Monday, July 31, 2017

there was a secret chord

We took a day trip from Amsterdam to The Hague, to see the paintings at the Mauritshuis. If pressed, Mighty Reader might tell you that our Netherlands trip was inspired by the fact that there are paintings by Vermeer at the Mauritshuis and at the Rijksmuseum that she had not yet seen in person. Vermeer's paintings emit an almost gravitational force that pulls constantly at Mighty Reader. I don't feel that force about Vermeer but I understand it.

The Hague is a pretty town, which for some reason surprised me. I'm not sure what I expected. Maybe it's simply that we visited on a lovely summer day, the weather mild, the train ride was simple enough to arrange and carried us through picturesque farmlands in South Holland. The Mauritshuis is a good museum; not too large, not too small, with masterpieces around nearly every corner and a decent restaurant (with excellent coffee).

The main attraction of the collection is Jan Vermeer's "Girl With a Pearl Earring," which everyone knows. In the same room as "Girl" is the large painting "View of Delft," a remarkable cityscape with vibrant colors and crisp lines and a whole lot of sky. The big surprise was a third Vermeer, "Diana and her Nymphs," an early work that neither of us knew about. In my opinion (not shared by Mighty Reader), "Diana" was the best of the three paintings, full of movement and color and contrasting light/shadow and a more interesting and challenging arrangement of subjects than either "Girl" or "Delft." It was also the only Vermeer in the room being ignored.

Me and the other, other Vermeer

The Mauritshuis collection has that wee goldfinch painting used as a prop in the latest Donna Tartt novel, too. It's hanging out in a hallway between rooms, I think, like an afterthought, like something someone's mother painted that had to go somewhere in the house.

I'm currently reading the poetry of St. John of the Cross, and one of the poems references Simeon in the temple, holding the Christ child in his arms:
En aquestos y otros ruegos
gran tiempo pasado había;
pero en los postreros años
el fervor mucho crecía,
cuando el viejo Simeón
en deseo se encendía,
rogando a Dios que quisiese
dejalle ver este día.
Y así, el Espíritu Santo
al buen viejo respondía;
­Que le daba su palabra
que la muerte no vería
hasta que la vida viese
que de arriba descendía.
y que él en sus mismas manos
al mismo Dios tomaría,
y le tendría en sus brazos
y consigo abrazaría.
Rembrandt painted this Biblical scene, and the painting is in the Mauritshuis collection. I wasn't particularly moved by the work, but on the adjacent wall of the gallery that contains "Simeon and St Anne" (by Rembrandt's pupil Arent de Gelder) hangs the impressive and large "Saul and David," a painting only recently proved to be a genuine Rembrandt after eight years of restoration. Rembrandt's David looks suspiciously like Bob Dylan, and when I saw the painting I spontaneously began to sing Cohen's "Hallelujah" in a Bob Dylan voice, forgetting that Dylan has actually covered the song. I was not asked to leave the museum but I didn't sing the whole song, either.

David Zimmerman, harpist to the king

After having seen the wares of the Mauritshuis, we wandered around a little in The Hague, spending some time in the dappled light of a small square, looking through piles of stuff at a flea market. I was tempted by a 1922(?) Baedeker of northern Germany, in English, but I did not buy it despite the many full-color fold-out maps. Maps emit an almost gravitational force that pulls constantly at me. Most people don't feel that force.

Friday, July 28, 2017

mile after mile, who would have guessed

square miles of meagre modern houses whose principle purpose was the support of TV aeriels and dishes; factories producing worthless junk to be advertised on the televisions and, in dismal lots, lorries queuing up to distribute it; and everywhere else, roads and the tyranny of the traffic. It looked like a raucous dinner party the morning after. No one would have wished it this way, but no one has been asked. Nobody planned it, nobody wanted it, but most people had to live in it. To watch it mile after mile, who would have guessed that kindness or the imagination, that Purcell or Britten, Shakespeare or Milton, had ever existed
--Ian McEwan, Amsterdam
Iam McEwan's novel Amsterdam takes place mostly in London. I know this because I read the Guardian review of it; I haven't read the novel itself. I've been tempted, off and on, to read McEwan's book because it contains a character who composes classical music, and I have a sometime weakness for stories about composers. The probable high level of McEwanness in the novel keeps me away from Amsterdam, however.

