Sometimes wonderful writing appears where it’s least expected. For example, the “Purveyors” guide provided to diners at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant is full of excellent sentences. No author is given, though the entire booklet’s style is consistent with the introduction penned by Chef Keller, who describes the offering as a series of “stories.” Each entry describes the individuals who provide the restauranteur with his ingredients, the various “fishermen, farmers, gardeners and foragers”, as well as certain individual animals, who supply the raw materials for Keller and his staff’s culinary creations. The narrative matter is good to begin with (these are not merely producers but evangelists for their offerings), but the way the individual narratives are presented is equally compelling. The poetry comes forth naturally through both description and honest syntax: “To farm, live and work in accordance with nature is to open oneself to a multitude of challenges and setbacks.” We are reminded of the prose of E.B. White: “The truffle makes its magical appearance in the ground, and after discovery passes into the care of many hands as it travels halfway around the world to grace American tables. The product is fresh, the sums exchanged for it are vast, and the opportunities for the less knowledgeable to be deceived are great.”
Last week we attended Robert Wilson’s performance “Forward Moving Memory,” at the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum’s Calderwood Hall. We didn’t really know what we were getting into, but it turned out to be a white-faced solo performance of John Cage’s 1950 “Lecture on Nothing.” The experience was alternately tedious and revelatory. The hour or so in our seats was quite a bit like meditation, headache-inducing patience leading to a reward of earned insights. It was also often quite funny. The comedy derived from Cage’s exposition of the paradox of structure and the ludicrousness of any attempt to organize nothingness (as, for example, in a timed piece of silence). The conceptual “jokes” were both thought-provoking and meaningless, profundity and nonsense superimposed.
Do songs and poems function in the same way? Are they equivalent art forms? This is a question on which the American literary critical community is divided, though popular opinion certainly leans toward the affirmative. Our own feeling is that the two are artistic cousins of commensurate value. Yet how songs achieve their effects is distinct from published poems, as seems to us self-evident. The musical interlude that opens and closes the Danish television series The Bridge provides an excellent example of song’s immediate power. The emotional effectiveness of the haunting “Hollow Talk,” performed by the band The Choir of Unbelievers, bears little relation to its illogical lyrics. In fact, as many enthusiastic viewers have noted, even though the words are English (“echoes start as a cross in you”), sung as they are with a strong Scandinavian accent (“spatial movements are butterflies”), they’re virtually unintelligible to either American or northern European listeners. (For the first two seasons, we really believed the lyrics were in Danish! ) Frankly, the titled introduction and closing does work best when only a few words can be made out; their apparent “meaninglessness” beautifully suggests the oddly displaced intelligence of the autistic lead character. Not the verbal lines, but how they’re sung to the composed music, is what expresses the drama’s psychic context. We’ve been reading several recent volumes of great song lyrics, and as much as we admire them, as with “Hollow Talk,” even though we know by heart the tunes to which they belonged, on the page most of them now strike us as, well, a bit stupid. In fact, it’s somewhat embarassing how profound so many of these songs seemed when we worshipfully listened to them (Neil Young, we’re talking about you) over and over again on LP forty or more years ago.
Since we’ve been unable to keep up with the more recent translations of Cees Nooteboom’s books, let alone write about them with the analysis and praise they deserve, we are simply going to list here the impressive stack set upon our bookshelf — some read, some still unread — in no particular order: The Knight Has Died; Rituals; A Song of Truth and Semblance; In the Dutch Mountains; The Following Story; Philip and the Others; All Souls Day; Unbuilt Netherland; Nomad’s Hotel; Lost Paradise; Roads to Berlin; The Foxes Come at Night; 25 Buildings You Should Have Seen (Amsterdam); Monk’s Eye; Mokusei!; Letters to Poseidon; A Dark Premonition: Journeys to Hieronymus Bosch; Zurbarán; Light Everywhere; Self-Portrait of an Other. How could such an oeuvre continue to go virtually unnoticed here in America? No longer might it be argued that his extraordinary range (travel, art, fiction, poetry) remains to be brought over into English; now the challenge is simply to catch up with the great Dutch writer. Shame, shame, shame on us.