Mahler in the Time of Pandemic

I listened today to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” from the Mahler Festival in Amsterdam. It was an online broadcast of a Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performance from 2016. The scheduled live performances of the 2020 Mahler Festival have all been cancelled during these catastrophic early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

The notes from the Mahler Festival website include the following:

“In August 1892 a cholera epidemic struck Hamburg as Mahler was on his way there to conduct another season at the Stadttheater. Faced with possibly drastic consequences and defying orders that he return to his workplace, he decided to retreat to his summer vacation spot in Berchtesgaden until the worst was over.

Faced with a pandemic affecting all of us, we, too, must act prudently, so it is both understandable and very sad that the Mahler Festival 2020 cannot take place as scheduled this May. Mahler Foundation has worked hard to support Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam in preparing this celebration of Mahler’s life and works.

Our thoughts go out to all of the musicians and organizers and to all of you.

Mahler survived the crisis and shortly thereafter set to work on his next creation: The Resurrection Symphony (Symphony No. 2).”

The performance broadcast was preceded by a short documentary “Death and Resurrection” about Mahler’s writing of his Symphony No. 2. The much-beloved mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman, much-mourned since her death in September 2019, sang in The Resurrection Symphony many times. In the documentary, she comments that in his text, “Mahler speaks from the depths …,” and then quotes from Mahler’s text: “Humankind is in trouble … we have an emergency … we live in pain …” How prescient were her words given our current context.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 resonates deeply with me.

In early 1977, my partner Bill was in hospital, six months after we had first met, fallen in love, and started living together. Bill was in hospital because of severe pain and mobility difficulties that had arisen and now he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. One day in the depths of that dark winter as I waited to go to the hospital, I put on our LP recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin and with mezzo-soprano Maureen Forrester and soprano Kathleen Battle. I conducted the 90-minute symphony through tears.

It was at that time a profoundly moving work of art for me and has remained so throughout my life.

Bill died suddenly of pancreatic cancer in August 2009, two short weeks after he had been diagnosed. I wrote a memoir “August Farewell – the last sixteen days of a thirty-three-year romance” that chronicled those two weeks. I followed that up with a novel “Searching for Gilead” that is half fiction and half semi-fictionalised autobiography in which Tom, the narrator, and Jonathan, his partner, endure a series of family tragedies over the course of their long relationship culminating in Jonathan’s death.

The novel concludes with an epilogue in which Tom attends a concert of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 performed by the Toronto Symphony under the direction of Peter Oundjian, a concert that I attended in real life in September 2010, a year after Bill’s death. In the novel, Jonathan has recently died and Tom’s grief is all-consuming. During the concert, Tom hallucinates a conversation with Gustav Mahler. The words that Mahler speaks in this dialogue with Tom are drawn from Mahler’s own writings in which he spoke about aspects of Symphony No. 2 and what he had in mind for the various movements.

After listening to the broadcast of Symphony No. 2 from the Mahler Festival today, I went back and reread the epilogue from “Searching for Gilead.”

I’ve heard many performances and recordings of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 over the years. It moved me deeply in 1977 as I waited to visit Bill in the hospital, it moved me when I attended the TSO performance in 2010 as I was working on “Searching for Gilead”, and it moved me again today listening to it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

* * *

Searching for Gilead

Epilogue

Are you sure that you are up for this, Mein Freund?

            The unfamiliar voice and the presumptuous question startle me. Irritated, I glance around, having been interrupted as I perused the program notes for the opening concert of the Toronto Symphony’s fall season.

The seat beside me at Roy Thomson Hall—Jonathan’s—is vacant. I could have offered it to someone. As much as I love Sheila, I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate her chatter. Not on this, my first time back to a TSO concert since his death in March. Carolyn and Wajdi are in Kabul for a brief visit with their film crew. Margaret is at home with Walter. There is no one else in my life, no one close enough to invite into this intimate time and space.

For the past six months, I have found solace only in solitude. Tonight will be no different.

The other long-term subscribers who usually sit around us have not yet arrived. They are probably lingering over dessert and coffee at the opening night patrons’ dinner next door. I had made an early, discrete exit, exhausted by the condolences from acquaintances who hadn’t seen me since the funeral and by the effort that it took to lie in response to the inevitable “How are you doing?”

The Kitteralls take their seats in the row ahead. Jonas and Babs smile at me, nod, and then, thankfully, leave me in peace.

I turn back to the booklet to pick up where I had left off.

Interesting piece of programming for you, all things considered. I called the first movement Todtenfeier. Jonathan, being the fine German scholar that he was, could have told you what that is. It means funeral rites.

I stare at the page. Mahler isn’t looking directly back at me but rather off to the right—his left. Wireless glasses, much like my own, rest on his nose. The artist’s rendering makes him appear more serene than actual photographs of him in the 1890s, and younger looking than the thirty-four years he was when he completed the Second Symphony. The mouth forms too much of a smile in the drawing, but the eyes are good. Tense. Brooding. Windows of the soul.

Shuffling sounds around me indicate the arrival of the almost-latecomers. The lights dim. I close the program booklet and drop it onto the floor. I shake my head vigorously back and forth a couple times and bring one hand up to my face to stretch the skin around my eyes, strategies for waking myself up from whatever this was.

Peter Oundjian stands with his hands clasped in front of his waist and pauses, head bowed, letting the murmuring in the hall subside. When all is quiet, he slowly raises both arms to shoulder height.

With a taut, almost imperceptible jerk of his wrists, a crevice breaks open—a kilometre wide and a universe deep.

 

The violins and violas pounce on to a fortissimo G. Not a vibrant G of a major key but a menacing G from the depths of C minor. C for Compton. Minor—not in stature but in tangibility. Immediately, a tremolo to pianissimo. I hover above the abyss, weightless, shuddering.

I am knocked off balance by the sudden growl of cellos and basses. A run of five-sixteenth notes, including one strategic accidental. Aggressively triple forte. Then repeated fortissimo, elaborated in length, with more accidentals, transforming into triplets at a diminishing volume until they reach pianissimo. All the while backdropped by the vaporous, shimmering violins and violas, neither light angelic, nor dark demonic. Just watching, waiting, guarded, intimidating.

For seventeen bars. Half the number of years we had been together. Capturing the essence of my precariousness. Nothing to grab a hold of. Vulnerable to plummeting. But somehow, not plummeting. Caught. Suspended. Somewhere.

The oboes and English horns place a sliver of stability under foot. Piano. Not insecurely, deliberately, self-confidently. Quietly posing the questions, giving no answers.

Like the, ‘Is there life after death?’ that is whispered in my ear. He is back. Or hasn’t left.

