This is book with complex qualities. The narrative tricks you into sympathising with feelings that it later tears down as navel-gazing pomposity, and...moreThis is book with complex qualities. The narrative tricks you into sympathising with feelings that it later tears down as navel-gazing pomposity, and once it's built a feeling of optimism in you it continues to makes you feel deluded for your credulity.
It's a carefully structured story, claiming to be a manuscript left unpublished by an unemployed lodger; the retired, divorced scholar, Henry Haller. It is prefaced by the account of the son of the houseowner, who presents a vague picture of a man only met in casual acquaintance before he fled without a trace; an intellectual, quirky, polite, a drinker, a smoker, indoorsy. The manuscript itself is a stylised but journal-like story of his stay in the town. The first 'part' largely concerns his feelings of depression and philisophical dissatisfaction after nearly 50 years of living, alongside accounts of his aimless journies out to town. He explicitly tells us about his dreams, but even in his awakened state his accounts are dreamlike and infeasible, at times clearly the product of an insane mind.
Haller tells people his name is The Steppenwolf, an alter ego that represents his most self-destructive, unsocial thoughts. Conincidentally, one day he comes to acquire a book called 'A Treatise on The Steppenwolf'. The short text is a philosophical pamphlet that at first seems to vindicate Haller's most hateful conclusions regarding the average man through his own intellectual alienation; addressing Haller by name and echoing his philosophy of wild/civilised duality; but the text's attitude turns halfway through. It proceeds to accuse the aforementioned philosphy of self-serving egotism, and mock his view of age and personality as simplistic. Following his discovering of this strange document, he meets with an old friend, a professor, and burning this bridge spectacularly, Haller begins to contempalte suicide. So scared of his razor, he refuses to return home, staying in a bar in town. There he meets a free-spirited and aloof young woman, Hermine.
Haller's obsession with his own intellectual misery becomes replaced with a growing obsession with Hermine and her bohemian circle of friends, who challenge his aging sensibilities and tutor him in new, more youthful pleasures like dance, sex, drugs and jazz. As the book builds to its climax reality begins to merge with surreal symbols of time, personality, jealousy, aesthetics and violence, and events already described are cast into doubt. You find yourself returning in mind to the preface to anchor the story to some sense of reality, but at the same time Haller's rich flights of fantasy are so though-provoking that it's not clear which is the illustration of the other - a dreamy representation of some grim reality, or a fictional cast that represent Haller's internal aruments over his own nature.
The book is summarily about the pains of overbearing thought. It's outlook is more complex than the kind of self-pitying, glam-cynicism that Colin Wilson trumpets in The Outsider, however, as if any conclusion can be solidly made from the poetic jumble of images, dialogue and situation, it is that Hesse ridicules the sort of intellectual ludditedom that Haller often embodies. I don't feel like the ending should be taken as an inevitable and moral consequence of the thoughts and feelings that Haller indulges in, but the feeling remains that the root of his problems lie in his reluctance to learn from experience, rather than living his life through books and thought. The "manuscript"'s gradual disassociation from the everyday into free-flowing, associative imagery echoes a poignant metaphor that Haller himself makes to the landlady's son in the preface, quoting from an unnamed book of the philosopher Novalis:
'This is very good too, very good', he said, 'listen to this: "A man should be proud of suffering. All suffering is a reminder of our high estate." [Very] fine! Eighty years before Nietzsche. But that is not the sentence I meant. Wait a moment, here I have it. This: "Most men will not swim before they are able to." Isn't it witty? Naturally, they won't swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for water. And naturally they won't think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what's more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown.' (p.21)
There's not a page of this book which is purely text, so I guess that's a clue that the words aren't supposed to be that important, but even so, the w...moreThere's not a page of this book which is purely text, so I guess that's a clue that the words aren't supposed to be that important, but even so, the writing is so sloppy, dismissive and arrogantly stupid that it's remarkable anyone read it and considered it fit for publication - especially as the publisher, Thames and Hudson, and subject, Max Ernst (probably the best known Surrealist after Dali) are so esteemed.
