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.

814A8852-8BBD-4A76-BC15-863F453F935B_1_201_a9233B0A7-5680-449C-926B-C1F7D5F89136_1_201_a

 

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

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

* * *

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

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

* * *

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

A3AEADDD-EC1B-40C6-82C2-658192995C49

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

* * *

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

Wild and Beautiful is the Night

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

* * *

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

Hadrian

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

“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.

* * *

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

IMG_5037

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

* * *

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

IMG_3970

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

* * *

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

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

IMG_3969

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

* * *

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

FullSizeRender

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Devastating Beauty and Tragedy: Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”

Such devastating beauty in the elegant writing, the intermingling of literature and music, the simple poignancy of human connections.

Such devastating tragedy in the violence of repression, the lost opportunities to create, the rupture of relationships.

And the importance of memory, preserving both the beauty and the tragedy.

One of the first things that struck me in reading Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” was the beautiful writing itself and more specifically her gift for evocative imagery:

  • Their incompatible love made her feel hollow, as if the world had turned out to be flat after all.
  • …it was as if the very air shrouded the buildings in paranoia.
  • …the elongated question mark of his body as he loped down the slippery walks…
  • He leaned toward the child like a comma in a line so that, momentarily, the child, confused, suspended his wailing…
  • The landscape passed in waves of green and yellow as if the country were an endless unharvested sea.

It’s a gift of vision of both the outer eye and the inner eye. Thien draws into her descriptions concepts and pictures from totally different realms offering to us readers a deeper insight into the character and the scene.

There is much beauty in how music and the written word are reflected as two tributaries of the same stream in this novel. They feed into each other becoming something new, and then part and move off on their own though richer now, only to reconnect in a different way later on: Wen the Dreamer’s “Book of Records,” Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” Sparrow’s unfinished “Symphony No. 3,” Prokofiev’s “Violin Concerto No. 1,” the poetry of Li Bai and Wang Wei inspiring Mahler to write his song symphony “Das Lied von der Erde” (The Song of the Earth), and Thien’s literary descriptions of music itself:

  • Yet Zhuli imagined that she could hear her father’s presence in the music just as clearly as if Wen the Dreamer’s name was written on the page.
  • But what was music? Every note could only be understood by its relation to those around it. Merged, they made new sounds, new colours, a new resonance or dissonance, a stability or rupture. Inside the pure tone of C was a ladder of rich overtones as well as the echoes of other Cs, like a man wearing many suits of clothing, or a grandmother carrying all her memories inside her.

Thien beautifully sketches her characters with a fine brush that projects deeply intimate and yet tortured relationships within families including the narrator Li-ling and her mother, Sparrow and his daughter Ai-ming, Sparrow and his cousin Zhuli, Big Ma and her husband Ba Lute, Big Ma and her sister Swirl, and between lovers and would-be lovers especially Sparrow and Jiang Kai. Her writing is so deft that I was never aware of her developing these relationships. I was inside the story from the first page and living with the characters as they tentatively reached out to the other, faltered, fought, touched fingertips, tore up a loved-one’s manuscript, smiled at a sweet gesture and just as quickly averted their eyes.

And then there is the multi-dimensional tragedy in “Do Not Say We Have Nothing”.

I am a fan of historical fiction such as the novels of Hilary Mantel, Jane Urquhart, Viet Thanh Nguyen. I now add Thien to my list. Through the eyes and experiences of her characters, Thien has graphically and gut-wrenchingly recreated the repression, violence, and social upheaval of Mao Zedong’s attempt to reassert his authority over China’s Communist party through what came to be known as the Cultural Revolution from about 1966 to 1976. I am grateful to Thien for bringing alive a dramatic time in history that affected hundreds of millions of people and allowing me to experience it in the first person, so to speak, through her characters. And that experience is devastating with the forced relocations and separations from family, the shaming and torturing of citizens for what was maligned as “decadent” intellectual interests and artistic competence, the suppression of opportunities to create art, the unremitting attempts at brainwashing, the brutal suppression of dissent that Thien describes graphically in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Sparrow’s inability to compose for such a long period of time during the Cultural Revolution is the most prominent example of the devastating loss that occurs when art that could have been, isn’t. It is not only that he was essentially forbidden to compose. It was devastating because the repressive environment had silenced the music in his soul. Art was suppressed as well through the closing of the universities and the conservatories and the prohibition to perform works that had not been sanctioned. Sparrow reflects at one point on Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony:

  • This is a fragment, he thought, of something that once existed but that no longer grows here, like a corn field cut down…you could close a book and forget about it, knowing it would not lose its contents when you stopped reading, but music wasn’t the same, not for him, it was most alive when it was heard.

The rupturing of relationships is portrayed by Thien in an under-stated style that ramps up the tension and the pathos to an intensity far greater than had she used a vociferous style. The secret long-term connection between Sparrow and Kai is heart-breakingly written:

  • “Sparrow, remember the classics that we memorized? The words are still true. ‘We have no ties of kinship or even provenance, but I am bound to him by ties of sentiment and I share his sorrows and misfortunes.’ We’ve waited our whole lives and now the country is finally opening up. I’ve been thinking…there are ways to begin again. We could leave.”
  • The possibilities before Sparrow, which should have given him joy, instead broke his heart. He was no longer the same person.

Finally, Thien’s novel epitomizes the essentialness of memory and the active commitment to remembering. The “Book of Records,” with its dual literary and musical connotation, forms the core of this process of preserving memory. At the meta level, “Do Not Say We Have Nothing” serves the same function…and does so brilliantly.

img_2194

* * *

For more information on Madeleine Thien’s “Do Not Say We Have Nothing,” see: http://penguinrandomhouse.ca/books/259732/do-not-say-we-have-nothing#9780345810427

For more information on my books including my recently-published collection of gay literary short stories entitled “Book Tales” see: www.DavidGHallman.com

 

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized