Sunday, January 10, 2010

Rosenkavalier Stops Time

(Reflection on DER ROSENKAVALIER by Richard Strauss and Hugo van Hofmannsthal, after seeing the HD LIVE performance from the Metropolitan Opera, starring Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and Kristin Sigmundsson.)

All music and all drama are concerned with time. Composers mark time with musical events that develop through repetition, expansion, contraction. Playwrights often must find a way to compress a lifetime of story into a two- or three- act stretch of time. But time is both a theme of the libretto and a structural element in the music of DER ROSENKAVALIER in a way that never struck me before I saw the Met's HD Live production yesterday.

That's not entirely true, because I re-opened a recording made by Bernstein with Christa Ludwig back in 1971, and there in the liner notes is an essay, "Der Rosenkavalier: World without Time" by Robert Jacobson. He points to the anachronism of late-nineteenth-century waltzes in music for a comedy set a century earlier. Writing just as Modernism was beginning to look dated, he also suggests that, even to stage ROSENKAVALIER is anachronistic -- a view pretty laughable today.

The overall design of Act One plays with time. Young lover Octavian complains that morning has come, and he wants to extend the night by closing the drapes. The long twining lines of "his" duet with the Marschallin extend that mere moment of waking to some fifteen minutes. But day intrudes with the arrival of Baron Ochs and then a crowd of "riffraff," a scene of chaos meant to last the morning, tightly controlled by Strauss to last around ten minutes, a time marked by two attempts of "An Italian Singer" to finish the same verse of a love song about "love at a glance" over the chatter of gossips, orphans, hangers-on, and Ochs's bartering for his bride. The Marschallin listens to the song, is annoyed at Ochs's rudeness, all while watching the mirror as her hairdresser makes her up -- and she observes that he has made an old woman of her. Her patience at an end, she sends everyone out. Time stops again, while her sympathy for the young girl who'll have to endure marriage to Baron Ochs makes her think of time's passage in her own life:
I remember so well a young girl, straight out of a convent, who was ordered to marry. (Takes the mirror.) Where is she now? ... But how did it happen that I was the little Resi and suddenly I am the old woman! ... How does the Good Lord do it? I'm still the same, after all. And if he has to do it this way, why does He let me see it all happen with such a clear head? Why doesn't He hide it from me?
She concludes that God put us here to bear time, and how we do it makes all the difference. Just then, Octavian returns, and he tries repeatedly to embrace her, and she tells him with certainty that he cannot hold on to her, because he cannot hold on to time: "Sooner or later," she says to the boy, "[you] will leave me." He thinks she's rejecting him, and she explains:
When we [are young], time means nothing. But, then, suddenly, all we feel is time. It's around us -- it's inside us. Time shows in our faces ... and throbs in my temples. And between you and me time flows again.... Sometimes I can actually hear the time flowing....
Here, Strauss scores the chiming of a clock.
Sometimes I get up in the middle of the night and stop every clock. Still -- one shouldn't be afraid of time. Even time is the work of God, the Creator of us all.
No wonder Octavian observes a moment later that "you sound like a Priest today." In Act Three, when the Marschallin again enters after an absence of nearly two hours from the action (and another hour more, if you count two intermissions), the young girl Sophie whom Octavian rescues from Baron Ochs comments that she feels like she's "in church" while the Marschallin preaches about time and the necessity of letting go.

Of course, the iconic moment of the opera, the one pictured in nine out of ten images at Google, is the presentation of the rose, when all time stops. Sophie sings a prayer quietly while her father's household fills with bustles and hustlers, anticipating the arrival of the young man who will bear the symbolic silver rose. All settles to tremulous strings and those crystalline chords, as Octavian and Sophie exchange formal dialogue, and the music expands the moment when their eyes meet for the first time.

The most familiar phrase of music is a song that Ochs sings in Act Two, and every other chance he gets, and it plays at Act Three's tavern, too. Its bawdy lyric is about time, ending, "With me, night will never end."

Act Three is all good Shakespearean / Falstaffian shenanigans. I enjoyed the busy-ness of the music accompanying the pantomime of setting up Act Three's Tavern to be a trap for Ochs (Susan Graham called it "a sting operation" in a backstage interview).

Once Ochs leaves the stage, however, time stops again, as the Marschallin helps Octavian to convince Sophie that he is for her, and, off to the side, she pronounces her benediction on the young lovers, "May they have happiness, or what men believe to be happiness. God bless them."

So this opera that begins with two actresses in bed, two characters in adultery, a lecherous baron crudely boasting of his exploits among the lower classes, venal double-dealing gossips and a father blinded by his social - climbing, turns out to be religious in the broadest sense of the word, a meditation on time, and letting go, and responsibility for each other. It's beautiful on many levels.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Comedy, Fairy Tale, Tragedy: My Favorite Fiction

(Reflection on The Book of Bebb, omnibus of four novels by Frederick Buechner. I wrote this in 2006.)

Reading the last words of The Book of Bebb, I immediately turned back 530 pages to start over. I didn't want to leave the world of that book, its places, its characters, and its author's way of looking at the world I live in. That was around 1987. I've reread the book two or three times since. What a pleasure it's been to revisit it again to write about it here.
I've scanned some blogs and discovered that I'm not the only one who feels this way. Bloggers swear that Bebb is a novel unlike any other, and a favorite. Here's a sample:
The Bebb books are hard to categorize. I always find myself describing them as hilarious and then go on to recount a plot that inevitably sounds terribly sad. So let me just avoid the whole thing this time and say that these are wonderful books and you'll live a much happier and richer life if you read them! (Ian Eastman, "I.E." at Blogspot, May 16, 2004)
The Story of the Story of Bebb
Like any great book, it tells a good story. All four novels developed from a single news item that Buechner spotted about a con man who sold phony credentials to make "clergy" of anyone who wanted to declare tax exempt status. Buechner imagined this scoundrel, called him Leo Bebb, and created a rootless free-lance writer named Antonio Parr to track him down intending to write an exposé. As Buechner describes in his foreword to the 1984 edition, the characters ran away with the novel. He had intended Bebb to be a villain, but the reality of that character became much more complex. And Antonio, like Raymond Chandler's detective Marlowe, becomes the perfect vehicle to take us into Bebb's territory.
The more Buechner wrote, the more he wanted to see what would happen next, and each novel carries the seeds of the next. LION COUNTRY begins as Antonio's investigation of Bebb, and ends with him absorbed into the family by marriage to Bebb's daughter. OPEN HEART follows Bebb out west to a new ministry among a very wealthy Indian tribe, and enlarges Antonio's family by the adoption of two sons (nephews of his late sister Miriam). In LOVE FEAST, crisis hits Antonio's marriage while Bebb enjoys his greatest success as a cause célebre taking the lead of a student protest movement at Princeton. TREASURE HUNT opens with a recorded message from Bebb, who has died. But by now the cast of characters, familiar to us as Dorothy, Scarecrow, et. al., load up a car and head to find Bebb's roots in North Carolina, guided by an elderly believer in reincarnation who hopes to find Bebb newborn as an infant.
Everyone likes a good story, but fiction can offer so much more. A great novel presents distinctive characters and makes us care about them. The writing conjures places we've never been, or makes familiar places new to us. The author expresses insights that we've never heard expressed, but they strike us immediately as true. There's also a texture to the best writing -- layers that tell us what's going on under the surface of the action, tying to other things in the novel, and tying the action also to the world outside the novel (history, myths, science, art), so that we're not just watching the action, we're immersed in it -- and, even better, our daily lives get worked into that texture during the days that we're reading in the book. Finally, there's a tone to the best writing that expresses its author's joy in its creation, and respect, if not love, for even the least of the characters.
On all these counts, Frederick Buechner's Book of Bebb gets five stars.
Cast of Voices
Leo Bebb reconciles elements of Norman Vincent Peale, used car salesman, and Martin Luther. He describes everything that happens in his life as part of God's universal plan, and even when he's down, he's orating.
Lucille, in sunglasses, sundress, with a Vodka Tropicana clutched at the end of a scrawny bare arm, makes her observations short and bitter, and endears herself to us. (A highlight: Her written testimony and a letter to Jesus.)
Miriam, near death when we meet her early in the first book, is the twin sister who haunts Antonio throughout the four novels. Her two sons come in a complementary set, one smooth, pink, small, the other rough, dark, and a brute -- reminiscent of Jacob and Esau. Unable to move, with no future to plan, she says only penetrating things about the way things are now.
Sharon, Bebb's daughter, develops from outspoken young woman to independent responsible adult, through marriage and motherhood. Easy, breezy way of speaking, foul-mouthed, slangy -- and honest.
