Dilettante's Diary

July 19/11

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
Sabbath's Theater by PHILIP ROTH
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How Fiction Works
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The Jesus Sayings
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Head to Head
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About Me
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OTHER STUFF: Art Exhibitions, Concerts, etc.

The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older ones will move further down. When the page is closed, the items will be archived according to the final date on the page.

Reviewed here: The Trip (Movie); Horrible Bosses (Movie); New Yorker items by Keith Ridgway, Ron Rash, Michael Ondaatje, Jonathan Franzen and Paul Rudnick; The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Novel); Hallelujah Junction (Memoir)

The Trip (Movie) directed by Michael Winterbottom; starring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon

Here’s a movie that’s virtually critic-proof. It has no plot and no script (apparently). The characters aren’t fictional; they’re real people (more or less). So what’s to criticize? The scenery’s lovely. And it’s hardly fair to fault a road movie for jumping from place to place in a desultory style. That’s the nature of the thing.

In this case, the places are in craggy, bleak Northern England. What takes us there is the fact that Steve Coogan, an actor who apparently does some journalism on the side, has contracted to do an article about fine dining at posh inns. Since his girlfriend isn’t available for the trip, he has invited his pal Rob Brydon, another actor, to join him. The two of them trundle over hill and dale and across moors for one week in their little car, savouring the vistas and the haute cuisine and sounding off.

Most of the latter consists of impressions of actors. Michael Caine keeps cropping up, along with Anthony Hopkins and Richard Burton. The guys do them well, but it's especially interesting to see these Brits nail US actors (Pacino, DeNiro, et al). For me, the best of all – and the funniest – is Woody Allen, not least because they have some good laugh lines, la Mr. Allen. They also do a riff on one of those famous Shakespearean "call to arms" scenes. (I think it’s the St. Crispin’s Day thing from Henry V.) At the end of the speech, when the orator orders the troops to be ready tomorrow morning for the battle, our two buddies start adding qualifiers, like maybe time should be allowed for breakfast and for a run.

When not cooking up these imaginative improvs, the guys fall into singing, in harmonies which can be surprisingly agreeable. They even pull off a "brass" duet, mimicking horns in what is, I think, the opening of Gustav Mahler’s "New World" symphony. When one of the guys gets caught by a pedant delivering a long spiel about geology, it feels, for a moment, like we’re in Monty Python land. Occasionally, our guys wander into more philosophical territory about the meaning of life and the role of ambition.

While it’s all mildly entertaining, the only scenes that really touched me were the ones where Mr. Brydon is talking to his wife on the phone at night and making sexual jokes in a very fond way. Apart from those moments, I didn’t find a lot of charm in the piece. Which is what a movie as light as this needs to win you over. Granted, it was apparently providing buckets full for some women in the audience who were responding with waves of delighted titters at practically everything the two guys said or did. It might also help to beguile you if you know Mr. Coogan and Mr. Brydon in their professional roles, as the British public evidently does. (People in the movie recognize them and suck up to them.) Then you might get a special pleasure from watching how they play off their public images here.

For somebody who has no previous impression of the two guys, however, their antics might not be especially engaging. Skillfull as their impersonations of other celebrities are, I kept being reminded of the fact that Brits are acting all their lives, from the moment they first learn their place in the class hierarchy. So it’s no surprise that these two professional actors can do good impressions. (We’ll forgive their over-acting sometimes in reaction to each other’s impressions.) In a slightly ennui-inducing way, their shtick also reminded me of what a lot of young actors in my circle did at parties when we were in our twenties.

Which may be why I kept hoping there might turn out to be a point to the movie. Could it be about how cell phones keep you connected to business and home no matter where you travel these days? Or about male bonding? On that score, the movie’s sending out a pretty bleak message: mostly what male friendships are about is a lot of competitiveness and edgy sniping. Even when one of the guys extemporizes a eulogy for the other one, the mood is diffident: a sort of shrug, in an is-that-all-there-is? mode.

Ultimately, a message does come through – a little too clearly, to my way of thinking. It has to do with the fact that one of the travellers keeps bedding new women along the way while the other pines for his wife and baby back home. The implied moral seems rather staid for a Michael Winterbottom movie but, when you think a bit about his previous ones, you can see that there’s usually a fairly conventional message behind all the outrageous sexual carry-on.

Capsule Comment: Not quite charming enough to make up for the lack of substance. 


