Monday, November 14, 2016

THEATRE: SECOND OPINIONS

The Westchester Guardian is gone, and once again I have had the horse shot out from under me. True, it may not have been much of a mount—more like Don Quixote’s spavined nag Rosinante—it was still recognizably an equine, even if no contender for a crown, let alone a triple one. So now my theater criticism will, until further notice, appear in my blog, Uncensored John Simon. Herewith a brief overview of shows that I would normally have reviewed at greater length.

Take, for starters, the revival of the William Finn/James Lapine musical “Falsettos.” In its day, almost a quarter century ago, the show that underwent several rethinkings still marked an early serious response to the new plague, AIDS. As such, it was both novel and necessary. After some earlier versions, it emerged full-blown in 1992, successful enough but already a trifle late.

Today, the revival is only partly effective, aside from feeling somewhat dated. The protagonist, Marvin, leaves his wife Trina for a troubled love affair with Whizzer who eventually dies of AIDS, surrounded by Marvin and a number of friends and kinfolk, perhaps a bit too beautifully. The incarnator of Marvin, Christian Borle, a good actor who specializes in comic or naughty characters, never quite rises to tragic heights. Others come off better, notably Andrew Rennells, as a babyfaced Whizzer, and Stephanie J. Block, as a neurotic Trina, as well as a few sidekicks, including the earnest boy actor Anthony Rosenthal.

David Rockwell’s scenery, consisting mostly of a very large, soft, striated, gray cube, with detachable parts of various shapes and uses, is not without interest, and Lapine has again directed cogently. But the whole thing smacks a mite too much of self-righteousness and complacently good intentions on a topic that has already been treated more trenchantly elsewhere, even if not with music.

The Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur comedy, “The Front Page,” has been an oft-revived favorite, but even that is not endlessly renewable, despite a savvy director, Jack O’Brien, and a mostly exemplary, all-star cast. It takes place in a Chicago courthouse pressroom, where sundry hardboiled journalists wisecrackingly await a routine dawn hanging, but where the most unexpected and often droll developments eventuate.

It’s a funny thing about revivals that grandparent-time and earlier works fare better than more recent ones, subject to the traditional rebellion of children against their parents. Somehow generational revolt affects brainchildren as well as children. “The Front Page,” full of yesterday’s humor, emerges as old newsprint, almost too yellowed to be read.

The discomfiting truth is that a clutch of our foremost actors, including John Goodman, Jefferson Mays, Holland Taylor, Sherie Rene Scott and Robert Morse among others, come across as champion swimmers thrashing  about in a shallow pool. I exclude John Slattery from the group, too Anderson Cooperishly gray and uncharismatic, as a recalcitrant star reporter; and Nathan Lane, almost too good as a ridiculously ruthless newspaper editor, what with some sublime Lane mugging way beyond what is posited. If this is enough for you, as it may well be, go ahead and catch it.

Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel, “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” (1782) is a dazzling two-volume affair, in which, for their decadent amusement, the ex-lovers Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil revel in the seduction of the innocent and destruction of the virtuous. Apt incurrers of the coming Revolution, they embody the elegant amorality of the heedless contemporary French aristocracy. Christopher Hampton’s English adaptation into a standard-length drama (1988) is not unskilled, but not nearly as powerful as the leisurely but steadily increasing evil of the novel.

The American premiere of the play boasted the brilliant British actors Alan Rickman and Lindsay Duncan, directed by Howard Davies; the current revival, directed by Josie Rourke, collapses under, among other things, the performances of Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber. She, to be sure British, is an overacting beanpole and relentless fidget; he is an American rough action specialist, far too inelegant and unsubtle for a deft British version of a dissolute but stylish French aristocrat. When at last he sheds his wig, he looks downright catastrophic.

Some supporting performances are vastly superior, notably those of the victims: by Birgitte Hjort Sorensen (a perfectly British Dane) as the pious Mme de Tourvel, Elena Kampouris as the charmingly hoydenish Cecile Volanges, and the somewhat less appealing Raffi Barsoumian as  the avenger, Chevalier Danceny.

Unfortunately there is something apposite about the person advertising the show on TV mispronouncing it as Liaisons Dangerouses (rhymes with booze), as well as in the name of Laclos appearing in the program in microscopic, barely legible print. There is too much drinking during, and ballet between, scenes and not enough respect for Laclos in this production.

David Hare, at his frequent best, is a considerable political and psychological playwright with some daring features. But “Plenty,” which for some reason is his best known play, is not one of his best. It does, however, provide a great female lead, admirably embodied in the past by actresses such as Kate Nelligan and Meryl Streep, and now, no less eminently, by Rachel Weisz.

It is the story of Susan Traherne, an enthusiastic English girl, who in her idealistic youth acts as a courier for the French underground in World War Two. But the brave new world she envisions provides only a severely checkered career, during which all her noble aspirations are gradually but relentlessly eroded. A major problem for us in America are all the very British references, political, social and even linguistic.

More damaging in the current revival is the direction by the hugely overrated David Leveaux, dispensing with the required specific locations  and meant-to -be displayed dates for each scene, thus not enabling us to follow the downward spiral of the action. Damaging too is some miscasting, especially of the unappealing Corey Stoll as Susan’s ineffectual politician husband, and LeRoy McClain as the stranger whom Susan picks up to father a child on her. No one other than Byron Jennings, as a discouraged diplomat, distinguishes him or herself in the supporting cast, but far the worst hurdles are the grossly misconceived visuals.

Mike Belton, the set designer, and David Weiner, the lighting designer, apparently intended to compensate for the absence of scenery with some gratuitous light displays, suitable only for a state fair pavilion advertising electronic products. They manage to undercut much of the remaining credibility. While it is easy to admire Rachel Weisz, there are burdens here that even Atlas couldn’t shoulder. If the titular “plenty” referred to the number of conceivable objections, it would be all too apt.