Golden - an alien, maybe, shaped like a round wafer, and a relief every time we see him.
Brownie, frail, in his sweat-stained Hawaiian shirts, and gargling with aftershave, he's relentlessly sad in demeanor, and relentlessly sunny in statements.
Gertrude Conover, the elderly "theosophist" spends her fortune to realize Bebb's craziest dream.
Herman Redpath, irascible Indian patriarch, and his "joking cousin" John Turtle.
Just writing their names conjures scenes and feelings.
New Places, Places New
Bebb says, "In just a single life there's so many worlds that a man's days stretch out like the Milky Way" (207). In notes I made on the book flaps, I'm reminded that some characters take a European tour. A trip to Paris might be a highlight in some fiction. But it isn't really glamorous or exciting "places" that make a difference in a book, but the worlds that the author creates for us.
So, years later, I carry with me impressions of sordid and ugly places in which Buechner found vitality, if not a kind of beauty. There's ticky-tacky Armadillo, Florida and a certain broken-down Edwardian home there. There's a grimy Manhattan coffee shop next to the entrance down to a subway where the stairs reek of urine. Under that, we learn later, there is "elevator territory," a netherworld that Buechner makes plausible. We visit the arid Red Path Ranch in Texas, and it somehow becomes a retreat for refreshment during the course of the four novels. There's a memorable scene in the over-the-top banquet hall at "Revonoc," home of loopy and generous Gertrude Conover. Finally, Buechner takes us off-road near Spartanburg, SC, to "the UFOrium," one of those unattractive tourist attractions.
Places like these are everywhere I go in Cobb County, Georgia, so I'm often reminded not to presume to think I know a place by its appearance.
When I contacted blogger Ian Eastman for permission to quote him here, he emailed this response: "My favorite thing about reading is the moment when I come across that One Perfect Line, full of meaning and written so beautifully that I have to read it over again solely for the sheer enjoyment of language. Frederick Buechner has the gift of writing those kinds of lines over and over again throughout a whole book. That's what keeps me coming back for more!"
Buechner has written collections of insights, such as his Alphabet of Grace and Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. But this is a novel, and the insights are worked into particular situations. For example, during a lull in the mounting crisis of his marriage, Antonio lets his wife drive while he rests in contented silence. He comments to the reader, "I have a feeling it's the in-between times, the times that narratives like this leave out and that the memory in general loses track of, which are the times when souls are saved or lost" (181). He dreams of his late sister Miriam and observes something about our dreams of the dead that has since proven to be true in my own experience: "They don't even stop when you speak to them, just look back at you..." (189). Here are a few isolated pearls, notated during my reading of an especially dramatic scene out of the four novels:
I sometimes think that all the major dramas of my life have taken place in kitchens, and maybe that's because in kitchens there's always something else to fall back on if the going gets tough, like cooking or eating or doing the dishes. And maybe that's the real drama after all -- just keeping yourself alive day after day and cleaning up afterwards (363).
More even than to keep the weather out, the purpose of a house is to keep emptiness out (376).
Keeping too sharp an eye on your own life can precipitate you prematurely into that geriatric state where life itself becomes a kind of spectator sport in which there is nothing much left either to win or to lose that greatly matters (377).
But more often Buechner's insights are like punchlines of jokes, and you can't "get them" unless you've "been there." I've made an index of such insights, and provide this sampling (with page numbers from the 1984 edition):
  • 228, 298, 332, 336, 353, 361 Variations and explorations of the line from the Hebrew, "we are all strangers and pilgrims on this earth" and on 306, there's Bebb's sermon on homesickness
  • 507 - There's no path that doesn't lead to Heaven
  • 499 We don't know the past any better than we know the future
  • 268 The point "that all authors make," that events have shape, and its opposite, that Antonio's A-shaped free-form sculpture from scrap metal and wood develops meanings without pre-conceived intention (142)
  • 8 Preparing to die is compared to preparing to give birth
  • 147 Bebb's parable of sin as the unharvested peaches fallen in the orchards of Spartanburg that grow so sweet that they make you sick. He concludes, "Sin is life wasted."
  • 143 "Antonio," Bebb said. "I believe everything. . . [and it's hard]."
  • 353 "You can't stay mad when you start thinking things like that. Once you commence noticing the lines a man's got round his eyes and mouth and think about the hopeful way his folks gave a special name to him when he was first born into this world, you might as well give up."
  • At the climax of the sharpest scene in the book (the only one that might qualify as a plot twist -- because Antonio certainly doesn't see it coming -- so I'll be circumspect about who, what, when, and where), when a character wants to know how to atone so that it will be as if he'd never hurt Antonio, Antonio wisely says, without thinking, that the offender can't do that -- but Antonio can.

