Casting Back

Recuerdo de Acevedo Huila: Fabula, credit acedeunos.blogspot.com

Casting Back

The Estancia, Martín Cullen, Adelphi, 20, hb, 399 pp, reviewed by Stoddard Martin

As a rule, this reader finds tales of childhood dull. True growing-up happens with first love, sexual encounters, jobs, facing the adult world on one’s own, escape from the bubble of family and parental control. If you’re not Proust, the matter of childhood is memorable only in rare cases. Martín Cullen’s account of his Argentine origins is one. His novel, essentially devoid of event, is a treasure trove of sensation.

The milieu is of privilege: an ancien régime under threat from the Perónist new order. There is circularity to this phenomenon: privileged youth exists to write about privileged youth; threatened privileged class exists to observe threatened privileged class. Lampedusa comes to mind. Nostalgia underpins beauty passing, which becomes its justification. One might be prepared to overturn an old order, but who would give up such a great elegist?

Cullen’s elegiac novel enthralls, the more so because its demi-Latin locale is nearly familiar yet exotically remote. It grows tedious too – great works of literature do: Dante, Joyce. One must relax into it, as into an adagio of Mahler or opera by Debussy. In reverie lurk riches to mine: one’s own as well as the creator’s – what Thomas Mann, listening to Siegfried’s funeral march, called ‘our earliest picture dreamings’.

Raymond Chandler sought to write a thriller so compelling in style than the last page could be ripped out and no one would mind that they didn’t find out who dun it. Cullen’s boyhood reading tags another referent: ‘Tarzan mentioned people and places without bothering to explain them… They existed simply because he was familiar with them… It seemed to mean that there was no need to place them within a rigid diagram of life like my own, in which every cousin, every house, was labeled and pinned down in the catalogue like creatures according to the velvet of their wings… They were there because they were, without the scaffolding of a story.’

His book is indeed a catalogue, and without much scaffolding of plot. Yet whatever ‘rigid diagram’ may underlie, it flows like a stream. The dramatis personae is predominantly of idle women, the atmosphere like that of the sisters in Chekov awaiting a trip to Moscow that may never arrive. The Argentine cousinage babbles in bathrooms of its Buenos Aires palaces or at al fresco luncheons on its country estates. Memory is its matter, gossip, homilies, bits of wisdom absorbed out of the French novels deemed de rigueur for aspirant grande dames.

Here is a staple in Cullen’s mix – the word, language, intersection of French with ‘criollo’ Spanish, a swirl of native patois behind other intrusions: English, Italian, Slav. Similar is the mode: men wearing tweed and jodhpurs, women in ball-gowns from Worth. One aunt intones paeans to ‘the favourite soup of Chateaubriand’; another dines out on having been ‘a friend of Picasso and Apollinaire’. Europe, above all Paris, constitutes a ne plus ultra in culture; yet fundamentally these folk are ‘arm-chair travelers… so Argentine’, whose sole ultimate value is caste.

Nuances have to do with the number of generations in situ, origins of wealth, strains in the blood, tradition in politics as well as education, culture and time spent abroad. Merits like physical beauty, intelligence, courage, competence, conduct and even financial acumen do not rate so high. Cullen’s matriarchal order is sensitive to the parvenu; it rests comfortably or not so on distinctions between master and servant, porteño and gaucho, recent immigrant and descendant of the liberator, San Martín. Ladies who have long dispensed charity are contrasted to ‘that whore’ Evita, who has had the socialistic nerve to ban their Sociedad de Beneficencia.

The matriarchy is catty, but stops short of violence: ‘They didn’t hate each other… but there was a fury loose around the house.’ It celebrates forms of Englishness, but only superficially. Catholic habits run deeper, but are worn lightly too. A few women are able, if only for a spell, to break out of the almost harem-like hermeticism: Cullen’s mother finds her truest pleasure on a runaway horse; an inamorata from the Bonapartist nouveaux exposes the hairy chest and rank seaside scent of a Uruguayan fisherman in front of erotically unfledged young Martín.

