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Two book-related essays by Gordon Phinn from his recently published book It’s All About Me: How Criticism Mirrors The Self

BOOK: Another Day Of Life by Ryszard Kapuskinski

Another Day of Life

The day I began to compose myself in order to write this review, the author’s introduction reminded me that the war in Angola has been grinding on since 1975, and the Globe and Mail noted that a bomb planted on a train track by UNITA rebels had halted an express, enabling them to attack and kill approximately 252 people. You can call it coincidence, but I’ll stick to synchronicity, just as I did when starting Peter Maass’ 1996 Bosnia reportage, Love Thy Neighbour, the very day Slobodan Milosevic was finally helicoptered into confinement.

You see chance in a world rich with randomness, and I see causal connections mysteriously designed and delivered on cue. We may honour or snicker at each other’s attitudes, but we know it takes all sorts to make a world, and in our lovable liberal democracy we blandly tolerate a vast number of norms, agreeing to disagree on just about any topic placed on the table. Opinions proliferate and flourish in their consensus reality (can this be rephrased?) climates. We may swat flies and mosquitos, but we no longer swat each other—at least not too much.

It’s no secret that this happy state of affairs fails to hold sway in many other parts of the world, where differences of opinion lead quickly and inexorably to the infliction of damage—damage to bodies, damage to buildings, damage to culture. Destruction becomes the sole inevitable consequence of desire.

When no longer distracted by the stink of decay and gore, and perhaps enervated by the endless debating over the legacies of colonialism, pig-ignorant tribalism and the mercenary mentality, we can see fighting is a very human activity, much like any other. Fuelled by argument, poverty, real estate and resources (in Angola’s case, oil and diamonds), it requires anger, armaments, fear and food; it entails sides that will split into victors and victims, propaganda to beguile the ignorant, and spoils to assuage the suffering. But ultimately all it needs is energy, the energy of unbridled desire: the desire for victory, riches, power, God. All of it I want I want I want. Fighting may exact a stiffer price, but in the final analysis it is just something else to do. Just “another day of life,” as one character dryly comments to Kapuscinsky

Another, one Commondante Ndozi, sums it all up in a page or two. Highlights include: “This country has been at war for five hundred years, ever since the Portuguese came. They needed slaves for trade, for export to Brazil and the Caribbean…The slave wars went on for three hundred years or more. It was good business for our chiefs. The strong tribes attacked the weak, took prisoners, and put them on the market…Sometimes they had to do it, to pay the Portuguese taxes.” Need I be overworking the ironic mode to suggest that I think you get the picture?

Ryszard Kapuscinski certainly does. Since at least 1960 he’s been casting a cold eye on life, on death in Africa and elsewhere, and garnering an international reputation doing it. And he does so by eliminating all extraneous filler, all decorative fluff. An expert at placing himself inside the city under siege, at the front under fire, and within the risk-filled land of sudden and pointless death, where he starves and shivers and sweats, sharing the fates of the unfortunates around him, gathering in during the quiet eye of the storm what he will later recollect in tranquillity as incisive penetration to the heart of the matter.

In Another Day Of Life one breathes the outbreak of hostilities in Angola, circa 1975, and that stench of death and paranoia which comes with the collapse of civilized discourse, while feeling the historical processes that have furnished the means and motives for the seemingly sudden conflagration.

While this paperback reissue of the 1976 Polish original is doubtless just to piggyback on Knopf’s current push for his new Shadows Of The Sun, it is in no way an inferior product. While long time fans will need no convincing from me, those new to the name need have no hesitation in starting here. Although brief, the text puts you front and centre at a pivotal point in the country’s 500-year torment of tribal conflict, exacerbated and arguably caused by the rapacious insistence of the Portuguese on an endless supply of slaves for our old friends in the new world, sugar and cotton. This little book will leave you in no doubt as to his perspicacity, which often verges on the poetic.

Critics have compared him to Conrad, Orwell and Garcia Marquez. John Le Carré has called him “the conjuror extraordinaire of modern reportage.” High praise to be sure, but in this reviewer’s eyes, richly deserved

 

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Book: Stravinsky: A Creative Spring by Stephen Walsh

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When Denys Finch-Hatton, aristocrat and adventurer, made famous through Robert Redford’s portrayal in the film Out Of Africa, returned home for the summer of 1911, fresh from purchasing his first farm in British East Africa, it was not only at the behest of his parents to attend the Coronation of King George V at Westminster Abbey and put in appearances at the society parties of the season, where it could still be said that the days of wine and roses were in full bloom, but to also indulge his passion for the arts to the full. Harley Granville Barker’s production of a Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Titania, Oberon, and the fairies actually painted in gold was only the beginning. Over the summer he also saw Debussy’s L’Apres Midi d’un Faune, choreographed by Nijinsky, and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka, also danced by him. Both were presented by Serge Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, then taking all of Europe by storm.

