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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Paris Days 40, 41, 42 - badness, feedback, Anna Karenina

I would like to let this badness / feedback thread die, not least because it has inspired some of the worst writing in this whole diary, but it will not die. The subject is apparently evergreen. I just finished
Anna Karenina and popped a bottle of bubbly to mark the occasion - I'm drinking it out of my Eiffel Tower flutes. Anyone who hasn't read the novel or who hasn't read it recently will think I'm a mean guy, celebrating with cheap champagne in kitschy glasses after the poor woman throws herself under the train. But in fact that happened days ago. To follow this up Tolstoy gives us a coda, 50 pages long, most of which depicts his striving, stressed out, ultra-sincere, good-hearted, hitherto nonbeliever Kostya Levin in the throes of spiritual ecstasy as he casts off all his "sheer intellectual fraud" (by which I think we are meant to understand his study of science and philosophy) and embraces Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Tolstoy pulls a similar maneuver to close out War & Peace, getting you all jacked up on battle and history and romance and then beating the life out of you in the second epilogue with an interminable disquisition on historiography. Spare me your beliefs, bitch!

I have written that I would not like any feedback on finished work, and that I
should not want any feedback on work in progress. At the same time, I would like to offer some to Tolstoy. I would like to go back in time and beg him, plead with him, pay him off to get him to leave out this numbing awful ending about Levin's spiritual awakening / delusioning, and to make Levin's wife, around whom so very much of this novel revolves, less of a neuraesthenic drama queen princess (although technically that's pretty much what she is) and to repair any number of other glaring faults that mar this book that Nabokov and a number of other reasonably smart people have deemed the greatest novel ever written. Allan writes in the comments to the second feedback diary:
I'm totally in agreement that feedback is not of much use as a critical tool. What feedback would you give Messiaen on an unfinished work? What would you say that could make the piece better for him?
A few things, actually. After Christopher Taylor performed the Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant Jesus in Davis a couple of months ago, he did a Q&A and I asked him if, after all these years of performing the 2-hour suite, of learning it and living with it, there were any things about the music that he had come to think of as its faults. He gave a very elegant and I think honest answer, that if you're going to play the piece convincingly you must allow yourself to be convinced by it. But as swept away as I was and remain by the Vingt Regards, and specifically by Taylor's interpretation, I remember thinking during one of the big movements toward the end, as Messiaen was working up all the power of Yaweh, Jesus and the angels combined into some gigantic geometric construction pushing its way up and down and in and out and bigger and bigger - not again. I remember thinking, this was effective when you did it 45 minutes ago in the 6th piece, but you can't make me go up the same spatial-cyclical-musical staircase twice in the space of an hour. It's like Albert Fuller said in an Apparition clip that I had to cut: "Honey the shock wears off!" At the very least it's an argument against playing all 20 pieces in the same program, but I experienced it as one of my first understandings of Messiaen's limitation, the first time I saw that he had a bag of tricks and it was not infinite, that even he, the most daring and original and resourceful composer in the whole friggin conservatory, was capable of running out of ideas.

This segue doubles back upside down, because the real relevance of Messiaen to this depressing experience of Tolstoy's badness is not that they are both flawed, but the way in which Messiaen, as a Christian artist, is so much better. Or perhaps that's too easy and the difference is more in the capacity of music to transcend the theological divide while words tumble into it - the point I want to make is that the sheer alienation and actual revulsion I felt at the last 50 pages of
Anna Karenina, in which Tolstoy seemed to throw his fiction to the rails in the service of his religious faith, was such a stark ugly contrast to the way I experience my composer Jesus freaks, in which I forgive them every dogma, every intolerance, every delusion, to the point that I am seriously considering having tattooed on my body the concluding measures of the 6th of the Vingt Regards, a piece of whose title Par Lui Tout A Été Fait I believe not a single syllable. I suppose this is why I went off the deep end when I discovered Messiaen, because it was the first time I'd found a way to experience the power of religious feeling through art without having all my aesthetic receptors cauterized by cliché-ridden drivel like the following passage from AK:
But he had only to forget the artificial train of reasoning, and to turn from real life to what had satisfied him so long as he kept to the given chain of argument, for the whole artificial edifice to tumble down like a house of cards, and it became evident that the edifice had been constructed of those same words transposed and regardless of something in life more important than reason.
(Apologies to Tolstoy and everyone reading this if the badness of the representative passage is due solely to Rosemary Edmonds' translation.) So yes, I have some feedback on finished work for the Greatest Novelist Ever who wrote the Greatest Novel Ever Written: I just hated it. And not just the last 50 pages - the last three or four hundred, a whole novel's worth. I hope I read it again when I'm an old man and regret writing these words. Maybe by then I'll be a Jesus freak too.

I had a rip-roaring conclusion connecting all of the above to recent bad sex, but it's one in the morning so that will have to wait.

Moses said man cannot live on bread alone, but he didn't know about the bakery up the street from the monastery. Buy me a couple of baguettes.

1 comment:

FRANK said...

Such a tease to the dark side.

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Paul Festa’s first film, Apparition of the Eternal Church (2006, 51 min), captures the responses of 31 artists to the apocalyptic music of Olivier Messiaen (with Justin Bond, John Cameron Mitchell, Harold Bloom; screenings: Grace Cathedral, Barbican Centre, Library of Congress; “Remarkable”The New Yorker; “Stunning”Chicago Sun-Times; “Sublime”Globe & Mail; numerous awards). Festa performs the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, opposite members of the San Francisco Ballet and The Cockettes, in his award-winning second film, The Glitter Emergency (2010, 20 min), a silent-film drag ballet comedy (“Enormous visual and musical inventiveness…full of pleasure and joy...Festa gives a bravura performance."—Film Threat). He produced, wrote and edited, with director Austin Forbord, and was chief archivist, for the Emmy-nominated documentary Stage Left: A Story of Theater in San Francisco (2010, 80 min: with Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, Peter Coyote; screenings: Geary Theater, KQED; “Intriguing...entertaining...a valuable record”—Variety). Performances as violinist and actor: ODC Theater, Center for Performance Research, Kunst-Stoff, TheatreFIRST, North Bay Shakespeare, Albert Fuller's Helicon Ensemble (Merkin Hall, Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Alice Tully Hall). US, Boston, NYC, SF, LA and DC (Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress on the “Betts” Stradivarius) premieres of Messiaen’s Fantaisie for violin and piano. He is the author of OH MY GOD: Messiaen in the Ear of the Unbeliever, based on Apparition of the Eternal Church, and several anthologized essays, and has written for The Daily Beast, Salon, Nerve, and The New York Times Book Review. Current projects include a novel and Tie It Into My Hand (2014, ca. 80 min), a documentary feature that has screened as a work in progress at the Cannes film market and at ODC Theater in San Francisco (with Alan Cumming, Gary Graffman, Peter Coyote, Mink Stole, Robert Pinsky; "A fascinating exploration of the artistic life, as rollickingly entertaining as it is insightful and stirring."San Francisco Bay Guardian). Education: Yale (B.A.; prizes, honors, distinction), Juilliard (Cert., Adv. Cert., scholarships). Residencies: Yaddo, MacDowell, ODC Theater, Centre des Récollets.