His boy’s-eye view of the world is intensely aesthetic. There is endless Impressionist light and cadences reminiscent of Baudelaire. Synaesthesia affects many a bravura description; Latinate English rises on occasion to an orotund sensuality redolent of D’Annunzio. Such masters, one gleans, are more than familiar to an author whose solitude in long summers on sweltering pampas would have been given over largely to books. Music features less often but, as in the cases above, this man-of-letters creates a music of his own. Read him aloud.      

Structurally the book divides into three movements: town, country and a sea-journey to Europe. Somewhere in the middle the boy’s history begins to escape the womb of grandmothers and aunts. A little further we learn that their nurture was required because his mother ‘went mad’ after his excruciating birth. Further still we discern struggles in sexual awakening rivalry with the father. Yet seldom do fathers or men figure prominently. The tableau is of a class whose status was achieved by tough hombres decades or centuries ago; now males are for the most part rentiers, flaneurs, fan-handlers and walkers or the ‘afternoon men’ who play polo and skive off, neglecting their wives in favour of hunting, a mistress, the club or a drink.

“Professional titles had no currency… Nobody had a profession. One founded newspapers, planned enterprises, inspected estancias, accepted a ministry from time to time, and certainly the presidency of the great clubs, and in all of this one lost money, but to work steadily and industriously, no.’ So Cullen says, without judging. It justifies his greater attention to the women, heiresses often, thus conduits for funds the men fritter away. Heiresses or not, these women are for Cullen those who keep an order of being intact. They are the foundation on which family is grounded, thus where his admiration, or at least scrutiny, gravitates.

Martín does not grow typical of a male of his line. Like the last of the Buddenbrooks, his fate is other; yet unlike Mann’s little Hanno, he will not fall ill and die. His effeteness is robust and on its terms will triumph over family and class decline. He will be an artist/observer,a recorder of all surveyed. This book manifests it, and it is gorgeous. The aunties have not finally prattled in vain in their vacuum of provincial time and space. He paints them as universal, detailed as if in one of the faux-Venetian frescoes adorning the ceilings of their Buenos Aires reception rooms, or stitched like pale figures cavorting forever in one of the Gobelin tapestries hung over an estancia wall. An epoch in Argentine life thus becomes immortal. Ancestral deities rest proud. 

Dr Stoddard Martin is an academic, author and publisher

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Death by Des Grieux

Credit nicolasbonnal.com

Death by Des Grieux

Review of Manon Lescaut, dramma lirico in four acts, music composed by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Ruggero Leoncavallo, Marco Praga, Giuseppe Giacosa, Domenico Oliva and Luigi Illica, directed by Karolina Sofulak, conductor Peter Robinson, new production at Investec Opera Holland Park, 11th June 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Director Karolina Sofulak’s new production of Manon Lescaut, designed by George Johnson-Leighis set in the 1960’s. The beehive hairstyle or B52 and the twist are all the rage – “our name is youth – our goddess is hope”, the students proclaim. Hedonism is rife for the scourge of AIDS has yet to announce itself. But, as in all of Puccini’s work, despair lurks below the surface. Manon (an excellent performance by Elizabeth Llewellyn, who has a rich and powerful voice) was happy once but she tells us that sadness now controls her destiny.

In ancient Greek tragedy, the hero or heroine is the author of their own downfall due to personal failings but also to adverse, overwhelming circumstances. Manon is torn between her love for penniless student Des Grieux and her predilection for the fine things which wealthy Tax Farmer-General Geronte di Ravoir is happy to provide – at a price. Manon’s brother Lescaut (Paul Carey-Jones), a shrewd judge of character, knows his sister only too well, indeed they are somewhat alike and he panders to her vanity and love of luxury. “A little lady who is bored is a frightening thing!”, he sagely observes, so he keeps her distracted. Indicatively, Manon ultimately fails to escape from Geronte’s clutches because she is desperate to retrieve her jewellery.

