Friday, July 31, 2009

Books Roundup

Tim Blanning cites Gutenberg's printing press as a key technological innovation in the rise of the composer. The modern West elevates its musicians above all other artists, and the availability of printed material just increased the worship of Beethoven and Lizst, even more than Dante and Shakespeare. For John Warne Monroe, urbanization and the innate predilections of the mind also help to make music so celebrated...

If you believe the name of their website, then Three Percent of literature read in America is translated. Even for a country with a gigantic literary heritage, and a penchant for processing other cultures through its own machinery, this is a lamentably small portion. Peruse their reviews, and examine their collection of links, and marvel at all the great literature you'll never get around to reading...

That list of links neglects to include the Dalkey Archive Press, from the University of Illinois. Check out that Ezra Pound quote about translation. The English language is the biggest bastard of them all, and there's no reason to end the miscegenation now...

Apparently there are neither definite nor indefinite articles in the Polish language. In spite of this fact, 20th century Polish literature has enjoyed tremendous stateside acclaim, and a new collection of essays shows no sign of the trend's abatement. Poland and America are strange cultural bedfellows, but immigration has made them conjoined twins, with Chicago the shared hip. The literati have been oppressed in both countries for opposite reasons, although this is no longer true now that Poland is a member of NATO and the EU...

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Whither France?

For centuries the French seemed to hold a monopoly on top-notch dining, but their gastronomic reputation has recently simmered down. The average French dinner has shortened from 105 minutes to a cursory half-hour, and the very déclassé "steak-frites" was voted France's favorite dish.

Multiple courses and wine at lunchtime seems extravagant to les américains. But in France it is a traditional practice, under siege by a streamlined culture. Edward Cody identifies a Sarkozy-era push to "modernize" France, that is, to make her competitive on the global marketplace. This movement serves up a distinctively Anglo efficiency to eating, first developed by the fourth Earl of Sandwich.

But the real story is not the lapse of food-seriousness within France, it's the extent to which France's culinary traditions have sopped across borders. Guy Savoy cannily recognized this when the Michelin Red Guide was taken over by a German woman. These were not spaetzle-noshing barbarians at the gates. The first foreigner at the helm the famous restaurant guidebook is a sign that French cuisine has become global fine-dining. The French after all are universalists--but of course their universe is a thoroughly French one.

Mike Steinberger, on the other hand, has a few choice words for those ostensibly prestigious Michelin stars. He claims that the narrow-minded obsession with fulfilling mysterious criteria has a negative effect on the French dining scene, driving one ill-starred French chef to suicide. Michelin-starred restaurants after all are part of an outdated, royalist tradition. They serve only a few tables a night, and do not at all reflect the way real French people eat. Michelin rarely celebrates the Middle Eastern cuisine that is served in some of the country's best restaurants.

At the opposite end of the spectrum from Alain Passard (whose vegetables ride the TGV each morning) is Denis Hennequin, who helped turn France into McDonald's number two market, in spite of José Bové's 1999 attack. The Illinois-based fake meat juggernaut has ironically become popular in the land of foie gras, although it's interesting to read about how the French enjoy McDonald's in their unique way: they go almost exclusively at mealtimes, in groups, and they linger much longer than North American fast food customers. These conscientious diners probably have a hard time relating to Morgan Spurlock's point.

"Fast food," translated literally into French becomes "la restauration rapide," a contradiction in terms. Bové and his anti-GMO crowd have coined the term "la malbouffe" to describe the pablum that threatens to destroy both public health and French culture. But the French still love McDonald's, and in spite of all the cultural degradation at work, one still eats better in France than just about anywhere else.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Choreographed Car Crash

Born in France to Russian and Dutch parents, Jacques Tati is OWH's choice for Man of the (Twentieth) Century. His work casts a wistful eye to the Europe of warm neighborliness, although it stops short of the righteous, anti-establishment indignation of Godard (see Weekend) or the hallucinatory dreamscapes of Cortazar (though the latter was also inspired by French highways to create La Autopista del Sur and Autonauts of the Cosmoroute).

