Monday, April 16, 2018

On Robyn Hitchcock

I have loved you from a distance
Loved you from up close
Like the tiny frog that breathes
I can nestle in your cloak

I'm a bit of a latecomer to the Robyn Hitchcock party, having discovered him in 2004 (i.e., some thirty years into his career) as a result of Spooked, which he recorded in collaboration with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. I played Spooked regularly for a while, but I hadn't listened to it all the way through for years until I dusted it off again after seeing Hitchcock perform live a week ago (he was great, by the way, polka-dot shirt and all).

Hitchcock is also a painter, in a surrealist vein matching his songs; the image above is the full version of the piece that was cropped to serve as the cover art for the CD.

Hard-core Hitchcock fans don't necessarily like this collaboration (too brooding), but I think it holds up. He played only one song from it ("Full Moon in My Soul") at the gig I attended; I like that one well enough, but I think "Television" — the ultimate ode to the seductions of the medium — and "Flanagan's Song" are my favorites. Here they are:

Thursday, April 12, 2018

On the Cultivation of Mushrooms

Leonora Carrington:
I had received a royal summons to pay a call on the sovereigns of my country.

The invitation was made of lace, framing embossed letters of gold. There were also roses and swallows.

I went to fetch my car, but my chauffeur, who has no practical sense at all, had just buried it.

"I did it to grow mushrooms," he told me. "There's no better way of growing mushrooms."

"Brady," I said to him, "you're a complete idiot. You have ruined my car."
From "The Royal Summons," in The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington (Dorothy Project, 2017). Carrington, a British-born painter as well as the author of mischievous tales, was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist and actually was presented (though very much against her will) at the court of England's George V. She left the country at the first opportunity and spent most of her very long life in Mexico.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

On Friendship (Elena Poniatowska)

Elena Poniatowska's Leonora is a biographical novel that closely follows the eventful life of her longtime friend, the artist and writer Leonora Carrington, who, like Poniatowska, was European-born but Mexican by choice or accident. (Carrington died in 2011, aged 94, and Poniatowska, one of Mexico's most distinguished writers, is now in her mid-80s.) In the early 1940s, following the fall of France and a traumatic stay in a mental institution in Spain, Carrington migrated to New York City alongside a host of artistic luminaries, including her former lover Max Ernst, who by that time was romantically involved with the wealthy arts patron Peggy Guggenheim. Poniatowska's chapters covering this period are peppered with the familiar names of her fellow emigrés Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Luis Buñuel, and Marc Chagall, but the appearance of one name in particular caught my eye. Carrington and Ernst remain close, and often spend the day together exploring Manhattan. Poniatowska writes:
They wandered the shores of the Hudson, along which steamed long freighters that Bell Chevigny saw pass by from her window on Riverside Drive.
Chevigny is not otherwise identified, and in fact never mentioned again, but I recognized her name, because many years ago I took a college course taught by one Bell Chevigny, a literary scholar and the author of a biography of Margaret Fuller. She would have been a young girl in the 1940s, and as far as I know had no direct connection to Carrington and the surrealist exiles in New York. So what is she doing in the pages of Leonora? One of her other areas of interest is modern Latin American literature (as it happens, I translated a few pages for a book on the subject that she co-edited) and she and Poniatowska have apparently known each other for years. Perhaps Poniatowska remembered Chevigny telling her how the ships would pass by her family's window when she was a child, and slipped her name into the text by way of a friendly wink.

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Drue Heinz 1915-2018

Drue Heinz, the former publisher of Antaeus and the Paris Review, has died. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has a lengthy obit.

The past year or so has seen the deaths of two of my favorite writers, Charles Simmons and Harry Mathews (and no doubt others I've forgotten for the moment), as well as New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers. For better or worse, the literary and intellectual world I grew up in is dwindling to an end. Something will replace it (though not for me). Time moves on.

My appreciation of Antaeus can be found here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Black Dogs

Kaye Blegvad's Dog Years is an appealing self-published illustrated story about her lifelong battle with depression, personified as a black dog (an animal associated in folklore with various nefarious doings). It originally appeared in Buzzfeed last fall, and has been made available in a hardcover edition through a Kickstarter campaign and probably via her website. It only takes a few minutes to read, and is worth a look.

