taken has been translated into English. In any case, I came across it in a French translation, on a website with a Japanese-English name, and it's written in the form of a letter home from an ancient Roman soldier stationed in Britain, so we're well into international waters here.
I beg your pardon if I haven't written you after receiving the letter that you sent me last March, and which arrived just as the spring was reaching its end. In this country, spring isn't like it is back home; here, the seasons have no frontiers, it rains winter and summer, and the sun, when it shows itself from behind the clouds, is as feeble in summer as it is in winter — but it rarely shows itself.
If I've been slow to respond, it's because the public scribe to whom I've addressed myself in the past has died. After so many years and so many letters that he wrote for me, we had become friends and I didn't have to explain to him each time who I was and who you were, to tell him where you live, where our village was and what it was like, and everything that one needs to know so that a letter could speak as a messenger might speak.
The public scribe who transcribes my words today arrived a little while ago. He's a wise and educated man, but he's not Latin, nor even a Briton, and he still doesn't know much about the way they live here, so it's I who am helping him more than he helps me. He's not Latin, as I said, he comes from the country of Kent, which is to say from the south, but he has always worked in public service, and he speaks and writes Latin better than I do, now that I'm beginning to forget it. He's also a good magician, who knows how to make it rain, although that's a task that I am equally able to perform, since it rains almost every day. [...]
Imagine that everything here is different from the way it is in Italy: the vegetation, the sheep, the sea, the houses, the clothing, the fish, the shoes; so much so that one is naturally drawn to call these things not by their Latin names but but the names they use here. Don't laugh if I talk of shoes; in a country of rain and mud, shoes are more important than bread, to the extent that here in Vindolanda one finds more tanners and cobblers than soldiers. For three quarters of the year we wear hobnail boots that weigh two pounds each — everyone, even women and children. [...]
Dear Mother, write me and tell me the news from home; the postal service is quite good, your letters reach me in less than sixty days, and even your package arrived in just over sixty days. Here, one is in wool country, but the wool here isn't as soft and proper as the kind you spin. I thank you with all my filial affection; every time I put on my shoes my thoughts will be of you.
The above translation, which is now two removes from what Levi wrote, is mine. The "original" text (with the same ellipses) can be found at A Nice Slice of Tororu Shiru, where it is accompanied by a brief note and bibliographic details.
Saturday, May 04, 2013
I had never heard of David Francey until a few weeks ago, but already I'm a fan. Have a listen:
I wake to the radio morning newsBorn in Scotland in 1954, Francey has lived in Canada since he was twelve. He worked in the construction business for years and didn't cut his first record until he was well into his forties (so score one for the old guys). Since then he has released a CD every year or two and has emerged as one of Canada's most respected songwriters. The Skating Rink is the one I'm currently listening to, but this title song from The Waking Hour (which is available in the US from from Red House Records) is hard to get away from too.
Just as the day is dawning
And I watch from the window while a passing cloud
Dulls the hopeful morning
And I wonder will the girl I love
Come back with the morning
But the omen crow at the waking hour
Has given me fair warning
And the heart that's breaking
Never makes a sound
As the seventh and longest of the eight parts of The Thibaults draws to a close, armies have been mobilized, fighting has broken out across Europe, and Jacques Thibault and Jenny de Fontanin have become lovers. Jean Jaurès, the one Socialist leader who seemed most likely to resist the march to war, has been assassinated before their very eyes; to Jacques's disgust, Jaurès's former comrades quickly fall in step with the patriotic march to war. Because Jacques holds forged Swiss papers, he plans to take Jenny to Switzerland and escape service in the army. In no case is he willing to fight or to kill his fellow man; the divergence between his views and those of his older brother Antoine, in regard to the civic obligation to obey the country's call to arms, is absolute. (Though Martin du Gard was a pacifist, he characteristically gives Antoine the most persuasive lines.) At the last moment, Jenny has a terrible row with her mother and decides to remain behind in Paris, temporarily, to patch things up. Jacques leaves for Switzerland; the couple will never see each other again. Despite his genuine love for Jenny, the truth is that he is relieved. He has set himself a mission, to which Jenny would only be an obstacle.
