Monday, November 04, 2019

The Great Circle of the Catalogue (George Gissing)



Marian Yule, the daughter and amanuensis of a London literary critic, contemplates her fate in the famous reading room of the British Museum:
Oh, to go forth and labour with one's hands, to do any poorest, commonest work of which the world had truly need! It was ignoble to sit here and support the paltry pretence of intellectual dignity. A few days ago her startled eye had caught an advertisement in the newspaper, headed ‘Literary Machine’; had it then been invented at last, some automaton to supply the place of such poor creatures as herself to turn out books and articles? Alas! the machine was only one for holding volumes conveniently, that the work of literary manufacture might be physically lightened. But surely before long some Edison would make the true automaton; the problem must be comparatively such a simple one. Only to throw in a given number of old books, and have them reduced, blended, modernised into a single one for to-day’s consumption.

The fog grew thicker; she looked up at the windows beneath the dome and saw that they were a dusky yellow. Then her eye discerned an official walking along the upper gallery, and in pursuance of her grotesque humour, her mocking misery, she likened him to a black, lost soul, doomed to wander in an eternity of vain research along endless shelves. Or again, the readers who sat here at these radiating lines of desks, what were they but hapless flies caught in a huge web, its nucleus the great circle of the Catalogue? Darker, darker. From the towering wall of volumes seemed to emanate visible motes, intensifying the obscurity; in a moment the book-lined circumference of the room would be but a featureless prison-limit.

New Grub Street

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween, 2019



On this rainy October morning, a reminder that the work of transforming dead matter into life (and vice versa) never stops.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Tomorrow's All We've Got



From songwriter-musician-bookseller-writer Amy Rigby, one track from a collection of old demos from the 1980s and '90s entitled A One Way Ticket to My Life, available from Rigby or Bandcamp.

I like this kind of homemade project. The songs were recorded on cassette, in cramped apartments rather than in a studio, and of course a record company back in the day would have wanted to start from scratch and re-record the vocals under optimal conditions, then layer on a lot of extra crap to make it radio-friendly, and if the producer was on the ball the final product might have sounded pretty good. But it would have lost something too, and a lot of these tracks might not have made it onto the record in the first place. In fairness, only about half of the nineteen tracks here are anything I'd go out of my way to hear again (the rest are tolerable), but for demos that's probably a pretty high percentage, no? Amy's husband Eric Goulden aka Wreckless Eric has cleaned up the recordings a bit but that's all.

In any case, Amy Rigby has just published a memoir, Girl to City, relating how she left Pittsburgh in her teens and set out for the big city and art studies at Parsons School of Design, wound up in a band (as you do), and eventually went on to a solo career, juggling touring, day jobs, relationships, a marriage, and parenting, and managed not to lose her mind along the way. It's a nifty book, full of lively glimpses into New York's bygone downtown music scene, and best of all is that Rigby herself comes off as a whole person, vulnerable and fallible and self-conscious but also surprisingly resilient (and talented). It's available direct from Rigby's website, as well as the usual places.

Tuesday, October 08, 2019

Scalded to Death by the Steam



I think this is what is called character development. Newlywed Cesca (Ann Dvorak) romps through a disturbingly peppy rendition of the most gruesome lines of the railroad disaster ballad "The Wreck of the Old 97." Just off-screen is her husband, mobster Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), who is about to get his at the hand of her brother, Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), whose relationship with Cesca is itself more than a little creepy. From Scarface (1932).

The lyrics to the ballad are sung out of order, as the death of the engineer here occurs before the train crashes. Ann Dvorak was not related to the subject of the previous post.

Friday, October 04, 2019

They Don't Sing This One in Church



I picked this Canadian edition of Josef Škvorecký's novel about his countryman Antonín Dvořák one afternoon in Kingston, Ontario, and read it and enjoyed it soon after, but then I put it away for many years and I can't say I remembered much about it until I picked up a used CD of the New World Symphony the other day, and then of course I had to read it again. It's an odd book, splendid and sad and often hilarious. It's not quite "about" Dvořák and not really about him being in love at all (though that element is in there too), but instead it manages to trace a portrait of him largely through the eyes of the people around him (family members, other musicians, casual acquaintances), sometimes in scenes decades after his death. Many of the characters are historical figures from the music world and quite a number of them are Americans, including Will Marion Cook, the black violinist and composer who winds up having to "explain" (i.e., sanitize) the lyrics of a raunchy African-American musical number during the composer's sojourn in the US. "Is it a kind of spiritual?," asks Dvořák, whose English is limited, and Will replies, "Exactly, except they don't sing this one in church." Dvořák, a devout Catholic but one with an earthy streak, eagerly soaks up the music in any case.

According to an interview with Škvorecký, the title was the suggestion of his English-language publisher. The Czech title is Scherzo capriccioso, and it was originally issued by 68 Publishers in Toronto (that is, by the author and his wife, who were publishers to the emigré community), in an edition with illustrations that sadly weren't used in the translated version. I understand no Czech but Paul Wilson's translation reads extremely well.

One change in the translation that everyone, including the author, seems to have liked, is to move to the very end a chapter involving the celebrated classically-trained black singer Sissieretta Jones. Dvořák is long dead when the chapter opens, and Jones, who had known him and performed for him, is now old, retired, mostly forgotten, and living in Providence, Rhode Island. She receives a visit from an old colleague, and at the same time a phone call from Jeanette Thurber, who as patron of music had been responsible for first bringing Dvořák to America. In the brief chapter the narrative moves back and forth over the years, while in the present a boat outside, rocked by the waves, bumps repeatedly against a dock as Jones reflects on what, if anything, all of it was for. It's a small but unsettling detail, a reminder of the ceaseless tides that in the end carry everything away.

Naturally the novel should be read to the accompaniment of your favorite rendition of the New World Symphony.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Adrift


He arrived knowing nothing of the city and no one there. Cities in general were mysteries to him, this one, which he had no ties to, most of all. What did he expect to find there? What did he have to offer?

The trolleys and bus station were run down, the domain of mumbling alcoholic ghosts. The museum was closed for restoration. The sidewalks downtown were torn up, vacant lots boarded over, stores shut behind steel curtains, out of business, waiting for a renewal that showed no sign of coming. Only the streets, arteries jammed with cabs and utility vans, seemed to function.

The river made a hairpin turn through the center of town, crossed by aging iron spans. Barges lay moored along the shore but never seemed to move. Deserted warehouses, their siding shredded, their rooves broken, sagged amid eddies of dust and trash.

A park opened out along one shore on the outskirts leading north, and under the great oaks and balding sycamores leaves blew about, their colors fading to rust. Radios blared from picnickers far off, and a soccer game was in progress. The sun at least was warm and strong. He skirted the edge of the field, watching strangers.

The further out of town he went the more the city seemed to come alive, though not in order to beckon to him. Little shops with Coca-Cola signs stood open among rowhouses; groups of men clustered outside eyed him critically, their conversations breaking off as he approached. He decided he had come too far, cut back across the park, heading south again towards whatever was going to pass for now for home.

Monday, September 23, 2019

The 23rd of September



There aren't so many reasons to note this day (or opportunities to play this song) that one can afford to let the convergence go unobserved. The band is the Vulgar Boatmen and the singer is Professor Robert Ray.