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MAY 25, 2020
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The date that appears above is the date of the most recent reviews. As new reviews are added, the date will change accordingly. The new reviews 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: Dear  Edward (Novel); Avid Reader (Memoir); The End of Eddy (Novel/Autibiography), Out There, Kid Positive, The Resident Poet, The Wish for a Good Young  Country Doctor and What We Worried About When I Was Ten (Short Stories); The Marriage of Figaro, The Opera House and Lucia Di Lammermoor (Metropolitan Opera Archival Films)

Dear Edward (Novel) by Ann Napolitano, 2020

Even if you haven’t heard about this widely praised novel, there’s no need for a spoiler alert here because you find out, in the second chapter, what the big event is. The first chapter shows a number of people boarding a flight leaving New York for Los Angeles. The second chapter, a mere twenty-two pages later, tells you that the flight crashed in a field in California and only one person among the 191 passengers and crew members survived. The survivor was Edward, a twelve-year-old boy, whose parents and older brother were killed in the crash. The rest of the book is mostly about Edward’s struggle to resume something like a normal life in such horrific circumstances.

My first reaction to that second chapter: thank goodness the crash is behind us and we’re not going to have to live through that! But wait a minute, interspersed among the chapters about Edward’s subsequent life are chapters where Ann Napolitano takes us back to the on-going flight as it’s gradually making its way above the continental U.S.A. Does that mean that we’re going to have to experience the crash after all? Hmm....we’ll see.

What Ms. Napolitano has done here is truly remarkable. She has taken a situation that is almost unimaginable to most of us and she has made it real and convincing. Who could possibly know what it might be like for a twelve-year-old boy to try to carry on from the point of that crash? Somehow – through writerly genius, I guess – Ms. Napolitano has entered that boy’s mind and made us feel his gradual progression back into life, day-by-day. At first, she does this – quite plausibly – by showing that he doesn’t feel anything much; he is profoundly numb. He can’t make much sense of what has happened and he doesn’t try to. Having been badly injured in the crash and having spent months in hospital as a result, he’s preoccupied with – literally – putting one foot in front of the other. His uncle and aunt (his mother’s only sister), who don’t have any children, have taken over his guardianship and brought him to their home in a semi-rural setting in New Jersey.

The relationship with his aunt and uncle has a lot to do with Edward’s on-going development. They haven’t been able to conceive a child and there’s a palpable air of sadness about this around their home. Also, their marriage seems to be fraying, although they do their best to be cheerful for Edward. It pains him, though, that his aunt reminds him so vividly of his mother, her loving sister. In spite of the kindness his aunt and uncle show him, he can only respond to them most of the time in monosyllables and terse affirmations of whatever he feels they need to hear. In this mode of communication, he’s not qualitatively different from a lot of boys his age; just that it’s much exacerbated in his case. Even though everybody’s trying to be careful with him, his moods lead to misunderstandings.

The first thing approaching anything like a hopeful life for him is a friendship that develops with Shay, a girl of his age who lives next door with her mom, a single parent. Without giving too much away, I think it’s fair to say that it is through Shay that Edward finds a new way for himself through the world. One of the most significant steps – or symbolic ones – is that, having been known previously as "Eddie," he decides that he will now be known as "Edward." This seems to signal his recognition that a completely new start, in so far as possible, is required.

He begins to relax and express himself somewhat more candidly with Shay. That’s because she isn’t a conventional twelve-year-old girl with airy expectations and romantic notions. She’s independent-minded, stubborn and challenging. She’s not protective and sentimental towards him. (The two of them remind me a lot of the teen couple in Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Edward and Shay could be a younger version of Connell and Marianne in Normal People.)

Another significant relationship crops up when Edward eventually goes back to school. The principal, as a way of keeping an eye on Edward, asks him to take on the duty of watering the ferns in the principal’s office on a regular basis. (To me, that’s a brilliant authorial stroke. What other writer would have thought of such a way for an educator to try to help a student?) Edward takes on the duties diffidently – he’s not the kind of kid who’s going to make a big fuss about doing or not doing anything – but the involvement with the principal does have a poignant pay-off in the end.

Flashing back to that flight that was heading towards disaster in the skies over America, Ms. Napolitano has an uncanny way of re-creating the atmosphere inside a plane on a long flight. The sounds, the thoughts of the passengers, the inter-action with the flight attendants. Apart from Edward and his family, she focusses on four or five people who begin to become very real for us in this time of relative calm. Some of them are: an elderly tycoon in poor health, a pregnant woman who’s going to meet her boyfriend, an earth-mother type, a wounded soldier who’s struggling with his sexual orientation, a Type A financial whiz, and a gorgeous female flight attendant. Of course, the stillness and the tranquility wrapped around these people has an ominous feeling to it because we know what’s coming and they don’t.