The mission, such as it is, is utterly insane: with a comrade, a pilot named Meynestrel, he concocts a plan to drop hundreds of thousands of leaflets along the battlefront, leaflets calling on soldiers on both sides to lay down their arms and rise up against the politicians and capitalists who have sent them to war. Does he really believe that the soldiers will heed the call, or does he simply welcome the chance to sacrifice his own life in a doomed effort that he knows is likely to prove fatal? The chapters describing the preparations for the flight have an adventurous, even lyrical tone, but it all ends too soon, and the final pages of L'éte 1914 are grueling to read. The plane malfunctions and crashes, Meynestrel is killed, the leaflets are consumed in flames, and Jacques, horribly injured, is pulled from the wrecked plane by French soldiers. Unable to speak, fitfully conscious, he is mistaken for a spy and bound to a stretcher. (In what may be an echo of the Passion, he is taunted and pelted with gravel.) As the French army retreats in the face of a German offensive he is carried along with them; when the retreat degenerates into a disordered rout one of the stretcher-bearers, terrified of his own act, administers a hurried coup de grâce with his pistol.
The novel will resume with a book-length Epilogue set four years later. But after some 1,750 pages, Martin du Gard has dispensed with one of the two Thibault brothers by giving him a death that accomplishes nothing, that has no meaning. Jacques was never a good fit for his world; he seemed to know this, and for that reason willed his own death. But the redemption he sought to achieve in dying is completely denied him. Like the war itself, it is ghastly and without purpose.
(The cover shown above reproduces an image from the 2003 French television adaptation of the novel, featuring Malik Zidi as Jacques.)
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Americas Society in Manhattan is currently hosting an exhibition devoted to the friendship between Jorge Luis Borges and his older compatriot, the painter, astrologer, and mystical philosopher Alejandro Xul Solar.
Like Borges, Xul Solar (born Oscar Agustín Alejandro Schulz Solari) spent much of the second decade of the 20th century in Europe absorbing the latest currents in avant-garde literature, painting, and philosophy. They didn't cross paths during those years but they did meet in the 1920s, when both were playing a role in the shaping of Argentine modernism. During the Perón era their friendship seems to have cooled somewhat (Borges was a firm anti-Peronist), but some mutual loyalty remained, and Borges often spoke warmly about Xul Solar after the latter's death in 1963.
They were somewhat of an odd couple, Borges philosophically inquisitive but ultimately skeptical, Xul Solar an avid devotee of everything from astrology and Tarot to the I Ching. When the occult metaphysical systems the painter encountered weren't outlandish enough, he simply elaborated new ones, just as he concocted new languages called "Neocriollo" and "Panlengua." He invented a kind of intricate modified chess game based on his mystical principles (the set is displayed in the exhibit), though he seems to have been the only one who understood how to play it.
Xul Solar is mentioned by name in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," where he may also have been the model for the figure of Herbert Ashe, who, like Xul Solar, dabbled in the possibilities of duodecimal number systems. Eccentric as the painter was, it seems fairly certain that several of Borges's best stories would not have been written without his influence.
Some of Xul Solar's paintings, at the weakest, can seem a bit crudely executed, but at their best (and he seems to have been quite prolific) they display a knack for working together disparate elements of color, form, and symbolism into a visually satisfying whole that nevertheless invites closer inspection.
In addition to Xul Solar's paintings (and a rather nice gouache and pencil map by Norah Borges, the writer's sister), the exhibition features rare issues of some of the seminal literary magazines of the era, including Martín Fierro, Azul, Proa, and Revista de América. Another highlight is the manuscript of Borges's famous story "La lotería en Babilonia" ("The Lottery in Babylon"). Written in a tiny but easily legible hand and placed next to the printed version, it lets one see how Borges tinkered with the final wording as he revised the text for publication.
