Sunday, March 28, 2010


Let me belatedly join the chorus of acclamation that has greeted Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century. Anyone looking for an excellent, informative, well-written, highly readable introduction to Modernist music can stop looking: This is the book. In addition to covering all the usual bases of 20th century music history (Mahler, Strauss, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Berg, Webern, Cage, Stockhausen, Glass, Adams, et al), Ross rescues Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and the classic works of Aaron Copland from decades of sentimentality and kitschy interpretation, reminding us of Gershwin's hero-worship of Berg (and Porgy's affinity with Wozzeck) and the 1930s leftist politics that informed Copland's vision. We are also given an eye-opening account of Richard Strauss's complex and conflicted relations with Nazism. (It turns out Strauss was not entirely a Nazi lapdog, but he was clearly and tragically in over his head.) On a somewhat lighter note, Ross gives us a wonderful look at the European composers in exile in Los Angeles during WWII, the surreal high point of which must surely be his account of Schoenberg's very public reaction to Mann's Doctor Faustus. (Get the book and read it for yourself.) Ross's chapter on Sibelius is likewise informative and beautiful (as is his account of Messaien), and the chapter on Benjamin Britten forced me to finally buy the Naxos CD of Britten's settings of Donne, Michelangelo and Hardy, as well as the Philips CD of Peter Grimes. And that's probably the best review anyone can give a book like this: it encourages us to listen more widely and more closely, to listen to things we might never have heard before, and even to hear more in pieces we think we know well (like Sibelius). Of course I have my criticisms (the book is too Euro-Americo-centric; it only touches tangentially on rock and pop), but these are far outweighed by all that Ross has shown me. This book carved a highway through the vast Sahara of my ignorance of Modernist music and led me to many fruitful oases along the way.

And I suppose I should point out the multiply anagrammatic character of Alex Ross's name: He can be transformed into 'Solar Sex' (which Elton John famously spoke out against in "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me"), 'Lax Roses', 'Lear's Sox', 'Ass Rolex' (which would be rather difficult to wear), the appropriately musical 'Sax Roles', and probably a few more...

Saturday, March 27, 2010

THE LIBRARY AT NIGHT by Alberto Manguel

I've just finished Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night, a fine, anecdotally rich collection of essays on reading and readers, libraries and librarians, collections and collectors, and now that it's night and I'm sitting in my 'library' (a mere few thousand books, it hardly compares with Manguel's obsessive 30,000, ten thousand more than even Susan Sontag was able to amass), I feel compelled to 'go and do likewise,' to imitate Manguel's tour of his library in the French countryside by taking a stroll through my own here in rural Ohio. But since this is a blog post instead of a book, I'll limit myself to journeying across a single overloaded shelf (all my bookshelves exist in a constant state of overplus) chosen more or less at random.

Glancing to my left I select the third shelf from the bottom of the tall five-shelf bookcase nearest my desk. It contains two rows of books (mostly trade paperbacks) with additional books piled horizontally atop the back row. Beginning at the left end of the front row (because I'm politically partial to the left sides of things) we immediately find ourselves deep in D. H. Lawrence country, staring at the telltale orange spines of volumes 2 and 3 of the Penguin paperback set of Lawrence's Complete Short Stories ('The Prussian Officer' is a personal favorite). Next is an older Viking Compass edition of volume 1 of the set. Beside this stands the front row's only hardcover (I keep the weightier books in the back rows), Vikram Chandra's Love and Longing in Bombay, featuring the great novella-length story 'Kama.' David Foster Wallace's Oblivion, purchased shortly after Wallace sent himself to its title, separates Chandra from two of Iain M. Banks's literary novels, The Wasp Factory and The Bridge. Both come highly recommended, but I've yet to read either. They stand there and taunt me. (And I've always thought 'The WASP Factory' would be the perfect title for a history of Yale University...) Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor stands equally unread next to them. (I really must get around to these Brits someday.) Then I'm encouraged when my scanning eye meets a book I've actually read, Stephen Wright's Going Native, one of the best American novels of the 1990s. Sadegh Hedayat's The Blind Owl, coincidentally one of Alberto Manguel's favorite books, stands beside Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man. (When I attempted to carefully remove the price sticker from this book, I tore off the bottom part of the spine, so the spine now reads like a demented index entry: "Schiller, on the aesthetic education of") On the other side of Schiller are two of Milan Kundera's interesting if repetitive nonfiction books, The Art of the Novel and The Curtain. Beside these is Life, Sex and Ideas: The Good Life Without God, a good bedtime book, a collection of short essays and newspaper columns by Oxford philosopher A.C. Grayling. (Oxbridge philosophers: by their initials ye shall know them.) Next comes Desperate Characters, a very good little novel by Courtney Love's grandmother (yes, that's true) Paula Fox. V.S. Naipaul's travel book about the American South, A Turn in the South, joins Salman Rushdie's extraordinary Shame in forming a Vintage International edition sandwich that contains as its meat a book on James Joyce titled Portraits of the Artist in Exile. The bright orange Penguin paperback spine of William Trevor's Stories stands beside an Oxford World's Classics edition of Robbie Burns's Poems and Songs at the Scotch-Irish center of the row. The classic Nasmyth portrait of Burns broods Romantically on the spine of the latter volume, turning his back to Kwame Anthony Appiah's Cosmopolitanism, a book that promises more than it delivers. And speaking of cosmopolitanism, on the other side of Appiah, Kenya's Ngugi wa Thiong'o's Petals of Blood presses itself promiscuously against Shirley Hazzard's overrated The Transit of Venus. Mario Vargas Llosa's good first novel The Time of the Hero flattens itself against Hazzard's other side. Next is the somber, black-spined Penguin edition of the most un-Puritanical plays of Thomas Middleton. The NYRB Classics edition of the 1926 correspondence of Pasternak, Tsvetayeva and Rilke stands between old Tom Middleton and two novels by old Thomas Bernhard, the great The Loser and the more mediocre Gargoyles. The front row's two heaviest and thickest books, Alexander Theroux's Darconville's Cat and Robertson Davies's The Cornish Trilogy, signal that the end of the shelf is near (has anyone actually read all of Darconville's Cat?), and after skipping over two thin novels by Kingsley Amis, The Green Man and The Alteration, my gaze meets that of the lion-maned John Ruskin on the spine of Preterita, the front row's last book.

Jumping to the back row, I see a hardcover of Rick Moody's The Black Veil, a book I didn't like much, next to Christopher Bram's Father of Frankenstein, basis of the film Gods and Monsters, both of which I liked very much. Peter Carey's complexly intertextual and grossly underrated My Life As a Fake (a book that is, among other things, a Bloomian rewriting of the Frankenstein story) stands beside Yuz Aleshkovsky's Kangaroo, of which only the title's Kafkaesque first letter is visible over the thick top of The Cornish Trilogy. Jacques Derrida's Dissemination, about which literally nothing can be said, is twinned with Guy Davenport's Geography of the Imagination. Next comes a popular science book I haven't yet read, Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe, and beside it the best history of gay literature I've ever read, Gregory Woods's cleverly titled A History of Gay Literature. This is a book I highly recommend. It's a very well-written and provocative work of lit history and criticism, not a dry, jargony academic treatise. Beside it stands Dore Ashton's About Rothko, a book I read several years ago and remember absolutely nothing about...I assume it's about Rothko. The first volume of The Aesthetics of Resistance by Peter Weiss raises its black spine as I near the middle of the shelf. I'm still waiting for the other two volumes of this absolute masterpiece of 20th century German literature to be translated into English. Volume one has one of the greatest opening scenes of any novel I've ever read. Even blacker than Weiss is the spine of the next book, a biography of painter Arshile Gorky, whose work is anything but black, although his life had its very dark moments. Serendipitously next to the Gorky bio is Night Studio, Musa Mayer's extraordinary memoir of her father, American painter Philip Guston. This is one of the best intimate portrayals of an American artist I've ever read, a wonderful and informative book. The so-called 'Scottish Ulysses' stands next on my bookshelf: Alasdair Gray's Lanark. It's not as good as Joyce's novel, but it's pretty damn good. David Bradley's National Book Award winning The Chaneysville Incident separates Lanark from a fat collection of Graham Greene's short stories which is almost exactly the same height and thickness as the book beside it, my old Modern Library Giant edition of Carlyle's hyperactive hysterical/historical endeavor, The French Revolution. Towering over these two books are two thinner but taller paperbacks, Samuel Delany's Atlantis and Richard Wolin's Labyrinths, two books that, perhaps improbably, have a thing or two in common. After Labyrinths, we fall into the labyrinths of William Gass's absurdly alliterative prose. Four of Gass's essay collections are lined up on the shelf: Habitations of the Word, Tests of Time, Finding a Form, and The World Within the Word. (Yes, even Gass's titles are alliterative, the Fat Man can't control himself.) After passing Gass, my gaze passes over Antonio Munoz Molina's Sepharad, skips across an anthology of writing on film edited by Gilbert Adair, and reaches row's end at Bruce Cole's informative Titian and Venetian Painting.

Twelve books lie horizontally atop the back row, accidentally arranged in three symmetrical piles of four. (Is this accident or anality? We'll let Herr Doktor Freud, whom Beethoven so grandly and anachonistically invoked near the end of the Ninth Symphony, answer that one.) The first stack, balanced on Bruce Cole and William Gass, contains Christopher Hitchens's God is not Great, a pretty good polemic; Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion, probably the most powerful and compelling of all the recent atheism books; Janet Hobhouse's good novella November; and the great contemporary London writer Iain Sinclair's take on Jack the Ripper, White Chapel, Scarlet Tracings. The middle stack, balanced precariously atop David Bradley, is topped by How Fiction Works, a mistitled but interesting little book by critic James Wood (not to be confused with the actor who has an 's' on his end). Below Wood, A.N. Wilson's biography of the apostle Paul presses down on Carl Schorske's history of Fin de Siecle Vienna, which lies atop Wilson's utterly (and almost comically) scurrilous Iris Murdoch as I Knew Her. The final stack, and the final four books on this shelf (yes, the end is finally here!) comprise a double-decker J.M. Coetzee sandwich: Geoff Dyer's But Beautiful and Wilfred Thesiger's Arabian Sands (neither of which I've read) lie between two volumes of Coetzee's critical essays (which I have read and enjoyed), Stranger Shores and Inner Workings.

And that's just one of my shelves... It's much later at night now, and I'm in danger of falling asleep at my computer, so it's time to call it quits. My next post will be shorter and less self-indulgent. I promise...