Wednesday 29 April 2020

Bob Dylan: Song of Himself...

Bob Dylan adopts various guises in surprise track I Contain Multitudes
Warmly burnished and gently cryptic, this is easy listening at its most enjoyable  

Ludovic Hunter-Tilney 
The Financial Times
24 April 2020

 Following the surprise release of “Murder Most Foul” last month, Bob Dylan has another new song up his sleeve. Like its Macbeth-inspired predecessor, “I Contain Multitudes” borrows its title from the literary canon, a phrase from Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself, 51”. 

Musically, it doesn’t contain multitudes. A thoughtfully strummed acoustic guitar and swaying bent notes from a steel guitar predominate, with a cello adding an elegiac tone in the background. It has an easy lilt, the slow sway of Hawaiian palms in a warm westerly breeze. There’s an odd moment when the volume seems to fade out momentarily before fading in again: possibly the result of overhasty editing. 

Dylan sings with a soft rise and fall, never straining himself, but full of verbal vim. The sing-speak style and lack of song structure resemble “Murder Most Foul”. But “I Contain Multitudes” is lighter and shorter than its 17-minute predecessor. It is a very Dylanish form of easy listening: warmly burnished, gently cryptic, infused with a mercurial sense of feeling. 

“I’m a man of contradictions,” he announces, paraphrasing Whitman’s poem. The primary contradiction of life — death — occurs at the top of the song (“The flowers are dying like all things do”). Then Dylan adopts a contradictory series of personae: a Blakean visionary poet, Little Red Riding Hood, a Rolling Stones-style bad boy of rock ’n’ roll, Anne Frank (murdered by the Nazis) and Indiana Jones (defeater of the Nazis). 

Wit is the life force holding death at bay here. It’s most evident in the various rhymes that Dylan has evidently enjoyed devising for “multitudes” — “blood feuds”, “all the young dudes”, “Chopin’s preludes”: bravo.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Friday 10 April 2020

John Banville on Georges Simenon

Literature's enduring hero: The Inspector Maigret novels will soon ...

The Escape Artist: George Simenon

John Banville
The Los Angeles Times
28 May 2008

The novel is resilient, and so are novelists. Sometimes, a successful writer is rejuvenated by the works of another. A few years ago, the Irish novelist John Banville was introduced by a friend to the works of the late French auteur Georges Simenon, whose absurdly prolific output included the Inspector Maigret novels, for which he is best known. Banville, himself the author of 16 novels, including the 2005 Man Booker Prize–winning The Sea, is a writer of serious literary intent, but not long after reading Simenon, he began to write mystery novels (Christine Falls, The Silver Swan) under the name Benjamin Black. As he told the Weekly last year, “I was really blown away by this extraordinary writer. I had never known this kind of thing was possible, to create such work in that kind of simple — well, apparently simple — direct style. … Looking back, I think it was very much a transition. It was a way of breaking free from the books I had been writing for the last 20 years, these first-person narratives of obsessed, half-demented men going on and on and on and on. “I had to break out of that. And I see now in retrospect that Christine Falls was part of that process. Because it’s a completely different process than writing as John Banville. It’s completely action-driven, and it’s dialogue-driven, and it’s character-driven. Which none of my Banville books are.” 
Banville, then, on his rejuvenator:

As one contemplates the life and work of Georges Simenon, the question inevitably arises: Was he human? In his energies, creative and erotic, he was certainly extraordinary. He wrote some 400 novels, under a variety of pseudonyms, as well as countless short stories and film scripts, and toward the end of his life, having supposedly given up writing, he dictated thousands of pages of memoirs. He could knock off a novel in a week or 10 days of manic typing — he never revised, as the work sometimes shows — and in Paris in the 1920s he is said to have broken off an affair with Josephine Baker, the expatriate American chanteuse and star of La Revue Nègre, because in the year he was with her, he was so distracted by his passion for her that he had managed to write only three or four books.

He put himself in the way of many such distractions. In 1976, when he was in his 70s, he told his friend Federico Fellini in an interview in L’Express that over the course of his life he had slept with 10,000 women. True, he was an early starter. He lost his virginity at the age of 12 to a girl three years his senior, who got him to change schools so that they could continue to see each other and then promptly threw him over for another sweetheart. Young Georges had received his first lesson in the school of hard knocks.

He was born in Liège, Belgium, in 1903, the son of a kindly but ineffectual accountant and a fearsome mother with whom, throughout her long life, he had an intense love-hate relationship. When he was 16, he left school and went to work as a reporter on the Gazette de Liège, and joined La Caque, a group of young dandies and bohemians under the spiritual leadership of the painter Luc Lafnet. Later, Simenon described the Sunday in June 1919 when he first met Lafnet as “probably one of the most important days of my adolescence.”

La Caque were a wild bunch, indulging in drink, drugs and free love. “We were an elite,” Simenon later wrote. “A little group of geniuses thrown together by chance.” They were also dangerous and, in at least one case, self-destructive. Early one winter morning, after a night of heavy drinking, a member of the group, Joseph Kleine, “le petit Kleine,” a would-be artist and cocaine addict who lived up, or down, to his name, being slight of build and delicate of constitution, was found hanging by his neck from the door of the church of Saint-Pholien in Liège.