Bebb, scoundrel as he is, gives whole sermons that catch the attention, always reversing what you think you know. The most elaborate of these is based on a word the "preachers aren't even supposed to know," s***, and he improvises this sermon in response to a bitter atheist historian named Virgil Roebuck [that's the man of the "hopeful" name in the last quote above, Virgil -- Dante's guide to the underworld, the wise unbeliever] who develops his own anti-sermon about the damage done to humanity by religion and religious people (351), calling religion "s***." Bebb turns it around on Roebuck, saying that he's touched on only a millionth of what's been bad in the world by sticking just to the "religious s***." It's that in us that makes us all brothers, and it's mere waste unless it's used to help seeds to grow -- and that's where you're going to find God working, right in the center of it.
Layers on Layers
Buechner recycles the same images or motifs, never quite the same way twice, until events from one part of the story become analogies for appreciating other parts. For example:
We keep re-imagining one moment in Bebb's life for which he was jailed, and that moment grows from being a repulsive image to being pathetic, to becoming a sign of something good expressed in the wrong way.
We visit "Lion Country" park once in the first novel, where tourists watch wild animals from the safety of motor vehicles, but that idea of being spectators who shut themselves away from real life keeps popping up in the four books. (Naturally, Bebb gets out of the car!)
Space aliens are part of the texture of this book -- literally living in a layer under our world, attainable by elevator, helping us like angels, if we can believe Bebb. His wife Lucille says often, "Sometimes I think he's a space alien himself."
There's a motif of significant infants.
Many times, we read about some kind of descent to the land of the dead, in dreams, in literature, in an imagined opera.
There's the motif of the shape "A." Like Antonio's A-shaped artwork, it suggests meaning without necessarily being intended in one way. I wonder if it's also the image of Alpha, in a book full of new beginnings. Of course, "Alpha" always goes with "Omega," and we certainly see as we read that ends of things grow from their beginnings -- in ways that Buechner himself hadn't planned.
Besides these, Buechner works outside references into the texture of his story. For those like Antonio who've studied literature, there are developments related to the Apocrypha, King Lear, Alice in Wonderland, The Scarlet Letter, Proust, Cocteau, the gospel parable of the wedding banquet, Donne, The Song of Solomon. From pop culture, Antonio refers to an old detective series from radio dramas, comic strips, and a song I don't know, "Chantilly Lace," by the late-Fifties singer known as the Big Bopper.
Most remarkable, there are some extravagant stories-within-stories that become a sort of private mythology in the novels, changing the way we see characters, and maybe changing the way we see the world.
  • Antonio imagines Jesus in the underworld as a grand opera.
  • Antonio relays Lucille's account of Bebb's story of what happens when the Indian patriarch Herman Redpath goes to the Indian afterlife -- all in response to a bizarre event at the funeral, when the tribe's "joking cousin" (a designated trickster that all tribes have, if Buechner didn't just make it up -- don't quote me) urinates in his grandfather's open coffin.
  • A long detour during which Antonio's high school seniors work their way through a scene in King Lear.
  • The story of the death and resurrection of Brownie (Bebb's gentle, ridiculous, pathetic assistant who gargles with cologne -- appropriate, as his glosses on scripture turn Jesus's hard sayings into comforting bromides).
  • Bebb's exposition of the theory of Silvers and Goldens, aliens who inhabit our world, and his own visit to Mr. Golden's layer beneath the subways.
  • Gertrude Conover's elaborate memories of her ancient previous life when she was Pharaoh's daughter and had an affair with Bebb when he was a priest of the Pharaoh, who turns out to be none other than Calloway, her sweet old black yardman.
  • As narrator, Antonio sometimes plays the game, "What if?" and carries his musings to chapter-long stories of what might have happened if he had chosen differently -- and even those potential stories exert influence on later events.
Feast, Heart, and Treasure
As Mr. Eastman pointed out, it's a joy and a lot of laughs to read these books, but a summary sounds like tragedy. By the end, we've read about adultery, guilt, infanticide, suicide, lives wasted in envy or regret, violent death, death by painful terminal illness, the debilitation of old age. Buechner himself developed in one book a theory of how Scripture can be read as Fairy Tale, Comedy, and Tragedy. It's natural that his own novel would mix comedy, tragedy, and the fairy tale elements of aliens and Indian spirits.
In its abundance of images, both elaborate and incidental, and its abundance of memorable and distinctive characters, this book is a feast. In Buechner's own loving portrayal of these characters, I grow attached to them. Even the sedentary and taciturn Lucille Bebb, always sipping her vodka tropicanas and never moving, becomes someone I miss when she suddenly disappears. When I've encountered people who've shared the experience of reading these books, just swapping names was a satisfying form of communication.
- 8 April 2006

