The Bluest Eye by Nathan Carterette

In Toni Morrison's first novel, she rhapsodizes on Cholly's unfortunate life, writing that only a musician can tap into the primal feelings he suffered, that words alone weren't up to the task. But her novel captures something that music cannot, that is the depth of time. 

Thr Bluest Eye is written in waves of biography, the outcome already known from the beginning, but each character getting a carefully remembered history and clear line of development independent of the linear action. We go back in time to read about Cholly and Polly and Geraldine and Soaphead and others; their back stories interrupt the flow but give the context of the present time.  even though the narrative is broken up like this, it's all woven in, and the characters in our eyes gain depths of experience and time.

i can't think of any opera where the linear narrative isn't the main driving force. Even in reflective arias that don't push forward the action, we never see characters back in time, only as they are presently and how they develop. Opera moves from present point to present point. Is it able to have a structure like this book? 

in any case I see a lot of parallels to Faulkner here: writing about the poorest people with the richest prose, for one. The scene of Pecola going to the market combined with the scene of her going to Soaphead's brings to mind Dewey Dell in As I Lay Dying and her silence at the pharmacy, and her feelings of ostracization there. The mad dialogue at the end brings to mind Vardaman and his naive, run-on thoughts. The rape, incest, subjugation and poverty are all familiar to readers of Faulkner.

recordings by Nathan Carterette

some of you have been inquiring about the Arsenal Duo recording from Stambaugh Auditorium in March. we were scheduled to make a studio recording of Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, as well as Virgil Fox's arrangement of Bach's Come, Sweet Death in May but due to scheduling conflicts that has been rescheduled. Those two pieces will be recorded in late September at Stambaugh and hopefully available for release a couple of months after that. 

Wolf Hall and the memory palace by Nathan Carterette

When I was a young piano student I had a very inspiring teacher, who was always pushing me to the edge and beyond of my limits. A small suggestion from him would lead me into a frenzy of concentration.  Once he suggested I learn Schumann's Carnaval, and I memorized the entire piece in two days, practicing after school until dinner. 

I absorbed a lot, and memorized fast, but even for me that was a feat, though I was so enthused with the music that I didn't question or examine it until much later. Every movement in Carnaval has a title, some from the Commedia dell'arte, some from his private imagination, some people from his real life, or some dance or scenario. They all lend themselves to visualization, and as separate characters or moods, they are easy to distinguish. It was this visualization that allowed me to absorb the music so fast, and even now when I play it, I can see the characters in the Lodge, the house where I learned it. 

Unbeknownst to me I was using the memory palace technique, sometimes called method of loci. It came up only a year or two ago on the Diane Rehm show, and I knew it right away! It involves spatial memory and weird imagery. Take any object, or in the case of music a starting point and a finishing point, attach to it some image that is conspicuous, and put it in a room, or in a tree, or coming out of a sewer grate, or floating in a cloud. There on that object is attached to your memory in a certain way, and to recall it, you only need to picture part or all of your scene - the location, or the strange image.

Schumann did the work for you in Carnaval, if you have enough imagination to tack onto his titles. But the spatial memory is also crucial; there are endless places to use as your memory palace. 

anyways recently I read the miraculous novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, the story of Henry VIII told through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, his most powerful servant. Her interests lie in how Cromwell obtains and uses his power, and a skill that sets him apart from his other competitors at court is... The memory palace!  

Mantel conjectures that that as a guerrilla soldier in Italy he learned the technique, which came down from Simonedes in Greece and Cicero in  Rome, and therefore had a command of faces, facts, figures, land entitlements, conversations, intrigues, whatever, that he could recall for his own purpose at any time. It's worth quoting a passage: 

in Italy he learned a memory system and furnished it with pictures. Some are drawn from wood and field, from hedgerow and copse: shy hiding animals, eyes bright in the undergrowth. Some are foxes and deer, some are griffins, dragons. Some are men and women: nuns, warriors, doctors of the church. In their hands he puts unlikely objects, St Ursula a crossbow, St Jerome a scythe, while Plato bears a soup ladle and Achilles a dozen damsons in a wooden bowl. It is no use hoping to remember with the help of common objects, familiar faces. One needs startling juxtapositions, images that are more or less peculiar, ridiculous, even indecent. When you have made the images, you place them about the world in locations you choose, each one with its parcel of woods, of figures, which they will yield you on demand. At Greenwich, a shaven cat may peep at you from behind a cupboard: at the Palace of Westminster, a snake may leer down from a beam and hiss your name.

later, when Cromwell is discussing a duke with someone, the issue of their land entitlements comes up; a "spider scurries from under the chair and supplies him with a fact." And there he has the exact entitlements, and when they were given. 

definitely the memory palace is a function of his character, and a source of his power, in the book. I think it also contributes to the particular fast pace of the story, and it's situation in time. This book comes to life through its use of the present tense, but also the passage of time: events are always attached to Saints days, or liturgical seasons, and occasionally to fixed dates. cromwell's memory gives the current time texture, and in effect ties everything together, since we see it all from his point of view. It's as powerful a literary device as a practical one. 