Suicide was suspected, or murder made to look like suicide. Next morning, however, the Liège Gazette confidently reported that the young man had killed himself. Many years were to pass before Simenon admitted that he was the author of that convenient report, which appeared before police inquiries had properly begun. “I plead not guilty on our behalf,” Simenon wrote in his memoirs. “Or rather, I plead lack of premeditation. … We did not know the true state of ‘le petit Kleine.’ But in the last resort, wasn’t it us who killed him?”

The image of the hanged man remained a powerful one for Simenon — his second Maigret tale was called Le Pendu de Saint-Pholien — and in one of his finest novels, The Strangers in the House, published in 1940, there is a wild and self-destructive gang of young people, obviously modeled on La Caque, whose escapades culminate in murder. Simenon the novelist knew whereof he wrote.

In 1920, at the age of 17, he published his first novel, Au Pont des Arches, with illustrations by various artists, including his mentor, the slightly satanic Lafnet. A humorous work, Au Pont des Arches enjoyed local success. It had been written under the name Georges Sim, a nom de plume Simenon was to retain for some years, and which he kept even after he had moved to Paris at the age of 20 and seriously got down to the business of making himself into a real writer.

He began to submit stories to Colette, then literary editor of the newspaper Le Matin. She urged him to pare his style to the bone, surely the best advice he ever received, and which he wisely took. He set to writing pulp fiction, in which he was highly successful, churning out books under a couple of dozen pen names. By his middle 20s he was rich, and embarked on a series of travels that would take him throughout Europe and to Africa and, in 1934, all the way ’round the world. It was a pattern of unremitting work and obsessive restlessness that was to endure for most of his life.

In 1923, he married a young painter named Régine Renchon, but the marriage did not last. In New York, just after the war, he met Denyse Ouimet, a French Canadian 17 years his junior, whom he had interviewed for a secretarial job. The couple were married in 1950, in Reno — it was courting disaster, surely, to marry in America’s divorce capital — and moved to Connecticut, where they lived for the next five years. Returning to Europe in 1955, the Simenons settled in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a huge house, Epalinges, which they had designed themselves and which was as ugly and clinically functional as a hospital. As this second marriage disintegrated — Simenon had been carrying on a long affair with a servant in the house — Ouimet floundered into depression. In 1964 she left the antiseptic Epalinges for a real hospital.
Margery Darrell: The Simenon Phenomenon
Shortly afterward, their troubled daughter Marie-Jo also entered on a course of psychiatric treatment, but to no avail, and in 1978 she killed herself. Marie-Jo had been frankly and hopelessly in love with her father from an early age. However, in a volume of memoirs published in 1981, Simenon blamed Ouimet for the girl’s death. Ouimet had already made her case against her husband in an angry memoir of her own, Un Oiseau pour le chat, published the year their daughter died. It could all have been a plot for one of Simenon’s novels, although he probably would have rejected it as too melodramatic.

Pietr le Letton (1930), the first novel that Simenon published under his own name, introduced his best-known character, the pipe-smoking detective Inspector Maigret. Between 1930 and 1973, when he retired from fiction writing and devoted himself to dictating his memoirs, Simenon produced some 80 Maigret novels. It is on these books that his fame chiefly rests. It is calculated that half a billion “Simenons,” in 50 languages, have been sold; but his finest work is in the romans durs, or “hard” novels, ten of the finest of which have been republished, in new or heavily revised translations, by the New York Review of Books.

Most crime fiction, no matter how “hard-boiled” or bloodily forensic, is essentially sentimental, for most crime writers are disappointed romantics. William T. Vollmann, in an afterword to the NYRB edition of Simenon’s greatest masterpiece, Dirty Snow, contrasts him with Raymond Chandler, whose Philip Marlowe novels, despite their elegance, wit and polished metaphors, seem now distinctly soft-boiled. “Chandler’s novels,” Vollmann writes, “are noir shot through with wistful luminescence; Simenon has concentrated noir into a darkness as solid and heavy as the interior of a dwarf star.” Only Patricia Highsmith approaches Simenon’s ability — indeed, his compulsion — to show the world as it really is, in all its squalor, excitement and contingent cruelty, yet Highsmith’s characters are paper-thin compared to the French master’s vividly multidimensional men and women.

Newcomers to this existentialist Simenon — the Maigret books, while entertaining, are often formulaic and even slapdash — might do well to begin with The Strangers in the House, for it is the quintessential roman dur: direct, spare, sensuously atmospheric, hypnotic in its realism, and honest in a way that few novelists would dare to be. What is written of the events of the narrative might be said of the book itself: “It was because it had all begun with such violence — in mud, blood and vomit — that everything had rushed to a climax.”

The book’s central character is Loursat, a semi-aristocratic small-town lawyer whose wife left him 20 years ago and who has since that time lived the life of a drink-sodden and misanthropic recluse. One winter night, he wakes to the sound of a gunshot from one of the rooms in the rambling old house, and after a search finds lying on a bed a man who has been shot through the neck and who dies at the exact moment of Loursat’s arrival. It turns out that Loursat’s daughter, who lives with him but with whom he has hardly exchanged a word since her mother’s disappearance, has without his knowing it been entertaining nightly a gang of her friends in the attic, one of whom is the murderer.