Flipping forward again to the post-crash era, we find that Edward, because of his extraordinary survival, has become something of a national celebrity. People want to get in touch with him by way of connecting with loved ones whom they lost in the crash. Because of this, the book takes a surprisingly plotty turn about two-thirds of the way through. It would be unfair to Ms. Napolitano’s narrative intentions to reveal exactly what happens but it made me wonder if the book was now going to depart from its quiet, human-interest focus and turn into something more sensational. However, it’s greatly to Ms. Napolitano’s credit that, even though this sudden development does create something of a jolt in the proceedings, it’s resolved in a completely believable and naturalistic way, totally in keeping with the rest of the book.

Perhaps it would not be giving away too much to cite a couple of the most important bits of advice that come Edward’s way. He makes a visit to a palm reader, a warm, and charismatic woman. As he’s leaving, she tells him the most important thing she can: "You weren’t chosen for anything. It was dumb luck that saved you. That means you’re free to do anything." Another key observation comes from "Doctor Mike," the psychotherapist Edward was obliged to see on a regular basis. Nothing much came of their meetings, because Edward was never able to say anything much about his feelings. But they happened to bump into each other in a shopping mall after the course of therapy had finished. Over a shared drink in a coffee shop, Edward tells Doctor Mike that he thought he’d have gotten over the tragedy by now but he hasn’t. Doctor Mike tells him:

What happened is baked into your bones, Edward. It lives under your skin. It’s not going away. It’s part of you and will be part of you every moment until you die. What you’ve been working on, since the first time I met you, is learning to live with that.

Throughout the book, the writing is measured, thoughtful, never over-emotional or over-wrought. But you’re not much of a human being if the story doesn’t bring on tears at least two or three times.

Oh, do we get the CRASH?

Um....enough to make it real but not too much.

 

Avid Reader (Memoir) by Robert Gottlieb, 2016

If you’re interested in the world of American letters and publishing, nobody could be a better guide to all that than Robert Gottlieb. He served as editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, the New York publishers, then in the same role, with the added responsibility of being President at Alfred A. Knopf where he worked for almost twenty years. Following that came his stint from 1987 to 1992 at The New Yorker, where he was the first editor to replace the legendary William Shawn. Then it was back to Knopf, where he still does some editing, not to mention writing reviews of dance and theatre, plus several books that he’s authored.

Much as I was looking forward to the memoir of such an eminent man of letters, I didn’t warm to the book at first. The writing seemed a bit dry. The personality of the author doesn’t leap off the page. Eventually, I realized why. Mr. Gottlieb doesn’t have a strong ego; he wasn’t keen on writing about himself. Yes, he’s had an interesting life and he thinks the insights he’s gained might be helpful to readers, but his book is not about putting his character on stage in a starring role.

Through the book, though, you do glean several glimpses into the man behind the words. He was a sickly kid. He’s a workaholic, an efficient and disciplined worker, puritanical and a night owl; he’s afraid of flying (or he was until he conquered his need to feel in control of everything); he’s a good friend; he’s not attracted to the outdoors and nature. He’s "religion deaf," he says. "I’ve simply always lacked even the slightest religious impulse – when people talk about their faith, I can’t connect with what they’re talking about." He appears to have a seat-of-the-pants management style, with no entrepreneurial instincts. He has boundless energy. However, what defines him above all, as the title of the memoir would suggest, is his love of reading. What kind of reader is he? In college, he cut himself off from the world at large to read Marcel Proust’s seven-volume masterpiece in seven days, one volume per day.

Born in 1931 in New York City, Robert was an only child. His parents were both confirmed atheists, his father a lawyer, his mother an NYC public school teacher. It wasn’t until later in life that he realized it wasn’t typical for all members of a family to sit reading at the dining table. After attending a private school run by two somewhat eccentric ladies, he wanted to go to Harvard but he flubbed the entrance interview by showing off too anxiously. Besides, his chances weren’t great, given Harvard’s Jewish quota, and his being what was considered the most objectionable kind of Jew: "a New York Jew." He breezed successfully through the interview for Columbia, not being at all anxious about it. Attending Columbia enabled him to enjoy the cultural ferment of New York in the 1950s.

