Saturday, June 30, 2007

The World's Navel

......all that fighting over this place. Every real day, thousands of years into the past, and underlying so much of the background of Chabon's alternate history.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Jewish history is complicated and full of opportunists, sell-outs, optimists, altruists, realists, and dreamers. Depressing reversals of fortune and betrayals are fundamental to any part of it. It's hard to grasp any big picture of Jewish history or identity. So much is distorted, intentionally or through accidents to the people who might have told their story.

In the modern Jerusalem I've experienced, the views of history vary enormously. Black-hats (a.k.a. Hassids or Haredi) live, work, study, and possess their own view of history. Every person sightseeing or weeping at the Western Wall of the ancient Temple has his own view, I'd say. The Arabs selling tea and Oriental sweets and Falafal and Arab-logo Coke, the Christian tourists -- everybody has a point of view. Any Jew in Jerusalem surely senses the fragile nature of the Israeli success. Seeing Jewish history alive like this is scary.

In The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Chabon has made up a bizarrrely alternate Jewish history. He embeds a huge palate of characters and events in a consistent invented world where Jewish life continues despite its terrible recent past. Using just a few allusions and references, he creates an alternate end to World War II and to the foundation of the State of Israel. The Zionist dream in Chabon's alternate world means something entirely different than it meant before the war, or what it may mean now, retrospectively. The book is so self-contained that I think the reader has no time to ask if the alternate history is at all plausible. That's just not an issue, I'd say.

Comparison with Philip Roth's The Plot against America, another alternate Jewish history, seems inevitable. But Chabon's whole approach differs utterly. Roth gave us ordinary characters faced with an extreme challenge, and his point is to highlight their survival. Chabon gives us extraordinary characters, primarily policemen, murder victims, and criminals. He creates a Chassidic sect that controls organized crime in the temporary Jewish settlement in the wilds of Alaska (Did I mention that the alternate Jewish reality is in Sitka? Well, it is.) He creates a whole society of transplanted Jews who have named their streets and buildings after 19th century Yiddish heros and authors, and have adapted to life in the modern world -- especially guns and cell phones -- without really abolishing the Shtetl.

Above all, unlike Roth, Chabon never really tells us if his imagined Jewish community survives the ordeal he puts them through. Looking forward, his main character at the end of the book considers: "Any kind of wonder seems likely. That the Jews will pick up and set sail for the promised land to feast on giant grapes and toss their beards in the desert wind. That the temple will be rebuilt, speedily and in our day. War will cease, ease and plenty and righteousness will be universal, and humankind will be treated to the regular specacle of lions and lambs cohabiting. Every man will be a rabbi, every woman a holy book, and every suit will come with two pairs of pants." (p. 407) This is hope? Nah.

Characters in The Yiddish Policemen's Union speak Yiddish and curse in American, though there's rarely a word of actual Yiddish in the text. A few remember a version of Hebrew that was emerging in 1948 when disaster befell the nascent state of Israel. Their speech contains all the good humor and pithy idioms of 1920s American Yiddish, remembered with nostalgia, and written with unbeliveable skill. It's worth reading just for the dialog.

This oddball Jewish settlement has made it past the year 2000, and their lease on Alsaka is about to expire. They face an existential challenge: where will they go and what will they do, as their land reverts to the native Americans.

The plot is a police procedural: someone unknown is getting away with murder, and a cover-up is impairing the honest, committed and personally conflicted police officers (two men, one woman, lots of baggage). Love, loyalty, alcoholism, a chess master's puzzle, parents, unborn infants, a possible messiah with a gift for blessing and a curse on his own existence, international political plots, and a miasma of complicated personal stories mingle. Perhaps the most impressive and unlikely portrait is of the wife of the Chassidic rabbi and her role at the rabbi's court, which is located on an Alaskan island. Or perhaps the most impressive character is the half-Indian half-Jewish policeman named Berko. Perhaps it's the failed messiah.

Can we really picture this all happening against a background of midnight sun (like in this photo I stole from some chamber of commerce website, unlike my own original photos of Jerusalem!) Can we see these yids, as they consistently call themselves, in an imaginary Alaska November with snow, sleet, rain and cold? Well, we have to.

Did I mention that I loved every word of this book, and that I'm lost in admiration for its combination of totally improbable choices of topic, style, language, and subject matter? The way it toys with the big issues of Jewish history but doesn't make them burdensome. Or almost doesn't?

My friend Olga brought me the book, and was pleased that she had chosen so perfectly. I'm grateful to her for this choice.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Greenfield Village

"WE'RE going through!" The Commander's voice was like thin ice breaking. He wore his full-dress uniform, with the heavily braided white cap pulled down rakishly over one cold gray eye. "We can't make it, sir. It's spoiling for a hurricane, if you ask me." "I'm not asking you, Lieutenant Berg," said the Commander. "Throw on the power lights! Rev her up to 8500! We're going through!" The pounding of the cylinders increased: ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa. . . .