It is typical of Simenon’s work that the discovery of this secret life that has been going on under his averted nose should bring Loursat out of his 20-year lethargy and fill him with energy and excitement. Henri Cartier-Bresson used to speak of the “decisive moment” when reality is caught in its unguarded essence, and it is on such moments that Simenon builds his fictions. In a passage that not only sums up this particular story but is emblematic of all the romans durs — and which P.D. James singles out in her introduction to the NYRB edition of Strangers — the author describes the passionate longing that suddenly floods Loursat’s hitherto frozen heart:

To discover a new world, new people, new sounds and smells, new thoughts, new feelings, a swarming, writhing world, which had no relation to the epics and tragedies of literature, one that was full of all those mysterious and generally trivial details you don’t find in books — the breath of cold air in a dirty back alley, the loiterer on a street corner, a shop remaining open long after all others had closed, an impatient, highly strung boy waiting all keyed up outside a watchmaker’s for the friend who was going to lead him into a new and unknown future.

Dirty Snow, published eight years after Strangers, is an astonishing work. Signed off at “Tucson (Arizona) 20 March 1948,” it was published that year in France as La Neige était sale. Nasty, brutish and not very long, the book presents a thoroughly Hobbesian view of life on this dwindling planet; here indeed is the war of all against all. It is set in an unnamed European city, most likely Liège, during the German occupation. Over the course of a seemingly interminable winter, Frank Friedmaier, the central character, turns 19. When we first encounter him, he is standing at night in a snow-filled alley with a borrowed knife in his pocket, waiting with grim anticipation to commit his first murder, a Gidean acte gratuit — the gratuitousness of which would surely have shocked Gide.

Frank’s victim is to be a “noncommissioned officer” known as the Eunuch, a member of the occupation forces. Frank has no reason to kill him; it is simply a rite of passage to be performed, a losing of virginity. For Frank, we are told, “it was a question of killing his first man and breaking in Kromer’s Swedish knife.” Frank is driven partly by a determination not to be outdone by his friend Kromer, who has already carried out a particularly grisly killing, described on the second page of the book. The passage is a richly representative example of Simenon’s brisk, sleek and seemingly effortless style, or nonstyle, glassy-eyed in its impassivity and yet thoroughly, horribly compelling.

Coming out of Timo’s bar, Kromer the smalltime hood is confronted by a “skinny little man, pale and feverish,” to whom apparently he sold something unsatisfactory and who now is seeking reparation. The little man grabs Kromer by the collar of his coat and begins yelling at him.

Kromer, in the middle of the dark alley between the two banks of snow, took the cigar from his mouth with his left hand. He punched with his right, just once. Then two arms and two legs were in the air, just like a marionette, and then the black form sank down into the pile of snow along the sidewalk. The strangest thing was that there was an orange peel beside the head — something you probably wouldn’t see anywhere in town except in front of Timo’s.

Timo came out without his overcoat or cap, dressed just as he had been at the bar. He poked the marionette and stuck out his lower lip.

“He’s had it,” he growled. “In an hour he’ll be stiff.”

The focus of the entire scene is, of course, that piece of orange peel.

Frank lives with his mother, Lotte, who runs a brothel in their apartment. He does not know the identity of his father but suspects that it is the police inspector, Hamling, a frequent visitor who acts, it is implied, as Lotte’s protector in these dangerous times. But Frank has fixed on another and far more preferred father figure, Holst, his neighbor in the apartment building, an intellectual out of favor with the authorities, who has been forced to take a job as a streetcar conductor.

Holst makes only the most fleeting of appearances in the book, yet for Frank he is a presiding deity, at once remote and fascinating, an object almost of veneration. Holst passes by as Frank waits in the alley to commit his murder, and Frank wishes the older man might pause for a moment and “see the thing done,” for it seems to him that there is already a secret bond between the two of them, that “it was really as though he had just chosen Holst, as though he had always known that things would turn out this way, because he wouldn’t have done it for anyone but the streetcar conductor.”
If only Georges Simenon had been a bit more like Maigret ...
Holst has a daughter, the innocent and pure-hearted Sissy, who falls in love with Frank, and whose love Frank repays by tricking her into sacrificing her virginity not to him, as she believes, but to Kromer, with whom he switches places in a darkened bedroom. Discovering how she has been betrayed, Sissy flees the house and almost perishes in the snow. Meanwhile, Frank has killed again, in the course of robbing a cache of antique watches, which will be sold to a German officer.

Frank is at last picked up by the authorities, not for the killings he has committed, about which nobody seems to care in the least, but because of his tenuous connection with the German officer, who, it turns out, has paid for the watches with money stolen from official sources; Frank is suspect also due to the fact that one of the girls working for his mother is found to be a member of the resistance on the run.

These details are of scant interest to Frank. In imprisonment, interrogation and torture, he has found a sort of holy task, a ritualized process of atonement and even — although neither he nor Simenon would dream of using the word — redemption. As the days and weeks of his incarceration go on, he descends deep into himself. It is an existential journey, and along the way he comes to understand himself and the impossible predicament in which he is caught — not the predicament of being a prisoner but, on the contrary, of being free, the most burdensome state of all.

