Sorry to sound like the grad student everyone avoids after the seminar, but I recently read Ulysses for the third time, and I have some questions, only not about Ulysses but about its notorious successor, Finnegans Wake. For a very long time (in fact, up until recently, when I re-read . . . well, you know) I had always figured that though Bloom & Co were worth the trouble, life was too short for the roiling and possibly pointless obscurities of the Wake. Now I'm thinking perhaps life is too short not to give it a try, especially since I suspect it's the sort of book that improves with re-reading. I do have kind of a compulsion to finish any book I start, so this is a commitment, though maybe what I really need to do is get over my compulsion to finish all books I start.
So my first question: anyone out there have any advice? The first time I read Ulysses I pretty much read it straight through. The second time I read it in conjunction with Gifford and Seidman's Ulysses Annotated. The third time I read it in the recent Oxford World's Classics edition of the first printing, which was kind of a happy medium between the two, since it contains notes and maps and suchlike but not to the detailed extent of Gifford and Seidman, which is a separate, Ulysses-sized volume just of annotations. (But I have to say if I had looked through a copy of that Oxford edition in a brick-and-mortar store I never would have bought it - the type is really tiny. I waited until I had my new glasses to read it and even then it was a stretch. Also, there were some errors and omissions in that first 1922 edition that are simply repeated, with the correct wording or dropped lines supplied in the notes in the back: but why not just put them back where they belong?)
So, for the Wake: read it straight through? or along with annotations or guides? (I did discover that there is a Finnegans Wiki, which might be useful if I'm reading near a computer.) Is it really hugely helpful if you read it out loud?
Are there any indispensable or at least useful guidebooks? I knew about Joseph Campbell's Skeleton Key, but the more I looked around the more there seemed to be. Anyone have any thoughts on them? I'm particularly curious about John Bishop's Joyce's Book of the Dark, because I was in one of his classes at Berkeley - in fact it might have been during his first year of teaching - only it wasn't a Joyce class (I think I read Dubliners in college, but I didn't read Ulysses until I was out of college) but a course in late nineteenth-century British literature. That was the class in which we were discussing the late Victorian crisis of faith and a very earnest bespectacled grad student (not sure why he was in an undergrad course, but there he was) said, "But does that mean then that there is no God?" And at that very moment, no kidding, one of our California earthquakes struck and the whole building shook. The large glass windows rattled with particular violence. We all laughed, nervously. Anyway I remember reading an interview with John Bishop after his book came out and he described it (the Wake, not his book) as a sort of lusty brawling comic romp, and I thought, But I hate books like that and I went back to The Wings of the Dove or whatever I was reading. But I also used to hate sea stories and now here I am reading Moby Dick for the fourth . . . oh, sorry. I guess I can't help being that guy. . . .
Back to the various guides and keys and analyses: read them before? during? after? not at all?
Also, what about this Restored Finnegans Wake that was recently published by Penguin Classics? I haven't yet seen it listed in the USA (except as a used book) but I saw it on Amazon UK. Some of the comments though make me wonder if this might be a repeat of the controversial Gabler edition of Ulysses. On a more practical level, it sounds as if the pagination differs from the usual editions so it might be difficult to read alongside the guides, at least for a novice. But I do feel that if I'm going to read something it should be as close to what the author hoped for as possible.
Any thoughts, comments, suggestions? I promise not to go around talking about "the first time I read Finnegans Wake" or anything like that.
Last Thursday I saw Madeleine George's Precious Little, which has just started its west coast premiere run at Shotgun Players in Berkeley under the direction of Marissa Wolf, the artistic director of Crowded Fire Theater. I liked a lot about the play, especially its very powerful final scene, but something about it just didn't click for me. After a day or two I realized what it was. You know how you feel when you're out with someone you don't know very well but you assume is a decent person and then she starts treating a waitress badly or being a bit snotty to some flunkey? And eventually you realize that this isn't some bad-day aberration but instead is a pattern of behavior? I realized my problem with Precious Little is that the main character is a horrible person - only no one calls her on it, or seems to care, or even notice.