If I believe my lecture to Jonathan on his death bed about love and memory, I should be less distressed than I am. Regretfully, the platitudes have lost their vibrancy. “He’ll live on in your heart.” “You’ll be comforted by all your wonderful memories.” Like hell. My memories serve not to comfort. Rather, they reinforce how much I have lost.

            I was missing a person who I loved deeply too, when I wrote this. Hear those plaintive horns, rising with ever increasing intensity, and those repeated chords crashing one after another? I was standing by his coffin, trying to make sense of his life with all its struggles, passions, and aspirations. I kept asking myself, ‘What now? What is this life and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it?’

Well, Gustav, old man, don’t look to me for answers. I have a question of my own.

Where is that balm of Gilead to make our wounds whole, to heal our sickened souls?

 

Peter Oundjian takes what seems an extended pause after the climactic conclusion to the first movement.

            I like this. I had originally decreed a five-minute break between the first and second movements to allow the audience to make the transition.

Well, I think that would be a bit excessive for the modern concertgoer.

            It’s important that one not be in such a rush that you miss out on life’s essence.

I chuckle. Oops. Did I do that out loud? Babs turns around and gives me a modestly scolding glance. Now look at what you made me do. I was laughing about your ‘life’s essence’ remark. From what I understand, you indulged quite a bit in life’s essences with your tempestuous love affairs.

            And what of it? My time with my various mistresses was full of life and vibrancy and excitement, as well as the drama and heartache. But Mein Freund, let your mind wander as the orchestra plays the second movement. It is so light and graceful and exuberant. Think back. You must surely have had the experience of burying someone who was very dear to you, and then, as you leave the gravesite, you remember some long forgotten experiences of shared happiness, and it is as if a sunbeam sweeps into your soul, obliterating, for a moment, the reality of what you’ve just been through.

Peter brings up his baton. I close my eyes. The strings begin delicately. Three-quarter time, a quiet, affectionate waltz. I smile as the music evokes candlelight and laughter, as at a party in a Jane Austen novel.

And then a succession of other images flood in.

 

  • Snuggled together in our cabin suite, we watched the sun set over Venice as the Orient Express pulled out of the station. After dressing into our tuxedos, we were ready for dinner. Just as we came out of our compartment, the train lurched slightly to the side. Jonathan caught me and gave me a gratuitous squeeze. We made our way through the bar car, where Jean-Jacques winked at us as he played “Misty” on the grand piano. Andreas met us at the dining car entrance, greeted us with a warm smile and a ‘Buona sera, i signori,’ escorted us to our table, held our chairs as we sat down, and then handed us the evening’s menu. To the annoyance of a couple across the aisle that seemed anxious to use us as their audience, Jonathan and I secluded ourselves in our own romantic bubble, conversing softly, laughing regularly, and making our way through several bottles of fine wine with the various courses. We finished dinner just shy of midnight, and we headed back to our cabin. Once inside, I pressed the steward button. Vincenzo tapped lightly. I opened the door and gave him an order for two cognacs. Some considerable time later, I slipped out from Jonathan’s sleeping embrace and into my own bed.

 

  • Margaret and I smiled at each other as we simultaneously noticed Jeremy pacing with nervous excitement outside the front door of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He ran toward us and grabbed hold of Margaret’s arm, almost throwing her off balance as he rushed her through the front door. We were surprised when he led us, at breakneck speed, not toward the exhibition of new contemporary Canadian art where his The Kiss was on display, but instead into a smaller room of recent Aboriginal acquisitions. With laughter and tears intermingled and with arms flapping hysterically, he jumped and skipped in front of the vibrant Norvel Morrisseau painting, Self-Portrait—Devoured by His Demons, extolling to us his unfettered ecstasy at the passion that it exuded.

 

  • The rain kept us inside the tent playing cards. Eventually, Patricia, Carolyn, and I were sufficiently exhausted to be persuaded to bed with only modest protests. About two o’clock in the morning, a horrendous crash jarred all of us awake, stupefying Mom and Dad and terrifying us kids. Hours worth of rainwater had accumulated in the sagging roof of the add-on, eventually reaching a weight that overwhelmed the aluminium poles holding it erect. The supports gave way, and the mini-lake exploded down onto our doorstep, with more than a little water seeping in through the zippered front flap. We slept for the rest of the night in the car, initially somewhat traumatized, but by morning, we were quite thrilled by the unexpected addition to our summer camping adventure.

 

            Sweet memories, Tom.

Yes. You are right, Gustav. Thank you for that.

 

The timpani reverberates into my reveries like a crash of thunder.

            Sorry. I feel compelled to awaken you from that blissful dreaming and force you to return to this tangled life of ours.

The jarring introduction to the third movement progresses into a sweeping series of orchestral waves, some of which appear lighthearted and others of which exude robust energy. But there is something untrustworthy going on, an ominousness disguised as innocence.

            It may easily happen that the surge of life, ceaselessly in motion, never resting, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like the billowing, dancing figures in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from outside, in the dark—and from a distance so great that you can no longer hear the music. Then the turning and twisting movement of the couples seems senseless. You must imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and his happiness, the world looks like this—distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror. Life becomes meaningless. He despairs of himself and of God, losing the firm footing that only love affords. He cries out in a scream of anguish.

You’re preaching to the choir here. ‘Life becoming meaningless’—that’s my theme song these days. It’s not only the personal losses.

I dedicated my career to trying to make the world a better place and to reduce suffering. So little to show for all the effort. Emissions keep on racing higher …

The orchestra is barreling along at an ever more frenetic pace, the brass pushing the adrenalin to almost intolerable levels. Shrill, acerbic sounds pierce through the hall.

… and really, my professional despair is not for myself. I’ve got a roof over my head. But what about those millions of poor whose roofs are being blown off, whose fields are becoming deserts, whose lives are now all about searching for scarce water or fleeing the raging cascades of too much?

            You’re asking, ‘Why did I live? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke? Do our lives have a meaning?’

A climax is reached. A progression of repeated, exhausted, descending chromatic scales reduce the volume and tempo until one sole horn stands alone, quietly holding a muted and dissipating note.

Damn, I’m tired. You’re right, Gustav. I am despairing of myself and of God. Where, by the way, is he in all of this? When are we going to see some evidence that he does give a damn about “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”?

I’m tired.

 

The program says Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano. With my sincere apologies to you, Susan, I’m not hearing you. I seem to be channeling Big Mo.

Maureen Forrester, contralto.

The stillness in the hall is riveting as the fourth movement begins. The whispered voice, making an ineffably sublime entrance, lays the opening phrase on our hearts, like someone placing a rose ever so gently on the coffin of a lover. A two-beat rest. Muted brass enter softly and play a melody with the most luxurious, choral-like harmony.