One of Anton Chekhov’s masterpieces, “The Cherry Orchard,” is given an abominable production in the present Roundabout Theatre revival. For inexplicable reasons, the RT’s chief, Todd Haymes, reached to England to fish out one of its most misguided directors, Simon Godwin, a specialist in adapting shows that patently do not need it. He has here contrived,  with the help of  the adapter, Stephen Karam (author of “The Humans”), the reverse alchemy of turning gold into lead. Even the dependable set designer, Scott Pask, has been induced to make a mock of the scenery, which includes such incomprehensible lapses as a table and chairs for dwarves, into which some hapless actors actually squeeze themselves.

Unforgivably, the misdirected role of the aging and declining actress and landowner Ranevskaya was imposed on one of our loveliest and ageless actresses, Diane Lane. Constrained to absurdities like the rest of a potentially able cast, she could not protect the stage from being turned into a shambles. For once, even some New York reviewers known for their namby-pambiness, proved rightly indignant.  


Tuesday, November 1, 2016

CHARMING MISTAKES


Some few mistakes are actually charming. A bunch of us Harvard undergraduates were fans of the delightful French soprano Lily Pons. So we sent her an ardent fan letter, naively hoping for a handwritten response. Instead, we got a typewritten reply from her secretary, with--Ossa on Pelion—the envelope address mistyped as Lowell Gouse. But we, her forgiving fans, went on amusedly calling our residence Lowell Gouse.

Speaking of which, the then housemaster of Lowell House, Eliot Perkins, upon being apprised that I had, for some reason, moved to another house, allegedly exclaimed, “Good riddance to that Hungarian Horsethief!” Now, although I speak Hungarian, I always correctly thought of myself as originally Yugoslav, and chuckled at a master who clearly preferred alliteration to the truth.

My maternal grandmother, who. like me. also knew German, once laughingly told me about a quondam schoolmate, who in class, about to recite Uhland’s poem “Die Kapelle” (The Chapel), proudly announced it as Die Rapelle. This because, in the Gothic script of many German books, the capital K looks a lot like the capital R. So, whenever I craved an easy laugh, I just used to raptly utter, “Die Rapelle.”

Archetypal, but, alas, also apocryphal. is the story of the elderly American couple in Paris, whose female member suddenly dies. Her husband, wishing to look proper at her funeral, wanted to buy a black hat. In the haberdashery, confusing chapeau (hat) with capote (condom) he asked the clerk for a capote noire, appropriate for his wife’s funeral. The French clerk, enthralled, exclaimed: “Ah! Quel sentiment, monsieur! Quelle delicatesse!”

Charming, or at least amusing, mistakes come in all shapes and sizes. At a screening of “Black Orpheus,” the greatly awarded and hugely overrated Brazilian movie, I had the misfortune of sitting behind a bunch of Brazilians who never stopped chattering. Enraged, I circumambulated the whole vast auditorium, to be able to come more or less face to face with the culprits, and, in passing, loudly addressed them as “porcus,”(swine), careful to pronounce it the Brazilian, not the Portuguese, way. Now, in retrospect, I find it amusing to have thought clods able to learn from a reprimand.
                                                                                                                                                             Take a capital, and funny, mistake of the ineffectual and unpopular French president, Francois Hollande. All good French presidents are expected to honor the tradition of having, bachelors or married, a mistress. But Hollande chose wrong in picking for mistress the journalist Valerie Trierweiler, and later ditching her for the younger actress Julie Gayet. Scandale! But some journalists can actually write, and so Ms. T., as Adam Nossiter relates in the Times, in a book of her own “took ‘revenge’ in a tell-all recounting of Mr. Hollande’s frailties and prejudices. [H[e habitually referred to the poor as ‘the toothless ones’—she wrote—a devastating revelation for a Socialist president.” That’s what you get when you unwisely bed a journalist. Surely there must exist enough attractive young women in France who, if not necessarily illiterate, at least would, when dropped. more likely choose to avenge themselves with a kitchen knife or rolling pin.

Then again an entire nation can commit a laughable error, like the Phillipines, allowing themselves to be saddled with a president who, to quote David Victor in the Times, “cursed Pope Francis for creating traffic delays, made light of the 1989 rape and murder of an Australian missionary and boasts of sexual conquests.” Not so charming mistakes not requiring a tell-all book to reveal their president’s flaws.

But back to my own mistakes. Once in London, confronted with an attractive film maker, I asked her how she could have collaborated on a movie with an untalented phony. The critic Alan Brien, who introduced us, was amused: “It’s her husband,” he chortled. Uncharming, I’m afraid.

More charming was my mistake committed as a child in Abbazia, the Italian resort we used to visit for Easter vacation, lovely and warm. There I fell for a little girl my age, who owned a butterfly net with which she tried to fish, needless to say unsuccessfully. But one day it slipped from her hand, and floated tauntingly on the Mediterranian waves, not too far but just enough.

The girl was frantic, and I, like the perfect cavalier or idiot, trudged fully clothed into the sea, which luckily was not too deep there, and gallantly retrieved the net. A lady friend of my mother’s, horrifiedly noticing what happened, dragged me off to her room, removed the wet clothes and, while undressing me, also delivered a friendly dressing down. That I consider to have been a mistake as charming as reckless.

Merely amusing was another youthful mistake. In Belgrade, I attended a bilingual Serbian and German elementary school. On a class outing, I produced an orange from my satchel. Walking next to me, young Christoph von Heren, son of the German ambassador, lusted after the orange, which I had already peeled. Perhaps impressed by that “von,” I gave him the fruit, which he unthankfully devoured, as I contented myself with chewing on the orange peel. “Isn’t it convenient,” said the young bastard, “that while I prefer the orange, you favor the orange peel.” That mistake may have been more laughable than amusing.

