Culture Corner

Book Review: Compass by Mathias Énard (New Directions, 2015; translated into English, 2017)

Bernie Langs

There are novels that are categorized as literature and not merely as fiction, and then there are the geniuses of literature and the masterworks of the genre. Reading these masterpieces of literary creation, we enter a process of joyful sublimation to the voices and experiences of unique characters, and we become witnesses to the colorful imaginations of the authors. One surrenders to the writers’ individualized and distinctive tones of language and states of mind as they conjure up realities that arise from a void as an expression of the acrobatic mental instincts which the best authors can relay through the art of written prose. A master of literature can construct a great sentence, a stunning paragraph, an unforeseen set of plot circumstances, and create an entire sublime world for their tales and stories.

I have recently read an amazing book, a true masterpiece, by the French author, Mathias Énard (b. 1972). Compass was published in 2015 and translated into English this year. It is simply the most wonderfully powerful work of fiction I’ve read in recent memory. It was a winner of the 2015 Prix Goncourt (a highly regarded prize in French literature). Compass clocks in at a lengthy 443 pages and is a difficult read. It is dense with nonstop ideas and an incredible number of facts on many topics, none of which are dropped easily into the text by the author. Énard’s book reflects his voluminous, deep knowledge of the many subjects he addresses, often expressed as anecdotes from the arts, literature, nonfiction tomes on many subjects, from obscure moments in history and most importantly, from the flavors and ideas of distant and mysterious lands.

The story in Compass is narrated by a brilliant musicologist who ruminates through the complexities of his lifetime that borders on, but never gives completely into, a total disaster. The protagonist, Franz Ritter, is in the throes of horrific insomnia at home in an apartment in Vienna as he delves deep into the memories of his travels through the Middle East and his scholarly pursuit to expose and relate the interconnections throughout history between Eastern and Western (mostly) classical music. One might think this a dry subject, but the emotional passion of Franz and those who shared his quest of making the twain of East and West meet makes for a gripping story. Franz’s baseline tale always returns to his love over decades of the brilliant French academic, Sarah. The reader comes to realize that Franz is now most likely deathly ill, and as we hear the sad details of his strange, mostly unrequited love for her, Énard immerses us in Franz’s consuming melancholy, all the while understanding his odd, unexpected strength. Through thick and thin, he is able to remain above water and not drown in a flood of bitter regret.

Franz is as complete a character as one could ever meet in fiction; always consistent, always real in so many detailed ways in his actions, words and thinking. His many admitted shortcomings still never lead the reader to dislike him. In the stories of the scholars and adventurers that he has met in his life while visiting places such as Istanbul, Tehran, Damascus, and Aleppo, there are numerous acts of duplicity and cruelty, and in Franz’s own case, pettiness. And it is the same with the tales he tells at length about the actions of the eccentrics of the past. Yet within this odd brew, there are grand redeeming moments of love and heroism, from both Franz’s lifetime and from the examples of men and women unearthed from the historical records, those from the desert sands of time.

Sarah rises above these flaws of personality, suffering only from the more intellectual quirk of the occasional fascination with the macabre. As Franz describes his own research of the history of music and delves into Sarah’s complex studies, the reader learns details of their work, with dozens of references to Middle Eastern composers and writers, as well as histories of individuals from the past with like-minded obsessiveness. They were Westerners who went against the grain and saw the allure of these mysterious, disconnected lands.

Here is one random, wonderful passage: “The human heart is indeed a strange thing. Franz Liszt’s artichoke heart didn’t stop falling in love, even with God—in these reminiscences of opium, as I hear the virtuosities of Liszt that occupied me in Constantinople rumbling like death march drums, a singular girl also appears to me, over there in Sarawak, even if Sarah has nothing in common with la Duplessis or with Harriet Smithson (“Do you see that fat Englishwoman sitting in the proscenium,” Heinrich Heine has Berlioz saying in his account), the actress who inspired the Symphonie Fantastique. Poor Berlioz, lost in his passion for the interpreter of “poor Ophelia”: “Poor great geniuses, grappling with three-quarters of the impossible!” as Liszt writes in one of his letters. You’d need a Sarah to be interested in all of these tragic fates of forgotten women…”

Although he is brilliant, Franz is fully aware and accepting of his scholarly limitations, and, wandering his apartment in sleeplessness, he admits he never reached the top as an academic. Both Franz and Sarah are studies in complete devotion to the work itself and to the process of slow and steady, exciting, absorbing discovery. Compass is a brilliant tale of intellectual pursuit that is always in tandem with the underpinning emotion of love as a concurrent force. It is a love which goes naturally with a researcher’s ideas, and as a given that is always present during the events of their lives and in history itself.