            Thank you.

Maureen/Susan re-emerges with slightly increased volume, yet the same intense, understated emotion. The beauty is of such intensity that I’m hardly able to breath.

Do you understand …?

Yes, you don’t have to translate. “Man lies in deepest need. Man lies in deepest pain.”

            And we do. I did. Now you do.

An oboe solo brings the first stanza to a serene conclusion.

A quickened tempo shifts the atmospherics toward a sort of pastoral light and then into an affirmation, composed and sung not just to express hope but also to assert a seemingly unequivocal conviction of heart and mind.

That’s right. Ich bin von Gott und will weider zu Gott.

I am breathing again, not from an infusion of oxygen, but to placate my consternation.

How can you write that when you’re not particularly religious? “I am from God and will return to God.” Do you believe that?

            Well … it is the actual text of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn …

So, you’re just using it for artistic purposes. You don’t really believe it.

I didn’t say that. I do believe in God … I guess, though I’m just not sure who or what God is …

But this profession of faith in God in the fourth movement is at such odds with the angst of the tortured soul in everything that has preceded it in the symphony. Is it that simple? You just say that you believe in God and eternal life and all the existential and spiritual questions are suddenly resolved? Give me a break.

            We’re not done yet.

 

Gustav is right. The tranquility of the fourth movement is blown apart by the crashing, cacophonous opening of the fifth and final movement. People around me jump. Just as unexpectedly, the bravura fades into a complex and extended orchestral passage, initially very quiet and then giving way to full-bodied dynamism. Throughout both the soft and the blaring moments, there is an ethos of otherworldliness. At times, some of the brass is literally distant, playing offstage, their notes emerging as if from some far-off place. Eventually, the instrumentation resolves down to only a few horns, a flute, and a piccolo, offering a quiet and mystical fanfare. Leading to what?

Initially unaccompanied, the mass choir enters stunningly, at a whisper, with a prayerful interpretation of a resurrection-themed text. Gradually and gently, the orchestra, starting with strings, undergirds them as they give voice to a faith in the surety of immortal life.

            I discovered that text quite unexpectedly. I was struggling with how to bring the symphony to a satisfying culmination when I attended a memorial service for my sometimes-mentor, sometimes-antagonist, the composer Hans von Bülow, who had died in Cairo on January 12, 1894. At the memorial service held for him in Hamburg a couple months later, a children’s chorus sang a very moving hymn using this text by Friedrich Klopstock. I knew, then and there, that this text gave me the solution to my dilemma about how to conclude the symphony.

Gustav, your musical accompaniment for it is so incredibly beautiful …

            But?

You may have been able to resolve your compositional dilemma, but I can’t as easily resolve my spiritual dilemmas.

            We’re not done yet.

You said that before.

Listen now, my dear Tom, to the conclusion of the symphony, starting with this alto solo, then the lines by the soprano, and then the final two stanzas by the full chorus. This is no longer Klopstock’s poem. I wrote this text myself. I know it’s not the rigid, traditional theological interpretation. But it’s where I was at that moment in my life.

I am back in the here and now. Maureen Forrester is gone, laid to rest herself in June, three months after Jonathan. Now, sitting in Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday, September 23, 2010, I hear the actual corporeal voices of Susan Platts and Isabel Bayrakdarian, under the baton of Peter Oundjian:

 

O believe, my heart, O believe:

Nothing is lost with thee!

Thine is what thou hast desired!

What thou hast loved,

What thou hast fought for!

 

O believe,

Thou wert not born in vain!

Hast not lived in vain,

Suffered in vain!

 

What has come into being

Must perish!

What has perished must rise again!

Cease from trembling!

Prepare thyself to live!

 

O Pain, thou piercer of all things!

From thee have I been wrested!

O Death! Thou masterer of all things!

Now art thou mastered!

 

With wings which I have won me,

In love’s fierce striving,

I shall soar upwards

to the light to which no eye has soared!

I shall die, to live!

 

Rise again, yea thou wilt rise again,

My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!

What thou has fought for

Shall lead thee to God!

 

The audience is on its feet applauding. I sit and stare straight ahead.

Auf wiedersehen, Mein Freund.

 

The steward, a small pile of discarded programs in her hands, stands for a few moments at the end of my row. Everyone else has left.

She coughs, quietly.

When I don’t look up, she says, softly and apologetically, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

I nod and get up, holding onto the back of my chair for balance.

As I walk up the stairs to the exit door, I pause, turn around, and take one more look at the dark, deserted stage.

I am not the one leaving.

I am the one who has been left.

And left with a shattered heart.

A heart, which, I hope and pray, ‘wilt rise again’. Someday.

I walk down through the lobby and out into the night air.

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The Paradox of Music in Times of Isolation – comforting yet prodding our grief

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

In these days, weeks, and months of isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, music is playing a key role in comforting us as we struggle with our fears, our loneliness, and our depression.

But ironically, it can also provoke pain. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

For musicians, as therapeutic as it might be to play and record music in conjunction with others for online transmission through the wonders of technology, it reinforces their painful reality of not being able to perform together live on stage with their much-beloved colleagues in front of an audience.

For us non-performers, listening to music such as the many wonderful new online creations of musicians and the many archival performances that are being streamed by arts organisations touches a deep level in our souls at the same depth where hovers our fear of sickness and death and our sadness about the constrained situation in which we find ourselves as individuals and societies.

That capacity of music to touch us so deeply (physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually) intensifies our pain. And that’s okay. Connecting with our pain through the mysterious energy of music is, counterintuitively, a way for us to live through these difficult times. The music prompts tears for both performers and listeners. And when we weep together, we feel palpably how much we are not alone. We are together as lovers of music. And the music itself is a modality of this companionship. As we support each other, we are surrounded, indeed bathed in, the ethos of the music in all its tragic, heart-wrenching, poignant, profound, contemplative, idiosyncratic, exhilarating, exuberant, joyful manifestations.

