All posts by reflectionsonjapanesecultureblog

Raised in rural southern Minnesota, schooled at James Madison College, University of Arizona, University of Toronto, and Berkeley. Resident on Potrero Hill in San Francisco since 1982. Author or coauthor of 20+ books, including Looking Through Taiwan, Angkor Life, and An Introduction to African Cinema. The site with my postings is japaneseculturereflectionsblog. I would delete this empty site if I knew how!

Reading Arthur Schnitzler (I)

The German Library’s Arthur Schnitzler volume (1982) has a very odd foreword by Stanley Elkin in which Elkin asserts that Schnitzler (1862-1931) was a greater novelist than playwright. This is a foreword to a book with three plays and two novellas. Moreover, Schnitzler only wrote three novels.

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The longer of the novellas, “Casanova’s Homecoming” dates from 1918, when Schnitzler was 56 (and the world of Hapsburg Vienna that Schnitzler explored in his most famed works was crashing in defeat). Its Casanova is 53, and very aware of having lost any physical attractiveness. He remains seductive and there are women willing to lie with him (mostly again), but the young woman he wants, an irony-delivering mathematician named Marcolina easily wards off his flattery and overtures. She has a secret lover, a dashing Adonis of a cavalry officer, who is about to depart for war. Desperate for money to pay a gambling debt to the husband of a woman he has also been servicing, Lorenzi, sells his last night with Marcolina to the aged roué (though lying in wait to fight a duel after Casanova has had his way with Marcolina, who discovered the switch and was disgusted at the old body substituting for the young one).

Moreover, to get back to his native Venice, Casanova agrees to serve the elders of the city by spying on young freethinkers. What Schnitzler thinks of either of these dishonorable courses of conduct, I can’t tell. I feel sorry for his Casanova, but am appalled by both. Although it has struck me as a bit silly, I think it is better to get permission to take over someone’s wife than to trick the woman Casanova wants. Not that I can sympathize too much with Lorenzi, either, but in my view, Marcolina is raped in that she would not have consented to congress with Casanova, and, indeed, had refused any. (Schnitzler’s 1900 “Lt. Gustl” shows that he considered dueling silly, and he was something of a Casanova himself.)

I was interested that Schnitzler granted Casanova the grace to be concerned about his partners’ pleasures, not his own: “Casanova knew himself to be one whose rapture in a love relationship was a thousandfold greater when conferring pleasure rather than receiving it.”

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I went on to read Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Schntizler’s Das Weite Land (1911—“weite” means “vast”), Undiscovered Country (1980), in which an older philanderer also slays a handsome, young officer in a duel, even after the once-faithful wife (Genia) disdains duels as “foolish vanity defending a travestied honor.”

I think there are too many characters. The dialogue seems more Wilde than Schnitzler. I have to think that Stoppard added witty repartee to the characters and situations of Schnitzler’s play.

There are also two characters who love their cheating spouses, even if they engage in affairs of their own (like the marques in “Rules of the Game”). I didn’t remark on Casanova being at another country house party, albeit one on an estate owned by a non-aristocrat who has earned his fortune. Many of the characters in “Country” gather at an alpine resort, though most of the play is set in the yard (next to the tennis court) of the Hofreiter’s.

I’m more like Friedrich Hofreiter than like Casanova in my view of aging (14 years older than Schnitzler’s Casanova 11 years older than Schnitzler when he wrote it), what bothers is my paunch (something Schnitzler also had, though not triggered by protease inhibitors, as mine was).

F: It would be wonderful to be young again.

ADELE: You’ve been young quite long enough.

F: Yes, but I was young too soon—these things are so badly arranged. One ought to be young at 40 when you’d get something out of it.

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AND Schnitzler’s one-act play “Countess Mitzi” (1907) in which the title character, at home in a countryside villa, meets her father’s long-time mistress, Lolo, who is about to be married and has ended the affair, and Paul, her son whom she was forced to give up, but whose father is now acknowledging (and asking Mitzi to marry him, something he has done multiple times since his wife died). Two very long extramarital affairs and the young “natural” son of the prince who believes his mother is (1) dead and (2) was a commoner (though she was and is a countess).

Another discussion of aging:

COUNT: One grows old, Egon.

PRINCE: You get used to it…. At 55 the springtime of life is pretty well over. One gets resigned to it.

©2017, Stephen O, Murray

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Strange novel/document from the end of the life of Ludwig van Beethoven

It is well known that Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) was totally deaf in his last years. The title “Conversations with Beethoven” (2014) might then seem peculiar, but Sanford Friedman’s (1928-2010) novel posthumously published by New York Review Books is based on notepads on which visitors wrote messages to Beethoven.