All of these artists explored the havoc that the automobile has wrought on the human psyche and the physical environment. Cars represent individual freedom, yet they trap their masters in steel cages on infinite expanses of concrete. Godard used cars to denote nihilisic hypercapitalism. To Cortazar they were portals into the infinite subconscious. Tati just finds them amusing: witness the hilarious and somehow delicate car crash an hour into his film Trafic.

Tati's first four films evince a nostalgia for the humanistic, sensuous and self-contradictory aspect of France. Trafic enlarges the auteur's scope to gently mock sterilized international business culture. The French term "le trafic" refers more to the exchange of commodities than it does to automotive congestion, but after viewing the film you're inclined to think that you can't have one without the other.

Tati's alter ego Monsieur Hulot, a doting sort of Bugs Bunny with highwater pants and an umbrella, designs a camper van and endeavors to transport it to a trade show in Amsterdam. His team is interrupted by countless ironic hijinks set off by precise sound effects and garbled, dubbed dialogue. It looks as vivid and radiant as a summer swimming pool, with less of the intensely organized spaces of his masterpiece Playtime. Hulot's oddball physicality is undiminished although he is over 60 in this film.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Regretfully Yours

One of culture's most salient ironies is the innate cosmopolitanism of the rube. People reared in the most provincial circumstances often become more worldly than their urban or suburban counterparts.

The preeminence of Irish writers in world literature illustrates this paradox. Joyce, Wilde and Yeats all lived and loved on the continent rather than the drizzly backwater where one must "set his watch back five hundred years." Samuel Beckett joined this pantheon of Irish-Universal titans, and his recently published letters confirm his place in world literature. In his youth he always sought an escape to Europe, although he also feared that he would "probably crawl back with my tail coiled round my ruined poenis."

This is the first volume in a promised series of three, culled from over 15,000 different missives. It's an enormous editorial task that gets creative with the author's wish that only letters "having bearing on my work" be published. When your work encompasses little foibles like mortality, annihilation and the futility of human endeavor, it's not really a hat that you can take on and off, as Anthony Lane points out.

So chronologically, this is Beckett the underemployed, frustrated, dead-broke student and dropout. He halfheartedly tries out several careers including, terrifyingly, airline pilot. He wanders Paris until his shoes "explode" on the Boulevard St. Germain. The rising tide of fascism and the troubled global economy do not seem to make an impression on this passionate aesthete. Though Beckett became a staunch anti-anti-Semite and joined the French Resistance, he couldn't take Hitler seriously in the 1930s.

Joseph O'Neill, himself an Irish-born itinerant, notes Beckett's astounding multilingualism. Beckett claimed that writing in English made him feel "depersonified." He felt freer to express himself within the scope of German, Italian or French, in which he wrote one of the 20th century's great plays.

An exile on good terms with his family, Beckett presumes all the same that his mother seeks "to keep me tight so that I may be goaded into salaried employment. Which reads more bitterly than it is intended." Beckett was a polite and reserved genius, fixated on decay, so it is natural to find him nonplussed in the springtime of love:

There is a French girl also whom I am fond of, dispassionately, and who is very good to me. The hand will not be overbid. As we both know that it will come to an end there is no knowing how long it may last.

This is the woman he would wed and remain with until death.

J.M. Coetzee laments that Beckett and James Joyce often lived in the same city, Paris, and thus had no cause to correspond. Beckett apparently had some kind of affair with Joyce's daughter Lucia.

The author also employed many scatological terms (his poems are "turds") and underwent psychoanalysis, then a novel and subversive practice. He had a knack for neologisms: "daymare" being a real-life bad dream, and "eyedew" meaning tears.

All in all, a feast of humanism, anger, longing, and radiant pessimism.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Triumphant British Melancholy

The most interesting choice in Patrick Humphries' 1997 Nick Drake biography is in the introduction. In this book about a depressed singer-songwriter, the stage is set with the sinking of the Titanic. The only link between Drake's life and the 300-foot gash in "The Unsinkable" is the presence of the biographer's Uncle Jim at the Titanic's launch. This same uncle would officiate at the birth of Nick Drake, in colonial Burma.