That main character is Brodie, a lesbian linguist in her early 40s who is having a child through a sperm bank. She discovers through an amniocentesis that there is a possibility that the child will be retarded (her word). This is only a possibility, not a certainty, but being faced with uncertainty shakes her world. What should be shaking her world is the way she treats other people, starting with her girlfriend, a graduate student named Dre.
Dre is not only an academic subordinate, she seems (based on her language and behavior) to be from a lower social class, and she's much younger than Brodie. Both women are aware that they are violating university rules against professor/student relationships; it's a concern for Dre but Brodie, who seems to feel the rule doesn't apply to her, dismisses her worries. Dre wants Brodie to go to the zoo with her to see a gorilla who had been the subject of language experiments. Brodie, who specializes in the study and preservation of dying languages, disapproves of what she considers linguistic stunts like teaching apes to "talk." She also disapproves of zoos, even though she doesn't seem to care much about animals, or know much about contemporary zoos. Dre really is looking for a public and emotional aspect to their relationship, and even when her need goes from subtext to text (when she says she wants to be used for something besides fucking - her word - and tape transcription), Brodie barely grasps that aspect - she seems to think the request is really just about a trip to the zoo. (This is not the only time this experienced linguist seems to have problems understanding the functions of language, particularly when they involve listening to other people.) They end up going and Brodie, unexpectedly (and rather implausibly), is suddenly fascinated by the gorilla.
When Brodie tells Dre about the complications to her pregnancy, Dre tries to be supportive and understanding but assumes that Brodie will abort the fetus. Apparently this is not what Brodie is currently planning to do, and Dre's failure to intuit this leads Brodie to dump her, brutally and abruptly. Even if Brodie is so self-centered and oblivious that she doesn't anticipate how much pain this will cause Dre, she should have noticed that obvious pain and anger right away. Instead Brodie - callously, cynically, cluelessly - makes it clear she is planning to continue exploiting Dre as a tape transcriber. I think we're meant to find this comical rather than appalling. Does Dre lodge an official complaint about professional misconduct, or even spread (however inadvertently) destructive gossip about Brodie? She does not. She conveniently disappears, off to heal, or sulk, or whatever, in private, but not before repeating (coincidentally) a line Brodie had already used to her genetic counselor, about things hurting less if you use the real words. This is an extremely dubious proposition to start with, and the repetition of the earlier sentiment was one of several spots where I felt the scaffolding of meaning was a little too obvious. Also, for a linguist, Brodie appears to have a remarkably unsophisticated view of the important social role of euphemism, cliche, and other formulaic language.
The genetic counselor is a young woman named Rhiannon who is so new to her job that Dorothy, an older mentor counselor, still sits in on her sessions. Brodie at one point tells Rhiannon not to condescend to her but the condescension and the impatient snippiness are all coming from Brodie. Rhiannon herself is sincere and well-meaning and trying to learn a complicated and sensitive job. As with Dre, Rhiannon is young enough to be Brodie's daughter, but they elicit no maternal warmth or interest from Brodie, who treats them as she treats everyone, as if they were dimwitted household servants. She does at one point ask Gloria, the nurse conducting the amniocentesis, why she wanted to go into that field, but this rare interest in another person seems more like a distraction before a disturbing procedure than like something genuine, as if nerves were briefly taking Brodie out of herself. Being a parent requires several qualities Brodie is notably lacking, like empathy with others, and a realization that other people are not just projections of oneself. Why does this relentlessly self-interested woman want a child? Why does anyone think she would be anything but a nightmare as a parent? Why does no one in the play raise these questions?
We also see her dealing with Cleva, a language informant, a frail elderly woman who is an immigrant from the region of the Soviet Union where they spoke the dying language Brodie studies. and with Cleva's daughter Evelyn. Again, she is condescending to both, ignoring the mother's physical and mental health problems and dismissing the daughter's concerns. She can barely contain her exasperation when the mother, who obviously had nothing but rudimentary schooling, doesn't understand what she wants. As with other examples of Brodie's relentlessly self-centered behavior, this isn't played, and doesn't come across, as a criticism of Brodie: I had the sinking feeling we were actually supposed to "identify with" Brodie, and share her exasperation, and even find it a bit endearing and sympathetic. Other people are such a pain! Especially when they're so much less sophisticated than we are!