At the end, Holst and Sissy are allowed to visit him, perhaps in a devilish strategy to get him to confess. Sissy tells him, to his astonishment and joy, that she still loves him, but almost more important than her declaration of forgiveness is the moment when Holst “laid his hand on Frank’s shoulder exactly as Frank had always known a father would.” After that, death for Frank is a mere incidental, a supererogatory closure to a life already completed.

What Frank wants, as Vollmann points out, is to be known: “He scarcely knows himself, or anything else worth knowing. But if he can somehow stand revealed to the gaze of the Other, then maybe he will achieve some sort of realization.” What makes the book so harrowing, however, is that at the culmination of this search for authenticity, despite Holst’s paternal gesture and Sissy’s vow of love — Vollmann suggests, and surely he is right, that the prison visit by Holst and Sissy is the one false note in the book — what Frank discovers is that even authenticity itself is no great thing.

Unlike Joyce, who boasted of being nowhere to be found in his work yet is everywhere plain to see in it, Simenon really does manage to seem a disinterested observer, standing apart from the world he created, paring his fingernails. Still, in the atmosphere of Dirty Snow, sweaty and soiled and rife with insinuation, we might be permitted to detect a hint of the mauvaise conscience of a writer who lived in France contentedly enough through the occupation and at the war’s end found himself accused of collaboration, so that, although the collaboration charges were eventually dropped, he had to flee to Canada, later moving to the United States.

In Three Bedrooms in Manhattan, first published in 1946, the protagonist, François Combe, a famous Parisian actor in his late 40s, who has fled to America after a scandalous and shaming breakup with his actress wife, is a scarcely disguised self-portrait. In a Manhattan bar, Combe encounters Kay Miller, a Viennese expatriate living in America pretty much by her wits, and falls for her, altogether despite himself. Miller for her part is undoubtedly a portrait of Denyse Ouimet.

Through the bars and the night streets of the city, and the three bedrooms of the title — the first is in a cheap hotel, the second is Combe’s rented bolthole, the third is Miller’s room in her shared apartment — the two stumble, through serious emotional obstacles, including Combe’s violent jealousy and Miller’s emotional fecklessness, into a love that seems to leave Combe as much dismayed as happy. In her NYRB introduction, Joyce Carol Oates accepts the book as a fictionalized memoir and sees Simenon, “master of irony … overcome by wonder at what is happening to him, succumbing to romantic infatuation in jaded middle age.”

The urge to flee life’s embroilments and disappear into anonymity, common to many men and at least to some women, is an obsessively recurring theme in Simenon’s work. Nowhere is it worked out more neatly or more persuasively than in Monsieur Monde Vanishes. Norbert Monde — Simenon has a wonderful way with names — is a cautiously successful Parisian businessman running the brokerage and export firm founded by his grandfather. On the morning of his 48th birthday — the same age, not incidentally, as François Combe in Three Bedrooms, and as the writer himself just after his marriage to Denyse Ouimet —Monsieur Monde has his barber shave off his moustache, withdraws 300,000 francs from his bank account, exchanges his tailor-made suit for an anonymous secondhand outfit and walks out of his life without a word to anyone.

Monde’s flight is not provoked by any grand crisis, though it is true that his work has ceased to engage him, and his relations with his family are troubled. When he leaves it all behind, he does not run so much as drift, “following a preordained plan, for which he was not responsible.” He takes a train for Marseilles and checks into a featureless hotel, and in the morning half-wakes to find himself in tears, an “endless flow from some deep spring,” and speaking to himself without moving his lips: “He was telling of his infinite aching weariness, which was due not to his journey in a train but to his long journey as a man.”

The state into which Monde has fallen, or to which he has risen, is at once numbed and ecstatic. “He was lucid, not with an everyday lucidity, the sort one finds acceptable, but on the contrary the sort of which one subsequently feels ashamed, perhaps because it confers on supposedly commonplace things the grandeur ascribed to them by poetry and religion.” The insinuation of shame here, utterly unexpected, utterly right, is pure Simenon.

In Marseilles, Monde takes up with Julie, a nightclub performer — “her lips stained the pallid tip of a cigarette with a vivid pink that was more sensuously feminine than a woman’s blood” — and they travel together to Nice. No sooner have they arrived in that city than all of Monde’s money is stolen. The ever-resourceful Julie at once finds jobs for them both at the Monico, a nightclub and run-down casino.

It is at the Monico that Monde re-encounters his first wife, Thérèse, whom he has not seen for 18 years. She is, or was, a nymphomaniac who kept obscene photographs in a secret drawer in her desk and “who had sought out their chauffeur in his attic bedroom and who, when he drove her into town, had him stop in front of dubious apartment houses.” Now fallen on hard times, and a drug addict, she is acting as companion to a rich old lady known as the Empress, an habitué of the Monico.

When the Empress unexpectedly dies, Monde is compelled to take responsibility for Thérèse. He returns with her to Paris, installs her in an apartment in the suburbs, instructs a doctor friend of his to supply her with whatever amounts of morphine she requires, and washes his hands of her. Then he calmly walks back into his old life, to the consternation of his wife, who, during his absence, had been happily settling into the position of rich widow.

She felt impelled to remark: “You haven’t changed.”