"Not so fast! You're driving too fast!" said Mrs. Mitty. "What are you driving so fast for?"

So begins "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty." For him, all engines went ta-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa-pocketa especially when he heard his own old car making the noise, a background to whatever adventure he was having.

As we drove along in an ancient and venerable Ford today, Olga suddenly understood what sound Walter Mitty was hearing: poketa poketa... went our vehicle's distributor, sparking its sparkplugs and just its general reluctance to go slow enough for the safetey concerns of the village, using its two forward gears. Does it use unleaded gas? Well, yes, it was built before gas was leaded (and later unleaded).

After our ride in the old ford, we enjoyed a number of different sights in the village.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Shakespeare in the Arb

The isle was full of noises. A flute, drums, and thunder-making devices supplemented the sounds in the Arboretum on a beautiful evening, mild and not particularly humid. The rumbling of the train and once its whistle, the songs of birds, a woodpecker drumming, a very loud creaking of a branch in the wind, a helicopter heading for one of the nearby hospitals, and the puffing of an occasional runner rounded out the noises.

"The Tempest" in the Arboretum used the entire Arb as Prospero's island. Before the performance, we ate a snack beside the Huron River, where the remains of the shipwreck that begins the play were visible on the other side of the river. (Admittedly, although we suspected they were the shipwreck we thought they also might be a homeless person's belongings.)

The play began in a rather open space beside the woods. As Prospero explained Miranda's mysterious past, an airy spirit was standing in the limbs of a pine tree. Several sprites shared Ariel's lines, as well as haunting the woods as the 150 members of the audience moved to the part of the island where the action took place, under the direction of the artistic director. Ushers in identifiable "Tempest" t-shirts guided the lines of "groundlings" who like us had brought a blanket to sit on, and the others, who had chairs or chose to stand up. Two golf carts transported those who couldn't walk.

The constant changes of scene, the movement of the sprites in the trees, and the changing light as the sun set on the longest day of the year made an extraordinary setting for an excellently acted production, which used no artificial lighting or amplified sound. As in Shakespeare's time, it began early in the evening and ended at sunset.

Prospero was excellent as particularly were the two drunken courtiers, Stephano and Trinculo. Caliban was fantastic. He walked on his hands and feet, and snarled most effectively as Stephano drank from his bark bottle:Here is how the audience filed through the woods. In the foreground is my friend Olga, who's visiting us this week:
The players bowed as the audience applauded and the sun was setting behind the trees. The only odd sensory experience was a miasma of insect repellent that people sprayed on themselves throughout the play.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Anthony and Cleopatra

I'm dizzy from reading this play where each scene moves to a different location all around the Mediterranean, and where the personal and the political swirl together more confusingly than the current political scene in France. (Parallel in the news: the loser of the recent election, Segolene Royal, has dismissed her lover and rival for political leadership of the French socialists. Bedfellows make strange politics there. They will soon be forgotten in France, and have hardly been noticed at all over here.)

In movies, there are often examples of swirls like this. By chance, in the midst of my reading the play, we watched the film Babel, which jumps between Africa, Japan, San Diego, and Mexico with alarming jumpiness, and a lot less skill than Shakespeare. (I didn't like the film much and wouldn't even mention it except for the coincident jumping.)

Shakespeare usually has a more coherent focus. At least I usually find it a lot easier to follow the action and thematic development of a play. Here, he includes many descriptions of the exotic locales. Maybe he would have been pleased to have the filmmaker's choice of showing the many settings visually, but the richness of the descriptions suggest that he loved doing it the way he did.

As I say, I feel somewhat lost in the plotting. Anthony has much to lose, and he loses it: his political power, his family connections, his military might and reputation, and his relationship with Cleopatra. She of course is suggested to be older than most women in their prime, but to have an inexhaustible prime to call on.

I could start pulling up all the utterly famous quotes that set the exotic scenes, create the amazing character of Cleopatra, and cause one to share the depths to which Anthony falls. But I don't feel the need to do what's been done so often.
Bevington's Wide and Universal Theater demonstrates that every age had a new way to visualize and present Shakespeare, and that the 19th century was especially prone to make every word into a concrete onstage image, while 20th century performances sometimes are more abstract than the original productions at Shakespeare's Globe. Here's an image I found that really goes over the top, painted by Alma-Tadena in 1883.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Marianne Wiggins: "The Shadow Catcher"

The Shadow Catcher is a highly enjoyable novel. The frame story uses a device that seems to be coming up in a lot of very recent books: the main character, who tells the story, has the same name as the author, and seems to have many similar characteristics. "Marianne Wiggins" -- the character who might be the author -- begins with some observations about artwork: "Let me tell you about the sketch by Leonardo I saw one afernoon in the Queen's Gallery in London a decade ago, and why I think it haunts me." (p. 1)

The first two chapters could possibly be autobiograpical: the narrator is a writer, trying to sell a script to an unnamed Hollywood personality. She lives in LA and obsesses about traffic and alterate ways to avoid the worst congestion. She knows about celebrities. She has a home and a car. Her book is about Edward Curtis, photographer, who created the common understanding of what it looked like to be an Indian. All the details of her life could be either truth or fiction: it's not a critical matter.