The way I'm phrasing the action draws out what I see as the underlying reality of Brodie's character and behavior, but during the play itself we are clearly not meant to have these reactions. Certainly no one I heard discussing the play afterward, and nothing I've read about it, would have prepared me for Brodie's awfulness - for the way she uses other people, for her lack of concern for their feelings and problems, for her assumptions of superiority. In fact, as I mentioned above, I didn't walk out of the theater with those thoughts either - more of an unsettled feeling that there was something amiss with the portrayal of Brodie - so I think significantly negative thoughts about her are not built into the play. But I'm feeling the indignation of retrospection, and are theater-makers and theater-goers really so class-bound that they don't see how horrible her behavior is, even when they've stepped away from the immediate experience and thought it over? At a bare minimum, haven't they ever heard the phrase noblesse oblige, and wouldn't that make them question Brodie's behavior? Why does no one in the play confront Brodie's class-based assumptions?
It's all very much like listening to an upper-class woman complaining about the quality of help these days, and being expected to agree. I'm going to quote once again my favorite movie line, which is from Renoir's The Rules of the Game: "Everybody has their reasons. That's the terrible thing about life." Brodie (or perhaps it's Madeleine George, since she's the one who doesn't have the other characters confront or question Brodie to any significant extent) seems to think that the terrible thing about life is other people's failure to see reason; that is, to see that they should do what is convenient for her. A wonderful thing about drama as a form is that even minor characters can have their say, in their own words, free even of a narrator's interpretive gloss: but the vantage point here is unrelievedly Brodie's. (Except on the occasions when we hear the gorilla's interior monologues, which are refreshing.) And the closest anyone comes to calling her out is to say, You just don't understand, which seems more like an inconvenience to deal with than a charge to ponder; Brodie clearly feels they are the ones who don't understand the significance of her work, or of her.
When Brodie tries to persuade Cleva and Evelyn of the importance of Cleva's language (I forget the name of it, but I believe it was invented by the playwright anyway) she goes off on a highly technical little lecture about what makes the language so fascinating to a linguist. I think we're meant to find it quirky and charming that she's so "passionate" about her field (how much bad behavior are you willing to overlook in exchange for quirky interests?), but clearly Brodie is simply unable to communicate with anyone who isn't a graduate student - that is, someone who shares her interests yet is subordinate to her. (And in fact she even says that she had been picturing her future child as a little graduate student.) I'm expected to believe that this woman, who is completely unable to relate to nonspecialists, did field research for years? And she never prepared a short, clear, yet noncondescending explanation of what she was doing? As with her sudden interest in the gorilla or her desire for a child, this was an assertion that I felt came more out of thematic necessity than actual character. Also, you'd think that Brodie, as a linguist, would have been aware that her extravagant use of technical language to poor, marginalized women like Cleva and Evelyn would be seen as an intimidating and even repellent assertion of social and intellectual superiority.
My initial reaction was that Zehra Berkman as Brodie was the weakest member of the three-woman cast, but on further thought I think the faults in the performance lie with the playwright, not the actor. Berkman was appealing and convincing enough so that my experience of Brodie during performance was - well, I wanted to be sympathetic. But thinking it over afterwards, which to some extent means thinking more about what the playwright did and a bit less about what the actor is doing, I had to realize the problem was the play's insular and complacent view of Brodie as a character. Berkman also didn't have the advantage the other actors had of switching among multiple roles, which heightens the razzle-dazzle of a performance on a basic theatrical level. Nancy Carlin plays the gorilla, Dorothy, Cleva, and the Baby; Rami Margron plays Rhiannon, Evelyn, Dre, Gloria, and various zoogoers. Both are superb in their varied roles. The zoogoers are particularly exhilarating, as Margron does whole crowd dialogues in different voices, flowing seamlessly flawlessly and even hilariously from one character to another.