Curiously, I have a dog who resembles Blegvad's, except for some white markings — but my dog is quite literal. He's actually rather sweet, although he is a handful.

Fans of Peter Blegvad's comic strip Leviathan may possibly recognize a small stuffed rabbit in one of Kaye's panels.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Farewell, Liam

The great Irish piper Liam O'Flynn has died, according to RTÉ and other sources.

I owe my interest in Irish music directly to O'Flynn, whose uilleann piping on Planxty's "Sí Bheag, Sí Mhór" from their debut album released in 1973 caught my ear when I heard it on the old Pacifica Radio program Echoes from Tara.
With their long hair, Balkan time signatures, and exotic bouzoukis, Planxty were a fairly radical group within Irish music when they started out, but no matter how far they strayed O'Flynn was always there to give them trad cred. He once said, of his fiendishly difficult instrument:
The old pipers used to say that it takes twenty-one years to make a piper: seven years of learning, seven years of practicing and seven years of playing. I think there's a lot of truth to that because it's a complex instrument and requires a lot of co-ordination to play a tune. You're learning all the time.
Below is another clip of Liam and Planxty, from a reunion concert in 2004, with O'Flynn playing a set of pipes that formerly belonged to another great piper, Willie Clancy, as well a documentary from a few years back (mostly in Irish, with English subtitles).
Update: The New York Times now has a nice obituary of O'Flynn.

Saturday, March 10, 2018


Mario Vargas Llosa, on the composition of his 1969 novel Conversación en La Catedral, which is set in Peru during the dictatorship of Manuel Odría (1948-1956):
I knew that I wanted to write a novel about the dictatorship of Odría, which was more corrupt and corrupting than violent, although there was violence as well. The story that I wanted to tell was how a dictatorship of that nature infiltrates itself into private life in order to destroy relationships between parents and children, to destroy a vocation, to frustrate people. I wanted to show how a dictatorship winds up demoralizing even those who have a good core, who have natural decency. If a good person wants to advance in that world, he finds himself obliged to make moral, civic, and political concessions. I wanted to relate how that affected all levels of society: the oligarchy, the tiny middle-class sector, but also the popular sectors. I was interested in portraying a society in which political dictatorship has an effect on activities that are at the furthest remove from politics: family life, professional life, people's vocations. The political infects everything and creates a kind of deviation within the hearts of families and the citizens themselves that would never have existed without the corrupting force of political power.
The passage above is from Conversación en Princeton con Rubén Gallo, a book that presents a series of discussions carried out a few years ago between Vargas Llosa, Professor Rubén Gallo, and a group of Princeton University students. The bulk of the book is made up of detailed exchanges revolving around four of Vargas Llosa's novels and his memoir A Fish in the Water. The book was published in 2017 and hasn't appeared yet in English (it undoubtedly will at some point), so the above rough translation is mine.

Vargas Llosa, now in his eighties, has had a long career as a novelist, critic, and politician (he ran unsuccessfully for president of Peru in 1990), and there have been ups and downs along the way. All of that is a story for another day, but he remains intellectually a force to be reckoned with, even, or perhaps especially, when I think he is wrong.

Conversación en La Catedral, which is readily available in an imperfect but readable English version by Gregory Rabassa, is Vargas Llosa's third, and I believe longest, novel. There's no "cathedral," except as the name of a bar in Lima where the long conversation that serves as a framing device takes place. One party in this dialogue is Santiago Zavalla, a thirty-something déclassé journalist from an upper-middle-class family; the other is his family's former chauffeur, Ambrosio, whom he has just run into by chance. The narration is largely made up of an intricate web of flashbacks, and the characters range widely over Peru's social classes (though not its Quechua- or Aymara-speakers). Vargas Llosa deliberately uses techniques that keep the reader off-balance, interspersing scenes that take place years apart, sometimes in the same paragraph or sentence, so that seeming non sequiturs uttered in one chapter may not take on full significance until much later. The bewilderment the reader experiences, at least initially, is not unintended by the author, who has referred to the book as a rompecabezas: a jigsaw-puzzle. He has said that its writing caused him the most difficulty of any of his books, but it may well be his greatest achievement.