To this day, it fills me with regret, as does my having used my BB gun to shoot at sparrows, of which I am often reminded when there are sparrows around. (This corresponds roughly to a feature of a play by Jean Anouilh, where, to be sure, it is more vicious.) I also tried to shoot lizards with a toy pistol, but those, happily, eluded me. Thus I felt innocent later on when purchasing a lizard-skin belt or wallet.

Just sometimes a joke manages to be both funny and horrendous. Thus the pos-sibility of Donald Trump being elected president. But, as the German saying has it, “Ich hab schon mehr gelacht”–-I’ve been known to laugh more.






Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Immortality


Ever since the year one, and probably even before, people have speculated about death and what could be done to defeat it, as in John Donne’s famous sonnet. But live forever not in Donne’s Christian faith, but in nature’s gift to you. There have been surely others who thought about living forever, as there are some who carefully differentiated between the act if dying and the fact of death. Futile as most of this speculation may be, I imagine it to be inexhaustible, truly undying.

Any number of serious people, including some famous ones, have meditated, usually in advanced age, about what it would be like to be given the opportunity to relive your life, on the chance of this time doing improving on it. But that would not be a matter of perpetuity, merely a chance of making the same thing better the second time round. A kind of postponement rather than infinite continuity. A matter of duplication versus singularity, not the same as eternity. The big question remains: what would it be like absolutely never having to die.

To comfort themselves, people have explained away such durability as undesirable. They would stress how boring, frustrating, dehumanizing such a dispensation would be. Your job in life—call it grandly your calling—must have proved to many ultimately dull, routine, unexciting, and thus unpleasant enough.  How much more so if it had to be kept up without cessation. It could drive you mad, arguably a worse fate than dying. Or if there was relief in constant change, change itself would become an addiction like every other, drink or drugs, only more confusing and fatiguing, eventually even detrimental. You would no longer be able to distinguish memories from fantasies, what you are remembering from what you are imagining.

Just think what it would do to marriage. How stupefying if it meant endless fidelity. How debilitating if it involved constant change of partners. Worst of all, time would become meaningless, because it could all just as well happen sooner or later, it would make no difference. Eternity is the same as timelessness, and timelessness means the meaninglessness of a specific time, and thus of time itself.

Just think how easy it is, even under present circumstances, to delay things, whose taking place at a specific time is important and facilitating. But if, let’s say, a get together for tomorrow would lack a precise time and urgency, it might easily turn into a miss, into not eventuating at all. Time exists because it makes us older and wiser, if it does not do so, it might as well not exist.

Things need to, have to, go away. If they don’t, how long ago was the Civil War? Why are Trafalgar and Actium still with us, the Punic Wars and the Crusades still upon us, ditto the Inquisition and Waterloo, Catherine the Great and  Bismarck, Abraham   Lincoln and Haile Selassie, all with us; and how on earth would there be room for all the undying anonymous multitudes on our little Earth?
                                                                                                                                                                   In an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which I translated for the Partisan Review, the author argued that what distinguished real writers from successful hacks is that the latter aim for immediate popularity, while the former strive for lasting posthumous fame. What kind of a world would throw together all Stephen Kings and William Faulkners for ever and ever, all Emily Dickinsons and Ella Wheeler Wilcoxes? There would be no Rona Jaffes and Edith Whartons breathing the same air, no difference in their longevity and survival. Death the Leveler would be replaced by Life the Leveler of trash with masterwork.

I could go on enunciating, ahem, forever the awkwardness of an everlasting present, with the great injustices bred by mere simultaneity. The trash writers could not be outlasted by the geniuses, and their sheer increasing numbers, an ever greater threat. Who or what does not bow to quantity, more easily measurable than quality? If Peter’s garbage steadily outsells Paul’s art, tell me which is the greater.

There even exists a Serbian folk poem, according to which the emperor Dus(h)an, by losing the battle against the evil, outnumbering Ottoman Turks and dying, chose over a mere earthly kingdom the far superior heavenly kind,  so proving himself truly worthy. Death in a righteous cause is more glorious than victory in a worse one, and earns you genine immortality.

Or take the case of Origen, who castrated himself for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, and so affirmed his sainthood. What are balls compared to a halo? What you lose in an earthly, lower region, is more than compensated for by gain in a nobler upper one, as the lowly crotch loses out to the higher brow, sensuality to saintliness, mortality to immortality.

As for my readers, I can only hope that, without gaining immortality from me, I can at least reconcile them to our shared mortality. There is no question of my agreeing with the incomparable poet Rilke about death being the great final adventure to which he looked forward. It is no more really so than the angels he kept writing about are real. But I do believe that a painless death in one’s sleep beats the hell out of protracted, painful dying. If there is such a thing as soul, not even it is immortal.
I am amazed when a clever man like William Buckley believed in being reunited with his predeceased spouse in an afterlife.

Let’s face it, leaving a fruitful, happy existence is not a good thing, even if it comes upon us during sleep. The best we can say for it is that ignorance is bliss, but it is a bliss hard to luxuriate in. If we are ordinary mortals, we do not look forward to that so-called great adventure, a thought that, even if we don’t let it constantly oppress us, lurks in our unconscious. To be fully inured is achievable only by unthinking brutes. Well may we envy those true brutes, the animals, unaware of what’s in store. For them. But, again, that bliss is  contingent upon our not making full use of hat cognition we do have.

Still, if ignorance is bliss, can its exact antithesis also be blissful? Is there a terrifying knowledge inhabiting our quotidian selves (“O que la vie est quotidienne,” Jules Laforgue), secretly gnawing away at them, but intermittently rising to the surface with fearful stabs?

For that, there is the obvious cure: religious faith in an afterlife. Yet what if the cure is worse than the malady? What if all religion is a lie? The problem with atheism is that the temptations away from it are not easy to resist. Thought made us atheists, but may it not also make us fear our being mistaken?

I can’t help feeling superior to all those sheep (as I see it) who unquestioningly accept Christianity or Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, or whatever, but am also more vulnerable, more apprehensive about total, irrevocable cessation, deprivation, death.

Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, we have immortal longings, but no Caesar or Antony to lean on for occasional support. So I must conclude with a question mark, and accept that any further dwelling on immortality can only finish in depression. I would like to have asked T. S. Eliot--surely what the French Academy calls their members, an immortal--and a true convert to Christianity, whether Death really has no sting,, and whether he could point out on the map the whereabouts of heaven and hell.

And then I would ask him whether immortality, possessed or believed in, is a true anodyne.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Noses



Probably the most famous reference to the nose is the phrase “Cleopatra’s nose,”  derived from Pascal’s celebrated pensee, “If the nose of Cleopatra had been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed,” which cunningly incorporates Cleopatra’s face in that of the earth. “The Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” explicates this as alluding to the beauty and charm of Cleopatra, and her conquest of, first Julius Caesar, then Mark Anthony.

This is especially interesting because of its implication, which can be variously interpreted as short being better than long or vice versa. It always reminded me, appropriately or not, of one of my youthful idols, the charming French actress in both Paris and Hollywood, my namesake Simone Simon, whose nose was perfectly snub. As the film scholar David Thomson puts it, “It was a small, pretty face, a little pinched around the nose and slanted in the eyes.” Pinched around the nose, strikes me as nonsense; it was the small, upturned nose itself that could perhaps be called pinched, but what it would have done to Caesar and Anthony remains unclear.

Anthony reminds me of Anthony Weiner, who has a long, thin, downward-pointing, really scimitar-shaped nose.  It may have been part of what appealed to Huma Amedin, his wife. If I may be allowed “a technical term no longer in use” (as my dictionary tells me), there is such a thing as the Hamitic or (still in use) Semitic nose, which latter caused both Barbra Streisand and Barry Manilow to be nicknamed The Nose.

No less characteristic is its opposite, the Roman nose, the kind that is straight, with an outline that continues without indentation the downward thrust of the brow. Though reputedly Roman, it’s a shape I have not encountered on any Roman bust I have seen in museums. Could it be that the sculptors eschewed and, as they thought, improved on it?

The second-most mythical one is the Pope’s nose, which, according to Brewer, is also called the Parson’s nose, and refers to “the rump of a fowl . . . said to have originated during the years following James II’s reign (1685-1688), when anti-Catholic feeling was high.”

The third-most famous, or notorious, nose is that of Cyrano de Bergerac, in Edmond Rostand popular play about him. The protagonist has an immense nose, about which he is very sensitive, and has him woo his beloved Roxane not for himself, but for his friend, the handsome but ineloquent Christian. With tragic irony, years later, the widowed Roxane lets him know that she could have loved him anyway--rather too late, what with her now a nun, and him dying.

The nose is both famous and infamous as asserted in phrases and references. In my personal experience, the actress Patti LuPone stated that she did not know that her nose was big until she read it in a review by me, this intended by her not as a compliment, I being neither Caesar nor Mark Anthony.

Which brings me to what may be the fourth-most famous nose, that of the great Roman poet Ovid, more fully Publius Ovidius Naso, suggested by his cognomen
Naso, most likely incorrectly, as large. The Naso probably came from his family name, and not from his “nasus” or its declension as “naso.”

Among the lesser writings of this famed love poet—trice married, the third time happily—is a poem in elegiacs, of which only the tiniest fragment has survived. It was called “Medicamina faciei femineae,” and was, according to “The Oxford Classical Dictionary,” a “handbook of cosmetics for the female toilet.” I would like to think that it contained something about women’s noses.

Latin poetry had much to do with noses, as in the term “nasutus,” which meant large-nosed in Horace, but acute or satirical and even sagacious in Martial. The word for nose itself has echoes in sundry languages, thus “nez” in French, “Nase” in German, “nos” in Serbian, “naso” in Italian, and so on. Spanish even has “narizon” for large-nosed (forgive my keyboard’s lack of accents) and “narizota” for a large, ugly schnoz, the latter Yiddish. It must all derive, I imagine, from Indo-European roots.

For the basic meanings of nose, my Heritage Dictionary has several, including the sense of smell in a dog with a good nose, also the ability to detect things as if by smell, the characteristic smell of a wine, a symbol for prying as also in the adjective nosy or nosey, and for a very short distance by which a horse often wins a race.

Oddly enough, it took Cicero to state the obvious but relevant. He wrote, and I translate, of the nose as “so located as to be viewed as a wall interposed between the eyes.” It would clearly not do to fail to keep the eyes apart. And what Cicero does not, indeed cannot, mention, the nose is what helps keep your spectacles on your face.

Let us now examine some of the chief phrases as yet unmentioned in which the nose figures. They are: on the nose (of a bull’s eye), led by the nose, to bite someone’s nose off, to count noses , to cut off your nose to spite your face, to follow one’s nose, to pay through the nose, to keep one’s nose to the grindstone, to look down one’s nose, to poke one’s nose in, to put one’s nose out of joint, to turn up your nose, under one’s very nose.

And then there are the figures in history known as nosy, not for their curiosity but for their large noses. Thus Wellington was nicknamed Nosy by his troops, with the same moniker bestowed also on Oliver Cromwell. But where does the expression for an inquisitive type, Nosy Parker, come from? Who was this Parker? A pen?

Lastly, if there is a lastly, the words that merely sound as if they had to do with noses, such as “nosology,” which is the classification of diseases, but which I always wanted to mean the science and study of noses.
                                                                                                                                                                    My not quite last edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” lists 22 items under “nose,” of which I’ll adduce two. One is from a poem by Thomas Ravenscroft (17th Century), entitled “Deuteromelia,” and runs: “Nose, nose, nose, nose!/ And who gave thee this jolly red nose?/ Nutmeg and ginger, cinnamon and cloves,/ And they gave me this jolly red nose.”

The other is a line from “Cyrano de Bergerac” in the Brian Hooker translation: “A great nose indicates a great man,” When I was in the army, I heard it differently: “Great nose, great cock.” This, I suspect, would not stand up under investigation, but it made some of the shorter soldiers with large noses feel bigger and better.

