Wednesday, July 30, 2008

a home for dreamers

Ukrainian sky ship. More photos here.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Zu Abend mein Herz

Am Abend hört man den Schrei der Fledermäuse.
Zwei Rappen springen auf der Wiese.
Der rote Ahorn rauscht.
Dem Wanderer erscheint die kleine Schenke am Weg.
Herrlich schmecken junger Wein und Nüsse.
Herrlich: betrunken zu taumeln in dämmernden Wald.
Durch schwarzes Geäst tönen schmerzliche Glocken.
Auf das Gesicht tropft Tau.

--Georg Trakl, 1913

Monday, July 14, 2008

Vintage album art

Ted Coconis, Album cover for RCA Records, c. 1971

Kitsch but striking sleeve art for my favourite Shostakovich symphony, in a sort of Klimt meets Hammer Horror style. I'm not sure about the big skull, which appears to have been painted with toothpaste, but I like the interlocking nudes and crosses just below and to the right of it:

A quick Google search reveals that illustrator Ted Coconis is still around, though his recent paintings lack the period charm of works like this Jefferson Airplane sleeve, featuring a clever parody of Hugo van der Goes' Fall of Man:

Ted Coconis, Album cover for RCA Records (detail), date unknown

A film poster, Dorian Gray, yields this characteristic detail, which would have made an excellent, if trashy, cover for Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita:

Ted Coconis, Film poster for Dorian Gray (detail), c. 1973

Bulgakov brings us back round to Russia and Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, a harrowing, death-wracked song-cycle for soprano, bass, strings and percussion. Composed in 1969, it sets poems by Lorca, Apollinaire and Rilke. Much as I admire it, I can only bring myself to listen to it every two or three years, so tormented and tormenting is it. Perhaps I'm due another hearing.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Isle of the Dead


All day I have been listening obsessively to Rachmaninoff's symphonic poem "The Isle of the Dead", the composer's response to the famous painting by the idiosyncratic Swiss painter Arnold Böcklin. Rachmaninoff was obsessed with and terrified by death, and his music is mournful and doom-laden enough. Böcklin's intentions were perhaps somewhat different. He did not give the painting its title, and declared that he painted in order to make people dream: “Just as it is poetry's task to express feelings, painting must provoke them too. A picture must give the spectator as much food for thought as a poem and must make the same kind of impression as a piece of music. Who would ever have been able to anticipate the effect of music before having heard it? Painting should pervade the soul in the same way, and as long as it does not do this it is nothing more than a brainless handicraft. There is no end to the poetry of the beautiful.”

I have indeed dreamt long over these depictions of what seem, in my gloomier moments, ideal places of exile. If it is not, after all, a tomb-island, it would make a perfect retreat. I have left off the customary titles so as not to impede the dreaming.



Saturday, July 12, 2008

In every dream home a heartache

Since childhood I've been fascinated by abandoned houses, and I dream of them frequently. Here are some magnificent examples from Russia, which would once have made fine settings for the stories of Tolstoy or Chekhov. It's extraordinary how these houses have sat empty and slowly decaying, perhaps since 1917, while the world has rushed on. So many human projects that could not be sustained, lost in time.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Siesta, or the Joys of Tigerloafing

Frederick Arthur Bridgman, The Siesta, 1878

In my lengthy search for a suitable image to accompany my translation of Govoni's "Peonies", failing to find a satisfactory painting of that flower, I began to look instead at odalisques, and gradually became somewhat obsessed with the motif of languidly reclining woman, so favoured by 19th century painters. I find this work especially soothing; the mild play of light and shade, the harmonious array of complementary colours, the glimpse of lush mediterranean greenery. I could spend days on this sofa, provided some discreet familiar to regularly refill pipe and teapot. Perhaps the monkey would oblige.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

I can no longer read novels

Many years ago a dear friend of mine, a poet, declared that he did not read many novels. They were, in his words "dilute poetry". I was not at that time inclined to agree with him, but of late I find a great weariness creeps over me at the thought of reading fiction, a weariness which becomes overwhelming on actually opening a novel and reading a first line. I find myself much in accord with this passage from André Breton's 1924 Manifesto of Surrealism:

...the realistic attitude, inspired by positivism, from Saint Thomas Aquinas to Anatole France, clearly seems to me to be hostile to any intellectual or moral advancement. I loathe it, for it is made up of mediocrity, hate, and dull conceit. It is this attitude which today gives birth to these ridiculous books, these insulting plays. It constantly feeds on and derives strength from the newspapers and stultifies both science and art by assiduously flattering the lowest of tastes; clarity bordering on stupidity, a dog’s life. The activity of the best minds feels the effects of it; the law of the lowest common denominator finally prevails upon them as it does upon the others. An amusing result of this state of affairs, in literature for example, is the generous supply of novels. Each person adds his personal little "observation" to the whole. As a cleansing antidote to all this, M. Paul Valéry recently suggested that an anthology be compiled in which the largest possible number of opening passages from novels be offered; the resulting insanity, he predicted, would be a source of considerable edification. The most famous authors would be included. Such a thought reflects great credit on Paul Valéry who, some time ago, speaking of novels, assured me that, so far as he was concerned, he would continue to refrain from writing: "The Marquise went out at five." But has he kept his word?

If the purely informative style, of which the sentence just quoted is a prime example, is virtually the rule rather than the exception in the novel form, it is because, in all fairness, the author’s ambition is severely circumscribed. The circumstantial, needlessly specific nature of each of their notations leads me to believe that they are perpetrating a joke at my expense. I am spared not even one of the character’s slightest vacillations: will he be fairhaired? what will his name be? will we first meet him during the summer? So many questions resolved once and for all, as chance directs; the only discretionary power left me is to close the book, which I am careful to do somewhere in the vicinity of the first page. And the descriptions! There is nothing to which their vacuity can be compared; they are nothing but so many superimposed images taken from some stock catalogue, which the author utilizes more and more whenever he chooses; he seizes the opportunity to slip me his postcards, he tries to make me agree with him about the clichés:

The small room into which the young man was shown was covered with yellow wallpaper: there were geraniums in the windows, which were covered with muslin curtains; the setting sun cast a harsh light over the entire setting... There was nothing special about the room. The furniture, of yellow wood, was all very old. A sofa with a tall back turned down, an oval table opposite the sofa, a dressing table and a mirror set against the pierglass, some chairs along the walls, two or three etchings of no value portraying some German girls with birds in their hands – such were the furnishings. (Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment)

I am in no mood to admit that the mind is interested in occupying itself with such matters, even fleetingly. It may be argued that this school-boy description has its place, and that at this juncture of the book the author has his reasons for burdening me. Nevertheless he is wasting his time, for I refuse to go into his room. Others’ laziness or fatigue does not interest me. I have too unstable a notion of the continuity of life to equate or compare my moments of depression or weakness with my best moments. When one ceases to feel, I am of the opinion one should keep quiet. And I would like it understood that I am not accusing or condemning lack of originality as such. I am only saying that I do not take particular note of the empty moments of my life, that it may be unworthy for any man to crystallize those which seem to him to be so. I shall, with your permission, ignore the description of that room, and many more like it.