He replied, with that composure which he had brought back with him, and under which could be glimpsed a terrifying abyss: “Yes, I have.”

That was all. He was relaxed. He was part of life, as flexible and fluid as life itself.

These romans durs — other NYRB reissues include the insouciantly gruesome The Man Who Watched Trains Go By, another tale of a husband on the run; Tropic Moon, a frightening study of lust and violence in the Belgian Congo; and Red Lights, a subversively straightforward story of American life involving alcoholism, marital disharmony and violent rape — are superb and polished works of art masquerading as pulp fiction. Gide, who admired Simenon, felt that he had not achieved his full potential as an artist, which may be true: If he had tackled his obsessiveness and found a way of slowing himself down, he might have written the leisurely and long-fermented work that Gide apparently expected of him. But that book would not have been a “Simenon,” and it is in the “Simenons,” surely, that Simenon displayed his prodigious and protean genius.

Wednesday 8 April 2020

John Prine RIP

John Prine: Secrets Behind His Classic Songs - Rolling Stone
John Prine, Who Chronicled the Human Condition in Song, Dies at 73
A singer and songwriter with a raspy voice and a gift for offbeat humor, he was revered by his peers, including Bob Dylan. He died of the coronavirus.

William Grimes
The New York Times
7 April 7 2020

John Prine, the raspy-voiced country-folk singer whose ingenious lyrics to songs by turns poignant, angry and comic made him a favorite of Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and others, died on Tuesday in Nashville. He was 73.

The cause was complications of the coronavirus, his family said.

Mr. Prine underwent cancer surgery in 1998 to remove a tumor in his neck identified as squamous cell cancer, which had damaged his vocal cords. In 2013, he had part of one lung removed to treat lung cancer. He had been hospitalized since late last month.

Mr. Prine was a relative unknown in 1970 when Mr. Kristofferson heard him play one night at a Chicago club called the Earl of Old Town, dragged there by the singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. Mr. Kristofferson was performing in Chicago at the time at the Quiet Knight. Mr. Prine treated him to a brief after-hours performance of material that, Mr. Kristofferson later wrote, “was unlike anything I’d heard before.”

A few weeks later, when Mr. Prine was in New York, Mr. Kristofferson invited him onstage at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, where he was appearing with Carly Simon, and introduced him to the audience.

“No way somebody this young can be writing so heavy,” he said. “John Prine is so good, we may have to break his thumbs.”

The record executive Jerry Wexler, who was in the audience, signed Mr. Prine to a contract with Atlantic Records the next day.

Music writers at the time were eager to crown a successor to Mr. Dylan, and Mr. Prine, with his nasal, sandpapery voice and literate way with a song, came ready to order. His debut album, called simply “John Prine” and released in 1971, included songs that became his signatures. Some gained wider fame after being recorded by other artists.

They included “Sam Stone,” about a drug-addicted war veteran (with the unforgettable refrain “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm where all the money goes”); “Hello in There,” a heart-rending evocation of old age and loneliness; and “Angel From Montgomery,” the hard-luck lament of a middle-aged woman dreaming about a better life, later made famous by Bonnie Raitt.

“He’s a true folk singer in the best folk tradition, cutting right to the heart of things, as pure and simple as rain,” Ms. Raitt told Rolling Stone in 1992.

Mr. Dylan, listing his favorite songwriters in a 2009 interview, put Mr. Prine front and center. “Prine’s stuff is pure Proustian existentialism,” he said. “Midwestern mind trips to the nth degree. And he writes beautiful songs.”

John Prine was born on Oct. 10, 1946, in Maywood, Ill., a working-class suburb of Chicago, to William and Verna (Hamm) Prine. His father, a tool-and-die maker at the American Can Company, and his mother had moved from the coal town of Paradise, Ky., in the 1930s.

Mr. Prine later wrote a ruefully bitter song titled “Paradise,” in which he sang:

The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man

John grew up in a country music-loving family. He learned guitar as a young teenager from his grandfather and brother and began writing songs.

After graduating from high school, he worked for the Post Office for two years before being drafted into the Army, which sent him to West Germany in charge of the motor pool at his base. After being discharged, he resumed his mail route, in and around his hometown, composing songs in his head.

“I always likened the mail route to a library with no books,” he wrote on his website. “I passed the time each day making up these little ditties.”

Reluctantly, he took the stage for the first time at an open-mic night at the Fifth Peg, where his performance met with profound silence from the audience. “They just sat there,” Mr. Prine wrote. “They didn’t even applaud, they just looked at me.”

Then the clapping began. “It was like I found out all of a sudden that I could communicate deep feelings and emotions,” he wrote. “And to find that out all at once was amazing.”

Not long after, Roger Ebert, the film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times, wandered into the club while Mr. Prine was performing. He liked what he heard and wrote Mr. Prine’s first review, under the headline “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in a Few Words.”

“He appears onstage with such modesty he almost seems to be backing into the spotlight,” Mr. Ebert wrote. “He sings rather quietly, and his guitar work is good, but he doesn’t show off. He starts slow. But after a song or two, even the drunks in the room begin to listen to his lyrics. And then he has you.”

