Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Daniel Stein, Translator

"Daniel Stein, Interpreter is already seen by many as the great Russian novel of our time."

At least, that's what its publisher claims on the dust jacket. I'm not wholly convinced, though it certainly is true that the novel tells the story of a fascinating character, as the rest of the blurb explains:

"Winner of the Russian National Literary Prize and the Simone de Beauvoir Prize, Ludmila Ulitskaya has earned accolades abroad for this groundbreaking work, at last available in English.

"The novel tells the story of Daniel Stein, a Polish Jew who narrowly survives the Holocaust by working for the Gestapo as an interpreter. After the war, he converts to Catholicism, becomes a priest, enters the Order of Barefoot Carmelites, and finally emigrates to Israel. Despite this seemingly impossible progression, the life and destiny of Daniel Stein are not an invention - the character is based on the actual life of Oswald Rufeisen, the real Brother Daniel.

"This innovative, furious, and funny book, compiled as a series of documents - letters, diary entries, postcards, and other records - ranges from before the war to modern times and from the shtetl to Israel to America. It portrays a life full of amazing contradictions and undaunted faith. In Daniel Stein, Interpreter, Daniel's willingness to communicate with everyone, to translate across linguistic and cultural divides, not only assured his freedom but stands forever as a symbol of love, humanity, and tolerance."

For any Catholic with an interest in literature, this book looks amazing: a positive depiction of Catholicism from a mainstream publisher; a fresh look at what the Catholic novel might be from outside the Anglophone world; a Christian novelist with an international reputation.

But how good is it?

Well, I'm reserving judgment at the moment as I'm only halfway through. In fact, I wouldn't normally comment before finishing a novel but I'm posting now because Ulitskaya was in London last week, in conversation with Brian Klug from St Benet's Hall, Oxford, as part of Jewish Book Week. For brief feedback from one member of the audience click here.

However, at the moment I can't honestly say it's living up to the publisher's gushing praise. And the last sentence of the blurb may explain why. I fear that Daniel Stein, Interpreter has received the accolades it has, partly because of the message of tolerance it gives rather than because it is a great work of literature.

Much the most interesting parts of the novel, I think, are those sections which deal with Daniel's experiences during the war. Unfortunately these sections get rather lost amid a mass of other material about Daniel's later life which is often semi-hagiographical in nature. As one perceptive reviewer has pointed out in the Jewish Review of Books, these "sermonizing" sections are among the novel's weakest.

I am a great fan of postmodern fiction so I don't object to the fragmentary, multi-textual nature of the book but the " letters, diary entries, postcards, and other records" need to serve a purpose and, at the moment, I can't see what that purpose is. Postmodern novels at their best are both playful and clever: this one doesn't seem either clever or playful enough. In fact it all seems rather earnest.

Perhaps Ulitskaya's translator, Arch Tait, provides the key to its interpretation when he quotes Ulitskaya as saying that, “I recognise that what you believe doesn’t matter in the slightest. All that matters is how you personally behave.” Presumably the many different voices in the novel are meant to demonstrate the truth of this assertion.

Maybe I am being unduly harsh on this novel simply because I had such high expectations. The fact that such a novel even exists is in itself a hopeful sign and so it shouldn't be written off too quickly. 

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Royal Shakespeare Company and Catholicism

This week I saw and greatly enjoyed the RSC production of Measure for Measure. I had feared the worst, having read some pretty unfavourable reviews and some less than complimentary comments about Catholicism in the notes provided for teachers. However, it was fascinating to see Measure for Measure performed as a comedy first and as a Problem Play second.