As for me, a beautiful girlfriend from the distant past, looking at me in the nude, remarked, “It’s just the right size for me.” Was it really? And what is the right size anyway? Who knows?

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Morality


Clearly, justice must be the same for all, but is this not true also of morality? Yet for some people, under certain circumstances, this is hardly the case. There exist certain persons by whom morality can be uncontestedly flouted.

Profession has much to do with it. One of the callings where truthfulness, i.e., morality, is cheerfully trampled on, is, of course, advertising. Which, even more than social intercourse, elicits unconditional superlatives. The only thing that could achieve honesty in much advertising would be consumer skepticism among a vast majority of people. Too bad that the human brain does not come with the motto “Caveat emptor” imprinted upon it.

Scarcely behind advertising in lack of morality, i.e., truthfulness or honesty, is politics, where that virtue is practiced with notable parsimony. Or, in the case of someone like Donald Trump, where, it seems to me, its cousin amorality thrives from bottom to top, by which I mean his hair, its color quite possibly trumpery. I consider its lack of morality equal to that of a codpiece for Elizabethan trousers, or a microphone for toady’s pop singers.

But, to be sure, not only Trump’s blondness may infringe on morality; a passel of others of his shenanigans are far guiltier, as are those of  a good many politicians. Most smelling of hypocrisy is politicians’ abuse of religion. Hardly one who does not claim God to go arm in arm with him, backed up by little more than Sunday churchgoing. Christianity provides a standard moral masquerade. Not that I dispute the zeal of born-again Christians and Tea Partiers, but I wonder whether it is not, like taking up arms against the government, self-righteousness or self-interest: a facile grab for power among the socially and morally underprivileged. Holier than thou is usually less than holy.

This is not to say that genuine religiosity among politicos is out of the question; there must, after all, be a needle in some haystack. I just wish it weren’t in numerous cases so ostentatious and perfunctory, a set of down-at-heal cliches.

But the presumable apogee of immorality thrives among lawyers. The criminal lawyers  at any rate seem at the very least amoral by profession. If you attend a play in which the word “lawyer” is so much as mentioned, you are assured of  a gust of audience laughter. The only thing comparable is when one character, after a lengthy tirade by another, responds with “No shit?” But even that is becoming less sure-fire than “lawyer.”

True immorality does invade seemingly unlikely places such as sports.  Although much reprehended and steadily contested, doping will, I suspect, never be wholly uprooted. But there are other ways of cheating as well, in a field you were not expecting it. After all, is not sport, going all the way back to ancient Greece, supposed to be a noble, unblemished pursuit of excellence, implied by the very word “sportsmanlike”?
                                                                                                                                                        Based on the assumption of mens sana in corpore sano, our athletes are meant to be looked up to not only on the playing fields, in stadiums, swimming pools, ball parks, arenas and wherever else professional sports are practiced, but even in the private lives of these glorified and spectacularly remunerated winners, enjoying adulation from millions of fans. Unfortunately, the mens sana is harder to come by than the  corpus sanus. In their private lives, we get everything from wife beaters to victims of fabricated muggings near the 2016 Rio Olympics. In Ryan Lochte’s apology even the recurrent term “overexaggerated” for lying is a moral fiasco.

I will skip over such heroes of our times as rock stars, of whose moral grandeur Jimi Hendrix offered as sole example their having taught countless groupies how to give better head. But what about actors then, the nearest approximation to rock stars? Are they not likely to carry the pretense of their finest roles over into their daily lives? There has of course been the notion that big stars, like their producers, enjoy the privilege of the casting couch, whereby pretty women get their roles, especially in the movies, on their performance on that piece of furniture rather than on screen or stage. This, by the way, is a histrionic area in which nowadays handsome young men seem to have rather taken over in defiance of the phrase “ladies first.” In any case, in our more permissive era, any type of sex advancing one’s status is considered perfectly comme il faut.

Certainly sleeping with the director has become pretty much established, almost de rigueur, which reminds me of the case of a famous British actress telling me that she does not figure in the memoirs of a famous director with whom she would not go to bed, whereas another, equally famous but also more willing actress prominently does.

All of which brings me to my profession: what about morality in critics? I have been praised by an academic as the one critic who writes exactly what he thinks, which I would consider a minimal requirement for the job, but given what most of today’s reviewers are like, may indeed be a distinction. These reviewers—they scarcely rate the honorific critic—let pass altogether too much twaddle, it hardly matters whether out of fear of losing their jobs or out of authentic benightedness  and genuine poor taste.

In his biography of Pauline Kael, Brian Kellow quotes her as saying about film criticism, “You don’t have to know what John Simon does to be the best at it,” by which criterion she certainly qualifies as one of the best. I maintain that no kind of ignorance is bliss in criticism, and that there less is definitely not more. What is most often held against me, along with alleged homophobia and undeniable taste for good looks in performers is, I’m afraid wit, which admittedly hurts the recipient but regales the discriminating reader.

In his interesting anthology “The Critics Say . . .”  Matt Windman quotes Elisabeth Vincentelli (formerly of the Post, now of the Times) about me: “He’s such a great stylist and writer, but his meanness is just too much. It was delicious to read, but sometimes it got in the way of his critical acumen and that kind of spoiled the pleasure in reading him. I didn’t feel like there was any generosity behind it. He often wrote about very real issues that nobody else would touch—the stuff that’s very tricky to deal with—but he wrote about it with such a lack of empathy.’

Well, I wouldn’t trade my lack of empathy for all the king’s horses and all the prevalent critical horseshit. I take comfort from the good things Woody Allen says about me in the new, excellent biography, “Woody,” by David Evanier. In spite of my rather sharp criticism of some of his movies , he thinks that “Simon’s film criticism would endure more than that of any other critic.” And in my copy of the book he wrote “To John Simon—Thank you for keeping me and all of us in movies and theatre honest, Woody Allen.”