The fate of the Titanic is an appropriate beginning to the Nick Drake story because of the historical sweep of Humphries' book. The biographer situates Drake in the context of a tragic century. The Titanic in 1912 foretold the end of peaceful industrial technotopia. Two years later the assassination of an obscure nobleman would lead to a serious derailment of civilization. Drake would inherit a world where atomic bombs had exploded, where genocide had been carried out on an unimaginable scale...and where the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon race was not taken for granted.

England's post-imperial decline has been steady. And yet somehow the rainy island has kept its grip on global capital as well as cultural prominence. No one still regards the English as the greatest people on Earth, and the notion of a happily Anglicized planet is laughable, even if parliamentarianism and beans-on-toast have gained footing overseas.

The secret to England's baffling relevance lies in their genius for flipping the script. In the glory days of Her Majesty's Empire, the doctrine in play was British triumphalism--and the world cowered in fear. Now, no one exceeds the British at acting miserable. It is this trait of expressed thwartedness that is the true genius of the English. The rest of the world rushes to comfort England's sensitive males.

Nick Drake was only the first in a line of world-conquering sadsacks. Ian Curtis, before joining Drake in an early grave, caught the world's attention with the depths of his misery. Then came Robert Smith of the Cure. Today, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Pulp's Jarvis Cocker lead the phalanx of unhappy English anti-heroes.

But no bloke's self-pity has been globally indulged like Morrissey's. Moz has transcended the great guitar band he used to sing in and is now alone atop a majestic, melancholy pedestal. His fame is utterly borderless, having caught on especially with Mexican-Americans. The artist Phil Collins has explored the strange power of this Mancunian to tap into the alienated feelings of people from Turkey to Brazil.

The English hold a near-monopoly on fashionable sadness, although Russia is poised for a meltdown, India has yet to shed its caste system, and Germany seems to have a congenital knack for the morose.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Sexcidents Will Happen

Ooh, another hardback entry in the "sexy medieval" genre. You remember Sex with Kings, a salacious historical romp, The Other Boleyn Girl, another salacious historical romp, and of course, take your pick of erotically-charged rehashes of Camelot.

Now we have the academicky East, West and Sex, a new book that gleefully probes the tendency of Western men to patronize Asian prostitutes. Author and "rice daddy" Richard Bernstein enthusiastically flouts the wisdom of Edward Said, and agglomerates North Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, China and Japan into "the East." The premise of the study is that the cliché is true and there does exist an admirable sexual permissiveness in the East that presents a lovely opportunity to "liberate" European men from their Judeo-Christian prudishness.

This is a laughably naive view of prostitution, and totally one-sided, as it skips right over the moral disaster of keeping sexual slaves. Laura Miller is right to point out that it's not some advanced sexual culture that beckons to Johns, Juans, and Giannis. (Even if it were, Western women should be lauded for demanding liberation even if it makes them less likely fantasy objects). The economic reality of the East-West duality is simply that our side can command more stuff from their side, hookers being similar to cheap plastic tchotchkes in this respect. An ascendant China may start to minimize the disparity between buyers and sellers--lock up your daughters, struggling British financiers!

This WSJ review takes the book completely on its own terms, as a self-serving justification of abhorrent exploitation. For a glimpse inside the moral reasoning of today's high-financial world, feast on this incredible excerpt:

There may have been -- and may still be -- an inequality of bargaining power in many of the sexual transactions in question.

Really? An inequality of bargaining power between a globetrotting merchant and a harem girl? Perish the thought!

Elsewhere Johann Hari identifies the irony of these transactions' long-term cultural effect: although harems may have helped to loosen up visiting Venetians, it was the missionaries that won the argument--puritanism has successfully taken root in Arabia, India and points east. The Slate reviewer also makes the connection between the sexcapades of American soldier/suitors in Vietnam and the long, shameful bloodbath that occurred there. To say nothing of the rape that created Latin America. Would Bernstein say that opening up Western libido is worth the human cost of colonialism? Because that would make him a total perv.

Whatever the advance on Bernstein's book deal was, I will double it if he will go to Thailand, set up shop in a tin-roof shack, and celebrate the happy communion of cultures by pleasuring whatever strangers force themselves on him.