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The master replied and only letters he dictated were written down. The conversations are, thus, pretty one-sided. Moreover, the reader does not know who wrote what. There are successions of questions and remarks that in print are generally impossible to attribute to one visitor or another, though Beethoven’s beloved nephew Karl (1805-58, whose father, Beethoven’s brother, died in 1895), whose future is the composer’s predominant concern— tied up with the second, money— are the primary concerns evident in the book.

At the start (July 1826) Karl has shot himself in the head. Surviving, he joins the Hapsburg army and his uncle uses his influence to get Karl aimed at being commissioned an officer, while deploring the choice of career.

The far-from-affluent composer is eager to keep Karl from ever seeing his mother and trying to ensure that she will not profit from his estate through her son. Near the end, Beethoven relents, asks her to come to see him, and apologizes. She gets the last word(s): an account of the death and funeral she sends to Karl who arrived too late for the funeral (in fact, Karl attended the funeral).

I found it impossible to keep reading every line, skimming through the disconnected jottings until the visit of Franz Schubert (1798-1828) and the soon following visit of Johanna, Karl’s mother, and her lengthy letter to Karl.

I don’t know how much Friedman (1928-2010) took over from the surviving notebooks, how much he invented. (NYRB has also reprinted Friedman’s 1965 novel Totempole, which I read and admired once upon a time (not on its initial publication. Friedman wrote a number of plays in his youth as the brief introduction to this book by Richard Howard mentions twice.)

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Karl in the only known portrait, dating from 1806. He survived long enough to produce a son, who emigrated to Michigan, btw.

Rating: 3.2/5

Pros: last parts

Cons: confusing, not knowing who wrote what, lack of Ludwig’s side of “conversations”

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Vienna bike-messenger go-between

Despite what I consider excessive graphic violence, I thought that Stefan Ruzowitzky’s 2012 movie “Deadfall” starring Eric Bana was interesting. Among other facets, it includes the tensest “traditional” Thanksgiving dinner I’ve ever seen (onscreen or off). Ruzowitzky’s 2007 “The Counterfeiters” was much acclaimed and won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. His 1996 movie “Tempo,” which was his first feature-length film, focuses on Jojo (Xaver Hutter), a heavily fantasizing 17-year-old high school dropout who has moved to Vienna and become a bicycle messenger, rooming with another bicycle messenger not long out of reformatory, Bastian (Simon Schwarz).

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A lot of screentime is occupied by Jojo’s fantasies about being interviewed on tv (MTV?) about his (s)exploits. He is, and, I think, remains a virgin, though fantasizing about being seduced by Clarissa (Nicolette Krebitz) to whom he delivers a rose and a package from Bernd (Dani Levy) most days. Jojo imagines Bernd and Clarissa have a grand passion. Eventually, he is shocked and disenchanted (as was “The Go-Between”).

At the start of the movie, the distinction between what is his prosaic life and what is fantasy is clear (as in “Billy Liar”), but the line becomes blurrier and blurrier until what seems to be really happening is more surreal than his fantasies. I think that makes the movie sound more interesting than it is, alas.

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Though tongue-tied around women, Jojo is positively garrulous in his fantasies, especially those involving tv interviews. I find Bernd more interesting than Jojo (or Bastian or Clarissa), though not interesting enough to carry the movie.

Rating:2.8/5

Pros:Bernd and Clarissa

Cons: Jojo and his fantasy life

©2015, Stephen O. Murray

Lonely adults in the Kunsthistoriches: “Museum Hours” (2012)

I wanted to watch the 2012 movie written and directed by Jem Cohen, “Museum Hours,” primarily because it was mostly shot in Vienna’s Kunsthistoriches Museum, one of the world’s great art collection.The movie made me glad that I have never visited Vienna in winter. The sky is gray in every scene shot outside the museum in the movie, and there is often haze/fog. rather than the golden light for which Vienna is famed.

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Still, I was interested in the shots of Vienna as well as of art in the great museum that inherited the Hapsburg art collection, including a Vermeer and a whole room of Breughels. I was totally uninterested in what the Montréal visitor, Anne (Mary Margaret O’Hara), sang, and, indeed in her character. She frequents the museum while ostensibly there to visit a cousin in a coma in St. Josef Hospital.

A sixty-something guard in the museum, Johann (Bobby Sommer). Is kind to her, and they have coffees and beers together in addition to his accompanying her to look at her inert cousin. The best part of the movie for me was docent Gerda Pachner (Ela Piplits) providing an unorthodox perspective on Pieter Breughel’s “The Conversion of Paul” (ca. 1567 [below]), though I have difficulty believing it would be delivered (in English) to a group of ordinary tourists. (I agree with her that the rear of a horse is an incongruous focus, both very large and close to the center of the painting, and that it is difficult to find Saul/Paul on a very un-Syrian road in the busy painting.)