Friday, January 08, 2010

Forty-eight Hours, a Life

(reflection on Wendell Berry's ANDY CATLETT: Early Travels, a novel. Published in paperback by Counterpoint, 2006.)

Is it familiarity that makes each succeeding book by Wendell Berry seem better than the one before? This one, ANDY CATLETT: Early Travels, is much shorter than the others, and much more highly compressed in time. Yet it's told from the perspective of a much older man who has outlived every other character in the story, so the longview is here, too. The rich texture of the story makes up for the plainness of the plot.

The plot is this simple: ten year old Andy Catlett packs some clothes, a book, and a toothbrush, and travels ten miles by bus to visit his two sets of grandparents in the tiny Kentucky town of Port William. Over the course of forty-eight hours, he does what a grandson always does: He hangs around the old folks, eats, and sleeps. That's it.

But it's late December 1943, the Great Depression lingering, the Good Guys making no apparent headway against the Axis. Andy's uncle won't survive the year at war, widowing Andy's beloved young aunt Hannah. War time rationing, which preferred large businesses, has already begun to make people dependent on processed foods. Taxation and debt are making formerly independent farmers dependent on loans.

Sometimes, Berry isolates a moment that takes his narrator backwards and forwards in time simultaneously, as when young Andy watches his grandmother cutting the crust for a pie in winter, and the narrator conflates that with a pie she made the following summer, tears streaming, when news of her son's death reached the farm (35).

There's explicit reference to PARADISE LOST, and it's clear that Port William, especially in this tenth year of Andy Catlett's perceptions of it, is a paradise on the verge. Andy lives in two worlds: Hargrave, a medium - sized town with ambitions to be a bigger part of the wider World, and Port William, content to be concerned only with itself and its own. One will "consume" the other (17) in the years after the war.

The sadness of this doesn't intrude, but endows homely sights with a numinous glow of gratitude: "The great question for the old and the dying, I think, is not if they have loved and been loved enough, but if they have been grateful enough for love received and given...(p. 120)."