A solo trip to England in 1952 convinced him that Britain was the place he needed to be, a yearning already planted in his mind by his devotion to English literature. Miffed at not being awarded a fellowship to Cambridge, he complained to Lionel Trilling, one of his Columbia profs, who wrote a letter to a pal in Cambridge. Ten days later Robert received an acceptance letter from one of the colleges in Cambridge. His life there was brightened by exciting work directing plays, but his romance with England faded in its post-war bleakness.

On return to America, there was a series of stop-gap jobs, then a succession of flukes – one person handing him on to another person – that got him hired as personal assistant to Jack Goodman, Simon and Schuster’s top editor. Mr. Gottlieb’s duties were "...more or less everything that needed doing." Reading manuscripts, making suggestions, etc. After Jack Goodman’s death and some shake-ups in the company, Mr. Gottlieb and some of his cronies started running the business, he eventually becoming the senior editor.

One of the most memorable episodes in his early years was working with Joseph Heller on Catch 22. Mr. Gottlieb was only twenty-six, with no track record as a publisher or editor. Joseph Heller was eight years older, a mature ex-vet, a former college teacher, and a successful ad executive at McCall’s. To Mr. Gottlieb’s great relief, Mr. Heller turned out to be "as talented an editor as he was a writer, and absolutely without writer ego." The two laboured over the book "like two surgeons poised over a patient under anesthesia."

Little did either of them suspect at the time that Catch 22 was going to turn out to be not just a huge hit, but a classic. When they sent it to Evelyn Waugh for a blurb, he replied that such a vision of the corrupt American military would outrage all the country’s friends (such as himself, Evelyn Waugh) and greatly comfort its enemies. Come the celebrations for the 50th anniversary of the book, in 2011, Mr. Gottlieb felt obliged to read it again. Although he loved it as much as ever, he found a two-page section dull and uninteresting. Remembering that it had originally struck him that way, he wondered why he hadn’t insisted on cutting it.

As a young man, Mr. Gottlieb undertook an intensive course of psychoanalysis – one hour, four mornings a week, for eight years. He doesn’t recommend the process. He found it too hard; he was too controlling to relax and free-associate. When his doctor suggested that they finish the process at the end of the next year, he was finally able to stop resisting and throw himself into the work. By the end of it, he felt that he was "no longer spiraling down into the worst of myself and was clambering up toward what I hoped to become – less possessive, less competitive, less angry, less needy for approval, more open."

A skill that he’d developed as a young person – the ability to power through books quickly – helped a lot when it came to assessing manuscripts that came to him. For editing, though, he had to teach himself to slow down, to take the reading carefully. What an editor does, he says, is to help make a book the best book that it is; not some other book. An editor needs to grasp the book as a whole in order to know what there’s too much of or too little of. Most cutting, he says, is done "because an editor’s reading antennae tell him it will edge a book closer to its Platonic self, not to make it more commercially successful." The writer-editor relationship can be productive when each party trusts the judgment and goodwill of the other: "the writer able to hear with an open mind and lack of egotism what the editor is saying, the editor feeling free to say just about anything with the knowledge that the writer has the flexibility and self-confidence to make use of his advice – or not."

If much of his editorial work could be described as something like house cleaning, i.e. a little tidying and dusting, occasionally his job was more like building a house from the ground up. In the case of the New Zealand writer, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, her non-fiction book, Teacher, about her unique method of reaching Maori students, was put together from papers, letters, diaries, snapshots, poems, recipes and scrapbooks. Mr. Gottlieb spread them out on the floor of his apartment, studying them at length until he could figure out how to connect themes and make a book of them. Published in 1963, the book quickly gathered fans around the world, becoming a bible for parents and teachers who wanted to make drastic changes in education.

Inevitably, Mr. Gottlieb rejected books that became triumphs for other publishers. For instance, he didn’t find John Fowles’ first novel, The Collector, to be as clever as everyone else did. He resisted Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. He says his most conspicuous failure was John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Mr. Gottlieb was attracted to the energy and originality of the manuscript, but several years of back-and-forth between writer and editor didn’t produce the book that Mr. Gottlieb thought it could be. The author’s mother, attributing her son’s subsequent suicide to Mr. Gottlieb’s rejection, got the book published, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981. Recently, Mr. Gottlieb read the published book and found that his opinion was exactly the same as it had been at first: much to admire, apart from the "overload, the strain, the sophomoric take on life." (Incidentally, this was pretty much my impression of the book; it’s reviewed on the DD page entitled "Fall Reading 2010".)