The other melancholy, terrible theme of the book is how Franz sees his beloved Middle East devolve to its current situation of war, fundamentalist religion, and miserable violence. We read the awful tales of friends caught in Iran during the Revolution and the destruction of the people and places he’s long loved, and been in awe of, by the barbaric, ruthless armies of ISIS or as victims of Assad in the Syrian civil war. It’s a heartbreaking story of what has been lost, tinged with the sadness of what could have been.

Franz is not a showy intellectual. He never brags about his incredible knowledge and though his studies take him to the heart of the Middle East, to the dangerous cities and outskirts of Iran, Turkey, and Syria where he is clearly a Western outsider, his tunnel vision of discovering artistic and scholarly connections between East and West exposes his disconnect, which leads to a defeat. This all collapses into the mire of today’s horrific problems. Franz and his colleagues didn’t blind themselves to the coming storm by studying in America or Europe encased in an Ivory Tower at a university, mulling over The Arabian Nights, simply reading, lecturing, and attending conferences. But while they put their boots on the ground and ventured abroad, they roamed within the intellectual, fortified towers of their minds and did not stop to consider that there might be something possibly irreversibly horrific being conjured up before their very eyes, even though the region’s history gives them all the glaring warning signs.

As I read Compass, I was completely captivated by the intense musings of the inner states of Franz Ritter’s unique and fascinating mind. Mathias Énard writes beautifully, like a once in a decade master of literature, and I look forward to more novels by this brilliant man.

Culture Corner

 

Television review: The Defiant Ones (HBO documentary)

Bernie Langs

Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones”

Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre, featured in HBO’s documentary “The Defiant Ones” (promotional photo: HBO)

The HBO television network changed the landscape of TV programming for the better and for many years has offered innovative, well-written, and imaginative shows and documentaries that leave the cliché plagued series of the established networks in the dust. Its latest triumph is The Defiant Ones, a four-part documentary series, directed by Allen Hughes, covering the long careers of former music producer turned music mogul, Jimmy Iovine, and rapper, Andre Romelle Young, better known as Dr. Dre.

 In his book series, Parallel Lives written in the second century AD, the historian Plutarch gives a biography of a Roman politician, general, or famous, personality and offers a corresponding history of someone from ancient Greece in an effort to expose their moral and ethical similarities, and examine their triumphs and failures in tandem. In The Defiant Ones, we similarly get a rendering of two men from extremely different backgrounds, but unlike those written about by Plutarch, these two lives eventually come together and intersect in the most unexpected ways. What stands out to me as the defining parallel quality of both men, each of whom approach music and its industry from different vantage points, is their unflagging commitment to artistry, stripped away from any monetary or social gain. Both have unrelenting pure visions of what comprises great music and neither is willing to compromise their ideals, often risking ruin toe hold fast to their creative principles.

The series offers incredible footage and photographs from the early careers of both Iovine and Dr. Dre, and Allen Hughes was able to procure interviews with many of the main players throughout their lives, including Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Pattie Smith, Stevie Nicks, and Trent Reznor for Iovine, and rappers such as Ice Cube, Sean Combs, Eminem, and Snoop Dogg for Dr. Dre. A host of behind-the-scenes music industry executives and business managers as well as friends and family also weigh in on the parts they played in this incredible musical odyssey. It is striking that all of the famous Rock ‘N’ Roll and pop personalities come across as genuine and emotional in describing how Iovine has one relentless, driving mission in his intersection with them: to find a way for them to best realize their artistic vision and get their work out to as many people as possible so that their audiences think about their work and enjoy it. The number of artists Iovine discovered and directed to success is astounding.