Mr. Prine had a particular gift for offbeat humor, reflected in songs like “Jesus, the Missing Years,” “Some Humans Ain’t Human,” “Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone” and the antiwar screed “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.”

“I guess what I always found funny was the human condition,” he told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2013. “There is a certain comedy and pathos to trouble and accidents.”

After recording several albums for Atlantic and Asylum, he started his own label, Oh Boy Records, in 1984. He never had a hit record, but he commanded a loyal audience that ensured steady if modest sales for his albums and a durable concert career.

In 1992, his album “The Missing Years,” with guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty and other artists, won a Grammy Award for best contemporary folk recording. He received a second Grammy in the same category in 2006 for the album “Fair and Square.”

Mr. Prine, who lived in Nashville, was divorced twice. He is survived by his wife, Fiona Whelan Prine, a native of Ireland whom he married in 1996; three sons, Jody, Jack and Tommy; two brothers, Dave and Billy; and three grandchildren. In 2017, Mr. Prine published “John Prine Beyond Words,” a collection of lyrics, guitar chords, commentary and photographs from his own archive.

In 2019, he was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and his album “Tree of Forgiveness” was nominated for a Grammy, for best Americana album. It was his 19th album and his first of original material in more than a decade. (The award went to Brandi Carlile, for “By the Way, I Forgive You.”)

Mr. Prine went on tour in 2018 to promote “Tree of Forgiveness,” and after a two-night stand at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville — known there as the mother church of country music — Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, wrote, under the headline “American Oracle”:

“The mother church of country music, where the seats are scratched-up pews and the windows are stained glass, is the place where the new John Prine — older now, scarred by cancer surgeries, his voice deeper and full of gravel — is most clearly still the old John Prine: mischievous, delighting in tomfoolery, but also worried about the world.”

In December, he was chosen to receive a 2020 Grammy for lifetime achievement.

As a songwriter, Mr. Prine was prolific and quick. In the early days, he would sometimes dash off a song while driving to a club.

“Sometimes, the best ones come together at the exact same time, and it takes about as long to write it as it does to sing it,” he told the poet Ted Kooser in an interview at the Library of Congress in 2005. “They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around, the song is liable to pass you by.”

Sunday 5 April 2020

Philip Marlowe's America is with us today...

The prophetic Raymond Chandler
Chandler’s California is a cultural desert stretching along the western edge of a continental wasteland

Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Spectator USA
24 February 2020

In an age of extreme individualism complicated by racial sensitivity and class resentment, ancestry is an uncomfortable subject. But it remains a fact that a man’s ancestors are never irrelevant to who and what he is, though of course they determine neither.

Raymond Chandler (1888–1959) said that he was conceived here in Laramie, before being delivered in Chicago following the usual interval of nine months. His American father deserted the family and his Anglo-Irish mother took her son to England, to be educated at Dulwich College.

After graduation, Chandler failed in a literary career in London, fought in France with the Canadian army during the Great War, and ended up back in America, where he worked as an executive for an oil company in Los Angeles. A too-fond relationship with John Barleycorn got him fired in 1932, and he began a new career writing stories for the detective magazine Black Mask. These led to his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939), and from there to his best work, including Farewell, My Lovely (1940) and The Long Goodbye (1953), all written in first-person narrative by Los Angeles P.I. Philip Marlowe.

Ross MacDonald, Chandler’s partner in fictive crime, said he ‘wrote like a slumming angel’, but neglected to add that the angel was determinedly American. ‘I had to learn American,’ Chandler explained, ‘just like a foreign language. To learn it I had to study and analyze it. As a result, when I use slang, solecisms, colloquialisms, snide talk or any kind of off-beat language, I do it deliberately. The literary use of slang is a study in itself.’ So he studied and got the job done. No writer, including Mark Twain, ever captured the American language of his era more accurately and convincingly than Chandler did, having learned all about it.

But language was not all Chandler knew about America. Almost none of it is flattering, and a good deal is unpleasant. That American readers appear not to have been offended suggests that they are more honestly self-aware at a deeper, perhaps unconscious, level than they know or are given credit for by critics both native and foreign. Chandler’s California is a cultural desert stretching along the western edge of a continental wasteland. ‘No doubt,’ he presciently wrote to a friend, ‘in years, or centuries to come, this will be the center of civilization, if there is any left, but the melting-pot stage bores me horribly. I like people with manners, grace, some social intuition, an education slightly above the Reader’s Digest fan, people whose pride of living does not express itself in their kitchen gadgets and their automobiles.’

And beyond the social and intellectual thinness, Chandler perceived something more sinister: ‘The bitter fact is that outside of two or three technical professions which require long years of preparation, there is absolutely no way for a man of this age to acquire a decent affluence in life without to some degree corrupting himself, without accepting the cold, clear fact that success is always and everywhere a racket.’

Chandler’s view of American culture, which in the Thirties, Forties and Fifties was steadily becoming the culture of modernity everywhere, shows through the grain of all his books. It is developed most plainly and relentlessly in The Long Goodbye, a novel unsparing of the idle, self-indulgent and corrupt rich, of local government and the politicians who run it, and of the gangsters who prey upon and exploit everyone and everything within their reach.