 And so, I think, the truly moral critic can adapt Falstaff’s “I am not only witty in myself, but also the cause that wit is in other men” as “I am no only honest in myself, but also the cause that honesty is in other men.” And women, too—ask my friend Betty Buckley, or, were she alive today, Madeline Kahn, who had her breasts diminished because of something I wrote about them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Beginnings


Like first impressions in life, and rather more so, first impressions, i.e., beginnings in fiction matter. They may not be quite all important, but they do invite and influence readership.

Take that terrific opening sentence that many people who know nothing else about Tolstoi’s “Anna Karenina” (more properly “Anna Karenin”) are familiar (!) with, “Happy families are all alike, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” No one is let down by that novel, but “War and Peace” must be a veritable graveyard of readers who gave up midway or sooner.

Pretty famous, deservedly, is also the beginning of L. P. Hartley’s “The Go-Between,” “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” The whole novel is good, although the fine film based upon it may be even better.

Both of these are apt beginnings because they lay their finger on something we “oft have thought but ne’er so well express’d,” as Alexander Pope so well put it. But are other beginnings as good as that, I wondered. So I decided to pluck ten worthy books at random from my shelves and check out their beginnings. See how ably they invite further reading or not.

Only one of them is well-known, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” which starts: “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do; once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations.’”

Very clever, this, since it appeals not only to children (no pictures) but even to their elders (no conversations).  What characterizes the passage is impatience (very tired of sitting) and what is more characteristic of young children than their lack of what German calls “Sitzfleisch,” hard to put into English short of “flesh to sit on.” Conversations, of course, know no age. So our author appeals to all ages.

Now take what may be my favorite English (British) novel of all time, Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier.” Here the very short opening sentence gets us where we live: “This is the saddest story I ever heard.” How succinctly the author establishes the presence of both a narrator and of the characters whose story it is. Presumably equally sad for those who lived it and the one who heard and recorded it. And who can resist reading on compassionately?

There is, however, a tricky way of telling a tragic story humorously: a double-bottomed treasure chest. This is the Turkish American Nobel Prize-winning novelist, Orhan Pamuk’s “My Name Is Red,” which begins: “I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.” This opening paragraph goes on to list further gory details, but already you see its burlesque effectiveness. Which would be less remarkable but for the victim telling it (The same device figures in that splendid movie, “Sunset Boulevard.”)

The comic tone—gallows or black humor if you like—comes from the details so carefully enumerated by the corpse; it is bizarre, but somehow also reassuring, if dead men do tell tales. Even the almost convivial “that wretch,” plays a droll role.
As does something worse than mere death: entombment in a well. We want to know more.

Now take the start of George du Maurier’s “Peter Ibbetson” (1891). “The writer of this singular autobiography was my cousin, who died at the ---- Criminal Lunatic Asylum, of which he had been an inmate three years. He had been removed thither after a sudden and violent attack of homicidal mania (which fortunately had no serious coincidences) from ----Jail, where he had spent twenty-five years having been condemned to penal servitude for life, for murder of ---- his relative. He had been originally sentenced to death. It was at ----Lunatic Asylum that he wrote his memoir . . .” etc.

Note especially the adroitness of the double dash (----). It cleverly makes the story universal, allowing the reader to fill in the lacunas with the jail and asylum nearest him. The narrator is essentially genteel, a later paragraph reveals that it is a woman, the loony’s literary executrix, who tells the story with refined discretion, hence also all those masking dashes. Our curiosity for what follows is chastely aroused, allowing for the propriety of the Victorian readers as well as their secret love of horror.

Next, consider the skillful beginning of Milan Kundera’s early ‘The Farewell Party” (1976), in its French original the more lyrical “La Valse aux adieux.” “Autumn had arrived. In the lovely valley trees were turning yellow, red, brown, and the small health-resort town seemed to be surrounded by flames. Women were strolling under the colonnade of the spa, now and again pausing to lean over the spouting springs. These were childless women who had come to the spa in the hope of gaining fertility. There was a handful of men among the patient too, for in addition to gynecological wonders a cure at the spa was supposedly beneficial for heart ailments. All the same, females outnumbered males nine to one—an infuriating ration for a young nurse like Ruzena, ministering all day to the needs of sterile matrons.”

Observe the skillful progression from the beauty of nature to the anguished childless women, thence to the zeroing in on the unfulfilled needs of a specific heroine. A movie camera could not have made these transitions more vividly effective, from an establishing shot through a tracking shot to a close-up. We are caught in Kundera’s clever manipulation, ready to be taken into the heart of the story.


Similarly involving and evolving is the progression at the start of the French-Alsacian Rene Schickele’s delightful novel (written in German) “Die Flaschenpost” (“The Bottle Mail”), which I translate, keeping the spacing that resembles free verse. “Cloud./ Richard Cloud . . ./ Today the matutinal mini-boats all foregathered on the horizon. As the sun rose, someone gave a signal, and they sailed in a race across the sky. // One after another they capsized, filled up on blueness and sank—I said to myself contentedly: ‘among them also Richard Cloud.’ . . . // My family lived in the United States, there where it is most boring.”

Here, too, we start with a nature description, lyrical but also ironic, mocking. The hero, Richard Cloud, watches his namesakes in the sky overturn and, smiling, projects himself among them, a rich young man who will similarly capsize. And the very next sentence is a challenge: what is this America, the most boring place in the world? Again, we are seduced into wanting to find out what clouds the life horizon of this Mr. Cloud.

Now take Arthur Schnitzler’s marvelous novella, “Casanova’s Homecoming” (1918), though the German “Heimfahrt” inadequarely translatable as homegoing or home journey. I translate.  “In his fifty-third year, when Casanova had long since given up being chased through the world by the adventurousness of youth, but by the restlessness of approaching old age, he felt arise so powerfully in his soul a nostalgic longing [Heimweh] for his birth city, Venice, that, like a bird that from airy heights gradually descends toward death, he began surrounding it in ever narrower and narrower circles.”