Adverbs by daniel handler by Nathan Carterette

continuing with my project of only reading living authors this year I picked up this book with a very attractive and sellable cover written by the guy who wrote lemony snicket, which I guess is popular but I haven't read that. 

reading this book is like being stuck in a traffic jam at 3 am in rural Iowa. You just want to be the hell out of there but all you have to pass the time is crazy conspiracy radio on AM. actually I confess I didn't even read the last 15 pages or so, I basically just got out of the car and walked home. 

this book is the product of a guy whose imagination was over-praised as a boy and is still trying to sound like that. don't read!! 

maleficent by Nathan Carterette

I don't remember the sleeping beauty saga, and came into this movie thinking it was snow white, so I watched it with pretty fresh eyes. It's really all about the visual, and in keeping with today's epic tastes it has scenes of armies and forest monsters straight out of The Two Towers; maleficent's own green electrical tower of rage proves she is the cousin of the witch king at minas morgul. 

For her too, the main character, it's unfortunately all about the visual. She has the look down, it will be copied by drag queens for generations. But where's the beef? Maleficent didn't have a single memorable line in the entire movie. The only thing distinguishing her as a character is her lady gaga alien cheeks and her baphumet illuminati horns (surely that will be picked up on vigilant citizen).

I guess we have something to look forward too then, and that is drag queens improving on the character and giving her some sass. Also I couldn't help feel Angelina Jolie is so concerned with being beautiful that everything was acted with that in mind: sad beautiful, angry beautiful, bitchy beautiful, whatever. It reminds me of liszt's critique of thalberg: "I too could have had velvet paws." But he dared to venture into the ugly. It's a risk this actress won't take!


Don Jon and the Fading Gigolo by Nathan Carterette

i saw two movies recently that had a lot in common, and one crucial difference. Don Jon and Fading Gigolo are both about emotionally hardened people that get soft through non-transactional personal relationships. Don Jon learns to stop objectifying, and the Fading Gigolo doesn't change much himself, but Avigal learns to love again, if capriciously - based on her final pick.

the crucial difference is that one movie was good and one was bad. it's pretty basic. they are both character portraits with only a little dramatic arc, though in F.G. it's hard to tell who is supposed to be the main character. do we care more about Murray and his charitable acts but empty pockets? or Fioravante and his aimless life (and how is he fading as a gigolo? it's a fading regular guy that becomes a gigolo - and judging from his on-screen charisma a fading actor too-)? or Avigal and her return to emotional life?

Don Jon i think perfectly grabs a character type, this fastidious straight guy who may not have a bright future (see Tony Danza as the dad) but has a clockwork, impeccable life. i love how this movie showed it with scenes recurring exactly the same way: picking up the girl at the bar, dancing, cab, getting out of bed, turning on the computer, watchin the pornoooooos, making the bed, church, confession, gym, etc. he's eventually redeemed and saved from himself, and the soulless routine is broken. and the hair gel thrown away. it's all about his character changing, and it's totally believable.

i think F.G. falls flat because it's boring as hell, but also because there's no such compass in Fioravante. he feels a little guilty first about taking the money, but only guilty enough to fill in 5 minutes of the screen time, and then is perfectly happy with being objectified himself, until he falls in love with Avigal and can't finish the job anymore (as Martin Amis wrote in Money, "it's called a hard-on for a reason.") but then she just picks some other random guy, and he does what exactly? goes back to being a gigolo? she's a minor character who gets all the change. the best parts of the movie were the Jewish ones - the brooklyn neighborhood, the shomrim, the orthodox court, Saul Hersch. and yet it was all about the other guy, who pretends without guilt to be a Sephardic Jew to seduce the woman he truly loves? what a mess.

go see Don Jon!

busoni and aristotle by Nathan Carterette

there's a striking similarity in these two passages:

For the word ‘nature’ is applied to what is according to nature and the natural in the same way as ‘art’ is applied to what is artistic or a work of art. We should not say in the latter case that there is anything artistic about a thing, if it is a bed only potentially, not yet having the form of a bed; nor should we call it a work of art. The same is true of natural compounds. What is potentially flesh or bone has not yet its own ‘nature,’ and does not exist ‘by nature,’ until it receives the form specified in the definition, which we name in defining what flesh or bone is.
— Aristotle - Physics, Book II
The term ‘musical’ is used by the Germans in a sense foreign to that in which any other language employs it... ‘Musical’ is derived from ‘music’, like ‘poetical’ from poetry, or ‘physical’ from physic(s). When I say, ‘Schubert was one of the most musical among men,’ it is the same as if I should say, ‘Helmholtz was one of the most physical among men.’ That is musical, which sounds in rhythms and intervals. A cupboard can be ‘musical’ if ‘music-works’ be enclosed in it.
— Busoni - A New Esthetic of Music

on one hand Busoni is pointing out the absurdity of the term musical as applied to individuals, given that unless they are singers (he mentions in a footnote) they themselves do not produce musical sounds. a cupboard (music box, I thinkdoes, or an instrument, even if manipulated by people. on the other hand, he consistently saw and described in his treatise music as a living spirit, and a being unto itself. at the end of this chapter he adds a characteristically 'artistic' coda:

A thousand hands support the buoyant child and solicitously attend its footsteps, that it may not soar aloft where there might be risk of a serious fall. But it is still so young, and is eternal; the day of its freedom will come. - When it shall cease to be ‘musical.’
— Busoni - A New Esthetic of Music

More thoughts on a Reader's Manifesto by Nathan Carterette

going back to Myers Reader's Manifesto provokes some mixed feelings. I remember not being thrilled about it at first, mainly because he's very critical of Paul Auster, my mother liked Paul Auster, and I couldn't stand it when anyone criticized something my mother liked! it's just all too mortifying. But I know enough at least now to admit that 'Smoke' was a terribly boring movie.

looking through his other published criticism I see a takedown of Denis Johnson (Tree of Smoke) and Toni Morrison, two authors I'm reading now, so that's unfortunate. Unfortunate because he is so convincing. There certainly are ridiculous metaphors in "Jesus' Son," and maybe I would have given Johnson the benefit of the doubt, the thought that there was a deeper thought there, except for Myers ruthlessly literal critique. 

but he is definitely wrong in one area. Here he quotes a passage from cormac McCarthy's "All the Pretty Little Horses***," critically: 

While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)


the syntax is indeed silly. But Myers also disapproves of the subject matter:

"The obscurity of who's will, which has an unfortunate Dr. Seussian ring to it, is meant to bully readers into thinking that the author's mind operates on a plane higher than their own—a plane where it isn't ridiculous to eulogize the shifts in a horse's bowels."

But in literature nothing is ridiculous, until a writer makes it so. Here is Nabokov, from a short story called "A Bad Day*****," writing much more artistically about the very same subject:

"From time to time this or that horse would half-raise its tail, under the tensed root of which a bulb of flesh would swell, squeezing out one tawny globe, then another, a third, after which the folds of black skin would close again and the tail droop."

unfortunately I have a good memory for things like this! 

*** Odetta singing 'All the Pretty Little Horses'

***** Mika singing 'Rain' (Baby, I hate days like this)

How I became a Famous Novelist - The Manifesto by Nathan Carterette

Steve Hely's 2009 novel "How I became a Famous Novelist" tells the story of a pathetic bachelor, Pete Tarslaw, who games the New York Times best seller lists to crank out a trashy, pseudo-literary novel, a pre-fab best seller awaiting movie rights. 

 "A Reader's Manifesto" is an article by BR Myers published in 2001 in the Atlantic (I thought originally anonymously, but can't confirm) ripping to shreds techniques of "literary" best sellers like Proulx, Auster, McCarthy, delillo and others.

going back to the manifesto after several years I'm totally convinced it was the source material for Hely's novel. All the literary pretensions are appropriated by Tarslaw: the vague metaphors, the assumed wisdom in all things rural and folksy, the unrealistic high falutin language that would never sound good read aloud (as opposed to real southern grandiloquence), the pointless repetition, and so on. The novel is like a dramatization of Myers complaints. 

Here is Myers quoting David Guterson as an example of "generic literary prose" from "Snow Falling on Cedars:" 


On the night he had appointed his last among the living, Dr. Ben Givens did not dream, for his sleep was restless and visited by phantoms who guarded the portal to the world of dreams by speaking relentlessly of this world. They spoke of his wife—now dead—and of his daughter, of silent canyons where he had hunted birds, of august peaks he had once ascended, of apples newly plucked from trees, and of vineyards in the foothills of the Apennines. They spoke of rows of campanino apples near Monte Della Torraccia; they spoke of cherry trees on river slopes and of pear blossoms in May sunlight.