‘Crime isn’t a disease, it’s a symptom,’ Marlowe tells the police lieutenant Bernie Ohls. ‘We’re a big, rough, rich, wild people and crime is the price we pay for it, and organized crime is the price we pay for organization. We’ll have it with us a long time. Organized crime is just the dirty side of the sharp dollar.’ When Ohls asks what the clean side is, Marlowe replies, ‘I never saw it.’

More directly still, Chandler commented in another letter about watching a group of ‘the big boys’ stroll across the Paramount lot after lunch in the executive dining room. ‘It brought home to me in a flash the strange psychological and spiritual kinship between the operations of big money business and the rackets. Same faces, same expressions, same manners. Same way of dressing and same exaggerated leisure of movement.’

In a Chandler novel, corrupt local and municipal government is a constant theme. Yet national politics are hardly referenced at all. ‘P. Marlowe doesn’t give a damn who is president; neither do I, because I know he will be a politician,’ Chandler explained. Another, equally plausible reason is that stories about Bay City, California offered little opportunity for their author to comment about or dramatize events centered upon Washington, DC. Indeed, the only mention of the subject that I have come across occurs in a letter to a critic of detective fiction, James Sandoe, in which Chandler is discussing the Hollywood screenwriters’ legal defense strategy during the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of 1949: ‘You say it is forthright. What’s forthright about it? It strikes me as a singularly incompetent attempt…to use the legalistic weakness of the democratic system in order to undermine or sabotage the functioning of that system.’

Raymond Chandler’s America remains recognizable, even familiar, in 2020, in nearly all ways but one: the extent to which American government has advanced from a political-financial racket to an ideological-financial one. The HUAC hearings were the earliest sign of a shift that lapsed into abeyance between Sen. McCarthy’s hearings in the early Fifties, and the mid-Sixties when it returned — for good, it seems — with the civil-rights movement merging with the Marxist, student one. Chandler did not live to see this historic development that neither he nor P. Marlowe would have failed to recognize as the new American racket that it was then — and still is 60 years on.

The earlier system of organized crime and cheap graft that intrudes into the novels has been superseded by an equally organized political and semi-criminal system, grounded in the revolutionary ideology of ‘the Resistance’ that has been waging war against Donald Trump during the three years since the President’s election. Chandler’s two-bit crooks and shakedown artists, operators like Mendy Menendez of Bay City and Randy Starr of Las Vegas, have been replaced by self-righteous liars and legal and political manipulators, typified by James Comey and Adam Schiff, who dominate the news 24 hours a day.

Raymond Chandler was a bit of a prophet, in his way. One wonders whether he saw this coming.

Friday 3 April 2020

Who was that masked statue?

Dublin, Ireland: The Molly Malone statue (Dan Sheridan)

The Fearless Girl statue outside the New York Stock Exchange (Kevin Hagen)

St Petersburg, Russia: A statue of Ostap Bender, a fictional conman (Peter Kovalev)

Buenos Aires, Argentina: A statue of the musician Astor Piazzolla

Edinburgh, Scotland: The Greyfriars Bobby statue (Jeff J Mitchell)

Kansas City, USA statue of a Sioux Indian scout (Charlie Riedel)

Cremona, Italy: A statue of Antonio Stradivari (Filippo Venezia)

Wuhan, China: A statue of a mother and child

Istanbul, Turkey: A statue of Alex de Souza

Brussels, Belgium: The Manneken-Pis statue (Aris Oikonomou)

Melbourne, Australia: The Three Business Men Who Brought Their Own Lunch statues on Swanston street (Asanka Ratnayake)

Timperley, England: A statue of Frank Sidebottom (Phil Noble)

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Young Rembrandt

Self-portrait in a cap, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, 1630

Young Rembrandt review – how a master learned from his mistakes
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
This absorbing show of Rembrandt’s early work reveals how sweat and dedication turned an error-prone teenager into an artist of unrivalled greatness

Laura Cumming
The Guardian
Sun 1 Mar 2020

Rembrandt is shocked to see you. He reels backwards, mouth open, eyebrows raised in amazement at your startling arrival. You can see the whites of his eyes.

This is the one-two action – you appear, he reacts – of this tremendous etching, made in 1630 when Rembrandt was around 24. It is a portrait of the artist as a young star. All of its quicksilver whorls and curlicues are put to the service of theatre: the image as incident, as mutual encounter. It takes the convention of eye-to-eye contact and transforms it into vital drama.

But 24 is not precocious, in terms of art history. Raphael and Dürer were virtuosos before the age of 10. Picasso, in his own words, could draw like Raphael as a child. Rembrandt is not regarded as a prodigy. Indeed, it is the very novel aim of this exhibition – the largest ever devoted to the first decade of his career, 1624-34 – to show just how hard Rembrandt had to work to become Rembrandt.
Rembrandt van Rijn, The Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight), c1624
The Spectacles Seller (Allegory of Sight), c1624

Young Rembrandt is filled with unexpected curiosities and rarely seen masterworks. It follows the artist from his teenage beginnings in Leiden to the glory days of Amsterdam, with riches and a thriving workshop. You see him faltering, practising, correcting and even junking work en route. There are duff portraits, where the sitters all look the same, and unfulfilled drawings. The curators do not stint on his failures.