I personally enjoy some Surrealist art because it's imaginative, vivid and amusingly absurd, and specifically because it has nothing to do with the existing world. Schneede, the writer of the text, clearly feels differently, and tries half-heartedly to connect Ernst's art to historical events whenever possible - even if it means, say, suggesting he prophesied the Holocaust in 1920.
Much of the commentary is bizarre and unelaborated:
Most sombre variations on the bird theme are The Elect of Evil and Bonjour Satanas. Glorification has given place to the manifestation of evil desires. Iconographical references to Christian mythology are often present, according to Werner Hofmann: thus, in the emblamatic system of the Baroque period, the pelican stands for Christ. (p.91)
Do these pictures still bear any relationship to surrealism? Surrealism is more than an attitude of mind than a stylistic tendency. Surrealism is the sum of Breton's doctrine, Dali's paranoiac-critical method, Magritte's intellectual semantics, Miro's automatism and Max Ernst's combination of guided chance and imaginative power. Each of the Surrealist painters goes his own way. In the last analysis there is remarkably little to hold them together. (p.99)
...With interpretations which are frustratingly inconclusive, pointlessly sourced, or syntactically strained):
John Russell has drawn attention to the fact that the Barbarians Marching Westwards call to mind 'the fantasies of Denos, in which idealized barbarians from the East would come marching in to save the western world from itself'. There is no denying that an element of discontent with civilisation, inspired by Surrealism, does have a part to play in these pictures, especially as the dogmatic Parisian leading lights of the movement did occasionally incline towards the idealization of anti-cultural impulses. Equally not to be denied is the fact that the Barbarians are conclusions drawn from political events, and thus point forward to the Nazi invasion of France. (p.134)
...Or speciously evidenced ("more or less current" here meaning "over 70 years old", just to pick one example from the small excerpt) or simply unimpressive:
The title of The Breakfast on the Grass is a borrowing from Manet; and Hunger Feast is taken from Rimbaud. Max Ernst likes [sic] to play around with more or less current concepts. On [sic] his own admission the titles only come in the final stages. As plays on words and ideas, that is, as independent entities, they exist alongside, or even run counter to, the visual work. There are direct references to Rembrandt (Polish Horsemen), Gericault (Raft of the Medusa), and the German Novelist Theodor Storm (Aquis Submersus); and paraphrases of Nietzsche (The Birth of Comedy), Baudelaire (The Elect of Evil) and Matisse (Lust For Life). So in the world of language, too, Max Ernst modifies found objects (p. 151)
I picked up a lesser known Orwell novel (sold 2000 copies on first pressing), Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I think it's ripe for reappraisal - writ...moreI picked up a lesser known Orwell novel (sold 2000 copies on first pressing), Keep the Aspidistra Flying, and I think it's ripe for reappraisal - written during the depression, it follows the downfall of Gordon Comstock, like Orwell a "lower upper middle class" public school boy with no money and few contacts in the literary world he feigns to belong to. His only friend is a socialist upper class editor of a poetry journal (who is, to Comstock's chagrin, always offering the penniless poet money) and the only things which maintain his pride are his girlfriend of two years (who won't have sex with him), his 40shilling a week job, his one published book of poetry "Mice," occasional visits to literary parties of dim prestige, and his potted aspidistra (symbolic of all middle class aspiration).
The character is a terrifying portrait of self-hatred, obviously semi-autobiographical, specifically of the self-pity of those just outside of the elite." Parallels could be drawn to the situation of many graduates such as myself who realise that, after all, the world doesn't owe them a living. Gordon both hates his books who have made him who he is, yet has in them his only comfort, and the only mark of his shattered self-worth: describing his interactions with proud patrons of high-brow literature, he sarcastically calls this sort of talk "the freemasonry of highbrows."