Horrible Bosses (Movie) written by Michael Markowtiz, John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein; directed by Seth Gordon; starring Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, Colin Farrell; with Jamie Foxx, Donald Sutherland, and Bob Newhart.

Before you say that this obviously wasn’t my type of movie and that I shouldn’t have tried it, let me point out that it seemed (from a quick look at the headlines) to be getting good reviews from reliable sources. We’ve all known lots of really good comedies where three guys get into deep doo-doo, with entertaining results. Three Amigos is the first one that comes to mind. Plus, classics like Three Men on a Horse. And this movie’s premise doesn’t by any means sound like a dud: three guys decide to murder their terrible bosses.

But therein lies the problem. In order to make sure that we’re never troubled by any slight moral scruple about the pros and cons of killing people, the bosses gotta be so bad that anybody can see they need to be exterminated. Hence, a threesome of bosses who are egregiously evil and, what’s more problematic, unbelievably so. Not one of them is allowed to have a minute that makes him or her look anything remotely like a real human being.

Which makes for a pretty tough job for the actors playing the villains. I’d like to say that Kevin Spacey looks like he's having fun cutting up as the exec from hell, except that he doesn't. The main thing that struck me when he was on screen was that at least his hairpiece looked like a genuine toupe. I felt sorry for Jennifer Aniston in the role of the dentist with a bewildering lust for her squirrely male assistant. Since there's absolutely no reason for it, she looks like a fool when throwing her body at his. The third boss is less like a human being than a comic book freak, so much so that I didn’t realize until the credits that it was Colin Farrell playing the part. Whether or not that’s a tribute to his acting, I’m not sure.

Sitting through the setup required to establish the excess of perfidy on the part of these bosses was quite an ordeal. What was bothering me almost as much as the obvious goings-on was the underlying mentality: the world is divided into us and the bad guys. Sort of like the worst kind of war movie. And I couldn’t escape the creepy feeling that at least some of the people who were gobbling it up with glee kinda believed that life really is like that: those "others" are not real humans and therefore they need to be got rid of.

But let’s try not to judge other audience members. Let’s try to focus on what was happening on screen. Of the three would-be murderers, Jason Bateman manages to maintain a certain dignity throughout. There’s an ironic, bemused look on his face that seems to say: I can’t believe this is happening. (I think that’s the actor’s attitude to the movie as a whole, not his character’s response to any plot detail.) As the squirrely dental assistant, Charlie Day is supposed to be funny; we know that because he’s short and he has a high voice. I don’t see that he has anything else going for him here. Jason Sudeikis with his bland, self-satisfied look, seems well-suited to the role of the smug lech who thinks women exist for his gratification.

If it’s interesting acting you want, however, you’ll have to be satisfied with the few scenes featuring Jamie Foxx as the denizen of a bar where the three buddies go looking for a hitman. Mr. Foxx gives the part a certain spin that helps to provide some hope that movie stars can still do something creative in the acting department.

Not that the movie’s totally lacking in other sorts of creative touches. At times, there are clever plot switcheroos and amusing situations. Some of the dialogue can be original: as when two of the buddies are arguing over which of them is likely to be the more attractive rape bait in prison. When inspiration fails the writers, however, they fall back on such an old stunt as having the lech eye somebody’s good ass through binoculars but it turns out that the ass belongs to a guy. Or showing the three friends exiting an empty parking lot, each in his own car, and each making a stupid move that cuts off one of the others. Failing even that sort of invention, the script depends for much of its humour on truckloads of foul language, bathroom humour and frequent uses of the words "penis" and "vagina."

All of which – especially given the cynicism at the heart of the movie – did not make for a very good time for me. So maybe it’s not my movie, after all. Then let me tell you about other other people's reactions. Like the masses of teenage girls giggling in ecstasy while one of the would-be murderers, on lookout duty in a car, was grooving mindlessly to rock music, having accidentally inhaled cocaine. At the end of the movie, one of the twenty-something dudes sitting near me muttered contentedly, as if he’d just downed a turkey dinner: "That was one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time."

Capsule Comment: Some clever touches but not enough to raise the movie above the drek.


The New Yorker: Catching Up

Thanks to the recent strike at Canada Post, it’s been more than a month since I’ve seen a new issue of The New Yorker. The up-side of that catastrophe is that it gives me a chance to catch up on back issues. (Usually, what happens is that a new one lands on the doorstep, presenting me with several must read immediately articles, which means that the older issues get pushed aside.) Herewith, some stand-outs from my recent reading:

"Goo Book" – short fiction by Keith Ridgway (issue of April 11, 2011).