Nevertheless, there were some curious moments, such as the nuns' and friars' first entries. They were chanting in a curious invented language. This is how Dave Price, the Music and Sound Designer explained his thinking:

"My job is to make sure that the music and sound helps with the storytelling: helps the audience to connect with the world that the story happens in. So, the Friars, for example, live in a harsh world, serving a God that they have to work hard for. They go out and minister to the people of Vienna, and minister therefore in a harsh environment, including the prison. So the style of singing for the Friars is inspired by Georgian music and the polyphonic singing tradition of that country. It is hard, bold, edged. I looked at Georgian prayers and wrote them out in English and then abstracted the words even further so that they are an invented language, with a focus on sounds that evoke the Friars rather than a specific language. The music for them is loud and overt. Whereas the music for the Nuns is inspired by Bulgarian music. It isn’t a cultural choice, more a stylistic choice. The words are an invented language again, but this time inspired by the sounds of the Polish language. I studied in Poland. I think we all draw on our own life experiences to create our work. I wanted something which would evoke the lives of the Poor Clares, who, unlike the Friars, live their lives completely shut away from the outside world. The Bulgarian tradition includes unaccompanied female singing, which resonates with the Poor Clare lifestyle, and the resonance in the production of sound feels like the resonance of the cloister. I looked at the research the company had done about the Poor Clare lifestyle and the music for the Nuns is inspired by that."

This is all very interesting but it did mean that the friars and nuns didn't sound like real friars or nuns.

I was reminded of the 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet, in which an actor paraded around the stage with an empty monstrance at various key moments during the play. I suppose this may have been a clever piece of symbolism designed to show how inter-family feuding had driven true religion from the city but, then again, it may have been a superficial and ill-conceived attempt to create a sense of time and place.

This might seem pretty unimportant but, as I've suggested before, it's difficult to sit on the fence when it comes to Measure for Measure, a play about a postulant nun and a duke who disguises himself as a friar. What we make of Catholicism fundamentally affects what we make of the play. Let's take two examples.

What do we make of the duke-friar's advice to Mariana in IV.i when encouraging her to trick Angelo into sleeping with her? "He is your husband on a pre-contract: / To bring you thus together 'tis no sin".

And what about his apparent breaking of the seal of the confessional in III.i? "Angelo had never the purpose to corrupt her; only he hath made an assay of her virtue to practise his judgment with the disposition of natures. ... I am Confessor to Angelo, and I know this to be true".

For any Catholic, these are pretty serious matters and so it would be difficult for any Catholic audience, I would suggest, to see the Duke as a benevolent deus ex machina. As many critics and directors have suggested, he seems to be more problem than solution. But that was not how he was presented in this production. The Duke was a likeable character who got his woman in the end.

However, it is entirely possible that the RSC in this production was closer in spirit to the original production than Catholics might like to think. Shakespeare's original audience (and Shakespeare himself) may well have shared the RSC's lack of respect for Catholic practice and belief. If that was the case then the duke's failings could much more easily have been played as comedy. Maybe seeing Measure for Measure as a Problem Play is a particularly Catholic approach to take.

P.S. The most useful of the RSC's notes for teachers can be found here.

P.P.S. Bess Twiston-Davies has some interesting things to say in this week's Catholic Herald about another of the RSC's current productions, The Heresy of Love.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

3 to Read

Stephanie A. Mann of the Supremacy and Survival blog has asked for my three favourite books but I am unequal to the task. I can't narrow it down so instead I'm going to mention three books which are on my Reading List.

1. Tim Gautreaux - Waiting for the Evening News. Gautreaux, who considers himself "to be a Catholic writer in the tradition of Walker Percy", has received rave reviews and I really enjoyed the Kindle sample of his short stories, so this collection of short stories from the American South is high on my To Read list. There's also a book about his work which looks interesting.

2. Rumer Godden - In This House of Brede. Godden, who converted to Catholicism relatively late in life, wrote this novel about a cloistered Benedictine community shortly after her conversion.

3. Y. B. Mangunwijaya - Durga / Umayi. The Catholic priest and political activist, Mangunwijaya, was a complex and extraordinary person. This novel sounds as if it is too.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

A Far Cry from Kensington

Muriel Spark's A Far Cry from Kensington is a playful, clever and occasionally disturbing comic novel. It is also a book about the publishing industry but it's far from being a self-obsessed media novel.