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

A few recent examples:

  • On Sunday morning March 22nd, Jeff Beecher, the Principal Bass with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, posted a 4 ½ minute video online of him and twenty-seven of his TSO colleagues, all safely physically-distanced in their own homes, performing the hauntingly beautiful “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” It was one of the first such online musical creations of this pandemic era. Jeff said, “I was missing my colleagues and the vital nutrient of sharing live music with audiences in Toronto. And I was plagued by this existential question that we’re now all asking ourselves in every medium and industry—how can I help?” So, he recruited colleagues and the video was the result. It took off like wildfire. As of this writing, it has been viewed 426,771 times in Canada and around the world. I posted it on my Facebook page and immediately started getting responses. A musician friend in San Francisco messaged me saying, “I was blown away by the coordination and the humanity. So beautiful! Copland has always been one of my favorite composers, and Simple Gifts, a favorite piece. I cried when I heard the TSO version.” Like Jeff, so many musicians have commented in online posts over the past weeks about how very much they miss their colleagues and the chance to perform live together on stage. Musicians, by their very being, have well-springs of creative energy that crave to be expressed in the performance of their art. They are developing a myriad of creative responses for expression nowadays from which they and we listeners benefit, but that only partially compensates for what they are missing. They, and we with them, are grieving what the pandemic has deprived us all of. That was reinforced on Friday May 1st as the TSO broadcast online its first Watch Party. It was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was thrilling to see the Oct. 19, 2017 TSO performance of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” conducted by TSO Music Director Emeritus Peter Oundjian with mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and tenor Michael Schade. But yet it was so sad that we were not at Roy Thomson Hall that evening listening to Peter conducting the TSO in Mahler’s 5th Symphony as had been scheduled before all our lives entered this twilight zone of the coronavirus pandemic. In a brief pre-performance online conversation among Peter Oundjian, TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, and TSO Principal Harp Heidi Elise Bearcroft, each of them safely ensconced in their respective homes, Heidi and Jonathan surprised Peter by playing a short version of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony that Heidi had arranged for harp and violin. All of them had tears in their eyes at the end as did I and I’m sure many of the others who were watching online. It wasn’t just because it’s such a beautifully mournful piece of music, but because their playing of it had touched our regret and sadness that we weren’t all together listening to Mahler’s 5th in Roy Thomson Hall. Sadness, true, but what a connection we all felt at that moment. We were separated but we were not alone. We had each other and we had the music;
  • On Saturday April 15th, I sat glued to my computer screen all afternoon watching the Metropolitan Opera’s At-Home Gala with forty opera singers performing from their homes around the world in support of the MET’s fundraising campaign. The MET, like all performing arts organisations, is confronting a fiscal crisis with the cancellation of live performances. It was an unexpectedly emotional broadcast with music and artists offering balm for our souls during this time of global crisis. Renée Fleming teared up on camera after singing “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s “Otello.” Joyce DiDinato performed a moving tribute with the viola section in memory of orchestra violist Vincent Lionti who had died of Covid-19 a few weeks earlier. Bryn Terfel and Hannah Stone in Wales performed the so-appropriate spiritual “If I can help somebody.” There was such humanity of the artists on display, such deep friendships evident amongst them, and such sadness for all of us in these days when live performances on stage are not possible. With his voice cracking, Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin said in closing, “Music and art cannot be silenced.” A week later, I watched a broadcast of a Carnegie Hall recital taped on December 15, 2019 of Joyce DiDonato singing Schubert’s “Winterreise” with Yannick Nézet-Séguin accompanying her on the piano. The artistic respect and personal affection that the two have for each other was evident throughout the performance and was grippingly on display at the end. After the last gorgeous notes had been left to hang poignantly in the hall and as the rapturous applause began to erupt from the capacity audience, the two of them approached each other and embraced, hugging tightly for quite some time. It was very moving to witness such an intimate moment … but also jarring and saddening because they and we are now deprived of such opportunities to express affection in these days of physical-distancing;
  • I attend a church in downtown Toronto. We’re a small congregation that is diverse in age, gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, etc. Now that we can’t worship together in our church building on Sundays because of the pandemic shutdown, we’re struggling to do so on Zoom. The Zoom technology is new to many and it’s taken a few weeks to get the hang of it. There are still glitches, but nobody minds. The community is able to gather and that’s what’s important. There’s always a time of sharing and last week, an older woman acknowledged that she was having mobility problems and now with the pandemic restrictions, she was finding it difficult to get out for groceries. The other members rallied to assist her. The worship service planner called her later and asked if she’d be willing to sing a solo in the service today. She agreed and did so this morning. In the sharing time after the service, she said, “I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you asked me to sing for you all today. All week long, I was singing the song to myself. The music provided such nourishment to my soul. I kept singing it over and over. I cried but I also smiled. It lifted my spirits. I’m very thankful.”

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

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A View of China from an Insider/Outsider – Robert F. Delaney’s debut novel “The Wounded Muse”

Robert F. Delaney knows a lot about China and its relationship to the West. He has lived in China off and on and covered it as a journalist for almost thirty years.

Delaney also knows a lot about cultural understandings toward sexual orientation. He is an openly gay man who has experienced the challenges of conflicting attitudes toward queer folk within and between North American and Asian societies.

In his debut novel, The Wounded Muse, Delaney melds these insights and with a masterful command of the art of fiction writing crafts a novel of intrigue, suspense, drama, and poignancy.

The protagonist Jake is a business journalist who fought his way out of a homophobic upbringing in the US Deep South, cleverly played the academic game at Ivy League universities to get what he wanted, and landed himself in China to study and work. He fell in love with China and immersed himself in language training in rural parts of the country where he encountered people whose depth of humanity opened him in ways he had not expected. But then, as his career took off and he found himself running faster and faster to meet the demands of his American editors while avoiding tripping up the surveillance and security apparatus of China, he loses, perhaps unavoidably, that humanity that he had absorbed earlier.

…it occurs to Jake…how far he’s drifted from the language student (he was) who enjoyed splitting watermelon seeds between his teeth for hours with Chinese families who would adopt him, at least temporarily, as their train snaked through river valleys and dusty towns. Back when he used to listen and appreciate. Back when he didn’t need distance.

“The distance” that Jake feels he now has to maintain as a high-profile American journalist in China is a subtle strategy that Delaney uses to exemplify the fine line of simultaneously being an insider and an outsider. Delaney has us walking, as Jake is walking, that amorphous grey terrain, where Jake is immersed in China and yet is suspect as a foreigner, where he recognizes that he’s respected in the US for his journalist work but he feels contemptuous of the hypocrisy of his American bosses. Jake lives in both worlds and yet doesn’t feel at home in either. We as readers experience a dis-ease in reading The Wounded Muse and much of it stems from Delaney’s skill in leading us into the quicksand of Jake’s life in Beijing.

This is the exterior: the insider/outsider context in which Delaney places Jake.

But the core of the novel is the interior: an insider/outsider conflict lodged deep in Jake’s heart.