There is very minimal development of the two main characters, neither of whom has much of a life, and no plot. Maybe the movie was too subtle for me, though I found the last part in which some scenes of the current city were analyzed as paintings are was very unsubtle in trying to relativize the notion of priceless masterpieces.

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I felt that many shots (not those of artworks) were held too long and was bored by the 107-minute movie as a movie, though it supplemented my visit by showing stuff in the Egyptian collection (I skipped it, the movie skips the Roman sculpture that I did spend some time examining).

The Blu-Ray includes Cohen shorts, Amber City, Museum (Visiting the Unknown Ma), Anne Truitt, Working, and Museum (Visiting the Unknown Man), which run 48, 13, and 8 minutes, respectively) and two trailers.

Rating:2.8/5

Pros: art

Cons: pace, O’Hara’s character

©2014, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Breathing/Atmen

Eighteen- (or nineteen-) year-old Roman Kogler (Thomas Schubert), the young Austrian protagonist of Karl Markovics’s 2011 “Atmen” (Breathing) is very close-mouthed, if not quite catatonic, through much of the movie. He is incarcerated for murder in a juvenile detention facility, shunned by the other young men for reasons I didn’t catch (if they were alluded to in the movie). The others wait for him to swim his laps before playing water polo in scenes that show off Schubert’s physique in a swimming suit.

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Roman is not going to be paroled without having a job, and has failed to hold a series of placements. Despite the hostility of some coworkers and a repugnance for touching corpses, he gradually assimilates to a job picking up corpses for a funeral home.

The corpse of a woman in her late-30s named Kogler (and unclaimed by any relative) makes Roman curious about her mother, who gave him up to the first of the institutions in which he has spent almost all of his life when he was an infant. Being a movie, the viewer can be certain that he will find her (Karin Lischka plays the role quite well), though how she will react is less determine by the genre of searching for a parent.

The pace, especially during the first half half, is a bit slow and Roman a bit affectless (for reasons that are easy to understand), but he engaged my interest more than Jojo did. Roman has a social worker (played by Gerhard Liebmann) determinedly on his side.

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The tourist Vienna that I know is invisible in both movies, except for the skyline visible from a cemetery in the last scene of “Breathing,” and the light used by DP is quite cold (not at all gemütlich) and there are no pastry confections on view in either film. And most of the scenes are filmed from some distance (mid-shots rather than long-shots or closeups, for the most part). “Breathing” is not just devoid of violence (apart from what is recalled at the parole hearing in which a video of the numb boy at the time of his arrest is played) but very restrained as Roman submits to indignities about which he can do nothing. If he fantasizes about sex and popular acclaim, this is not visible in the film. (And there is no freeze-frame at the end, as in “400 Blows.”)

Bonus features on the Koch Lorber DVD of “Breathing” are limited to a theatrical trailer and a “stills gallery” (typically barebones for KL).

Rating: 3.5/5

Pros: eventually becomes interesting

Cons: slow and opaque start

©2015, Stephen O. Murray

 

A new collection of often harrowing, sometimes very funny stories by Josip Novakovich

I think that Croatian-Canadian author Josip Novakovich (1956-) is the greatest living writer of short stories. He has also published powerful collections of essays and what I consider The Great Croatian Novel, April Fool’s Day.

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This high esteem does not mean that I like everything he writes. Indeed, I hated the last story in his 2017 collection Heritage of Smoke, “In the Same Boat,” the only one not set in Europe or North America (but on the Pacific Ocean south of the US/Mexico border). And I didn’t much like the penultimate story, ‘Remote Love,” which centers on inventor Nikola Tesla (1856-1943), who was born in a Serbian village in what is now Croatia (but then was part of the Hapsburg/Austro-Hungarian Empire), attended high school in German in Karlovac, which is also now in Croatia, moved on to Vienna, Prague, and, eventually New York, where Novakovich’s story is set.

Enough about stories I disliked. I think that “Acorns” is a great work, centering on a UN translator who is disgusted by the complicity with Serbian genocide of the UN “peacekeepers,” has very harrowing adventures as a prisoner of a Serbian unit, and after finding her husband who has come searching for, spends months in a Bosnian unit. Living in the aftermath of rape is one important aspect of the story—not just for Ana.