The book repeatedly dwells upon Gordon's tedious but understandable obsession with money. He pretentiously claims to have "declared war on money," whilst still being unable to think about anything but his lack of it. He once refused to "sell out" by accepting a job in the advertising industry and secretly (never explicitly said) hates himself for it. He believes that being poor is more than being cold and malnourished, if you were brought up to imagine yourself as better:
pg39 Gran'pa Comstock was one of those people who even from the grave exerted a powerful influence. In life he was a tough old scoundrel. He plundered the proletariat and the foreigner of the fifty thousand pounds, he built himself a redbrick mansion as durable as a pyramid, and he begot twelve children, of whom eleven survived. pg43 Since [today] the Comstocks were genteel as well as shabby, it was considered necessary to waste huge sums on gordon's "education". What a fearful thing it is, the incubus of "education"! It means that in order to send his son to the right kind of school (that is, a public school or an imitation of one) a middle-class man is obliged to live for years on end in a style that would be scorned by a jobbing plumber. pg166 Something deep below made the stone street shiver. The tube train, sliding through middle earth. He had a vision of London, of the western world; he saw a thousand million slaves toiling and grovelling about the throne of money. The earth is ploughed, ships sail, miners sweat in dripping tunnels underground, clerks hurry for the eight-fifteen with fear of the boss eating at their vitals. And even in bed with their wives they tremble and obey. Obey whom? The money-priesthood, the pink-faced masters of the world. The Upper Crust. A welter of sleek young rabbits in thousand-guinea motor cars, of golfing stockbrokers and cosmopolitan financiers, ofChancery lawyers and fashionable Nancy boys, of bankers, newspaper peers, novelists of all four sexes, American pugilists, lady aviators, film stars, bishops, titled poets and Chicago gorillas.
Gordon enjoys scorning civilisation in a highbrow, fashionably Modernist way, but realizes eventually that this too is a shrinking comfort:
pg92 Ravelston murmured agreement, with a curious air of guilt. And now they were off upon their favourite subject - Gordon's favourite subject, anyway; the futility, the bloodiness, the deathliness ofm odern life. They never met without talking for at least half an hour in this vein. But it always made Ravelston feel rather uncomfortable. In way, of course, he knew - it was precisely this that Antichrist [his journal] existed to point out - that life under a decaying capitalism is deathly and meaningless. But this knowledge was only theoretical. You can't really feel that kind of thing when your income is eight hundred a year. "Oh well it's merely a temporary phenomenon. Capitalism is in its last phase. I doubt whether it's worth worrying about." pg99 "This is all b------s that we've been talking. All this talk we make - we're only objectifying our own feelings. It's all dictated by what we've got in our pockets. I go up and down London saying it's a city of the dead, and our civilisation's dying, and I wish war would break out, and God knows what; and all it means is that my wages are two quid a week and I wish they were five.
Maybe that last line could be updated to "13k and I wish it were 30k."
The upper class is represented satirically in the form of Ravelston, the editor, and his girlfriend Hermione. Ravelston's kind is fairly represented as open-hearted, generous but dim, and he is troubled by the complacent views of the rest of his class. In a way he is as impotent as Gordon, only living a more pampered life:
pg108 "Philip, why do you have to live in such a dreadful way?" "But I don't live in a dreadful way." "Yes you do. Pretending you're poor when you're not, and living in that pokey flat with no servants, and going about with all these beastly people." "What beastly people?" "Oh, people like this poet friend of yours. All those people who write for your paper. They only do it to cadge from you. Of course I know you're a Socialist. So am I. I mean we're all Socialists nowadays. But I don't see why you have to give all your money away and make friends with the lower classes. You can be a Socialist and have a good time, you know." "Hermione dear, please don't call them the lower classes!" "Why not? They are the lower classes, aren't they?" "It's such a hateful expression. Call them the working class, can't you?" "The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the same." "You oughtn't say that kind of thing," he protested weakly. "Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you like the lower classes." "Of course I like them." She lay quiet, content to argue no longer, her arms round him, like a sleepy siren. The woman-scent breathed out of her, a powerful wordless argument against all altruism and justice.
The book is strikingly relevant to those in a similar position today, and the differences are interesting for historical reasons. Gordon is a public school boy but not a graduate - today people in his position would be graduates but not public school boys. Gordon makes less than today's minimum wage in a book shop which today would be the equivalent of a huge Odeon or even a smutty video shop. Gordon's fight to stay relevant in the literary world is very similar to some people's desire to make networking connections in the "creative industries" these days. Gordon fights for the integrity he feels he deserves by virtue of his apparent high-mindedness, when in reality the best life he could hope for was offered to him in the form of a surrender of all integrity: a job in advertising. Today, advertising is seen as a noble and creative career pursuit, where all the smartest and most talented artist minds of our generation head.