Jake is in love with Qiang, a documentary filmmaker. Jake dreams of being in relationship with Qiang but Qiang rebuffs Jake, at least temporarily, because of Qiang’s focus on his current documentary related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

…Jake wants to turn this into the moment he’s been trying to create since he first met Qiang a year earlier… this moment is crucial. Jake’s heart pounds so powerfully that it rattles his ribs … he moves closer to Qiang, making his intention clear … But Qiang takes a step back and shakes his head slightly with a pained expression. The reaction suffocates Jake like a wrestler who’s suddenly subdued … “Look”, Qiang says, “my life right now is nothing but this project” … Jake can’t speak. He wants to open a vein to let the humiliation and sorrow drain out and run down a gutter” …

And shortly thereafter, Chinese authorities arrest Qiang on suspicion of sedition.

Delaney leads us through Jake’s frantic efforts along with a few others who are close to Qiang to seek his release with Jake not being able to open up to the others about the depth of his feelings for Qiang, trying (not always successfully) to avoid Chinese authorities suspecting him of being gay which would further complicate the search for Qiang, and, most torturously, being passionately bound to Qiang inside his heart but not in a consummated reciprocal relationship with the object of his affection.

Inside Jake’s soul, he is one with Qiang.

Outside, with Qiang’s friends, the Chinese authorities, and Qiang himself, Jake is not one with Qiang.

The Wounded Muse is a complex, suspenseful, and poignant novel with the layering of the insider/outsider perspectives a token to Delaney’s impressive skill as a writer.

Wounded Muse

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For information on Robert F. Delaney’s writings, see: https://robertfdelaney.net

For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see: http://www.DavidGHallman.com

 

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Art Ravishing the Soul – Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” in the hands of pianist Angela Hewitt and novelist Madeleine Thien 

What an artistically rich evening last night at Toronto Summer Music with two Canadian cultural treasures: pianist Angela Hewitt playing Bach’s entire Goldberg Variations preceded by an interview with author Madeleine Thien whose award-winning novel Do Not Say We Have Nothing has classical music (including the Goldberg Variations) as a pervasive metaphor.

In the pre-concert chat between Madeleine Thien and CBC’s Eric Friesen, Thien talked about how the Goldberg Variations broke her open emotionally during a particularly difficult time in her life. She was walking in Berlin where she was living at the time after having completed a previous book with painful themes. The Goldberg Variations came on her playlist and spoke to her at a level of intensity that she had never experienced previously. She began listening to them over and over during the next five years as she worked on Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Bach’s masterpiece wove itself into her novel not only as content but also in structure, atmosphere, discipline, and metaphor.

Though an author whose currency is the written word, Thien spoke last night of the mystery of how music can speak to us at a level of profoundness that words can’t match. I can attest to her brilliance as a writer that she succeeded in her written novel in evoking that profound level of connection to the human soul that music, and the Goldberg Variations specifically in this instance, achieves. Do Not Say We Have Nothing melds language and music … they communicate with each other and enrich each other in the process.

It’s a mystery how Madeleine Thien was able to accomplish that. My guess is that she did it because she was writing the novel while listening to the music. The Goldberg Variations were entering her ears on their way to her heart as her heart was informing her brain on what to write next on the page.

What an experience it was to go from listening to this intimate conversation to then hearing Angela Hewitt playing the entirety of the Goldberg Variations without interruption.

I had one of the cheaper seats in Koerner Hall for the concert last night. I was in what’s called the “Loge” of the Right Lower Balcony, a couple rows of seats that run along the side of and look down upon the stage. They are not considered as good seats as those in the orchestra or the balconies that have a straight-on view of the stage. But, as it happened, my seat in A4 had a direct view of Angela Hewitt’s face as she played the Steinway piano. There was not much distance, maybe twenty feet or so, between my seat at the side of the stage and Hewitt on her piano bench in the centre of the stage.

Hewitt played much of the concert with her eyes closed. But when she lifted her head and if she opened her eyes, she would be looking directly toward where I was seated.

Hewitt’s body was constantly but subtly animated throughout the performance. Her head would sometimes be buried in the piano almost grazing the keyboard, sometimes rising up pointing toward the ceiling as her body arched backwards. Her fingers at times flew across the octaves with bravura and at times gently depressed a single key to elicit the whisper of a note.

Though Hewitt didn’t mumble to herself as Glenn Gould famously did when he played and on his 1955 recording of the Goldberg Variations, her face was in constant animation with expressions ranging from playful delight to furious intensity to deep sorrow to spiritual contemplation.

I sat immobilized for the entire time. Initially, I was listening keenly to the fine nuances of her playing in the opening aria and then the technical virtuosity as she moved into subsequent variations. But by about the fourth variation, I wasn’t attending to the playing with the same intellectual focus. The music was drifting into my ears while my eyes were riveted on her face.

Much like Madeleine Thien melding music and language in Do Not Say We Have Nothing, so for me during the performance of the Goldberg Variations, the auditory and the visual, Bach and Hewitt, were fused in one.

I couldn’t, I didn’t, move. I found myself in a trance.

Hewitt left the ever-so-tranquil last note of the final aria suspended in Koerner Hall for a long time. After she released it to be only a memory, her head remained bowed, virtually touching the keyboard. She didn’t move … neither did the audience … for almost a minute of pure silence. Slowly she raised her head. The audience members burst into applause and jumped to their feet. She still remained seated, eyes closed. Gradually, she opened her eyes and a quiet smile emerged across her face. She stood and began to acknowledge the cheers.

I remained seated, motionless. I didn’t want to break the trance. It wasn’t until her second entrance back onto the stage as the standing ovation rolled on that I got to my feet and joined the applause.

What an evening of mystery and trance, an evening of art ravishing the soul.

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My review of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing can be found on my blog site at: https://davidghallman.wordpress.com/2016/12/19/devastating-beauty-and-tragedy-madeleine-thiens-do-not-say-we-have-nothing/

Information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales can be found on my website at: http://www.DavidGHallman.com

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Reflections on John Miller’s “Wild and Beautiful is the Night”

It is said that as authors of fiction, we write what we know and we make things up.

The “what we know” part is often people or events or emotional experiences drawn from our own life.

The “make things up” part is the creation of characters and storylines in our imagination.

There’s a third source for our stories: stuff that we don’t “know” initially but that we learn through research. Sometimes that research is done in libraries or online, sometimes by immersing ourselves in an unfamiliar context, sometimes by interviewing or shadowing a person whose life or work we need to become familiar with in order to depict a similar character authentically.

John Miller did difficult research for his new novel, Wild and Beautiful is the Night. He interviewed in depth a friend and former colleague whose struggles with drug addiction and whose years as a sex worker provided graphic details of her day-to-day life and windows into the psychological terrain of her interior life. Because she was a friend, Miller didn’t have the emotional distance that he would have had if he were interviewing a stranger. He had the challenge of listening intensely to capture the detail and nuance that he needed for his writing while at the same time being drawn through the gut-wrenching pain that this friend was describing to him.

