Sunday, July 26, 2015

James Salter

All That Is, the last novel by the late James Salter has a very distinctive tempo. It is full of apparent non sequiturs, it ranges this way and that, it has a jaunty and choppy rhythm but always finds its centre. James Salter is  a master of the sentence - his prose is lean like Hemingway's and rich and evocative like Fitzgerald's -  he conjures moods and atmospheres in a few lines of simple dialogue. It is a great cosmopolitan and glamorous but patrician and understated New York novel.

Craving French Lit

Every once in a while I have a craving for French literature. Jean d' Ormesson was a new discovery. Au Plaisir de Dieu I read slowly, in the morning bath, savouring the established rhythm of the prose, heir to the classical tradition, the rich vowels of the language, the fine evocation of a glorious France now largely gone. Michel Houellebecq's Soumission - a weak effort, repulsive and attractive at the same time, as is generally the case with Houellebecq - I browsed quickly through, looking for the occasional clinical sex scene and for quick insights into the perennial French malaise. Patrick Modiano, who won the Nobel prize, is a more distinctive, elegiac voice - he gives you a kind of seedy France, where crimes are committed and swept under the rug.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Nixon in China

Is there a future - or even a present - for opera? I thought not, but seeing Nixon in China, with music by John Adams and words by Alice Goodman, based on an idea by Peter Sellars, made me think otherwise. Adams is a composer of genius but his music seems perfectly suited to the genre - it foregoes the kitsch lyricism of arias for witty quotes, does not eschew the necessary grandeur for choruses, sustains interest without fatigue for three hours, is erudite but accessible, grave when needed, light and playful if possible. Maybe opera is not suitable anymore to treat drama, but seems remarkable apposite for epics.

Cheap thrills

World War II stories provide inexhaustible thrills. Wartime Lies is the story of a rich jewish family - an aunt and her nephew - who successfully hide from the nazis in Poland between 1941 and 1945. Louis Begley, the author, who became a successful New York lawyer, draws on his childhood recollections to present this unforgettable portrait of aunt Tania, who draws on all her resources of cunning, beauty, money, attentiveness, wit, and courage to survive the war and protect her nephew, the somewhat hapless narrator of the story. We know the horrors of the war, but this is about narrow escapes, lying low, dissembling. After reading this book it becomes much easier to understand the terrible guilt felt by the survivors, even those who have nothing to reproach themselves with other than an irrepressible will to live.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Gabriel García Márquez - In memoriam

"Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el colonel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo. Macondo era entonces una aldea de veinte casas de barro y cañabrava construidas a la orilla de un rio de aguas diáfanas que se precipitaban por un lecho de piedras pulidas, blancas y enormes como huevos prehistóricos. El mundo era tan reciente que muchas cosas carecían de nombre, y para mencionarlas había que señalarlas con el dedo."

Cien Años de Soledad, 1967

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Gregor von Rezzori

Who is this dandy confidently staring at us from the height of his 80 plus years? His family hailed from Sicily, his native land is the Bukovina, his roots are in Vienna, he lived Paris and Berlin, and he made his fame in the 1980's with Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, an evocative Bildungsroman set in the confines of the Habsburg lands in the mythical 20's and 30's. Many years later I came across his memoir, The Snows of Yesteryear - a wonderful collection of portraits of his maid, his mother, his father, his sister and his governess. What was he up to during the war? There is no great clarity on this point, but then Von Rezzori was no moralist. He was a storyteller and he lived long enough to get wise. Nostalgia tinged with emotion powered by loss, but no false feeling. Before he became a great writer, Rezzori lived his uprooted, difficult, challenging life. Only then did he remembered things past, for our benefit.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