The central character and narrator is Mrs Hawkins, who works for (and gets sacked by) a series of publishing houses. However, equally important to her and the plot are her fellow tenants in a large "rooming-house" in South Kensington. The most significant of these is Wanda Podolak, a Polish dressmaker and devout Catholic who begins to receive poison letters and anonymous phone calls, the investigation and consequences of which lie at the heart of the novel.

Mrs Hawkins, as she insists on being called, is a wonderful character. A Catholic, like Spark herself, she recites the Angelus at midday even while in the midst of work conversations (which makes for some wonderful comic juxtapositions). She is also a great dispenser of advice and so the novel provides, in passing, some fantastic passages about creative writing, simply because "it fell to me to give advice to many authors ... So I will repeat it here, free of charge."

This advice includes such gems as acquiring a cat, which "will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. ... The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost."

I have not yet taken this advice myself and so cannot comment on its usefulness.

Someone else who fails to take any of Mrs Hawkins' advice is Hector Bartlett, a "pisseur de copie", who represents all that Mrs Hawkins (and, I suspect, Spark herself) despised. He was a writer who, as he put it, took "incalculable pains with my prose style."

"He did indeed," the narrator agrees. "The pains showed. His writings writhed and ached with twists and turns and tergiversations, inept words, fanciful repetitions, far-fetched verbosity and long, Latin-based words."

The page and a half which this quotation concludes would make a wonderful A Level unseen passage.

But A Far Cry from Kensington is not simply a book to be mined for great quotes: it is a novel which fizzes with wit, intrigue and psychological insights. Muriel Spark was a great novelist and, as this and many other novels reveal, her books deserves to be much more widely studied and read.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Catholicism and Music

It might reasonably be objected that this topic falls outside the scope of this blog (and outside my area of expertise) but I think an examination of Catholicism's relationship with music in the last hundred years or so can help shed light on its relationship with literature.

If we look at some of the big names in contemporary classical music, it's striking how many of them are religious believers. What's even more striking is how their religious beliefs are absolutely central to their work. Catholics like James MacMillan and Roxanna Panufnik, and Russian Orthodox composers like Sofia Gubaidulina and Arvo Pärt, who was recently appointed a member of the Pontifical Council for Culture, have allowed their faith to shape their work in a way which we hardly ever see in contemporary literature.

Nor are they aberrations in a largely secular profession. A huge number of the most important composers of the 20th Century were Catholics: de Falla, Dupré, Duruflé, Elgar, Gorecki, Messiaen, Poulenc, Schnittke and others besides.

So what conclusions and what parallels can we draw from this? Asking "Where Have All the Catholic Writers Gone?
", Robert Fay argues that the (temporary) disappearance of the Latin Mass is one of the root causes of what he sees as a Catholic literary decline. It's an interesting argument - though I'm not wholly convinced by his expression of it - and it is certainly true that Catholic composers have never been cut off from the Catholic past in the same way as their literary counterparts. The (Latin) Mass has continued to be fundamentally important to composers of all faiths and none right up to the present day.

It is also true, as organist-composers such as Dupré, Duruflé, and Messiaen reveal, that the Church has continued to be a hugely important patron of the musical arts. But the prevalence of Catholic composers does not stem from patronage alone.

Equally significant, I would argue, has been the determination of Catholic and Orthodox composers to remain at the forefront of the avant-garde. Composers such as Pärt, Gubaidulina, Schnittke, and Messiaen have been at the forefront of the 20th Century's radical musical experiments not despite their religion but because of it.

Olivier Messiaen, the greatest of them all, was a true Catholic artist precisely because he embraced everything from birdsong to Hindu rhythms, from serialism to Gregorian chant, in his music, while grounding it all in the language of mystical love.