There was a further level of complexity to his research: he struggled with the ethics of a) asking his friend to grant him interviews as she was going through a particularly crisis-ridden period and b) whether compensating her financially ameliorated or exacerbated his use/exploitation of her hardships for his literary purposes. After his novel was published, John wrote about these ethical dilemmas in an article “A delicate question: How far will writers go for our craft – and at what cost?” published in the Globe and Mail.

When we write fiction, we are never in the exclusive realm of drawing on only one of these three sources. Because our brains are such integrative mechanisms, we are always, in varying proportions depending on the nature of the project, writing through the filter of our own life and perceptions, fashioning the sentences and storylines with the creative juices of our imaginations, and using material that we have gathered from outside.

Such was the case with Miller as he crafted Wild and Beautiful is the Night. He was writing out of the framework of his own life experience much of which has been spent in professional and volunteer capacities empowering vulnerable individuals and families living on the margins and helping to create more supportive and equitable social systems. He was grounding much of the substance of his story in the world that had been opened to him through the interviews with his friend. But Wild and Beautiful is the Night is not a biography of his friend. It is a fictional novel and, as such, truly a product of his imagination.

Given all of the above, I understood that Miller would be deeply and personally invested in the writing of Wild and Beautiful is the Night. But what was intellectually understandable became viscerally experienced when I immersed myself as reader in the book. It was as if some energy vortex had drawn me into the mind and the heart of John Miller and I was living this story through his being. His grounding as a person of great empathy and social commitment pervades the writing. The graphic detail of the world his characters Paulette and Danni inhabit and the portrayal of their physical and emotional struggles for survival come across as so immediate it is as if I were Miller himself sitting in the coffee shop listening to his friend recounting her experiences. But his personal orientation and the interviewing research do not ensure an engagingly written story. It is Miller’s creative imagination that has made Wild and Beautiful is the Night one of those books that will live with me for a long time with characters that vibrate off the page, conflicts that had me on the edge of my seat, and heart-breaking twists and turns that are depicted with such clear-eyed and unsentimental poignancy that I could feel Miller’s ethical dilemmas roiling around in his heart and mind as he tried to do justice simultaneously to his craft as an artist and his commitment to his friend’s legacy.

Wild and Beautiful is the Night is a masterful piece of writing.

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Information on John Miller’s Wild and Beautiful is the Night and his previous novels The Featherbed and A Sharp Intake of Breath is available on his website at: https://johnmiller.ca

Information on my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, my novel In Search of Gilead, and my memoir August Farewell is available on my website at http://www.DavidGHallman.com

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Hadrian – the novel by Marguerite Yourcenar and the opera by Rufus Wainwright

Near the beginning of Marguerite Yourcenar’s exquisite novel Memoirs of Hadrian, the aged Emperor writing his memoir observes that:

I was at twenty much what I am today, but not consistently so.

Near the end of the novel, these words are spoken by the dying Emperor:

I sometimes think that through the crevices I see and touch upon the indestructible foundation, the rock eternal. I am what I always was; I am dying without essential change.

Hadrian spent a lifetime seeking to understand the dynamics of the body politic, rising through the ranks of the Roman militia, distinguishing himself in foreign campaigns, being bequeathed the mantel of Emperor by his predecessor Trajan, ushering in an era of stability for the Roman empire, constructing major public works in Rome, Athens, Alexandria, and beyond, executing a few notably savage campaigns, fostering the arts, revitalizing appreciation among his fellow Romans for the riches of the earlier Greek culture, falling deeply in love with young Antinous only to lose him in the murky waters of the Nile, and preparing a succession plan for the youthful Marcus Aurelius to become Emperor after a mentorship by Antoninus Pius.

And yet, with such a full life, he maintained that he was essentially the same person when dying as he had been as a youth.

Is that true of all of us?

Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian is full of life and is full of dying. Much of the novel chronicles the major events of Hadrian’s life with the richness lying in his personal, sociological, political, spiritual, and philosophical reflections on those events. The core of the novel, however, is Hadrian’s relationship with Antinous and his grief at the premature death of his young lover. So death predominates, both that of Antinous and Hadrian’s own anticipated ending. Hadrian grieves profoundly, far more for the former than the latter. Yourcenar’s intense depiction of Hadrian’s mourning resonates authentically with my own:

That death would be in vain if I lacked the courage to look straight at it …

Most historians credit Marguerite Yourcenar with having produced an account of Hadrian’s life that is faithful to the historical record. Memoirs of Hadrian is not written as biography. Rather, as the title suggests, it is an autobiographical narrative written in the first person. First published in French in 1951 with the English translation appearing in 1954, Yourcenar was writing brilliant historical fiction sixty years before Hilary Mantel’s similarly engaging Thomas Cromwell series, Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring Up the Bodies (2012). Both writers have the capacity to draw us into the souls of the principal characters living centuries ago enabling us to see their life and times through their eyes.

Singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright was inspired by Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian to compose an opera. Entitled simply Hadrian, it received its world premier in Toronto in the fall of 2018 produced by the Canadian Opera Company. I saw it at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts on October 17th. Like the novel, the core of the opera is the relationship between Hadrian and Antinous and the consequences for Hadrian of his lover’s death. I had a few reservations about the opera and how it was directed but they were minor compared to my enthusiasm for it.

I posted on Facebook that evening:

I’m thoroughly enraptured tonight experiencing Rufus Wainwright’s new opera “Hadrian” with lyrics by Daniel McIvor and directed by Peter Hinton – intense lyricism, lush orchestration, dramatically-drawn characters, powerful singing and acting. Rufus’s inspiration to write the opera was his reading of Marguerite Yourcenar’s novel “The Memoirs of Hadrian” twenty years ago. 

The process of artistic creation fascinates me — how Marguerite Yourcenar was able to bring to life the loving and tragic relationship of Hadrian and Antinous from 1900 years ago in a novel that I luxuriated in reading and how Rufus Wainwright was able to transform the story into dramatic symphonic and operatic music that I relished experiencing on stage.

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For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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“Call Me by Your Name” – James Ivory’s Exquisite Skill in Adapting the Novel for the Film

The star of the film Call Me by Your Name is screenwriter James Ivory.

Certainly the actors Timothée Chalamet as Elio and Armie Hammer as Oliver deserve a lot of credit as does director Luca Guadagnino who brought their performances to life. But the haunting look in Chalamet’s eyes and the tortured covert courtship dance between him and Hammer is magic wrought by the hand of James Ivory.

Adapting a novel for a film is a complex process. Novels and films are fundamentally different art forms. Adaptation requires an imagination that resonates with the written word and conjures it into visual images. Difficult decisions have to be made about what to keep from the text and what to exorcize. But the biggest challenge is to capture the spirit, the tone, the essential atmospheric core of the book.

