Monday, December 16, 2013

Evanston: WWI stories; the best MOBY DICK

        Between bouts of coughing and IMMORTAL POETS, I just finished THE PENGUIN BOOK OF FIRST WORLD WAR STORIES, a very good selection, all but one of which were new to me.
        Trying to show the effect of the war on more than just combatants,  the book is divided into four sections:  Front; Spies and Intelligence; At Home; In Retrospect.  Some of the stories are by famous authors, others not.
        Of the three that I most appreciate, one, “The Tale” by Joseph Conrad was the one I had read before, but not recently.   A British Naval officer on leave relates an ambiguous incident to his wife.  You can read it online at several places, including here.
        The second I favor is Muriel Spark’s “The First Year of My Life,” in which a child born in February 1918, as was Muriel Sparks herself, does not smile for her first year.  What finally makes her do so, still brings a smile to my face.
        The story can be found online by googling, Muriel Sparks the first year of my life, which will bring up near the top of the list an item beginning [DOC]. Clicking on that immediately downloads a Word .docx to your computer.  Opening such a thing is often not advisable.  I use Apple laptops and did, apparently without evil result.  The story is there.
        The third is “Blind” by Mary Borden, told from the point of view of a nurse at a field hospital just behind the French trenches.  It is so startlingly well written that I immediately sought more information about the author and discovered that Mary Borden was born here in Chicago into a wealthy family, graduated from Vassar in 1907, married the following year, had three daughters, and was living in England when the war started.
        At her own expense she outfitted a field hospital and worked as a nurse from 1915 to the end of the war, for which she received the Croix de Guerre from the French government.
        In 1917 she wrote THE FORBIDDEN ZONE, which includes “Blind.”  Military censors blocked its publication because they believed, probably correctly, that the harsh truths it conveys would be detrimental to morale.  It was not published until 1929.  A new edition is in print, though inexplicably excludes poems found in the first.  I’ve ordered a copy anyway.


        As mentioned here before LISTEN magazine always costs me money, the most recent issue in the form of the DVDs of the San Francisco Opera production of a new opera, MOBY DICK, composed by Jake Heggle, libretto by Gene Scheer.  
        I have read Melville’s novel three or four times over the decades and have always thought that at least half and maybe two-thirds of it should be cut.  Somehow that is what Gene Scheer has done, leaving the violent fiery heart of the story.
        All of the two act opera takes place aboard THE PEQUOD and I’m not giving anything important away when I tell you that Melville’s first words cleverly become the opera’s last.
        The singers are exceptional.  The  staging imaginative.  The music passionate, mad, gentle, searching.
        This might just be the best version of the epic tale I have ever experienced, far better than any of the film or theatrical versions, which, like Herman Melville himself, try to include too much.
        I know this because you can view the production online,  though it took me three or four attempts before the video loaded.
        As soon as it ended, I ordered the DVD’s.


        A few desultory snow flakes drift past the windows.  The sky is solid dull gray.  The temperature is 23°F/-5°C.   I bundled up and walked a short block to the mailbox, the first time in more than a week I have ventured farther than the fifteen  yards/meters to take out the trash.  I am sleeping in the living room so that my sporadic bursts of coughing do not keep Carol awake, too.  My idea, not hers.