This piece astounds me, for its simplicity, its naturalness and its originality of voice. It tells of a young Londoner, a petty thief, who does some chauffeuring for a big crime boss. The kid never knows for sure what’s going down on these driving stints, but we twig that skulduggery is afoot. On his drives, and while waiting for his important passenger outside various questionable venues, the kid reflects on his weird life with his girlfriend. They’re into bondage and yet, deep love seems to be lurking behind the games. In fact, the story’s title refers to a notebook in which they write intimate things to and about each other. These writings started spontaneously and neither of them ever refers openly to the existence of the book.

What makes this short story so amazing is that it sounds exactly as though it was penned by an uneducated, not very literate member of the marginal classes. There’s not a single "literary" intrusion that sounds like it comes from a writer. The narrative voice is so authentic that, in my memory, I thought it had been written in the first person, but find on checking, that it isn’t. To give just a sample:

He went home and cooked for her, and she sang bits of things at him and laughed at her own voice. They lay together in front of the television for a while, and then she wanted him to tie her up, to practice his knots, to fuck her, come on her, fuck her again.

To convey as much as this story does, not just in terms of emotion and plot – and, believe me, things do get very complicated for our young friend – with an apparent lack of artifice seems to me one of the highest achievements of fiction writing.


"The Trusty" – short fiction by Ron Rash (May 23, 2011)

This tells about a guy who works on a chain gang somewhere in the rural US in the 1930s. He’s called a "trusty" because he’s allowed to go to nearby farms to get water for the other workers. On one such call, he strikes up a friendship (sort of) with a plain, sullen young farm wife. Again, it amazes me that an author can catch such an authentic sound. In this case, it’s the cadences and vocabulary of country folk as they spoke in the 1930s. (At least, I’m assuming the reproduction is true; I wasn’t there to hear the original.) You have to ask yourself how an author who teaches in a university today, as Mr. Rash does, can nail that ambiance so well.

To my taste, the story falls just a little short of the excellence of the above-mentioned "Goo Book" because the occasional line in "The Trusty" betrays the author’s presence in the story. For instance: "The dwelling appeared to have been built in the previous century." Admittedly, that could be the character’s observation but, on first hearing, it sounds dangerously like the author’s explanation – an effect that interferes with the feeling that you’re experiencing the story directly with the character, without any intermediary.

It might also be considered a flaw that the ending of the story leaves things a bit uncertain. You know what’s going to happen but you don’t know exactly why or who’s doing it. I felt there needed to be at least one or two more clues to help me to come to a conclusion. On re-reading the relevant passage, I find more information than first came to light. Still, I would have liked a bit more certainty.


"The Cat's Table" -- short fiction by Michael Ondaatje (May 16, 2011)

This may seem like an admission of disloyalty to my country's artistic achievement, but I've seldom read any of Michael Ondaatje's work. From what I've heard of it – and from excerpts encountered here and there – it has always struck me as rather too florid for my taste, too ornate and literary, Over-written, in other words. I was pleasantly surprised, then, by this short story. In straight-forward, plain prose, it tells the story of an eleven-year-old boy who travelled by ship from Ceylon to England in the 1950s, to meet his mother whom he hadn't seen for some years. The story does include what strikes me as one rather far-fetched, fantastical incident, but for the most part, it conveys the boy's world and his experiences with directness and great credibility. (One can no doubt be forgiven for assuming there's a large autobiographical element to the story.)

Admittedly, some of the pleasure in it for me came from the fact that it reminded me of my trip  to England on the Empress of Britain with my aunt in the 1950s when I was eleven. My shipboard experiences were by no means as adventurous as those of Mr. Ondaatje's character. but the ambiance of life for a kid on a ship, as he creates it, rings very true to my memories.


 "Robinson Crusoe" and the art of solitude, article by Jonathan Franzen (April 18, 2011)

This piece has a somewhat sad relevance, in that it concerns two authors who were, back in 1999, cited in the New Yorker’s list of promising young writers under forty. They both went on to considerable fame, but one killed himself a couple of years ago while the other has continued to rack up literary triumphs. The latter, Jonathan Franzen, writes here about a trip to a virtually deserted island off the coast of Chile where he hoped to escape from the buzz of a book tour, to reflect on the novel Robinson Crusoe and to spot a rare bird known to inhabit the island. Just before he left for this adventure, the widow of David Foster Wallace, the writer who was Mr. Franzen’s friend and who had killed himself, gave Mr. Franzen some of her husband’s ashes to distribute on the island.