When we were in Amsterdam, Mighty Reader and I went to a concert at the Royal Concertgebouw, a place I've wanted to visit ever since one of my older brothers bought a copy of Paul McCartney and Wings' "Band on the Run" and played it incessantly from 1973 until 1976 when he abandoned Wings and became a Rush fan and a Randian. Mighty Reader and I did not go to see either Wings or Rush at the Royal Concertgebouw; we went instead to an evening of chamber music, a program called "Dream with me," featuring songs from Romantic and Impressionist composers sung by mezzo soprano Cora Burggraaf, accompanied by cellist Pieter Wispelwey and pianist Ed Spanjaard. There were also a couple of fine cello and piano duets to break things up. Here's the program:
Brahms - Allegretto grazioso (quasi Andante) (uit 'Tweede sonate in A', op. 100) (arr. P.R. Wispelwey)
Brahms - Zwei Gesänge, op. 91
Brahms - Ständchen, nr. 1 (uit 'Fünf Lieder', op. 106)
Brahms - Junge Lieder I/Meine Liebe ist grün, nr. 5 (uit 'Lieder und Gesänge', op. 63)
Dvořák - Rondo in g, op. 94
Chopin - Melodia (Melodie), nr. 9 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Chopin - Narzeczony (De bruidegom), nr. 15 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Chopin - Moja pieszczotka (Mijn lieveling), nr. 12 (uit 'Poolse liederen', op. 74) (arr. M. Knigge)
Sjostakovitsj - Het lied van Ophelia, nr. 1 (uit 'Zeven romances op teksten van Aleksander Blok', op. 127)
Debussy - Intermezzo, L. 27
Massenet - On dit!
Massenet - Elégie
Bosmans - Complainte du petit cheval blanc
Bosmans - Nuit calme
Bosmans - Le diable dans la nuit
Von Brucken Fock - Berceuse d'armorique
Von Brucken Fock - Les cigales
Diepenbrock - Berceuse
Ms Burggraaf sang in Dutch, French, German, and for an encore, English. It was all quite lovely music, well worth the effort of shifting ourselves after a busy afternoon of full-contact tourism. Mr Wispelwey fulfilled enough of my "rock show at the Concertgebouw" youthful dreams by taking on the affectations of a prog-rock lead guitarist, channeling Jimmy Page much of the time with his puffy-sleeved blouse, his head shakes, his aggressive posture and elaborate preparatory gestures. He also sort of looks like Robert Fripp, maybe after a few pints. Ms Burggraaf assumed a quite serious face during her singing, her brows perpetually knit in what seemed an habitual expression learned at the conservatory; a little distracting but her singing overcame the artifice of the sad face. She wore a pretty white dress. Mighty Reader's French and my German are good enough that we were able to translate the lyrics to each other, which is nice, not that I don't enjoy singing I can't understand at all: my iPod has a bunch of Paul Verlaine poems set to music that I can't comprehend but it's sure nice listening.

It was late, almost full dark and raining when we got out of the show. The tram station is directly in front of the Concertgebouw, so we hurried across the cobblestones and stood under the glass shelter with scores of other middle-aged people in nice clothes. Most of them got onto the first tram that came along, which was not our route, and so when our tram showed up a minute later, there were plenty of seats, which is a blessing at the end of a long day.