The train from Osaka to Kyoto: one and a half hours of depressing urban sprawl, grey and surprisingly drab, with the odd skyscraper in the distance. Not an impression of great wealth or modernity. The economic crisis of the last 25 years has taken its toll.
Kyoto: islands of beauty and peace in the midst and in the margins of a busy modern city.  At the foot of the mountains surrounding the city are the Buddhist temples: some mere tourist traps; others, especially in the northern neighbourhoods, huge compounds with different temples, discreetly integrated in the life of the city, with marvellous zen gardens tucked in the back.
Zen Buddhist temple gardens: cool and peaceful, places to look at and meditate. Rocks, carefully trimmed trees, waiting for the spring bloom, pebbles carefully raked symbolising the passage of time: a landscape honed in centuries of work, devotion and discipline.
Zen Buddhist cuisine: delicate vegetarian dishes with the lightest and whitest tofu in clear broth. "From ancient times, it has been recognised there must be offered a harmony of the six basic flavours - bitter, sour, sweet, salty, light and hot - and moreover, the three qualities of light and flexible, clean and neat, and conscientious and thorough. Ingredients with strong odours, such as garlic and onions, are forbidden. ("Zen cuisine of Tenryu-Ji")
The Japanese: friendly, helpful, smiling, bowing but the big surprise is: hardly anyone speaks english!  Obsessed with purity and cleanliness: even in the mountains, where the air is fresh, a huge number walk around with facial masks, like doctors performing surgery. A general air of dignity and reserve. Youth are highly fashion conscious. On the street, women, always carefully turned out, are much more present than men, who are probably busy at the office. Taxi drivers wear white gloves. Japan railways personnel wear uniform and proud caps. Ticket controllers bow to the passengers before leaving the carriages. 
Japanese classical aesthetics are spare and elegant - wood and white panels, marvellous evocative paintings on the sliding doors of temples and palaces surrounded by austere  courtyards and carefully trimmed gardens. But Japanese popular taste tends to the colourful and cute.
Food is ever present: the nation seems to love sweets, displayed in impeccable packages in numberless stores, each with its speciality. Countless tiny restaurants serve noodles, tofu, sushi over the counter. All kinds of rice concoctions, fish products and fish sauces compete for attention in the Nishiki market.
The atmosphere seems curiously calm and composed, even in the midst of the urban jungle and the tourist crowds: windless, noiseless. Hardly a voice is raised. The values of discipline and courtesy seem paramount. Even today, Japan seems to be a strongly homogeneous society, curious about the outside world, but turned mainly inward.

Monday, March 10, 2014


Thursday, February 20, 2014

Australian punk

The Death of Benny Munro, a dark gothic tale about a sex addict blown off course by his wife's suicide, written between two songs by Nick Cave, here portrayed in his addict criminal look, plumbs the depths of madness, despair and zany fun and taps the source of Nick Cave's inspiration: the world of cast outs, criminals and brutes ravaged by alcohol and washed ashore in Australia brilliantly and soulfully depicted in his songs. Benny Munro is going mad, driving around Brighton with his nine year son. The novel builds up remorselessly to its catastrophic climax. For some reason I read it through in four days, leaving behind  eighteen respectable tomes that I have started, all at different stages of progress

Friday, November 22, 2013

V. S. Naipaul

A House for Mr. Biswas reminds one of all that a great novel can do: to recreate an entire world, to move and to instruct, to paint whole pictures in a few words, to delight and to astound, etc... This is no page turner: it is a novel to savour page by page, little by little as it reveals its incredibles riches. It is fundamentally a novel about poverty, but it is also a novel about exile, about aspiration  - mostly thwarted, but in the end successful after a fashion, since Mr Biswas does get his house. Satirical and compassionate, cruel and kind, a masterpiece.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


The starting point for this entertaining and perceptive book is a famous supper party held in 1922 at the Majestic Hotel in Paris, on the opening night of the ballet Le Renard, attended by Diaghilev, Stravinsky, Picasso, Joyce and Proust - who arrived at 2.30 AM in white gloves and black tie. With his extensive knowledge of high society, low life and contemporary gossip, and his gay sensibility, Richard Davenport-Hines puts Proust in the context of the frantic Paris of the 1920's and gives a vivid account of his declining days, at the height of fame, wracked by disease and drugs, living by night, frantically struggling to finish his novel, ensconced in his dodgy and squalid apartment rue Hamelin with Céleste Albaret. Davenport Hines is eloquent on Proust's moral courage in publishing Sodome et Gomorre, with its frank account of homosexuality, and on his trepidation and equivocal attempts to protect his personal reputation. Davenport-Hines is also particularly good about the cast of characters revolving around Proust during this period. A valuable addition to the Proustian library.

Sunday, September 29, 2013


Watching Hatufim, the moving and chilling TV series about the return of two POWs to Israel after 17 years in Syrian captivity, I am reminded of the immense pain floating around in Israel and that hardly any family in that society has managed to avoid some huge personal drama. What I realised living in Israel in the early 90's is the intensely personal nature of politics there - in the sense that politics intrudes violently in everybody's personal life. It thus requires a huge amount of moral strength and intellectual detachment to rise above these dramas and look dispassionately at the issues. But this is what I expect from the people of the Book.