Nothing could interest me more than the idea of a guy going off and doing a Robinson Crusoe. But Mr. Franzen’s island sojourn doesn’t amount to much, at least not in terms of length. As far as I can tell, he only spent a night or two on the island. His quest for the elusive bird was thwarted by wicked weather and dangerous trekking conditions on rocky cliffs towering over the sea. Which would be fine if what transpired during the brief island stay was engaging enough. What we get is lots of cogitation. The ideas are interesting but there are too many of them and they’re not always linked convincingly or smoothly. We ricochet from hellish rain, wind and fog, to a history of the novel and its role in society, to bird tracking, to mulling over the reasons for a friend’s suicide. On that subject, intriguing though Mr. Franzen’s thoughts may be, I kept thinking: but you’re not him, you can’t possibly know his reasons for what he did.

Maybe the biggest problem with the piece (for me) is that Mr. Franzen’s prose is not particularly welcoming to a reader. There’s a distinct lack of grace and light. The sentences can be heavy and ponderous. The opening of the piece, for example:

In the South Pacific Ocean, five hundred miles off the coast of central Chile, is a forbiddingly vertical volcanic island, seven miles long and four miles wide, that is populated by millions of seabirds and thousands of fur seals but is devoid of people, except in the warmer months, when a handful of fishermen come out to catch lobsters.

That’s not what I’d call a real grabber of an opening. Maybe you could accept it as the writer’s attempt to get a lot off his chest in one great big, long exhalation. In that spirit, I forged on because the gist of the article looked so appealing. Unfortunately, though, that sentence proved all too typical of what was to come.


"I Was Gandhi’s Boyfriend" – article by Paul Rudnick (April 11, 2011)

The New Yorker’s short, humourous pieces on the "Shouts & Murmurs" page don’t always thrill me. Sometimes they’re just too droll, or too fey. Or maybe too much oriented to American interests. But this one by Paul Rudnick has to be one of the best ever. It’s supposed to be the testimony of a gay man who claims that he had an affair with Gandhi -- an affair that was clearly a matter of the writer’s exaggeration and imagination.

The piece was triggered by recent media fuss about Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi, in which it is claimed that the great spiritual leader had a thing for a certain German bodybuilder. But Mr. Rudnick’s piece adroitly sidesteps the controversy. It doesn’t matter a hoot to his piece whether or not Gandhi was gay. The point of Mr. Rudnick’s piece is the perfect capturing of the voice and attitude of a certain kind of very contemporary gay man. Believe me, you’ve never heard the character so deliciously served up as in this piece. It’s so short (just one page) that to quote any of it would almost be unfair, but I can’t resist offering just a sample. Here’s our narrator telling about his first encounter with the Great Man:

But he’s kinda cute, you know, in a legendary-world-leader sort of way, and he’s telling me all about his philosophy of nonviolence – I mean, on and on, blah blah blah, until I just want to smack him. And so I say, "O.K., so what if someone, like, punches you – are you just gonna sit there?"

I don’t think you need to know that Mr. Rudnick is openly gay in order to appreciate the piece. If, however, you need to assuage your concerns about the possibility of homophobia on Mr. Rudnick’s part, then maybe you need to know that he is openly gay. So now you do.


The Solitude of Prime Numbers (Novel) by Paolo Giordano, 2008 (English translation by Shaun Whiteside, 2009)

This novel arrived in the world with such acclaim that a person would be hard pressed to come up with an excuse for ignoring it. Not only did it garner Italy’s top literary prize, the Premio Strega, but the author was a mere twenty-seven years old at the time of publication. What’s more, he was a working on a doctorate in physics. How often do you get that sort of fellow turning out a prize-winning novel? The media loved the extraordinary-ness of it all. (A film version of the novel was nominated for the top prize at the Venice Film Festival .) Even Eleanor Wachtel, who usually waits until authors are more established before interviewing them on her Writers and Company on CBC Radio, made an exception in this case. We got the young Signor Giordano struggling with his English but radiating charm and making us want to like his novel. So who was I to resist?