Des Grieux (Peter Auty, somewhat strained in the upper register) is aware of his lover’s faults but invariably succumbs to her powers of seduction – “Ah, Manon, your foolish thoughts betray me; always, the same, always the same!”, he expostulates (“Ah, Manon, mi tradisice il tuo folle pensier; sempre la stressa, sempre la stressa!”). A genuinely noble soul, faithful to the end, he is dragged down by his infatuation. He acknowledges, “I descend the ladder of shame. Slime in slime I am and a depraved hero of the gambling den…”

Manon Lescaut has its longueurs, notably the bizarre scene in Act Two featuring madrigals, a dancing master and a group of musicians. As Rupert Christiansen notes, Manon Lescaut was an “apprentice work, composed when he [Puccini] was still finding his emotional way…” (The Telegraph, 5th June 2019). In this production, the final act, supposedly set in the Louisiana desert, has some decidedly incongruous elements, including a building with a fire escape. But as music journalist Tom Service recently remarked (“Why is opera so ridiculous?”, The Listening Service, Radio 3, Friday 7th June, 2019) opera demands that we constantly suspend disbelief. So we do.

In Manon Lescaut, as in Tosca, there is love and there is death and suffering but unlike Tristan, “there is no…absolution or benediction” here, to quote the judge in Brian de Palma’s film Carlito’s Way (see “In a Place of Tears”, Quarterly Review, May 30th 2019).

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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You Are Who You Ate

A San Tribesman

You Are Who You Ate

by Ilana Mercer

 South Africa – the case for inter-racial reparations

Donald R. Morris’s epic tome, The Washing of the Spears: The Rise and Fall of the Zulu Nation, is the indispensable guide to Zulu history. Morris notes correctly that the Bantu, like the Boers, were not indigenous to South Africa. They “dribbled south” from some “reservoir in the limitless north,” and, like the European settlers, used their military might to displace Hottentots, Bushmen (his archaic terminology), and one another through internecine warfare. Indeed, there was bitter blood on Bantu lands well before the white settlers arrived in South Africa.

Westerners have committed the little San people of Southern Africa, the “Bushmen,” to folkloric memory for their unequalled tracking skills and for the delicate drawings with which they dotted the “rock outcroppings.” The San were hunters, but they were also among the hunted. Mercilessly so. Alongside the Boers, Hottentots and blacks “hunted down Bushmen for sport well into the 19th Century.”

In “the book to end all books on the tragic confrontation between the assegai and the Gatling gun,” Morris recalls that Cape Town’s founder and Dutch East India Company official J. A. Van Riebeeck landed at the Cape in 1652, 500 miles to the south and 1,000 miles to the west of the nearest Bantu. Joined by other Protestants from Europe, Dutch farmers, as we know, homesteaded the Cape Colony. Continue reading

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Kushner Packs Unicorns and Rainbows

Jared Kushner (left centre), credit Defense.gov

Kushner Packs Unicorns and Rainbows

by Ilana Mercer

Jared Kushner couldn’t stare down a foe even if his wife, Ivanka Trump, held his soft, lily-white hand. Yet a May 22, McClatchy article claimed Mr. Kushner was fixing to “stare down uncompromising foes in fights over immigration and Middle East peace.”

Let us begin with our debutant’s Middle East peace plan, the thing his father-in-law calls “the deal of the century.” The notion of Jared solving the Israeli-Palestinian vexation is laughable, perhaps the dumbest thing ever. You just know this is a vain Ivanka move to brand the region and add it to her CV. Ivanka, to those who don’t know, is intent on riding to the presidency on her father’s coattails.