And he wasn't alone. Alfred Schnittke, who was also at the forefront of the 20th Century's avant-garde, allowed his Catholic faith to shape his musical work. His powerful Fourth Symphony, for example, is based on the Mysteries of the Rosary.

The musical and theological confidence of these composers stands out in an era of doubt. Rather than allow their beliefs or music to be compartmentalised or sidelined into the musical equivalent of the God Slot, they brought 
the life of the Church into the concert hall. By contrast, it now seems hard to imagine a contemporary novelist publishing the equivalent of Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant-Jésus (or Pärt's Adam's Lament or MacMillan's Triduum).

So can we draw any conclusions about the way forward for Catholic literature based on the success of Catholic (and Orthodox) composers? I would tentatively suggest the following:
  1. Being Catholic doesn't mean rejecting the avant-garde.
  2. Being avant-garde doesn't mean rejecting the Catholic past. 
  3. Catholic art can and should reach out to non-Catholic audiences.
Undoubtedly there's more to be said but that's quite enough for one post.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

More Thoughts on Catholicism and the Novel

As I mentioned in a previous post, Georg Lukács famously claimed that the novel was "the epic of a world that has been abandoned by God." But does this stand up to examination?

It's easy to assume that 19th Century Realist novels (and their 20th Century Modernist successors) define the genre. With their focus on the individual in this world alone, Eliot, Hardy, Woolf et al certainly seem to have written epics of a world abandoned by God.

However, it doesn't take long to find another way of looking at the novel. We have, for instance, just celebrated the 200th anniversary of Charles Dickens, an author who (according to G.K. Chesterton) was heir to a different tradition that stretched back through Shakespeare to Chaucer and other great pre-Reformation authors.

As Flannery O'Connor once wisely noted in 'Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction': "All novelists are fundamentally seekers and describers of the real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of the ultimate reaches of reality."

I would argue that some of the novelists of the 19th Century did a wonderful job of describing this world but only at the cost of restricting their vision of reality.

So where are the novelists to whom Flannery O'Connor's words apply? Muriel Spark, a Catholic convert, is a good example.

According to one critic: "[It] is as parables concerning the nature of reality that her novels must be read. In them reality exists simultaneously on several different planes. Most often and most easily observed is the naturalistic level, a term used here to refer to the ordinary or commonplace world characterized by unremarkable people who lead routine lives. The naturalistic level is presented with absolute clarity and reality. Less easily understood is the author's presentation of the supernatural level, which frequently interrupts and alters the naturalistic plane."

And later she adds: "Muriel Spark … emerges as a novelist whose themes are religious, even if they are not always couched in traditionally religious terms…. [The] author is acutely aware not only of the world of man, but also of the world of God and the incongruity between the two. The world of man is represented by the naturalistic surface of her novels which realistically depicts the commonplace lives of the characters. The world of God is represented by the extraordinary and inexplicable happenings which disrupt that surface. Both are quite real. They are complementary parts of a whole and rich reality…."

It is perhaps no surprise that Muriel Spark still does not receive the acclaim she deserves. Unless writing about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, many commentators simply don't know what to make of her. She doesn't quite fit into the tradition of the novel as popularly conceived.

But, of course, she's not alone. There have been plenty of other novelists who wrote about what Evelyn Waugh called, in his 1959 preface to Brideshead Revisited, "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters".

It's also worth pointing out that the world of the novel has changed out of all recognition since Lukács wrote The Theory of the Novel in 1920 (and even since Leavis wrote The Great Tradition in 1948) Both Magic Realism and Postmodernism in their different ways have disrupted the Realist tradition. Novelists now have to be open to wider possibilities, even the possibility of faith.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

François Mauriac and the Nobel Prize

I am in the middle of a school inspection at the moment so don't have time for anything other than this link to François Mauriac's very interesting Nobel Prize acceptance speech.