If one of the criteria of a prize-winning work of literature is that it should strike you as odd and unusual, even to the point of being off-putting, then The Solitude of Prime Numbers certainly qualifies. The first chapters seem to be about nothing other than the fact that ghastly things can happen to little children. A bleak, cold world view, it would seem. Gradually, though, we begin to follow two of the children who have survived the earlier disasters. In sections made up of very short chapters, things begin to warm up as we jump forward by a couple of years per section.

Which is not to say that what we’re getting is a rosy, cheerful romp. These are two are not exactly fun people. The boy, Mattia, is turning out to be something of a math whiz. He seems to have a social disability, almost a form of Asperger’s syndrome. We also begin to learn, and to recoil from the knowledge, that the boy has a habit of inflicting wounds on himself. The palm of his hand is criss-crossed with scars. The girl, Alice, has a crippled leg as a result of an accident. (Why it couldn’t have been fixed properly, I don’t know.) If this weren’t enough to make her something of a social outcast, her plight is compounded by what appears to be a severe case of anorexia. The kid hardly ever eats anything; yet nobody seems to notice.

You might begin to suspect that these two weirdos were made for each other. So much so that the development of their story would be corny and predictable. But author Giordano makes a delicate dance of their relationship. We’re never sure of where it’s going and how it’s going to culminate. What's undeniable is the link between them. Far-fetched as the comparison might sound, I couldn’t help thinking of Emily Bront’s Wuthering Heights. There isn’t the degree of passion and intensity here that you get in the 19th century classic, but there’s a similar brooding intensity, a feeling that something uncanny and inevitable pushes these two young people towards each other.

In another way, the novel reminds me of Jane Austen. There’s nothing like her wit or social satire in The Solitude of Prime Numbers, but sometimes there are echoes of the kinds of situations she stages. At one point, for instance, a secluded young woman is being swept off her feet by a dashing, debonaire suitor who knows all the right moves, while the man who clearly is meant to be her soulmate hovers in the background, unsure what to say or what to do. That seems to me much like the situation that Ms. Austen’s heroines often find themselves in.

But such scenarios, intriguing as they may be, don’t constitute the essence of the novel. What makes it compelling reading is the fascination of the characters as conveyed by Signor Giordano. He’s constantly giving you amazing insights into inner worlds unlike any you’ve ever visited before. Take this passage about Mattia:

He wanted to tell her that he liked studying because you can do it alone, because all the things you study are already dead, cold, and chewed over. He wanted to tell her that the pages of the schoolbooks were all the same temperature, that they left you time to choose, that they never hurt you and you couldn’t hurt them either.

And this about Alice:

She hated the fact that her every action always had to seem so irremediable, so definitive. In her mind she called it the weight of consequences, and she was sure that it was another awkward piece of her father that had wormed its way into her brain. How she longed for the uninhibitedness of kids her age, their vacuous sense of immortality. She yearned for all the lightness of her fifteen years, but in trying to grasp it she became aware of the fury with which the time at her disposal was slipping away. The weight of consequences was becoming more and more unbearable and her thoughts began whirling faster and faster, in ever smaller circles.

About both of them:

For Alice and Mattia, the high school years were an open wound that had seemed so deep that it could never heal. They had passed through them without breathing, he rejecting the world and she feeling rejected by it, and eventually they had noticed that it didn’t make all that much difference. They had formed a defective and asymmetrical friendship, made up of long absences and much silence, a clean and empty space where both could come back to breathe when the walls of their school became too close for them to ignore the feeling of suffocation.

Here’s how Mattia feels when somebody comments on his exceptional mind:

Mattia thought there was nothing good about having his mind. That he would happily have unscrewed it and replaced it with a different one, or even with a package of biscotti, provided it was empty and light. He opened his mouth to reply that feeling special is the worse kind of cage that a person can build for himself, but he didn’t say anything.

If there were any doubt about Mattia’s anal-retentive quality, it would be put to rest by lines like this one about his table manners: "He brought a little square of meat to his mouth, chosen from the ones on the edge whose fringed borders disturbed the geometry of the composition." And this about his paying a call on someone: "With his foot he arranged the doormat in front of the door so that the perimeter aligned precisely with the lines of the paving."

One of the key passages – the heart of the book, if you like – conveys Mattia’s thoughts about himself and Alice in terms of prime numbers. Here, with some judicious elisions on my part, is the gist of his thinking:

They [prime numbers] hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful.....In his first year at university, Mattia had learned that, among prime numbers, there are some that are even more special. Mathematicians call them twin primes: pairs of prime numbers that are close to each other, almost neighbors, but between them there is always an even number that prevents them from truly touching.....Mattia thought that he and Alice were like that, twin primes, alone and lost, close but not close enough to really touch each other.