The Arabs slated to partake in the Kushner summit, Bahraini, Saudi and Emirati participants, are likely laughing the hardest. For one, the Arabs know that Ivanka is calling the shots—and that the president’s fashion-focused daughter is behind the branding of the sexually androgynous, intellectually inchoate production that is Jared Kushner. If you think that’s something Arabs respect, you don’t know Shiite from Shinola. Continue reading

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ENDNOTES, June 2019, Choral Music of Norway

Edvard Munch, Train Smoke

Endnotes, June 2019, Choral Music of Norway; Sergey Levitin plays Stanford at the English Music Festival, reviewed by Stuart Millson

Recorded in the impressive acoustic of Domkirken, Bergen, a new CD from Chandos Records highlights the achievements of Norwegian composers, from the celebrated Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) to the obscure mid-19th-century Ole Bull, his work being The Herdgirl’s Sunday and back to an almost exact contemporary of Grieg’s, Agathe Backer Grondahl (1847-1907) – a composer with some 400 works to her name. Performed by a small, specialist choral group the Edvard Grieg Kor, a Scandinavian equivalent of the BBC Singers, the programme allows enthusiasts for vocal and Nordic music to revel in the folk-influenced Four Psalms by Grieg – dated just a year before his death – and his eight-part mixed choral arrangement of Ave Maris Stella, from 1893. Both works exhibit a purity of sound and expression which always emanates from his music.

But perhaps the most ear-catching part of the programme is an arrangement of the Holberg Suite for strings – yet arranged for voices. All the lively inflexion and mellow, Northern lights of the suite are there, with the voices called upon to match all the quick-witted, dance-like phrases of the original writing. The expressive sarabande movement is an almost perfect adaptation of instruments to voices, and probably exceeds the original music in melancholia and beauty. A single traditional folk tune, specially arranged for the choir, entitled went to bed one night, provides a further three minutes of pleasure. Continue reading

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Visas for “The Brilliant” is Code for Replacing You

Jared Kushner, Senior Advisor to President Donald J. Trump

Visas for “The Brilliant” is Code for Replacing You

by Ilana Mercer

“The U.S. government discriminates ‘against genius’ and ‘brilliance’ with its immigration system,” asserted President Trump, as he rolled out Jared Kushner’s immigration plan. The president has insisted that “companies are moving offices to other countries because our immigration rules prevent them from retaining highly skilled and even … totally brilliant people.”

While it’s true that U.S. immigration policy selects for low moral character by rewarding unacceptable risk-taking and law-breaking—it’s incorrect to say that it doesn’t “create a clear path for top talent.” Kibitzing about a shortage of talent-based immigration visas is just Mr. Kushner channeling the business and tech lobby’s interests.

No doubt, Big Business wants the “good” old days back. They currently operate in a labor market. They don’t like that, because, in a labor market, firms compete for workers and wages are bid up. Companies don’t like a labor market. They prefer that workers compete for jobs and wages not rise. Continue reading

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In a Place of Tears

Kristine Opolais as Tosca c ROH 2019 photograph by Catherine Ashmore.

In a Place of Tears 

Review of Tosca, melodrama in three acts, music by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, conducted by Alexander Joel, directed by Jonathan Kent, Royal Opera, 27th May 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

In Andrea Chénier, in the duet Vicino a te s’acqueta, composer Umberto Giordano and his librettist Luigi Illica depict death “as the apotheosis or triumph of love” (see ‘Reign of Tenor’, QR, 20th May 2019). But in Tosca, to quote the judge in Brian De Palma’s film Carlito’s Way, “there is no…absolution or benediction” here. Eros and Thanatos commingle. But it is hatred that turns Scarpia on and he offers Floria Tosca a life, that of Cavaradossi, in exchange for “a moment”, a euphemism for sex.

Bryn Terfel, as Baron Scarpia, has a powerful physical presence, almost as overpowering as the monumental statuary in his apartment. Every member of the cast freezes when he first enters the church. He put in a commanding vocal performance but his acting skills were not commensurate. We preferred Marco Vratogna’s more subtle depiction of Scarpia in a previous production (see ‘Praying Mantis’, QR, February 21, 2018). Continue reading

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Muslims are Reading the Bible Again

Muslims are Reading the Bible Again

Gabriel Said Reynolds, The Quran & the Bible: Text and Commentary, Yale University Press, 2018, Pp. xviii, 1008, reviewed by Darrell Sutton

The decline of Christianity in the West has not impeded the continuous surge of attention Muslims give to the Quran in the East. In small pockets of Europe, the revival is spearheaded by persons born or raised in eastern hemispheres. Devotees of extremist views, of whatever religion, read their text passionately, even historically. Excessive ardor for truth sometimes takes them in violent directions. These facts are often concealed from an increasingly self-indulgent populace.

At the same time, the deterioration of Christian belief in recent decades is understandable. Unbelieving ecclesiastics do not inspire anyone, so sanctuaries sit empty. Although they would reckon their actions to be just, many politicians introduce legislation out of fear: fear of seeming to prefer one faith above another, fear of reprisal, fear of offending others etc.

Bible reading among Europeans and North Americans is not on the rise. There are exceptions, but look at the numbers. Yet the Hebrew Scriptures are held in high esteem by all adherents to Judaism. The Old Testament [in Greek and Hebrew], and the New Testament are believed by Christians to be God’s Word. Nevertheless, the falling away from faith continues apace. Continue reading

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Lighten Up

Dr Ed Dutton

Lighten Up

Whiteness: The Original SinJim Goad, Obnoxious Books, Stone Mountain, Georgia, 2018, paperback, 345pp. reviewed by Ed Dutton

The Puritans never had a sense of humour. These irony-deficient, extremist Protestants were too intensely focused on virtue signalling and questioning ever more traditions in order to advance in their virtue-signalling arms race. Immersed in what the American psychologist William James (1842-1910) termed ‘the religion of the sick soul,’ these Road to Damascus converts required a world of absolute certainty. Nobody should remind them of their fundamental psychological insecurities by questioning their self-righteous, contradictory, self-serving worldview which, on a certain level, they knew made no sense. Hence, they required everyone to accept and conform to it. The slightest questioning of their dogmas would send them into paroxysms of rage; it would induce ‘cognitive dissonance,’ leaving their ‘sick soul’ exposed even to themselves.

Humour and mockery were especially dangerous for such people, as they implied that their absolute correctness might be an illusion; for if it were not, then lampooning it would be unthinkable. Comedy was also very serious, they may on some level have realised, because it dissociates the listener, making them more receptive to whatever subversion the comedian is engaged in. It tends to involve, à la the Fool in Shakespeare plays, having the guts to fearlessly ‘go there’, to say the unsayable, albeit gently coated in a bizarre juxtaposition. This releases nervous tension, as we let go of the effortful control of our real opinions which we all hold to in order to fit in, so making people laugh. Additionally, the ability to make people laugh signifies intelligence, creativity and – in the case of political satire – bravery and open-mindedness. It also makes people feel good; so David-Lammy-forbid that one’s enemies should become associated with such traits and feelings in the minds of the populace. Laughing is also inherently a loss of physical control, under the spell of someone else. For anyone to be, in effect, hypnotised by agents of Satan himself is hardly conducive to the sound mental health of the righteous ones.

It should, therefore, be no surprise that the Puritans’ ideological successors – the Multiculturalists – get so upset about being mocked. Or that Carl Benjamin, aka Sargon of Akkad’s joke about Labour MP Jess Philips being not worth raping – ‘I wouldn’t even rape you . . .  With enough pressure, I might cave’ – should evoke such a visceral reaction, including an investigation by the police. {Editorial note: see report by Rajeev Syal, The Guardian, 7th May 2019. The first remark was in a tweet in 2016, the second in a recent YouTube video}.

Jim Goad’s Whiteness: The Original Sin is, likewise, a matter of extreme peril to such people because it is funny. It tears to shreds the dogmas of Multiculturalism – especially those prevalent in the USA – with its surreal, cutting, faux-confused and, most importantly, self-mocking humour. Goad, a colourful character, is a superb writer who somehow manages to take the destruction of Western civilization and the psychological breaking of European peoples by their own crazed leaders and make you laugh about it.