The breach with Mr. Toole was certainly the exception in Mr. Gottlieb’s experience, it would seem. Near the end of the book, he asks in what role he has been his best self. Husband? Father? Editor? Publisher? Boss? All in all, he says, "I feel I’ve been at my best as a friend – it’s a natural state of being for me." And that’s how he felt towards his writers, whether he met them often or hardly ever. Many of the friendships were so relaxed that they allowed for little bits of cross-fire. He once had the nerve to ask Doris Lessing why she listened so attentively to all of his suggestions but never followed any of them. She told him she just kept hoping for some word of approval from him. His only disagreements with Toni Morrison were about commas. "I put them in, she takes them out, and we trade."

So what about his roles as husband and father? At the age of just twenty-one, he married a a fellow student at Columbia, Muriel Higgins, when she became pregnant with their son, Roger. The marriage didn’t last, although he and Muriel remained on cordial – even kindly – terms. In 1969, he married Maria Tucci, the daughter of the Italian writer, Niccolò Tucci. Maria was a well-established Broadway and film actress, having performed in Joseph Papp’s company when she was just sixteen. Robert and Maria’s first child, Lizzie, a delightful, precocious tot, brought them great pleasure.

A few months after the birth of their son, Nicky, it was discovered that he had a rare disease that attacked the brain, that might or might not be cured, but could leave him with learning disabilities, serious "retardation" and epilepsy. This was one of the few times in his life that Mr. Gottlieb allowed himself to let his feelings show. He allowed Maria to see him weep and, at work, he closed his office door and cried on the phone for an hour with his friend Irene Selznick.

Still, he wouldn’t give in to self-pity. When a friend lamented that such a thing could happen to him and Maria, "of all people," Mr. Gottlieb countered with the observation that they had the money for the best doctors and treatment, plus the emotional stability not to go under. "This was the first intimation I had that, at forty-seven, I might actually have become an adult." Nicky, fortunately, escaped the worst consequences of the disease. Today, Mr. Gottlieb describes his son as having a relatively light version of Asperger’s syndrome and being a happy, buoyant, charming "oddball."

After nearly twenty years at Knopf, Mr. Gottlieb was getting a little tired of his work there. A lot of the fun was leaking out of the business, partly because of changes in the ways of promoting books. Si (Samuel Irving) Newhouse, the owner of The New Yorker, invited him to take over the magazine’s top job from its hallowed editor, William Shawn, then in his eighties. (Mr. Newhouse was already Mr. Gottlieb’s boss, in a sense, being the owner of Random House, which included Knopf.) Mr. Gottlieb shows compassion for Mr. Shawn, fully appreciating how difficult his departure must have been after being secure in his post for so many years. He also did his best to assuage the inevitable anxiety among New Yorker staff and associated writers. People thought he might find editing a weekly magazine frantic compared to book publishing. Not so, says Mr. Gottlieb. In book publishing, you were constantly re-inventing the wheel; every new book presented its own problems, its own challenges. The magazine, by contrast, had a system that was built in; you dealt with each issue as it came along and moved on to the next one.

Mr. Gottlieb’s efforts to liven up The New Yorker didn’t satisfy Mr. Newhouse. After about four years, he informed Mr. Gottlieb that he was being fired. But Mr. Newhouse magnanimously promised to make Mr. Gottlieb financially secure for the rest of his life. That meant that he was able to return to work at Knopf without taking any pay from the company. One of the most interesting and challenging projects that came his way was the editing of Bill Clinton’s memoir. He found the former president to be a genial co-worker and was especially touched by the way Mr. Clinton valued his wife Hilary’s opinons and responded to her reactions. With the publication date fast approaching, the final stages of the book production amounted to an assembly line of frantic activity involving proofreaders and fact-checkers, not to mention editors. In the end, Mr. Gottlieb wishes there had been time for more cutting and pruning; he feels he allowed the inclusion of too many cousins, campaign workers and high-school pals.

I would make a similar note about Mr. Gottlieb’s memoir. One understands that he would feel a need to mention the many talented people he has worked with; in fact, they’re an important part of the book in so far as it sheds light on the history of American publishing. But there are too many of them for a reader to care about if that reader isn’t intimately acquainted with the publishing world. I felt the same way about some three or four pages detailing his work on books about jazz, popular music and movies.