It’s not just about the relationship beween Mattia and Alice that Signor Giordano offers up marvellous observations. When it comes to a person’s feelings about a long-lost love, I don’t think you’ll ever find anything more resonant than this passage about Dennis, a male friend who had a teenage crush on Mattia:

He [Dennis] had learned to respect the chasm that Mattia had dug around himself. Years previously he had tried to jump over that chasm, and had fallen into it. Now he contented himself with sitting on the edge, his legs dangling into the void. Mattia’s voice no longer stirred anything in his stomach, but he was aware of the idea of him and always would be, as the only true benchmark for everything that had come afterward.

And how’s this for poignancy? (It comes after to a phone conversation between the two guys.):

Dennis spent another few seconds with the receiver pressed to his ear, listening to the silence inside it. Something within him went out, like one last ember that had stayed lit for too long under the ashes.

Speaking of phone conversations, there’s this note on a call between Mattia, who’s now living far away, and his dad back home:

They both breathed in a little of the affection that still survived between them, diluted along hundreds of miles of coaxial cables and nourished by something whose name they didn’t know and which perhaps, if they thought too carefully about it, no longer existed.

As you can see, everything’s doled out in clear, simple prose, as conveyed, at any rate, in Shaun Whiteside’s translation. It’s not flashy writing that gets your attention; it’s the facts and the ideas. And nowhere is this plain, unvarnished approach more effective than in the account of Mattia’s much-delayed sexual initiation. First we get this:

Under the table, hidden by the tablecloth, were their legs and he imagined them down there, in the dark, forced into a strained intimacy.

Then this:

As he busied himself with the unfastening of her bra Mattia thought it happens. In the end it happens, in some way you couldn’t imagine before.

To me, that’s so much more realistic – and therefore more powerful – than the lightning flashes and thunderstorms that many writers throw at a person’s first sexual experiences.

As you probably know, however, we at Dilettante’s Diary have such a critical bent that we seldom rave about a book or a work of art without finding some fault with it. And, predictably, we are able to find a few here. One feature that some readers might complain about would be the fact that author Giordano sometimes cuts off a scene very abruptly. It can be a precarious situation for all parties involved but the curtain comes down and we’re never any the wiser as to how the characters escaped. That bothered me at first but, as I got to know the writer better, I began to trust him. The message that came through was that I didn’t need to know by what means the situation was resolved. Those were just mechanics. The author had more important things to say.

But I do wish he’d say them without relying on autonomic responses. We’ve griped about these so much in mysteries that we’re almost willing to admit that the battle is lost and to pass over them in crime fiction from now on without comment. To find them in such a very good piece of writing, though, is disappointing. In spite of what’s said above about his admirably straight-forward, unadorned prose, Author Giordano can’t refrain from referring now and then to things like burning sensations that explode, a vortex in the stomach, a splintering sensation in the head and so on. If actual, physical sensations were happening, there’d be no grounds for objection. As metaphors for emotion, though, these clichs detract from the overall effect rather than enhancing it.

Whether or not this could be considered a flaw is debatable but Signor Giordano’s writing conveys a world in which women are bossy and men are passive. One teenage girl in the high school section of the book is an extraordinary bitch. Her control over other kids goes beyond believable – at least in my estimation, but maybe dynamics among teens have changed since my high school days. In the later sections of the book, even Alice becomes a bit school-marmish with Mattia. She’s usually the one who initiates anything, she’s the one giving orders, and he nearly always complies. Is that just a peculiarity of this relationship? Given the prevalence of it in other instances, you can’t help thinking that maybe this is the way Signor Giordano sees life.

Alice’s character can be difficult to take in other ways. Some of the things she does deliberately are nearly inexcusable. But I found myself willing to cut her some slack, to suspend judgement, shall we say, because Signor Giordano has made her such a real, complex person. You may not like what she does but you can understand why.

One stylistic aspect of the book can be somewhat jarring. Author Giordano frequently switches point of view in a paragraph. You’re following one person’s thoughts, then suddenly, without a break, you’re in somebody else’s mind. For example:

Alice came over and handed him the shirt. He took it without looking up. He was annoyed and fed up with this pointless playacting. He was ashamed of showing his thin legs and the sparse hairs on his chest and around his navel. Alice thought he was doing everything possible to make the scene embarrassing, as usual. Then she thought that.....