I am less familiar with the work of Dr. Dre and know much of his history from news stories here and there, from such films as Straight Outta Compton. Compton is a undeniably a great movie, but Dr. Dre’s story, as told in The Defiant Ones, actually inspired me as a composer and musician and in my modest efforts in music recording. Dr. Dre is a perfectionist in the recording studio, demanding and expecting excellence from himself and the artists he works with. I have to admit that I’ve never cared for rap or hip-hop, but on occasion I do see the art and beauty of it, especially in terms of its production values. There is an early film montage of Dr. Dre, pre-fame, masterfully DJing in his native Compton area, where he plays the classic girl group song “Mr. Postman.” I never liked or appreciated that sound before, but he does it not only to perfection, but with obvious respect for the original recording. It was that very show that launched Dr. Dre’s start in the business, since the club owner booked him for future gigs.

In Plutarch’s Lives, there are examples of famous Romans and Greeks who either fell as victims of their character flaws or triumphed over them. Straight Outta Compton glossed over Dr. Dre’s history of violence with women, but it is depicted in The Defiant Ones. It was interesting to see Dee Barnes, a hip-hop journalist, interviewed as an authority on the rap history timeline and then revealed to be one of the women who were assaulted by Dr. Dre in the past. Although Dr. Dre apologized at length for his past horrific actions, having realized it was something terrible that he had done and that he will always have to live with, viewers will certainly take note of his past pattern of inexcusable and downright awful, violent behavior. Iovine also struggled with how he handled the escalation of violence between East and West Coast rap recording artists, many of whom were tied to him and Dr. Dre. At its worst, the violence actually descended into murder. There are incredible interviews at this point in the series with Sean Combs and Snoop Dogg that are emotional and chilling, and the story of Tupac Shakur’s demise is recounted in depth.

One of the great anecdotes in the series describes the origin of the wildly popular Beats by Dre. After his divorce, Iovine felt lost and was floundering as he wandered on a beach one afternoon when Dr. Dre saw him from his balcony and waved for him to come up for a chat. Dr. Dre explained to Iovine that he was getting approached for endorsements but didn’t want to cheaply put his name on sneakers, etc. Iovine brilliantly suggests designing headphones with high-quality sound, an idea that would be right up Dr. Dre’s alley. They went on to found Beats Electronics in 2006, and after carefully crafting and tastefully marketing their product, which was sold to Apple in 2014 for $3 billion. In May 2013, they donated a $70 million endowment to the University of Southern California to create the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology, and the Business of Innovation.

Throughout their extensive interviews in the show, Dr. Dre and Iovine never come across in with them in the show as pretentious or egotistically struck by their own success or stardom; Iovine has great comedic timing. I’ve always found Dr. Dre to be a brooding, soulful presence and though he has a lot of screen time in this series, he retains an air of mystery, professionalism, and magic. There is a fantastic shot of him in part four of the series where he hovers like a Zen master over a huge recording studio console.

The Defiant Ones inspires one to stay true to oneself and to one’s vision of life, whether it be as an artist or just in retaining a set of uncompromising positive values and to remain steadfast when these values are challenged.

Culture Corner

 

Ubiquitous Art

Bernie Langs

I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.

Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2

Ah, yes, the famous malaise of the pseudo-mad Danish Prince, the speech of Hamlet to his school friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on the depressive bent that has overtaken his disposition, even while recognizing that the magnificent wonders of the world cascade before his very eyes. I believe that many of us also communicate a similar despair through email, text, Facebook, or in conversation with our friends, of our inner conflicts about the depressing state of politics in our troubled nation. Personally, I lay no claim to the insights of a Hamlet, yet, as I’ve hit my 60th year of life on this planet, I find it hard at times to muster the strength to care and gather excitement for professional sports and for what currently passes as art and entertainment. And I’ve long given up hope for the salvaging of the higher ideals of America’s revolutionary concepts of democracy and government. Yet I know in my heart that there are many times when my dreary, lazy pessimism can be shoved aside and temporarily forgotten, such as when at an art exhibition I’ve dragged myself to exhilarate my soul, or the moment an orchestral or guitar passage at a concert rises to heavenly heights granting momentary freedom of mind. Unfortunately, like the feeling I get after consuming a bag of Doritos, I sink back into unsatisfied appetite, and the opiate high of stimulated intellect crashes down, mired in the dreary muck and Dickensian soot of the times in which we live. I always knew the world would change in my lifetime, but I could never have imagined or anticipated a place of constant stimulation mixed with the underlying hum of continual disappointment.

