Wednesday, November 08, 2006


O'Connor, Levon and Garth, Tosca

The other night I picked up Flannery O'Connor's collection of occasional prose, Mystery and Manners, and found it as foolproof as ever. She's so sane and sensible about writing. Which is to say, she acknowledges that art is a mysterious thing--and not only in the secular sense of the word--but refuses to dance around it like some zany cargo cultist. (In comparison, a call to arms like Faulkner's Nobel address sounds like cut-rate theosophy.) Anyway, here's a bit I particularly enjoyed:
People are always complaining that the modern novelist has no hope and that the picture he paints of the world is unbearable. The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I'm always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it's very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won't survive the ordeal.
I've still got my teeth and hair but can otherwise attest to the absolute rightness of this description. Meanwhile, on other fronts: there's a nice article about Levon Helm in the current issue of Paste, largely focusing on his resurrected vocal cords. Mark Guarino also notes that Helm is recording an album (am I showing my age?) of roots-oriented material for release in 2007. Sounds good to me:
The sound is pure mountain country, mostly ancient tunes Helm--who plays drums, mandolin and banjo on the record--first heard growing up in cotton-country Arkansas, including "Little Birds," a song he learned from his father that The Band played in its early touring days but never released. "We played around with that tune," he says, "but we never did get the right kind of a cut on it."
I've got a cloudy (well, almost inaudible) bootleg of the Band performing "Little Birds" at their Fillmore West debut in 1969. I look forward to hearing the 66-year-old Helm pin this Appalachian chestnut to the canvas. I'm no less eager to hear Garth Hudson's impending Savoy release, which features this sui generis keyboard monster playing jazz. This won't, I trust, be your average, Bill-Evans-on-speed trio session: Hudson is too omniverous a stylist to phone in one more version of "April In Paris." Imagine a shotgun marriage between Art Tatum and Jerry Lee Lewis and you'll be on the right track. (You can read an excellent profile of Hudson here, and listen to a brief sample of his jazzier playing here, courtesy of Mark Dann Recording.)

Finally: we went to Tosca last night. José Cura was a ruggedly masculine and big-lunged Cavaradossi (Nina thought he looked good in tights), Andrea Gruber endowed the title role with a fine, flirtatious edge, and James Morris was evil. In the pit--which the Italians, I recently learned, call the golfo mistico--the orchestra sounded tremendous. A historical note: Puccini adapted the opera from Victorien Sardou's 1887 play of the same name. When the composer visited Sardou in 1899, the playwright was touching up his original script for a revival with Sarah Bernhardt, and apparently wished to play fast and loose with Roman geography. Puccini recalled (I'm quoting from David Hamilton's program note):
In sketching the panorama, he wanted the course of the Tiber to be seen passing between St. Peter's and the Castello [Sant'Angelo]! I told him that the flumen flows past on the other side, under the Castello. But he, as calm as a fish, said: "Oh, that's nothing!" A fine fellow, all life and fire and full of historical-topo-panoramical inexactitudes.
I'm tempted to laugh at Puccini's lust for precision--who goes to the opera for verisimilitude?--but in fact I spent the entire third act wondering if the sun was rising on the correct side of the Castello. Let's see. That imposing fortress (and traditional hidey-hole for the Pope when the brigands came calling) faces south. So if you're standing on the parapet--from which Tosca will do her one-and-a-half gainer at the end--the sun would rise to the left. Hooray! Confirming these calculations on a map, I was suddenly grateful to the set designer for his or her historical-topo-panoramical exactitude.

While others my age were clutching their Kerouac, I was poring over 'The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor'. Remember 'Greenleaf' or 'The Displaced Person' or 'A Good Man is Hard to Find'? Corn-liquor and truffles! Strong strong stuff.

You've sparked a Flannery revival chez Augustine, I think (after sending me back to GV's essays at 2am last Monday); is this blog bad for my health? (and where IS my copy of The Last Waltz?)
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