I saw the film at its première at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in September 2017. I have just now in February 2018 finished reading André Aciman’s novel on which the film is based. It’s as if those five intervening months did not exist. The symbiosis between the book and the movie is so complete for me that I might as well have been reading the book while sitting in the theatre or, conversely, watching the film with the book’s text superimposed on it.

The crazy thing about my experiencing such profound symmetry is that the two are radically different. There are significant characters in the book that never appear in the film. Locations are changed. Whole scenes from the book are cut in the film and a few scenes in the film never occurred in the book. And, perhaps most dramatic of all, the ending is different.

No, that’s the second most dramatic difference. The most dramatic deviation is that the novel is written in the first person. The story is told by Elio. As we are reading the book, we are seeing the action through his eyes. We know what’s going on in his head and his heart because he is telling us. A common device used by screenwriters when translating such a personally narrated novel is to use voice-overs in the film. That sometimes works but it is also, in my opinion, a lazy way out. Much more difficult is what James Ivory has done. The screenplay is so brilliantly crafted that it is as if we are Elio, falling in lust/love with Oliver from the moment that he sees him arrive at the villa, struggling with Elio to decipher whether signs from Oliver are positive or negative, riding Elio’s rollercoaster of emotional responses as the relationship takes on an intimate reality while Oliver’s summer sojourn in Italy draws towards a close. What James Ivory has done in the screenplay is to evoke the atmospheric essence of the novel — the soul of Elio.

James Ivory is 89-years-old. He and Ismail Merchant were romantic life partners and creative professional partners for forty-four years from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005. The two of them together with Ruth Prewar Jhabvala in their company Merchant Ivory Productions won awards at the Oscars, BAFTA, Cannes Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, New York Film Critics Circle for films such as A Room with A View, Maurice, Howard’s End, and The Remains of the Day.

I have admired and respected James Ivory’s work for years.

I love his work on Call Me by Your Name.

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For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see my website at: http://DavidGHallman.com

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Imagination and Structure in “All the Light We Cannot See” and “Lincoln in the Bardo”

Anthony Doerr and George Saunders are accomplished and celebrated authors. As fiction writers, they work from their own imaginations and seek to provoke the imaginations of their readers. In the case of Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See and Saunders’ Man Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo, they also researched the historical periods and settings in which they placed their characters and incorporated great detail from that research. We may appropriately label both of these novels as historical fiction.

Combining the historical research with the process and product of their fertile imaginations, they then melded stories into novels with unorthodox narrative structures. They are by far not the first to develop structures for their novels that deviate from the traditional linear and chronological format. Sometimes such experimentation works brilliantly, sometimes not so well.

In any novel, it takes a while for us readers to figure out what’s happening, who the characters are, and how they are interacting. Unorthodox structures can make a novel a particularly challenging read especially in the initial stages. In All the Light We Cannot See, Doerr flips back and forth in time and runs multiple storylines in parallel. In Lincoln in the Bardo, Saunders intersperses direct historical quotations with the dialogue of characters and he places the whole novel’s text in stand-alone statements explicitly attributed to specific characters, historic or imagined.

The provocative structure of Lincoln in the Bardo has defeated more than one reader that I know who have given up on the book, finding it just too confusing … and that’s quite apart from the fantastical depiction of purgatory-dwelling spirits interacting with living human beings in the cemetery where Abraham Lincoln comes to mourn the death of his eleven-year-old son Willie.

The lives from childhood to early adulthood of Marie-Laure and Werner are told in alternating chapters in All the Light We Cannot See and it takes a while to figure that out. The challenges for the reader are compounded by many of the fourteen sections of the book each made up of multiple chapters being arranged in non-chronological order: 1944, 1934, 1944, 1940, 1944, 1941, 1944, 1942, 1944, 1944, 1944, 1945, 1974, 2014.

So, Doerr and Saunders are challenging our imagination as readers not only to engage with the characters that they have created but also to do so through complex organizational structures.

Are they successful in challenging us yet keeping us reading until the end?

The more unorthodox of the two was the one to which I responded more enthusiastically. I was totally perplexed initially when I started Lincoln in the Bardo but I was hooked once I figured out what was going on and how the structure and even the page layout contributed to the evolution of the story. Saunders has crafted a story of immense metaphorical complexity and heart-rending poignancy. I loved it.

I appreciate the beauty of the writing in All the Light We Cannot See and the tough yet tender WWII story that Doerr tells. The structure was somewhat problematic for me at the start but I got over that difficulty relatively easily. What I didn’t get was being grabbed in the heart and the intellect. My imagination was provoked but coasted relatively dormant through 530 pages.

I’m glad that I’ve read both of them but it is Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo that I’m raving about to friends.

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For information on Anthony Doerr’s books including All the Light We Cannot See: http://anthonydoerr.com

For information on George Saunders’ books including Lincoln in the Bardohttp://www.georgesaundersbooks.com

For information on my books including my recent collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales: http://DavidGHallman.com

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The Comedian Becomes a Humorist

We know Shawn Hitchins as a comedian. He is now a humorist as well.

With the publication of his A Brief History of Oversharing, Hitchins joins the ranks of those who use humor in writing. He continues to perform stand-up but we don’t have to wait to catch one of his shows to enjoy his wit. We can pick up his book.

Hitchins’ humor is multi-facetted. The unpretentious folksy settings and stories in A Brief History of Oversharing carry some of the same tone as the writings of Mark Twain or Stephen Leacock. But Hitchins goes where Twain and Leacock never ventured: raunchyville. His ribald zingers are akin to Dorothy Parker. Except Hitchins is not acerbic like Parker. He can be cutting but not cruel.

As a writer, he is not only a humorist. He is also a memoirist. The subject of A Brief History of Oversharing is Shawn Hitchins. The book is autobiographical. And this is where his humor becomes really interesting. It is highly self-deprecating. There are many laugh-out-loud moments as Shawn Hitchins describes the wacky crazy life of Shawn Hitchins. We are simultaneously laughing with and at Shawn Hitchins. But we don’t laugh too long or too hard because we sense something beyond the hilarity of the scene. There is an unanticipated poignancy that surfaces frequently in his stories. He is sharing (not oversharing) his vulnerability. There’s not a hint of the maudlin in this. It’s clear-eyed tough writing about the scars as well as the successes.

Because of the nature of my own writing, I’m drawn to memoir. There is a robust literary conversation these days about the genre-bending aspects of contemporary memoir-writing, in particular the convergence of autobiography and fiction in memoirs/novels such as those of Karl Ove Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante. Hitchins similarly combines genres — he has written a memoir that uses humor as its principal narrative vehicle. A Brief History of Oversharing is a memoir and a book of humor rolled into one.