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, National Gallery, London

Saint Catherine of Alexandria by Raphael, National Gallery, London (photo: Wikipedia).

Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, pinpoints the source of so much of what bothers me now in the arts. Benjamin was the first to recognize a deadly and serious danger that the art world would confront going forward. He realized that the ease of reproducing great works of art would cast a shadow over the unique qualities of the actual images and first-hand experiences. If the Mona Lisa, for example becomes available as a cheap postcard churned out by the hundreds of thousands and in art history textbooks again and again, over and over, the mind of the beholder loses the ability to conceive of what made the actual physical painting a masterpiece in the first place. This uncomfortable understanding stretches out widely in the arts, rippling forever outwards like the waves set in motion by a sudden disturbance on the surface at the center of a placid lake.

Of course, art should be sustenance for all and available to everyone; that is something I’ve never doubted for a moment. But what art philosophers such as Walter Benjamin realized was that by cheapening the “primary” object of art, people who never visit the original work or take the time to experience true art amid this barrage of valueless clutter will never experience its “aura” or have what art historian Kenneth Clark terms as a “moment of vision.” The essence of the spiritual power and the feat of the technical creation is diluted, or worse, completely lost, replaced by a tawdry mechanized imitation.

In music, for example, it appears that we’ve created a world of the most casual of listeners. Songs are available at any time and in any place. You can halt a Beethoven symphony on a hand-held device in the middle of a violinist’s most passionate stroke of the bow. Few people take the time to ponder a classical piece as an entirety, to struggle with its complex structuring and discover its meaning as a totality, as a bold statement of a nuanced idea. Pop music is ubiquitous, piped in at shopping malls, in pharmacies, even in restaurant restrooms. Has anyone ever been in a Target store or a CVS pharmacy and paused to say, “Wow, I love this song, let me stop and listen?” Pop music has long been the loving cash cow of an aggressive music industry, and it is the songs that are thus devalued as mere commodities. We’ve now reached the point where the capitalist-generated brand of music as a “product” latches on like a deadly virus to the artistic expression of the song, and unbelievably, the artists themselves are transformed and morphed into becoming the physical “face” of a commodity such as soda, a bank, or snack food. In my mind this is a horrific dehumanizing concept that the ghosts of economic opposites Karl Marx and Adam Smith must both be choking on.

Beyoncé as the “face” of Pepsi

Beyoncé as the “face” of Pepsi (photo: Forbes).

When I studied art history on my own, for many years I took in Raphael’s High Renaissance depictions of Saints and Madonnas, through photos in books. For years I viewed them with disdain, seeing them as sugary and overly sweet and not close in conception to the works or genius of his contemporaries, such as Michelangelo and Leonard da Vinci. But standing in front of the very same paintings at the National Gallery in London or the National Gallery of Art in Washington I experienced jaw-dropping, intense moments of revelation. No photo in a book, no postcard or computer image can capture the textures of skin and clothing in Raphael’s paintings. The artist’s depiction of ethereal time and space, religious realms juxtaposed with temporal dimensions, and the souls and complex emotions within the depicted individuals are best experienced in situ. There are mind-blowing, often indescribable details and nuances that can never be captured in widely dispersed and carelessly conceived reproductions.

There’s a funny story that when Dustin Hoffman was making the 1976 movie Marathon Man, there was a scene where he’s fleeing some would-be killers, and to prepare for the filming of that moment he was standing alone on the film’s set doing all kinds of physical and mental calisthenics to prepare for the action. As he was going through all of this, his older, legendary co-star, Sir Laurence Olivier, walked up to him and said, “Why don’t you just try acting?” I felt quite the same last year when I went to see the overwhelming, powerful paintings by Van Gogh at the Metropolitan Museum. I couldn’t see much of them because people were blocking the masterpieces taking photos with cell phones and large iPads. What I wanted to say was, “Why don’t you just try looking?” The primary source itself had become for many visitors just a living postcard, a photo op with a piece of famous canvas. The power of Van Gogh was lost to them in their snapping haste, as if the vital paintings were nothing more than soda cans in the flesh bearing the face of their favorite stars. Yes, the soul of genius reduced to the muzak equivalent of a special effects Starry Night.