We hear the zoogoers in the last scene, as almost kind of a chant, while Brodie has a long monologue envisioning life with the baby and the gorilla, whose perfect simplicity and elegance of movement she tries to ape (yes, I'm using the word deliberately); I find that as I try to describe the final scene the details and the movement have blurred in my mind, but the impression remains: an almost abstract combination of words and movement and themes that was unexpectedly striking and actually drew gasps the night I was there. There's a powerful poetic meditation struggling to get out of this play, about language and representation and being in the world. Unfortunately it's trapped in a largely "realistic" effort, whose realism does not extend to questioning or criticizing its main character. It's like a banal, hackneyed magazine article we've all seen too many times - Can Brodie Have It All? - that doesn't realize that if you're even in a position to ask if you can have it all (no matter what "it" is), then you're speaking from a position of incredible privilege. Too bad George didn't spend more time on the other characters, all of whom are more interesting than Brodie (the play is less than ninety minutes, but I found myself checking my watch during several Brodie-heavy scenes). She has her moment of elevation at the end, but my retrospective realization of her unquestioned faults, and the play's failure to challenge or even comment on her behavior, make it feel unearned. It's like something you'd read about in the New York Times Style section: the sort of moment expected to give stylish spiritual depth to a life of unacknowledged and assumed privilege, a little epiphany for the entitled.
When I first moved to Boston I lived in a crappy dim apartment on what was then the crappy dim side of Beacon Hill, the side that sloped down towards a big gray medical center and a bigger, grayer jail and the three or four old houses that were left of the West End, which had been urban-renewaled out of existence decades earlier. It all seemed far away from the picturesque expensive front of Beacon Hill, which looked out on the lovely green (or lovely snow-covered, depending on the season) grass of Boston Common. I lived in that apartment because it was cheap and I was poor, but my street was legitimately part of Beacon Hill, and that's always been an address that mattered to people who lived in Boston, and this was when people were starting to move back into downtown areas and other people were realizing there was lots of money to be made from people moving back into downtown areas, so there was lots of upheaval as one building after another magically transformed from dilapidated old eyesore into charmingly old-fashioned and potentially lucrative condominiums.
There was a run-down little convenience store on the corner across the street from my apartment. I avoided the place. It sold mostly dusty, dented canned goods that were available in better condition and for less money just a couple of blocks away in the big clean Park and Shop, or whatever that grocery store was called, and the Park and Shop also had fresh fruits and vegetables and other things you'd want in a grocery store. But mostly I avoided the dim little shop because the owners, a lumpen, sour middle-aged couple, were unpleasant people, ranging in behavior from passively indifferent to actively rude whenever a customer happened to wander in.
The inevitable happened and someone bought the property that held the shop and jacked up the rents to drive the tenants out to make way for more profitable newcomers. One of the local free weekly papers (the kind born from the idealistic rebellious spirit of the 1960s that still hung on in the money-grubbing 1980s thanks to income from the sex ads in the back pages) decided that this sort of eviction by rent was exactly what was wrong with Boston, which it may or may not have been, and that they would fight back with a big article featuring the dingy little shop as an example of the rich local texture that was being stamped and smoothed out by the moneymen. The sour middle-aged couple was magically transformed into "valuable members of the community" and my heart sank when I read that because I knew what would happen: the shop proprietors would now insist on demonstrating their value to "the community" by hanging out in the doorway of their shop grimly shouting greetings at anyone walking by, which was going to include me every time I entered or left my apartment building.
I braced myself and muttered "hello" back at them for a while, because I was a well-behaved middle-class boy, but of course that didn't last too long because the thing about the inevitable happening is that though it might be slowed by high-minded and well-meaning protests, it does eventually, inevitably, happen. There were bigger social and economic forces at work here, and though I can understand fighting against them (personally, I don't shop at WalMart), I had neither the money nor the inclination to buy the nasty couple's overpriced shoddy merchandise. I'd have forgotten the whole thing within months if I hadn't been so irritated by the fakery of the media-invented and media-imposed claim of "community." The real-estate people: they were a community. They knew each other, banded together, shared the same views and the same approach to the world. The rest of us: we were just random people who coincidentally occupied the same blocks for a few years, because we all worked but we still didn't have enough money to live in a nicer part of town, and it was sentimental, and politically delusional, to see us as anything else.