Here is Hely quoting from Tarslaw's fictional "Tornado Ashes Club:"  


 "do you remember when we went to the old Presbyterian church?" Grandmother said. "The church up in Gethsemene? Up in that notch of mountains that they called a village?" yes, said Silas. I remember. I played in the rhododendrons. Pretended they were a cave. Pretended they were a pirate's cave and I was burying treasure... He remembered. Remembered the touch of old sorrowful hands, pressing against his scalp. Remembered the sight of somber nods, passing one another in the pews and aisles. Remembered the taste of maple syrup, poured over pancakes at a mournful breakfast.


the pancakes at the end are a particularly delicious touch. Once again it's all there: wise old characters, too much pointless description, non-dramatic repetition, and non sequitur at the end. This is perfect literary parody worthy of George Saunders in "My Chivalric Fiasco."  

Tarslaw reaps all the self-perpetuating awards noted in Myers essay, but becomes more and more conflicted as earnest people see his commercial success as literary merit, rather than the hodge podge he knows it is. His character does have sincerity, established in the opening paragraph which is essentially an apology for his actions (we find out at the end this is his confessional memoir, another cliched pulp genre),  but succumbs to envy and perhaps the corrosive effect of capitalism on art. He is left particularly dispirited after encounters with a soulless mystery novelist and a high powered Hollywood producer, only searching for the bottom line.

his big insight is the melding of "art" prose with this bottom line, personified in Preston Brooks and his insufferable books. But he is crushed in a debate with Brooks, who puts him in his place as a cynical upstart unworthy of the world of letters.  He does that by pretentiously reciting a litany of human pain that he himself never experienced. Tarslaw's downfall is actually his sincerity. Brooks knows enough never to give up the game. 


Marian Anderson by Nathan Carterette

today is the 75th anniversary of Marian Anderson sticking it to the Daughters of the American Revolution and giving a concert for 75,000 on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial! She didn't sing this but it's a classic recording of her singing, capturing both her intimacy and the drama. the four characters (narrator, father, son, and erlkönig) are amazingly etched out..

Game of thrones is long by Nathan Carterette

very long. Thousands of pages and spanning wildly different terrains and even continents. rvery character is involved in his or her intrigue, his or her mission, and whatever unpredictability comes with it. none are really in control of their own destiny, though we always see events from their personal point of view, their psychological point of view, which can convince us of their rightness.

it makes reading the series a challenge because so many goals go unfulfilled, and so many characters we thought had providence on their side end up dead or worse.  Also the sheer scope is pretty dizzying.

george rr Martin has a lot of tricks up his sleeve though, and one of them is the brilliant way he can reinterpret one event from multiple points of view. he's some master of medieval strategy. 

here's an example that got my attention: in dance with dragons, the dragon queen reopenes the fighting pits in Meereen after marrying Hizdahr. At the opening ceremony, there are poisoned locusts served in her box, and her guard eats them to become ill. that chapter starts on page 687 in the hardcover.  

after she disappears, warriors approach her guard Selmy to say they caught the poisoner, and that he was acting for Hizdahr, to poison the queen and keep the city and the peace for himself. the evidence points to the king, and Selmy sees it, if not trusting entirely.  

but on page 786, at court, Selmy thinks again: the Dornish prince is versed in poison, and may have tried to get the king out of the way to arrange his own marriage to the dragon queen. Evidence is marshaled for that point of view as well. 

but then the third interpretation: on page 791 Selmy approaches the prince and tells him that he will be held guilty as the poisoner, that it was a setup to have the prince killed. This seems to come spontaneously out of Selmy's mouth and his motive is unclear, or at least multi-parted: to test the princes innocence, or to get him to safety, or just to convince him to leave Meereen and be out of the picture.

one event, three possibilities. it keeps me reading..

Travelogue - Iowa City by Nathan Carterette

Iowa City is like a fantasy theme park for literati. I have never seen one place where so many people who are dedicated to literature obscure and classic are gathered together. Every restaurant, coffee shop, bar we went to was full of people all seemingly versed in the same stuff. It's a fantasy world where everyone has read the latest Iowa review, the poems of Denis Johnson, the journals of David Foster Wallace, and most treacherously each other's writing; on top of that they are ready to discuss it down to the last paragraph, even if it is 2 am at the Foxhunt.

I tried to point this out to my hosts: nobody comes up to me in public to rave about the latest Golijov, or published letters of Ligeti, or whatever. I guess I wish they did. But they just smiled and patted my hand. It's just the way it is for them!