It is unusual enough to see some of Rembrandt’s early Bible paintings, over-coloured and hyperbolic in their melodrama. But it is odder still to have a museum draw deliberate attention to his faults. In an etching circa 1625, The Circumcision, baby Jesus is a stiff toy, the bystanders are badly drawn dolls, and there is no sense of depth or perspective. Look closer and you can see that the artist felt the same. He made several attempts to erase botched lines.

Let the Little Children Come to Me, c1627-8

Early Rembrandt can be blockish, crude and clumsy. Figures may be out of proportion, the composition skewed. He is so variable that attributions remain contentious. A painting called Let the Little Children Come to Me was sold at auction as Dutch School as recently as 2014. It is shown here for the first time as a Rembrandt, and while the artist seems to be here in person, as a compelling self-portrait at the top of an ungainly pyramid of parents and children, the painting is such a pile-up of idioms it is hard to believe that it is not by several different artists.
Rembrandt - Samson and Delilah [1628] | Rembrandt paintings ...
Samson and Delilah, 1628

The shocked self-portrait is reprised in a painting of Delilah shearing off Samson’s hair. Rembrandt’s face is everywhere. Something of him appears not once but twice in the background of a 1626 work called The Baptism of the Eunuch, seriously drawing attention away from the holy moment itself. And there is a dark-eyed and tousle-haired self-portrait – as recognisable as it is flagrantly unexplained – in the mysterious image known only as History Painting. This is the young Rembrandt as you first see him at the Ashmolean.

Self-portrait, 1620

Three self-portraits greet you at the door: each surprisingly small (fame seems to enlarge them in mind) and equally astonishing. From Munich comes the haunting young artist as a lone soul in the forests of the night, eyes blacker than the shadow falling over them. He is perfectly positioned at the boundary between darkness and light as to seem almost unreachable – until you notice the eyes look straight back at you.

An ink drawing, watchful and open-mouthed, and an etching of the artist with a tangled lovelock and wild eyes come from the same phase, circa 1629. Painting, drawing, print: Rembrandt is working in all three media at once – and in hybrid. He used a split-tipped drawing quill to work the copper plate (nobody had done it before, and he never did it again). His experiments are so extensive and radical.

What is wonderful about this presentation is the way it takes your eye directly into his shifting thoughts. Rembrandt uses an etching plate like a sketchbook, working all over it, turning it round and round to get a good clear patch for a new and better vignette. If he doesn’t like a drawing, he cuts it up and recycles the pieces. One captivating sequence of prints shows the artist changing his mind on the plate as he goes. A portrait of his father starts as a head and shoulders, expands to include the body and finally closes right in on the head, deleting all the rest: the mind is what matters.

A red chalk sketch of this elderly parent, deeply asleep, seems to have received a brown wash when his father died in 1630. It acquires a memorial solemnity. And the several portraits of Rembrandt’s ageing mother, so lined and creased, with her distinctive nose, are equally affecting.

Portrait of his father, 1628-9

Rembrandt van Rijn (Leiden 1606-Amsterdam 1669) - An old Woman ...
An old Woman called 'The Artist's Mother' c.1627-9

She is doing exactly what her son asks of her – sitting very still, quietly waiting while he depicts her in all her humility. Her character is revealed in these passing moments as much as her appearance: the patience she gives to her son.

Rembrandt worked incredibly hard to become an artist of Shakespearean dimensions. The 140 works here are barely a fraction from a decade of continuous revolution, in which he is constantly finding new ways to convey the profundity of our human drama. By the third gallery of this exhibition, he is painting himself as a potentate of theatrical grandeur, with fancy dress costume and props to match. The paint – lavish, darting, radiant – rises at every level to the performance.
Rembrandt, Portrait of Aechje Claesdr | ColourLex
Portrait of Aechje Claesdr, 1719

There are too many works by his friend Jan Lievens in this show. And you arrive at Rembrandt’s “mature” style via a room full of his students’ homages, before seeing what it was that actually inspired them. (The National Gallery, coincidentally, has a show by one of those pupils, Nicolaes Maes, inventor of an eavesdropping scenario in which one character in a painting urges you to listen to another in the next door room: piquant rather than profound.)

By 1634, Rembrandt had painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp and other renowned masterworks that are not in this show. The object is to follow the steps, and missteps, of his journey along the way. You will have the strongest sense of the streets around him – of hawkers and beggars, comical dogs and overfed burghers copiously peeing – as much as the imaginative empathy of his visions; Jeremiah lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem as in some floating nightmare of grief; a later print of The Circumcision, now condensed to the scale of a sonnet, in which the Christ child screams.

A Man in Oriental Dress (‘The Noble Slav’), 1632

What this show reveals, too, is an exceptional sympathy with old people in one so young. A nearly life-size portrait of a woman aged 83 shows the marks of woe as much as experience. And perhaps most magnificent of all is the painting long known as The Noble Slav, on loan from New York’s Metropolitan Museum. It shows an elderly man in a feathered turban and oriental costume. The brushwork is dazzling, mimicking the glitter of his gold chain, the translucent sheen of pearls and the shimmer of silk with a thousand different strokes. But rising out of all this is Rembrandt’s monument to the man himself: proud and resolute, even as the light fails.

Young Rembrandt was at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, until 7 June