Astonishingly, given his vast output in the literary world, Mr. Gottlieb has also become a prime mover in the world of ballet, an art form that he’d become enthralled with as a young person. For him, ballet is an escape from the world of words that he’s immersed in at other times. He had a hands-on relationship with the New York City Ballet (its co-founders being Lincoln Kirstein and George Balanchine), helping with marketing and staffing, going so far as to plan the program eventually. He took up more or less the same duties with the Miami City Ballet, having a home in that city. He even took up writing ballet criticism. Not that he had any training in the art of ballet, just that he was supremely confident of his judgement – as with writing – of what was good and what wasn’t.

And then there’s his own writing: five non-fiction books prior to this one and editing of five more collections of writings. He admits that he didn’t want to take up writing; he finds it too hard. It started with invitations to write magazine articles that he couldn’t refuse. To launch the writing on a book about Sarah Bernhardt, he gave himself the advice he’d often given to blocked writers: "Don’t write, type." So he started tapping out observations about the disputed time and place of her birth: bingo! He was on his way. The joy of writing these non-fiction books, he says, is "learning on the job." He has also discovered the joy of being edited! He says that "it’s the process that’s interesting, whichever role you’re playing."

Towards the end of the book, when you think you finally know the man, he throws you another curve. His ebullience and his hyper-energy are perhaps, he suggests, ways of trying to ward off a melancholic, depressive tendency. (Maybe that's what all that psychoanalysis was about?) This makes him think of Charles Dickens. Not that he’s comparing himself to the master but "I do see a faint reflection of my own contradictions in his glorious yet ultimately sad life."

Well, not many people would see Mr. Gottlieb’s life as sad. What stands out most is his gratitude for it, his recognition that he has been extremely lucky to have enjoyed such a life.

What greater fortune than to be fully occupied with what you spend your life doing? I never thought that I had been born with more than a healthy slice of intelligence, but I had that Gottliebian energy, and I had grasp. And luck. What could be sadder than to reach my age and realize that you hadn’t made the most of what you’d been given? I never had great expectations for myself, or specific ambitions, except to do things well and make things work. And I was rewarded with an interesting life and far more recognition than was good for my character. But at least I didn’t seek it out.

 

The End of Eddy (Novel) by Édouard Louis, 2014; English translation by Michael Lucey, 2017

This is the first of Édouard Louis’ books, the one that made him famous in France and throughout the world. It’s the story of his childhood in a working class village in the north of France. I don’t know why it’s presented as a novel. Everybody knows now that this is the true story of Monsieur Louis’s growing-up; he makes no secret of it. His subsequent books haven’t made any attempt to disguise his identity as the central figure. Perhaps, in this first one he was too shy to admit that it was all true, even though it obviously was.

To say that Monsieur Louis had a rough time growing up as a gay boy in a macho culture would be an understatement. He was taunted at school for his effeminate ways; two bullies cornered him daily and tortured him. His parents constantly harrangued him and berated him for not being more masculine. Not that he didn’t try. He tried to change his walk, to lower his voice, to control his hands when he was speaking – to no avail. The "girlish" characteristics took over him, no matter how hard he tried to resist them.

Whether or not the family’s living conditions exacerbated the problem of M. Louis’s sexuality is hard to say, but they certainly added to the misery of his life. The family was borderline impoverished. The dad worked in the local factory – the only source of employment for the village – but a serious back injury made his employment iffy. The mother took on work as a health care assistant in people’s homes. Sometimes, all Eddy’s family had for a meal was milk. The bedroom that he shared with a sister leaked when it rained and the dampness caused huge patches of mould on the wall. The family had no phone. But they did have four televisions that the dad had rescued from the junk yard and repaired. The tv was always on, except when the family was sleeping. Even at meals, they were forced to listen to the tv; if anyone dared to speak, the dad snapped at them to shut up so that he could focus his attention on the screen.

The title of the book would seem to suggest that M. Louis somehow escaped from all of this. And he truly did. That came about by his being accepted into a theatre program in a high school in Amiens, some distance from his home village. The fact that he would have to board in Amiens meant that he would finally be able to make a break from the family and from the community where he was so mercilessly typed as a "faggot." That liberation led to M. Louis’s eventually living in Paris and becoming known today as a brilliant young light in the country’s arts scene. And that also led to the change of his name: from Eddy Bellegueule to Édouard Louis.

As I’ve found in reading his other two books, M. Louis is a compulsively readable writer. His voice is like a torrent of narrative that carries you along on its wave. As any conversationalist who has a fascinating story to tell, he doesn’t bother a lot with chronology or structure. The details of his story spill out however they occur to him. Or that’s the way it seems in comparison to more conventional narratives; I suspect, though, there may be more careful artistry to the arrangement of this material than there would, at first, appear to be.

One of the most interesting things about this book, as I read it, is the complex depiction of M. Louis’s parents. It doesn’t seem that he intends this; it would seem that his main message is that they were terrible and he couldn’t get away from them soon enough. And yet, what comes through to me is that they weren’t unmitigatedly horrible; they were complicated human beings, worthy of respect and sympathy, difficult as it was to have them as parents. True, the dad does seem to have a sadistic streak – he gave away Eddy’s favourite stuffy – but he makes some effort to be a good father. Eddy tried to run away, but, when sitting on Eddy’s bed and discussing the episode, his dad was crying and trying to convince Eddy that he was truly loved.

Both parents, much as they criticize Eddy and deride his gay tendencies, brag about him to neighbours and co-workers. They say that he’s quite the intellectual, that he’s going to do well in this world. The mother even cites (fraudulently) Eddy’s hanging out with girls as a sign that he’s a real "ladies man." As for the dad’s abusive rants, Eddy’s mom tells him not to pay any attention because that’s just the dad’s way, he doesn’t know what else to say.

Another anomaly or inconsistency that startled me was the outcome of Eddy’s interaction with two bullies who tortured him physically in school. He never had any peace until those two moved on to another school. And yet, when Eddy performed a sketch that he’d written for a village show, it was these two bullies who stood up and led the audience’s cheering for Eddy. I guess we can only assume that what M. Louis is saying, whether he intends it or not, is that no matter how intolerable some people can make our lives, they are still people with some good in them. Maybe he’s implicitly acknowledging that this is something that a young adult can see but it’s hard for a kid to see. To me, that’s the sign of a writer with understanding and magnanimity.

The book leaves me with just one question: how can village life in the north of France have been that bad? We’re talking about an era of less than twenty years ago, but the place seems to be riddled with a kind of brutality more typical of earlier centuries. All that physical abuse in school that teachers seemed powerless to stop. The spiteful gossip of the mothers gathered outside the school every day. The gleeful village reaction to any misfortune or misbehaviour. I lived with my family in a village in the south of France for a year in the late 20th century and life there wasn’t anything like this. People were unvaryingly polite and respectful. Is that because it wasn’t a working class village like Eddy’s? (Many of the inhabitants were retired professionals or had office jobs in nearby Aix-en-Provence.) Or is it simply a difference between the north and the south of France?

Undoubtedly, the picture M. Louis paints is the truth as he sees it. I’m just wondering if, for someone who feels chronically like a victim, life in a place like that looks a lot worse than it might to someone else.

 

New Yorker Notables

Out There (Short Fiction) by Kate Folk, The New Yorker, March 23, 2020

At first, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on. A young woman is talking about some men she has dated but there seems to be something weird about them. Gradually, you realize that there’s a sci-fi element to the story. These men, whom she calls ‘blots,’ are not genuine human beings. They look like real people but they have been programmed to be the perfect men, the ideal dates: handsome, polite, sophisticated and kind. Having found them a trifle too predictable, our narrator embarks on an affair with a man who, she’s pretty sure, is the genuine article. The story ends on a note of droll humour. I’d hate to give away too much, so let’s just say this question hangs over the proceedings: which is better, the real or the ideal?

 

Kid Positive (Short Fiction) by Adam Levin, The New Yorker, March 2, 2020

Oddly enough, this is billed as fiction, even though the first person narrator has the same name as the author. I’m taking the piece more as memoir than fiction, because its striking versimilitude gives it the feel of something that actually happened, rather than something made up. The narrator is remembering, in a blunt, unvarnished way, some of the events of his early childhood: the showing-off, challenging parents on philosophical points, teasing pets, bullying other kids. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that conveys so truthfully – and unapologetically – just how contrary and provocative a kid’s inner life can be. Most authors, when trying to re-create childhood, tend to clean it up in a way to make it more acceptable to adult readers. The story ends with the narrator, as an adult, looking at kids today and comparing their childhood with his own, and this brings on an outburst of optimistic, cheerful prognostication about the future of humanity – which, as he himself admits, may or may not be sincere.

 

The Resident Poet (Short Fiction) by Katherine Dunn, The New Yorker, May 11, 2020

A young woman agrees to an assignation with a poet who is a visiting professor at her college. The word ‘tawdry’ is barely negative enough to describe the experience. I can’t think of any other writing that has conveyed so realistically – without the slightest hint of pornography – how drab a certain kind of sexual experience can be. From the narrator’s point of view, there’s nothing good about this one. She doesn’t like the man, she finds him pretentious and unattractive; he’s overbearing and condescending at the same time. Dishonest and cowardly. Nothing about the clandestine encounter pleases her: neither the sex, the accommodation, the meals or the conversation.