There are so many gems in A Brief History of Oversharing. Just a few of my favourites:

  • “I moved to Toronto and quickly learned that living in the Big Smoke is just like living in a small town. Both are full of gossips, bigots, boozers, sluts, addicts, criminals, and Jesus freaks, except living in the city I’m not related to any of them.”
  • “I was raised with an intense sense of belonging and a blind sense of comfort that I’ve been desperately trying to regain since I lost it.”
  • On the thrill of realizing the against-all-odds triumph of the Ginger Pride March in Edinburgh: “Like a cat darting from a litter box, I duck into an alley and begin to laugh so hard and so deeply that I take my sweater and jam it in my mouth to muffle any sound.”
  • On the death of legendary director George Bloomfield with whom Shawn was a personal assistant: “…for the first time I had to negotiate with grief, trying to rationalize loss as if it were an algebraic equation where the sum of permissible feelings would be derived by the number of dinners at the Bloomfields’ multiplied by the number of hours spent on set.”
  • “A succession of memories played in my head, and like Russian dolls they fit neatly within each other, memories dating from adulthood back to childhood where I questioned why I felt like a witness but never the direct object of happiness.”
  • On trying to masturbate to donate sperm to two lesbian friends: “I reach down and knead my genitals while debating what to think about during the next one to twenty-five minutes.”

A common definition of humorist is an intellectual who uses humor in writing. Hitchins has a basket full of insecurities on display in A Brief History of Oversharing, some blatantly and some inconspicuously. While as a person he is about as far from a traditional intellectual as one could imagine, as a writer he is not. A Brief History of Oversharing is a work of considerable intellectual competence in its conception and in its delivery. He should be proud of what he’s accomplished here.

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For information on A Brief History of Oversharing, see: https://shawnhitchins.com

For information on my writings, see: http://davidghallman.com

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Writers Reading

 

“I take it as an article of faith that novels I have loved will live in me forever.” Pat Conroy, author of My Reading Life (and The Boo, The Water is Wide, Prince of Tides, et al)

“People who write books generally read books, and most books carry with them the traces of some of the hundreds or thousands of books the writer read before attempting the one at hand.” Will Schwalbe, author of Books for Living (and The End of Your Life Book Club, Send)

I love to read books. I love to write books. So I decided to write a book about reading books.” David G. Hallman, author of Book Tales (and August Farewell, Searching for Gilead, et al)

* * *

Philip Roth, one of the most renowned American writers and author of Goodbye Columbus and Portnoy’s Complaint, declared in a 2011 interview that, “I don’t read fiction anymore…I wised up.” He apparently prefers history and biography now. But, at least he is still reading.

Virtually every writer that I know, reads, most of us voraciously. It is more than just curiosity about what others are writing, their subject matter, and their style. There is an intellectual stimulation and an emotional nurturing and a spiritual enrichment that we gain by delving into the stories created by others’ imagination and research. But it goes even further. Reading feels as essential for us as food and water. We couldn’t survive without it. And we couldn’t write if we didn’t read.

I’ve read three books recently in which writers talk about the role that reading has played in their lives and about specific books that were particularly important for them: Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living, and Book Tales by a guy named David G. Hallman.

I take two major insights away from these books, one about life and one about death.

The first lesson is the importance of reading in our lifelong formation as writers and then, by extension, in the creation of our identities as human beings.

Pat Conroy says, “My mother turned me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me always…I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school…From the beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself…stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself.”

Will Schwalbe puts it, “What follows (in Books for Living) are stories of books I’ve discovered that have helped me and others in ways big and small with some of the specific challenges of living in our modern world, with all its noise and distractions…Many of the books I write about are books I first read when I was young. I’m not just a fifty-something-year-old reader; I’m the reader I was at every age I’ve ever been, with all the books I’ve ever read and all the experiences I’ve ever had constantly shifting and recombining in my brain.”

Rather than quote myself, I’ll quote one of the reviewers: “Book Tales, a collection of short stories by David G. Hallman, explores literature and sexuality as dual forces in the construction of a person’s experience and identity…Often explicitly erotic and always well-written, these stories explore the connection between life and art, from haunted artists to the stories that haunt us…Hallman’s use of books as a recurring theme is always evident…Hallman honors the lives of those who create art as much as the lives of those who consume it. By illuminating the intertwined struggles of sexuality, identity, love, and loss, this collection’s atmospheric style and intimate characterization create seven rich worlds well worth reading to the bittersweet end.”

For Conroy, Schwalbe, and Hallman, reading books has played a key role in how they understand themselves and indeed how they have created themselves from childhood through adulthood. And there are bittersweet ends that they have each experienced in which literature continues to be an active ingredient.

Conroy died of pancreatic cancer on March 4, 2016. My Reading Life was published in 2010. Near the end of the book, he writes, “The subject matter of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death.”

Schwalbe’s The End of Your Life Book Club is a memoir of his accompaniment of his mother as she dealt with a pancreatic cancer diagnosis and about the books that they read together and discussed during those last eighteen months of her life. In Books for Living, he comments, “During this time we read casually, promiscuously, and whimsically, allowing one book to lead us to another…At times the books gave us something to talk about when we wanted to talk about anything rather than her illness. But they also gave us a way to talk about subjects that were too difficult to address directly. They helped guide and prompt our conversations, so that I could learn as much as I could from my mother while she was still here to teach me.”

I wrote the memoir August Farewell after Bill, my longtime partner, died two weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. It is subtitled, The last sixteen days of a thirty-three-year romance. The final chapter in Book Tales is one of the stories with a semi-fictionalized autobiographical component. It concludes, “Patrick lifts himself up out of the chair and goes over to the piano. He runs his fingers lightly over the keyboard. He depresses the keys A-A-A-B flat-F-A, the three first bars of Breathe on Me, Breath of God. And repeats, more softly. He leans over and picks up the ceramic box from the window ledge and returns to his chair. Resting it in his lap, Patrick traces the raised glazing of the fish symbol on the cover. He lifts the lid and stares at the tiny sealed bag of gray dust that he had taken out of the urn before the interment of Evan’s ashes. Poking up ever so slightly from the midst of the ashes is a silver ring. Patrick lifts his right hand to his mouth and rests his lips on its twin on his finger.”

Three writers. Reading and writing. Life, identify, and death.

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For information on Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life, see: http://www.patconroy.com/about.php

For information on Will Schwalbe’s Books for Living, see: http://willschwalbe.com

For information on my Book Tales, see: http://davidghallman.com

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