We have here Schnitzler’s gift for blending, in an elaborate but elegant style, psychological insight with poetic prose. The long sentence weaves its way through senescence and an avian image to a vagabond’s yearning for the true final home. A long but carefully constructed sentence is itself a kind of journey toward a resting place as it carries us along toward greater realization impending.

Contrast this sympathetic approach to human yearning with the severity of the beginning of V. S, Naipaul’s novella, “The Second Rebellion” (l979) in the volume entitled “A Bend in the River.” “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.”

Naipaul’s antipathy for much of humanity is crystallized in this hostile opening.  Where other writers’ motivation is usually sympathetic, Naipaul’s is condescending and contemptuous. But it works in its negative way just as much as other authors' positive one.

Take now the good-natured approach in “The Caliph Stork” (1913) by the great Hungarian poet and prosaist, Mihaly Babits. Captioned “The Autobiography of Elemer Tabory,” it begins (I translate): “I want to gather together the acts of my life.

Who knows how much time I have left? The step I have resolved to take may prove fatal, Slowly, inexorably night is waning. Surely there will come sometime, tiptoe like a murderer, the black Dream, and step soundlessly behind me. Suddenly, it will press its palm on my eyes. And then I will no longer belong to myself. Then anything can happen to me. I want to collect the acts of my life before I would go to sleep once more.”

Note how calm this writing is, how empathetic. Death as a black dream, silently pressing from behind its palm on one’s eyes, does not sound too awful, leaving one time to collect one’s past actions, presumably on paper. The repetition makes it all the more resolute, the tone more resigned. We are eager to read those recorded acts.

But the recording of the past can be much more unnerving, as in that superb novel, Italo Svevo’s “Zeno’s Conscience,” (1925) published in Italian as La coscienza di Zeno, which I would translate more euphoniously as “The Conscience of Zeno,” but who am I to dispute the premier translator from the Italian, William Weaver? Herewith the beginning of the “Preamble” following a very brief doctor’s note. The hero is commenting on the doctor’s recommendation.

“Review my childhood? More than a half-century stretches between that time and me, but my farsighted eyes could perhaps perceive it if the light still aglow there were not blocked by obstacles of every sort, outright mountain peaks: all my years and some of my hours.”

The jacket copy informs us that this is “the story of a hapless, doubting, guilt-ridden man, paralized by his fits of ecstasy and despair and tickled by his own cleverness” in this “pioneering psychoanalytical novel.” The tone of that beginning establishes an attitude of imaginative, jocular pessimism.” We want to read on and find out whether those blocking mountains could be climbed.

Let me conclude with the first sentence of the Russian poet-novelist Valeri Briusov’s “The Fiery Angel” (1930), excellent advice to both writers and would-be writers. “It is my view that everyone who has happened to be witness of events out of the ordinary and not easily comprehensible should leave behind a record of them, made sincerely and without bias.” It should be taken to heart: something that we don’t quite understand, if written down sincerely and without bias might become comprehensible in the process of committing to paper. That is what Babits had in mind too, and that is what Zeno is advised to do. The past may be a foreign country, as Hartley opined, but we can become observant tourists in it.

Briussov’s exciting novel has become the basis of Prokofiev’s terrific opera, all too rarely performed. But there are at least a couple of worthy recordings of it that will afford repeated happy listening.

And one further comment. Isn’t it interesting that half my prosaists were also poets? To wit Babits, Briussov, Carroll, Schickele and Schnitzler. It bears out my contention that the best training for a prosaist is to have also been a poet.                                                                                                          

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Fetish, Anyone?



Fetishes are called kinks or perversions and refer to any deviance from the accepted “normal” sexual practice. But is there not a certain flexibility allowed for them? Homosexuality, for example, has been called a perversion and in certain places still is deemed one, though no longer so in enlightened Western societies.



Then there are practices that opinion is divided about. Take anal intercourse between men and women. Whereas oral sex is no longer considered kinky, anal sex is still judged such in certain quarters, where not much has changed since Annabella Lady Byron was granted a divorce from her husband for requiring anal sex..


Certain perversions are associated with some kind of violence espoused by consenting adults, e.g., sadism and masochism (S&M). Others, however, are more peaceable, as, for instance, foot fetishism. An entire society, the Chinese, went in for foot binding, which had nothing to do with preventing wives from escaping their husbands, but with the latter liking to toy with tiny feet.

Why this impulse? On the one hand (or foot) because smallness itself is appealing—think puppies, kittens, babies, and miniatures of every kind. But also, I think, because for the smaller foot, toes are more proportionate. They can be only so big, and on a large foot they have a way of looking like a puny appendage. On a smaller foot, they have a way of blending in seamlessly into a symmetrical balance.

Still, why a foot fetish, and none on, say, a calf or knee? It would seem to have to do  with feet being usually hidden in shoes, and thus, when exposed, a kind of revelation. Other parts that would be erotic if bared, like breasts, remain mainly concealed. In any case, male attraction to the female bosom, an approved erotic zone, is considered normal.

Because hands are on full display, there seems to be no serious hand fetishism. There is, however, shoe fetishism for high-heeled women’s shoes, a kind of transference from feet, but I would wager offhand not all that frequent.

Much as I respond to a beautiful bare female foot, the stimulus is minimal on a beach full of bikinied women. Partly, this is a matter of excess, of indiscriminate exposure devoid of mystery. More so perhaps because there the exposed foot does not carry a promise of greater things to come. Conversely, a fully clad woman’s bare foot does induce further expectations of disrobing. Then again, a skilled woman can, with a bare foot, induce a fricative male orgasm. In any case, scantily clad ubiquitousness invites detumescence.