If you visit, ask to purchase the nicely illustrated but reasonably priced hardcover catalog. (It seems difficult to locate online, but the ISBN is 1-879128-82-9 if you want to try.) The show will be moving on to the Phoenix Art Museum in September 2013.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
From the shore all that can be seen in the darkness is the flicker of lanterns on the long, low boat. The river's waters are moon-warm, but things unseen move in the murk, rippling the surface and bumping against the ankles of waders. We retreat to the safety of land.
No one here knows how to swim. If a fisherman falls into the water away from the shore and can't be pulled out by his friends, he will drown. They fish anyway because it's far better to drown than it is to starve, but the river remains alien to them. They pole from bank to bank gingerly, afraid of disturbing what may lie in the depths, and will cut their nets loose, no matter how great the sacrifice, if they sense something weighing them down that they can't explain. In some years, after the floods have receded, carcasses are found in the low-lying fields, unrecognizable, neither man nor fish nor anything else that could be given a name. We leave the bodies to be picked by birds and steer our ploughs around the remains; small trees may rise over the bones but if so no one, not even children, will take advantage of the shade.
The boat pierces the water in silence. The boatman lifts his pole and the slender bow glides to rest on the sand.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Sunday, April 07, 2013
Alston W. Purvis's volume in Yale's Monographics series brought this interesting Dutch printmaker to my attention. Hendrik Werkman was born in Leens in the Netherlands in 1882 and lived most of his life in the city of Groningen. A professional printer, he apparently didn't have much of a head for business, but he did have a rich talent for design and typographical experimentation. Though he became associated with a Dutch art circle called De Ploeg (The Plough), he retained a prickly independence, and his work was not widely distributed or recognized during his lifetime. One of his best-known projects was a kind of chapbook periodical entitled The Next Call, much of which (there were nine installments, some printed on a single folded sheet) is reproduced in Purvis's book. He was particularly adept at using found materials and printing furniture as elements in his work; in the image immediatly below, for example, the black element was printed using the key plate from a door.
Prolific and resourceful even in the face of difficult circumstances, he created a series of some 600 monoprints that he called "druksels," a name derived from the Dutch drukken (to print), for calendars, bookplates, and other ephemera, and for a suite of prints illustrating stories from Martin Buber's Chassidische legenden (published as Tales of the Hasidim in English). Though Werkman was not Jewish, these last, published under German occupation in 1942, may have contributed to his arrest and execution in March 1945, just days before the Allied liberation of Grondingen. A substantial portion of his work, which had been seized by the Nazis at the time of his arrest, was destroyed during the fighting for the city. Fortunately, much of it remains.
Purvis's H. N. Werkman seems to be the best current source on the artist's life and work. There is a substantial online collection at the Groningen Museum and a nice selection at www.druksel.com.
Above is one of a series of brief animated shorts entitled
Legendy Staré Prahy. This one is called "O neviňátkách z židovského hřbitova"; I don't speak Czech, but the story can be identified with a miracle-working tale associated with the Judah Loew ben Bezalel, a renowned 16th-century rabbi whose name came to be linked, long after his death, with the legend of the Golem.
In the original tale, the Jewish population of Prague has been visited with a terrible plague, leading to the deaths of many of its children. Convinced that this affliction must be a divine punishment of some sort, Rabbi Loew dispatches a young pupil to the Jewish Cemetery to steal a shroud from one of the young ghosts who emerge at midnight to play among the headstones. When the ghost comes to the synagogue to retrieve the shroud, Rabbi Loew demands that the child first reveal what has brought God's wrath upon the community. The child identifies two adulterous couples whose sins have been concealed from view, and once they are confronted and punished the curse is broken. (The film version seems to single out one woman, but perhaps the narration makes this clearer.)
A version of the above legend can be found in The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: A Historical Reader, edited by Wilma Iggers; a very similar one is included in V. V. Tomek's Jewish Stories of Prague. More shorts in the series can be found at the Legendy Staré Prahy website; there is also a companion English-language page with one of the shorts in translation.