In most books, a writer will move to a new paragraph for a second person’s inner life. This may just be a convention practised in the books I usually read. Maybe Italian writing doesn’t adhere to it. But I never really got used to it in this book – I always found it disorienting for a second or two – but the fact that it didn’t vitiate my impression of this as a very fine book testifies to the power of Signor Giordano’s work as a whole.


Hallelujah Junction (Autobiography) by John Adams, 2008

A conversation with some friends. We’re discussing John Adams’ operas. They liked Nixon in China but I didn't. Doctor Atomic  made a more favourable impression on me. (See reviews on Dilettante’s Diary pages dated Feb 23/11 for Nixon and Oct 27/08 for Atomic.) What about Mr. Adams’ autobiography, my friends ask, have I read it? No, I’ve never heard of it. They promise that I’ll find it entertaining and informative.

Well, it is informative. First of all, it’s good to know how an American boy turns into a composer. For Mr. Adams, it started with clarinet lessons from his dad, who had played the instrument in a swing band in the 1930s. The musical theme pervaded the young lad’s home, given that his mom had sung with a jazz band. Pretty soon young John had achieved such mastery of the clarinet that he was travelling from his home in Concord, New Hampshire, to lessons in Boston with teachers who could give him more than his dad could. That led eventually to enrolment in the music faculty at Harvard and gigs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One such stint occasioned this scathing invective from conductor Erich Leinsdorf: "Perhaps the young man from Haaaarvard would like to check with me the notes in his part."

Soon Mr. Adams felt he had exhausted the potential of the clarinet for expressing his musical urge and he focussed on composition. After a few years, though, he decided that he didn’t want the life of an academic, which was where his studies seemed to be leading. What with invitations from the likes of Leonard Bernstein to become his assistant, Mr. Adams also had to decide whether he wanted most to be a conductor or a composer. He chose the latter.

Like so many young seekers of the era, he headed to the West Coast in search of self and meaning. Thus, an immersion in that crazy, hippie, druggy world of California. It’s heartening to see that a talented young person can come through all that and emerge a productive, creative member of society. His first job in Oakland was grunt labour in a warehouse but he was soon experimenting with new music groups and teaching music while he struggled to find his own voice as a composer.

About life from such person’s point of view, we get many insights. For instance, Mr. Adams says of one early teacher: "She used to distinguish between a ‘keen ear,’ one that could accurately pick pitches out of a dense chromatic cluster, and a ‘composer’s ear,’ by which I think she meant an ear for new sounds, for unthought-of sonorities." As in the memoirs of many an artist (see review of Matisse: The Master on Dilettante's Diary page dated April 17/10) intriguing questions arise about the roles of intuition and judgement in the creative process. A fascinating fact about music comes in a passage about an experiment conducted by a professor in graduate school. Several instruments were recorded playing the same pitch but, in the case of each instrument, the professor lopped off the beginning of the note before playing the tape to his students, with the result that they had great difficulty identifying the instruments: "The lesson was that most of the characteristic information in a musical sound is in the onset, or the ‘attack.’ Strange but true: the attack is largely characterized by noise rather than pitch."

One of the most significant turning points for Mr. Adams came one day while he was driving along a ridge in the Sierra foothills. He’d been immersed in atonal stuff mostly but now he was listening to music from Wagner’s Gtterdmmerung. Suddenly a truth about the composer hit him: he cares! Thinking about the similar impression that a composer like Robert Schumann had made on him, Mr. Adams came to a new appreciation of the pure expressivity of their art. As I understand it, that marked his own shift from atonality to tonality.

Apart from many such enlightening passages, some of Mr. Adams’ discussion of composing is far too technical. Do you know what the Lydian and Phrygian modes are? Some sections abound with references to "serialism", whatever that is. My guess is that this sort of thing isn’t accessible to the average reader (assuming that I’m something like that mythical creature). It seems to me, then, that the book as a whole would be most useful to serious students of musical composition or of the history of modern American music.

In spite those inscrutable dicta about the technical side of his profession, Mr. Adams never seems pedantic or artsy. He comes across as a pleasant, approachable guy. What’s particularly notable is the fair, balanced way he discusses his compositions. He’s candid about what he thinks has worked well and what hasn’t. His discussion of Nixon in China actually makes me think I might like the work if it came my way again. Certainly, the poetry of the libretto by Alice Goodman, as excerpted in this memoir, sounds better than in my memory of the performance. Mr. Adams is temperate even in his remarks about his critics. You get the impression that he’s open to what they say, regadless of whether or not they agree with him.