Why, all things considered, should it be all right for a man to caress, kiss, suck or nibble a woman’s breast, but not her foot? The answer would appear to be that, in the former, pleasure is shared; in the latter, one-sided. But then why is fellatio approved, when a woman would more likely prefer a lollypop or ice-cream cone to a penis and sperm?

Or is it enough for the woman to simultaneously merely sense the pleasure she is giving?

The eroticism of the foot has quite an outlet in literature. Take, for instance, Sir Thomas Wyatt’s famous poem that begins, “They flee from me, that sometimes did me seek/ With naked foot stalking in my chamber . . .” The epithet naked in preference to bare may be simply due to the need of a bisyllable to make the iambic line scan. But then what of Oscar Wilde’s “Salome,” where the drooling Herod mutters, “Ah, thou art to dance with naked feet! ‘Tis well! ‘Tis well. Thy little feet will be like white doves. They will be like little white flowers that dance upon the trees.” Of course it could be argued that Wilde wrote the play in French, where it had to be “pieds nus” because there is no word for bare. But surely he and his lover “Bosie” Douglas, who translated the play into English, must have been aware of the implications of “naked.”

Both Robert Herrick and Sir John Suckling have written poems celebrating a woman’s foot peeping out from under her skirt while dancing though there the foot remains shod. But what about Shakespeare about Cressida: “Her eye, her cheek, her lip,/ Nay, her foot speaks”?

Still, the apogee of foot fetishism in English is in George du Maurier’s 1894 novel, “Trilby.” Its heroine begins as a teenage Irish beauty in Paris, posing as a model for painters and sculptors, often in the altogether. “’Yes,” she says to her British admirers, “’l’ensemble, you know—head, hands, and feet—everything—especially feet. That’s my foot,’ she said, kicking off her slipper and stretching out her limb. ‘It’s the handsomest foot in all Paris. There is only one in all Paris to match it, and here it is,’ and she laughed heartily (like a merry peal of bells) and stuck out the other.

And in truth they were astonishingly beautiful feet, such as one only sees in pictures and statues—a true inspiration of shape and colour, all made up of delicate lengths and subtly-modified curves and noble straightnesses and happy little dimpled arrangements in innocent young pink and white.

So that Little Billee . . . was quite bewildered to find that a real, bare, live human foot could be such a charming object to look at . . . .

The shape of those lovely slender feet (that were neither large nor small), facsimiled in dusty pale plaster of Paris, survives on the shelves and walls of many a studio throughout the world, and many a sculptor yet unborn has yet to marvel at their strange perfection, in studious despair . . . .

It is a wondrous thing, the human foot—like the human hand; even more so, perhaps; but, unlike the hand, with which we are so familiar, it is seldom a thing of beauty in civilized adults who go about in leather boots or shoes.

So that it is hidden away in disgrace, a thing to be thrust out of sight and forgotten. It can sometimes be very ugly indeed—the ugliest thing there is, even in the fairest and highest and most gifted of her sex, and then it is of an ugliness to chill and kill romance, and scatter love’s young dream, and almost break the heart.

And all for the sake of high heel and a ridiculously pointed toe--mean things at the best!

Conversely, when Mother Nature has taken extra pains in the building of it, and proper care or happy chance has kept it free of lamentable deformations, indurations, and discolorations—all those grewsome [sic] boot-begotten abominations, which have made it generally upopular—the sudden sight of it, uncovered, comes as a very rare and singularly pleasing surprise to the eye that has learned how to see!

Nothing else that Mother Nature has to show, not even the human face divine, has more subtle power to suggest high physical distinction, happy evolution, and supreme development, the lordship of man over beast, the lordship of man over man, the lordship of woman over all . . . .

Trilby had respected Mother Nature’s special gift to herself—had never worn a leather boot or shoe, had always taken as much care of her feet as many a fine lady takes of her hands. . . .

With the point of an old compass, [Little Billie] scratched in white on the dark red wall a three-quarter profile outline of Trilby’s left foot, which was perhaps the more perfect poem of the two.”

Later, the great sculptor Durien comes visiting and, recognizing the foot on the wall, exclaims, “Tiens! Le pied de Trilby! Vous avez fait ca d’apres Nature?” and remarks, “Je voudrais bien avoir fait ca, moi!” The only thing du Maurier does not mention is a high instep, but being as much a visual artist as a writer, he includes among his illustrations for the book two little sketches of Trilby’s foot. There are several references throughout the novel to Trilby’s “beautiful [or alabaster] white feet,” plaster casts of which enriched their vendor and whose mural image was vainly tried to be removed from the studio wall. But let me move on to two incidents that reverberate in my memory.

One long-ago summer, my then girlfriend was driving us in her car. She was barefoot, and I, sitting next to her, pointed out how pretty her foot looked on the gas pedal. She was both surprised and delighted: it had never occurred to her that she had pretty feet. Another time, I went backstage to congratulate a lovely actress on her performance. She was barefoot, and for the first time I really saw her feet. They were large, flat, wide and, not to mince words, ugly. I was appalled, and wondered whether could ever again give her a rave review. Luckily I never saw her again, on or off the stage.

 I truly think I have figured out how I got my (mild enough) foot fetish, even though such a thing, I imagine, rarely has its etiology. Back in my childhood in Belgrade a maid who cleaned floors would attach a special brush by its strap to her bare foot for that purpose and scrub away. This afforded me my first glimpse of female flesh (the leg was bare too) and filled my young soul with erotic excitement.

I still admire a well-turned foot, preferably on the small side. I wonder what Francois Villon meant in his “Ballade des Dames du temps jadis,” in which he celebrates women for their beauty or power. One of them he refers to as “Berte au grant pie.” [Accent aigu on the E.] I recall, by the way, that Eric Partridge designates Bertha as a Teutonic name, meaning bright or shining one. So was this “grand pied,” as we would say now, perhaps also bright and shining, for Villon--an object of admiration or deprecation or merely observation?

Idle but enjoyable speculation. Let us now, however, turn to higher things.