Then why did she take this on? For experience, I guess, in the hope that there might be something interesting or exciting about it. After all, an affair with your prof, isn’t that what college life is all about for a certain kind of young woman? Thoughts come to mind about what kind of a spin she's going to put on this when she tells her friends about it. Instead of providing any kind of thrill, though, this ‘adventure’ has the narrator reflecting on the dreary history of women trying to please their men. Even so, she experiences moments of something like empathy for this man. Watching him sleep, she catches a pathetic look on his face and the thought comes to her that "I needn’t expect to find answers or peace before he does."

I suppose the point of the story – and I think there is one – is that this woman learned something from the experience (not what the prof was planning to teach her) and that she can hope to make better choices from now on. The story feels as though the first-person narrator is talking about something that happened yesterday but I find that Katherine Dunn, the author died in 2016 at the age of 70.

 

The Wish for a Good Young Country Doctor (Short Fiction) by Allan Gurganus, The New Yorker, May 4, 2020

This is the kind of story that you might not expect to find in The New Yorker – if you happen to have notions of what kind of story might or might not appear in that magazine. This one, essentially a folsky tale, stands apart from the magazine’s usual fare. In another way, though, it’s not hard to guess why it appears in The New Yorker at this time: it’s about an epidemic. In this case, it’s the cholera outbreak of the mid-nineteenth century, as experienced in rural Iowa.

Our entry to and exit from the story come by way of a college student, in today’s world, who is scouring thrift stores and junk shops for knick-knacks that might tie into a course on American studies. The discovery of an old portrait leads to a shop keeper’s telling him about a young grad from medical school who, at the height of the cholera epidemic, came to the area to replace the long-standing local doctor who was on the point of retiring. The young medico was generous, dedicated, noble and handsome. The locals took to him enthusiastically – until things turned in a different direction. Which leads to reflections on the ambivalence of people, the vicissitudes of human feelings and attitudes, thus giving the somewhat old-fashioned story an utterly contemporary sensibility.

 

What We Worried About When I Was Ten (Short Fiction) by David Rabe, The New Yorker, February 3, 2020

This is one of the most vivid and amusing evocations of childhood that I’ve ever read. (Admittedly, its appeal for me may have something to do with the colourful, yet accurate, depiction of Catholicism as experienced by a child.) We get the mystery of adults as seen by kids, the truculence of fathers, the weariness of mothers, the desperation of nuns, the rivalry combined with the loyalty among the kids. Much as I enjoyed this view of life at the most basic level, as seen with young eyes, I had to skip over one incident – a physical injury graphically described. The most comical incident would be the one where the young narrator was obliged to box with a neighbour girl because her brother, whom he was supposed to box, wasn’t home. The narrator’s hesitancy in this predicament is excruciating. Underlying the humour running through the piece, though, is a whiff of sadness about the misunderstandings and the disappointments inherent in the human condition.

It may sound "ageist" of me to say this, but the story has such a fresh, youthful feel that I was surprised to be reminded that the author is in his ninth decade. (Of course, I should have remembered that he is the author of such classic American plays as Sticks and Bones and Streamers.) By the way, his interview on the New Yorker’s website, with Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor, provides valuable amplification of his views on how a kid feels about Catholicism.

 

Met Opera Offerings

Because of the social distancing required now and the resultant cancellation of so many performances of various kinds, New York’s Metropolitan Opera is offering free streaming of archival films. A new one is available each night at 7:30 p.m. EDT and can be accessed until 6:30 p.m. the following day.

The Marriage of Figaro

This 1998 film features the same production that I saw live at the Met in 2006, but with a different cast, of course. Pre-dating the Met's current Figaro that’s set in a 1930s baronial manor, this production has the traditional look: lofty castle sets featuring elegant but slightly mouldy rooms. The biggest revelation of the film, for me, was Renée Fleming as the Countess. I’d never heard her sing Mozart. She made a sublime Countess. One of the most effective aspects of her interpretation was that, when it came to the reprise of the melody in "Dove Sono," Ms. Fleming reverted to a very soft voice, almost a pianissimo. That made the moment heart-breaking. Bryn Terfel, as Figaro, was, of course, perfect vocally, and there is something especially interesting about his acting. There’s often something more going on in his face than you expect – a complexity of emotions. Susanne Mentzer was fine but not the most exciting Cherubino I’ve ever seen. I can’t complain about Dwayne Croft’s singing but his Count has a rentlessly surly, snarling look that’s off-putting. Shouldn’t we see the Count exhibiting a little bit of charm at times? After all, it’s surely not just his status that gets him what he wants. And isn’t this supposed to be a comedy?