Orwell is influenced by Miller, but writes with less purple language and pays attention to the menial suffering and status-obsession which eludes Miller's self-portrait in Paris. Shades of The Road to Wigan Pier are prescient when Gordon sees a tramp on a park bench, but looks past it, preferring to dwell where "real sympathy" is deserved: for those just at the edge of the Haves, and not with the desolute Have-Nots. In fact Gordon finds a deluded comfort in the idea of falling absolutely into the Have-Nots, where no one would expect any better of him (until they heard his accent).(less)
Despite some minor faults, 'Bacharach: Maestro!' is a passionate and richly sourced portrait of the composer, with plenty of (press) interview quotes...moreDespite some minor faults, 'Bacharach: Maestro!' is a passionate and richly sourced portrait of the composer, with plenty of (press) interview quotes from the man himself, important figures in his life and reactions from the contemporary press. If you're a big fan, you'll find historical moments that are very moving in the way they're retold, such as the withering critical reaction to the film 'Lost Horizon', which Bacharach had painstakingly scored, and it's knock-on effect on the dissolution of the Bacharach-David-Warwick partnership.
Brocken makes no bones about the fact that he views the late-sixties blossoming of Rock as the dominant Popular style as "a major villain in eradicating artistic divergence" (p.241), and if you can appreciate at least where he's coming from, there's an understated tragedy to how Bacharach's music lost its audience through irrelevant social attitudes to the sounds he used, rather than any notable decline in the man's abilities. If anyone presumes he simply made enough money and called it a day, or that he lost the muse by the time his songs fell out of the charts, I highly recommend searching for the rare 1977 solo album 'Futures'.
As is always a relief to find in a biography of someone you admire, it seems as if Burt was a genuinely lovely fellow. He's always modest and self-critical about his considerable achievements, and though it's clear that writing music was a vocation that dominated his waking hours, his language when discussing his composing is always connected to his emotions - rarely technical at all:
"I was aware of the angular side of music but I liked tunes too... In [Darius] Milhaud's class... I wrote a sonatina for oboe, violin and piano which... was highly melodic and quite different from what everyone else was writing. And I felt ashamed, or should I say self-conscious at having written something that wore its heart on its sleeve so obviously", [p.56]
"I'm not trying to prove anything as a conductor or as a pianist. Technically, I'm probably rotten at both. But it's heartfelt and it's honest. It's my music" [p.57]
I like music biographies because you always learn a little something more than you expect to, and I suppose this book's major subtext is the hot-headed battle between the 'authentic' and the 'Easy Listening', whose history (including those generally accepted designations) has been so far written by the victors. This aesthetic opposition can be convincingly reframed as the difference between the then-new breed of countercultural youngsters and the less effervescent adult audience, who kept shtum on political issues and didn't need their music to 'say' anything about them.
I can't fathom even the interpretation that Bacharach's music was tame, mood-setting exotica, and the fact that many people would vaguely imagine him to be in the vein of Harry Conniff or Martin Denny is good evidence that countercultural vanity has led to much neglect of diversity in instrumental expression in Rock/Pop music: a diversity that Bacharach's oeuvre perfectly demonstrates. As Brocken writes:
Anyone who could apparently sentimentalise art in such a way as Burt Bacharach could not possibly resonate with counter culture!... despite great gains from the US underground, there also existed an arrogance of its assumptions... The counter culture's sniffy response to this 'easy listening' was basically a litany of small-minded prescriptiveness. [p.154]
But you don't need to agree with him, or me, to enjoy the book. It's main strength it how it sticks to the facts, and gives you a rich impression of the man, his time, his work and his many collaborators. Brocken's biography is reverential and passionate but his comments are discerning and to the point. Despite the occasionally irksome choice of word, silly typo or leap of logic, it's a coherent and inquiring study of a towering figure in music.(less)