Petrouchka quickly became his favourite ballet and Stravinsky one of his favourite composers, whose recordings he would bring as gifts to his beloved Karen Blixen (played in the film by Meryl Streep). Much is made of these importations of culture in the movie, most memorably in a scene where, by means of that early version of remote control, a length of string, some chattering monkeys are introduced, quite futilely as it turns out, to the charms of Mozart.  Although perhaps not intended as such by the director, this scene would serve rather well: it symbolized the uncomprehending and infuriated reactions across Europe from some of the more, shall we say, excessively cultivated balletomanes, to the radical innovations of the pre-war Ballet Russes.

That myth of the outraged public, later fed by the legends of Dada, Surrealism, Bebop and Rock’n Roll, is only one of the burdens saddling Igor Stravinsky, for when an artist is elevated to iconic status during his lifetime and that status is somehow maintained during the initial post-mortem period, it is customary to witness multiple takes on the life and work proliferate. This is partly due to the economic viability leveraged by massive public interest. From the scandalous scribblings in society columns, through pandering profiles in the popular press, to the academic industries of criticism and analysis, a famous name will help sustain many a career.

In the case of Stravinsky, a Twentieth Century musical icon if there ever was one, several versions of the myth are available for perusal. At millenium’s end, some days ago, when every pundit worth his salt was out there practicing, the following, penned by Robert Everett-Green, appeared in the Globe and Mail: “The most important composer from that milieu was certainly Igor Stravinsky, who, like Picasso, was an explorer who absorbed and refashioned everything that came his way. The Rite Of Spring, with its triumph of rhythm and instinct over reason and refinement, is still a more prescient creation than any harmonic innovation by Richard Strauss or Arnold Shoenberg. The Rite signalled a much broader effort to overthrow the Christian-Cartesian habit of elevating the mind over the body, and is part of the pre-history of jazz and rock’n roll.” Here Everett-Green conveniently ignores the powerful creative thrusts of Prokoviev/Shostakovitch on the one hand and Debussy/Ravel on the other, as if the hot pursuit of his point fully excused him from considering anything but the personal critical baggage with which he wishes to freight poor Igor.

Modris Ecsteins’s 1989 study of World War I, Rites Of Spring, is another home grown example of this tendency. He manages to lasso our icon from the wild plains of the public domain and domesticate him with the following, ultimately erroneous definition. “The Rite Of Spring, which was first performed in Paris in May 1913, is, with its rebellious energy and its celebration of life through sacrificial death perhaps the emblematic oeuvre of a twentieth-century world that, in its pursuit of life, has killed off millions of its best human beings. Stravinsky intended initially to entitle his score “The Victim” [this is factually wrong: it was “The Great Sacrifice”]… The unknown soldier stands front and centre in our story. He is Stravinsky’s victim.”

On a more frivolous note, the cultural icon’s endless inflation into some spectacular cloud-bedecked hot air balloon can serve as perfect fodder for those who would zonk them back to earth. Witness Classical Music For Dummies: “Stravinsky’s youth followed the standard Classical Music Composer Formula, which by now you should be able to recite in your sleep; born into a successful family, packed off to law school, tugged enough by the lures of music to bag law and become a composer.” Interestingly, it is this last gently mocking tone which Stravinsky himself takes as he comments on his own career. From Sony Classical’s notes to the Collected Edition: “One has a nose. The nose scents and it chooses. An artist is simply a kind of pig snouting for truffles.” And, “Composers combine notes. That is all.”

I am very pleased to report that no such theory enslaved myth-making disturbs the graceful unfolding of Stephen Walsh’s book. Here we have, finally revealed, the quotidian Stravinsky which every fan wants to know: the talented amateur taken under Rimsky-Korsakov’s wing; the young aesthete attending those World Of Art tea parties, the hard working composer and family man leading his gypsy caravan of an extended family in a perpetual search across Europe for sponsors, stages and audiences; the canny businessman conducting his affairs by telegram and letter; the cutting-edge composer engaged with his contemporaries; the triumphant star partying till dawn with the glitterati of the day.

All these tableaux are presented with the kind of confident elan that comes only with a decade of research, and what’s more, are blessedly free of that apostolic protectionism rubber stamped on the culture by Robert Craft in his seemingly endless series of hero-worshipping memoirs. No doubt about it: this is the biography we’ve been waiting for.

Monumental in its undertaking, exhaustive in its detail, acute in its analysis, both musical and psychological, and, last but not least, stylish and witty without being overbearingly clever. It’s been a long wait but we could not have asked for more.

Gordon Phinn would like people to think about Stravinsky less and listen to him more.

Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

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