Cecilia Bartoli presented a feisty Susanna, ever ready for a mischievous scheme. It was somewhat disconcerting, though, to discover that Ms. Bartoli was not going to sing Susanna’s two traditional arias. Instead, she sang two alternate arias that Mozart had supplied for a singer who wanted something more showy than the original ones he’d written. I found, in an online article by Anthony Tommasini, the music critic for the New York Times, that it wasn’t without a certain amount of kerfuffle that Ms. Bartoli was allowed to sing the substitute arias – but only in two performances. Apparently, Jonathan Miller, the director of the production was incensed, but the Met’s music director at the time, James Levine (also the conductor of the production) acceded to Ms. Bartoli’s wishes, given her prestige. Mr. Tommasini makes the point that the elaborate, florid aria Ms. Bartoli sang instead of the intimately seductive, "Deh vieni non tardar," changed the dynamics of the scene for the worse. Instead of showing us that Figaro is dying with anguish because he thinks she’s singing so lovingly to the Count, Mr. Terfel was left with nothing to do but wait until the fireworks ended. The exquisite agony of the moment was ruined.

Quite!

 

The Opera House

Susan Froemke’s 2018 documentary about the demolition of the Met’s old house and the building of the new one, which opened in 1966, proved to be a treasure trove of information about American culture. We got the fact that the U.S. felt the need to prove to Europe that America wasn’t just about inventions, technology and consumerism, that it could hold up its head on the cultural front too. Of course, many grandiose plans for the new opera house had to be scrapped because of financial limitations. Still, the planners managed to produce a mighty impressive building.

Two of the hosts of the documentary were men who became long-time members of the Met staff. One started out as an usher and the other started out in the children’s chorus. But the most charming and fascinating of the hosts was soprano Leontyne Price who had opened the Met’s new home with her starring role in Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra. Ms. Price unstintingly gave of her memories, including her moments of trepidation and awe at finding herself in such a spotlight. She even sang a few phrases that came to mind as she talked. (Her voice is aging as nicely as the rest of her.)

For me, the documentary raised a couple of matters of social interest. I noted that little was said about what happened to the thousands of tenants who had to be evicted from the tenement buildings that were torn down to create Lincoln Center, the home of the new Met. Granted, the old apartments were beyond repair – or so we were told – but I would have liked to have heard more about what happened to their thousands of inhabitants. And a person couldn’t help noticing the sexism in the celebration of the building of the new Met. In all references, including U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower’s speech at the turning of the sod, it was taken for granted that such thrilling advances in civilization and culture were inevitably the work of men of vision.

Lucia Di Lammermoor

Much as I have loved Joan Sutherland – perhaps my favourite singer of all time – it was painful to watch this production from 1982. Ms. Sutherland was fifty-six at that point and the sight of her trying to impersonate an innocent ingenue made a person terribly sad at the thought of how beautiful her performance had once been. (I’d seen her live in the role about twenty years earlier.) The voice was still phenomenal but it was darker and it didn’t float to the top with that angelic ease and purity that it once had.

I couldn’t bear to watch the whole film. The stagey melodramatics made it seem almost a parody of "Grand Opera." (Judging by the HD Live Broadcasts, the Met has come a long way in livening up its productions and making them more relevant in a contemporary way.) The prevalence of enormous wigs seemed to indicate that the production’s designers couldn’t tolerate the premise that there could be such a thing as male pattern baldness in seventeenth-century Scotland.

Still, the mad scene was impressive, and it was dramatically moving but maybe not for the intended reasons. I was moved mostly by the thought that Ms. Sutherland, who gave so much joy to music lovers, is gone now. And, in spite of all the drawbacks to her taking on Lucia at such a late stage in her career, you had to hand it to her for carrying on with dignity, doing her best, giving it her all, so that we could have this film version of her signature role.

If it seems like I’m being ageist to the disadvantage of the female star here, that’s because I can hardly bring myself to speak of Alfredo Kraus in the role of Edgardo. Although a year younger than Ms. Sutherland, he looked even more unsuited to the role of the lover. For most of the opera, his voice sounded far from its best, but he did come into his own in the final scene – which, after all, rightly belongs to the tenor after the soprano’s hogging the spotlight for most of the show.