On page 43, the novel turns to "her" book. It starts with the early life of Edward Curtis's wife Clara, daughter of a painter whose works are no longer desired because photography has replaced his skills. We see how she and her younger brother happened to travel out to the territory of Washington to live with his family. As Clara meets Edward Curtis, we meet him. As he develops into a skilled and artful photographer, we see him through her eyes, and we find out how she teaches him what she's learned about painting: the link to the first thoughts of "Marianne Wiggins" and her passion for Renaissance Italian art.

A marvelous aspect of The Shadow Catcher is the constant reference to the works of Curtis, which are reproduced so much that every reader can probably visualize them. In case you don't have the photos in your mind's eye, very small reproductions of the works and of other relevant material appear in the text: I think the use of illustrations in a novel is another 21st century trick that's coming into its own. You can also find very good reproductions online -- as I showed.

Eventually a completely unexpected turn of events in the Frame Story causes an unexpected nexus between "Marianne Wiggins" the narrator, the legacy of Edward Curtis, and even the title of the book. The author leaves behind the early themes of creating visual art and of comparing photography to painting. There's nothing wrong with the way the book treats these themes, but the unexpected plot element is what makes a seemingly predictable work into an exciting read. I don't want this to be a spoiler, so I'll stop now.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Shakespeare on Stage

Around a month ago, I read reviews of several new books on Shakespeare, and decided to read David Bevington's new book This Wide and Universal Theater. I've now obtained it, and I'm in the middle -- and finding it better than I even expected.

The author has one chapter comparing how Shakespeare's own company (and contemporaries) presented battle scenes, and how they have been presented more recently. This is really fascinating.

All of Shakespeare's nine history plays and several of his tragedies "stage military confrontations, more often than not as the climax of the play's dramatic action," writes Bevington -- in fact, the importance of war was a true reflection of the reality of history during the depicted era of Henry IV onward, and continued into Shakespeare's own time. (p. 74)

"Siege warfare is a staple of the dramatic presentation of war in Shakespeare's theater," he writes. In addition, Shakespeare often depicted an open battlefield. Both of these types of warfare received conventional depiction in Shakespeare's time, and were "strikingly different from the conventions of stage fighting with which modern audiences are familiar." (p. 74-75)

The back wall of Shakespearian stages included doors, a curtained recess, and a higher-up area. This served for presentation of the battlements or gates to a besieged city. Bevington repeatedly points out that the stage was not set up in any special way, either as a gated city, a balconied mansion, or other architectural element: rather, a character voiced the descriptive detail, setting up the viewers' imagination to see the scene as Shakespeare wanted it seen. In producing battles, Shakespeare placed a variety of statements in his characters' mouths to clue the audience in to what they should imagine the stage to represent.

By describing what can be known of 16th and 17th century performances and contrasting them with the visual details of modern stage productions and films, the author clarifies how our theater experience differs from the original (though he constantly reiterates that he doesn't mean to criticize modern choices at all, just elucidate them). Modern stage conventions, he explains, use "armed men in one-on-one combat, parrying each other's swords and timing their choreographed blows so that the actors will not get hurt.... Today's theater fighting is neither modern warfare nor Elizabethan siege warfare; it is an understood theatrical convention about the way Elizabethan warfare is 'supposed' to look on the modern stage." (p. 82)

The history plays recieve much other discussion on other topics; I found the comparison of war-presentation and attitudes especially interesting.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Eight Days in Fairfax

The first photo shows Evelyn last night, just back from 5 days at a conference. Miriam and Alice were completely cooperative while she was away, but they were really glad to see her!

A week ago, they were preparing for Miriam's birthday party:

My only expedition was to Leesylvania park.

Friday, June 01, 2007

The Home of "Lighthorse" Harry Lee

I visited a beautiful park today: Leesylvania State Park, on the Potomac River and Occoquan Bay south of Fairfax. The brief historic information in the visitor center was intriguing: Captain John Smith came through here while exploring the area; the Lee family owned it throughout the 18th and some of the 19th century, and it ended up the property of a man named Daniel Ludwig, an early-20th-century billionaire who made a fortune in tanker shipping. Ludwig seems to have been the last private owner. It's been a wilderness, an Indian village, a plantation, a strategic Civil-War military blockade site, a private estate, an amusement park with a gambling pier, and now a recreation area. Today it was so hot that scarcely any people were around, but I imagine it's really busy on summer weekends.

For more photos, see my story blog post: Leesylvania State Park, Woodbridge, VA