This is a roundabout way of presenting the skeptical frame of mind in which I approached Tenderloin, the last play of Cutting Ball Theater's mainstage season. The play was written and directed by Annie Elias, based directly on extensive interviews with Tenderloin residents; seven actors (Tristan Cunningham, Siobhan Doherty, Rebecca Frank, Michael Kelly, Leigh Shaw, David Sinaiko, and David Westley Shipman) performed a wide variety of roles.
It was enjoyable, though surprisingly sentimental, by which I mean it kept insisting it was dealing in harsh reality while actually insulating us, keeping us several layers away, from anything truly harsh or alien to bourgeois theatergoers. Everyone featured is connected in some way with the pathology of the Tenderloin; we see clergy and social workers and lawyers, and impoverished, marginal people, but we don't see, for example, office workers who happen to live there because the rents are comparatively low given the convenient downtown location. We hear from a man who sneers at "the suburbs" and prefers the Tenderloin because it's - well, you know the whole nostalgie de la boue thing: reality is more real with poverty and drug abuse in it. Drug abuse is frequently mentioned, but we don't hear from actual drug addicts, let alone any drug dealers. One of the first stories we hear is from a woman who was in an abusive relationship with a man who hated the Tenderloin and insisted they go live in the Sunset District. The implication is clear that his choice of neighborhood is a moral failing, and she is saved when she moves back to the Tenderloin on her own. As with most of the stories we hear, she is presented as an innocent victim. I found myself wanting to hear from the man, who struck me as a more interesting, complicated, and threatening character: why did he hate the Tenderloin so much? how did he see this woman he claimed to love? how did he justify to himself his behavior to her?
Same thing with the drug users and dealers we never hear from: I can see the general path, but particularly when you're talking about notoriously destructive drugs like heroin, I'm genuinely curious why people think it's a good idea to give it a try. What stories do they tell themselves in justification? It's possible we won't get anything better than survival-of-the-fittest cliches, maybe copied third-hand from some "gritty" TV procedural, but that has its interest, particularly if someone else on stage is smart enough and media-savvy enough to call them on it. But the documentary-style method of this play doesn't really allow for a lot of cross-commentary. There is some, in particular some byplay between a burnt-out janitor fed up with the Tenderloin and a former beat cop who supports the legalization of drugs. But then there are scenes such as the Filipina social worker who has very methodical lectures filled with the sort of advice about the importance of faith and family and working hard and setting priorities that is both common-sensical and delusional, and I have no idea how her students take her advice: does it provide some helpful structure and inspiration? or is it just goodthink horseshit that has no relation to the world they actually have to live in?
The performers were not only uniformly strong; they were uniformly dazzling. Each played several roles, and just when I'd think someone was perfectly cast as a worldly-wise lawyer or stolid security guard she or he would change on a dime into a bubbly little child or a transsexual bartender. But in classic Brechtian style (and this is Cutting Ball Theater, so they must know this) the very brilliance of the performances kept me constantly aware that what we were seeing was a performance; we might hear about the drug-addled homeless covered in their own shit, but we weren't smelling it the way we could simply by walking through the nearby BART station; we're seeing sensitive, committed, very talented performers displaying their skills for our entertainment. Even the music was stylish; we got some Edith Piaf, but no one was under our window, or in the apartment next door, blasting hiphop while we were trying to sleep. (I'm not complaining about that, just noting it; I've been to way too many plays where the elderly/middle-aged and mostly white audience gets blasted with hiphop as a signifier of gritty urban realism, whereas everyone knows it's really just corporate music for suburban white teenage boys.)