Chandelier in Royal Concertgebouw lobby. Photo by Mighty Reader.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Falling into Amsterdam

We were in the Red Light district, or at least we crossed through it on our way from the Hermitage Amsterdam to the shopping district along Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal. We did not make it to Zeedijk, where supposedly the Mexico City bar used to be located. The Mexico City bar is one of the settings of Albert Camus' novella The Fall. Before Mighty Reader and I truckled off to Amsterdam, I wanted to read a novel set in that fair city, and as it happens the only such novel we had in the house was The Fall, which I'd read way back in the 1980s and remembered very poorly, as it turned out.

Camus' Amsterdam is not the Amsterdam I visited. Camus' Amsterdam is dark, seedy, foggy and claustrophobic like Dostoyevsky's Petersburg in Notes From Underground; Camus lets the nested half-circles of Amsterdam's canals stand in for the circles of Hell out of Dante's Inferno. Everybody knows that image already, but I tell you anyway. The Amsterdam we trammed, walked, and bicycled through was a clean, bright, vibrant city of life. Except for the exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam, which was a clean, bright, depressing exhibition of murder and repression. Thanks, Putin. I digress, to the surprise of nobody.

When I was a kid, maybe twelve or thirteen years old, I learned in a history class that Amsterdam was built at the mouth of the Amstel river, where it emptied into the Zuider Zee. I have remembered "Zuider Zee" all these decades, possibly only because it's such a swell couple of words. But as soon as Mighty Reader and I decided to visit Amsterdam, I looked forward to standing on a dike and looking out on the gray fogs of the Zuider Zee. I did not know that the Zuider Zee no longer exists. In the 1930s, the citizens of Amsterdam (or maybe the Dutch government; I'm hazy on facts) decided to build a couple of dikes to separate the Zuider Zee from the North Atlantic, and they also reclaimed a tremendous portion of the lower Zee, creating a new territory known as Flevoland. Flevoland fills in the southernmost third of the former Zuider Zee. This was a disappointment to me, but likely the residents of Amsterdam and Flevoland are happy about it. After all, most of the Netherlands (or at least of North Holland) is reclaimed land, just like Flevoland. I continue to digress. But I'm pretty sure Flevoland did not exist when Camus visited Amsterdam, and it is not present in the fictional Amsterdam of The Fall. (I believe--though I can't find my source for it now--that Camus was in Amsterdam in the 1930s, and The Fall is set in the 1950s, which means that most of the reclamation of land in the Zuider Zee happened after Camus saw the place. There is also the theory that Camus deliberately has his narrator describe an Amsterdam, a North Holland, that is at odds with the real world of the 1950s in which he lives. Maybe, I say. The narrator is a liar, or he believes different truths than are on display to the rest of us.)

The bar Mexico City no longer exists, either. Apparently there is a monument or something on Zeedijk, and quotations from the novel are among the graffiti along the canal (maybe the Geldersekade) near the monument. Like I say, we didn't make it to that part of town. Our short jaunt crossways through the Red Light district was enough for me. Yes, prostitutes standing in their underwear behind plate glass windows, inches away from the foot traffic. Yes, sex shops, peep shows, wee XXX cinemas, etc. I was transported via my memory back to Times Square in the 1980s (I vividly recall a man handing out coupons in front of a basement-level theater, calling out "Naked women, gentlemen! Naked women!" Old New York, now only a dream). Amsterdam's Red Light district is also the home to a surprising number of restaurants selling Argentinian beef.

From the point of land north of the village of Marken, which we reached via ferry and then bicycle, one can stand at the gate barring the path to the light house and look out over what used to be the midsection of the Zuider Zee, and even on a sunny day the water is gray, or gray blue, but quite pretty, almost the pearly gray found inside fresh oyster shells. Fishing schooners sailed past in the middle distance, their red and orange sheets blown taut by the light wind. Eurasian oyster catchers poked about in the pale fine sand. The waves were gentle and slow. Camus' Jean-Baptiste should've gotten out of the city more often.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The necessity of looking as if she were used to and even wearied by this sort of thing weighed heavily on her

she bent over the menu, and gave orders that trembled on the edge of audibility to a waiter whom she appeared not to see...