Monday, January 04, 2010

Dogs are Poetry

(reflections on A BIG LITTLE LIFE by Dean Koontz, and on writings published by the Monks of New Skete, whose ministry involves training dogs. Photos are my own dogs: Luis, born in 2000, and Bo, born in 1998.)

The main difference between poetry and prose is compression: A good poem compresses a great deal of content into a succinct form. In its brevity is its power to affect us.

A good dog shows us the elements of good life, simplified and all too brief. In this is part of the joy and pain of loving a dog, and, as the country song says, the two feelings are intertwined like the bramble and the rose.

Dad has joked that, if he's to be reincarnated, he wants to come back as a Smoot dog. Certainly the dogs I've adopted in my adulthood have been blessed by me, but not so much as I have been blessed by them.

That same sentiment is echoed in two books I've read recently. One is by Monks in "New Skete," a community in upstate New York ( where the monks train German Shepherds. Their books of photos and theological reflections on dogs include these thoughts:

"Nothing so captures the uninhibited, spontaneous nature of a dog as when it rolls on its back and becomes one with whatever scent has struck its fancy.... Dogs have no trouble seeing the best parts of ourselves; what would it be like if we actually believed them?"

Dean Koontz, famous for supernatural thrillers, memorialized Trixie, a Golden adopted as daughter by Koontz and his wife Gerda, who have had no other children. His memoir of the dog begins with a unique moment in his life with Trixie, when he said aloud, "I know your secret. You're not a dog; you're an angel." He tells how she became uneasy and left his company in a hurry -- as if, he thought, Trixie had been found out.

Among the best anecdotes in the book are ones that show a dog's character. Trixie, always friendly, responded with uncharacteristic hostility to an acquaintance of Koontz who, shortly, revealed himself to be some kind of psychopath / stalker. There's also the story of how Trixie called a Rottweiler's bluff and silenced the bully by facing him down.

Koontz, like the monks, also observes that dogs can bring out the best in us: Their greatest gift is the tenderness they evoke in us, he writes.

These comments by others bring to mind repeating but fleeting moments with Bo and Luis:

  • When I begin even the first syllable of the phrase, "Do you want to go for a walk?" they caper and jump and head for the exit; yet they're all seriousness and concentration when we walk, as if they were on patrol. I can't help but laugh when I see their rears sway in tandem, and their two noses often converge on the same shrub. Then Luis sprays, and Bo waits. Then he fusses to find the exact correct angle. He's an artist, I suppose, but Luis is already tugging to move on to the next shrub.
  • Bo scarfs down his meals in a hurry, and rushes in to grab his toy, a black tire with a rope protruding. He tosses it up, catches it, and then prances towards me, chest out, tail high, chin up, tire encircling his snout. We tug of war, and growl, and sometimes I let him win. Then I throw it, he chases. We do this three or four times, until I throw, and he suddenly seems unsure what's supposed to happen next. Luis, who hangs in the background while his bigger companion plays rough, immediately moves in for affection.
  • If I say, "Squirrel," Luis and Bo both jump up, wherever they are, and tear down to the patio, barking, giving the squirrels fair warning. Luis even does a victory lap around the sofa before heading out to the deck, and the squirrels usually wait until he arrives, just to tease him.
  • Bo warms my spot on the bed, and moves only at the last second ... guarding that spot from Luis.
  • When the two dogs are feeling affectionate, Bo always turns his rear to me, and looks forlornly over his back, hoping for a rub. Luis aims for my face: he wants to look in my eyes, and he licks my most ticklish spots, under the jawline and in the corner of my mouth, just every so often, whenever his tummy rub abates.

I could go on. I'm motivated by the same impulse that Koontz has, to preserve these personalities in their uniqueness. Inevitably, his book ends with a struggle to keep a dog alive, and a painful decision that most dog owners I know have had to make.

Those monks deal with that, too, in a moving and wise observation:
Dogs possess an indomitable spirit for life that teaches right up to their last day.
It is as if they stubbornly refuse to concede that life can be anything other than a gift to which they must respond. The wagging tail gives it away: Even an illness as serious as cancer has no effect on them when a favorite ball is involved…at least for a while.