Special Summer Issue: Books, Music, Films
by Peter Byrne
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(Swans - July 30, 2012)
Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce
Joyce opened the door for me to modern writing and I see no one who has caught up to him yet. I never tire of Dublin bar talk or of following Stephen Dedalus and Poldy Bloom as they stagger through the streets of the city's Night Town. This is the desert island book par excellence. An academic Robinson Crusoe could use it to prepare his lectures on world literature, work out its puzzles for amusement, and just sing along with it when weary.
Serenade (1937), by James M. Caine
Caine, in his hard-boiled 1930s vein, mixed high art -- he was an operatic tenor -- with pulp fiction, a cocktail I find irresistible. The book offers material for a study of American homophobia. The singer loses his voice because of a dalliance with another male, but regains it in the arms of a Mexican female. His improvising of a meal for her in a deserted church -- iguana steak and altar wine -- is a wonder of Yankee invention.
Murphy (1938), by Samuel Beckett
Beckett, exceptionally, wrote his down-and-out-in-London novel in English, not first in French as he did most of his subsequent work. It intrigues me to see how his view changes as he changes languages. The prose shimmers with hilarious pessimism as the author's alter ego seeks peace of a sort as an attendant in a lunatic asylum. The novel bore a real-life curse, most copies being destroyed by a German bomb dropped on London.
Venises (1971), by Paul Morand (Venices translated by Euan Cameron, Pushkin Press)
Living in Venice I found its greatest monuments to be the books aficionados had written about the city, including this lush tribute with a 1920s perfume of decadence by an author who had cast his lot with Vichy. I think of it as "A Snooty Frenchman's Venice, 1906-1971." It's worth looking into if only for Morand's sarcasm directed at photo-snapping tourists, "These Leicas, these Zeiss; do people no longer have eyes?"
Un Captif Amoureux (1986), by Jean Genet (Prisoner of Love translated by Barbara Bray, New York Review of Books)
I knew Genet to be the boldest playwright in France, but was surprised to learn he turned his back on the theatre in his last years to share the life of the Palestinians, as related in this strangely fragmented memoir. The sight of the corpses at Sabra and Shatila changed him forever. Abandoned child, despised homosexual, convict, pill-popper, he found losers more worthy of friendship than winners.
Soul of a Man (1930), by Blind Willie Johnson
Blind Willie sang the kind of blues that I feel ought to be sung in church: They are eschatological. He is as far from where the blues were to travel as the The Book of Genesis from Lolita. Lou Reed and Mick Jagger can fill an empty hour, but dirt-on-the-boots, behind-the-plow blues can ease our pain. Somebody took the wrong turn at the crossroads. Let's double back and take the other fork.
A Love Supreme (1964), by John Coltrane
Coltrane the jazz saxophonist was also a composer. Like bluesman Blind Willie, he was an icon for me of the only two art forms that North American gave the world. The naïve affirmation of Coltrane's A Love Supreme still shivers my timbers while I tell myself that his mystical aspirations are a blind alley in the ghetto. Still, jazz like every other community needs its winged saints as well as its drug-fueled martyrs.
Blue Valentine (1978), by Tom Waits
Tom Waits was a genuine poet when that title was being awarded undeservedly to monotonous pluckers like Bob Dylan. Waits's genius is dramatic. His albums are an assortment of playlets, a different character starring in each number. In this he resembles the great French singing dramatist Léo Ferré, but with a different approach to his mother tongue. Waits dozes, last man in the bar, while Ferré talks militancy to the copains.
Les Indispensables de Léo Ferré (1988), Léo Ferré
Ferré demonstrates the respect the French have for their language. Each of his numbers is a different one-off drama, as diverse from the last as one Shakespeare play from the other. He was an active anarchist and you can hear it in his voice. He set to music and sang the poètes maudits from François Villon to Guillaume Apollinaire. To hear him interpret the latter's Le Pont Mirabeau is to return to an eternal Paris.
Lotte Lenya Sings Kurt Weill (1957-1962 recordings remastered, and released in 1999), songs by Kurt Weill, vocals by Lotte Lenya
When Lotte Lenya sings Kurt Weill I understand what the Weimar Republic was all about. When she sings Moritat vom Mackie Messer, it's not at all like Louis Armstrong's charming Mack the Knife. Lenya is telling me what Bert Brecht was like before ideology got on top of him. She is telling me what it meant to grow up working-class in Vienna and to land unattached in Berlin in 1921.
Boudu sauvé des eaux (1932), Boudu Saved From Drowning by Jean Renoir
This sprinkle of Popular Front irony from France's greatest filmmaker gave the historian in me a last look at French joy before darkness came to the Republic with Vichy. A bourgeois rescues a tramp from the Seine, who quickly takes over his home, wife, and daughter. The superb and slightly sinister anarchist Michel Simon plays the tramp, Boudu. Coming suddenly into money and threatened by a bourgeois existence, Boudu prefers to go tramping again.
Monsieur Verdoux (1947), by Charles Chaplin
When Hollywood accused him of thought crimes and Washington gave him the bum's rush, Charlie sloughed off American sentimentality and portrayed a fussy serial killer who pleads he's no more criminal than patriotic warmongers. Out of his tramp outfit and in a suit, he reminded me that it wasn't the hoboes who organized international slaughter. The killer in ecstasy smelling a rose could have inspired Hannah Arendt.
Il Bidone (1955), The Swindlers by Federico Fellini
I laughed at the con-man on the skids while feeling he was a genuine tragic figure of the everyday variety. An addiction to scamming and self-disgust bear him to what we know will be a lonely death. The Maestro's fantasy has not yet fully bloomed and the story remains close to the ground. The Fellini touch was to make the characters lighter than air, resembling themes that come and go in a piece of music.
Chimes at Midnight (1965, restored in 2006), by Orson Welles
The exiled Orson Welles still strikes me as an American we can be very proud of, a Wisconsin wunderkind whose sophistication as an artist makes his Hollywood critics look like hicks from the boondocks. He cobbled together this masterful tribute to Shakespeare's liveliest creatures over decades in various parts of Europe whenever he could come up with the money. I never tire of watching his lucky Falstaff dying in the arms of Jeanne Moreau.
King Lear (1971), play by William Shakespeare, directed by Peter Brook
The landmark stage production of the 1960s had been my most intense theatrical experience. The movie is, of course, more than a film of that performance, but it does preserve Brook's bold take on the play and let Paul Scofield repeat his role as the most sensitive Lear I've ever seen. This controversial gem of our most prestigious man of the theatre demands re-seeing and pondering.
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