Whatever PC dogma you can think of – that non-whites can’t be racist, that there was never white slavery in the USA, that the Unionist army was anti-racist, that race differences in criminality have nothing to do with genes – Goad deftly, yet ruthlessly, subjects to his wit-laden, withering critique. Consider the following snippet:

So for those of you who are far more socially conscious than I am, please be patient with me, because I’m just trying to keep up here – at least as I’ve been led to understand it, according to the latest science from The Global Science Foundation or whatever it’s called, homosexuality is genetically hardwired, but race and gender are only ideas, right? Is that the latest science? Got it. Booked marked and filed. I will pick that, lick that, stick that, and flick that’ (pp.237-238).

In just a few pithy lines, Goad brilliantly encapsulates that world in which we now find ourselves, a world in which empirical Truth is dictated by the Woke Mob, which can contradict other Truth with impunity, which can contradict what our senses tell us is so, and the right-thinking person should merrily and gratefully accept it as unquestionably the Truth… until, that is, that something else becomes the unquestionable Truth.

Editorial note: views expressed in this article are not thereby endorsed by the editor

Dr Edward Dutton runs the YouTube channel The Jolly Heretic: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCMRs0Ml8RF0cWVAOeQeBxTw His recent books include: Churchill’s Headmaster: The ‘Sadist’ Who Nearly Saved the British Empire and The Silent Rape Epidemic: How the Finns Were Groomed to Love Their Abusers. Dutton can be found online at www.edwarddutton.wordpress.com

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Reign of Tenor

Roberto Alagna as Andrea Chénier and Sondra Radvanovsky as Maddalena di Coigny, photograph by Catherine Ashmore

Reign of Tenor

Review of Andrea Chénier, dramma istorico, music composed by Umberto Giordano, libretto by Luigi Illica, directed by Sir David McVicar, conducted by Daniel Oren, Royal Opera, 20th May 2019, reviewed by Leslie Jones

At Contessa de Coigny’s soirée, poet Andrea Chénier condemns the church’s lack compassion for the poor and by implication that of his fellow guests. They pointedly turn their back on him. The aristocracy are evidently living in a parallel universe, in which manners, fine clothing and persiflage predominate. The performance of a short ballet, followed by a gavotte, symbolises their cocooned and refined existence. But Chénier’s impassioned and improvised declamation does not fall on deaf ears. Footman Carlo Gérard quits his position and takes off his “uniform of shame”. He allows some starving peasants (gilets jaunes?) into the château, predicting the downfall of an “evil race”. And Maddalena de Coigny (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, on fine form) is no less moved by Chénier’s words. Judging by our clapometer, Gérard (Dimitri Platanias) and Chénier (Roberto Alagna) were not just rivals for Maddalena’s affections but for those of the audience.

As John Snelson notes in the official programme (‘Background and Foreground’) there are striking parallels between Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, first performed in 1896 and Puccini’s contemporaneous oeuvre. Both composers shared the same librettist, Luigi Illica. For the poet Chénier read the artist Cavaradossi. When Maddalena comes to plead for Chénier’s life, Gérard is prepared to force himself upon her. Like Baron Scarpia, he is a slave to “violent passions”. But unlike Scarpia, “he has a conscience and indeed will act upon it”. And Maddalena, frightened and alone after her mother’s murder by the mob, brings to mind Manon Lescaut. But the dubious notion of death as the apotheosis or triumph of love, as articulated by Chénier and Maddalena in Vicino a te s’acqueta, is distinctly Wagnerian.

Commentators consider Giordano’s “handling of French Revolutionary motifs and sentiments…remarkably cogent” (Gregory Dart, official programme, ‘Revolutionary Moments’). And Andrea Chénier is replete with crowd pleasing arias and duets. Two minor quibbles, however. First, the lack of sexual chemistry between Alagna and Radvanovsky. And second, the increasingly tiresome use of graffiti in opera. Yet all in all, a memorable evening.

Sondra Radvanovsky as Maddalena di Coigny, Dimitri Platanias as Carlo Gérard, ROH 2019,  photograph by Catherine Ashmore

Dr Leslie Jones is Editor of QR

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