In so far as Mr. Adams can be considered a celebrity – he’s certainly more of one than you or I – his memoir offers one cautionary tale about life in the public eye. The Boston Symphony, for its 2001 November program, had planned some choruses from Mr. Adams’ opera The Death of Klinghoffer. But soon after the attacks on September 11 of that year, the BSO informed him that they felt that it would be inappropriate to perform the pieces. (The opera, dealing with the hijacking of the Achille Lauro by four Palestinians and their murder of the Jewish passenger Leon Klinghoffer, was considered by some to present the hijackers in too human a way.) The BSO wanted to perform a more comforting piece of Mr. Adams’ music.

Feeling the implicit connection between the Palestinians and the Al-Qaeda attackers was unwarranted, he opted to have none of his music played at the concert if not the Klinghoffer excerpts. A media storm ensued. Some people condemned Mr. Adams for grandstanding, others deplored the BSO’s censorship tendencies. It wasn’t until all this fury had been unleashed that Mr. Adams was informed that a member of the BSO’s chorus had lost her husband on one of the planes that crashed into the World Trade Centre. Obviously, that made the symphony management’s decision more understandable. Let this be a reminder to all of us, then, that we may not know what’s really going on when we hear of certain celebrities embroiled in controversies.

In the telling of this episode, Mr. Adams admits that he brought the brouhaha on himself, in part, by leaking the BSO decision to the media. In that confession, I find a certain fallible nobility that fits with the rest of his character. If only this attractive personality had been conveyed in a more agreeable prose! Mr. Adams makes the point somewhere along the way that he’s not primarily a composer for the human voice. I believe he also says somewhere that he doesn’t have a gift for languages. (Mind you, he’s taught himself five or six of them.) His first operatic composition, therefore, was quite daunting. The fact that his instincts are not particularly attuned to the human voice is all too evident in his writing. The sentences never sing. The exceptions would be the passages where he’s describing something like his first view of the Pacific; in these instances, the prose flows very smoothly. Could it be that it’s easier for a composer to describe a scene – as in a tone poem, say – rather than to construct narrative or explain ideas?

Passages attempting to do that trail on and on in a laborious way. You can feel the effort of a writer who’s trying to fit as much information as possible into a sentence while keeping it balanced and giving it the proper "literary" patina. Like the products of a committee whose reports have to reflect various points of view. (For Catholics: think of the Documents from The Second Vatican Council). Some of the worst examples from Hallelujah Junction:

(Talking about William Burroughs)

I also detected in his books an underlying honesty about the human condition, a brutal candor that had first seen the light during the blandest period of the Eisenhower years and now more than ever held up a mirror to the cultural values of the Nixon era with all its fatuous appeals to the paranoias and pieties of the American middle class.

This on critics:

The music critic, having anxiously exported his concerns about the potential corrupting of Mozart or Verdi into the way I wanted my own operas to sound, was doing me a disservice by not judging my work on its own, as an entirely new sound world.

And this regarding Doctor Atomic:

Although the discovery that made the bomb possible, that the atom could fission and in so doing give off energy, had already been accomplished a decade earlier by Europeans, the actualization of that knowledge in the form of a weapon of immense destructive force was a typically American accomplishment, suffused as it was with patriotic zeal and a unique strange-bedfellow collaboration between tight-lipped military bureaucracy obsessed with secrecy and the free-form scientific inquiry of college professors.

If prose like that doesn’t gladden my heart, Mr. Adams makes one remark that does. He’s speaking about the fact that many people consider Benjamin Britten’s compositional style the gold standard when it comes to putting English text to music. This praise for Mr. Britten's handling of English has often puzzled me. Mr. Adams too. He says that he finds Mr. Britten’s compositions for English text "uncomfortably stilted and oddly archaic."

On checking my review of Doctor Atomic, I find a similar comment about Mr. Adams’ setting of English texts. But never mind. It’s our agreement about Mr. Britten that matters. When you feel that you’re the only person in the world who holds a dissenting opinion and then you find one person – and a pretty darn authoritative one at that – whose opinion matches your own, that’s enough to make it seem like he’s your good friend, regardless of your quibbles about his writing.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com