There were framing scenes that did feature the sort of street crazy that people associate with the Tenderloin, but perhaps it was inevitable that we didn't hear from these people during the play (except for the actual ones who can be heard through the walls of the theater on the street outside, of course): it's inherent in this sort of interview-based documentary theater that it's going to favor the articulate and the reflective, and, to some extent, those with an emotionally complete story arc: even avant-garde audiences don't like to be left dangling. So we didn't hear from anyone strung out on drugs, or anyone engaged in criminal activities. We heard from ruefully wise older inhabitants who had suffered into life wisdom. They may have done some foolish things in their youth, but those days were past. We might hear passing references to being in jail or the army, but then we would get long and genuinely cute and charming stories about raising children in the neighborhood. It's all colorful and harmless. I was reminded several times of Damon Runyon, which I'm pretty sure was not the desired effect.
When the street crazies reappeared on stage at the end, did I see them differently from the way I had in the beginning? Not really. Was my opinion of the Tenderloin changed? Again, not really. Despite the sincerity and skill of the performers, there was nothing here I didn't already know, and nothing would be changed by our attending this show. When I got on the train afterward two bedraggled people, of the type associated with the Tenderloin, got in the same car with me. And I kept thinking they would get out, but they stayed on until I reached my town, and then they got out, because now more than ever "the Tenderloin" is everywhere. Did I look at them with more compassion after seeing the play? Once again, not really. I was already sort of helplessly compassionate towards people like them. But I will be honest and insist on pointing out that I would be far less compassionate if they, for instance, were screaming or spitting at me, or had a sickening smell, or were blasting crap music loudly from a radio. What is community? Where do we draw the line on what connects us to the rest of our grubby species? Cutting Ball is in the Tenderloin, but are any of the inhabitants portrayed here going to show up for their upcoming Strindberg cycle? Does the theater's location have any real meaning? Isn't it really just another example of the pervasive influence of real-estate prices?
There's something about a "collected works" that I've always found irresistible. Sometimes I will hesitate for a while, but generally I cave in, and rarely do I regret it. So last March I ordered the Toscanini Complete RCA Collection. It finally showed up mid-July, after several months in which the release date kept getting pushed back (no idea why) and the price fluctuated with a stock-market wildness. Luckily I bought low.
The first record I listened to obsessively was a Toscanini disc belonging to my mother. I was equally obsessed with both sides: one had Gershwin's An American in Paris and the other Prokofiev's Symphony No. 1 in D Major, the Classical. It was only much, much later that I realized both pieces were very unusual repertory for Toscanini.
For old time's sake I found the Gershwin first and listened to it. This performance is so ingrained on my memory that for me it is the piece, so I don't really have any very illuminating second thoughts; it's clear and jaunty, with a lot of rhythmic snap and forward propulsion, and as irresistible as ever. The rest of the disc has some Americana-type pieces as well as American classics like the Barber Adagio, but I just listened to the Gershwin a couple of times. I would have preferred hearing it with the Prokofiev (which I assume is somewhere in the box). I will now go back to Disc 1 (Beethoven 1 and Beethoven 3) and work my way through the rest, always keeping an eye out for the yet-unseen Prokofiev.
When the Furtwangler "Legacy" set came out last year I considered it but decided I already had a substantial number of the recordings so I could skip it. But once I had the Toscanini I started to think I should give equal play to his fellow Olympian (plus I could always sell duplicate discs to Amoeba or Rasputin's), so I went ahead and bought the Furtwangler, which arrived about a week after the Toscanini.
As sometimes happens, two great artists with complementary energies rose at roughly the same time. Their lives and their struggles against the oppressive politics of their time took very different paths, but whenever I am being driven crazy by someone else loudly playing recorded music, which is often, I remind myself how lucky I am to live in a time when the great souls of these physically dead artists are available with miraculous ease in these neat little boxes, waiting for whoever cares to hear them.
In fact it's almost too easy to get this stuff these days, too easy to take it all for granted, or to load up on tempting items that sit on already over-crowded shelves, waiting their turn. I bought the Liszt complete piano music set well over a year ago, and am only two-fifths of the way through that bad boy. If only we had separate lifetimes to absorb fully each thing we need to absorb, but incompletion seems to be our fate.