That's pretty great, that line, that observation. It's from Book II of Rebecca West's The Judge, a novel I've been slowly reading for about three weeks now. Two of those weeks were interrupted by a trip to the Netherlands during which I did precious little reading of anything but menus and road markers, which is a not a good way to learn conversational Dutch but otherwise a fine way to spend one's time.

The Judge continues to strike me as very Lawrence, and so a sort of precursor to a lot of Byatt's work, which is fine. The prose is quite dense and full of pointed social observation, this being a social novel in a lot of ways (it's also a Gothic romance in the tradition of the Bronte sisters):
The air of the little quadrangle was fairly dense with the yellowed rays of extravagant light, and the walls were divided not into shops and houses, but into allegorical panels representing pleasure. They had stopped outside a florist's, in whose dismantled window a girl in black stretched out a long arm towards the last vase of chrysanthemums, which pressed against the glass great curled polls almost as large as her own head. It was impossible to imagine a Scotswoman practising so felinely elastic an attitude before the open street, or possessing a face so ecstatic with pertness, or finding herself inside a dress which, though black, disclaimed all intention of being mourning and sought rather, in its clinging economy, to be an occasion of public rejoicing.

Inconceivable, too, in Edinburgh, the place beside it, where behind plate glass walls, curtained with flimsy brise-bises that were as a ground mist, men and women ate and drank under strong lights with a divine shamelessness. It couldn't happen up there. There were simply not the people to do it. It might be tried at first; but because middle-aged men would constantly turn to middle-aged women and say, "Catch me bringing you here again, Elspeth. It's a nice thing to have your dinner with every Tom, Dick and Harry in the street watching every mouthful you take," and because young men would as constantly have turned to young women with the gasp, "I'm sure I saw father passing," it would have been a failure. But here it was a success. The sight was like loud, frivolous music. And on the other side there was a theatre with steps leading up to a glittering bow-front, and a dark wall spattered with the white squares of playbills, under which a queue of people watched with happy and indifferent faces a ragged reciter whose burlesque extravagance of gesture showed that one was now in a country more tolerant of nonsense than the North.
I love that the first view Ellen has of London is made up of claims of pleasure, rather than of actual pleasurable things. It is a continuation of the class argument West is making in Book I, but this time there is a rebuttal from one from the moneyed class:
She said in her rapid, inarticulate murmur, "They don't strike me as being particularly happy."

Ellen was taken aback, and said in the tones of a popular preacher, "Then what are they doing here—feasting?"

"I suppose they're here because it's on the map and so are they," she answered almost querulously. "They'd go anywhere else if one told them it was where they ought to be. Good children, most people. Anxious to do the right thing. Don't you think?"
An accusation of a different sort, that.

Maybe later this week I'll post a pic or two from the Netherlands.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

some sustaining moral soup

She examined him carefully out of the corner of her eye to estimate the chances of his being brought into the fold of reform by properly selected oratory. That at least was the character of contemplation she intended, but though she was so young that she believed the enjoyment of any sensory impression sheer waste unless it was popped into the mental stockpot and made the basis of some sustaining moral soup, she found herself just looking at him. His black hair lay in streaks and rings on his rain-wet forehead and gave him an abandoned and magical air, like the ghost of a drowned man risen for revelry; his dark gold skin told a traveller's tale of far-off pleasurable weather; and the bare hand that lay on his knee was patterned like a snake's belly with brown marks, doubtless the stains of his occupation; and his face was marked with an expression that it vexed her she could not put a name to, for if at her age she could not read human nature like a book she never would.
That's from Rebecca West's 1922 novel The Judge. So few of today's writers approach that level of excellence in prose. People in publishing want "voice." I want craftsmanship, and daring generosity, and vision.