The title story, which centers on an unexpected inheritance is the funniest story in the collection. The humor is not entirely dark, as, for instance that in “White Mustache” is. It recalls brothers who were swept up (drafted) by opposing forces during WWII, the fascist Utashas who outdid the Nazis in atrocities, and the anti-fascist partisans (chetniks). Both militias forced young men into their ranks (as later, in El Salvador). Let’s say that the narrator learns why his elderly relatives believe in ghosts…

“Be Patient” in which a child is overdosed with experimental (American) measles vaccine and gets her wish to adopt a dog only posthumously. “Dutch Treat” is an example of the maxim “No good deed goes unpunished,” when a Dutchman named Martin who had been among the UN “peacekeepers” unknowingly aided Serbians (Army of Srpska) to massacre Croatians at Srebrinca in 1995. In New York City he meets a man who remembers him from there and then. His aid gets him in very serious trouble in NYC.

“When the Saints Come” is more typical American short story fare about the dissolution of a marriage, though set mostly in Jerusalem. “Eclipse Near Golgotha” goes back the crucifixion of Christ, focusing on the unrepentant thief crucified beside Jesus. “The Wanderer” grew up in East Jerusalem and passes through Croatia.

“Strings” is a mock-heroic tale of multi-ethnic (Russian, Swiss-French, Croatian) students exterminating a rat. Soccer hooliganism provides a background for some more very dark humor in Ideal Goalie” and the sardonic, surprising “Crossbar,” which also involved grizzly bears given the Zagreb zoo by (Clinton-era) America.

There is a lot of displacement, a lot of wariness, more than a little violence in Novakovich’s stories. Though disdaining any objective history, the characters (OK, especially the Serbian ones) nourish ancient grudges against “Turks,” which they take out on Bosnian Muslims. (Bosnians converted to Islam during Ottoman times, but were not Turks.) This has continued with Albanian Kosovars (the vast majority of the people in Kosovo, though Serbs used to dominating everyone else within the Yugoslavia they claim to perpetuate as one region after another breaks loose).

Though I recommend stopping at page 182, there are alternately horrifying and moving stories before that point. In particular, I think that “Acorns” should have a very wide readership, by no means limited to those interested in what happened in Bosnia, since similar things continue to happen in “civil wars” in various places.

(BTW, after many years teaching in the US, the author of Shopping for a Better Country  moved on to Concordia University in Montréal in 2009.)

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Macedonian stories

Though a great admirer of the Macedonian film “Before the Rain,” I have to say that I had never given even a passing thought to Macdonian literature until I picked up Faceless Men and Other Macedonian Stories by Meto Jovanovksi (1928-2016. The collection of English translations of a dozen Jovanovski was published in 1992, before the implosion of Yugoslavia. Indeed, the stories must have been written in a Yugoslavia that was communist.

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(Bitola, the closest city to Jovanovski’s home village of Braychino; photo by Dars, CC)

The story most explicit about the old communist regime is “The President of the Central Committee.” The titular character is obsessing about a case of a minor crime, while his insides are rotting.

“A Completely Loyal Citizen” is set in a system of acute irrationality, not specifically named as communism. What happens in it is likely to appall most tender-hearted western readers. Memorable, it certainly is.

The longest story, “The Balkans are an Ocean” is a picaresque tale of two Macedonians and various armies during the First World War. It prefigures his picaresque novel (available in English) Cousins, about the misadventures of a pair of cousins through various warring Balkan countries.

“Faceless Men” is a horror story that did nothing to interest me. For me “A Completely Loyal Citizen” is also a horror story, one that made me wince.

There are two stories with folklore resonances: “Flight to Eternity” and “Tote’s Finest Story.” “Marriage is a Need for a Man” is very rooted in the traditional Balkan rural mindset.

The first and the last stories in the collection, “The Man in the Blue Suit” and “The Red Bus” both involve busses during communist times. Both have mysterious well-dressed strangers disrupting everyday life (milling while waiting for the bus, and the strict hierarchy of seating that the stranger upends on the red bus. (The settings of these two stories are more urban than those of many of the others.)

Jovanovski was exploring the notion of Macedonia as a country with its own culture. He said he was influenced by American writers, specifically Hemingway, Faulkner and [Erskine] Caldwell.

Jeffrey Folks, who translated ten of the twelve stories, wrote in his introduction:

“Jovanovski likes in Skopje [the capital city] for much of the year, retreating to his ancestral village of Braychino in the summer monts. As with many Macednonians of his generation, he retains memories of the village life, and his moral vision is shapted to some extent by a traditionalism based on village mores [especially in “Marriage is a Need for a Man, the title of which is axiomatic there]. There is a dissatisfaction with the direction of ‘modern’ life and a longing to return to more meaningful relationships based on community and family.”

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray